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Sydney Opera House, August 28, 2013
French bad-boy Arthur Rimbaud’s highly spiced poems took a hold of the young Benjamin Britten at an impressionable age, inspiring one of his first and greatest song cycles, Les Illuminations. It was almost certainly not just the poetry that got under Britten’s skin. Rimbaud’s scandalous homosexual affair with Paul Verlaine lies at the very heart of these poems and the composer was to dedicate two of his settings to his own lovers, Wulff Scherchen being the recipient of Antique and Peter Pears picking up one of the cycles most sexually charged songs, Being Beauteous.
So full of imagery are the poems themselves it’s amazing that no one has thought of dancing them before, and in Rafael Bonachela’s miraculous dance piece he shows just how much further sensitively considered movement can take our appreciation of important musical works.
For the first part of the evening Bonachela sets Britten’s charming early work for string orchestra, the naively titled Simple Symphony. In four movements and with two pairs of dancers Bonachela examines the playful side of love in a series of sparkling duets and one ingenious quartet.
Boisterous Bourée is all secret smiles as two dancers engage in leaps, lifts and courtly lovemaking. A hallmark of Bonachela’s style is the clarity of the onstage relationships and here the communication between the lovers is palpable as they tease and please each other. Playful Pizzicato involves a great deal of flirtatiousness between our first couple and a second who arrive to stir things up. Again, playfulness is to the fore as the dancers conspire to inflame each other’s passions and jealousies. Eye contact here is everything and the four dancers act superbly with their faces as well as their bodies.
The Sentimental Sarabande is a graceful pas de deux, almost classical in its execution, and notable for the girl effortlessly taking the boys weight as often as not. Frolicsome Finale is all bouncy cheekiness, a bit like a choreographic game of twister. Utilising a catwalk stage, we are also treated to the rare privilege of sitting thrillingly close to the dancers, as well as the fine orchestra which comprises players from the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. Roland Peelman turns out to be a choreographic one-man-band of his own as he lashes his players into a frenzy of sumptuous string tone. Utterly beguiling.
Les Illuminations itself is an altogether darker affair, again focussing on love, but this time laced with yearning, betrayal, loss of innocence and a dash off thinly buried cruelty. Toni Maticevski’s costumes for Rimbaud’s “savage parade” have a cabaret-like sexiness but also more than a hint of fetishwear about them. The choice of Katie Noonan to execute Britten’s tricky vocal line may have raised more than one eyebrow in the classical world but as it turns out, her silvery, non-demonstrative soprano, tucked away within the string players themselves, ensures that the focus is firmly on the dancers. Noonan has all the notes and the vocal agility to carry off the tricky roulades, for example, in a song like Marine. Her word painting however was secondary to vocal line.
The four superb dancers strut and posture their way through Villes, with a narcissistic quality, intensely aware of themselves as they gradually reveal their sexual identities to their fellow travellers. In Phrase, two dancers circle each other like cats on heat, never touching, but with an sexual charge that makes the air crackle around them. Antique takes it a step further as the dancers entwine, yet there’s a pain behind this lovemaking, a refusal to accept each other’s physical terms.
The dark heart of the piece reveals itself in Interlude, an aching duet that reveals a couple desperate to believe each other yet unable to shake off suspicion. The two lovers here can almost smell the betrayal on each other’s bodies. Being Beauteous then becomes a ravishing duet of distrust, laced with hints of slow motion violence. Bonachela here finds the heart of Britten’s cycle, matching it with choreography of enormous intensity and encouraging his dancers to act with far more than bodies alone.
Two dazzling movements complete the work. Parade becomes a dance of vicious rivalry between the two female dancers – a supreme display of mutual suspicion and antagonism. Then in the unexpected finale, Bonachela sets Départ as the most erotic of dances for his two male dancers. At times almost a tango, the sexual tension here is riveting.
I gather the run at the Sydney Opera House is already sold out but hopefully this won’t be the last we see of this work. If it makes a return, I for one will be first in the queue for a second chance to see some of the finest, most inventive evenings of dance you are likely to see on the world stage.