There was an expectant buzz in the audience when, as we took our seats, artistic director Rafael Bonachela bounced up to the stage and warmly announced that the Australian String Quartet would soon join us. And indeed they did, carrying their Guadagnini instruments gingerly down the theatre steps to excited applause.

<i>Frame of Mind</i> © Pedro Greig
Frame of Mind
© Pedro Greig

Their live music was an integral part of the double bill’s first dance: Bonachela’s 2015 Frame of Mind, which has won multiple Helpmann Awards, toured internationally, and is well worth revisiting. Born from Bonachela’s yearning “to be in two places at once”, it is a powerfully graceful ensemble piece that contemplates the passage of time and the deeply human need to connect and be understood. Set in a softly stripped “melancholic memory room” (designed by Ralph Myers) of poetically peeling walls, the dancers are framed by a tall, elegant window through which they seek an outside world, and through which Benjamin Cisterne’s lighting gently marks the lengthening of hours.

For music, Bonachela chose three quartets by Bryce Dessner. Originally composed to showcase the famous Kronos Quartet, these are vivid, furiously intricate pieces that demand exceptional rhythmic accuracy and attack. And the aesthetic was superbly matched by the choreography, whose elegant momentum and flowing arcs enclosed extreme levels of agility and precision, creating a sophisticated interplay with the quartet’s ferocious rhythms. So impressive was the relationship between music and movement that if chamber music is often said to be a “conversation” between instruments, then Bonachela has shown that a fifth voice – dance – can be seamlessly integrated as a partner in the dialogue.

<i>Frame of Mind</i> © Pedro Greig
Frame of Mind
© Pedro Greig

None of this would have been possible without the masterful technical discipline of his dancers. Standouts were Nelson Earl in an earthily fluid solo, and the ever-compelling Charmene Yap and Davide Di Giovanni in an emotionally reaching duet.

The ASQ deserve special mention for their commitment to Dessner’s music, although heavy miking altered their sound. But since Dessner’s quartets explore instrumental timbre – violent sforzando, col legno (playing with the wood of the bow), pizzicato, and circular bowing – the miking simply heightened the visceral intimacy, emphasisng that of the dancers on stage.

Antony Hamilton’s Forever & Ever was the evening’s second piece, taking its name from the relentless loops of its rave-inspired minimalist score (composed by Hamilton’s brother Julian, of The Presets fame). It explores “order and chaos”, "duplication and modification" through “popular culture, human behaviour and fashion”.  And to Hamilton's credit, the overall impression was definitely that I’d stumbled into a rave – which had itself accidentally staggered into Fashion Week.  

<i>Forever & Ever</i> © Pedro Greig
Forever & Ever
© Pedro Greig

This aesthetic revealed itself only gradually, with dancer Jesse Scales beginning a robotic solo to silence. She ultimately picked up a torchlight, and then – boom (literally) – the synth loops kicked in as a procession of hooded figures slowly shuffled on. And on. And on. For, as much as the Hamiltons seek to explore repetition, there comes a point where it ceases to emphasise and becomes draggingly unimaginative. Just how long can one hooded figure lumber to the same assaulting synth loop?

Relief came with building choreographic momentum. Hamilton’s hip hop and commercial dance backgrounds were real assets to the pop culture themes, and the resulting moves were carried with evident commitment by the company in a break from their more usual classically-influenced Bonachela style. The first half underused the dancers, with choreography that could have been performed by much less talented artists. But the second half gave their skills greater scope as the club dance feel dissolved into increasingly abstract movement and a feverishly mounting intensity.

<i>Forever & Ever</i> © Pedro Greig
Forever & Ever
© Pedro Greig

Choreography was not the controlling priority though. Forever & Ever’s most striking feature is, without doubt, its visually-arresting aesthetic. A bold palette of block colours pushed the work to its climax as the dancers flung off layers of costume (by Paula Levis, impressively resembling street-influenced haute couture) only to reveal another style and colour bursting from underneath. Combined with the pounding synth loops and Cisterne's flashing lighting, it was all a bemusing assault on the senses.  

But to what end? The over-emphasis on visual spectacle was perhaps at the cost of emotional engagement, with Forever & Ever feeling increasingly like an art installation rather than a human dance piece.  The movement seemed to push on (like the score) in spite of the dancers and with only passing regard to the audience. It was clear we were meant to think of rave culture, but what we were meant to think of it, or what Hamilton thought of it, I really wasn’t sure. 

All in all though, the evening was a satisfyingly diverse double bill. While Forever & Ever may be unusually experimental for the more conservative audience member, Frame of Mind provides a pleasing contrast of powerful emotional elegance.

****1