Dance review: Sydney Dance Company knows spectacle

The Australian dance company puts on a really big show that KNOWS it's a really big show

Wednesday night’s performance of “2 One Another” by the Sydney Dance Company was probably one of the most spectacular live performances to visit Portland this year. I mean spectacular literally, not as an overall superlative, so I don’t mean to say that it’s the best performance that’s come through. It’s a show that is significantly composed of spectacle, and it knows it.

The second of three Australian dance companies visiting Portland during White Bird’s current season, SDC is also the second company to feature lighting design by Benjamin Cisterne. His name keeps showing up on performances with complex and often kinetic set design or propwork that performs with the dancers, rather than simply supporting them or providing a fancy backdrop. His CV includes Lucy Guerin’s show last week with its playful blizzard of white plastic bags, and the remarkable “Connected” by Chunky Move last year. (I’m looking forward to the third company to visit from down-under, BalletLab. As ArtsWatch editor Barry Johnson said, “Those Aussies can dance”.)

Charmene Yap in Sydney Dance Company's '2 One Another'/Wendell Teodoro

Charmene Yap in Sydney Dance Company’s ‘2 One Another’/Wendell Teodoro

The extra player in “2 One Another” is an enormous wall-of-light composed of a grid of LEDs behind a translucent, crumpled fabric screen, nearly the size of the Schnitz’s formidable proscenium. The show is a technically-challenging collaboration between the dancers, Cisterne’s lighting, a soundtrack by composer Nick Wales, and Australian poet Samuel Webster. This dense arrangement is directed by SDC’s relatively new and adventurous choreographer Rafael Bonachela and production designer Tony Assness.

The piece starts with all hands on stage, with the LED wall flashing and pulsating at one of its most aggressive pitches. Until the first, arresting duet, the choreography takes an all-over approach. Pairs and small groups of dancers fill the stage, their movements coordinated more in flavor than in space. Broader structures of movement emerge at times, but something about it keeps me from considering the introduction as a coordinated passage rather than a collection of many smaller exchanges between individual dancers that happened to share the stage at the same time.

Once it progresses to the first duet, the notable shift in the soundtrack and the patterns on the LED wall supports the change in the tenor of the choreography, and it becomes clear that this dramatic opposition of figure and ground is an intentional theme of the show. Overall, that theme is developed deftly and the show succeeds on the progression of this dialogue between the overwhelming field, the all-overness, the anonymity within the group, and the intimacy, precision, and individuality of the dancers and their best moments.

****

Sydney Dance Company dances "2 One Another"/Ken Butti

Sydney Dance Company dances “2 One Another”/Ken Butti

My only significant criticism applies to the actual content of some of the all-over passages and the occasional times that spectacle diminishes its effect by being turned up a bit too loud for a bit too long. The blare of the introduction is most useful for how it deepens the silence that follows in the first duet, and some of Webster’s lyrics later in the piece call attention to the importance of silence in sequence. But it’s hard not to be skeptical until that first silence comes, as the needle pegs the red almost immediately and stays there, skipping and fidgeting a little. To be clear, they don’t miss any of the possibilities of the spectacle, and it was obvious that everyone at the show who hoped to be wowed or bowled over had been. However, it’s a smart show that makes an earnest bid to jolt large audiences without pandering, so I think the few weak points deserve attention, as the impressive production team is clearly capable of subtlety and balance.

It’s actually quite a simple criticism—the purposely-built cacophony was not as internally well-balanced as the progression it served, and undercut itself for lack of internal dynamic—a kind of loudness-(civil)war. Still, when the music red-lined for too long, the dance or the lighting was usually fluid and flexible, and vice versa. The moments I am thinking of were only noticeable because everything else was so well-planned and sensitively handled, and I include plenty of dissonance and shock in that category.

One more thought: Much of the show could support cranking the knobs to 11, so the amount of balance and restraint employed may be more remarkable than the points where it was missed. The LED wall would dazzle just by being turned on, but the patterns are original and lively when frenetic, and sweet and subtle in the quieter passages. Also the impact of the occasional use of color benefited from its rarity. The soundtrack took a grand tour of genres and instrumentation, but stayed remarkably appropriate to the visual effects and choreography throughout the show, which is no small feat. Still, the soundtrack, like the choreography, was stronger and more affecting in the simpler, quieter passages than the occasional turmoil it entered at the louder times. The dancers were irrevocably athletic, precise, and in tune with each other throughout the entire show, and the soloists have been rightly praised in previous reviews.

It’s the kind of show that can easily (and not unfairly) be billed as a multimedia extravaganza. It’s been performed for television in Australia, and from sitting close to the stage, some evidence of that targeting was still apparent in the composition and most notably the density and intensity of stage elements. Australian art can be overlooked with unfair ease among the western parts of the Western world, and dance is marginalized and expensive compared to dubstep and video games. So Bonachela has a lot of good reasons to make a spectacular, complex show to capture the attention of big audiences, and should be commended for producing one with integrity and spirit.

****

It’s because of this integrity that I’m being hard on it. The few places where it tries out a pop-culture dialect feel almost like an apology for its avant garde accent. It shouldn’t have to apologize—it can entertain and wow in its own voice. This may just be my opinion, but I would have gotten bigger shivers had the soundtrack pushed into the territory of Reich and Glass during the loudest, harshest climax rather than popping in to borrow from jungle and dubstep.

In that vein, the surprisingly-subdued finale got a big smile out of me. Dancer Juliette Barton ends a lyrical and touching duet with Andrew Crawford by taking a seat on his back and perching there with a slight, satisfied smile while the curtain falls on an otherwise empty stage.
While some Australian reviews found this to be a letdown, I differ. It’s a much keener surprise for the show to let the weight of its technical complexity and volume resolve in such a simple and sweet gesture.

One Response.

  1. The Australian Dance Awards were held on Monday night with a bevvy of local and interstate dance identities attending. Sequinned dresses and stage kisses were everywhere on the “night of nights” on the Australian dance calendar, where attendees were treated to performances by the West Australian Ballet, Ghenoa Gela, Broome dancer Dalisa Pigram and a lively number from “Candy Man” to name but a few.

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