Roslyn Packer Theatre, Sydney
October 17, 2018

Sydney Dance Company’s double bill Forever & Ever pairs two wildly different but thrilling works – with the dancers showing that they can take pretty well whatever is thrown at them and nail it with precision and flair, be it Antony Hamilton’s almost mechanistic movement or Rafael Bonachela’s more lyrical contemporary choreography.

Forever & Ever by Antony Hamilton. Photograph © Pedro Greig

The program takes its name from Hamilton’s new work Forever & Ever, commissioned for SDC. As the audience take their seats after interval for the world premiere, Jesse Scales – petite and shaven headed – is already on the unlit stage going through a series of moves. Many of the audience don’t tune into her, but what she is doing is intriguing. Wearing a loose grey and black tee shirt and black shorts, with some black markings on her legs, she moves individual parts of her body in separation, establishing the vocabulary for what is to come.

Then the lights snap on and the audience snaps to attention as the solo continues in silence; elbow bent, arms lifted, head thrown back, hips shifted, legs flipped. At one point, she lies flat on her back. Just when you think Hamilton is about to push the idea too far, Scales picks up a theatre light sitting on the stage and, bang, the music hits, with a brief flash of colour electrifying the lighting (designed by Benjamin Cisterne).

The score is by Hamilton’s brother Julian Hamilton (of pop band The Presets) who presents a throbbing percussive beat that pulses repetitively, on and on, building very slowly. Gradually he adds subtly morphing synths. It’s like being at a rave.

Lasers in Forever & Ever. Photograph © Pedro Greig

With the sound now in play, a line of dancers in descending height order, move on stage slowly like a giant insect, some in long black robes with white cones instead of forearms, the others in white, carrying lights. They all wear faceless black masks. It’s creepy and intriguing. They parade very slowly right up to Scales and then the tallest at the front (Izzac Carroll) moves into a duet with her, which plays with their height differential, shifting the perspective as they interact.

From there Carroll’s robe is removed (brilliant touch) and the inventive, layered costuming by Paula Levis starts to change, altering the mood. Monochrome gives way to patterns, and then bright red and yellow colours appear before disappearing again until all the dancers are dressed in black basics with tribal-like markings for the more human ending.

Cisterne’s ingenious lighting, which frequently resembles sheet lightning on a back screen, includes brief, exciting zaps of vibrant colour, as well as lasers in one section.

The movement has a quasi-robotic vibe as the dancers form an ensemble, shift and regroup, before they separate into two groups and then merge at the end.

Forever & Ever. Photograph © Pedro Greig

Antony Hamilton writes in the program that he is playing with themes of duplication, modification, order and chaos, all of which are evident, though the immediate response is to just lose yourself in the visceral, immersive thrill of what is happening on stage. It’s strange, unsettling, flashy, trippy and witty, drawing on nightclub culture and cool-dude fashion. It’s not going to appeal to everyone but most of the audience went wild on opening night.

The evening opens with Bonachela’s Frame of Mind, which premiered in 2015 and has already had great success in Australia (where it won four Helpmann Awards) and internationally. Bonachela choreographed it to a Kronos Quartet recording of music specially composed for the ensemble by American composer Bryce Dessner.

This time the music – which has a ferocious energy at times –  is played live by the Australian String Quartet sitting in front of the left-hand side of the stage. Having them there playing Dessner’s three string quartets in such superb fashion adds another level to the performance and makes the moving, emotionally charged piece even more visceral.

Frame of Mind with the Australian String Quartet. Photograph © Pedro Greig 

Bonachela created Frame of Mind at a time when he was feeling torn between different places, and you feel the sense of conflict, emotional need and loneliness in the piece. It is performed in a room, designed by Ralph Myers, featuring peeling walls and a lovely large window through which Benjamin Cisterne’s lighting (so different to what he did for Forever & Ever, but absolutely in tune with the piece) creates a contemplative atmosphere and suggests the passing of time.

Comprising a fluid series of solos, duets, trios, quartets and exhilarating unison sequences featuring the entire ensemble, highlights include a sinuous duet between Charmene Yap and Davide De Giovanni, and an emotional solo at the end by Nelson Earl.

Running 90 minutes with an interval, this is a richly satisfying pairing of works. All power to Bonachela for commissioning an independent choreographer like Hamilton, for commissioning the Australian String Quartet to play live, and to the dancers who move so confidently between two such different styles of choreography. What a ride.


Forever & Ever plays at the Roslyn Packer Theatre, Sydney until October 27

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Limelight, Australia's Classical Music and Arts Magazine