Recently there have been a few milestone anniversaries in Australian dance. And with Sydney Dance Company such a beloved institution, it was with curiosity I anticipated its 50th anniversary season: a reprise of artistic director Rafael Bonachela’s 6 Breaths; and the premiere of Gideon Obarzanek’s Us 50, commissioned specially for the birthday event.

<i>6 Breaths</i> © Pedro Greig
6 Breaths
© Pedro Greig

In his trademark introductory speech, Bonachela commemorated the company’s legacy, acknowledging the SDC alumni in the audience and backstage waiting to perform in Us 50. Graeme Murphy and Janet Vernon couldn’t attend opening night (they were, he explained, somewhat fittingly at Murphy’s own birthday celebrations) but their contribution was beautifully acknowledged in the opening tribute film: 50 Years of Defining Contemporary Dance by Pedro Greig and Philippe Charluet. It featured a montage of four decades of the Murphy/Vernon years – a reminder of their magnificent presence in Australian dance through SDC. It was also a fascinating opportunity to contrast SDC’s image in the Bonachela decade: a more “global style of choreography,” Jill Sykes was quoted. “Smart, crisp, polished.”

An apt description, as 6 Breaths demonstrated. Last seen in Sydney in 2010, this was Bonachela’s second collaboration with Italian composer Ezio Bosso, featuring six minimalist movements for cello and piano. Each movement cleverly explores the cycle of human life and relationships through the breath metaphor, as the titles made clear: First Breath; Out of Breath; Crying Breath; In the Same Breath; Under One’s Breath; and Last Breath.

<i>6 Breaths</i> © Don Arnold
6 Breaths
© Don Arnold

The work was lifted from the outset by Tim Richardson’s wonderfully emotive video art. The dancing itself was beautifully abstract, classic Bonachela: small and large ensembles, intricate musical interplay, emotional intensity, and physical virtuosity. And while all the dancing was stunning, the highlight was Riley Fitzgerald and Dimitri Kleioris’s Crying Breath duo, which attained that spellbinding combination of heart-stopping athleticism and riveting emotion. Fitzgerald began, head lowered, with both hands making a distinctive gasping gesture at his side, like a lung expanding and contracting. But the grief he poured into it made me think of the sobs in Mozart’s Lacrimosa or the gaping side wound in the crucified Christ.

After the intensity of 6 Breaths, the atmosphere changed to the birthday celebrations of Us 50. Obarzanek, a household name in Australian dance, is probably best known for his festival work and as the founder of Chunky Move. But in his early career he was a SDC dancer, so it is wonderfully fitting he was commissioned for the anniversary. In Us 50 he commemorates dance as an art passed down not through writing but in memory and movement, dancer to dancer and dancer to audience. Us 50 does this through movement mirroring and large blocks of group dance, where gestures pass from body to body. And to make the message abundantly clear, he assembled a “who’s who” of 10 SDC alumni and 25 audience members to take the stage with the company.

<i>Us 50</i> © Don Arnold
Us 50
© Don Arnold

It was a treat to see SDC luminaries on stage again, especially with footage of many appearing in the earlier tribute film. They included the Murphy/Vernon muse, Wakako Asano, and Bradley Chatfield, Kathryn Dunn, Lea Francis, Kip Gamblin, Stefan Karlsson, Bill Pengelly, Linda Ridgway Gamblin, and Nina Veretennikova. The scene-stealer, though, was the beautiful Sheree Da Costa, who joined SDC in 1977 aged 19. Us 50 marks her return to the stage after 16 years of retirement, and even in her 60s, she transfixes with her remarkable eyes and consummate stage presence.

The 25 audience members – who previously requested to participate (so don’t fear being plucked unwillingly from the crowd) – had no rehearsal but were directed through an earpiece by Assistant Choreographer Charmene Yap.

<i>Us 50</i> © Pedro Greig
Us 50
© Pedro Greig

Obarzanek has done a clever job of creating movement performable by both civilians and the company’s superhumans. Whilst my guest felt this accommodating lack of virtuosic dancing was a waste of SDC talent, at a conceptual level I was oddly transfixed. There’s something fascinating about watching the same movement on dancers and non-dancers, and the thoughtful combinations of group movement to Chris Clark’s rhythmic electronic score were strangely hypnotic. It also helped that the ensemble were dressed in Harriet Oxley’s trendy streetwear (think jewel-toned playsuits). I felt I’d gatecrashed an exclusive Eastern Suburbs cocktail pajama party. The whole thing, audience participation and all, felt very Sydney. But that was all right. Because it was exactly where we were, exactly where SDC has been for 50 years, and exactly where I hope they’ll remain.

For audience members not so familiar with the alumni and not so keen on experimental audience participation, I admit Us 50 might seem a bit perplexing. But the dancers on stage were clearly having a ball – and as a heartwarming celebration of Australian dance, it's hard not to get into the birthday spirit. Here’s to another 50!

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