What if a dance were not an analogy? What if we could ask, as the poet Elizabeth Robinson does, what it is to be swept up passionately but uncomprehendingly in art without controlling its meaning?
There are a few moments in Impermanence, the latest work by the Sydney Dance Company, when the full ensemble of 17 dancers moves in unison and is terrifying. It is so in the same way that a Caspar David Friedrich painting can put one on the edge of the abyss. The energy deployed on stage is so uncontainable that the force was enough to make my eyes bulge. This is the strength of the work. Not anything as hackneyed as seeing events of the last year interpreted through dance, but instead the submersion of our humble bodies into the effervescent cadence of these other bodies.
A narrative has hatched alongside this work, about its genesis during the Notre Dame Cathedral fire, its evolution during the Black Summer bushfires, and its delay and subsequent reworking during Covid-19 lockdowns. And, of course, the work nods to these events, but it doesn’t need the scaffold of that story.
Despite what the marketing copy might suggest, this is not an emotional work. Choreographed by artistic director Rafael Bonachela and with a score by Bryce Dessner of The National, it registers on the plane of the energetic. It is called Impermanence but could equally be called Immanence, in the Spinozian sense of one all-contiguous, all-living matter.
The work does not have you mourning the cathedral, or the bush burnt, or even a pandemic, these events being part of the long continuum of the human impulse for meaning-making, accumulation and failure; it has you vibrating with the timbre of immanence.
Bonachela’s dance begins with walking. Walking slowly, walking interrupted. A trope that felt too much like life “before”. Then, a rolling wave, or thread of fire, running along the ground, threading bodies like a current. From here the work is thrust into action. And then that’s it: an hour of adrenaline. Inertia is the over-riding structure of the work. It ripples through the 12 sequences, which tip into each other more fluidly than tidy beginnings and endings.
The movement is frenetic and is incredible in its precision: fast and furious technicality, executed more rapidly than we can parse. Contiguity is Bonachela’s stylistic consistency. The ensemble splinters and reforms in small groups, exits, is replaced by duets, trios or an occasional solo. Patterns rise and vaporise and within this minutiae proliferate. The spatial and temporal get together and make some kind of perceptual eddy.
The work is urgent and unrelenting and for that reason it is powerful, because if we know one thing about the impermanent, never-still, always-continuing state of things, it’s that it is exhausting and it is life. A dancer is left prone on the stage as others look and leave. It feels like a compulsive, “red shoes” moment – she can’t stop her limbs leading her in strange rotations but equally can’t lug her body off the floor. Yet these dancers are not fatigued; they are exceptionally refined instruments of articulation. So there we sit, body immobile and mind scrambling to clock the turbulence.
This work rings true to the process of collaborative development between Bonachela and Dessner, not because they are in perfect harmony but because they have their own separate, driving intentions and undercurrents. One does not ape the other.
The titles of Dessner’s score follow a narrative arc – Alarms, Disintegration, Embers, Emergency et cetera – that thankfully is not overtly reflected in the choreography. The eight arrangements for strings are fervent, at times tense and at others swelling, but always charging on. They build and rebuild, minor notes sawing across the melodious undercarriage, pizzicato worrying moody recesses, and occasionally strapping in for stretches of hallucinatory, repetitious phrasing. If music could run, this score would be running very fast across an open, flat country.
When the work is performed again with the Australian String Quartet – the early performance I saw was without live musicians – it will do gymnastic things to the brain to see violin bows jousting frantically at all angles like the limbs of the dancers, muscles and tendons taut and pinging like strings. Music and dance made live, simultaneously, is like watching people flirting, animate with potential union and discord, and then gone.
A blessedly simple stage design by David Fleisher has a flat backdrop run through with a line of light that contracts to a stripe and expands to a window. Damien Cooper’s lighting hues slide from oranges to greys. Colour is crowded with inference, so the shifting tones are enough and the projection of rain, ash and snow are pushing it. Aleisa Jelbart’s costumes are all subtle variations on a state of casual undress, à la dusty eucalypt.
About two-thirds of the way through – dance-time is hard to gauge when you’re not the one counting beats – a duet between Jesse Scales and Luke Hayward crystallises on a cool stage. Together they move with a tremulousness that is unsettling in the right way, like watching an electric current. They answer Bonachela’s invitation to tune into the transient and agitated undulations of the material and interpersonal realms.
Later, there is a shift in tone. For the final sequence, accompanied by the only lyrics in the piece, Liam Green dances a solo coda, his steady gaze and compulsive gestures resisting ANOHNI’s doleful tones, holding the saccharine at bay. Vast gestural arcs are punctuated by – no, incised with – granular joint manipulations. Green contorts and becomes unhuman, feet into fins, legs into wings.
There is catharsis in having our anxieties acted out before us, and we get an extra balm when they’re not only performed but aestheticised. Yet there’s no redemptive calm at the end of Impermanence and that is befitting our experience of rolling vicissitudes. Cells keep vibrating. Just try to stop them. While the final melody plays out, Green is twisting, undoing his body in a way that says, Don’t be sucked in by the story of a new world; this one goes on and on and on.
Impermanence is touring NSW and the ACT in June and July, Tasmania in July, and the Northern Territory and Victoria in August.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 22, 2021 as "Impermanence".
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