When viewing the Sydney Dance Company's 50th Anniversary Program, a single word comes to mind - epic.
Season One's triple-bill was hand-picked by the company's Artistic Director Rafael Bonachela, and features acclaimed Australian choreographers Melanie Lane and Gabrielle Nankivell.
They're now into their third week of performances in Sydney, before moving on to Canberra and Melbourne as part of a national tour.
Two new works are being premiered this season - Bonachela’s twisted and tormented Cinco and Nankivell’s transcendent Neon Aether. Audiences have also been delighted by the return of Lane’s WOOF.
For Bonachela, the idea for Cinco came a year ago, when he stumbled across Argentinian composer Alberto Ginastera's String Quartets - specifically, No.2.
"I love strings, I love music that has rhythmic vitality and guts to it," he said.
"No.2 was so haunting and frantic, I almost feel like it's classical but rock and roll."
Ginastera’s music is tormenting, moving through exhilarating modes of melancholia, frustration, but also gentle melody.
It is the score’s sweeping emotional palette that captivated Bonachela, and which he brings to life so expertly this season.
In keeping with its Spanish translation, Cinco casts five dancers who move in fluid coordination but also rapid and erratic disunity.
According to Bonachela, Cinco is both a homage to the company's anniversary year and Ginastera's quartet.
"It is the 50th anniversary of the Sydney Dance Company; the piece is in five movements; it was written in the 50's…everything was just screaming 'Cinco'."
Numbers have clearly influenced Bonachela over the years - from 6 Breaths (2010), Variation 10 (2015), Ocho (2017), and even his first choreographic work with Rambert Dance Company in 1997, Three Gone, Four Left Standing.
He says it is the same with words.
Working closely with his Cinco dancers, Bonachela set comprehensive tasks revolving around the number five.
The dancers found themselves placed inside cut-out pentagon shapes and being asked to move according to words like "competitive" and "reactive’" - all words ending in "ive".
The result was the generation of movement that both dancer and choreographer had never considered before, and which captured the individual style and personality of each performer.
“This is the way I always enjoyed working as a dancer…I always feel like I want the dancers to be themselves," he said.
“When you see them you will see them as who they are, they're not being anyone else."
With his focus on the personal and the intimate, Bonachela forges a riot in Cinco, and asks of us one main question: “What is it to be human, and to be daring?”.
Returning to the stage for a second time, Melanie Lane’s WOOF is not without bite.
The crowd-favourite is as dangerous and visionary as ever, and Lane is delighted to be back.
“It’s such a privilege to be part of such an enormous body of work and history," she said. “As a young dancer, [the Sydney Dance Company] was kind of this company that I always revered.
“I never thought I'd choreograph for them. It’s a bit of a dream really”.
When first commissioned to create WOOF in 2017 for the company's New Breed Season, Lane says she was driven by her chance to work with a large group of dancers, and took it as an opportunity to consider group dynamics and behaviour.
“That kind of opportunity is very rare, to work with so many dancers in a cast, so the work was really inspired by that.
“We thought about what drives collective action… there is this kind of primal and ritualistic energy”.
WOOF is peppered with moments of "collective action" that audiences will recognise - from military scenes; allusions to club environments; the Corps de Ballet; and even Renaissance-esque tableau formations.
Much in these scenes is driven by improvisational tasks set by Lane, which provides WOOF a thrilling sense of unpredictability.
“It’s really a real-time group-action…[the dancers] really have to listen to each other and read each other and every night the performance is different”.
One key improvisational task the dancers execute is a vocalisation, where they sing together on stage.
“Every night they have to work on how to find harmony together, it’s not set. So each performance, they need to find a new way to do that."
Lane says she values how the work reinvents itself each night and avoids seeming over-rehearsed or "automatic’"
WOOF certainly circumvents auto-pilot, thanks to the choreographer’s unwavering trust in her dancers, which she says is due to them having worked together for years.
The dancers’ sense of connection and familiarity is distinguishable immediately. They are at-once "the pack" - wild and electric, and totally animal.
As they weave, jump and coordinate, Lane and her dancers present an extraordinary and relatable narrative about community, a sense of belonging, and our primal instincts.
Nankivell: Neon Aether
While WOOF taps into the animal within, Nankivell's Neon Aether will transport audiences to another realm.
Fascinated by the idea of air, Nankivell called her dancers to deeply consider it. How we crave air, how air moves around us, propels us, warms us and chills us.
What emerges is dream-like and experimental - a meditation on the interchange of balance, freedom and restriction, with air as the non-intrusive final element.
In the name itself, Nankivell buries an ode to ancient times.
The work explores air as the Greek philosophers saw it - Aether recalling the purest essence of the sky, and Neon referring to the brightest part.
Nankivell’s dancers cultivate this in their movements; shaking, jumping, rocking and gliding under shifting lights that conceal and reveal them.
Her dancers are enthralling. At first a mass of airy bodies, drifting through space and time, but then transformed into the inquisitive group, at times disjointed and constricted - lost in the movement and the music.
Aether is worth the watch if only to witness Nankivell’s boldness.
Inviting audiences into a deeper reflection on the constancy of air, Nankivell calls us to consider the greater possibilities among the constellations and in outer-space.
The frenzy on-stage is exhilarating. Combined with Nankivell’s uniquely punkish edge, Neon Aether’s mystical world surfaces as almost irresistible.
- Kate Rafferty @katerafferty99