Dance / The Berkshire Review in Australia

Rafael Bonachela and the Sydney Dance Company in a New Work Called “2 One Another”

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Chen Wen of the Sydney Dance Company in Rafael Bonachela's "2 One Another". Photo by Ken Butti.
Chen Wen of the Sydney Dance Company in Rafael Bonachela's "2 One Another". Photo by Ken Butti.

2 One Another
Sydney Theatre, Walsh Bay: 13 March 2012
continues in Sydney until 31 March

The Sydney Dance Company
Choreographer – Rafael Bonachela
Production Design – Tony Assness
Lighting Design – Benjamin Cisterne
Music – Nick Wales, with existing music by Murcof, Monteverdi, Hidur Gudnadottir, Giovanni Bassano, Pēteris Vasks
Text – Samuel Webster

The Sydney Dance Company’s artistic director and chief choreographer Rafael Bonachela has assembled a large group of collaborators to create this new contemporary or interpretive (as you please to call it) dance piece called 2 One Another. Combining words, music of widely varying genres and styles, (contemporary visual) art and movement, it would seem to aim at a kind of reaching Gesamtkunstwerk, or perhaps a less grand loose collaboration.

Bonachela’s new creation begins with calm, silent (without even music) gesturing from the whole company gathered on stage. The gestures seem as organized and complex as a sign language but are not really comprehensible except for a gist, at least not until later, a bit like when a (wild) parrot lands on your balcony railing and starts chattering to you, very slightly reproachful when you don’t give the proper response in the same language. For the first half, the dancers wear plain gray body stockings of varying length with vivid lime green zippers up the back (see photo), almost as if they were wind up toys or soft animals with music boxes. The scene gives way to a more frenetic one with unsettled, fraught music, more electronic sounds, sometimes recalling a jackhammer, or thunder, or like some science fictional machine. Even where the music sounds a bit video gamish and repetitive, the choreography manages to retain its humanity, though the movements can be combative — the high sudden kicks give a little jolt of comic bookishness and though this movement is used too often so its effect is diluted, the dancing manages to veer away from falling into any such mundane tendency. In fact, the piece has much more to it generally than these stylized fights, as alarming and sensational as they are. The movements are rarely naturalistic, only in brief lingering gestures or flashes — a reach towards the other partner, a quarter roll prostrate on the floor, a weightier dropping movement of despair or just release or what have you, or letting the other partner, both man and woman at different times, provide all of the support. The photos here give a very good feel of the work, though it is not so posed as they might lead one to think; theses “poses” are fleeting. Where there is a clichéd gesture — an unsubtle one-shoulder shrug, a splayed crouch, one of those exaggerated martial arts-style high kicks — it is very brief and there is so much going on at once in the multiple groups of dancers so often on the stage, each has their own steps and movements in the detailed and intricate choreography.

The Sydney Dance Company in Rafael Bonachela's "2 One Another". Photo by Ken Butti.
The Sydney Dance Company in Rafael Bonachela's "2 One Another". Photo by Ken Butti.

There are one or two awkward transitions as the music moves from purely electronic to recorded madrigals to mixtures of distorted found sounds, to electrified strings back to the early Baroque, at times feeling like eclecticism for its own sake, and in the choreography inevitably some dancers end up mundanely walking across to their new starting positions for the next section. As a whole, though, the dancing flows along, with a certain organic and natural inevitability which makes it very absorbing and moving. The piece is not short, nor too long, but has a leisurely pace in general, akin to the best long operas, The Ring in particular, which is partly what makes it so absorbing. I’ve never seen an audience in a concert or play or opera so rapt, hardly stirring, with hardly a rustle for an hour, which is higher praise than the loudest applause and no less, and very possibly more, noticeable praise to the dancers. At the end, I felt it could have gone on longer, there was a strong feeling of being parted from the dance when it ended.

For the madrigal, a recording of Monteverdi’s Lamenta della Ninfa, Bonachela composed a kind of pas de deux, not of course ballet, but a man and a woman dancing with deeply felt intimacy, with beauty and lyricism, and subtle expressions of something more poignant, dancing together with a close, supporting partnership, often intricate. The movements, slower than in the earlier sections and soft but strong, with long, generous extensions of the limbs — Bonachela always uses the full range of human movement generously and expressively — are very fluent, with movement, gesture and position blending together seamlessly for the purpose. The choreography and the very concentrated and understanding execution of the dancers is very articulate, but somehow Bonachela seems to want to put more into the choreography than the music can take, which isn’t necessarily always a negative thing. Partly this is due to the fact the music is recorded and played through the theatre sound system and so is lacking in detail and immediacy, and missing some of its nuance, but at times the rushed high kicks at the apex of the melodic line seemed a throwaway, less inventive and convincing than many of the other movements in the piece. There is another section with a 16th century piece by Giovanni Bassano (I believe) for viola da gamba and organ performed by Paolo Pandolfo which sees sequence of soloists come on in turn, in form not unlike an echo of the divertissements of a late 19th century ballet. All were particularly beautiful and gave a very fitting modulations to the piece’s mood. The second was particularly beautiful, with distant echos of ballet movements, but very deeply felt and quite nuanced, as much so as the “pas de deux” earlier. Another of the solos has a very surprising, inventive dance with a man, arms akimbo in strange movements, seemingly foreign to the rest of the piece but not wholly incongruous.

The Sydney Dance Company in Rafael Bonachela's "2 One Another". Photo by Ken Butti.
The Sydney Dance Company in Rafael Bonachela's "2 One Another". Photo by Ken Butti.

Towards the end, another partnered dance sees color suddenly pour in in the form of radiant crimson costumes which hug the legs and shoulders, shortly hemmed and sleeveless, but falling in folds over the torso. Tony Assness’ costumes are very practical for dance, naturally suited to the movements in a way street clothes rarely are in this genre of dance, the folds let out as the dancer stretches out or bends, and Bonachela does use the full range of movement but never in a self-conscious acrobatic way. The rest appear in the same costume to come back together, they all drop ‘dead’ on the floor in formation, each in a cross , with ballet-corpse crossed feet for good measure, but seem to work something out for the very poignant denouement.

The music was variable, not always having the unpretentious depth and subtlety of the choreography. Often with simple harmonies and emotions and reserved color it formed more of a very basic beige backdrop, almost like space filler. It could be quite loud (never ear-splittingly so) but, miraculously perhaps, never really oppressed or dominated the dancing, but the more frantic pieces of music did distract. The choreography was too resilient to be burdened by it. There were odd snatches of recorded spoken words in the music which ostensibly constitute a poem, but they were embarrassingly bad and pretentious, and egotistical in the way they seemed to describe one person’s reaction to and interpretation of the dance, which only serves to disrupt one’s own interpretation by snapping one out of the dance. Thankfully these words were few and far between and the choreography managed to shed their concreteness. I had forgotten all about them until I started reading the program, which being more words, often incomprehensible, I try never to read before dances like this. Words cannot describe fully or add anything to this art that isn’t already there, but then the dance will have so much more to it if it is good choreography, as it is here. The whole appeal is that theatre, dance and music are more mysterious than words.

Natalie Allen and Andrew Crawford of the Sydney Dance Company in Rafael Bonachela's "2 One Another". Photo by Ken Butti.
Natalie Allen and Andrew Crawford of the Sydney Dance Company in Rafael Bonachela's "2 One Another". Photo by Ken Butti.

The lighting design by Benjamin Cisterne worked very well. Generally a warmish raking light filled the stage brought out shadows and texture on the dancers while leaving their forms and outlines distinct enough to be able to appreciate their ability and nuance in the dancing, complementing very nicely and unobtrusively the choreography. Occasionally there was a brighter white light which filled the stage like a lighting flash and brought out each individual dancer in a pedantic, clinical way, like bad video and tended to trivialize and make small their movements, though seemed to be used for effect. The lighting also cleverly made the stage itself seem to glow from within, and sparing use of a bright clear crimson light was very effective. The backdrop of the stage, designed by Tony Assness, had a grid of thousands of closely spaced small bright lights with a gauzy curtain in front of them. They could be very beautiful or seem very utilitarian in a way which suited the attitude of the piece at the time, somehow miraculously never distracting from the dancing by their brightness or animation. There could be a starlike spread of scattered pricks suggesting an infinite receding background, or patterns — lines, slashes, or a full orb of light fading to the wings.

Dance as a theatrical art, whether ballet or contemporary, interpretive dance, is of course a shared art form, and ideally the music is as important as the dancing, and it is wonderful when the two seem to stem from the same source inspiration. It is strange then to see a work where the music generally lags so far behind the choreography, as if the choreographer were wishfully seeking out depth and subtlety in the music which isn’t there, or as if the choreography never got the score it needed and deserved. If Rafael Bonachela had sought more consistent music, the piece could have been a truly great, integrated piece of theatre. It will be very interesting to see what he does with Rameau later this year when he collaborates with the Australian Chamber Orchestra. It is still successful though, not just at a ‘visual level,’ but it also carries one along and almost convinces that there is something more in the music, as if the visual cue leaks over into one’s more deprived ear. Though not a successful experiment in an ultimate Gesamkunstwerk with words, music, dancing and art, it still works very well and very satisfyingly as a piece of interpretive dance with beauty and humanity, with the darker unsettling side of experience.

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