Sydney Dance Company celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2019: a half century which Artistic Director Rafael Bonachela is celebrating with a program of works by four Australian choreographers, including a major production at the end of the year by Gideon Obarzanek called Us 50.

Rafael Bonachela and Gideon Obarzanek with SDC alumni Kip Gamblin, Linda Ridgeway, Sheree Zellner (formerly da Costa), Lea Francis and Bradley Chatfield. Photograph © Pedro Greig

Acknowledging the 250 or more dancers, dozens of composers and designers, as well as the previous Artistic Directors, Suzanne Musitz, Jaap Flier, Graeme Murphy and Tanja Liedtke (who tragically died shortly after being appointed to the role), Bonachela said: “The cumulative efforts of these artists have been to build a company which has for 50 years defined contemporary dance in Australia and offered transformative experiences to audiences here and around the world.”

“I have chosen to celebrate this important milestone by commissioning a range of Australian voices – a tribute and continuance to the extraordinary investment that Sydney Dance Company has made to the Australian cultural landscape over five decades.”

Speaking to Limelight, Bonachela said that he wanted to include some SDC alumni in the program to celebrate “the spirt of all the dancers, because for me it’s always a very, very big part of what companies are; they really give companies the personality (and) identity. Since I’ve been in Australia, very, very often people say to me, ‘oh Bradley Chatfield!’ and ‘I remember this and I remember that and I remember that dancer…’,” said Bonachela.

So he approached Gideon Obarzanek, himself a former dancer with the company, to create a piece which included some alumni. “But then during some conversation, he said to me, ‘what about if we invite the audience who have in their memories what the company is? So I was like oh my God, I love it!’” says Bonachela.

Us 50 will feature 50 people on stage: 15 current SDC dancers, 10 significant ex-dancers of the company from different generations [including Chatfield], and 25 audience volunteers each night. “They won’t be plucked out of the audience on the night. They would already have expressed their interest to be a part of it so people don’t need to worry that they will be dragged into audience participation. But if people are interested they can sign up to be in the work. No rehearsals required,” Obarzanek tells Limelight.

“I’ve always been very interested in the relationship of the audience to performance and I’ve explored that in a number of different ways with my works starting with Assembly which is the last I made for Chunky Move before I left, and that was Sydney Philharmonia at Angel Place back in 2012. But there I was working with 50 choir members who had no dance training, and eight professional dancers to create a very articulate, large scale dance performance with singing, and that required some rehearsals,” says Obarznek.

“And then I made Attractor [with Lucy Guerin] where 20 people joined the performers onstage every night with no rehearsals, not even having seen the work, and then One Infinity, just recently, which involved the whole audience participating in the work, becoming part of the work. There’s been a real through line in relation to engaging the audience to perform, to make the work with professional dancers. And I think it’s particularly fitting in this piece because I guess I make the claim that the history of the company or of a contemporary dance company really rests in the bodies of its dancers and in the memories of its audience and so I pulled together past and present dancers and audience members to come together onstage to represent the history of Sydney Dance Company.”

Obarzanek says that Us 50 won’t literally explore the history of SDC but is “more about the idea of creating a large group piece with different people who have a stake in the company, and a relationship to the company, and it’s a new work so it continues the tradition that Sydney Dance is a company that makes new works. Having said that, I certainly want to explore some of the significant roles that those ex-dancers have had, but for them to choose what was significant for them. And to explore that piece of repertoire and then how it transmits from that older body into the younger body and gets reinterpreted. So there will be pieces of repertoire but they will be small and at the discretion of the ex-dancer, so it becomes much more of a personal choreography of memories.”

“So I am approaching it as a new work and as a work that absolutely reflects on the 50 years but if someone had no idea about the 50 years of the company and not much sense of Sydney Dance Company, it would still be a work that completely stands alone.”

Sydney Dance Company members. Photograph © Pedro Greig

The season begins in March with a triple bill featuring new works by Bonachela and Gabrielle Nankivell, as well as Melanie Lane’s WOOF, which was a hit at SDC’s New Breed program in 2017.

Bonachela’s Cinco will feature five dancers, with costumes by fashion designer Bianca Spender and lighting by Damien Cooper. It is choreographed to Argentinian composer Alberto Ginastera’s String Quartet No 2. Bonachela says that he has been wanting to use the music for a long time.

“The music is in five movements, it’s five decades of Sydney Dance Company, and I always like all of that connection with numbers. And then I thought okay look, I will make a piece with five dancers,” says Bonachela. “When I first arrived years ago, I kept using everyone and making big group pieces and really enjoying that in a way because it’s not something you get a lot when you’re independent which is what I was. So now I’m just going to be a bit more intimate and quiet in a way.”

Nankivell (whose work Wildebeest was a hit for SDC) will create a new piece called Neon Aether which “transports dancer and viewer to a vibrant yet ethereal place beyond the clouds”, while Lane’s WOOF, choreographed to music by British electronic artist Clark “presents a post-human world of primal seduction and belonging”.

The triple bill will be opening in Sydney then play in Canberra and Melbourne before touring nationally. Us 50 will play in Sydney in November, while New Breed 2019 will have a season at Carriageworks in November/December.