Sydney Dance Company
The Joyce Theater
New York, New York

April 16, 2024
ab [intra]

Jerry Hochman

On April 16, the opening night of Sydney Dance Company’s week-long engagement at the Joyce Theater, I took my seat looking forward to seeing the company again. Although I was critical of some of the three dances then presented (seven years ago), I had nothing but praise for the company’s dancers.

Judged by the one piece presented here, ab [intra], a 70-minute dance choreographed by the company’s Artistic Director Rafael Bonachela, the situation hasn’t changed much. The dancers, though different from those I previously saw, are of the same high caliber. They’re a formidable group, one I would definitely want to see again – and ab [intra] is a powerful, and power-filled, vehicle with which to show them off. However, although this was my first exposure to Bonachela’s piece, I’ve already seen it too many times.

Sydney Dance Company in Rafael Bonachela’s “ab [intra]”
Photo by Pedro Grieg

Let me explain. Although I found ab [intra] to be occasionally compelling and always well-performed, particular in the various duets and occasional solos that dot its stagescape, it is far too repetitious than it should have been. At times I felt like I was watching a coterie of highly fit and energetic gerbils navigating an endless treadmill of experiences that kept on repeating – which may be an interesting commentary on what I initially thought the piece was about, but which too often comes across (with apologies for the mixed rodent metaphor) like the film Groundhog Day.

ab [intra], which, translated, means “from inside” (or “from within”), is a curious, intriguing title. The phrase has a meaning in law, but isn’t limited to that. And Bonachela doesn’t simply make use of the Latin phrase, he places the “within” part of it in brackets. Since the added brackets frame the operative word like an exterior skin, I take that as a clue that “from within,” as Bonichela uses it, means “from within the body” – individual or societal. That way, it’s also perfectly consistent with what Bonachela appeared to me to be attempting to illustrate: an evolving sense, in some primitive state, of community or interrelationships on both a societal and individual level. It’s also consistent with the Joyce’s comment (in a publicity release) that ab [intra] “is an exploration of our primal instincts, impulses, and visceral responses.”

(l-r) Luke Hayward, Sophie Jones,
and Dean Elliot
in Rafael Bonachela’s “ab [intra]”
Photo by Pedro Grieg

And it’s also consistent with the score. The music, an original composition by Australian composer Nick Wales (whose music has been described as a “hybrid between classical, electronic, and world music”) has a decidedly tribal edge to it, which is occasionally interrupted by music of profound sadness. [The program states that the original composition is by Wales “featuring (my emphasis) “Klātbūtne” by Pēteris Vasks” – which I take to mean that that contemporary Latvian composer’s work, more formally known as “Concerto for Cello and String Orchestra,” is either incorporated or replicated within the original piece, in whole or in part. “Klātbūtne” is Latvian for “presence,” and this music generally offsets the ‘bong and beat’ tenor of the original music, giving the overall piece essential balance. I’d not previously heard of Vasks, but, judged only by this example, his music, in its sense of spirituality, bears some resemblance to that of Estonian-born composer Arvo Part, though perhaps in a more secular way.]

The piece, which premiered in Sydney in 2018, doesn’t have to have a particular meaning, but with that title, combined with the music, it’s a logical deduction.

Bonachela takes the “no intent” path. In the program note, he writes: “I think about ab [intra] … as an energy transfer between the internal and the external. For me it is more than the external expression of internal concepts, in this dance sphere it is a representation of energy – an energy derived from the interaction of these two facets of our worlds.”

To me, that’s a cop out: any movement creates an energy transfer of sorts between the internal and the external. Be that as it may, I’ll assume that there was no intent here beyond visualizing the transfer of energy. And, because the score and the choreography are so closely intertwined, the piece may have acquired a meaning of sorts by musical osmosis. Nevertheless, the resulting choreography (to which the dancers themselves reportedly contributed) includes annoying and unnecessary repetition, unless its point is to reflect a particular reality of primitive tribal life that might take eons to evolve – which of course couldn’t be because there’s no intent here. On the other hand, the piece also reflects an overall sense of being cold as ice despite some hot as Hades choreography, which is consistent with a piece that may not have been intended to communicate anything in particular.

I must emphasize, regardless of any “intent,” that the deficiencies I found and that I’ll highlight below are not fatal. There are many things to admire about ab [intra]. There’s that overwhelming sense of power that I’ve already mentioned, but also several examples of staggeringly brilliant, and intentionally edgy, choreography. I particular appreciated the initial set of duets. [I’m not certain of the dancers involved at various points in the piece, both because there’s no indication of who was featured in program order (the dancers are listed alphabetically), and because the photos provided in the program (and on the company website) don’t match the visual appearance of the dancers in the photos that accompany this review. I’ll assume that the photo identifications are correct, but if I later find that they’re not, I’ll make appropriate changes.]

Emily Seymour and Jacopo Grabar
in Rafael Bonachela’s “ab [intra]”
Photo by Pedro Grieg

The first of the duets, featuring Emily Seymour and Jacobo Grabar, encapsulates the power and precision of most of the piece as a whole. But it’s more than that. There’s a relationship here, at least a potential one, but Seymour’s character keeps resisting; slapping Grabar’s character and pushing him away for whatever reason. Then the pair give it another try, followed by the same result.

That kind of back-and-forth in a choreographed relationship isn’t at all unusual (in fact, at this point it’s kinda tired), but here the interaction is so physically intense that it stands out from others. That initial duet is by far the most visceral and powerful in the dance as a whole. It’s also consistent with some sort of early societal interaction and evolution, individuals developing a sense of themselves and their relationship to others, including perhaps a reluctance to subject their initial sense of identity to a relationship that may be considered emotionally alien.

This sense of “reluctant and resistant relationship evolution” is present, to a lesser extent, in subsequent pairings. I can’t identify participants in these other duets for the reasons I’ve already expressed. The visualized interaction was similar to, but different from, the first. Ok. No problem with that. Or, as I recall, with the third duet. And a similar sense could be found in the far less frequent solos that reflected the same thing on an individual level, and in the group dances which largely frame the individualized interactions.

Chloe Young, here with Dimitri Kleioris,
in Rafael Bonachela’s “ab [intra]”
Photo by Pedro Grieg

Occasional examples of more specific creative choreography (besides the power and physicality) include directing movement by foot – one dancer’s foot grabbing some appendage of another dancer (e.g., neck) and by that means momentarily directing that dancer’s movement. This isn’t anything new either, but here it appeared particularly inventive in context.

So far, so good.

But after awhile, until the dance’s final distinctive segment, ab [intra] began to look repetitious. Subsequent “relationship” duets (or, without adding a meaningful component, “interactional” duets) displayed a similar pattern of attraction and push back – not as some continuing motif, but as a lack of invention – regardless of whether there was or was not some intent to the dance. Indeed, particularly if this was simply a way the “energy transfer” was visualized, repeating the action to appear almost identical to what the piece showed previously was a mistake.

By the third time in that cycle (when a trio and a pair of dancers came to be separated from the group as a whole), things had gotten to the point that I was able to successfully predict, in my mind, exactly what was going to happen next because I’d seen the same or very similar choreography and staging earlier in the piece (and I don’t mean some momentary repeated display of some motif).

This repetitious sense was, in some ways, accented by false endings. That is, at certain points stage action appeared to conclude. But these stopping points were instead followed by lighting or music changes that reignited the entire process, including the repetition I’ve mentioned.

Dean Elliot and Sydney Dance Company
in Rafael Bonachela’s “ab [intra]”
Photo by Pedro Grieg

With the concluding segment involving apparently all the dancers eventually spanning the horizontal upstage width (from which some of them emerged, danced, and then returned), there finally was a significant choreographic change – at least on a macro level. But by then the damage had been done. This final segment is particularly visually impressive in a stark, spartan kind of way, and includes some superb solo work – though ultimately it, too, went nowhere (other than displaying the expressionless cast as a group fading backward into the upstage scrim, possibly indicating, to an overthinker, a reference to some sort of reverse evolution). With or without some intent, this conclusion just emphasized the coldness and impersonal tenor of the piece as a whole.

Even though abundant passion, pizazz, energy, and talent is apparent in each of the dancers, I would like to have singled out a couple of dancers whom I can’t identify without guessing. They include a tiny dynamo who must have had significant ballet training (as did several others), and one of the male dancers with an extended solo. I won’t climb onto my soapbox again about dancers, particularly featured dancers, being more than unidentified (and unidentifiable to an average member of the audience) cogs in a machine, though I suppose I just did. Anyway, according to the program, the cast included Timmy Blankenship, Anika Boet, Dean Elliott, Riley Fitzgerald, Tayla Gartner, Liam Green, Luke Hayward, Morgan Hurrell, Ngaere Jenkins, Sophie Jones, Naiara de Matos, Connor McMahon, Ryan Pearson, Piran Scott, Seymour, Mia Thompson, Coco Wood, and Chloe Young. However, I’d take this listing with a grain of salt, since it corresponds exactly to the company as a whole, and it includes one dancer on “parental leave.”

So see ab [intra] if you enjoy boundless energy and physicality presented in a powerful way by an outstanding group of dancers. But if you prefer more than visualized energy transfer and the occasional sense that you’re watching a live dance version of Groundhog Day, wait until Sydney Dance Company returns.