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Sydney Dance Company is celebrating its 50th birthday with a major new work

Written by
Ben Neutze

It's not every year that a Sydney icon celebrates its golden jubilee, which is why it's a big deal that Sydney Dance Company is turning 50. The pioneering contemporary dance company has been through various iterations and now stands as one of our country's leaders in dance.

To mark the occasion, the company will be performing Us 50, a new work by former Sydney Dance Company dancer and former Chunky Move artistic director Gideon Obarzanek (who is soon to take over the reins of Melbourne Festival). It features 50 performers, made up of the 16 company dancers, ten former company dancers (some of whom were dancing at Sydney Dance Company in the 1970s and have long since retired) and around 24 audience volunteers.

We asked Obarzanek a few questions about creating this ambitious new work, returning the company, and bringing back some of its former leading lights.

You’ve worked at the company on and off over the years in various different capacities – what’s it like to be back and making a new work?

I think when you’re a young dancer, there’s a very intense feeling about performance and how you sit within the ensemble, but now it’s been so many years I feel this kind of avuncular relationship to the dancers, which is quite different. And it’s nice. It’s interesting to see an organisation over such a period of time. I joined in 1989, so it’s been an on-and-off relationship with the company for 30 years. I was a dancer for about two and a half years with the company, and choreographed when I was within the company a little bit before moving on to doing other things.

How did you come to be creating this piece? Was it an invitation from Rafael Bonachela [Sydney Dance Company's artistic director]?

It was an invitation. One of the more straight-forward ways of acknowledging the company’s legacy is to show a series of pieces from the repertoire – and once the decision was made not to do it that way, they asked me. I suggested that, considering the company’s main activity has always been making new work, that it makes another new work in response to its anniversary, and that if we weren’t going through the company’s history through its repertoire, another line of history is through the many dancers who have come and gone. 

It’s very much like an oral tradition of passing on information; there’s older dancers who hold on to repertoire and have a particular style, and younger dancers are very much influenced by them, and it keeps going. Each dancer contributes their own way of moving, and collectively the dancers have a role in shaping the company’s aesthetic and the company’s style, and the piece has become much more about that aspect. 

Also, the company works in ephemeral art, so when I think about and where the history sits, it often sits in the memories of the people who come and see it. To represent that, I have many people coming on stage from the audience to be part of the work. The company is larger than the ensemble; it’s part of a community.

What do the former dancers bring to the table?

They bring a quiet elegance to the stage. Sydney Dance Company’s style is very energetic and physical. They love to throw themselves around a lot, throw their legs in the air, and dance quickly. And we have people in their sixties who aren’t doing that kind of dancing. It has been challenging in the sense that it’s a short work. I have ten dancers from different generations, who are all very different and have a lot to offer, and 25 participants coming on every night, so it has been difficult to show the full potential of that.

Us 50 in rehearsals. Photograph: Pedro Greig

I could easily make a two-hour work that would barely encompass the possibilities, and this piece just over half an hour. The contributions have been modest only because I haven’t had the time to get the full potential of them; but there is something actually very unusual and magical in seeing old people on stage in a dance performance. We expect this athleticism and physical virtuosity. It becomes a distinguishing aspect, just by their sheer presence.

Has it been difficult for some of the dancers who might not have danced for a while to rediscover that part of themselves? Or does it stay in the body?

It seems to stay in the body pretty well, although I suspect some of them have been training up before coming into this rehearsal period. You’d have to ask them, but I think some of them are hurting. There are certainly ice packs and anti-inflammatories being taken that I’m seeing.

Do you think they feel like there’s something to prove in coming back; that they can still dance? Or do they sort of have the confidence that they’ve done it all now?

I think it’s quite mixed actually, their attitude to performing. There are some I can see who are exactly the same as when they were young; they really want to demonstrate their ability to be impressive, and others don’t feel like they need to do that at all.

There’s the audience participation element. Can you tell me why you considered it important to look beyond the dancers?

I’m really interested in dance as a practice rather than a performance. And of course I work in dance as performance. But most dance, or most people’s relationship to dance, is not watching it, it’s doing it. I grew up folk dancing, so participation was really privileged over virtuosity, and then I ended up working in professional dance. In my last few years, I’ve really gone back to that experience of dance.

Us 50 in rehearsals. Photograph: Pedro Greig

I think there’s a great sense of empathy when you’re watching a bunch of people on stage who you see as yourself, being part of a professional performance. The instructions that they get are very simple, but because it’s on mass, the effect is actually quite sophisticated and very impressive.

Can you tell us a little about how the audience participation actually works?

Everyone always assumes that these people have come and rehearsed for many hours of many days. But none of the participants see the work, and they’re not rehearsed in work. The simply receive an in-ear monitor, and they’re instructed live on stage by my choreographic assistant, who is really the person who directs the dancers in the studio. They’re getting that instruction live about what to do and where to do it. It’s happening in real time; they’re discovering what to do as you’re watching the show.

Have you had people coming in to trial the participation elements?

Every day. We don’t have many of the in-ear monitors in the rehearsal room, so we’re trialling every day with five people. And we have to keep changing them, because once they know what’s happening, they’re not particularly useful for us. It’s a little scary because half the people on stage are these participants, and we won’t see that until the first preview.

Us 50 will be performed in a double bill with Sydney Dance Company artistic director Rafael Bonachela's 2010 work 6 Breaths, at the Roslyn Packer Theatre from November 1 to 9.

Check out the best shows in Sydney this month and our tips for scoring cheap theatre tickets.

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