Sydney Dance Company: ASCENT

It’s not unusual for companies to premiere new works in Canberra. We are the National Capita after all. However it is unusual for the Sydney Dance Company to premiere one of its works outside Sydney. In fact, this is the first time the company has done this in the fifteen years Rafael Bonachella has been its Artistic Director.

Ascent contains two world premieres: Bonachela’s own new work, I Am-ness; and the first ever Australian commissioned work by Spanish choreographer, Marena Mascarell, The Shell, A Ghost, The Host and the Lyrebird.  The third work in this triple bill is a revival of Antony Hamilton’s 2018 Helpmann Award winning masterwork, Forever & Ever.

The evening commenced on a meditative note with the opening strains of Peteris Vasks’ Lonely Angel filling the darkened theatre to herald Bonachela’s I Am-ness. As the curtain slowly rose, four dancers were revealed, motionless on a haze-filled stage. They began to respond to the music forming complex sculptural patterns, engaging and disengaging with each other with superbly controlled and co-ordinated movement enhanced by Damien Cooper’s moody lighting design.

I Am-ness is classic Bonachella. Another striking showcase of his mastery of movement in which he  works  with four perfectly attuned dancers, Naiara de Matos, Piran Scott, Madeline Harms and Riley Fitzgerald to create an abstract visualisation of the music, so beautiful and compelling as to make it impossible to listen to this music again without the image of these dancers running through the mind.

By way of contrast, Marina Mascarell’s stunning creation, The Shell, A Ghost, The Host & The Lyrebird contained very little actual dance as such. Instead Mascarell offered a strikingly beautiful abstract staging involving acres of ropes and fabric manipulated by 9 dancers to create, what appeared to be, a storm at sea.

The remarkable set and costumes designed by Lauren Brincat and Leah Giblin certainly had a nautical flavour with red, white, and blue highlights featured prominently, while Damien Cooper’s atmospheric lighting design and Nick Wales impressionistic soundtrack which featured naturalistic sounds of creaking wood, sea birds and wind among the orchestrations, heightened this impression.

Throughout the work the dancers wrestled with the ropes and fabrics to create ever-changing stage pictures, occasionally swaying side to side as if blown by wind, while fascinating with their ability to avoid potential disaster.

Rounding out this triple-bill, a welcome revival of Anthony Hamilton’s extra-ordinary 2018 creation, Forever & Ever which commences even before most of the audience have resumed their seats after interval.

Returning to their seats the audience is startled to notice lone dancer, Jesse Scales, earnestly practicing striking moves on the unlit stage. A flash of light heralds the reveal of the stark black and white stage. Scales exits as a line of dancers, ominously costumed in huge black or white full-length puffer jackets, slowly take the stage.

Paula Levis’ remarkable costume design is inspired by babushka dolls, and as the work progresses the puffer jackets are removed to reveal more layers, firstly bright yellow and black, then red and black, until the dancers finish in simple brief black attire.

While this is happening the dancers perform ever-changing patterns of complex movement, mostly in unison, but sometimes individually, propelled by the perpetual beat of Julian Hamilton’s insistent soundtrack, and enhanced by an amazing light design by Ben Cistene which utilises hand-held lanterns flashes of brilliant colour.

The overall effect is aggressive, startling and completely mesmerising, leaving the audience in awe at the ability of the dancers to accurately perform the massed movement, and providing the perfect conclusion to an evening of challenging, perfectly executed and deeply satisfying contemporary dance.

A notable feature of this performance was the surprise appearance on stage of Rafael Bonachella, immediately following the premiere of his own work, I Am-ness. Clearly affected by its enthusiastic reception, and to provide an imaginative solution to cover the extra time required to set up the complex setting required for the next work, Bonachella charmingly used the time to explain why the program was entitled Ascent and to provide background to the other works on the program.

Although much of this information was provided in the well-produced programs which the audience could access via PR codes in the foyer, one wonders how many of them bothered. The increasing practice of not providing printed programs for the performance not only does the artists and creatives a dis-service because most of the audience will leave the theatre ignorant of their contribution, but it also denies the audience the essential knowledge of the creative process contained in the programs, which would have enhanced their experience. Please bring back printed programs.

Playhouse – Canberra Theatre Centre, Civic Square, Canberra
Performance: Thursday 9 March 2023
Season continues to 11 March 2023

Following its Canberra season, ASCENT will be presented in the Drama Theatre – Sydney Opera House: 15 – 26 March. For more information, visit: for details.

Image: Anthony Hamilton’s Forever & Ever – photo by Pedro Grieg

Review: Bill Stephens OAM