In an era in which performing arts venues and companies are closing down at a rate of knots due to lack of funding, it is comforting to see that some patrons are investing in the future of Australian theatre and dance, lending support to the development of new choreographic talent. This is the purpose of New Breed, a contemporary dance collaboration of Sydney Dance Company and Carriageworks, supported by the Balnaves Foundation, which showcases new works by emerging, independent Australian choreographers.
Artistic Director of Sydney Dance Company, Rafael Bonachela, says that when he reflects on his career, he is grateful for the chance he was given as a young artist to transition from dancer to choreographer, and is delighted to now be able to provide others, reminiscent of his young self, with the invaluable opportunity and the necessary resources to explore their ambition and work with other talented artists to create and present their ideas.
2015 marks the second year of this extraodinary initiative, welcoming four brilliant young choreographers with four innovative, original works, which Bonachela himself was involved in hand-selecting, and which he describes as “truly exceptional pieces.”
That they are. Derived, by Bernard Knauer, is the entreé of the night’s banquet. It is a short, sharp burst of energy, an eight-minute exploration of movement, set to the rich, dark duet of double bass and cello, composed by Knauer’s father and performed by his brother. With the help of some very effective light and shadow, the awkward, distorted, undulating gestures of the solo, duo and trio dancers are wild, almost mad, at a height of intense, unmitigated urgency, from beginning to end. Knauer hopes the audience is satisfied with appreciating the work as it is, rather than attempting to understand it or give it any particular meaning. Either way, it certainly impresses and whets the appetite for what’s to come.
The second piece – Conform, by Kristina Chan – has more of the stuff of a main meal. Twenty-nine minutes long, with a very definite story to tell, it is the stand-out dish of the night’s menu. It is interesting to see a female choreographer choose to tackle the question of what it means to be a man, but this she does, very successfully. Using only the male dancers of the company, she explores pack mentality, domination, conformity and self-expression. The minimalist, synthesised soundscape builds unrelentlessly with the skull-crushing pressures and anxieties of post-modern life. All the dancers’ movements seem to start with their heads and necks, as if they are being dragged and twisted by some external force that’s taken hold on their brains. The magnetism even draws pairs of dancers into a head-butt with each other like two bulls locking horns or two deer locking antlers, in an extended, suspenseful challenge. There are very simple, strong lines and patterns made by the group in formation, which highlight the loneliness and unacceptability of the individual on the outside, who is orbited and pursued by the pack. The writhing, flailing, epileptic fit of the fish-out-of-water abandoned dancer, juxtaposed with long, drawn-out, sagging moments of super slow-motion, in which the men are barely moving, but are almost imperceptibly disintegrating, are strong images of the crushing of character and creativity. As the dancers one by one carefully place their body shape on the floor, each consecutive body replacing the one that came before, in the exact same position, leaving the exact same trace, we are reminded of the gloomy reality that every man will go in the way of all the earth. There is no distinction in death. The final image is of two dancers leaning against each other, trying to hold each other up without using their hands, making minimal contact and only just being able to bear the weight. There is a certain hope in that the men are supporting each other, but it is an unwilling support, more self-serving than anything, making the world of the man appear nothing more than a bleak, cold, lonely struggle. Whether or not Chan’s existential picture of modern man is fair, it is certainly powerful. It’s fact, it is so dramatic that at times it feel more like acting than dancing.
The third piece – So Much, Doesn’t Matter, by Fiona Jopp – works like a palate cleanser. A would-be-witty parody of the 17th century song Greensleaves, mixing Shakespeare and Leonard Cohen, it is light and fun, providing welcome comic relief from the depth and intensity of the preceding two works. The theatrical surprise is pleasant, though it nudges the border of silliness, in a way that (we hope) is a deliberate tease. Nonetheless, it is carried away from the realms of ridiculousness on the agile limbs of the ever-enthusiastic dancers.
The fourth and final piece of the night – Reign, by Daniel Riley – is the meatiest dessert imaginable. Set to a powerful Prokofiev score and using one significant, central prop, it is symbolic, and evocative. The sexual counterpoint of Chan’s Conform, Reign uses an all-female cast and tells a similarly bleak tale of the world of women, in which the group defies and attacks the one with power, ultimately overthrowing her reign. Riley’s background as a dancer with Bangarra Dance Theatre is evident in his costuming, using white ochre body paint, and in his movement style, which is a fluid blend of contemporary and indigenous techniques.
As a quadruple-bill program, New Breed is highly effective. The diversity of the short works does not result in a sense of disconnect, as the choreographers share a common vision – to take risks and imaginatively push the boundaries of what has been done before and what is expected. There is a reason why nearly every show is sold-out.
New Breed is showing at Carriageworks from 8-13 December 2015.
– Alicia Tripp
Alicia is a seasoned arts and music journalist, as a former critic for the ABC Limelight magazine and State of the Arts. She has a degree in Media & Communications, English and Music from the University of Sydney.
Disclaimer: The Plus Ones were invited guests of The Sydney Symphony Orchestra.