Sydney Dance Company’s latest double bill is all about the power of eight, with circles and the tug of the moon thrown in for good measure. But if that all feels overly mathematical, cerebral or mumbo jumbo mystical, think again. And if Taiwanese choreographer Cheng Tsung-lung’s Full Moon, for all its visual beauty, was ultimately impenetrable, at least to this reviewer, Rafael Bonachela’s Ocho more than made up for it with a visceral, brooding exploration of urban life.

Bernhard Knauer and Sam Young-Wright in Full Moon. All photos © Pedro Greig

Cheng, as Artistic Director of Taipei’s Cloud Gate 2, comes with impeccable credentials and is the first Asian choreographer to make a work on SDC. His work is often inspired by the dynamics of street life, but the inspiration for Full Moon looks to higher things, and in particular the panoply of myths, legends and superstitions that various human cultures have projected onto the Earth’s silvery satellite.

His eight dancers (he and Bonachela have, unusually for SDC, split the company in half) were ravishingly costumed by Fan Huai-chih who has taken her inspiration from the principles of Zen – especially the Japanese rock garden – with a touch of bird plumage here and there and purportedly a nod towards A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Full length, pleated and bristling with a colour palette ranging from silvers to blues and reds, they flow like water and any awkwardness is skilfully managed by Cheng and his dancers. Lim Giong’s attractive score for strings, percussion and electronics added another element; this time the inspiration came from waxing and waning of the moon across the four seasons.

Jesse Scales and Latisha Sparks in Full Moon

Opening with the full company running in orbit, Cheng’s movement alternated between the elegant and extended, and the leaping and spasmodic, always taking the idea of the circle as its basis. Dancers spun and arced, their limbs carving out graceful spheres in thin air. And yet the work had an intrinsically elusive quality about it. While it seemed that quite specific stories were being told in ones, twos and threes, the overall effect was baffling. Was fire dancing with water? Or were we watching the progress of the heavenly spheres? The programme note held few clues, but when a girl looks like she’s expiring of poison while a couple of others are in the midst of telling quite a different tale, borderline confusion can tip over into intellectual frustration.

Having said that, there were some memorable and imaginative moments, such as the two girls tossing their hair like manes (Holly Doyle and Janessa Dufty), the elegant solos and duets of Jesse Scales, stunningly attired in pearly white, and the leaps and rolls of Latisha Sparks in her dress of flames. The men took on statelier roles, progressing around the stage with elegant foot and hand extensions or seated in suitable Zen poses. Ably abetted by Damien Cooper’s sensitively contrasted hard/soft lighting design it looked a million dollars – the photos alone are worth spending half an hour over – but with choreography, costumes and music all coming at the work from slightly different directions, overall Full Moon remained as inscrutable as the orb itself.

Nelson Earl in Ocho

On paper Ocho, with its nod to numerology and the power of infinity, looked to be as challenging. What emerged, however, was a potent, confronting look at the tensions between the individual and the tribe, placed within a grimly oppressive, brutalist box of a set from David Fleischer. Bonachela places his eight dancers in a claustrophobic fish tank, the initial atmosphere of entrapment not unlike an urban exploration of Sartre’s Huis Clos. Fleisher has also provided a visually impressive array of costumes using a sort of eight dancers/four outfits approach. Thus each is semi-clad – topless or (sort of) bottomless – in fragments of urban attire: a trackie top here, a pair of shorts or a ‘wife beater’ vest there.

Everything about the work was laced with tension and menace as one by one the dancers emerged to explore their individual physicality and varying attitudes to freedom. Of course, one man’s liberation is another man’s loneliness and Bonachela proved adept in maximising our awareness of the breadth of human response to the impersonal oppression of the 21st-century concrete jungle. First one man leaves (the magnetic Nelson Earl), the others watch intently, envious yet dangerous. A woman steps out (Juliette Barton), men stare with an ambiguity born of the sexual predator. Josephine Weise dances a defiant solo exuding a palpably defensive sense of “fuck you”.

Company in Ocho

Each of the other five (Davide di Giovanni, Izzac Carroll, Petros Treklis, Charmene Yap and Cass Mortimer Eipper) has a significant solo, each one is brilliantly conceived to show the range of the individual and their place within the pack. Once out of the tank, the dancers spar, drawn together, yet cautious and ready to leap apart, finally joining in a whirling riot of limbs drawing its energy from the common act. Damien Cooper’s pin-point lighting design flickers and flashes, the fear of grid overload in this stir crazy jungle adding to the sense of danger. Yap, the last to exit and seemingly afraid to leave captivity lingers in the tank, the moment pregnant and pure Edward Hopper. Once free, she has an aching cat-like solo as she explores her brave new world.

All of the above is thrillingly integrated to a pumping, pulsing electronica-led score by Nick Wales. A regular Bonachela collaborator, the strength of their partnership is evident with a sense that the music and dance have been created in close contact throughout the rehearsal period. With haunting trumpet overlays from David Elton – does any instrument convey so well the loneliness of the city at night? – the music crackles and pops with the buzz of electronics. The coup de grâce is the emergence from the texture of the voice of Yolngu songman Rrawun Maymuru. It’s musically a heart-stopping moment and precipitates a final healing with the dancers coming together as one tribe at last, with all the residual heartache such loss of individuality involves.

Company in Ocho

Bonachela has done SDC proud with this thrilling, visceral piece, exploiting every inch of his precise, virtuosic dancers. I can’t think of a better introduction to his abstract yet dramatically conceived world than Ocho, an intensely theatrical work that cries out to be seen by dance lovers and anyone interested in the way movement can tell stories in modern society.

Orb is at Roslyn Packer Theatre, Sydney until May 13 before touring to Melbourne and Canberra


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