Les Illuminations

Lynne Lancaster

The latest work from Sydney Dance Company was a short but extremely rich and varied program which sold out weeks in advance.
Les Illuminations

The latest work from Sydney Dance Company was a short but extremely rich and varied program which sold out weeks before it opened. It combined the awesome talents of the company’s magnificent dancers and choreographer Rafael Bonachela, with the wonderful Sydney Symphony Orchestra led by Roland Peelman, and the luminous, soaring voice of Katie Noonan.

The Opera House Studio’s flexible configuration was set up to intimately feature the Orchestra and Noonan as well as the dancers; a catwalk bisecting the room, the audience seated to either side. From where I was sitting we got up close and personal with the dancers and could see the sweat dripping.  

The Orchestra, under Peelman’s dynamic, energetic direction, were superb, with a lush tone; they handled Britten’s spiky, difficult music gloriously. Noonan, the featured singer in Les Illuminations, was astonishing, giving a seemingly effortless, hypnotic, bravura performance.

Two short works by Benjamin Britten were performed as contrasting but linked pieces.

The first half of the show, danced to Britten’s Simple Symphony, had a youthfully exuberant feel. Costumes were by Toni Maticevski, who has also dressed the dancers for Phillip Adams’ BalletLab; here the dancers wore blue-grey garments with textured collars.

From the opening ‘Presage’ lift, Bonachela’s choreography was astonishing, making great use of all of the catwalk’s restricted space. He used only eight dancers, not his entire company. Boisterous Bourée is all hidden smiles as two of the dancers flirt in leaps, lifts and somewhat courtly lovemaking. Playful Pizzicato is sort of an extension of this, with a second couple included. The Sentimental Sarabande is an extremely graceful pas de deux notable for the somewhat unusual effect of the women taking the men’s weight as often as not. Frolicsome Finale is all vibrant delicious naughtiness. There was also a continual circular feel to the choreography; sculptural, angular arms also featured.

The second half – Les Illuminations itself – had a far darker feel. Here the dancers were dressed in semi-transparent black costumes; mysterious nocturnal creatures. Thomas Bradley was hampered by having to wear a disconcerting, sheer black fabric mask over his mouth and wrapped around his ears, but still danced wonderfully.

Inspired by the work of French poet Arthur Rimbaud, Britten created Les Illuminations for his lover Peter Pears in the 1930s. Rimbaud’s scandalous homosexual affair with Paul Verlaine is at the very centre of these poems. The work focuses on love, but this time it’s stirred with desire, loss of innocence, deception, and barely hidden cruelty. Rimbaud – and Britten – focused on the repeated line in Les Illuminations – ‘J’ai seul la clef de cette parade sauvage’ (‘I alone have the key to this savage parade’) – a line that possibly gave the assorted collaborators the idea of setting the dance work somewhat in the style of a fashion parade.

Les Illuminations is like a dark opus,’ Bonachela says. ‘The ideas are dark, the images are dark. To me, it’s about the tragic and painful aspect of beauty. It’s erotic and sexual and, at times, aggressive. But there is always passion.’ It is interesting to note that Bonachela is the third choreographer to tackle Les Illuminations, following Frederick Ashton and Richard Alston.

The four superb dancers pose and strut their way through Villes, with a narcissistic quality, deeply aware of themselves as they slowly reveal their inner selves to each other. In Phrase, the two dancers circle each other, not touching, but the tension is palpable. Antique takes it a step further as the dancers enfold and entwine, yet there’s a melancholy pain behind this.

The dark heart of the piece reveals itself in Interlude, an aching duet that reveals a couple who are frantic to trust each other yet unable to shake off hidden secrets and misgivings. Being Beauteous therefore becomes a ravishing duet of distrust, laced with hints of slow motion violence in a steamy atmosphere full of lush movement.

Parade is developed to be a circling dance of vicious tension, battle and rivalry between the two female dancers. This is then contrasted in the finale, Depart, where Bonachela has choreographed a sizzling, erotic, extremely intimate pas de deux for the two male dancers.

Such an unfortunately short season for such a tremendous performance. Encore please!

Rating: 4 stars out of 5

Les Illuminations

Sydney Dance Company

Featuring Katie Noonan and musicians of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra

Conductor: Ronald Peelman

Choreography: Rafael Bonachela

Costumes: Toni Maticevski

Lighting and stage design: Benjamin Cisterne

Technical director: Adam Iuston

Dancers: Juliette Barton, Thomas Bradley, Andrew Crawford, Janessa Dufty, Cass Mortimer Eipper, Fiona Jopp, Bernhard Knauer and Charmene Yap

Running time: One hour (approx) no interval


The Studio, Sydney Opera House

28 – 30 August


(Pictured: Juliette Barton and Thomas Bradley in Les Illuminations. Photo by Peter Greig.)

About the author

Lynne Lancaster is a Sydney based arts writer who has previously worked for Ticketek, Tickemaster and the Sydney Theatre Company. She has an MA in Theatre from UNSW, and when living in the UK completed the dance criticism course at Sadlers Wells, linked in with Chichester University.