Emotive end to a performance of breathtaking dance

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Sydney Dance Company performs “Impermanence”. Photo: Pedro Greig

“Impermanence”. Sydney Dance Company. At Canberra Theatre Centre. Reviewed by SAMARA PURNELL

DAYS away from the initial planned opening of “Impermanence”, a global pandemic brought curtains down on theatres across the world. 

Before that, composer Bryce Dessner, of American band The National and composer of “The Revenant” score, was living in Paris in 2019. 

After the Notre Dame fire, he then watched Australia burn in the 2019/20 bushfires. Saddened and inspired by what he had witnessed, he was moved to create this work, collaborating then, with Sydney Dance Company artistic director Rafael Bonachela. 

Bonachela drew his choreography around the score and once lockdown cancelled the show, both composer and choreographer extended the work to encompass this painful yet serendipitous new challenge and expand the meaning of the original work. Nothing is forever – not relationships, buildings, the planet as it currently is and life itself. 

As the curtain finally lifted, the dancers of the Sydney Dance Company filled the stage. 

Perfectly primed bodies, clad in Aleisa Jelbart’s unfussy costumes in a soft colour palette of eucalyptus green, brown, burnt orange, grey and white, resembling the natural colours of the Australian bush, flittered across the stage, tumbling and sliding like leaves being gently blown across the ground. 

The apparent ease with which the dancers glided, twisted, intertwined and bent, was pure joy to watch. The exquisite detail of an unexpected twitch, a pause, an awkward angle, was performed exceptionally smoothly and every leap appeared weightless. The dancers depicted a curious acceptance and an exploration of another change, another challenge, another interaction. 

Strongly performed fleeting solos and pas de deux depicted the fragility and changing nature of relationships and human interaction. The ensemble was on stage for much of the duration of the performance in a remarkable display of endurance. Many new faces were amongst the current touring group and it was exciting to see how well they worked together, already remarkably in sync. 

The inspiration and distinct topic relating to fires and specific examples of impermanence may be less recognisable than the tangible changing of days and seasons, identifiable through Damien Cooper’s lighting design, which morphed between soft blue-grey, short sequences of orange, the pinks of a sunrise and sparkling night rain. The changes are occasionally surprisingly sudden, at other times, the dancers are silhouetted against the backdrop for a period of time. 

The music was played onstage by the Australian String Quartet, which gave a tireless and enthralling performance. Passages of tension and hovering notes on violins led into moments of beautiful harmony and resolution – glorious to hear. 

A display of angst came in the final act of “Impermanence”, with the surprising inclusion of a song by Anohni (formerly lead singer of Antony and the Johnsons). A lone male dancer, in this case not the strongest solo performance of the evening, grapples with the future – of his own, of the planet, to the haunting lyrics of “Another World”. 

This was an unexpected, emotive and slightly sombre conclusion to what was a breathtaking production. The production elements combine aesthetically to portray renewal after destruction, hope after despair and beauty in the rebuild, as night follows day.

In arguably one of Bonachela’s most striking and memorable works for the SDC, the dancers commanded unwavering attention from the opening moments of the performance, to the lengthy curtain call with a standing ovation. This dance is impermanent, like so many things, yet the beauty and impact lingers on.

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