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Moody magic

Review: Sydney Dance Company, ab [intra] ·
His Majesty’s Theatre, 28 June ·
Review by Nina Levy ·

In 1998 I saw Sydney Dance Company (SDC) performing Graeme Murphy’s Free Radicals at His Majesty’s Theatre. It was the first time I had seen the company live and I was thrilled by the athleticism and artistry of the dancers, as well as the whimsical nature of the choreography. Twenty years later I’ve seen SDC perform more times than I can recall off-hand, and the company under Rafael Bonachela presents very different work to Murphy’s… but, watching SDC, I still get that same kick of excitement I first experienced in 1998, that comes with watching dancers at the very top of the profession.

Directed and choreographed by Bonachela (he informally credits the dancers as collaborators), ab [intra] carries many of his trademarks. While the various solos, duos, trios and ensemble sections that make up this work are performed with emotions that range from tenderness to aggression, ab [intra] is an abstract work. Described by Bonachela as an “exploration of our primal instincts, our impulses and our visceral responses” ab [intra] is performed to a richly sonorous soundscape of strings blended with electronica, by Bonachela’s long-term collaborator Nick Wales, with additional music from Klātbūtne (Presence) by Latvian composer Pēteris Vasks.

And it wouldn’t be a Bonachela work if there wasn’t a generous serving of skin on display. Whilst costume designer David Fleischer includes some “street” clothing – a bomber jacket here, an unbuttoned shirt there, black dress pants for the final scenes – these are worn with briefs and crop tops in nudes or neutrals. The look is slick, understated and undeniably sexy.

So far, so aesthetically pleasing… but the icing on the creative cake that is ab [intra] is Damien Cooper’s lighting. Colours range from the luminous purple of twilight to iridescent lime; the wings (if there are any) are obscured by haze, so that the dancers appear to materialise on stage and dematerialise off. When a simple bar of tiny white globes is variously raised and lowered the vertical space expands and contracts in response.

Perfectly counterbalanced: Janessa Dufty and Izzac Carroll. Photo: Pedro Greig.

And then, of course, there are the SDC dancers, a team of superhumans who traverse the stage with panther-like grace. In particular Janessa Dufty and Izzac Carroll’s early duo is a highlight. They’re an unlikely couple – she the SDC veteran, he a relative newcomer; their heights totally mismatched. And yet their duet of twists and rolls, drops and releases feels so perfectly counterbalanced that it almost came as a shock when, separated, we saw how he towered over her.

Davide Di Giovanni manipulates Charmene Yap with apparent ease. Photo: Pedro Greig.

Charmene Yap and Davide Di Giovanni’s partnering is another treat. Against music that, at times, could have been a (very) contemporary reimagining of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake Act II pas de deux, this duet slices and dices the space, Di Giovanni manipulating the lithe Yap through intricate lifts with apparent ease. Nelson Earl’s first solo also stands out with its moments of sudden, gravity-defying buoyancy.

But the ensemble moments also bring pleasure. Towards the end we see the full cast perform a phrase of movement that sees their torsos dive and recover, arms outstretched. Such moments of unison punctuate complex arrangements in a way that is deeply satisfying. Another pleasing moment is composed of two quintets, performing the same interweaving phrases but facing different ways. The effect is kaleidoscopic as moments of symmetry arise and dissolve.

As is often the case with non-narrative works that spill over the hour mark, I felt that ab [intra], at around 70 minutes, was about 15 minutes too long. Nonetheless, there’s something magical about this work, something sombre and eerie, that made it compelling viewing.

Highly recommended.

ab [intra] plays His Majesty’s Theatre until June 30 and is continuing its national tour until September 1.

Pictured top is the gravity-defying Nelson Earl. Photo: Pedro Greig.

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