Two dancers from De Novo | Sydney Theatre

From the beginning. Afresh. Anew. Beginning again. These are translations, from the Latin, of De Novo, Rafael Bonachela’s latest vision (or collection, really) for Sydney Dance Company. It features works choreographed by Mr Barcelona (just warded one of Spain’s highest honours, The Cross Of The Order of Civil Merit), Alexander Ekman and Larissa McGowan. De Novo. “A mixed bill of premiere works.” Indeed.

First cab off the rank was Rafael’s Emergence, a typically inscrutable work, dense with jagged movement. If anything, my initial problem was finding focus, where to look, amid the busy choreography. Bonachela describes it as “a dance rendering of the very state of emergence”. I’m not sure what that means, but perhaps he’s referring to the point of emergence, at which ideas germinate, as the movement is suggestive of the point at which something new, or emergent, explodes into being.

Leading up to that point are somewhat tentative explorations. We see this expressed through various formats: a solo; by Natalie Allen (who’s particularly in the limelight in this work); a male duet, in which Thomas Bradley (also very much to the fore) and Cass Mortimer Eipperexpand on Bonachela’s apparent obsession with exploration of intimate space; and the company at large. The work begins, however, with a virtual menage a trios, between Charmene Yap, Andrew Crawford and Bernhard Knauer.

What starts out as sharply angular postures and gestures morph into rather more fluidic, romantic shapes, moods and evocations. The profile of the work seems to describe and mimic the very process of collaboration that underpins it. From the relative inhibition of “getting to know you”, through growing confidence to that nexus at which the sum suddenly becomes more than the sum of its parts. Like a diamond with numerous sparkling facets, this collaboration is between Bonachela, composer Nick Wales, singer-songwriter Sarah Blasko, costume designer Dion Lee and stage and lighting savant Benjamin Cisterne.

The culmination, the juncture at which minds, bodies, hearts or souls meet, is exemplified in a sequence in which two dancers discover each other, in an intense encounter. Cisterne’s cleverness projects a play of light redolent of sunshine on shallow water, amplifying the feeling of one almost amorphously disappearing into the other. The drama of Nick Wales dirty, discordant composition and sound design, melded with Blasko’s poetic phraseology is fertile soil in which the choreographer and dancers can plant their feet. There’s a sense whereby lyrics, music and movement feed each other, in a continuous, co-dependent, self-perpetuating feedback loop. And there seems to be correspondence, too between aural and physical motion: what begins akin to the mechanical clunkiness of a cold-started engine evolves into well-oiled grace. In this way, the work parallels human symbiosis, the coming together of kindred, creative spirits: at first, awkward and uncomfortable; at last, fulfilling and affirming.

The genesis of the work and, moreover, process Bonachela imposed in the workshop phase, probably has a great deal to do with the outcome. In the studio, a massive cube was “stretched through with a tangle of elastic”. The challenge set was for the dancers to react to its resistance, while finding a path through, around, over and under it. Later, the cube was removed, but positions retained. One might see the cube, present or imagined, as a microcosmic representation of our world, with all its conflicting and convergent forces; a void of chaos which, in magical, unpredictable moments, offers serendipitous synchronicities.

Dion Lee has taken his cue from this. In his own words, he’s “created a series of components that divide over the company of dancers; once choreographed, these components create unique  patterns and formations”. It works. The aesthetic is very futuristic; Trekky and trippy.

But two minor misgivings. For all my admiration of Cisterne’s elegant modernity, the very sophistication of his ideas and their high-tech deployment can sometimes draw attention from the dance. And while the commotion and evocations created by Wales and Blasko are compelling, the very fact of lyrics, which command their own examination, can be a distraction, save for those instances (such as Love The Weight) where the is more of a mantra. Besides which, at least where we were seated and much as I like loud and clear music, the sound was almost deafeningly clamourous. While this was, obviously, part of the desired effect, there are limits. And it wasn’t so very clear, with Sydney Theatre’s PA struggling to cope.

While dance fanatics will likely find Bonachela’s work here challenging in the best possible way, non-devotees may have to strive harder to derive satisfaction. It’s complex.

Pre-publicity for De Novo trumpeted a program of three revolutionary works; a “suite of playful, subversive and inspired pieces that push at the boundaries of performance”. Unlike much promotional hyperbole, this holds water and survives scrutiny. Bonachela’s choreographic contribution is, in its way (not least by means of the means to the end described), revolutionary and the piece that followed, Larissa McGowan’s (speaking of) Fanatic proves both playful and subversive. It’s also immensely indulgent, but, if that can be a good thing, as I think here and there it can, than it is. Indulgent? Yes. In the sense that a PhD in the Alien and Predator films will likely exponentially increase the pleasure you derive. Mind you, even relative ignorance will not obliterate it. No chance.

This is a pop cultural interrogation of the nature of fandom (revived, having been a crowd favourite at last year’s Spring Dance), with dancers taking on the demands of acting almost as much as dancing, mining and miming tracts of dialogue from these cinematic icons. It, too, celebrates the collaborative, being jointly conceived with director Sam Haren and composer Steve Mayhew. Originally a compact piece focussed on the character of Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), it evolved into an opportunistic, almost-but-not-quite random collage or pastiche. While McGowan described the movement as abstract, in fact it physicalises the act of speech; so recognisably, we barely need the miming, which really only serves to enhance the sheer, shameless entertainment value. It certainly succeeds on this level and, inasmuch as it affords a window into contemporary dance through which many mightn’t otherwise take the time and trouble to peer, it’s a feat of genius in promoting an artform that deserves to be more widely appreciated.

The comedic camaraderie between Natalie Allen, Thomas Bradley and Chris Aubrey, who realise McGowan’s jocular choreographic genius, is a delight to behold; Bradley is as animated as a professional clown and stands out boldly as a result.

Fresh irreverence seemed to be the order of the evening, if McGowan’s work was any indication but, in a way, that was but a warm-up for what was to come, in the form of the precociously talented Swedish “dance prodigy” (he well and truly earns the descriptor) Alexander Ekman. The reputation of this work precedes it: already, like its creator, highly-acclaimed internationally, Cacti, if you’ll pardon the expression, mercilessly takes the piss out of dance culture, while delivering an extraordinarily original and vibrant work of dance-theatre.

Ekman deploys the entire ensemble in a grand-scale, Bob Fosse-meets-ballet production that, like that innovator’s work, is unconstrained, unafraid and, as such, proceeds to trample all over expectations, conventions and cliches. Ekman and Thomas Visser’s design is as choreographed as the dancers and, in a way, props and people become inseparable, whether said props be flat, white boxes on which the dancers (variously) perform or arrange into an assymmetrical backdrop, or an eponymous collection of spiky succulents which, one can hardly help but speculate, may be a prickly suggestion as to what critics (who might be disinclined, but well-advised) might do with their reviews, since the work is intended to lampoon the meanings and interpretations we are prone to ascribe to the inscrutabilities of dance.

Far be it from me to defend critics as a class, or myself, but it ought be remembered its the makers who often invite such solemnity. Happily, Ekman couldn’t be more out-of-step with furrowed brows. The dancers become percussionists, comedians and, meanwhile, for much of the perky piece, a string quartet moves around the stage, relating a quirky mash-up of Haydn, Beethoven and Schubert. The counterpoint between the classics and Ekman’s Chaplinesque pisstake is raucous in the telling, but refined in the making.

As a finale, it’s blindingly brilliant and, even on its own, lends meaning to the name De Novo. Cacti revitalises contemporary dance with a sharp shot in the arm or, perhaps, another, posterior body part.

The details: De Novo plays the Sydney Theatre until March 23. Tickets on the venue website.

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