Photos - David Wyatt
In 2007 the Sydney Dance Company, and a significant part of Australian modern dance, underwent a rather controversial overhaul. This was the year that Graeme Murphy left Sydney Dance Company after thirty years in the role of Artistic Director. Then shortly following that, with the arrival and vision of its new Artistic Director Rafael Bonachela, came the news that the contracts of seven SDC dancers would not be renewed. They too would have to join the many dancers who, due to a variety of factors, not least of which stem from Australia’s lack of funding for the arts, would potentially have to look abroad for work.
Some four years on comes the introduction of the newly formed Mod Dance Company. At its helm in the roles of Artistic Directors are two of these former SDC artists, dancer Teagan Lowe and SDC’s former rehearsal director, Brett Morgan. MDC’s Chief Patron is Graeme Murphy and he choreographs its first work, Suite Synergy.
For months now Murphy, sometimes accompanied by a selection of the Company’s attractive dancers, including a few who once worked for SDC, has been conducting interviews to promote both Suite Synergy and MDC. From the outset this work was bound to create interest – it is Murphy’s first work on Australian stages in four years – but Murphy himself is quick to point out MDC is not his company, and that the focus should be on the fact that MDC, without Government funding, aims to make modern dance accessible to Australian audiences whilst keeping Australian artists within Australia.
Dance has become increasingly popular and accessible to the broader public in recent years thanks to reality TV shows such as So You Think You Can Dance. Although the dance pieces featured in these and similar shows are short, they are engaging from beginning to end. Earlier this year Murphy gave an interview about Suite Synergy on ABC radio and spoke of it not only appealing to families and a wider audience, but also to those who perhaps want more emotional engagement from dance than that which might be gained from the short dance pieces they see on television.
Certainly for an audience, being taken on a journey through a full length work that combines various dancers, live music, costume changes, even set changes, comes with a different experience, with other rewards, than shorter works. Despite this, Suite Synergy attempts to give its audience a taste of everything and in doing so, it loses its ability to really engage its audience or tell a story. For all its promotion and promises, what it offers is rather disappointing.
The production itself combines two of Murphy’s full-length works from the nineties, Synergy With Synergy and Free Radicals, and he collaborated with percussionist Michael Askill on both. In Suite Synergy, Askill is again musical director and he and three other talented percussionists; Rebecca Lloyd-Jones, Stephanie Mudford and Cameron Kennedy, supply the live music that is crucial to this work. Refreshingly, the musicians are always visible, either suspended on a platform above the dancers, or on the stage itself. They also interact directly with the dancers. At one point the dancers even become their instruments. Disappointingly however, whilst percussion instruments can create wonderful builds and crescendos in energy and tension (the exhilarating music in Jason Gilkison’s Floorplay comes to mind), this is rarely achieved in this work.
Within Suite Synergy are eleven seemingly unrelated dance pieces that exhibit various moods and styles, both within themselves and throughout the production as a whole. Whilst there are too many pieces for a production of this length, the duration of each piece is in itself not the problem but rather that in theme and mood they are rather conservative, even a little boring. Frustratingly, each piece has the potential to be enthralling but very few seem to know what sort of mood they are trying to evoke or the story that they are trying to tell. And, in instances where tension or mood begins to develop, it is often interrupted by the insertion of a clownish humour that runs, rather haphazardly, throughout the production.
To begin there is the earthy and animalistic Lemurian Dance. It opens strikingly with a curtain of silver pipes, designed by Adrian Sterritt, which lift to reveal a palette of black and white. The dancers, both in their movements, and Jennifer Irwins’s costumes, take on a reptilian form, and the music reflects this with sounds that at times resemble rattlesnakes. It is one of the few instances in which the combination of costumes, music and dance create a real sense of place and mood. But then, it rather strangely ends with one of the dancers being thrown into the air so that he can catch the bottom of the cage that holds the percussionists high above. It is there that the other dancers leave him dangling and calling for help. It’s an interesting movement and introduction of character, but one that is rather lost given that this is the last time we see this particular comic character.
Similarly Light Play is visually arresting. Emee Dillon is in the spotlight, teased by a series of gold and pink lights that play and dance through the darkness around and over her body. It is a potentially sensual, even erotic piece, but the artistry of it, and Dillon’s rather beautiful movements, are interrupted the dancer’s own noises that bring the mood back to one that is playful and almost comical.
Sticky Moments also initially promises something conceptually interesting. It begins with a film of the near-naked dancers, projected onto a screen. Then the dancers come onto stage and take their positions in front of their own silhouettes so that where the dancers’ bodies and their projected images start and end is not easily apparent. But then, almost as soon as the dancers have come onto stage, they disappear. Just one dancer, Kalman Warhaft, remains on stage and he proceeds to dress himself, and to then play the clown in what is essentially an act of slapstick. The display is certainly skilful and the lanky Warhaft is delightful in this role, but one would have quite liked to have seen a development of the theme that was all too briefly introduced at the beginning of this act, not to mention the fact that the image of Warhaft’s clownish character is difficult to shake when seeing him dance in the later, more serious pieces.
Despite some obvious timing issues, which will no doubt be ironed out as the season progresses, the dancers are impressive. Caleb Bartolo’s fiery and energetic solo in Thumper is certainly memorable, as is Henry Byalikov’s assured performance in Tap Attack - a mixture of Latin, flamenco and modern tap. In this piece, his fellow dancers make a polite attempt to keep up with him, but his Latin dance background is evident as he creates the fire, passion, and a build of tension that such a piece demands and deserves. His featuring doesn’t quite save the piece but, as is the case in other pieces in the second half of the production, it is artistically and aesthetically a very welcome addition.
Along with all of this it must be said that this is not a bad production. All the elements to make it fantastic – highly skilled and talented dancers, designers, choreographers and musicians – are already present. MDC have got the Company and the work itself to this point through sheer hard work and talent, but the success of both of these will depend on whether they can get bums on seats. Murphy’s name will most likely get them through this season, but if they are to have a future, they will need to challenge their audience conceptually, artistically, emotionally and viscerally; because its audience, despite what the nature of this work would suggest, is ready and waiting.
Mod Dance Company presents
Graeme Murphy’s Suite Synergy
Venue: the Arts Centre, State Theatre
Dates: 23 - 26 March 2011
Times: Wed - Saturday 8pm, Thursday & Saturday 2pm
Duration: 1 hour 40 minutes including 20 minute interval
Tickets: $59.00 - $109.00
Bookings: theartscentre.com.au | 1300 182 183 or the Arts Centre Box Office
Visit www.suitesynergy.com.au for full tour information