Quintett: A Forsythe masterpiece opens Sydney Dance Company’s year

William Forsythe’s Quintett has none of the fireworks of his In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated or The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude.

Even its title is simple. Quintett, a single word, refers only to the number of dancers in the work. No need to decipher a more elaborate title. Quintett is introverted, not extroverted, solemn not splashy, an elegy rather than a declaration.

Choreographed in 1993 when Forsythe’s wife was terminally ill, Quintett reflects both the impact of her illness as well as the intimacy of their life together, told through the interaction of five dancers who pose, run, collapse, fall to the floor and bounce back. Many phrases start from a classical ballet position or step even if it’s just a lower leg rotated and extended as the dancer presents an arched foot. The narrative is expressed through the choreography itself, with no need for the dancers to add a layer of angst.

Making its Australian debut this month, Quintett opens Sydney Dance Company’s new double bill and is followed by Frame of Mind, a new piece by the company’s artistic director, Rafael Bonachela.

In all the years I’ve been watching SDC, Quintett is one of the most powerful works I’ve seen the company dance. It’s spine chilling, visceral and still vivid in my mind a week after opening night.

Two Forsythe stagers, Thomas McManus and Ana Catalina Roman Horcajo, chose two casts to dance Quintett. McManus was an original cast member in Quintett and Horcajo worked with Forsythe at Ballet Frankfurt for 18 years. Yet another member of the original Quintett cast, Jacopo Godani, was the go-between linking Forsythe with Bonachela. Godani choreographed a work (Raw Models) for SDC in 2011 and will soon take over the leadership of Forsythe’s company in Germany with Forsythe himself returning to his homeland, the United States.

SDC’s first cast (on opening night) was: Chloe Leong, David Mack, Cass Mortimer Eipper, Jess Scales and Sam Young-Wright. Each dancer was outstanding as they navigated Forsythe’s intricate choreography, showing their individual personalities and strengths, as well as their empathy as a group and their trust in one another.

Quintett is danced to the phrase, Jesus Blood Never Failed Me Yet, arranged by the composer Gavin Bryars, who heard the words sung by an old man sleeping rough in London. Played on a loop, it begins quietly then builds to a forceful presence. The repetitive phrase seemed to spark one of three reactions, judging from the various audience members I spoke to after the performance. They felt anxious, irritated, or mesmerised. For me, the repetition was hypnotic and calming.

In contrast the two objects on the stage were unsettling. Upstage is a circular, convex mirror that reflects the dancers but reduces them in size (as seen in the mirror image). Midstage is a machine that could be a camera, a rocket, a medical device or just a clunky, old fashioned stage spotlight that occasionally and intrusively beams a light on the torso of one of the women.

In the original choreography Quintett ends with the same woman falling into a trapdoor then being pushed out again. This was apparently impossible on the Sydney Theatre stage as the performance ended with her still dancing as if into infinity.

Another dancer who was in the first performance of Quintett back in 1993 was Stephen Galloway who also designed the costumes for the work. They are simple and flattering; short dresses (cobalt blue and yellow) for the women. Each of the men wears dark coloured pants, one with a muted green T-shirt, another with a pale orange T-shirt and the third in a black singlet. Galloway clearly likes the combination of these bright and muted colours that complement each other exceptionally well. He used much the same combination (minus the bright blue) for the costumes in Forsythe’s The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude.

For his Frame of Mind, Bonachela commissioned Ralph Myers, the outgoing artistic director of Belvoir, to design the set and costumes. Yes, there is actually a set on stage for a Bonachela work (very unusual) and it’s intriguing. Depending on the various changes in the brilliant lighting design by Ben Cisterne, the set resembles a large attic with peeling paint, a dark and threatening space, a rehearsal studio, or a map that shows patches of land and water. To one side is a tall, multi-paned window through which the light changes colour and intensity. The window also represents an anchor and focal point for the dancers.

Frame of Mind opens with a dancer clicking a light switch at the back of the set, triggering the first notes of Bryce Dessner’s music, titled Aheym, the Yiddish word for homeward.

Desnner has described his composition as “a piece about flight – it’s frantic, constantly moving”.

So, too, is the entire SDC ensemble (minus an injured Charmene Yap). All dressed in black, they burst onto the stage in a Bonachelean frenzy of energy and speed. But the pace steadies as the dancers become observers, standing on the perimeter of the space as they watch others take centre stage in duets and trios. Bonachela excels in these calmer moments, especially in a duet for two of his most expressive dancers, Richard Cilli and Jesse Scales.

In his program note, Bonachela writes that Frame of Mind “is a work which engages with the aspiration we all have, to engage and be understood without the need for words”. I couldn’t see this expressed in the choreography when all the dancers were on stage.

The ensemble sections of Frame of Mind may engage the audience through powerful music and the impressive technique of the dancers, but for me, the essence of the choreographic voice was muted and more about the dancers’ depiction of their own frame of mind when the work was in its early stages. This could be the result of Bonachela’s method of working in collaboration with the dancers, asking them to express their feelings in dance rather than the choreographer coming into the studio with a complete concept for the work.

The Sydney season of Frame of Mind ends on 21 March at the Sydney Theatre, then continues in Canberra from 30 April to 2 May at the Canberra Theatre Centre and in Melbourne from 6-16 May at Southbank Theatre, Melbourne.

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Sydney Dance Company, Quintett, Chloe Yeong and Sam Young-Wright, photo © Peter Greig

Sydney Dance Company, Quintett, Chloe Yeong and David Mack, photo © by Peter Greig

Sydney Dance Company, Quintett, Jesse Scales and Cass Mortimer Eipper, photo © Peter Greig

Sydney Dance Company’s Frame of Mind, Jesse Scales and Richard Cilli, photo © by Peter Greig

Sydney Dance Company’s Frame of Mind,Todd Sutherland, Sam Young-Wright and Jesse Scales, photo © by Peter Greig