In March 2020, Sydney Dance Company was all set to present a triple bill featuring a new work by Artistic Director Rafael Bonachela called Impermanence, which was choreographed to a commissioned score by American composer Bryce Dessner. Four days before the opening, COVID-19 hit and the performance had to be cancelled.
Close to a year later, an expanded version of Impermanence has finally made it to the stage, and – joy of joys – it’s a hypnotically beautiful work, stunningly performed by the company’s 17 dancers to music that is visceral and moving.
Jacopo Grabar, Rhys Kosakowski, Emily Seymour with the Australian String Quartet. Photo © Pedro Greig
The relationship between Sydney Dance Company and Bryce Dessner – who is best known as one of the founders of rock band The National and for his film scores for The Revenant and The Two Popes but who also writes contemporary classical music – began when Bonachela choreographed a 2015 work called Frame of Mind to music from Dressner’s album Aheym recorded by the Kronos Quartet.
Dessner happened to be in Sydney when the company were re-rehearsing Frame of Mind prior to a performance in Santiago in 2018. He came to rehearsals and loved what he saw but asked Bonachela why the music wasn’t being performed live. And so in October 2018, SDC performed Frame of Mind in Sydney with the Australian String Quartet.
From there, Bonachela, Dessner and the ASQ discussed a new collaboration as a result of which SDC and ASQ co-commissioned the composer to write a new score. The fire that tore through Notre Dame Cathedral in 2019 became the inspiration for Dessner to explore impermanence, destruction, transience and fragility in his composition – themes that Bonachela also related to.
The cataclysmic bushfires in Australia at the end of 2019 and the beginning of 2020 fed further into that idea. Then the coronavirus pandemic showed the world how mutable and impermanent life can be.
During the time that SDC was away from the stage because of COVID, Impermanence was developed from a 40-minute to a 60-minute work, with Dessner’s eight-movement score expanding to 12 movements.
Emily Seymour and Jacopo Grabar. Photograph © Pedro Greig
Impermanence is staged on an open, abstract set designed by David Fleischer, with the ASQ seated on stage in the top right corner. A huge wall at the back of the stage is slowly raised during the course of the performance allowing in various shades of bright light that colour the stage – including vibrant purple and red-orange, which summon the idea of fierce fires – while a big blue panel sparkles with falling, glittering, golden rain. Lighting designer Damien Cooper also plays with haunting shadows, with the production beginning in half-light. As the colour breaks through, the dancers are often silhouetted.
Aleisa Jelbart’s costumes are simple but lovely – tight shorts with differently designed tops in a range of soft, muted, earthy hues. They allow us to see every muscular movement from the dancers, while introducing an additional element of vulnerability and humanity.
Impermanence begins in riveting fashion. The company of dancers appear on stage, walking from one side to the other in patterned, canonical movements. Occasionally one falls as if thrown forwards by something invisible, then another runs from the stage. It’s mesmerising, even meditative to watch.
From there, a series of fleeting solos lead to duets, trios and group pieces. At times the dancers unite in a large group ensemble, which swells into a quick blast of unison before dissipating.
The choreography is driven by Dessner’s visceral score. The mood of the production changes across the 12 movements from ferocity to lyricism, from intense, frenetic energy to poignant melancholy.
Raw, pulsing chords culminate in staccato notes that stab like shards of sound; rapid bowing gives way to music that quivers, ripples and slides around notes; deep cello tones contrast with high-flying violin; minimalist repetition becomes hypnotically seductive; references to the Baroque, country music and Klezmer glint and gleam.
It’s a stunning score that will repay repeated listening, and at times you couldn’t help watching the musicians: Dale Barltrop and Francesca Hiew on violin, Michael Dahlenburg on cello, and Christopher Cartlidge as a guest violist, appearing courtesy of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra.
Members of Sydney Dance Company in Impermanence. Photograph © Pedro Greig
Bonachela’s choreography meets and matches the music, and has a pristine beauty. Arms whip from behind in unusual turns, powerful floor work conveys emotional desolation, striking duets often include the dancers supporting and pulling each other up, while a slow motion section near the end feels as if time has stood still. Juliette Barton and Davide Di Giovanni excel in a poignant duet, and Barton performs a sensational solo in which each section of her body seems to slowly fall. Jesse Scales has such presence it’s as if they are a magnet, constantly drawing your eye. But the dancing is superb across the board.
The production ends with a final, elegiac solo by Liam Green, that aches with emotion, as the score concludes with Dessner’s string quartet arrangement of Anohni’s beautiful song Another World. All the emotion that has gathered across the production culminates with this deeply moving song and your heart heaves.
It’s fantastic to have Sydney Dance Company back on the boards and Impermanence is a stunning way to return.
Impermanence plays at the Roslyn Packer theatre until 27 February. Sydney Dance Company’s new single Emergency by Bryce Dessner, featuring the Australian String Quartet, is now available to stream while the full-length album Impermanence/Disintegration will be available from 2 April