Sydney Dance Company makes a triumphant return to Perth with Impermanence but the theme is lost in translation, writes Nina Levy.
Impermanence, Sydney Dance Company ·
State Theatre Centre of WA, 10 August 2022·
Before the pandemic I’d become almost blasé about seeing Sydney Dance Company (SDC).
Between the company’s tours through Perth and my own family and work-related visits to Sydney, I’d had about a decade of catching SDC on stage relatively regularly. I still found the dancers exceptional, but I also viewed them with a sense of comfortable familiarity.
Four years later, I feel anything but blasé as I wait for the curtain to rise on Impermanence, the company’s first performance in Perth since 2018. And as the performance begins the only familiarity is a shock of recognition.
Damn those dancers are good. I’d forgotten how good. Lithe, fluid and always perfectly in control.
They’re so good that it’s only about two-thirds of the way in that I remember there’s a theme to the work they’re performing. Created by SDC Artistic Director Rafael Bonachela to a new score by Bryce Dessner (of US band The National, no less), Impermanence is about “transcience and the fragility of existence”.
Originally intended to be a shorter piece inspired by both the 2019 Australian bushfires and the Notre Dame fire of the same year, Bonachela and Dessner expanded the work to full-length after the premiere had to be postponed in 2020. The changes wrought by the pandemic, says Bonachela, add poignancy to the theme … that theme that I forgot about for much of the work.
Performed live by the Australian String Quartet, Dessner’s score is certainly infused with a sense of anxiety; some sections a harried tumble of notes, some quiet calls of warning, of mourning. Some are punctuated with percussion; the breadth of sound produced by the four accomplished string musicians is astonishing.
The choreography is inextricably linked to the music; fast-paced phrases of intricate gestural movement create a rhythmic beat, as though the dancers are part of the score. Legs extend skyward as strings slide. Damien Cooper’s gorgeous lighting is also tightly choreographed with both dance and music; in amongst luminous washes of dusk and dawn hues, strobes of darkness accentuate moments of audio and visual shock.
It’s all very beautiful, as we have come to expect from SDC under Bonachela. The opening section is particularly compelling; as the 16 dancers pace the stage, unseen and unpredictable forces strike. One dancer buckles and folds, the effect ripples outward, creating canons of movement, unexpected duets and more, as dancers are pulled in and out of unison.
A striking series of solos follows. Though each performer is excellent, the first, Dean Elliott, is a standout, arching, spinning and lunging, fast and furious. The loose and juicy Jesse Scales is another outstanding performer; as is Chloe Leong, in a solo of writhing sadness; and the powerful and charismatic Emily Seymour also catches the eye.
The work continues, jam-packed with demanding sequences performed in duets, trios, quartets and larger ensembles, a whirling vortex of bodies extending at unnatural yet strangely beautiful angles.
And though I’m not taking anything for granted, I know that I’ve seen this before. This is classic Bonachela, abstract and glorious. But here I am, more than halfway through the work, and I’ve forgotten all about bushfires and pandemics, and the feelings of uncertainty these events have provoked.
Perhaps this is the nature of the choreography. The dancers perform with absolute commitment, but the movement vocabulary demands a kind of restraint. There’s no room to let anything hang out, physically or emotionally. Even when extreme feeling is expressed, it’s stylised; stretched mouths mime a silent scream.
It leaves me feeling like we’ve just scraped the surface of what it means to exist in this uncertain world, what it means to be human.
The ecstatic opening night audience had no complaints, however. And I can see why – Impermanence is mesmerising, a blend of eloquent chamber music, transformative lighting and, of course, transfixing performances from some of Australia’s most accomplished and athletic dancers.
I just wanted something more than what was on offer.
Pictured top: The choreography is inextricably linked to the music, performed by the Australian String Quartet. Photo: Pedro Greig
Like what you're reading? Support Seesaw.