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Dance Review: Sydney Dance Company’s ‘ab[intra]’ is an abstract and layered triumph

The Australian dance company closed White Bird’s season with a bold performance, as the powerful and confident dancers brilliantly executed Rafael Bonachela’s technically demanding choreography.

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Dancers performed physically demanding duets and trios as they connected and disconnected throughout Rafael Bonachela's "ab[intra]." Photo: Pedro Greig.
Dancers performed physically demanding duets and trios as they connected and disconnected throughout Rafael Bonachela’s “ab[intra].” Photo: Pedro Greig.

On Wednesday, April 10 at a packed Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, White Bird presented a one-night-only showing of Sydney Dance Company from Sydney, Australia, and their newest full-length work, ab[intra]. The Latin phrase was clearly defined as meaning ‘from within’ in Artistic Director and Choreographer Rafael Bonachela’s straightforward and well-written choreographer notes on the program’s fourth page. 

“I think about ab[intra] as an energy transfer between the internal and external. For me it is more than the external expression of internal concepts, in this dance sphere it is a representation of energy — an energy derived from the interaction of these two facets of our worlds,” wrote Bonachela.

When White Bird Executive Director Graham Cole and Bonachela appeared on stage to greet the audience, the space was already filled with manufactured smoke as Bonachela explained that the work began with improvisation in the studio. This improv was then harnessed and turned into verbal phrases, written on pieces of paper, and alchemized into choreography. He thanked his company dancers and collaborators for their willingness and their trust.

Then, the curtain rose to show a dancer downstage laying flat on their back next to another standing still, and one located upstage right. From there began a beautiful and pulsing run-on-sentence of a dance piece, thoughtfully punctuated by the placement of precise lighting design and large unison group sections against focused duets, trios, and solos.

Charmene Yap and Davide Di Giovanni's duet in "ab{intra]". Photo: Pedro Greig.
Charmene Yap and Davide Di Giovanni’s duet in “ab[intra]”. Photo: Pedro Greig.

The seventeen company dancers wore leotards, leotard bottoms, shorts, and shirts designed by costume designer David Fleischer — some with beige socks allowing them to slide fearlessly across the stage and longer hair in slicked-back low buns. As the work picked up speed from pedestrian walking to interacting with each other, then further into momentous partnering filled with limbs and legs, the performers danced to distinct and pleasing musical arrangements from an original score by Nick Wales featuring Klātbūtne by Latvian composer Pēteris Vasks.

ab[intra] was a modern dance piece with a base of contemporary ballet sensibility set on incredibly trained and risk-taking dancers. It was full of complex partnering, and its strong and capable subjects made even the most difficult lifts, holds, and wraps look effortless — their striving muscles all visible to the first few rows of seats as they engaged and disengaged them at will. A trio executed by dancer Ryan Pearson and two others exemplified the egalitarianism of the work as they defied gravity and traversed the stage with both power and grace, weaving distinct, intimate, and complex relationships with each other as they made eye contact and negotiated the stage. Throughout the work, lifts were distributed evenly and grasping embraces were choreographed for all, not only the smaller female-presenting dancers in the cast, as is still commonly seen in contemporary dance. Every dancer on stage appeared bright and aware, the necessary qualities to successfully dance a demanding and intricate work of this caliber. They were also each given the role of both instigator and retaliator, allowing the usual idea of hierarchy to fade away and therefore engage the stage as a type of protagonist — a world imparting parameters, obstacles, freedoms, and opportunities onto its dancer inhabitants — all the while still existing in a real-time citizenry developing before the audience’s eyes.

On the stark, minimalist stage, the SDC dancers' physical strength and technical brilliance was fully demonstrated. Photo: Pedro Greig.
On the stark, minimalist stage, the SDC dancers’ physical strength and technical brilliance was fully demonstrated. Photo: Pedro Greig.

This satisfying illusion was greatly aided by incredible lighting design by long-time Sydney Dance Company lighting designer Damien Cooper. Smoke filled the stage, often lit by a fluorescent light bar hanging above. At times, the blue bar would be lowered toward the stage, causing a sensation of a smaller space. Other times, it would turn orange and hang even lower, turning the high ceilings into a short vertical corridor. Then it would raise again, allowing the dancers to breathe as they seemingly returned to a larger vertical movement. This mirage, though executed simply, transported ab[intra] into an unexpected world of possibility and added even more tiers to an already intelligent and layered piece.

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Toward the second half of the dance, the performers changed clothing and reappeared wearing black pants without shirts, or donning nude bras. They stood against the back of the stage, which was cloaked in black curtain, and became floating torsos against the dimly lit landscape. One by one, solos commenced.

While the dance may appear, to some, cold and even industrial at first glance, don’t let the Latin title, streamlined costumes, muted color palette, and technical excellence of the dancers fool you. ab[intra] is one of the warmer, most human, and deliciously inviting dances of the 2024 season. The dancers moved with intellect and confidence — continuing to make choices throughout the work and arrange both themselves and their relationships in real-time. The depth of the abstract work mirrored that arrangement of Earth itself; we may only see the impactful radiance of its first few layers, but it is known, without needing to dig first-hand to the center, that the fiery core is there.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Amy Leona Havin is a poet, essayist, and arts journalist based in Portland, Oregon. She writes about language arts, dance, and film for Oregon ArtsWatch and is a staff writer with The Oregonian/OregonLive. Her work has been published in San Diego Poetry Annual, HereIn Arts Journal, Humana Obscura, The Chronicle, and others. She has been an artist-in-residence at Disjecta Contemporary Art Center, Archipelago Gallery, and Art/Lab, and was shortlisted for the Bridport International Creative Writing Prize in poetry. Havin holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Cornish College of the Arts and is the Artistic Director of Portland-based dance performance company, The Holding Project.

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