The best came last in Sydney Dance Company’s new look of 2013

With De Novo, the umbrella title for Sydney Dance Company’s new triple bill, Rafael Bonachela has put together a program that’s an audience pleaser, a showcase for the dancers, an introduction to some talented newcomers in the troupe and a display of Australian artistic talent.

It also indicates that Bonachela, the artistic director of SDC, is able to take a bit of a back seat by programming his own work, Emergence, as the opener to the program rather than the closer for his first program of the new year.

The reverse order would of course mean “I, Raf, have saved the best for last”.

The final work is Cacti a very funny and I believe a very sincere 30-minute work choreographed by the 28-year-old Swedish choreographer, Alexander Ekman.

He’s already choreographed 35 works, among them Cacti, choreographed in 2010 for the young dancers of Nederlands Dans Theater II.

Cacti is nonsensical yet serious in its intent.

It ridicules the way in which some critics explore postmodernism and the “subtext” of dance works and pontificate on their true meaning.

But more than that, Cacti also pokes fun at the clichés of contemporary European choreographers.

Before he was a choreographer, Ekman was a dancer and he knows those clichés so well – the gimmicks and the gestures, the playing with the props and the costumes or lack of costumes, the lighting tricks – those banks of side lights or overhead spots that focus on one dancer being lifted to the light like the chosen one.

Cacti opens with all 16 dancers on stage, each seated on their own black and white podium, dressed in nude-coloured Lycra leotards under black, wrapped skirt-pants in the Japanese style. They beat and slap their podiums, then hold them up as screens, rearrange them into clusters, and peer over their tops.

Wait, are we watching a piece by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui? Maybe by Nacho Duato? Here is a moment from Sidi Larbi’s Babel or Sutra. There is an image from the works of Jiri Kylian, from Hans van Manen, those skirts, for example, especially when they’re wrapped around the men’s legs. Or the objects held by the dancers in Kylian’s Stepping Stones.

Then there seems to be a moment from Duato’s Remanso but instead of the red rose of that ballet, the Cacti dancers dance with, well, cacti. In square pots, spotlit pots that they arrange, re-arange, tip over and pose with the green prickly objects as they form a kind of gleeful sculpture.

Just in case we don’t realise they are in fact cacti, the giant letters CACTI appear in lights on the side of the stage.

Wandering throughout Cacti, is a droll, strolling string quartet (Veronique Serret, James Eccles, Geoffrey Gartner and Mirabai Peart) playing excepts from Haydn, Beethoven and Schubert.

The centrepiece of the work is a duet in which the couple dance to a recording of their own thoughts as they navigate tricky phrases and moves.

Every dancer knows this kind of silent talk. “Watch out”, “Phew, got through that bit OK”, “How about that?”, “Absolutely knackered”, “Damn, got to take a leak”. (These are not the actual words in Cacti!)

Cacti ends with the pompous voiceover of an invisible critic that we heard at the start of Cacti fading into uncertainty as he wonders if this is the end. Is it really the end? Yes, it must be the end.
It is. It is the end.

A little like Samuel Beckett’s line in Endgame: “Finished, it’s finished, nearly finished, it must be nearly finished”.

Ekman acknowledges that Cacti does have a serious purpose. It came from a time in his life when he was stung by criticism of his work.

“I found it unfair that one person was going to sit there and decide what the work was about for everyone else”.

Coincidentally, on his own website that went live last year, Jiri Kylian also speaks of the pain of reading reviews of his own work spat out in the “poisonous ink of writers lacking any kind of fantasy or vision”.

The second of the three works in De Novo is Fanatic, choreographed last year for Spring Dance in Sydney by Larissa McGowan, the former dancer of Australian Dance Theatre.

McGowan is one of a rare species, a female Australian choreographer. As one of the precious few I hope she continues to be nurtured and commissioned in Australia and elsewhere.

Fanatic is funny in a completely different way to Cacti. It’s based on the thoughts and fantasies of obsessive movie fans as they discuss (miming to a recorded text) the relative merits of the film series of Alien and Predator and act out some of the key moments (“get away from her, you bitch!”)

The three dancers, dressed in daggy grey and black couch-wear, sped through the quarter hour of this highly physical work, one that went all the way from Natalie Allen’s crab-like crawling across the stage to moments of showbiz razzle dazzle as they interpreted the highlights of the films while trying to analyse what they meant.

The action takes place against a simple stage setting imaginatively lit (fire engine red at times) by Benjamin Cisterne who was also the lighting designer for Bonachela’s opening work, Emergence.

Cisterne, in fact, contributed more than the lighting for Emergence. With Bonachela he developed the staging of the work that is danced below overhead lights placed in both parallel and diagonal lines.

In his program note, Cisterne refers to how the design for Emergence “creates an environment in which the whole is so much more than the sum of its parts”, a line that goes all the way back to Aristotle’s “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”

There are little details in the work that refer to ‘emergence” such as the emergence of the whole body from its clothing in tailored jackets, divided into halves and worn by two men.

But I think that the collaborators of the work are referring mainly to the emergence of chaos into order.

The collaborators of Emergence represent a network: one of the two composers is Nick Wales who has worked before with fellow composer, the singer-songwriter, Sarah Blasko while Wales has also composed the music for the shows of fashion designer, Dion Lee.

Lee has clothed the SDC ensemble in body revealing and not particularly flattering costumes of black and white, some with with reflective stripes of silver.

The first female dancer to appear, Charmene Yap, wears a next-to-nothing white, strapped dress that reminded me of both the plastic minis of the 1960s and Margot Fonteyn’s crotch-revealing dress in Roland Petit’s Paradise Lost while the ensemble’s black shorts and bodysuits resemble a cross between retro swimsuits and modest gym wear.

Bonachela has explained that Emergence’s choreography developed from workshops in which the dancers wove their way through a cubic network of criss-crossed elastic and I can see how the touch and respond movements developed from that.

At times, the combative choreography is repetitive with much shoulder rolling with one arm flung backwards, with hand to head gestures and splayed hands. Not for the first time I wished that Bonachela would allow for moments of stillness or quiet.

Towards the end of the 40-minute work the introversion of Emergence resolves into more open and elevated movement for three dancers that brings the work towards its calm and cohesive conclusion – the order from the chaos.

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Sydney Dance Company, Alexander Ekman’s Cacti. Photo © Peter Greig

Sydney Dance Company, Alisha Coon and Jessica Thompson in Alexander Ekman’s Cacti. Photo © Peter Greig

Cacti, choreographer Alexander Ekman, Sydney Dance Company. Photo © Peter Greig

Fanatic, Thomas Bradley, choreography Larissa McGowan, Sydney Dance Company, photo © Jessica Bialeck

Sydney Dance Company’s Thomas Bradley and Cass Mortimer Eipper in Rafael Bonachela’s Emergence, photo © Peter Greig

Sydney Dance Company’s Juliette Barton and Cass Mortimer Eipper in Rafael Bonachela’s Emergence. Photo © Peter Greig