Sydney Dance Company - Emergence
Emergence is a collaboration with singer-songwriter Sarah Blasko, composer Nick Wales, fashion designer Dion Lee and Sydney Dance Company's Rafael Bonachela. Emergence sees the entire company ensemble take to the stage as a stunning soundscape.
Take one alternative pop star, one contemporary classical composer, one fashion designer, one architectural designer and one choreographer. Blend. Apply gentle heat. Allow to cool, dish out carefully and serve.
When choreographer Rafael Bonachela gathered a varied group of creatives to make his new work, Emergence, for the Sydney Dance Company, he didn't know what he might end up with. He still doesn't. For Bonachela, the process of creating a new dance work continues until the last moments before the curtain goes up.
''I don't know where this is taking me,'' he confides mid-rehearsals. ''But I know it will be different from anything I've done lately and that's what keeps me going, that's what keeps me alive.''
Stretching the limits … dancer Charmene Yap uses a web of elastic to devise new moves. Photo: Jacky Ghossein
Spectrum sat in on the process from start to (almost) finish. By the final weeks of rehearsal, singer Sarah Blasko and composer Nick Wales have co-written a lush, dark score filled with urgent beats, swelling strings, the cries of bats and the sounds of the dancers hitting the floor.
Fashion designer Dion Lee's tailored costumes are still being fitted. Bonachela's intricate choreography is taking shape and stage designer Benjamin Cisterne's silver reflective floor and overhead sculpture design are under construction. What can audiences expect? ''Something unexpected,'' Bonachela says. ''Something mysterious.''
Beginning: last May
''I never know what might trigger an idea,'' Bonachela says. ''It might be a piece of music or an exhibition. But in this case, I was feeling like I wanted a connection with pop culture. Ten years ago I made a work with Kylie Minogue and it was sublime. This time, I wanted a contemporary singer or a rock band.''
Bonachela has lunch with Wales, who composed and curated the music for Bonachela's 2 One Another and worked on Blasko's album I Awake. ''I can't remember who said the words 'Sarah Blasko' first but I asked him to ask her. When she said yes, I thought, perfect. That was the beginning.''
Bonachela follows Lee on Instagram. ''Every photo he puts up, I LIKE,'' he says in June. ''I'd put any of his clothes on stage, they are so beautifully structured.''
It's a happy accident that Wales has previously worked on Lee's fashion shows and the designer attends Sydney Dance Company opening nights, although he has never met Bonachela.
Turns out, Lee is a fan. ''I called him, we had a coffee and he's in,'' Bonachela says. ''I have a good feeling about him.''
Improvising and moving
In August, Blasko and Wales present two pieces of music and the dancers improvise to it in the studio. ''I've never worked with dancers before so it's quite illuminating to see them move,'' Blasko says.
Dancer Charmene Yap improvises with Blasko one-on-one while the others leave the room. Bonachela and Wales record them. ''Sarah would sing a note and then I'd move and we'd feed off each other,'' Yap says after the session. ''It was like I was dancing with a singer and there was an imaginary thread between us. At one point it got quite tribal. Sarah picked up a heavy rhythm and my movement got heavy. It was really interesting and raw.'' Later, Wales asks the dancers to scream at the top of their lungs while he records them.
''We'd take a breath and then scream again,'' Yap says. ''People in the building must have been thinking what are those dancers doing? Nick also asked us to sit in a circle and make sounds with our body parts. We were all slapping our legs and hitting the floor. That felt pretty tribal, too.''
After two days of improvising, Blasko tells her father over dinner about everyone coming together to work on the dance. ''He mentioned the word 'emergence' and it just seemed so perfect,'' she says. ''He jokingly said maybe we could use that word and we have.
''When we started looking up the meaning of the word on our phones, it made so much sense. It means a combination of things coming together to form something unexpected or very mysterious.'' Creativity often moves in mysterious ways.
The look and feel
By October, Bonachela and Cisterne are researching the word ''emergence''. Google searches lead them down a path of fractals and tessellation, and the idea of one shape multiplying over and over into a single new idea.
''It is incredibly fertile ground for inspiration,'' Bonachela says. ''One thing that I love is the idea that complexity has elegance. ''It doesn't have to be complicated, but I do need it to be complex.''
Over the next three months, Cisterne and Bonachela email thousands of images to each other: architecture, lighting designs, patterns found in nature or computer-generated tessellations. They look bizarrely beautiful. Swirls. Geometric patterns. Spirals. ''Did you know snowflakes are emergent?'' Bonachela says.
''In nature, hurricanes are emergent and sand dunes. This word is opening up so many ideas for movement.''
The sewing machines are buzzing in Lee's workshop in Chippendale. Early mock-ups hang on racks. They look like '50s swing jackets attached to flesh-toned bodysuits. ''They will look very different on the body,'' Lee says quietly. ''I've never designed costumes before, so this is exciting for me.''
Lee is interpreting ''emergence'' in a biological way. ''I'm thinking about cell division and cellular growth, how one thing becomes two and multiplies,'' he says, holding a costume that looks like half a tailored jacket. ''Two dancers might each wear one half of a design. They might come together and separate like cells.''
Bonachela is famous for his dislike of strong colours on stage and has only once allowed a colour (red) in a costume. Nevertheless, Lee and Cisterne are talking about using the kind of reflective fabrics used in safety garments and road markings.
''Ben is thinking of a really metallic reflective floor and I like the idea of iridescent fabrics on stage,'' Lee says. ''It's a boldness in visibility but also in texture. It might be more about starkness than colour. It depends if that suits the choreography.''
Recording the score
''I hope you're a dog person,'' says Wales, barefoot, wearing shorts and a T-shirt, opening the door to his tiny Pyrmont recording studio before Christmas. A bouncy Italian greyhound named Hutch rushes at me before retiring to the sofa. Blasko bends down to rub the dog's ears.
Yesterday, a nine-piece string orchestra recorded their section of the score and Wales and Blasko experimented with vocal processing. ''We're using the voice as a texture,'' Blasko says. ''Some of it sounds a bit spacey.''
Neither of them wants the music to sound like a pop concert. ''We need to strike a balance so the dancing sings over the music,'' Wales says. ''We might give the audience something expected, like a song, then cross it with something totally unexpected. It might end up sounding more like a film soundtrack.''
Wales hits a button. The music sounds dirty and rock'n'roll, like Nick Cave or PJ Harvey - but with bat calls and electronic beats. ''We're aiming for f---ed-up beauty,'' Wales says. Blasko nods. ''Or painful beauty,'' she says.
Blasko hasn't written any lyrics. Instead she uses her voice to make sounds. ''At the moment it's about the feeling of mystery,'' she says. ''The lyrics often come last for me. I want the words to be very sparing but also evocative.''
One of the tracks is all voice, layered and processed. ''I'm trying to make my voice sound like different characters with different flavours,'' she says. ''I'm really aware that this is theatre and not a Sarah Blasko album.''
Wales says Bonachela is pushing them to be braver. ''He keeps saying, 'It's not surprising enough' or 'It's not mysterious enough,''' Wales says. ''Raf loves the passion. It's in his Spanish blood. He loves strings. He's obsessed with the cello. But he also loves cold electronic music. We have so much freedom it can be shit-scary.''
After a four-week holiday, Bonachela knows he can't push his dancers too hard when they start rehearsals in January. Instead he gives them complex tasks. ''Emergence is about two elements coming together to make something unexpected,'' he says. ''So I am putting the dancers in pairs, working with someone they haven't worked with before.''
Each pair makes a short phrase using small, isolated movements. An elbow lifts, a knee bends. An ear reaches towards a shoulder. Then he disrupts the phrase by putting two phrases together. Now four dancers are working together.
''It's quite stationary and awkward at first,'' Yap says. ''But when we were put in groups, we started making small, fast, awkward shapes. It's an interesting energy.''
Bonachela gives the dancers words to think about. Chaos. Pattern. Concealment. Complexity. Unexpectedness. Next, the dancers are creating a walking pattern around the perimeter of the studio.
One group is given large photocopies of the images Bonachela and Cisterne have been swapping, of endlessly repeating patterns. The dancers are asked to individually respond in movement. Others are writing down their first phrase before passing the instructions to another dancer to interpret.
''I'm hoping the drawings will encourage a different sort of flow into the piece,'' Bonachela says.
Introducing the cube
Cisterne has made a cube criss-crossed with white elastic for the dancers to ''play in''. When they get in, the elastic pulls and stretches. The idea is to create a movement, get out of the cube and re-create it on the studio floor.
Yap moves inside the space, sometimes holding the elastic between her teeth or stamping a piece of elastic down with her heel.
''It helps me escape from the body,'' she says. ''I can get in there and work with the elastic rather than thinking too much. It is about detail for me; it makes shapes but it is less fluid.''
Bonachela says he's always looking for new ways to create movement. ''The cube has really worked for us,'' he says. ''The dancers are creating a pulling feeling. But at the end of the day, you can have all these wacky ideas but it still needs to make sense in the choreography. I haven't used any of the cube ideas yet. But I'm not finished.''
Lee is running late with the costumes because he is also working on his designs for the International Woolmark Award and Paris Fashion Week. But when he presents the ''half and half'' costumes to Bonachela, the choreographer is ''totally, totally excited''.
''They are like nothing I've ever seen in dance before,'' he says. ''It is so clever.'' He's even thinking of allowing one costume to be industrial blue instead of black. ''But I need to see that colour and touch it before I commit.''
The dance run
Dressed in singlets, shorts and socks, the dancers are running through the first 15 minutes of Emergence early this month. Bonachela crouches on the floor, a finger to his lips, watching intensely. The movements are simultaneously fast, jerky and staccato, and flowing continuously like water interrupted.
One dancer is raising a foot to her forehead until it becomes unbearable and she snaps into another shape, her wrists circumnavigating her body, again and again.
Blasko's voice rises in the music: a cry, a wail. In another section, the music is trance-like and two male dancers unfold and curl around each other like a fast-growing vine. The music suddenly stops and the dancers walk off. ''We have more to do,'' Bonachela says.
Mixing the music
''When I first saw the dancers dancing to the music, I got shivers,'' Wales says. ''It is so humbling.'' Blasko agrees. ''It was really quite emotional seeing the dancers respond to the music,'' she says. ''It was such a bizarre feeling.''
Now in the mixing stage, the bat cries have gone and experimental guitarist Kirin J. Callinan has added some intense sounds to the score. ''He came in and recorded hours of wildness,'' Blasko says. ''We had a lot of beauty in there and he cut across that and contradicted it. We really got into the ugliness.''
Blasko's lyrics are now in. ''They are mostly about pain and rising above the suffering,'' she says. ''Like embracing heaviness until you release it. But I might still change a few words at the last minute.'' Wales raises his eyebrows and they both laugh.
The end is in sight
''I can't lie, this last week has been intense and stressful,'' Bonachela says. The dancers will learn the two other works on the triple bill, as well as rehearsing the 37-minute Emergence. Cisterne is watching and taking notes for the lighting design. The dancers are yet to encounter the silver mirrored floor, which may bring sight problems.
''They might complain if they can't see the floor to land,'' he says. ''So I'll have to adjust the lighting for them.''
In the coming weeks, Blasko will take Wales on her national tour, performing with a different orchestra in each city. Lee will head to London for the Woolmark Award. Bonachela will finish and polish his work.
''I will never relax until opening night,'' he says. ''But I have learnt so much from this collaboration. I've learnt about the importance of really connecting with each other so we're all on the same page and then having everyone - including me - willing to push each other. I don't know who has influenced who exactly, but it has been an amazing, unexpected journey for all of us.''
Emergence will be performed as part of Sydney Dance Company's triple bill De Novo at Sydney Theatre from March 1.