New Yorker Stephen Petronio did well to turn to the music and words of Nick Cave when the Sydney Dance Company asked him to choreograph a new work.

Underland is an interpretation in dance and stagecraft of some eight fabulous Cave ballads, most with Cave’s band The Bad Seeds.

To these bitter-sweet songs and Cave’s haunting gravel-voiced poetry, Petronio takes us on a journey which he says was inspired by the terrorist attack five years ago in New York. Certainly destruction is conveyed by the triptych of elemental images projected behind the dancers -“ of fire, of glass shattering, of water crashing.

And the costumes by Tara Subkoff strip the dancers down to the war-torn and the threadbare, relieved by splashes of blood red and occasional flamboyance. No wonder her clothing line is called Imitation of Christ.

Petronio created the Sydney Dance Company work in 2003 and this is a welcome chance to see it again. The world of course is now no less bleak. Magically Petronio captures in dance both that rough rock edge to Cave’s music but also his moody vulnerability. He offers us in movement the tough and the yearning. The dancers also seem here more mature and less sexy cute than the usual fare from the SDC which has so easily delighted before.

The choreography is complex and our eyes are offered a variety of focal points and competing movements. Long-time dancer Bradley Chatfield, for example, gives his best ever performance with a lyrical dexterity which is astonishing.

Dexterity is one thing but what’s it all mean? That is the impossible and always frustrating question with dance. The beauty of this work is that it is so powerfully framed emotionally by the songs of Cave.

The ballads guide us though a variety of moods, a circus scenario, a tender exploratory dance between two couples, and finally and irrevocably to a rousing Death Is Not The End. Credit also goes to producer Tony Chen and sound designer Paul Healy for creating, with access to further original material from Cave, such a rich and seamless soundscape. Underland is short, lasting just an hour, but powerful and compelling dance.


Underland plays at the Theatre Royal until 30 September.

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