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A Step in Time

Sydney Dance Company’s second program marking their 50th anniversary year is “Bonachela/Obarzanek.” This double bill celebrates the company’s history as laid out by its dancers and choreographers, and also the cultural contribution SDC has made to the contemporary dance scene in Australia and around the world.


Sydney Dance Company: “Bonachela/Obarzanek”


Rosyln Packer Theatre, Sydney, New South Wales, November 5, 2019


Claudia Lawson

Sydney Dance Company and audience members perform Gideon Obarzanek's “Us 50.” Photograph by Pedro Greig

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Opening night of any SDC program feels like Sydney’s most glamourous, artsy event. Familiar faces, many notable, mingle in and around the intimate bookshelves of the foyer before entering the Roslyn Packer Theatre. On opening nights, the company’s artistic director Rafael Bonachela typically addresses the audience, speaking enthusiastically to introduce the works. There is a real sense that the audience know him personally

For “Bonachela/Obarzanek,” I don’t make the opening night. It's a weeknight, mid-way through the season. Missing the opening night hype can dampen the lure for critics but on this Tuesday night, Bonachela takes the stage. He talks candidly of the history of the SDC, and in particular Graeme Murphy, the company’s longest serving artistic director, who directed and created works for 30 years. While applause rings out, Bonachela’s hands raise, hushing the crowd: Murphy, he points out, is in the theatre, with his long-time artistic partner Janet Vernon. The crowd is delighted, the atmosphere rivals any opening night.

The performance is preceded by a short film highlighting SDC works, dancers and choreography spanning its five decades. It’s a reminder of the depth and breadth of the company that paved the cultural landscape of contemporary dance in Australia.

The company first perform Bonachela’s “6 Breaths,” a work from 2010, in the infancy of his tenure. Set to an original score by Ezio Bosso for cello and piano, it opens with a darkened scrim and a captivating video art installation by Tim Richardson. Images of marble-like shards fly across the scrim forming a classical bust. Behind it, the dancers move like shadowy figures, just touched by Benjamin Cisterne’s lighting. As the scrim lifts, free flowing choreography plays across the darkened stage. The dancers weave ethereally in and out forming duos and trios. It is a reflective, dreamy work, a solo by Luke Haywood the highlight.

“6 Breaths” by Rafael Bonachela. Photograph by Pedro Greig

Obarzanek’s “Us 50 is designed to celebrate the history of the company through current and former dancers, and the memories of the audience. SDC’s dancers are joined by ten alumi and 25 audience members. The audience members have been chosen through a pre-selection process, however, know nothing of their role in the night’s performance. They have had no rehearsal. Nothing. They have been told to wear comfy shoes, dark clothing and each has been fitted with an ear-piece to receive instructions live by former SDC dancer and assistant choreographer, Charmene Yap. What could go wrong?

The stage is bare, and the lighting is a stark, bright, white. It feels like a rehearsal room. The dancers, past and present, line the sides of the stage. Sheree da Costa and Jesse Scales lead their respective cohorts to the stage. The current dancers, dressed in pastels, follow the lead of the former dancers, dressed in crimsons. It is as though the older generations are guiding the way for the new generation. Together they weave and walk forming intriguing patterns around the stage.

As the audience members enter the stage, the joy of the work unfolds. Nervous faces transcend into moving bodies, some so engaged that I found myself smiling with joy at their palpable enjoyment of the moment. Surely this is what Obarzanek set out to achieve. A collaboration of happiness, of joy, in dance. Not necessarily his most choreographically finessed piece, but a clear moment of happiness between current and former dancers, and those who love this art form so dearly. It is a wonderful, if not a slightly nerve-wracking piece to watch.

Claudia Lawson

Claudia Lawson is a dance critic based in Sydney, Australia, writing regularly for ABC Radio National, ABC Arts, and Fjord Review. After graduating with degrees in Law and Forensic Science, Claudia worked as a media lawyer for the ABC, FOXTEL and the BBC in London, where she also co-founded Street Sessions dance company. Returning to Sydney, Claudia studied medicine and now works as a doctor. She is the host of the award-winning Talking Pointes Podcast.



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