Dance review: Ascent, Sydney Opera House

As part of its 50th anniversary, Sydney Dance Company presents three works.

The Opera House is jam-packed for the much anticipated opening night of Sydney Dance Company’s (SDC’s) latest offering, Ascent. The evening starts off safely with a piece choreographed by SDC’s artistic director, Rafael Bonachela. I Am-ness is the usual expected display of skill, training and artistic excellence from the company.

The ensemble demonstrates a powerful intracorporeal energy affecting and transferring those energies between each other amid a delicate soundtrack of strings by Latvian composer Pēteris Vasks. The whole thing feels lightly subdued and contained, but nonetheless a pleasure to watch.

The pace picks up in the second act, The Shell, A Ghost, The Host and The Lyrebird, and the night explodes in an entirely different direction. Under choreographer and incoming artistic director of Danish Dance Theatre, Marina Mascarell, a larger ensemble of dancers work with heavy ropes and large swathes of material.

They utilise their bodies and each other’s bodies as counterweights to the ropes and the sails, which are as much of a star of the show as the dancers themselves. Costume and set designers Lauren Brincat and Leah Giblin have created a rich visual experience, blurring the lines between the human and non-human.

The piece is an exploration of weight, tension and being, allowing the artists to be determined by the materials with which they are interacting. The whole thing feels like a physics experiment as bodies begin to imitate the movement of the material and thus material and bodies blend into one. As the pace progresses, the palpable tension of the engagement with the props creates a genuine affective response in the audience as a kind of kinaesthetic empathy, where our bodies feel pulled by their bodies, which are being pulled by the ropes.

The crescendo builds as the piece becomes more and more urgent, and the movement more and more frenetic, until it erupts into a glorious ending where audience, dancers and materials are vibrating together. The experience is underscored by Nick Wales’ immersive music that fuses classical and electronic styles, interspersed with sounds from the natural world.

Forever & Forever. Photo: Pedro Greig

The night peaks, however, with the final act, Forever & Ever. Choreographed by Chunky Move’s artistic director, Antony Hamilton, the piece combines hip-hop styles with contemporary dance, and a profound sense of theatricality. It begins with a captivating and humorous solo performance from the outstanding Jesse Scales, before hooded figures slowly creep onto the stage in file. Throughout the act, hoods and capes are removed, revealing costume under costume under costume – courtesy of Paula Levis – like Babushka dolls at a rave. Choreographies are based on jerking and angular hip hop moves, occurring with the full company of 16 people taking up the stage. 

They dance different routines in different clusters, creating an energetic field of multiple dimensions and a sense of dance being the art of space. As the purpose of the previous act had been to explore the way in which dance creates exchanges of tension and energy, this piece explores dance’s ability to create space. This was not the stage as a vacuum being filled with the choreography. Rather, the dance created the space as it developed in a contraction and expansion as the different groups form and re-form across the stage.

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This creates multiple crescendos, multiple energetic high points and interludes, while the evocative driving electronic soundtrack pulses relentlessly through it, courtesy of The Presets’ Julian Hamilton. Dancers both keep in time and skip around the perpetual pounding kick drum. Intense and hypnotic lighting by Ben Cisterne adds to the intensity of the act.

Bold, emotive and visceral, Ascent is a must-see for lovers of dance.

Ascent, Sydney Dance Theatre
Sydney Opera House
Tickets; $35-$110

Ascent will be performed until 26 March 2023.

Sarah Liversidge is a journalist and writer from Melbourne with various obsessions including politics, social issues and art in all its forms. She is currently completing a journalism degree at RMIT university where she is an editor at the student run publication, The Swanston Gazette.