Sydney Dance Company’s New Breed gets down and dirty – Sydney Morning Herald

November 20, 2015

By Elissa Blake

New Breed

Eight female dancers are stomping the floor of a Sydney Dance Company rehearsal room. Bodies and knees are sharply bent. Feet are flexed. Every now and then, the dancers’ fingers flare straight up either side of their heads, making a crown.

This is dancer-choreographer Daniel Riley’s Reign, a short new choreographic work that requires the normally pristine dancers of the SDC to roll around in the dirt. One of them will end up buried in it.

For these elite contemporary performers – all experts in “pure dance” – Reign offers a chance to experiment with acting, storytelling and improvising within a much more grounded dance vocabulary than they are accustomed to.

Choreographer Kristina Chan in SDC's <i>New Breed.</i>

“I get to feel the movement instead of being on a count or having every movement perfect,” says dancer Janessa Dufty, who plays a queen in Reign. “Feeling is the main thing in this work. We are improvising in parts, and exploring our characters. Daniel adds a feeling like, ‘make it more thick’. I really feel creature-like, getting down and dirty.”

Reign is one of four new works in New Breed 2015, the SDC’s showcase for new and emerging choreographers.

Riley is an indigenous dancer best known for his work in Bangarra Dance Theatre, where he has danced for seven years and created two works.

Kristina Chan is a dancer and independent choreographer who has won a Helpmann Award and two Australian Dance Awards.

The other two works are by current SDC dancers and first-time choreographers: Derived, by Bernhard Knauer, and so much, doesn’t matter ­by Fiona Jopp.

Created by SDC artistic director Rafael Bonachela and now in its second year, New Breed offers up-and-coming choreographers the rare opportunity to work with a full company of professional dancers.

Many independent dance-makers create and perform solos, simply because they don’t have the funding to work with a larger group of dancers. Decent rehearsal space and marketing budgets are similarly hard to come by.

“Working with so many dancers of this calibre is unheard of,” says Chan. “And being under the banner of Sydney Dance Company means there is an audience waiting. We don’t have to build one of our own. Raf has been so supportive and yet he’s also stayed out of the process. He’s put his trust in us.”

Chan’s work, Conform, uses all the men in the company. It is inspired by patriarchal culture and the pressure society puts on men to behave in prescribed ways.

“We started with open discussions about what it means to grow up male and what it is to be a man in front of another man,” Chan explains. “Some of them talked about growing up dancing and how that was looked down upon, so they kept it secret.

“The heterosexual men said they grew up believing the male was supposed to support the female, these ingrained traditions and pressures are still lingering.”

Chan abstracted those discussions into physical movements, asking the dancers to imagine those pressures and tensions in their bodies.

“The choreography comes from a place of embodying an experience or embodying a state of being or even another material,” she says. “For example, shifting your body from being a human with flesh and blood and bone to being a plastic bottle under pressure in an airplane that compresses.”

In another section, the men, dressed in T-shirts and street shoes, move in tight unison, their heads pulling in one direction or another.

“It is so important that they imagine their heads being pulled by an outside force,” Chan says. “It’s clear to me when they are just moving their heads and when they are really imagining that experience to the limit. It’s such a fine line but it makes such a huge difference.”

Riley, who is working with all the women in the company, has enjoyed capturing their power.

“It was a challenge at first because it was such a different aesthetic for them,” he says. “It took a few days to drop the hips, drop the pelvis, bend the knees and relax the feet. It has hard, physical, full-bodied movement that is very grounded.

“I’m drawn to the earth. It might be my cultural connection or my identity, but it is also informed by Bangarra and the way I like to move. I use the floor a lot as opposed to fighting gravity. I want them to give in and let the floor be their dance partner.”

Dancer Fiona Jopp’s work, so much, doesn’t matter, uses the familiar tune Greensleeves to poke fun at materialism.

“It’s been so interesting to be on the other side of creating a dance work,” she says. “The dancers are my friends, so there is a level of silliness in the studio but there is also a really earnest willingness to do something really good.”

Fellow SDC dancer Bernhard Knauer agrees: “I am loving working with my colleagues. At first I was afraid of stepping into the role of choreographer after being on the other side, but they have been so welcoming. This opportunity has really made me think positively about becoming a choreographer. I want to pursue it further.”

New Breed 2015 plays at Carriageworks from December 8-13.

Image 1: Choreographer Daniel Riley and dancer Janessa Dufty in New Breed by the Sydney Dance Company. Photo: Nic Walker

Image 2: Choreographer Kristina Chan in SDC’s New Breed.Photo: Nic Walker