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Flash Review 1, 6-12: Heart of the Cave
Petronio Sets Sydney Dance to the Poet of Goth

By Suzanne Davidson
Copyright 2003 Suzanne Davidson

SYDNEY -- In a program note, Stephen Petronio says his new "Underland" on the Sydney Dance Company was "built as a place rather than a dance, a kind of subconscious world that locates the heart and essence of Nick Cave's music.... The dark emotional beauty of his work speaks directly to my artistic motor." In its May 27 premiere at the Sydney Opera House, the work did indeed speak to most of the audience; I for one was bowled over by Petronio's creation and by the way it was performed, by dancers with whom he had never worked before. There were thrills to be had on every level.
From left to right, Wakako Asano, Christopher Sheriff, and Katherine Griffiths of Sydney Dance Company in Stephen Petronio's "Underland." Jeff Busby photo courtesy Sydney Dance Company.

Choreographically this was new ground for this audience and these dancers. Most had come through the Australian Ballet School, and many had been soloists in the Australian Ballet, so their impeccable classical technique was a given. But, I would say that none of them had ever been required to extend their technique in this way before.

Surprisingly, the choreography in "Underland" somehow felt classical -- although you couldn't really say that "Underland" is a classical ballet. What it is, is choreographic invention -- a creative realization of the fusing of classical technique with modern dance, which gives the performers the kind of opportunities of extending their artistry that normally dancers can only dream about. Fusing classical technique with modern dance is not so unusual these days -- and Petronio has certainly worked with classically-trained dancers before. However, in my experience as a viewer, and at the risk of sounding flippant, this can simply mean seeing classical dancers who are required not to point their feet, to relax their normally straight spine, and to perform the odd contraction. Often this kind of "fusion" is not performed by the best of classical dancers, which doesn't help.

In "Underland" a group of breathtaking classical technicians danced with sensitivity and enormous energy, smoothly incorporating modern dance into the whole, using their bodies as true, uninhibited instruments of the dance. Neither technique was watered down, which can sometimes happen when a classically trained dancer tries modern or vice versa. Perhaps it was the performance rather than the choreography? Whichever, it was definitely a new "look," a new experience for me and, from their reaction, for the rest of the audience watching this performance. All the elements of Nick Cave's music (produced for this work by Tony Cohen and made into a soundscape by Paul Healy), Petronio's choreography, Tara Subkoff's costumes, and Ken Tabachnick's highly evocative video effects combined to produce a perfect artistic whole. One was never conscious of any of the elements taking over to the detriment of the whole. Apart from "The Ship Song," the costumes were ideal for the piece, making the most of the bodies for which they were designed.

"Underland" comprises 14 sections, clearly divided and danced by different soloists or groups of dancers. The opening movement is a very slow "Descent into Underland." An upside-down Xue-Jun Wang climbed very slowly downwards from the flies to the stage, on a net-like structure. This was spasmodically reflected -- sometimes in close-up and sometimes in wide shot -- on one of three screens behind him, while the other screens reflected abstract images of unidentifiable shapes. It was riveting in its sheer concentration and control.
Katie Ripley and the Sydney Dance Company in Stephen Petronio's "Underland." Jeff Busby photo courtesy Sydney Dance Company.

A special highlight for its use of high classical technique in modern choreography was "Prelude to Weep," a solo in which Katie Ripley literally becomes the music, using her body to interpret its moods and rhythm, performing whatever movement is needed to best express the music. In a television interview, Ripley said that dancing this segment is like meditating. Her unwavering concentration had the audience holding its collective breath throughout. At the end of the piece there was a second's dead silence, and then the place erupted in the sort of noise one tends to associate with rock concerts. Immediate silence followed for "The Weeping Song," danced by Wakako Asano, Tracey Carrodus and Chylie Cooper, with Bradley Chatfield, Gavin Mitford, Christopher Sheriff and Jason Wilcock. "The Ship Song," a study in the sensual, came next, with an evocative close-up on the screens, of gently breathing naked bodies. Another highlight for me was the duet in "Stagger Lee," danced by Katherine Griffiths and Joseph Brown, who seemed melded together in this high-energy, vibrantly passionate piece. In "After Lee," a series of solos, those that most clearly stayed in my memory were danced by Josef Brown and Chylie Cooper, the latter also performing "Prelude to Death," the last piece prior to the full-company ending, with great sensitivity and control.

"Underland" ends with "Death is Not The End," to the song of the same name from Cave's "Murder Ballads," danced by the whole ensemble. Whilst it was beautifully performed, it didn't move me the way the rest of the ballet had. Perhaps I had had a surfeit of beauty?

Sydney Dance Company performs "Underland" at the Sydney Opera House through Saturday, touring the piece to Brisbane June 18 - 25 and Melbourne July 3 - 12.

Suzanne Davidson is a Sydney-based writer and the founder of the Sydney Dance Company. She also danced for Peter Darrell's Western Theatre Ballet, the Australian Ballet, and in Maurice Bejart's original "Rite of Spring" in Brussels.

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