Bay 20, Carriageworks
Reviewed: Friday November 26
Now in its eighth edition, Sydney Dance Company’s New Breed has become a welcome part of Sydney’s annual dance calendar. This year, it was especially good to see SDC’s dancers back onstage and performing live for Sydney audiences given the company had not performed in its home city since February (due to program cancellations made necessary by pandemic restrictions).
Maintaining the format of four short new works ranging from approximately 15-20 minutes each, this year the choreographers taking part were made up of one company dancer – Jacopo Grabar, and three from outside SDC – Jasmin Sheppard, Lilian Steiner and Rhiannon Newton. As is always the case, the four resulting works were vastly different in concept and approach, giving audiences a real insight into the depth and variety of contemporary dance as a field.
Each work was professionally presented and costumed by Aleisa Jelbart (costume design) and Alexander Berlage (lighting design). Three out of four were accompanied by contemporary music compositions from Naretha Williams (Given Unto Thee), Fiona Hill (Springtime Again) and Peter Lenaerts (The Gift of a Warning); while Stereotipico utilized well known musical songs and melodies from composers like Verdi and Ponchielli to great comedic and dramatic effect.
Jasmine Sheppard’s Given Unto Thee is about colonizing powers’ use of religion to both control and subjugate indigenous people and take their land. In her introduction, Sheppard stressed that it was not about any particular religion but about the "use" of religion to these ends. The use of costume (sleeveless red/white robes with high slits) and props (one book for each dancer – representing a religious text) were crucial in communicating this theme to the audience. I admired the way Sheppard integrated the dancers’ use of costume into the choreography itself so that the cloth could be a rag, for example, with which a kneeling dancer might seem to scrub the floor, or could be something more precious – held reverently as if a sacred object in a religious ceremony. Particularly striking was a section whereby one dancer paraded along a red carpet made up of the crimson red undersides of their fellow dancers’ robes.
Lilian Steiner's Springtime Again was not as joyful and light as its title might seem to imply. This work – a portrayal of humanity through abstraction – literally abstracted the dancers’ bodies (dressed in black and under low light) as our attention was drawn instead to the glow in the dark, soft and flexible blob shapes that the dancers manipulated in tandem with their own moves. Under low light, I couldn’t see much of the dancers themselves but when I did catch a glimpse they appeared to be dancing with the utmost commitment and focus. Anyone who has watched the way that rounded shapes in a lava lamp slowly move – their shapes distorting as they coalesce then break away from each other – will have a pretty good idea of the visual effect created by the movement of these glow-in-the-dark shapes onstage. Eventually the first dancers were joined by several others moving with large sculptural objects that had the textural appearance of cauliflower. This was one of the longest works of the evening and, while visually interesting, it did not score high on entertainment value, with the exception of Mia Thompson’s sharp movements and skittering runs as she held aloft the smallest, most symmetrical blob of all.
In contrast Jacopo Grabar’s Stereotipico had plenty of warmth, wit and life. Through a representation of stereotypes of Italian people and culture (Grabar is from Italy) this work for six dancers seeks to engage and amuse its audience while ultimately asking us to question our preconceived assumptions of the "other". And it does it so well. The entire cast was outstanding, but Davide di Giovanni, Emily Seymour and Mia Thompson deserve a special mention. The choreography itself was technically challenging and a bit more balletic in style – with some creative partnering moves in the mix too. The final costume change right at the end was a neat twist on the Italian stereotypes that had been so heavily emphasized throughout, as the dancers revealed the typically "Aussie" swimsuits and beachwear they had been wearing under the beige shorts/trouser and white top combo all along… and the oversized prop tomato/pomodoro that had served as a focal point for much of the work replaced by a lamington!
I did not find Rhiannon Newton’s notes on her work The Gift of a Warning easy to understand but I think this work refers to human impacts on the environment and asks whether there is something in the way dancers use physical forces in movement that could be relevant to the way we collectively use resources at an environmental level. It starts off slowly, with several solitary dancers in frenzied yet contained/constrained movements. Then they merge into a group; the dancers’ movement slows right down to a carefully controlled snail’s pace and then gradually picks up, this time in travelling, turning combinations of dancers in groups of two or three – moving mostly along diagonal pathways. Back and forth they go, and by picking up speed the audience perceives the dancers not just as individuals but as conduits of larger streams of energy and force that propel them onwards. These latter sections are satisfying to watch and The Gift of a Warning shows promise but perhaps needs more development and/or a clearer exposition of its intention.
– GERALDINE HIGGINSON
All photos above by Pedro Greig.