Creative intellect at its best: Sydney Dance Company presents ‘Ascent’

Sydney Dance Company.

Ascentco-commissioned by Canberra Theatre Centre, is an inspired triple bill that will be performed by Sydney Dance Company at the Sydney Opera House from 15 – 26 March, as part of the 50th anniversary celebrations.

This exciting first season invites Chunky Move Artistic Director Antony Hamilton with his Helpmann Award-winning work Forever & Ever, along with two world premieres by international choreographer and recently appointed Artistic Director of Denmark Dance Theatre Marina Mascarell with Shell, A Ghost, The Host & The Lyrebird, and I Am-ness by Sydney Dance Company Artistic Director Rafael Bonachela.

Ascent  is described as an arresting portrait of contemporary dance and its potential to move, excite and activate audiences. With rehearsals underway, and opening night already sold out, Dance Informa had the privilege of speaking with Hamilton and Mascarell (who just landed in Australia and straight into rehearsals) about their creative process and their collaboration with this superb ensemble to bring their works to life. 

Set to a sonically stimulating score by The Presets’ Julian Hamilton (composer), Forever & Ever explores ideas of order, chaos, popular culture and human behaviour together with dance, techno, high fashion and vivid lighting (Benjamin Cisterne) to hypnotic effect. Below, we explore three key aspects that structured the piece.

Antony, the aesthetic and physicality displayed in Forever & Ever is visually dynamic, and the movement progressive. Tell us about your approach in order to achieve such a hypnotic result.

“There is actually a lot of space in the choreography for Forever & Ever. Although there are many challenging sequences for the dancers, I often encouraged them in the rehearsal and the creation process to be aware of stillness as a dynamic element punctuating the action. Julian’s music is relentless and also spacious, with the repetitive beat intersected by stark silence, and the choreography has quite a conventional relationship to the music, where dynamics match up with the music.”

Describe the notion of change and how it evolves throughout the piece.

“What is going on, is a change in appearance of the dancers, via the discarding of layers of costume over time. Paula Levis (costume designer) had the idea of a babushka doll approach to costume, where layers were inside layers. This came from a choreographic line I decided to follow involving the idea of duplication, so starting with one dancer, then two, then four, eight and so on. At each point of duplication, a new look appears. What it reflects to me is the fast paced rate of change in art, media, fashion, etc. The disposability of ideas, trends, objects, etc.”

How did you approach the logical sequencing of the work? What insight can you share about the creative process for this.

“Although the work has a really formal appearance, the creation is quite chaotic. A lot of the time, I don’t really know what I’m looking for until some strong ideas emerge on their own. I have to really pay attention and look for what’s interesting while letting the work find what it wants to be. 

There’s a lot to think about, and a lot of work in coordinating all the elements, and of course this involves lots of people, so it’s important to work collaboratively with the dancers and creatives. With this piece, I started making lots of material in small pieces. This is also a really efficient way to get to know the artists in the room. Then, I started to think about assembling the small bits of choreography in some interesting way. For this piece, I think the duplicating idea emerged pretty quickly, and when that idea landed, it was much easier to start to build. I always need a bit of a roadmap!”

From one creative genius to another, we also delved into the practice behind the world premiere of Marina Mascarell’s The Shell, A Ghost, The Host & The Lyrebird, which takes the audience on a journey with bodies through the unknown as mutant creatures in an oneiric valley. A beautiful collaboration with Composer Nick Wales, Costume and Set Designers Lauren Brincat and Leah Giblin, and Lighting Designer Damien Cooper, this creative partnership developed a conversation and functioning body of work.

Marina, your style and philosophy toward creating movement is incredibly inspiring. Can you talk to us about your interest in political and social action and how this translates into dancing bodies?

“I understand the act of dancing as a resistant toward standardisation. So in my practice I question, why are our bodies are moving? For me, the body is a questioning body, to push our comfort zones, and to challenges norms and engage with what you are seeing. 

Over the years, I have developed an improvisational practice in order to explore and develop movements and patterns, and this process requires time and thought. Through this method, we learn through the hands of others to expand our possibilities, and this in turn enables us to be open to other decisions.

I have an interest in engaging politically in certain subjects, and in this piece, my focus is derived from our relation with our bodies, technology and nature, and how these three pillars will meet and find a new relation with the environment.”

Through this practice, what tools and methods do you offer dancers when exploring movements and patterns, and how are these selected, edited and amplified?

“I have different methodologies. First, we build up into a state of play. Some people have imprinted memories, some have more of a classical background. We try to deconstruct these in order to become more free. When we start to get the material, we keep using improvisation along with dialogue with the artists. Then, we record it, extract the information and develop it further. I believe it is essential, because when we are just given material, we have the tendency to simplify it, but when you improvise, other dynamics appear and we learn from ourselves and others and it becomes more exciting.”

Can you tell us about your collaboration with Costume and Set Designers Lauren Brincat and Leah Giblin for this work? 

“The sculptures are by Lauren Brincat and the costumes by Leah Giblin. I have a special relation with the space, and I get deeply emotional with spaces that force the body to change and transform. So this collaboration with Lauren in particular has this characteristic. 

We also learn from the sculptures – the movement quality and tension – and we learn to activate specific spaces and how to approach this body that isn’t a human body and how far we can go. The sculptures become an essential, and there are three kinds: the first is made from silk so they are unpredictable in the way they move; the second is made from boat sails and the fabric texture is thick and noisy and has a weight of around 15kg each to act like a breathing body, like accordion that expands and contracts; and the third sculpture is made from ropes.”

Also featuring in this exciting triple bill is Rafael Bonachela’s I Am-ness, which calls for the convergence of the moving body and creative mind, charting a world in flux where simplicity dominates, and expectations are subverted. In this world premiere, Bonachela revisits the powerful and emotive work of Latvian composer Pēteris Vasks, previously celebrated in the critically acclaimed ab [intra].

Ascent is not to be missed. Book now online, call 02 9221 4811 or email

By Renata Ogayar of Dance Informa.

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