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ORB by Sydney Dance Company at Canberra Theatre pushes boundaries of dance

ORB.Sydney Dance Company, Canberra Theatre, May 25-27.

The dancers of Sydney Dance Company have once again stunned audiences with their extraordinary physical skills in a double bill program with the over-arching title of ORB. Explosive, athletic, swirling, superbly controlled, fast-paced, and many other expressions come to mind. Can their techniques get any better? I ask this question of myself every season and every season I ponder how they can continue to perform with such passion and power. ORB can give huge pleasure from thinking purely of the physical execution of the choreography.

But the program becomes totally fascinating if one delves a little further. Take Full Moon, choreographed by Cheng Tsung-Lung, which opens the program, for example. Each of the eight dancers in this work is dressed differently, and spectacularly so by Taiwanese fashion designer Fan Huai-Chih. And it turns out that each represents a different character associated in some way with the moon.

Latisha Sparks, dressed in a bright red, tiered and flounced dress (red being the colour of luck and happiness), represents a female warrior, with a nod to the Hindu deity Shiva. Her whirling arm and hand movements recall the multiple arms of some representations of Shiva, and her writhing and rolling movements suggested engagement in battle. Jesse Scales, again fabulously dressed in a silvery-white dress of clean-cut but off-centre lines, is the rabbit in the moon from Chinese mythology. Her movements are often tiny, darting and filled with small jumps.

There is very little contact between each of the characters and, as they perform their individual dances, there is often stillness or just a hint of slow, controlled movement from the other characters. Bernhard Knauer in fact spends much of the time frozen in a meditative position. The whole is ablaze with references to deities and mythological creatures, and is filled with juxtapositions of movement and stillness.

Rafael Bonachela's Ocho, on the other hand, does not focus on stillness, even though there are times when several of the dancers are enclosed inside David Fleischer's industrial-looking concrete and glass box that comprises the set. They mostly watch other dancers performing outside the box. Bonachela made Ocho (eight in Spanish) in his eighth year as artistic director of Sydney Dance Company and has used eight dancers in the work. But, like most of Bonachela's works, there is nothing particularly significant in a narrative sense about the title. Ocho, the work, is contemporary dance in which we are left to have an opinion of our own, which may or may not be the same as anyone else's.

I found the work, with its grinding score by Nick Wales, and its often-gloomy lighting by Damien Cooper, unsettling and harsh. This feeling was perhaps accentuated because it was impossible not to be thinking of the capriciousness of Full Moon. But then Ocho was meant to have an industrial feel to it and it succeeded in doing just that.

What was interesting was that Bonachela used his dancers in this work more as soloists than as members of an ensemble – Charmene Yap had the standout solo for me. Nevertheless, there were some sections in which unison movement shone and these sections seemed to fit the music better, or at least made it seem less harsh.

Sydney Dance Company continues to push the boundaries of contemporary dance and for that Bonachela deserves admiration. We, as audience members, need to be pushed into new dance experiences, and Sydney Dance Company certainly does that.