Sydney Dance Company’s thrilling triptych Ascent showcases three very different approaches to choreography. By Philipa Rothfield.

Sydney Dance Company’s Ascent

A dancer performers in a white outfit with sheets draped around them.
Dancers perform The Shell, A Ghost, The Host & The Lyrebird.
Credit: Pedro Greig

Sydney Dance Company’s triple bill Ascent – in Melbourne on the final leg of a national tour before heading to Europe – consists of three very different works. They’re made whole by the assured consistency of the ensemble’s dancers and their common thread of ballet-based contemporary technique.

The first of the triptych, I Am-ness (2023), was created by Rafael Bonachela, artistic director of Sydney Dance Company. A rolling fog reveals four dancers facing the front, ordered from near to far, disappearing into the ether. They combine to create a turning, twisting unity. There is something biological about the quartet – larval perhaps. There is no mirroring, no choreographic sameness: just four bodies in continual motion, lyrical yet unsentimental.

The four are drawn together by a dramaturgy of attraction: much of their movement is oriented to each other. Never far apart, they form and re-form, lean and lift. Occasionally someone is flung out, an outlier who soon returns. Towards the end, they line up at the edge of the space, coming together once again, their energy ebbing in the fading light. They finish apart, individual and alone, unable to share a common front.

The lighting (Damien Cooper) is subtle and suggestive rather than intrusive, allowing the bodies to seamlessly combine in a series of gentle modulations. Composer Pēteris Vasks’ wonderful Lonely Angel gives the work a quality of yearning. Legato violins amplify the unceasing motion and dynamic interaction. What stays in the afterimage of movement? The myriad intricacies of this dance leave a feeling of unceasing activity. Although this work is intensely relational and human, there is no particular story to be had. Its ungendered pairings support the abstract tenor of a dance open to interpretation.

Marina Mascarell’s The Shell, A Ghost, The Host & The Lyrebird (2023) begins as lightly as a puff of wind ruffling a carpet of leaves. The space is vast, crisscrossed by ropes hanging from on high, sporting silken shapes pleated and sutured together. A patchwork of silk hangs like a flag ready to be unfurled. A sprite swirls, activating the space with a series of spirals radiating through her body. The rest of the dancers lie onstage, each tethered to a rope. The dancers join in gusts and eddies of movement. This is so different from the first work, a symbolic mix of air and earth found between the lightness of the choreography and the ways in which the dancers lend weight to the ropes.

The set and costumes (Lauren Brincat and Leah Giblin) are phantasmagorical without being overtly suggestive. They are animated by the actions of the dancers who push and pull the ropes, weave in and out, forming momentary tableaux that dissipate and recalibrate. The work feels exploratory: a response to a worlding of movement qualities, materials and textures. A whipbird performs its signature birdsong giving a sense of place to an otherwise imaginary kingdom. The dancers are neither human nor animal: rather, animated beings that bring a complex set to life.

All at once, the group leans to the left, focused like hunting dogs. A sharp poke to the flow, our ears prick up. The group is now a group, creating drama by working in sync. They sweep up the space, working together to trouble the ropes as a storm brews. The dance ends with movement drawn from an entirely different palette: mechanical, doll-like, as if the life of this work has fizzled and left an empty shell, a ghost of its former self.

The Shell, A Ghost, The Host & The Lyrebird moves between an elfin choreography and a more circus-like engagement with the set. Its soundscape (Nick Wales) also vacillates between naturalistic forest sounds and compositional music. It feels like an extended response to rope and silk, teasing out their qualities in motion. The dancers are to be commended for enunciating these qualities, unfurling their bodies with a captivating grace.

Forever & Ever (2018) by Antony Hamilton is the most hybrid of these works, combining contemporary with street, hip-hop and voguing. It is also the most enjoyable, unafraid to mix humour with youth culture. The set is clean, empty save for a soloist, a lamp and a suspended hanger. The dance begins in silence. A figure explores their body, bending joints: elbows, knees, shoulders, ankles. Linear planes are created one after the other. Small movements are immediately reversed. This solo dance is a sustained articulation, confidently experimental. The dancer finishes by stomping off towards the back wall. We laugh. The fourth wall is broken.

Psychedelic lights flash briefly to the sound of the music (The Presets’ Julian Hamilton), a repetitive beat that burrows into my brain for hours to come. A line of hooded figures – half in white, half in black – slowly progresses towards the soloist. Everyone carries a small lamp, which is used intermittently throughout the work. It is not clear at this point who these figures are. The arms of the black creatures are extended by huge white cones, which are deployed in a variety of ways. Were it not for the music, they could be medieval. The lead figure performs a duet with the soloist. Their difference in height is utilised – they are raised off the ground, measured and moved. The cloaks are discarded to reveal two men in oversized hoodies and zigzag pants (Paula Levis) – clowny but also street.

Over the course of the dance, clothing is peeled off to reveal a series of street outfits, finishing with little more than underwear embellished with gaffer tape. The cream and black set is on song with the black and white robes, accentuating the primary colours of the ensuing tracksuits, bomber jackets and shorts. The dancers take turns to assert their cred, voguing, strutting and prancing the length and breadth of the stage. The lighting (Benjamin Cisterne) is an ingenious mix of precise psychedelia and handheld lanterns, which create shadows and silhouettes. Having retreated to a backstage dance party, the dancers come together to project alien green laser lights onto the ceiling. The alternation of erotic disorder and tight formation keeps the party going.

Forever & Ever is an ode to the vitality of youth, showing the fun to be had when dancing together. The music, lighting and costumes allow the work to be its best self. The references to pop culture do not detract from the evident choreographic labour underlying this substantial work, a deserving recipient of the 2019 Helpmann choreography award.

As is often the case with triple bills, the choice to feature these three works is based on collegial relationships rather than a unified aesthetic. Although very different, they were each made in Australia, with Australian dancers. Each of these works in turn calls for different kinds of movement: in the case of Bonachela’s, the ability to continuously shift and share weight, to lift and drop, twist and turn; for Mascarell, to evoke a mythical lightness while ready to offer their weight to the ropes; and for Hamilton, to infuse the entire theatre with the communal vitality of street dance. The dancers’ competence and versatility is palpable, and results in stunning performances. 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 9, 2023 as "Triple threat".

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