By William Kentridge (music composed and conceived by Nhlanhla Mahlangu and Kyle Shepherd)
Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House
Reviewed November 2
Sydney Dance Company
Neilson Studio at SDC
Reviewed November 3
Sibyl and Somos both opened in Sydney last week, and despite the linguistic similarities of their names, these works are quite different both in scale, the type of dance they showcased, and in the way they sought to connect with their audience.
Compelling and strangely beautiful, Sibyl is the brainchild of South African artist William Kentridge with music composed and conceived by Nhlanhla Mahlangu and Kyle Shepherd. The first act is a 20-minute film which combines Kentridge’s hand-drawn animation with real footage of the artist at work in his studio. The film is at turns whimsical, humorous and poignant as we in the audience see the artist’s hand-drawn characters and environments develop in real time. The film is accompanied downstage by a solo pianist (Kyle Shepherd) and four male singers in what appear to be boiler suits. The diversity of their combined vocal range is astonishing as they sing in four Bantu languages the sayings and poems that are interspersed into the animation in English. These include,
‘The moment has passed’
‘Heaven is talking in a foreign tongue’
‘Winter will end at 11am’
‘Love will paralyse the joints’
‘Wait again for better gods’
If some of these sound a little like obscure prophecies or predictions that is likely a link to the Sibyl that the work takes its name from. In ancient Greece a Sibyl was a female priestess with prophetic abilities and there are literary accounts of many Sibyls in the ancient world.
In the second act the stage opens up to reveal a rehearsal set in disarray, the floor strewn with loose pages of written text while a ladder and some chairs are scattered across the space. The cast of four singers expands to include nine singers and dancers. While voice remains a key part of what is described in the program as a "chamber opera", the performers’ movement capacity expands to become more vigorous and dynamic as their costumes become larger and more prominent. These costumes evoke the aesthetic of the Bauhaus movement which flourished in Germany between WW1 and WW2; and in particular Oskar Schlemmer’s Triadic Ballet. Costume designer Greta Goiris has created costumes which both obscure and exaggerate their wearers’ bodies – making them look more like kinetic movement sculptures in bold geometric shapes rather than real people.
While movement is a key part of the works second act there is no direct attribution of choreography or movement direction in the program. However I suspect this is a reflection of the entwinement of song and dance in artist Nhlanhla Mahlangu’s practice rather than an omission.
Sibyl ran at the Sydney Opera House for a limited run of three nights as part of their 50th birthday celebrations. It was co-commissioned by Teatro dell’Opera di Roma, Les Théâtres de la Ville de Luxembourg and Dramaten – Stockholm.
For something closer to home, Sydney Dance Company premiered its new work Somos at its very own Neilson Studio and this small but versatile space gave the performance an intimacy that is harder to achieve in a larger theatre. Sydney Dance Company’s talented technical crew has purpose-built a raised platform stage just 30cm above floor level, 9.5 metres long and 5.5 metres wide. Encircled by two rows of seats, with minimal space between them, the cast of 14 dancers made their exits and entrances throughout the show through the same doorway that the audience had entered through. Seating was unallocated, but proximity to the stage meant that you had an excellent view of the performance wherever you sat. This experience of theatre "in-the-round" also allowed viewers to see the faces and reactions of fellow audience members across the other side of the stage as the performance unfolded.
Over 50 minutes SDC’s talented dancers performed a series of solos, duets, trios and larger ensemble sections to 12 songs from five Hispanic artists. One of those songs was called Somos – sung by Costa Rican – Mexican singer Chavel Vargas. Somos means "we are" in Spanish and Artistic Director Rafael Bonachela’s newest work is both a tribute to his Spanish heritage – the first time he has created a full-length work to Spanish music – and a showcase of the individual dancers that comprise Sydney Dance Company.
In the Neilson Sudio you could see the detail of each partnered move – exactly how a hand was placed just before a lift ensued as well as the softly thudded landing of a more explosive movement, or the way an individual dancer's hair begins to stick to their face with sweat. Proof that these sometimes superhuman feats were actually being performed by real people, as subject to the sweat of exertion or the force of gravity as the rest of us. This seems an obvious point I know, but when viewed from a distance the effort of such movement is often concealed, and the technical demands and speed of Bonachela’s choreography so immense that there is a distancing effect whereby we admire the dancers but do not so easily relate to them.
Somos is a fantastic showcase for the company’s current dancers as the individuals they are, and an excellent introduction to those company members who have joined the company post-pandemic. I particularly admired solos performed by Dean Elliott and Jesse Scales; and duets performed by Naiara de Matos and Piran Scott, Emily Seymour and Liam Green, and Madeleine Harms with Emily Seymour. Luke Hayward, Riley Fitzgerald and Sophie Jones also impressed. At times the tone is combative, with intimations of frustration and anger between individuals, but this is explored sensitively and contrasted with some more joyous and, alternately, introspective sections. Some of Kelsey Lee’s costume designs are revealing but they are mostly tasteful, featuring a variety of textures and fabrics – predominantly in black – that simultaneously conceal and reveal the dancers’ bodies.
Somos runs until the November 18 and SDC’s café space has been transformed into a Spanish tapas bar, Bar Boca for the duration of the season for pre and post-show drinks and meals. There’s also live Spanish music on Friday and Saturday nights.
– GERALDINE HIGGINSON