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REVIEW: Les Illuminations | The Studio, Sydney

Add Benjamin Britten, Rimbaud, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, Katie Noonan and eight of Sydney Dance Company’s best for a magic night of theatre.

The cast of Les Illuminations | The Studio

One thing you could never accuse Sydney Dance Company’s artistic director of being reticent about is collaboration. Rafael Bonachela’s latest production features the decadent poetry of Rimbaud, the music of Benjamin Britten (played by members of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Roland Peelman), the angelic vocals of Katie Noonan and costumes by Toni Maticevski. It’s a diverse distillation that’s sewn together as finely as one of Maticevski’s bespoke garments. Even if the voice over the PA announcing commencement made the title sound like Les is the brother of Trevor Illuminations.

You could’ve been forgiven, on walking into The Studio, for thinking you’d just walked into a fashion show, rather than a dance performance, given Benjamin Cisterne’s pristine, white catwalk extending out from a small stage which Noonan and orchestra cosily inhabited. This brought the dancers, for many of us, close enough, almost, to shower us with their sweat; in itself, a bold move, as it risked an obviousness should any of the dancers falter in the slightest. Happily (and as you’d expect from a company of this calibre), none did, though we did get an even clearer sense than is usually possible of the strenuousness of certain moves, postures and poses. Visually, it was an interesting set-up because, as much as the focal point was the dance, they eye could hardly help but wander, now and then, to the musicians and Roland Peelman’s balletic baton.

Love is a big subject and Bonachela has embraced its breadth and depth with the help of all these artists. The first movement of Britten’s fourth opus (Simple Symphony), Boisterous Bourree, is typical of the work as a whole, inasmuch as among the first thoughts that sprang to mind while watching and listening was ‘children’s games’. On closer, historical examination, it’s not in the slightest surprising it should sound so playful, as all the themes, which form a kind of patchwork, were composed when Britten was but a boy; none later that the age of twelve and as early as nine.

Bourree, of course, hardly needs the word boisterous in front of it, other than to point to the playfulness Britten has in store, as the French dance is, of its very nature, spritely. I’m not sure I’d necessarily recognise it if I fell over it, but presumably Bonachela has built some of his ebullient moves on and around what is, essentially, a folk dance, dating back around 400 years.

The notion sits well with the character of the music, which has the lushness, brightness and refinement of a Vivaldi or Mozart, on the one hand, but a pastoral simplicity of the other. The Mozartian elegance suggests a nostalgia, a longing for something

It’s staccato (and pizzicato) rhythmic textures suggest the balletic, while a quite strident string arrangement that follows an earthier approach. Bonachela seems to be sensible to all these contradictions, which seem to emulate the childlike mind: excitable, with a perilously short attention span giving rise to unpredictable quantum shifts of mood and mode. He renders the aural physical by way of leaps and bounds.

We see, ostensibly, two couples. They tease and cavort, alluding to both the boundless athleticism and inexhaustible energy of childhood and the burgeoning discomforting thrill of nascent hormonal surges, which lead to first kisses and more. The quarantine and rivalry that exists between boys and girls (or boys and boys, or girls and girls, perhaps) suddenly gives way to a betrayal of increased, irresistible curiosity; at first, existing only in the mind, but then becoming more tactile. Bonachela manages to capture that initial, unreproducible electricity; that frisson.

The dancers, including company standouts Andrew Crawford and Charmene Yap, tackle gymnastic moves with courage, discipline and resolve, all of which they need to execute Bonachela’s challenging designs for movement. The fact that they do it with such lightness and buoyancy is a tribute, is one was needed, to their superhuman skills and artistry. Bonachela’s vocabulary is becoming, I venture to speculate, increasingly and reassuringly recognisable. There are trademark kinetics that punctuate and brand bold, new work. One I especially liked in Simple Symphony has arms curved and meeting to form a circle, through which the partnered dancer slides his or her head. It struck me as being like emerging from, or retreating into, the comfort of the womb and, in context, proved a particularly powerful and relative symbol.

While the first movement evoked the mischievous innocence of childhood, for the second, Playful Pizzicato, I wrote “explicit”. I don’t know if it was intended or not, but it’s what I took. Perhaps Bonachela was seeking to move the caravan on to adolescence, so often a time of the boldest experimentation, sexually and otherwise. A time of heightened awareness, awakenings, mistakes and regrets. But again, a sense of the balletic pervaded this as well as the last two movements (Sentimental Sarabande and Frolicsome Finale). The duet format is deviated from by a quartet that hinted at the sexual confusion and exploration that so often characterises “the restless years”.

Britten had done some growing up by the time he came to compose his song cycle for high voice and string orchestra, Les Illuminations. Growing up of the kind we choose and that we’re forced to do. So there are darker colours that pervade, symbolised by Maticevski’s all-black costumes, with swathes of sheer fabric and idiosyncratic holsters as over-garments. (Most idiosyncratic of all was the face mask donned by Thomas Bradley, which imparted a kind of sadomasochistic ambiguity and anonymity; it was a rather questionable and curious allusion to Darlo back bar, or something.)

The third movement of Simple Symphony, it might be cogently argued, hints at the suffering love can bring, often damnably concurrent with fulfilment. He was inspired by Rimbaud who, we mustn’t forget, wrote all his poetry while still in his teens; before he turned twenty, his writing career had ended and he was dead by the time he turned thirty-seven. His was a precocious, impetuous, tempestuous talent. Interesting then, that we revere the work now as if from the mind and hand of a mature wordsmith; yet there’s as much that’s as youthful and unbitten by the cynicism that derives from experience as in Britten’s fragmentary themes. Britten might well have been susceptible to Rimbaud’s eloquence, but he almost surely would’ve identified with Rimbaud’s focus on his lover, as Britten, around that time, was engrossed with two lovers, to who he respectively dedicates certain pieces. With Noonan’s silken soprano rendering the libretto (after Rimbaud’s poems) in French and with Britten’s luxuriant string arrangements also now accenting a French sensibility, Bonachela has found a supportive setting for his intimate and often sexualised choreographic inclinations. These dances comprise the many colour and complexions of love, charting the course from innocence to one that can border on depravity and even savagery. There’s the thrill of the hunt; the unfolding, physically and emotionally; the risks on the road to rapport; the anticipation and heat of first congress. Almost all at once, it’s tense and tender; poignant and passionate. Intensity is sustained, almost unrelenting, but the best is saved for last: of all the songs, it’s Depart, in which two male dancers explore each other with irrepressibly erotic fervour.

Bonachela has found heart, truth and spirit in bringing elements of literature, music and dance together. It’s inspired and vigorous and these qualities seem to have found contagion in all involved, on stage and off.

Life is not a cabaret, of course, but a savage parade and, in Les Illuminations, Bonachela, with a little bit of help from Britten, Rimbaud, the SSO, Ms Noonan and eight of Sydney Dance Company’s best dancers, gives us a palpable, relatable sense of its cruel and wonderful dimensions.

The details: Les Illuminations played The Studio, Sydney Opera House on August 28-31.

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