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Britten & Baroque

For Matisse, who ‘carved’ into colour, blue was the sound of a gong. For Kandinsky, blue was instead evoked by the sound of the cello, which he played. For the poet Arthur Rimbaud, blue was the vowel ‘O’, and it was a “sublime Trumpet full of strange piercing sounds.” Arranged in a line, Rimbaud’s Vowels (1871), from ‘A’ to ‘O’ in colour read: black, white, red, blue, green. On Sunday night, Sydney Dance Company became a body of sound to the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s sounding body. For one night only in Melbourne, a soundscape became a landscape! And blue was a viola’s arabesque.


Sydney Dance Company: “Illuminated” by Rafael Bonachela


State Theatre, Arts Centre, Melbourne, Victoria, October 25, 2015


Gracia Haby

David Mack and Jesse Scales in Sydney Dance Company's “Variation 10.” Photograph by Peter Grieg

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Building upon an earlier collaboration, which stemmed from a shared love of the melodic dance work of Baroque composer Jean-Philippe Rameau, the artistic director of the Australian Chamber Orchestra, Richard Tognetti, and the artistic director of Sydney Dance Company, Rafael Bonachela, have created “Illuminated.” Three ballets, one from an earlier full-length work re-worked, “Project Rameau” (which premiered in 2012), and two new pieces inspired by the changing colours and directness of composer Benjamin Britten. Before taking “Illuminated” to Hong Kong, and further adding to the unexpected glow of a gala performance, neither “Project Rameau” (in either full or reworked guise) nor the two works which enable Britten’s sound to be ‘seen’ have been performed in Melbourne before. The intrinsic relationship between music and dance, making one where there are two, is in line with Stravinsky and Balanchine, Cage and Cunningham. “If the word and the note are one thing, not two,”[note]Myfanwy Piper quoted on working in collaboration with Britten on opera libretti, in Philip Rupprecht’s Britten’s Musical Language (U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 9[/note]—the same can be said of “Illuminated’s” splendid fare.

In silvered-grey costumes, designed by Toni Maticevski, the dancers appeared in the cool foreground before the elevated orchestra. Seen simultaneously, the warmth of the moving background comprised of violins and cellos in flight visually advanced and became a part of the dance. Negative space to inform the figures in the foreground this was not! This was “Variation 10” and it never let the eyes nor the ears settle, as it threw light upon both music and dance. Presented so, my perception was inevitably altered and gloriously unsettled. A harmonious synthesis, in which the music enhanced the dance and the dance enriched the music, the transferral between the two provided the sought-after “mutual illumination”[note]Rachel Duerden, “Dancing in the imagined space of music,” Dance Research, 25, 1 (2007): 73-83[/note]

Tognetti referred to in the programme notes. Referencing dance scholar, Rachel Duerden’s paper, “Dancing in the imagined space of music,” for Tognetti are the very ideas that course through “Illuminated” and describe his collaboration with Bonachela. Upon closer inspection, the apparent harmony between music and dance “reveal[ed] subtle divergences which offer[ed] a glimpse into another world, a parallel universe.”[note]Duerden continues: “In the complementary relationship of dance and music, dance seems to have moved into what Roger Scruton describes as ‘the imagined space of music’ and, at the same time, to have drawn music into the ‘real space’ of performance. The relationship is steeped in metaphor as we are invited to perceive one in terms of or in light of the other, and to consider the potential transfer of attributes from one to the other. Dance and music share significant features, such as rhythm, metre, tempo—the fact that they are structured in and through time—but also intrinsic differences, they each ‘mean’ differently….”[/note]

Where the two converged, “sometimes consonant, sometimes dissonant,” pleasure was found though a “process of suggestion. . .. Musical notes can ‘move’ much faster than the human body. Physical movement, perceived visually, is much more sluggish than movement in sound can be; this is a spatial issue, of course—a human body has to get from here to there by passing through all the space between; it cannot simply be ‘here’ and then be ‘there’.”[note]Duerden, “Dancing in the imagined space of music,” Dance Research, 25, 1 (2007): 73–83[/note]

As a way around this, knots of dancers in notes of three or four appear to perform the same sequence simultaneously. Bonachela’s responsive choreography suggesting that with an ensemble of dancers you can show super human movement; he has found a way around the impossible movement per note. Splitting one section of dancers from another would surely have delighted Britten.

Composed in ten days in 1937, Britten’s Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, Op.10, presents a series of character sketches (of his teacher, the composer Bridge, who inspired him to be true to himself).[note]Richard Tognetti on Britten: “Britten’s Frank Bridge Variations may be the principal reason people know of composer Bridge. But for Britten, he was an outstanding teacher who instilled in him excellent technique and discipline, including two cardinal rules: ‘One was that you should find yourself and be true to what you found. The other—obviously connected with the first—was his scrupulous attention to good technique, the business of saying clearly what was in one’s mind.’” Note, “Illuminated” Melbourne programme, 2015, 6[/note] From the dark Adagio punctuated by violin burst of Bridges’ ‘integrity’ to a quick March (‘his energy’) and the absolute beauty of Romance (‘his charm’), we gallop through ‘his wit,’ hear a little of the Baroque in ‘his tradition,’ delight in the burst of the playful ‘enthusiasm’ before falling into the haunting lament of Variation’s Funeral march and the otherworldly ‘chant’ that leads us to the marvellous triumph of the Fugue and finale. Dancers marched in unison only to splinter into free form, peel off, and re-bundle anew. With their upper bodies swaying languidly one moment, upright and forceful the next, it is, as Bonachela enthuses, “as if this music were made to be danced.”[note]Rafael Bonachela, “The making of Variation 10,” Sydney Dance Company’s YouTube channel, accessed October 26 , 2015 [/note]

Britten created what few could ever dream of coming close to, and now I have ‘seen’ what it is to move in the manner of Romance.

Laid back gestures tipped into the formal, athletic into sensual, furious into delicate: the pleasing juxtapositions and intimate connections of “Variations 10” extended into “Les Illuminations.” With darkness undercutting the apparent charm of Britten’s 1939 sound-picture, Les Illuminations, significance was given to the expressive gestures of the hands that at times appeared to mark out a choreographic sequence like a dancer in class. Drawing upon the poems of Rimbaud, the quartet of dancers were “endowed with [the] frightening voices” of the poet’s desperate underworld Parade. “A cruel swagger of faded finery” best observed from the position of outsider/artist, Britten’s key to Rimbaud’s poetry seems also that of this work (“I alone have the key to this savage parade”).

Accompanied by Opera Australia soprano, Taryn Fiebig, the dancers revelled in “their magnetic stagecraft. Eyes inflamed …. Their raillery and their terror last[ed] a moment, or months entire” (Illuminations IV: Parade). Under “canopies of night” (Illuminations XVI: Ornières) the dancers “move[d] on invisible rails and pulleys” (Illuminations XVII: Villes), later circling “their feet in the waterfalls and briars,” they represented “the dream [that] cools” (Illuminations XX: Veillées). “Chords chime[d]” in their arms, as they “gently mov[ed] that thigh, that other thigh and that left leg” (Illuminations V: Antique). As the music soared in love’s declaration: “Oh, our bones are clothed with a new amorous body! (Illuminations VI: Being Beauteous).

Juliette Barton and Charmene Yap gave us the thunder and lightning rise and roll (of Illuminations I: Après le Déluge) in their duet with lifting, which played in contrast to the tender duet between Cass Mortimer Eipper and Richard Cilli. The relentless ‘savage parade’ that is life was sung, played, and danced, exclaimed, murmured, and offered forth as a prayer for peace.

“Project Rameau” offered a brilliant court dance of a different kind, with the full ensemble of dancers once more returned to the stage. Operating in the same time and yet not, moving through the real and the imagined, the musical gestures of baroque are embedded in the choreography and throw light upon how I engaged with what I heard. Summer’s arrival, a thunderstorm! The backcloth cracked to red! Through the air, a figure flew, tossed. Orchestrated before my eyes, the playful, fast moving musical lines wove in echo of Rimbaud’s earlier “chains of gold from star to star.” As dancers sank to the floor interlaced with chords, I was made to work to keep up. In the thoroughly modern court dance, the secret sign language of lovers replete with hand-claps, palms connecting with cheeks, fists, thumbs-up signals, forearm rotations, and bum wiggles. A line of music was pulled as a leg snapped to a close. A dancer was lifted to ‘see’ a high note from a flute.

I could have listened to the music alone. I could have watched the dancers accompanied only by the sound of their feet as they fell or their hands as they clapped. But put together in this way, I became like Remy in the film Ratatouille. I experienced combined flavour combinations as colour, shape and sound—I become enraptured. If I can greedily have my baroque with dance and my dance with a chamber orchestra on stage, I will. Heightened. Elevated. Glorious. For though this is cerebral, this collaboration, it is also from the heart. It made of me an animated rodent extoling the delights of cheese AND strawberries.

To the movement of music and the music of movement: bon appetite.

Gracia Haby

Using an armoury of play and poetry as a lure, Gracia Haby is an artist besotted with paper. Her limited edition artists’ books, and other works hard to pin down, are often made collaboratively with fellow artist, Louise Jennison. Their work is in the collections of the National Gallery of Australia and state libraries throughout Australia to the Tate (UK). Gracia Haby is known to collage with words as well as paper.



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