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Published: 27th October, 2015

Illuminati Richard Tognetti and Rafael Bonachela have brought the fruits of their enlightenment to Melbourne for the first time in a triple bill featuring two works by Benjamin Britten and a compilation of works by Jean-Philippe Rameau with a dash of Vivaldi and Bach.

As Artistic Directors of the Australian Chamber Orchestra and Sydney Dance Company respectively, accolades have been heaped upon them. Most recently, Bonachela added to his slew of awards with Frames of Mind, which garnered the 2015 Helpmann Awards for “Best Choreography” and “Best Dance Work”. Tognetti has an enviable international reputation both as a soloist and for 25 years of innovative directorship of what The Chicago Tribune has called “one of the most precise, cutting-edge ensembles to be found anywhere in the world”.

A shared fascination with the music of Rameau was the initial impetus for their collaboration. The final third of this performance was a re-working of their 2012 Project Rameau. It was Katie Noonan who initially recognized the potential for dance of Britten’s Les Illuminations and Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge.

To celebrate Britten’s centenary in 2013 Noonan and the dancers joined members of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra in a wildly successful series of sold out performances of Les Illuminations danced on a catwalk. Unfortunately, the inimitable Noonan was unavailable for this Melbourne performance, but Opera Australia principal, soprano Taryn Fiebig, gave a lustrous (albeit very different) performance of Britten’s captivating score. Standing in the centre of the orchestra on the raised platform behind the dancers, she was bathed in a warm spotlight. Golden haired and golden voiced, there was some danger of her drawing focus away from the four dancers, who were in comparative gloom.

Despite the competition for attention, Bonachela’s choreography was sufficiently riveting to command attention most of the time. Two males and two females danced in various combinations, exploring dimensions and tensions of relationships: jealousy, rivalry, ambiguity and, above all, sensuous eroticism. The male pas de deux was simply extraordinary. There were echoes of the relationship between the young symbolist poet Arthur Rimbaud and his lover and mentor Paul Verlaine, as well as between Britten and his lover, tenor Peter Pears, to whom Being Beauteous was dedicated. What looked like a Nijinsky Faun pose by one dancer was counterbalanced by an inverted pose by the other, making a striking final tableau. The quality of the dancing itself was sinuous, suggestive, intensely dramatic and superbly controlled. Although it might have been useful for non-French speakers to have at least an outline of the poems, the eloquence of the music and the dancers conveyed the essential meanings. Toni Maticevski’s costumes were understated and stylish, adding to the allure of the movement.

Variation 10, which opened the program, was a kaleidoscope of choreographic invention with changing configurations of dancers embodying the various musical intentions of Britten’s Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge. The ACO musicians, who stood behind the dancers among a small forest of microphones, became a mobile backdrop, enhancing rather than distracting from the dance forms. Toni Maticevski’s costumes were another attractive form of variation – subtle shades of grey with no two designs exactly the same. Although the bustle-like flounces of some would also have been in keeping with the courtly flavor of Project Rameau, costume designs by Fiona Holley and Bonachela accentuated the clarity of the choreography and the fluidity of the dancers for the final diverse series of Baroque excerpts.

The strings (seated this time) were augmented by winds, brass, theorbo, guitar and percussion to provide diverse combinations. Precision and grace were key features as dancers moved in a synthesis of courtly gesture and contemporary idiom. Generally quirky and fun, the wit was as refined as the formidable dance technique. Benjamin Cisterne’s lighting design added to the celebratory atmosphere of some pieces and the drama of an exciting Presto from Vivaldi’s Summer. A spotlight on Richard Tognetti for the Sarabande from Bach’s Partita No. 1 did not detract from the trio of dancers; rather, it provided further connection between the music and the movement. The evening ended on a joyous note with an outpouring of vitality from all performers in Rameau’s Danse des Sauvages.

Judging from the sustained applause of an energised near capacity audience, this inspired fusion of music and contemporary dance by virtuoso performers requires more than one outing in Melbourne. At least Australia could hope for no finer cultural ambassadors than these two iconic companies when they take Illuminated to Hong Kong next month.

Heather Leviston attended the performance at the Arts Centre Melbourne State Theatre on October 25, 2015.