Rafael Bonachela and Jacopo Godani with the Sydney Dance Company

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Ezio Bosso and Rafael Bonachela collaborate.

Shared Frequencies
The Sydney Dance Company
Sydney Theatre, Walsh Bay: 5 April 2011
in Sydney until 16 April

Raw Models
Choreography – Jacopo Godani
Assistant to the choreographer – Amy Hollingsworth
Music – 48 Nord (Ulrich Mueller and Siegfried Roessert)
Costumes and lighting – Jacopo Godani
Costume realization – Claire-Louise Rasmussen

Choreography – Rafael Bonachela with the dancers of the Sydney Dance Company
Assistant to the choreographer – Amy Hollingsworth
Music – ‘Music for Weather Elements’ composed by Ezio Bosso
Lighting – Mark Dyson
Costume design – Rafael Bonachela
Costume realization – Fiona Holley
Music performed by
Ezio Bosso – piano
Veronique Serret – violin
Geoffery Gartner – cello
Katie Noonan – voice

Contemporary art has been around long enough now to be no longer necessarily contemporary with the present day and likewise Avant-Garde seems sometimes more a style than an attitude or movement. Contemporary dance, as free and expressive as it generally is, sometimes feels held back by its stock of conventional movements and gestures. These movements are becoming less and less abstract even if they can be expressive and exhilarating and every good choreographer has their own touch with them. Of course classical ballet has its own stock of traditional steps, but these are meant to blend together smoothly; in a way the ultimate aim of the choreographer and dancer is to meld these individual steps together into the transitionary movements to become a single fluid movement and an expression of a whole more than the sum of its steps. The audience forgets to see or analyze the steps as separate.

Having said that, a synthesis and expressive whole do come across, more or less effectively, in both these pieces in the Sydney Dance Company’s first home program for the 2011 season. Raphael Bonachela’s idea for Landforms was seeded by the extremely ancient Australian landscape, with its palimpsest of weathering by all agents and elements including the biological, and although this is not a new inspiration to the arts, his work is original and very fresh. He created the piece in close collaboration with composer Ezio Bosso, the two composing their respective halves simultaneously, and this comes across in its responsive and sympathetic relationship between movement and music. Jacopo Godani’s Raw Models is cool, but not cold, and mechanistic and almost offers a second pole to Mr. Bonachela’s. It also has a specially commissioned score by 48 Nord (Siegfried Roessert and Ulrich Mueller), also composed simultaneously with the choreography. The score being electronic and mostly atonal and Mr. Godani’s choreography hyper-detailed and of almost scientific precision is almost as far as it could be from Mr. Bosso’s subtle and romantic piano trio which he led live in the orchestra pit for Mr. Bonachela’s very organic choreography.

Jacopo Godani's Raw Models.

Raw Models is striking as a dark piece. The set is a black box with neutral lighting which mainly has two modes: sometimes a uniform, marginally warm bright white light and at other times a uniform neutral grey light showing only shadows of the dancers with little detail. The costumes are simple black mesh singlets and semi-transparent black tights. 48 Nord’s music begins with jarring, percussive staccato sounds with no regular rhythm, almost like a pinball arcade with 100 machines going at once. The music is wholly artificial in the first part of the piece, though real recorded instruments do come in later. A group of six dancers in the centre of the stage rise sharply, as if tugged at by the music, with a jagged pattern of arms shooting out from the close group. All move their arms rapidly, though half the dancers move through the very straight arms positions smoothly though tensely while the others move more jerkily, giving a rather varied texture to the scene. All movement in the piece is quite tense in form from the dancers’ powerful and precise muscular execution. At the same time the “characters” seem constrained, even oppressed by some invisible law or external force which keeps them on tracks, though they seem to try constantly to exert their free will. These partly constrained movements give a sense of a two dimensional physical world inhabited by one dimensional creatures, who are subject to mechanical restrictions which they don’t understand. Again, it is not a cold piece, as a strong and serious sense of fear runs through it.

After four of the dancers drop to the ground again, two of the men seem to play wrestle in a very stylized way. While the tone quality of the music throughout these first scenes is always a variation on the harsh metallic tone, the pitches and dynamics vary greatly and randomly. Dancers come and go in constant fraught activity and there is a contentious duet with a man and a woman, pushing away and colliding again. While the lifts are rare and always low, hugging the ground, nobody ever gets dragged on the floor and no one grabs or restrains any other unless fleetingly. At one point the man seems to repel and collapse the woman with a point from his hand, but she soon rises and gestures likewise at him, seeming to crush him painfully for a moment. Later after the other dancers return, two of the women seem to fight, but this time it looks more serious, with kicks and strong pushes and rollings apart.

The fear runs through the entire piece without much relief and it comes to a horrific climax when a strobe light marks the jerky approach of the dancers upstage, fluttering their smeared hands by their ears. The uncertainty whether they are acknowledging the audience’s existence adds to the tension.

The activity on stage becomes more febrile towards the end of the piece with faster movement and more low lifts and jumps. Also the precise movement of the arms spreads to the dancers’ hips, spines and shoulders. Meeting with this, the music becomes more full in tone, though not necessarily louder with real drums and sounds approaching melodic phrases and harmonies. The hyperactive music and the stylized conflict between dancers makes for a slightly video-gamish tone, however, which undermines the climax.

A couple attracts to repel in Raw Models.

Raw Models has a kind of story, or at least a program, which Mr Godani describes as “a prototype of a micro-social structure whose members all have a common objective to achieve: understand and rediscover the primitive and universal information which is already present in our DNA…” Though I saw it more to do with machinery and technology encumbering humanity, I suppose DNA could be seen as machinery which gives us our bodies and governs how they function. And the body always lags the nimble freedom of thought and will, a gap I suppose the dancer comes closest to closing, not so much to extend the freedom of motion of the limbs in order to pull novel distortions of the body, but more to master and control finely their body to express artistic truths more faithfully. It is now all but disproved that our genes are a straight jacket, causing and governing all our behavior as well as physical shape. The physical basis of many aspects of our psychology remain elusive to science.

The piece had a promising start as an abstract piece of art, and after it declared itself as more concrete, it did express its spirit and its single emotion of fear strongly and clearly, sometime intensely. It is no mean feat to show merely with a black-box setting such humanity on top of the very cold world it inhabits, but the tone of movement and the drift of the music never varied, and I thought the piece lost something by this monotony, missing contrast. It did not live up to the unpredictability, surprise and variedness of which this kind of music and this form of dance are capable.

The Company danced superbly, moving with fluency and expression and unflagging strength despite the extremely difficult and tiring choreography, which also would have been very difficult to memorize with its constant and almost random movement. They also kept a remarkably steady balance in the more awkward tilted positions.

Landforms begins much more gradually, with simple arpeggios on the piano, the chord changing no more rapidly than every two or four bars and then only a note at a time, while a sole spot-lit woman dances in the corner of the stage, turning with very slow, floating, expansive arm movements. I believe this was Juliette Barton, whose expression extended right to her finger tips. The costumes are primitive-looking tunics in dusty earth tones — pale ochre, pale brown-khaki, faded grass-green — with irregular hems and leave bare shoulders. The cello eventually joins in with a drone consonant with the piano, almost like a bare continuo which implies a poignant but unsounded melody which the dancers seem to take up or rather replace. She is joined by a man and their unhurried duet, which reoccurs with variations later in the piece, carries them toward the centre of the stage. As the music becomes more and more melodic, and the rest of the dancers, some dozen who had been crouching motionless in the dark parts of the stage, rise and begin their own individual dances, sometimes forming a dynamic background, with individuals moving in and out of the foreground.

The landscape cavorts in Rafael Bonachela's Landforms.

While at first the violin and cello take turns and for a long time the most dissonant interval is a minor third, all three eventually play together and the music uses sparing dissonance to build up to a climactic thunderstorm, very subtly and stylishly executed. Zigzags of light projected from above appear on the floor and running jumps become more frequent and evading crouching and shifts in weight give a sense of apprehension. This and a handful of other key scenes seem to rearrange the dancers significantly, some suddenly more active under the force of the music than others. There is also a costume change late in the piece, dancers appearing in floating, pale cream toile-like material. The end of the of the piece was surprising when drops of water started falling on the stage, fat winter-in-Sydney style raindrops, making a mezzo-piano pattering as if they were a fourth instrument.

Rain ends Bonachela's Landforms.

A powerful sense of primitiveness runs through the whole piece even as the music and lighting becomes more varied and the interactions between the “characters” more complex and though very simple and subtle it is very intense in feeling. A characterization of sorts does come across because Mr. Bonachela anthropomorphizes nature very sensitively and in a fundamental way. The dancers seem to be part of nature, under the influence of natural forces in the choreography and exert natural forces themselves through their internal relationships, the duets suggesting a latent internal tension and attraction. Their behavior is alien enough that they don’t seem quite human, more like chthonic beings, but their relationships have emotional strength and warmth not unlike that found in early romantic ballets, and so give a strong sense of humanity. This is pre-civilization, primitive though not tribal, yet more ancient and fundamental than that, as if biology and humanity are fundamental to the very landscape. It is also a clever piece of theatrical telescoping to fit 4 billion years or so into an hour. This shows Mr. Bonachela’s close observation of nature to create a work so evocative of the garbled writings of geology and evolution.

Each of the dancers’ individual quirks and “voice” come across clearly and were used to the best advantage. This is the great strength of Mr Bonachela’s method of composing the choreography with the dancers rather than teaching them a pre-conceived vision. His choreography is quite detailed and by giving each dancer, even for those in the background, different steps, he creates vibrant backgrounds and interesting foregrounds. Occasionally he uses he uses movements which are rather conventional, and this detracts from some of the scene’s brilliancy and freshness.

The lighting was varied and added greatly to the success of Landforms, as realized by Mr. Dyson. Besides the gradual fade in from the first spot-lit scene, which went so well with the music, there was another scene which presented small squares of light projected from above, just big enough for a person to stand in, which the dancers moved in and out of, as if these bars held them. They were freed when the boxes split into a finer grid. Another dramatic scene was spot-lit from behind, light shining from a chink between the back curtain and the floor in shafts shooting over the audience’s heads, though high enough (in the stalls at least) not to unduly light up those heads and break the illusion. Dancers moved as silhouettes slowly back and forth across the lights as if they were three-dimensional shadow puppets without a screen.

Ms. Noonan’s fine voice came in only towards the end, though unfortunately she was amplified, which was unnecessary for loudness given the subtlety of the piano trio, and slightly distorted her voice which otherwise would have combined more sonorously with the acoustic instruments. This distracted from the dancing somewhat too.

Mr Bosso plays the piano sensitively and its always a treat to hear a good composer play their own music. The simplicity of the music worked perfectly with the concept, and its major to minor key modulations and romantic style provided much of the humanity of the piece and gave the dancers, who evidently have a strong sense of the subtlety in music, much to chew on. The music did border on sentimentality at times, but overall the subtle and restrained expression of the music as a whole gave it memorable depth. The music could be quite surprising, with one striking dissonant section in which the strings, scraped near the roots, made a very eery sound, seeming to come from nowhere. It is a shame Mr Bosso is not giving any other concerts while he’s here.

Live music makes a huge difference to all forms of dance. The sympathy between highly-trained and well-rehearsed performers in the same theatre on the same night to create their art together can never be simulated dancing to a CD. Granted scores like 48 Nord’s for Raw Models cannot be played live because of the complicated editing and experimentation with electronics required, and musicians can add to the cost of an activity (art) which the economy as it’s currently structured doesn’t encourage (as Margot Fonteyn said, inflation increases everything but the number of seats), but it is sad live music is so rare in this style of dance, as Landforms clearly shows us its value.

About the author

Andrew Miller

Andrew Miller lives in Sydney and writes mostly about music and theatre, especially ballet and opera.

He holds a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Sydney, and once studied the piano and trombone.

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