Dance / The Berkshire Review in Australia

Dancers Go ‘A-Fugeing’: The Sydney Dance Company With the Australian Chamber Orchestra (Amplified!) in ‘Project Rameau‘

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Attributed to Jacques André Joseph Aved. Jean-Philippe Rameau (Dijon 1683- Paris 1764). Musée des Beaux-Arts, Dijon.
Attributed to Jacques André Joseph Aved. Jean-Philippe Rameau (Dijon 1683- Paris 1764). Musée des Beaux-Arts, Dijon.

Project Rameau
Sydney Theatre, Wash Bay: 29 October 2012
until 3 November

Sydney Dance Company
Rafael Bonachela – artistic director and choreographer

Australian Chamber Orchestra
Richard Tognetti – artistic director and first violin

Music – Jean-Philippe Rameau, Antonio Vivaldi, J. S. Bach, arranged by Graham Sadler, Vi King Lim, Jennifer Powell
Lighting and set designs – Benjamin Cisterne
Costumes design – Rafael Bonachela and Fiona Holley
Dance director – Amy Hollingsworth


If the fugue is the highest form of counterpoint it’s because it is truly an art. No one would deny that fugues do not write themselves, yet they are based on simple, sincere imitation, the first, most obvious ingredient one hears, yet the freedom of the voices is the fugue’s sina qua non. Different voices “speak” their individual melodies, and miraculously the result is not only coherent but harmonious too, and, at least under the masters, such harmonies! From one point of view the fugue is the highest composer’s art, even over-specified, yet it is a form-texture deriving from the performer’s highest art, improvisation, the fantasy. The fugue is in a way the quintessence of music, taking something which initially seems rigid and rule-bound, well, at least over-obedient, and sheds those rules completely to become free and creative, the fundamentally horizontal linear elements become nonlinear, sounding just as sensible vertically; sound, a dumb mathematical, physical process obeying laws of time and space, is refined into an art which can speak directly to something deep inside a warm human being. So the fugue, even as theoreticians have for centuries tried to define it and the rules of its creation (without much success), culminating in Jean-Philippe Rameau’s Traité d’harmonie (1722), at the end of which he discusses fugues and how they are written, finally saying they cannot be reduced to general rules, except “le bon goût ou la fantasie.” J. S. Bach in turn put it most aptly of all… in his music.

Louis Carrogis, called Carmontelle. "Mr Rameau' 1760. Musée Condé, Chantilly.
Louis Carrogis, called Carmontelle. “Mr Rameau’ 1760. Musée Condé, Chantilly.

Perhaps it is not coincidental that ballet as its own art form, as we know it, with its rules and technique and its schools, matured, though still very young — arguably younger in 1720 than modern dance is today — around the same time Rameau wrote his opera-ballets and his Treatise which is so basic to classical harmony. Rameau of course stood on the large shoulders of Jean Baptiste Lully whom he succeeded, but it was only towards the end of Lully’s career that Louis XIV founded the Académie de la Musique (1661) and after Lully’s life that the King gave ballet its École de Danse (1713). Ballet was mature enough, at least, in the first half of the 18th century to influence directly the contemporary masters of the more established visual arts. Richard Tognetti is right when he writes (in the program): “Any music written for dance, when played on its own, is only one part of the whole. For instance when the ACO plays Stravinsky’s Apollo, it may seem as if something could be missing, but once Balanchine’s choreography fills its space, the true genius of Stravinsky is unleashed — similarly so for Rameau.” In fact dancers have proved that music need not be dance music, that is written for dance, to be danceable, and defining “danceable” is much more complicated than describing “appropriate” meters and tempos, even if meter and tempo are part of it, but, like the fugue, the concept of dance music defies the imposition of general rules. Rather something mysterious to do with melody and harmony, perhaps, a certain sense of space, which speaks directly to the body as well as the soul, a hole or space where a choreographer can fit something which doesn’t detract from the music by over-specifying it or materializing its meaning, and perhaps even sharing a common creative need. But that hole or space need not be something missing from the music, it is more complicated. As Nature invents niches for its infinite variety, a choreographer can create a niche for their art in music which is completely satisfying on its own in concert, or the music on its own can imply in the listener’s mind imagery, or just a feeling of space and movement. A dancer meets a piece of music and a creative spark is somehow struck from that meeting. Indeed sound, and so music, does not exist without movement. At the same time the life of a dancer or choreographer is very different from a composer’s or musician’s, and the two art forms, though maybe the two which are closest of all the separate art forms, are not parallel activities, or necessarily even two sides of the same coin. Maybe they are two sides of the same noumenon.

Rafael Bonachela proposes the exciting idea of taking Rameau’s music, perhaps one of the most danceable composers of all, performed by one of the finest orchestras in the area, which takes Baroque music as a speciality, the Australian Chamber Orchestra, which I have always enjoyed in the past when I’ve heard them in concert (and if I haven’t yet reviewed them it is because of either my own disorganization or circumstances outside my control, in any case no doubt my own loss) and choreographing something entirely new. His approach, as he writes in the program is this:

To create the movement I devised specific tasks that asked the Dancers to respond to a particular piece of music and create movement phrases for segmented body parts, an arm movement or a leg phrase. I then joined them together, replicated, mirrored and reversed them creating a whole, which like the music, moves between the solo and the duet through to the group in detailed extrapolations of an idea. In this way movement phrases are layered and built on, becoming the binding element that brought together the music pieces of the score. For me this technique became a physical embodiment of some of the aesthetic principles of the Baroque period.

If Dr. Frankenstein’s monster is implied here, it is unfair, because the dance has none of that sense or ugliness, but dance jargon aside, it could be an interesting idea, at the least, if he means to dance a kind of fugue, to combine and transcend the dichotomy between individual and collective movements or like ballet to create something expressive and sublime from a highly precise technique and training.

Sydney Dance Company and Australian Chamber Orchestra in Project Rameau. Photo by Wendell Teodoro.
Sydney Dance Company and Australian Chamber Orchestra in Project Rameau. Photo by Wendell Teodoro.

The actual piece comes close to this at times, but is somewhat different in practice, perhaps at times in fact overburdened by the dryness implied in Bonachela’s description of his premise at least in the large group scenes. It begins with a smaller group within a larger still crowd, small individual movements of the fingers, hands and arms, making rather squared-off shapes in the first sections of the piece, though suddenly there will be gestures, familiar-but-hard-to-place ones which briefly appear, but then larger movements with the legs — from intertwining and interacting partner-wise, bodies now displace. Short patterns of movement are repeated, especially in the larger group dances. They dance in front of the orchestra which is raised on a platform, and wear light black mesh shirts or singlets or short pants in a more patterned mesh which looks like lace from a distance, over black underwear. The lighting is either bright or very low and comes on and off suddenly, a screen behind the orchestra lights up sometimes blue, sometimes red, sometimes dark and gray, with a strip of light above the stage, and colored lights from under the orchestra. One comes to expect from Bonachela an articulate choreography, intuitively capable of lyricism, for me at least, stronger on the lyricism than on the other qualities, and more importantly a freshness to his choreography. It’s not that these fine qualities are absent here, but the choreography and moreover the mood of the group dances do become somewhat repetitive and the choreography didn’t take advantage of its own strengths enough. Imitation can be a very effective device in dance, giving maybe a sense of communication, of closeness, in a group of dancers which otherwise cannot touch, like in music, as a gesture exchanged between two individual dancers, but I generalize. The larger groups, which nearly always filled the stage, had some interesting, occasionally detailed, responses to the music, and always generated spectacle, but was there more to it than that? Did it like a fugue lose any sense underlying rules, underlying dryness, and become more than the sum of its parts? Not always, occasionally though where individual movements seemed more like an honest personal response to something the dancer heard in the music and not just an imitation of the music, where it was creative, but more often than not in these groups there was little sense of freedom, the dancers more rule-bound, bound by the very full choreography. It was not the dancers who were lacking, they danced the incredibly complicated steps and movements perfectly, some with virtuosity (Juliette Barton in particular always makes it look easy), and perhaps they will become more relaxed in their “roles” as the run goes on, but the choreography doesn’t leave a reasonable space for the performer to express themself as they do best, the movement is constant, layered, the choreography too often says what it needs to say and more without economy and so shouts over its own tendency to articulate.

Sydney Dance Company and Australian Chamber Orchestra in Project Rameau. Photo by Wendell Teodoro.
Sydney Dance Company and Australian Chamber Orchestra in Project Rameau. Photo by Wendell Teodoro.

Not helping, apropos articulacy, was the fact that the orchestra was amplified. It may be the musical equivalent to doping, but unlike in sport, it is never secret in music. In this case it was heavy — but there is no such thing as “light” amplification —, not just a microphone on a flute or a singer — which would be bad enough — but microphones all over the orchestra, distorting not only the sound but the sound stage, a solo violin sounding as if it were coming from all directions except where the musician actually was, heavy on the bass, blaring flutes, destroying any nuance in the music with artificiality. So I cannot review the performance of the music, which is disappointing because I would have liked to write about the music, having, as I said before, always enjoyed the ACO when I’ve heard them, their reputation for precise detailed performances, and Rameau, who is all in the detail and light ornaments. In the smallish theatre with an orchestra of six violins, two violas, two cellos and a bass, two each of flutes, oboes, bassoons, horns, trumpets, a theorbo or guitar continuo, and percussion, which (albeit with a few more reinforcements) usually plays in the much larger City Recital Hall, playing on modern (or modernized), steel strung instruments (I presume) with modern tin flutes, amplification shouldn’t have been necessary. The music for the recent performance of Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s En Atendant at the Carriageworks, a larger, deeper theatre, had a trio of medieval instruments and soprano, and the music had fine presence even where I sat in the back, without amplification. Whatever reason for this choice, it ruined the whole piece, whose raison d’être seemed to be intricacy and humanity. It is ironic considering Project Rameau has been hyped as the first collaboration between the fine music of the ACO and the Sydney Dance Company, the main serious, professional, modern dance company for the city, a collaboration which should have given, as a premise, and maybe even would have given, even with the (much smaller) flaws in the choreography, an excellent all-round piece of theatre. But I can’t speculate on would-have-beens.

The music itself is made up from brief instrumental excerpts from dances, preludes and interludes from several of Rameau’s operas, with three interludes with excerpts from Vivaldi concerti (Summer amplified!) and J. S. Bach (a Richard Tognetti solo, playing from the Partita No. 1, what a loss amplified!). The purpose of the mixture is to hide away the intrinsic sense of plot which one would hear in a longer excerpt from a single opera and so allow a plotless, interpretive dance which can progress at its own dramatic gait scene-wise. It certainly may have been successful in this way, and might work very well as a score but for the amplification, which is bludgeoning in some sections, and the alternating fast and slow movements played out speakers gave the sense of alternating fast and slow songs in a rock concert, and overall seems to insult the audience’s attention span — which normally for the Sydney Dance Company is quite long.

Natalie Allen and Richard Cilli in Project Rameau. Photo by Peter Grieg.
Natalie Allen and Richard Cilli in Project Rameau. Photo by Peter Grieg.

The dancing at its best could be witty, one imitative duet of a man and a woman becomes naturally a sort of paddy-cake-in-the-air, very endearing, but less witty, and not what Rameau would call “bon goût” was the dancers turning to shake their bottoms on a trill in the music, of course it’s meant to be bad taste, and it did generate a few titters the first time, but really it’s just puerile. Another duet was lyrical even in its slow intricate complexity, not easy to pull off, but the choreography had beauty and gave room for the dancers to express something of their own. More syrupy was the duet of two men who meet and dance, closing and separating, to have one end up walking off cooly as the other looks after him blandly, and this scene for being such an obvious real situation, seemed out of place in the context. Dance, being made out of human bodies, is never truly abstract, no matter how hard people try, but Bonachela’s plotless, purposefully nonrealistic piece of theatre worked best when the scenes were nonrealistic and gave a sense of shifting scenery, rather than a spectacle of divertissements, sometimes it even gave a pattern of people as if from the Commedia dell’Arte, without any specific quotation or concrete scene or character. It was best when it avoided direct imitation and rather met the arc of the music’s phrasing in an articulate way, though this was near impossible with the amplification, there were instances the it came close. Where the choreography did try to imitate directly the sounds in the music it seemed repetitive. A memorable duet which turned into a large group scene had very difficult partnering, fast intricacy, but the supporting partner (a man in this case) moved with impressive smoothness and artistry while remaining a steadfast support, so his partner (a woman in this case) danced with such abandon she lost the usual modern dance poker face (this happened to many dancers in the work, so at the least it was fun to dance) and grinned honestly! For this duet it was fun to dance and fun to look at too — much less fun to listen to though. Exoticism comes into it with Rameau’s style of eastern exotic melody, with solo dances to match in a manner which was not obvious, more in line with the rubbery arms of the beginning of the piece, still very much Bonachela’s style, and now using pirouettes. The odd ballet step does come in, a quick, sharp entrechat-quatre or pirouette, a flowing arabesque here or there, but little of ballet’s stillness. There were also in the large group scenes an occasional vague ballroom or courtly social dance quotation. The different styles sometimes integrate, but sometimes don’t sit well, visually undigestible, in postmodern style.

Jessica Thompson and Chen Wen in Project Rameau. Photo by Wendell Teodoro.
Jessica Thompson and Chen Wen in Project Rameau. Photo by Wendell Teodoro.

Contemporary dance sometimes has the look of a late style, modern dance will after all celebrate or at least have its 100th birthday next year — and there was, music aside, a feeling of rococo about Project Rameau’s style, sometimes in a positive way, more often in a merely thin spectacular way, but Baroque ornamentation, in music or in visual arts, is meant to be light. Project Rameau, for better or for worse, has very much a Sydney style — shiny, unselfconscious, maybe a little hint of unpolished brashness (not obnoxious, though), more style than substance, but not necessarily apologetically so, sensualist, cheerful, sometimes relentlessly so, rarely elegant — right down to the black underpants. But I have seen Sydney be more generous with its substance, in its nature in particular — the platypus or eastern rosella are rococo at its best —, but sometimes in its artistic endeavors too.

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