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Roslyn Packer Theatre, Sydney
October 19, 2016
I’ll admit that when it first appeared in 2014 as part of Sydney Dance Company’s inaugural New Breed programme I was unsure as to where Wildebeest was heading. At the time, Gabrielle Nankivell’s work struck me as accomplished but rather overliteral and structurally loose. What a difference two years makes – and kudos to Rafael Bonachela for seeing what I could not – for what emerged here as the first part of Untamed, was an original, engaging and tightly argued new dance work.
In hindsight, the rather portentous opening words “Arise wildebeest” with references to shattered fragments reforming and storms feel unnecessary, given the work’s title and the clarity of Nankivell’s vision. A single contorting form struggling to stand transports the viewer instantly to the world of the new born, arms and legs flailing, occasionally tensing horn-like in the air. This unlicked wildebeest-whelp proceeds to strut and paw the ground, yet any overtly bestial mimicry is so deeply embedded in the choreography that it never topples into the awkward realm of ‘animal improv’. The limb extensions are handled perfectly by Bernhard Knauer and later Cass Mortimer Eipper, their impressive leg strength evident for all to see.
Aided by Fiona Holley's classy, sunbleached costumes and Benjamin Cisterne's nicely detailed lighting design, Nankivell’s beast is in constant flux, its more human aspects being brought out in leaping and whirling duels and duets, the sound of the approaching storm adding to the dramatic tension. Her long-time collaborator Luke Smiles provides an integral ingredient here. His musical design derives from filmic ideas and incorporates electronics, the sounds of the natural world and foley elements to make for a rich and compelling soundscape. As a former dancer himself, his experience and instinct combine to provide a dynamic score, to which Nankivell binds her movement. As a result, the sparring and chasing of the herd feels tightly managed, the moment when a single female (an empathetic Charmene Yap), is left alert for the predator comes as a well-focussed denouement.
From animal to human is one of Nankivell’s evolutionary preoccupations, the other being from human to machine. A sudden shift, and her mechanical chorus ticks and tocks like cogs in a complex industrial entity, forming and reforming as the apparatus develops its own momentum. This is another area that in the wrong hands could feel either ‘done to death’ or ripe for parody, yet the artisanal hand gestures and increasingly manic movements come across as both original and engaging, the company’s timing and discipline spot on. Clever stuff, especially when the machine reappears, reflecting more of a dance floor vibe, with plenty of pin spot coordination.
Back to the beast, and the animal now appears as newly elegant compared to the clunky machinery, suggesting that a glance back towards nature might be just what is required as out predilection for new technology marches inexorably forward. In a securely controlled duet (Todd Sutherland and Holly Doyle), Nankivell now focuses on the push and pull that affects the individual (or individuals) while the herd looks on impassive, and just a bit disdainful. If the solo ending feels a little pat and inconclusive, it doesn’t detract from what is otherwise a terrific new work from a singular and inventive voice.
Rafael Bonachela’s new work, Anima, forms the second part of Untamed, set to a rewarding score by London-based but Bulgarian-born composer Dobrinka Tabakova. Reviewing the 2014 Grammy-nominated release String Paths, from which the score for Anima derives, Limelight said that “Tabakova has a gift for string writing that connects the English lyricism of Vaughan Williams and Elgar to the glassier, sombre textures of Arvo Pärt”. Not only that, there’s a pull between the old and the new, and a tug of the Balkan at work in her writing, especially in Insight, the haunting string trio work that opens Bonachela’s piece. It’s rhythmic, accessible and eminently danceable music, and the choreographer makes the most of it in a series of solos, duets, quartets and ensemble sequences that explore ideas of light, flight and the nature of the disembodied soul.
Progressing from an opening duet (Juliette Barton and Izzac Carroll) through a Petros Treklis solo into a trio, Bonachela’s dancers meet, part and closely interlock in a series of contrasting images. Achieving a sense of weightlessness is clearly part of the masterplan. Aleisa Jelbart’s effective costumes (mostly white and grey underwear) against a white box and Clemens Habicht’s striking visual design can conjure the purity of a gymnopedie, but in the faster ensuing quartet, where Jesse Scales is the willing victim of some death-defying lifts courtesy of the athletic trio of Richard Cilli, Izzac Carroll and Bernhard Knauer, Bonachela is capable of summoning the diffusive energy of the spirit world.
Lighting and projections add to the exploration of the transient soul, transporting us to a cloudscape or even a heaven, where bright, white essences approach, flicker and disperse on the back wall as the dancers come and go. A sequence bathed in intense red light crackles like flames, the lambent energy just about tamed by the choreographic hand. There’s a beautifully crafted and passionate duet for Bernhard Knauer and Charmene Yap, and the following full company work is often thrilling. Tabakova’s Concerto for Cello and Strings is the music underpinning this, a meaty piece and nicely exploited by Bonachela who really listens to what goes on in the music, both above and below the surface.
The pièce de résistance, however, comes in the central duet, superbly danced by Cass Mortimer Eipper and Petros Treklis. The male-male coupling has been a powerful feature of Bonachela’s work of late, and this was no exception, capturing an innate tension born of a sexual charge and masculine competition – think the bearskin rug scene from Women in Love. Arms and bodies link and unlink, hands and heads rest on chest and shoulders, pushing and pulling the protagonists on in an increasingly assertive and perhaps dangerous game. This wasn’t just danced; it was acted too – something else that Bonachela is highly adept at drawing out. With a series of ravishing lighting states bathing the bodies – from burning reds to a zingy turquoise and some searing whites – and the solo cello rising to soar over the strings (Tabakova simply calls this movement ‘Longing’), the climax was magical and drew its own well-deserved applause.
After that, the final sequence to the conclusion of Tabakova's concerto (labelled simply ‘Radiant’) was slightly anticlimactic, though the dancing again was magnificently vibrant and controlled. If Anima feels slightly less tightly structured than some other Bonachela works of late, that may come from watching it in the wake of Wildebeest. Nevertheless, it’s an engaging piece, and the sensuality of his work, especially in that masterly duet, lingers in the memory long after the lights have come up. Oh, that and Bonachela’s curtain call wearing an admirable “Say I Do Down Under” tee-shirt. Nice one!