Stunning night of music and dance from company at top of its game.

Sydney Theatre
October 8, 2014

Louder Than Words is the latest ambitious double bill from Sydney Dance Company and last night’s opening revealed an ensemble at the very top of their game. Pairing the work of two dance makers, SDC’s Artistic Director Rafael Bonachela and Greek choreographer Andonis Foniadakis, the program is a heady mix of high-octane dance, savvy LX and, in at least one case, genuinely thrilling music.

Bonachela’s Scattered Rhymes forms the first part of the diptych, taking its name from British composer Tarik O’Regan’s 2006 multi-faceted choral work of the same name. The original counterpoints poems by the Florentine author Petrach and an anonymous 14th-century English writer that explore the dichotomy between sensual and divine love. Add a complex, fragmentary score that borrows from Guillaume de Machaut’s harmonically pungent Messe de Notre Dame, but is at all times uniquely O’Regan, and you have one of the finest choral works to have emerged in the last ten years.

It’s a brave man who tackles as rhythmically sophisticated and as texturally dense a work as this in a dance piece, but Rafael Bonachela has never shied away from a musical challenge. Here, he proves himself capable of pretty much anything, in possibly the finest piece of work I’ve seen from him to date. O’Regan and Australian composer Nick Wales have worked a minor miracle by seamlessly fusing the a cappella original with new electronic music that frames, offsets and enhances to create something that they call Dance Score. Bonachela then uses the darker textures of the electronics to show the contrast between the full company’s idealistic exploration of ‘love’ with the gloomier desperation that represents its counterpart as danced in a series of impassioned duets – girl/girl, boy/girl and boy/boy.

With its suspended lightshade-like objects resembling notes on a medieval manuscript, Ben Cisterne’s magical canvas set possesses the purity of line of a Piero Della Francesca and provides the perfect frame for Bonachela’s remarkable dancers to play out every aspect of love. Costumed in burgundy tunics, there’s a flavour of Renaissance warriors exercising in some Middle Ages tilting ground. I frequently found myself writing phrases like: “this is so beautiful” – and it is, again and again.

Dancers whirl and swirl, pause, form pairs, then groups, and finally present full-ensemble work that is as tight as it is impressive in its ability to capture the essence of the music. There’s a gestural quality – at times almost like sign language – but it never gets in the way of Bonachela’s overriding aim of expressing love, and in particular its sensual aspect in a series of encounters that throb with sexual tension. That sexual quality – often a feature of his recent work – constitutes a perfect marriage of movement and music, for in its new form, O’Regan’s and Wales’ amplified score is surprisingly erotic. Cisterne’s dazzling lighting design is the icing on the cake.

Scattered Rhymes is a hard act to follow, and if Andonis Foniadakis’s Parenthesis doesn’t quite match the highs of the first half it has a bloody good try. This is the Greek choreographer’s first work to be made in Australia and he’s clearly a talent to watch. Located in Cisterne’s black box set with evocative strips of fabric blowing in the force of a series of wind-machines and a pall of mist high up, it resembles a jungle clearing with a hint of tropical storm. The dancers are costumed in Greek-style tunics that, while chic, smack a little of Xena, Queen of the Jungle.

Stylistically Foniadakis’s language is similar to Bonachela’s – one reason why this double bill succeeds so well – with a focus on high-energy, whirling figures and a palpable sexual charge throughout. The work conveys a series of social interactions, and with its jungle setting it feels at times a bit like an abstracted reality TV show – hormonally charged boys and girls trapped together, acting out their passions under the intrusive eyes of a full house. A more classical reference would be the orgy at the end of Daphnis et Chloë stretched to breaking point.

The work is as physically demanding as Scattered Rhymes and SDC’s 16 dancers rise to the challenge superbly. The energy level was unremitting with challenging and impressive aerial sequences, yet there was plenty of room for some intimate one-on-one choreography.

Foniadakis’s work is never less than compelling, but occasionally you are left wishing it was either more or less abstracted – the setting suggests a definite scenario, yet somehow that level of clarity is forever denied in the dance. Julien Tarride’s “psychoacoustic” score serves its purpose though it feels too patchwork – derivative rather than original – and it lacks the charm or sophistication of O’Regan and Wales. Yet again, though, you are left marvelling at the timing of dancers able to execute Foniadakis’s demanding ensemble sequences against the dynamic wash of sound with pinpoint accuracy and timing.

Louder Than Words has a relatively short run in Sydney. Blink and you’ll miss it. My advice? Don’t blink – this is seriously great work from a seriously great company.

Louder Than Words is at Sydney Theatre until October 18.