Sydney Dance Company Artistic Director: Rafael Bonachela
Choreographer: Gabrielle Nankivell
Choreographer: Rafael Bonachela in collaboration with the dancers
The first of the pair, Wildebeest, is exceptional. Gabrielle Nankivell’s choreography is without compare, as are the shifts and dynamism of the dancers’ delivery. Containing the whole is a sparse black stage with no props or staging beyond the black vertical blades of side staging and a sheer black wall at the rear. What makes it exceptional from a staging perspective is Benjamin Cisterne’s lighting design. Rather than flood and spot, flood and spot ad nauseam, the lighting is delivered through a number of quite distinct channels.
The most stunning delivery is as though the light is shining from high narrow horizontal apertures. The result is John Pawson-esque in its slightly monastic feel of God’s hand penetrating the void. This particular method creates very clear areas of illuminated activity and, while directing the audience’s gaze to the performers, it has the additional effect of suggesting both their strength (as demonstrated by their taut physical alacrity) and vulnerability (in a universal sense).
What makes this lighting design so good is the designer’s ability to continuously evolve it to support the work’s physical presence and conceptual mores. The shuttering strobe, for example, is only fleetingly used, rather than becoming a repeat motif. Similarly, a large central spot that fans outwards to create a cone of light is only used when necessary. It is this versatility and assortment that make the moments of backlit stage smoke downstage so utterly composed and relevant.
The second piece, Anima, is similarly sparsely staged, with, this time, a white floor and backdrop. The lighting, also by Benjamin Cisterne, is here more about mood and function than a design element of the virtuoso scale delivered in Wildebeest. Which is not to say it’s bad. There are just other things going on.
The main staging visual is delivered via the entire back wall delivery of video. This is the work of visual designer, Clemens Habicht, who says: “We glimpse these apparitions as a spirit-like echo extending beyond and outside the physical bodies of dancers, as Rafael [Bonachela] might say, as souls in flight.” Translated to video, this means blobs of light and colour bobbing in parallel with the dancers, escalating and subsiding at slight odds with the real-time performance.
To some extent, it’s a distraction that feels weighed down by intention. That is, until the second half, when it stops being tricky and starts being a piece of design. “Directly echoing the dance onstage, the visual projection is a reactive accompaniment that translates the expressive forms and gestures of the dancers into abstractions of motion,” says Habicht. At this point it changes to rolling blobs of colour that morphs and mutates at speed, interposed with full-colour washes that transform the entire stage. The electric peacock green is particularly impressive.
It is, however, the sharp shards of light penetrating the space and holding the dancers that makes Wildebeest the more successful. Moreover, Cisterne’s lighting engages fully with Nankivell’s conceptual directive: “The work is a world where instinct and knowledge meets. It is an assemblage of the dancers’ fascination for physicality, their power as individuals and strength en masse, their wildebeests within… from animal through human to machine and beyond, Wildebeest traces evolution as wild as the animal’s path.”
Photography by Pedro Grieg.