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High Flyers

The porous borders of Rafael Bonachela’s “I Am-Ness,” Marina Mascarell’s “The Shell, A Ghost, The Host & The Lyrebird,” and Antony Hamilton’s “Forever & Ever,” when viewed as a collective, make a visionary trance, as Sydney Dance Company’s triple bill “Ascent” inhabits the stage at the Playhouse, Arts Centre Melbourne. Commissioned by and having premiered at the Canberra Theatre Centre at the beginning of the year, followed by Sydney Opera House, and a national tour, the invitation to weave together three strands and construct a whole, should you choose, is now extended to Melbourne audiences.

Performance

Sydney Dance Company: “Ascent”

Place

Playhouse, Arts Centre, Melbourne, August 30, 2023

Words

Gracia Haby

Sydney Dance Company in Marina Mascarell’s “The Shell, A Ghost, The Host & The Lyrebird.” Photograph by Pedro Greig

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Nestled within the theatre, on a rainy Wednesday night, with a meditation for violin and strings, where the spiritual and temporal meet, things begin. When Pēteris Vasks’s composed the soothing quietude of his “Lonely angel” he described it as being in response to seeing “an angel, flying over the world; who looks at the world’s condition with grieving eyes, and with an almost imperceptible, loving touch of their wings brings comfort and healing.” The resulting piece is “music after the pain” and it proves a beautiful cloak for Bonachela’s new work, “I Am-Ness”, and the freedom frequently found in Bonachela’s work to interpret the terrestrial or celestial spheres as you will.

Through the soft haze cast by the lightning design of Damien Cooper, I see a cathedral chamber pierced by light wells above. An expansive cave cathedral, with a large entrance chamber, becomes a world for Madeline Hams, Naiara Silva De Matos, Riley Fitzgerald, and Piran Scott to rest and flit within. They become part consoler and consoled, angel and human, violin and strings, moving body and creative mind, as they flow and unfurl. So long as they are ever in flux, and in harmony with each other, they can be situated in either role and realm. In this continuous constellation, Bonachela’s choreography sees “the dancers cross fault lines with a euphoric tenderness.”[1] Like the composition, “I Am-Ness” serves as a lasting, calming balm that bellies its brevity.

Sydney Dance Company in “I Am-Ness” by Rafael Bonachela. Photograph by Pedro Greig

As behind the curtain, the stage is prepared for Mascarell’s “The Shell, A Ghost, The Host & The Lyrebird,” Bonachela springs into action before the audience and introduces the piece, and Hamilton’s to follow after interval. In the intimacy of the Playhouse, this conversation with the audience adds to the relaxed confidentiality of the experience, and, had you not downloaded the digital program beforehand, a guide. To the background sounds of hoisting, is it a shell, a ghost, a host, or a lyrebird that is taking form, or like its predecessor, will it be all things in chorus?

When the curtain rises on “The Shell, A Ghost, The Host & The Lyrebird,” with its set designed by Lauren Brincat and Leah Giblin, the effect is breathtaking. The soft, sail-like, swathes of suspended fabric are a considered patchwork of white and bone, with accents of red, ochre, and olive. Their billowy nature is in contrast to the two larger pleated forms that are also roped up, and thanks to the dancers, they are in near-constant transition, not unlike Bonachela’s sensory constellation. As dancers Emily Seymour, Jesse Scales, Sophie Jones, Liam Green, Luke Hayward, Jacapo Grabar, and Dean Ellio repeatedly pull and tug upon the many ropes that fall from the ceiling, they hoist the pleated forms into new configurations. The forms oscillate between being reminiscent of giant skirts, down-turned flower heads, and weather-proof tents, and they rustle like paper. Where one ripples, the other crinkles, and all of which is enhanced by the composition of Nick Wales, punctuated by bird calls. The expert mimicry of the Superb Lyrebird is surely behind the distinctive call of the Eastern Whipbird and the chittering sounds of the Crimson Rosella.[2] And it is to the Lyrebird I think of when the dancers navigate the space as if preparing a stage, the way the Lyrebird does. As such, a swathe of fabric is now a fern frond bobbing in the breeze, and a forest floor appears. As the dancers proceed to mark the passage of time with a ‘t-sst’ bird call of their own devising, by pressing their tongues to the roofs of their mouths, the impression, for me, intensifies.

Sydney Dance Company in Marina Mascarell’s “The Shell, A Ghost, The Host & The Lyrebird.” Photograph by Pedro Greig

Mascarell was inspired by the work of author and philosopher Donna Haraway, who believes that the human body is always-already intertwined with various technologies that allow us to read and be of the world around us.[3] Our “response-ability,”[4] our human nature, is entangled in everything we do, if we pay attention to the signs, and this idea permeates “The Shell, A Ghost, The Host & The Lyrebird” and weaves a world where it is your capacity to transform and remain adaptable that will hopefully ensure your survival.

Accompanying these two new works for 2023, Hamilton’s “Forever & Ever” (still young, from 2018, and re-staged for “Ascent”) makes a return, and it begins while the audience is mid-interval. Scales, having raised their arms above their head and fanned their hands forward like feathers whilst negotiating “the traffic between nature and culture” on red-socked tiptoe, now assumes a different kind of nimble responsiveness as they articulate their limbs in the low light. Scales waits as the audience twigs: nature can be composed from a memory of a private beat.

As the company makes their measured, single file procession onto the stage to confront, or perhaps drawn to, Scales, some are cloaked in black robes and others in white. With stage lanterns in hand, the body can become the rigging and it moves accordingly: rigidly. But Scales, too, has a stage lantern in their hand, and a freedom the other characters, in that moment, have yet to taste.

Sydney Dance Company in “Forever & Ever” by Antony Hamilton. Photograph by Pedro Greig

“Forever & Ever,” as Hamilton describes, references another repeating pattern, the “cycle of production of ideas and entertainment,” and with the many costume changes, the “disposability of the catwalk and fast fashion”[5] as layers are discarded upon the stage. In costumes designed by Paula Levis, the rapidity of the costume changes is also a reflection of the rapid changes of all things, and the “repeating rhythmic musical bars, both keeping to time and then skipping around the perpetual beat”[6] ensures a different hypnotic effect to the one experienced within “I Am-Ness.”

 

As the dancers grouped together, thrum, pointing green lasers at the ceiling, I am reminded of the luminescing bacteria the Hawaiian bobtail squid constructs on its underside which, to the squid’s intended prey, looks like a starry sky, and enables them to cast no shadow. The ‘costume’ of bacteria that ensures the squid’s success swims above my head in the persistent pattern of perpetual change.

 

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.

footnotes


  1. Rafael Bonachela, “A note from Artistic Director Rafael Bonachela,” Sydney Dance Company’s “Ascent” 2023 National Program, https://issuu.com/sydneydancecompany/docs/ascent_program_national_tour, p 9, accessed August 31, 2023.
  2. Listen to the mimicry of the Lyrebird, ‘Superb Lyrebird — The Greatest Mimic’, Wild Ambience, https://wildambience.com/wildlife-sounds/superb-lyrebird/, accessed August 31, 2023.
  3. “All the creative team, we are very inspired by the work of Donna Haraway. There is a sentence that stays in me. She says ‘nature is the place to rebuild public culture’.” “Interview with Marina Mascarell” Sydney Dance Company website, https://www.sydneydancecompany.com/performance/ascent-melbourne-season/?tab=creative-credits, accessed August 31, 2023.
  4. Donna Haraway in interview with Thyrza Nichols Goodeve for The Brooklyn Rail, https://brooklynrail.org/2017/12/art/DONNA-HARAWAY-with-Thyrza-Nichols-Goodeve, accessed August 31, 2023.
  5. Antony Hamilton in interview with Elaine Obran, “Movement, emotion and magic: Sydney Dance Company’s “Ascent”,” Her Canberra, https://hercanberra.com.au/visit/movement-emotion-and-magic-sydney-dance-companys-ascent/, accessed August 31, 2023.
  6. Antony Hamilton, “A note from the choreographer,” Sydney Dance Company’s “Ascent” 2023 National Program, https://issuu.com/sydneydancecompany/docs/ascent_program_national_tour, p 25, accessed August 31, 2023.

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