The branding for Spring Dance 2012, now showing at The Playhouse, downstairs, on the western side of the Sydney Opera House, is all over the place. What I do know for sure is that, for 2012 at least, Sydney Dance Company’s erstwhile artistic director Rafael Bonachela (a man whose name alone is poetry) is the curator of this short season. SDC & the SOH have jointly commissioned works from four female choreographers from around Australia, with SDC performers recruited to dance them. All world premieres.

Loosely speaking, at least, it’s a national survey of what’s new and exciting. Or touted as such. While the selection is a long way, I imagine, from entirely arbitrary, it’s likely networks have been relied upon with the resultant danger that much else that’s new and exciting has gone unexamined. Nonetheless, there’s a certain diversity here, with all the eastern states accounted for, to some degree, as well as South Australia.

Lisa Wilson represents the deep north with Desire. It’s all very well to have “a stripped-back stage to frame the sheer talent of the women and dancers” and, typically, I’d be arguing for a less-is-more approach. I wonder, though, if this isn’t an escape hatch, excusing investment (or lack thereof), whether quantified in mere dollars, time, creativity or labour. There were moments when some lighting dynamics, for example, might have helped instil a mood, without really diverting attention from Wilson’s work, or the dancers’s presentation of it. Certainly, SDC confirmed its perspicacity, inasmuch as, across all four pieces, the levels of performance were flawless and fabulous. Nothing short. No caveats.

In Wilson’s words, Desire “focuses on the internal forces that drive us, or make us falter”. As is quite typical with dance, discerning this, without the assistance of curatorial or other notes, can be challenging. What we see is a large ensemble of dancers who collide and clash, brush up against each other, come into conflict and competition. And that’s just the men. When men and women come together, we see planetary motion: the differing orbits of Venus and Mars, in which love can prove perilously close to hate; and passion can have violent outcomes as well as tender ones. Wilson has captured desire as it really is, from incandescent yearning to burning ambition.

Desire has many facets and faces and is, arguably, the most potent of all human drives, bringing with it the greatest propensity for success, transcendence, but also the kind of double-trouble one only finds in paradise. It’s the toll for revelling in intensity. Wilson’s bold, uncompromising, distinctive, intensely physical choreography, defined by body contact and informed by the Jungian notion of animus, finds a soulmateship in the digital pastiche that is Matt Cornell’s composition and sound design, the searing sadness to be found in Paul Charlier’s music and, for something completely different, the industrial aural aesthetic of Nine Inch Nails. With Desire, Wilson holds a mirror in which we can clearly see what, almost at once, inspires, animates, uplifts and condemns us. Emily Amisano, Lachlan Bell, Thomas Bradley, Juliette Barton, Richard Cilli, Janessa Dufty and Bernhard Knauer ensure a faultless exposition of the work. Collectively, they are every choreographer’s orgasm.

Fanatic is a hobbyhorse of an entirely different colour. Adelaidean Larissa McGowan has co-opted theatre director Steve Mayhew to compile and edit a soundtrack that draws upon familiar scenes and snippets of dialogue from Ridley Scott’s Alien and John McTiernan’s Predator movies. It’s a fantastical fusion that speculates on “what happens when Alien and Predator fans vent via YouTube”. What results is an orgy of movement, by turns robotic and organic, infused with affection, wit and, probably above all, a sense of playfulness.

Easily proving itself crowd favourite (there would seem to be no substitute for the guilty pleasure and homey comfort of mainstream popular culture), if enthusiastic applause is any gauge, McGowan’s clear vision, realised through the medium of a ready-to-roll soundtrack, is a lesson in just how cohesive and coherent dance can be. And while it focusses in on a rampantly commercial medium, it is, at the same time, highly original and innovative to the point of even being, in a sense, avant-garde. Miming was never so much fun and no cinematic special effect has daunted the creativity of the collaborators, which include Sam Haren as dramaturg. Trekkies and other ardent copyists of celebrated and iconic examples of mass media will recognise themselves right away.

Emily Amisano’s Yield is a self-admittedly personal work, based on her inside track at SDC, in which she’s observed rapport between certain colleagues, on which she’s based pairings: Juliette Barton and Richard Cilli; Lachlan Bell and Janessa Dufty. With kiddie stools as props, the performers are physically reduced, inviting childlike communications. One feels a little voyeuristic, visually eavesdropping on secret, one-on-one, highly-developed languages. These are the games we all play, in private; games which sometime escalate into something less than entirely innocent or healthy, perhaps.

The piece seems to allow the dancers some freedom and scope for improvisational spontaneity, so I’d expect observable differences from performance to performance. This factor imbues the work with a particular vitality. Philosophically, it’s a fitting subject for dance to explore: much of our getting to know each other relates to touch and movement; body language, if you will. It’s something of a counterpoint to Fanatic, which builds movement around text and audible language. In Yield, movement is the language. It also strongly portrays the battle of wills and balance of power in relationships, lending it something of a political, as well as personal, dimension.

All in all, though, I thought this piece could be made tighter and crisper. It is, however, lent momentum, urgency and rhythm, thanks to a judicious, simpatico music mix, courtesy of Grayson James, featuring so-called ‘post-rock’ electronic soloist Four Tet (otherwise known as Kieran Hebden, formerly of Fringe), Aussie electro-band Seekae and Gold Panda (like Four Tet, a London-based soloist).

Melbournian Stephanie Lake’s Dream Lucid meditates (if I may speculate, based on impressions and the effects it had on me) on the now age-old problem of industrialisation versus humanity, man vs machine, economic imperative and market forces vs community and, above all, individualism vs conformity. Are we truly free, or enslaved to popular ideas in which we’ve been steeped? Big questions.

Robin Fox, a prominent and uncompromising audiovisual artist fascinated by “voltage and vibration”, provides sharp-edged and fragmented music, which brings even more drama. I was especially captivated by his experiments interpolating gamelan. Meanwhile, Lake has conjured waves, butterflies, heartbeats, gorillas, outside control, unbridled autonomy. The physical irony (and minor miracle), if you will, is that the idea of rigidity is somehow summoned through combinations of free-flowing movement that make for breathtakingly beautiful visual, as much as performance, art. Lake, it seems, has almost invented a discrete vocabulary just for this piece. And the hero sequence must surely be that in which virtual mannequins are ‘remote-controlled’, by other dancers. Brilliant!

Ben Cisterne’s lighting, at its best, is involved, complementary and dynamic; at other times, he has the restraint and discipline to remain hands off.

The charming and affable Bonachela, while unable to credibly contend, if he were to do so, that  this selection of female choreographers is in any meaningful way representative or comprehensive, has shown courage and conviction as curator and it’s a further feather in his cap that he has been able to sit back and trust the outcome.

The details: Spring Dance 2012 runs various programs at The Playhouse, Sydney Opera House until October 2. Tickets on the venue website.

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