2019 is a milestone year for Sydney Dance Company – it turns fifty. And with the government-backed multi-million dollar renovation of its wharfside headquarters well underway, SDC is very much confirmed as one of Sydney’s best-loved artistic institutions. Its 50th year kicks off with a strong triple bill, Bonachela / Nankivell / Lane, named after the three choreographers it features.

<i>Neon Aether</i> © Pedro Greig
Neon Aether
© Pedro Greig

Gabrielle Nankivell’s Neon Aether came first. Premised on the idea of air – its translucence, mythical elusivity, and the deep human desire for it – this is (quite literally) breathtaking contemporary dance. Nankivell is capable of a choreography that evokes the sublimely poetic, and her Neon Aether is a vision of ethereal beauty. It is carried on Luke Smiles’ textured score, which recreates the whirring of machinery, the sound of air and the harmonies made by falling drops of water. The dancers, clothed in gauzy muted hues (Harriet Oxley’s costumes), move and lift each other through ensemble scenes as if walking on air, moving through mists, or floating across golden suspended liquids (Damien Cooper’s lighting). The whole piece has such a feeling of mystery and alchemy that it becomes an almost hypnotic experience. Nankivell writes that the work is an “ode to the burning intangibles that fuel our imagination... in and of the air... like heartbeats in glass jars” and certainly I had the sensation of peering into different alchemy chambers, each illumined by a different-coloured light, and catching brief glimpses of scientific explorations into the mysteries of the universe. The final scenes of Neon Aether, in which bright strobe flashes light the dancers in different tableaux, was transcendentally beautiful. I would have awarded this piece alone five stars.

<i>Cinco</i> © Pedro Greig
© Pedro Greig

Rafael Bonachela’s new work, Cinco, came next. Named for the five movements of its music, Alberto Ginastera’s String Quartet no. 2, it is the most balletic of the triple bill: sharp angles, over-extensions, precise placement of the feet, and fast framing of the body. It is also the most musically intense; there is barely any breathing space in Ginastera’s dense score. The layering of intense dance on intense music, with little obvious dynamic variation, made it difficult to grasp a sense of pacing and structure. Everything was so tightly-packed – visually, emotionally, and musically – that one felt a little overwhelmed. Nevertheless, the piece showed the ever-impressive technical ability of SDC’s dancers, who sped through the rapidly shifting geometries and fast corners of Cinco with apparently little exertion. 2019 has seen an unusually large turnover in SDC’s dancers, so I was pleased to see that despite the exciting new faces, the style and standard of the company remains as thrilling as ever. One welcomely consistent factor were the athletic solos from the elegant Charmene Yap, distinguishable from the other grey-clad dancers in a yellow silk dress (Bianca Spencer’s costume design) that fluttered rapidly as she pierced through Cinco’s speed.

Charmene Yap in <i>Cinco</i> © Pedro Greig
Charmene Yap in Cinco
© Pedro Greig

The final work of the night was Melanie Lane’s WOOF. This piece was originally a find – and what a find! – from the 2017 edition of SDC’s annual New Breed initiative to promote emerging choreographers. I was reminded again why it was such a smash-hit when it premiered. Created to explore ideas of futurism and group-think, WOOF begins with the dancers clad in futuristic gold outfits, chins jutting out like fashion models, hands and forearms painted black like Siamese cats, all moving slowly into posed tableaux positions. The effect was like watching a haute couture calendar shoot in slow motion. It then speeds up into quirky, witty, and imaginative ensemble dancing, borrowing gestures from high fashion, robots, and the corps de ballet. It is intelligent, stimulating choreography – both very artistic and hugely enjoyable, and showcases the discipline and professionalism of the SDC ensemble.

<i>WOOF</i> © Pedro Greig
© Pedro Greig

In short, there is an exciting range of styles and moods on display in this triple bill, all performed with the artistic and physical excellence that we have learnt to count on from SDC under Bonachela. The company might be turning half a century old, but its Bonachela / Nankivell / Lane proves that it is as fresh, vital, and athletic as ever.