Dancing into the Mind of the Wildebeest

It will be a double-bill to remember as Sydney Dance Company returns to Adelaide with its latest internationally acclaimed work Frame of Mind and the Helpmann-nominated Wildebeest by Adelaide’s Gabrielle Nankivell.

“In every way that I can think of, this is the model of what a contemporary dance ensemble should be,” raved prominent New York dance critic Andrew Blackmore-Dobbyn about the Sydney Dance Company’s (SDC) Frame of Mind earlier this year.

With the SDC approaching its half-century, Frame of Mind continues its innovative streak. It was founded in 1969 by Suzanne Musitz as a dance-in-education. Graeme Murphy was directing by 1979 with Janet Vernon joining as an associate. They retired in 2007, having taken the company on more than 25 international tours as well as regularly touring Australia with a varied repertoire, many by Murphy; the most inventive choreographer the country had produced.

Another brilliant dancer-choreographer, Tanja Liedtke, well-known to Adelaide audiences as an Australian Dance Theatre performer, was appointed the new director, but shockingly died in a road accident in 2007. The 2008 season nevertheless went ahead under executive director Noel Staunton, with new works by Meryl Tankard, Aszure Barton and Rafael Bonachela, who subsequently became the company’s director.

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Bonachela grew up in Barcelona, trained mainly in London, and was with Ballet Rambert for 13 years before coming to Australia. In 2009, we saw his first work for SDC, 360°, which was also his first full-length piece. Bonachela once told me that his focus is on movement, that he is not a story-teller; he then changed that a little to say that his work is “full of stories, but the stories are in the movement”. He wants to create different emotional landscapes, to create different textures. He often succeeds. In January, he sensationally choreographed a work for the Art Gallery of New South Wales’s exhibition of nudes from London’s Tate gallery. The dancers and audiences were naked. It was a huge success.

On this visit, we shall be seeing Bonachela’s fully-clothed Frame of Mind (2015), which perceptive Sydney critic Deborah Jones says “fruitfully reaches for intimate moods and stage pictures that imply characters and narratives to a degree unusual in Bonachela’s work”, choreographed to “thrillingly muscular music” written for the Kronos Quartet by Bryce Dessner of The National. A dazzling success, Frame of Mind won all four categories for the 2015 Helpmann Awards including Best Choreography, Best Dance Work, Best Male Dancer and Best Female Dancer in its critically acclaimed premiere season.

Adelaide Hills-bred Gabrielle Nankivell’s Wildebeest is also on the program and has also experienced critical success. It was nominated for the 2017 Helpmann Award for Best Choreography while lead dancer Bernard Knauer was nominated for Best Male Dancer. Premiered as part of Sydney Dance Company’s 2014 New Breed season, Wildebeest is a high-energy work with gripping choreography, the dancers hinting at mysterious forest animals who sometimes group together in a pack, defensively, while fighting ferociously among themselves for individual dominance.

Jones sees Nankivell as being “fascinated by the strangeness of the human animal and the way it arranges itself into societies”. The choreographer says she is interested in physicality, in the dark and dramatic, in a world of storm and power. But, she says, “I like drama, I like humour” and how “everything big is built up from little things”. She develops her choreography through writing, and carries more than one notebook with her to record ideas and observations.

After early dance lessons in Adelaide, Nankivell took a degree from the Victorian College of the Arts before going overseas to work with companies in Europe, particularly in Belgium with Ultima Vez/Wim Vandekeybus, who performed memorably in the 2013 Adelaide Festival.

Back home, she has worked with most of Australia’s significant modern dancemakers — Garry Stewart, Gideon Obarzanek and Gavin Webber among them. She was Windmill Theatre’s movement consultant for the highly enjoyable School Dance and the more recent Girl Asleep (now a successful film). Her newest work, Split Second Heroes, had a two-night season at the Space Theatre. Very different in form, Split Second Heroes is just as revealing of Nankivell’s imagination and vigorous thought as Wildebeest.

Sydney Dance Company: Frame of Mind & Wildebeest
Thursday, August 17 to Saturday August 19
Her Majesty’s Theatre
sydneydancecompany.com

Photography: Peter Greig

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