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REVIEW: Project Rameau | Sydney Theatre

What are the chances? Two of Australia’s leading lights in the performing arts — Rafael Bonachela, artistic director of the Sydney Dance Company, and Richard Tognetti, artistic director of the Australian Chamber orchestra — discover a mutual passion in Jean-Philippe Rameau.

Who? Precisely. As Tognetti points out, Rameau’s legend and music was dead almost as soon as he. And he was a legend, albeit only in his own lifetime. In the dwindling days of the French monarchy, it was Rameau who reigned, musically at least, supreme. Indeed, he was very favoured at court. It was the heyday, too, of Voltaire, a time when Bach was still up-and-coming.

Despite or because of Rameau’s lack of a fixed address in the modern musical landscape, or perhaps just because of the intrinsic excellence of his music, Bonachela and Tognetti have seen fit to name their unusual and innovative collaborative project after him, for a program of dance and chamber music that has Rameau headlining, with Vivaldi and Bach as “support acts”.

Another key player in their tableau vivant is lighting and set designer Benjamin Cisterne who, even while emulating the perspective and proportions of the baroque stage, imbues it with a stark, ostensibly symmetrical modernity. The augmented Australian Chamber Orchestra sits at the back of the stage, backlit by a large rectangle, which changes colour. The orchestra thus becomes part of the action, with Tognetti repeatedly bouncing excitedly out of his seat, as he bows furiously on his precious 1743 Guarneri de Gesu violin, a contemporary of Rameau.

It’s not hard to see what drives the ACO to its rarefied, internationally-acclaimed reputation, given Tognetti’s contagious, electric enthusiasm. In this way, the orchestra effectively becomes part of the physical performance. One can debate the merits, in pure terms, of overlapping the two disciplines but, regardless of philosophy, in practice, it’s enriching; even if the sheer, charged fervour of the orchestra sometimes took my eyes momentarily off the dancers. And in a way, of course, it’s all the more relative to the project, since, in Rameau’s world, there were no partitions erected between , say, music, ballet and opera; they were performative siblings.

Bonachela has joined hands with Fiona Holley to design costumes, which may be construed as referencing the delicate lace and finery of the baroque period, but which, like Cisterne’s set and lighting, counterpoints such with a post-modern simplicity and informality. So, the dancers may be clad in elegant, high fashion fabrics, but they’re cut into shorts and skimpy tops that are revealing of musculature and movement.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the work is the fact that so much of Rameau’s music was conceived and written for complementary arts, such as opera and ballet; de rigueur in his day. One of the key questions and challenges, therefore, for Bonachela was whether or not to draw upon the dance vocabulary that pertained originally. He resisted, instead tasking his dancers to interpret specific pieces and devise motion for an arm, or a leg. No, I’m not pulling your leg. That was the process. It was then for Raf to pull all these disparate parts into whole body of work. I mention it because, were one unaware of it, one could never guess: nothing looks disjointed, awkward or anything less than poetry in motion. Bonachela’s brief to himself included evocation of qualities he saw as being practically synonymous with baroque expression: (to paraphrase) movement; tension; vitality; dynamism; emotional exuberance; sensuousness.

He’s not only succeeded, but exceeded. There is, for mine, something characteristically, unmistakably Bonachela in the silky suite of movement that results which, by some feat (for want of a better explanation) of alchemical genius knits fineness with firmness; rubs robustness up against refinement. There are references to classical ballet, especially discernible in a conflictive menage a trios, but also more idiosyncratic moments: at one point I imagined Peter Garrett’s “someone get a straitjacket!” stage antics. The verticality of much of the work makes for a seductive aesthetic, in its contrast with the horizontal fan of the seated orchestra and Cisterne’s lateral fluorescents.

A detail that piqued my interest was the thumbs-up motif: a light-hearted concession to our cultural milieu, perhaps. The entire ensemble danced as well, or better, than ever: the most scrupulous, unforgiving focus yielded not the slightest mishap. Andrew Crawford again amazed insofar as his uncanny grace-for-height quantum. The charismatic intensity of Charmene Yap, to say nothing of her self-assured skills, makes her magnetic to the eye. Alisha Coon distinguished herself with litheness and elegance. Yet these are relatively arbitrary spotlights. Again, each member of the ensemble proved impeccable and worthy of a short essay.

So to the orchestra which, for the occasion, took on horns, bassoons, flutes, oboes, trumpets, continuo and percussion. Heroes who could too easily go unsung are arrangers Graham Sadler, Vi King Lim and Jennifer Powell, as well as sound engineers Adam Iuston, Hayley Forward and Simon Lear. I’ve never heard Sydney Theatre sound so sublime and the orchestrations, especially of Vivaldi’s Presto from Summer (which, let’s face it, can, in the wrong hands, sound so insubstantial and limp), were virile; almost rapacious.

The opening gambit, Rameau’s Sommeil from Dardanus was as “perfumed” as the company’s site describes; the violins and violas sounding honeyed, but underpinned and anchored by solemn, almost sacred notes from cellos and bass, which sounded particularly resplendent. This is the slumber of the just, elevated and dignified; as sating as Babette’s Feast. A fitting final supper for the ears of a dying man, it could as easily have closed the show.

Aurally, there many more highlights than time currently affords me to explore. Clearly, given the attachment of Rameau’s name to the project and the wholesale boycott of his gifts, the greater interest lay with his compositions. But one can hardly complain about the presence of Antonio Vivaldi, or Johann Sebastian Bach, whose pieces were royal icing on a gorgeous, opulent gateau.

The details: Project Rameau played the Sydney Theatre from October 29 to November 3.

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