How fantastic that New Breed was Sydney Dance Company’s return to the stage! The annual emerging choreographer showcase is usually a refreshing, exciting event: just what audiences need after 2020's challenges. We last saw SDC a year ago in the pre-pandemic 2019 New Breed, but the Covid hiatus and hardships don’t seem to have dampened the company at all. SDC’s dancers have re-emerged as technically stunning and emotionally compelling as ever, and this year's New Breed presents fresh work from an importantly diverse range of Australian voices and backgrounds.

© Pedro Greig

In the Covid era, the dancers were socially distanced, so no contact work, although the choreography doesn’t feel compromised at all. To compensate for the ban on paper programmes, each piece was also introduced by a video of the choreographer explaining their concept. The audience clearly relished the personal connection and insights, so I hope this initiative continues after the pandemic: it’s an easy and remarkably engaging way to increase dance literacy and appreciation.

The first dance, Inertia by company dancer Jesse Scales, explores the difference between “the inert and the morally courageous”, eloquently explained in Scales’ sincere video introduction. Inspired by an experience where she fainted on a peak hour train platform and was coolly observed by an unmoved crowd, Inertia criticises the bystander effect on compassion.

A single white streetlamp provides a symbol of hope and accountability. Victor Zarallo, the “victim” in white, becomes increasingly desperate as the crowd turns mob-like on him until he is eventually rescued by Mia Thompson’s lone kindness. Zarallo’s artistic maturity was an asset in the role. Scales’ choreography showed intentionality and sensitive eloquence – unsurprising since, as a performer, she is one of the most thoughtful and emotionally intelligent dancers on the Australian stage.

© Pedro Greig

The second piece was company dancer Chloe Leong’s Nostalgia, and it was insightful to hear her video introduction on choreographing online due to Covid precautions. Rob Campbell’s soundscape was a bass drum palpitating like a slow heartbeat as Davide di Giovanni and Luke Hayward performed solos and eventually a mirrored duet on a dark-lit stage. They were dressed in transparent gauzy singlets which – when they moved – gave the illusion they were blurred round the edges. The filter of memory, perhaps? While the pacing of Nostalgia was too slow for me to really get into, di Giovanni and especially Hayward deserve extra applause for unwavering emotional focus.

Third was the exciting highlight of Joel Bray’s Wagan (Wiradjuri for “raven”). Bray said that after the events of 2020, audiences deserved something uplifting. Wagan is just that and more. Inspired by a Wiradjuri story Bray’s father told him about how the raven got its black plumage, Wagan celebrates the murmuration of Australian birds. It's a joyous, playful offering performed against a backdrop of endless blues and pinks evoking the vast Australian sky. It also manages to cheekily tribute Hitchcock’s The Birds. Ever wanted to see SDC dancers sporting Tippi Hedren’s big blonde sixties updo? Now’s your chance.

© Pedro Greig

Bray's choreography was gorgeous – whimsical, curved airiness in the arm and leg extensions capturing wings in flight, and the dancers gliding in synchrony like a flock riding a breeze. He has a real instinct for shaping phrases, here using suspension and spins to evoke birds carried and tumbled on air currents. This built on the score’s musical phrasing, by First Nations composer Brenda Gifford. Written for strings and percussion, it is folk-evocative yet distinctly Australian in feel: as satisfying to the ear as the choreography to the eyes.

The chance to see this combination of upcoming Indigenous Australian contemporary talent is exciting. Bray – known for his searing autobiographical solos – originally turned down SDC’s invitation because he felt he wasn’t ready to create group movement. You’d never guess. Impressive for a first-time ensemble work, Wagan is conceptually unified and hugely enjoyable.

Cult of the Titans
© Pedro Greig

The final piece was Raghav Handa’s Cult of the Titans: his expression of anguish at Nazi appropriation of the svastika. The video introduction was vital, as Handa’s concept could offend (audiences were given the opportunity to leave at the start) without the impassioned, deeply personal explanation the video made possible (resulting in nobody leaving). Handa explained how his family’s Indian heritage cherishes the svastika as a millennia-old symbol of light and peace, and how he craves its reclamation from the horrors of Nazi association. Handa expertly blends East and West in his choreography, with elements of Kathak Indian classical dance and fascist military formations melded with contemporary movement. It builds to a screaming, strobe-lit emotional climax where the senses are assaulted but the dance never gets out of control. This emotional mastery was compellingly performed by Scales and Hayward.

As always, SDC stalwarts Alexander Berlage and Aleisa Jelbart provided exceptional lighting and costume, rounding out the triumph of seeing the whole SDC family on stage again.