Dance

A new festival curated by The Australian Ballet, DanceX puts some of Australia’s best companies together on one stage. By Leila Lois.

DanceX

Bangarra Dance Theatre dancers in Terrain, part of DanceX.
Bangarra Dance Theatre dancers in Terrain, part of DanceX.
Credit: Kate Longley

DanceX is a three-part mini-festival, featuring eight Australian companies, that is alive with the possibilities of dance. Planned by The Australian Ballet before the pandemic, it represents, as artistic director David Hallberg told audiences on opening night, a “unity of community” – a chance to return to the exhilaration of collaboration and live performance.

Part One includes the Australian premiere of Swedish choreographer Johan Inger’s idiosyncratic piece I New Then, performed by The Australian Ballet to a score from Van Morrison’s 1968 album Astral Weeks. There are also works from Bangarra Dance Theatre, Sydney Dance Company and a duet commissioned for the festival from Lucy Guerin Inc. The novelty here is the chance to see so many different works by various national dance companies on a single stage.

I New Then, performed by The Australian Ballet, continues the company’s collaboration with dancers and choreographers from the Nederlands Dans Theater – for which Inger has both danced and choreographed. The connection of the dancers to Inger’s familiar movement vocabulary and Van Morrison’s euphonious score is tangible. When I say “familiar”, I don’t mean derivative: the choreography pursues what Inger calls the “road to realness”, “learning to leave unnecessary gestures, movements and structures behind”. Here the dancers move to guitar, flute and tambourine, their bodies softening with expressions of love or fear, their movements sweeping in unison across the stage in tableaus that create eye-pleasing arcs and curves.

There are memorable moments when the music, dancers and lyrics are magically aligned. One is at the lines of the song “Madame George” – “That’s when you fall / Yeah, that’s when you fall” – where the dancers sink multiple times to the floor at the end of each line. The register of emotions in this piece, from infatuation to disappointment, is artfully described in the everydayness of the movement vocabulary.

Perhaps the most striking section of the performance is when Callum Linnane enters the stage to find Adam Elmes and Dimity Azoury undressing in a steamy pas de deux. The music dulls to a low stereo as Linnane comically repeats the exclamation “Oh!”, turning and stretching his body in expressions of bashfulness and jealousy. The result is at once squeamishly comical and very human.

The loosely flowing costumes in the earlier parts of the dance are stripped back to figure-hugging underwear, echoing the work’s trajectory towards “realness”. Their gestures are imbued with youthful charm and the ambience of a heady summer night, from the flick-flack of their wrists as if waving away mosquitoes to rolling over each other with languid joy. It is clear that this playful work delights the dancers as much as the audience as it breezes across the stage, and its moments of joy and profundity are masterfully balanced.

In contrast, the second offering of the evening, ab[intra] by Sydney Dance Company, is marked by tight formations, technical perfection and athleticism. The title of the piece means “from within” in Latin, and we see the dancers tessellate across the stage in pas de deux and ensemble with near mechanical precision, drawing into and out of intimacy as individuals and as a group. Chiaroscuro is used to strong effect, with starkly contrasting areas of light and dark and moving shadows, heightening a sense of claustrophobia that draws the eyes in, like a vortex.

It begins with a pas de deux in black skin-tight costumes as the dancers shift precisely in and out of each other’s orbit, levering, twisting and fusing into each other. Choreographer Rafael Bonachela created this work by allowing dancers to work together in rehearsals “being in the moment”, which is reflected in concentration of the dancers as they perform very technical work with apparent ease. There are moments when the dark mise en scène and the absorption of the dancers feels a little heavy: there is not much reprieve. Composer Nick Wales underscores the changing landscape of tumult and clemency with electronica, strings and percussion.

The third piece of the evening, Lucy Guerin Inc’s How to Be Us, shines with edginess and style. A duet featuring dancers Lilian Steiner and Samantha Hines, the piece allowed them to improvise in a rigorous framework to explore “conflicting ideas of freedom”. They move on mostly diagonal planes, facing multiple angles – sometimes with their backs to the audience – to create striking symmetries and dissolution. Geoffrey Watson’s costumes – black unitards with neon green and purple bone-like illustrations – accentuate their heavily patterned movement.

The final performance of the evening, Terrain by Bangarra Dance Theatre, was first staged 10 years ago and is choreographed by current artistic director Frances Rings. The evening could not have ended on an  airier note, with the harp washing over the auditorium as the dancers whirled across the stage like spinifex or desert sand. As always with Bangarra, the dancers are intimately invested in the stories of the work; the effect is hypnotically beautiful. The surreal landscape of Kati Thanda–Lake Eyre and its ancestral stories are woven into the work.

The costumes, designed by Jennifer Irwin, radiate with ochre and chrome, as the female dancers spin, their arms trailing the ground as if they are drawing lines in the sand. Their branch headpieces twist with their movement as they tilt their heads and turn, giving an other-worldly look. You can see dust rising from their bodies in the light and almost feel the scrub and the dryness. The men dance with bark shields, a vision of vigour and strength, as shimmering beams of light pour over the stage. Terrain is a textural, breathing, sensuous piece that reflects the vitality of Country and the peoples from whom the work originates.

The first instalment in this new dance festival is a wonderful combination of ancient and new, earthy and astral. It will be exciting to see how the following performances unravel. Other companies featured in DanceX include Chunky Move, Karul Projects, Marrugeku and Queensland Ballet.

DanceX is at the Playhouse, Arts Centre Melbourne, until November 1.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 29, 2022 as "Generation X".

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