There was a point where I thought Sydney Dance Company’s Decadance might not go ahead. With a question mark hanging over performances as the Omicron wave peaked in Sydney, Decadance then unwittingly caused front-page political furore after news leaked that it had garnered Israeli funding for the Sydney Festival. Over 30 acts and individuals boycotted the Festival in protest, attracting a small rally and police presence on opening night.

Sydney Dance Company in Decadance
© Daniel Boud

Decadance though, is not really a political work but a "best of" celebration of choreographer Ohad Naharin. It also allows Australian audiences to be exposed to cutting-edge contemporary dance from the Middle East – a golden opportunity for a country whose dance scene looks abroad mostly to Europe and North America. Creator of the Gaga dance method, Naharin is artistic director of Tel Aviv’s Batsheva Dance Company. He created Decadance in 2000 to mark his tenth anniversary with them, using ten excerpts of his choreography. Since then it has become a living piece which Naharin regularly remixes, curating from updated repertoire to suit each new performance. This is a fitting approach for the founder of the Gaga movement language – which has nothing to do with Lady Gaga (though Natalie Portman did use it to prepare for the film Black Swan), and everything to do with helping dancers listen to the rhythms of their own unique physicality. It’s a style that suits Sydney Dance Company. Under their usual choreographer and artistic director Rafael Bonachela, they are trained to bring an all-encompassing commitment to their dancing. No less is required for Naharin’s choreography, which blends sophisticated, visceral athleticism with a very human warmth and spontaneity.

This iteration of Decadance showcases seven excerpts choregraphed between 1990 and 2011. It starts with a bright burst of energy, the company centre stage in coloured streetwear (Rakefet Levi’s costumes, Avi Yona Bueno’s lighting), gesturing playfully before bursting into laughter and scattering across the stage.

Sydney Dance Company in Decadance
© Daniel Boud

The rest of the evening’s collage moves between that spontaneous joie de vivre and currents of deeper heartfelt emotion. The best pieces combine the two. There is the wonderful “Ehad Mi Yodea” excerpt from Naharin’s Kyr, a cumulating swell of sound and movement. Choreographed to a blaring rock arrangement of a Passover song, the dancers begin in chairs arced around the stage, rising to chant the last lines of each verse as if crying out an anthem. The recurring motif is a wave crescendo where each body launches into the air, spread-eagled as if shot and suspended in time, before hurling to the floor as the song loops to the next verse and the whole exhilarating sequence starts again.

There is also a powerful storytelling piece where each dancer performs a solo to their own voiceover, telling the audience a deeply intimate story about themselves or their relationship to dance. It’s a revealing moment where the fourth wall slides down and we get a glimpse – often rare for non-dancers – into the childhoods, family histories and personalities that compel a young person to give up everything and follow the vocational siren’s call of dance. For me, having watched Sydney Dance Company for many years, several of these backstories explained the intensity and emotional commitment of these magnificent athlete-artists.

Sydney Dance Company in Decadance
© Daniel Boud

The audience-performer connection then moves into light-hearted teasing, with an interactive game where the houselights go up and a deadpan MC asks audience members to sit or stand to a series of (increasingly risqué) questions. This is the first art performance I’ve attended where the audience played an icebreaker party game. It’s a deceptively simple idea, but very effective and had the audience laughing and clapping in seconds. 

The last section of the evening then began with a dancer walking out holding an iPad at chest height. It lights up – with video footage of his own head introducing the final piece and charmingly running us through the production credits.

It’s this unexpected humour, spontaneity, and inventiveness that makes Decadance so engaging. The sophisticated athleticism of Naharin’s choreography creates a thought-provoking, moving performance for dance connoisseurs, whilst those newer to dance will find its warmth makes it accessible, invigorating and a whole lot of fun. Keep an ear out also for the driving soundtrack. Naharin draws his music, with great creative effect, from Goldfrapp to John Zorn to The Beach Boys (with excellent sound design credit to Maxim Warratt, Ohad Fishof, and Stefan Ferry). It's a fantastic ride.

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