In his sparkling performance-opening speech, Rafael Bonachela (Sydney Dance Company’s Artistic Director) laughingly mentioned the company’s Instagram. “We’ve been hacked! There’s some really weird stuff!” he chuckled. “But that’s not us. We are here.” The audience applauded.

Sydney Dance Company performs Impermanence
© Pedro Greig

The significance of being here is the main sentiment of SDC’s Impermanence. The world premiere marks the first time the company has been able to perform on their home stage at the Roslyn Packer Theatre since before Covid. And Impermanence, also, is about the perspective that hardship brings to the sacrament of the present moment.

Bonachela read out a message from Impermanence’s composer Bryce Dessner, the American new music composer and SDC-collaboration favourite. Dessner noted Impermanence was “one of the most important collaborative creations of my life”, and went on to describe how the work had begun as a response to the devastating Australian bushfires of 2019-20, and then experienced a further blow when Australia went into Covid lockdown four days before the scheduled world premiere. Dessner and Bonachela kept developing the work during lockdown, expanding it to cover the pain of a world gripped by pandemic. Dessner describes it as a tribute to “the power of the human spirit, embodied by the dancers and musicians… a beacon of light to so many around the world”. Bonachela described Impermanence in a series of rhetorical questions. “What do we hold dear? How do we make each and every moment count? What are pathways to peace and resilience? Every moment must count.”

Sydney Dance Company performs Impermanence
© Pedro Greig

Like many Bonachela works, Impermanence is a series of vignettes for ensembles, small groups, and solos. However, the duality between hardship and resilience was clear in the structure. The work’s first half has the dancers responding to tension rather than to the audience or each other, with their energy channelled into the raw viscerality of Dessner’s music. The opening movements have wonderful tricks of phrase-timing and suspension, where peaks of movements are slowed and take on a melting quality (almost as if time were momentarily suspended) to then slide into razor-sharp agility, with leaping attacks and limbs that slice through the air. From a dancer’s perspective, it takes immense athleticism, control and rhythm to do this well, as the body has to generate and suspend its own momentum at breakneck speed with dizzying precision. The effect from the audience perspective is fantastic – like watching a video being slowed down and fast forwarded in time with the music – and you can’t help getting swept up. Watch out for dancer Emily Seymour in these sections – I felt she embodied this particular choreographic technique with seriously impressive strength, and an unusually deep rhythmic understanding which allowed nuances in phrasing to shine through. 

Sydney Dance Company performs Impermanence
© Pedro Greig

Impermanence’s second half was set against a backdrop of falling particles. It could have been bushfire ash or the healing emotional release of rain. The dancers turn to each other and the audience as the music takes on a warmer, more emotive turn. You could see some breaking into spontaneous smiles as they threw themselves into the sheer joy of the movement. There is some fantastic dancing in this half, the highlight for me being the duet between Jesse Scales and Luke Hayward. Both have that great gift of selflessly forgetting themselves on stage and giving something of their own personhood to whatever they dance, making their artistry authentic and uniquely compelling. And audiences, no matter how familiar or unfamiliar with dance, can always sense authenticity.

I wasn’t a huge fan of the final scene – a simple, emotive solo for a single male dancer to Anohni’s climate change ballad, Another World. Although Dessner lightly mixed the song, it still retained so much of its pop culture form and lyrics emphasis that it was a jarring tonal change from the preceding complex new music score and intricate choreography. I’ve always been a huge fan of Anohni’s voice and songwriting, but this time I had to concede the choice felt like a mismatching transplant. Or maybe like the end of a movie, when the screen fades to black, a pop-song by a singer who hasn’t otherwise made an appearance suddenly starts playing, and the credits roll. It works if you like endings that spell out the take-home message in an almost ham-fisted way, but for my part I thought everything that came before was cohesive and strong enough without the add-on. 

Sydney Dance Company and the Australian String Quartet perform Impermanence
© Pedro Greig

Final mention goes to the Australian String Quartet, who performed the entire piece on stage. I just cannot fault their playing. There was emotional rawness combined with rhythmic precision, a warm, soaring tone, and fantastic ensemble unity with seemingly unlimited energy for a work that demands enormous musical stamina. Dessner’s score is stirring and absolutely worth listening to in its own right, and the ASQ did it justice and more.

****1