Lord of the dance

IN choreographer Gideon Obarzanek’s latest work, a disembodied voice constantly disrupts the action with questions that raise hackles and guffaws of laughter until finally, the exasperated dancers invite the nuisance to join them on stage.

“I’ve called the piece L’Chaim,” says the Jewish dancer and choreographer who has created the work for the Sydney Dance Company’s (SDC) triple bill, Interplay, which opened in Sydney this week for a three-week season before moving on to Canberra (April 10-12) and Melbourne (May 1-10).

With SDC artistic director Rafael Bonachela premiering what promises to be a stunning “re-imagining” of Bach’s Violin Partita No 2 in D Minor and Italy’s Jacopo Godani reprising his sensuous 2011 hit, Raw Models, Obarzanek will be in fine company for the triple bill which kicks off SDC’s 45th year of performances.

The celebrated 47-year-old has the SDC’s entire company of 16 dancers at his disposal – “all of them extraordinary,” he declares – for a 30-minute work largely inspired by the celebratory joys of Israeli folk dancing.

“It’s very modern, but a little nostalgic and will feature a Yiddish song that is an older version of L’Chaim than the one in Fiddler on the Roof,” he reveals.

“Two actors will play the questioner – Zoe Coombs Marr in Sydney and David Woods in Melbourne and Canberra.”

Two years have passed since Obarzanek left Chunky Move, the Melbourne-based contemporary dance company he founded in 1995 and led as artistic director before handing over the reins to his Dutch successor, Anouk van Dijk.

During his tenure, Chunky Move grew into an internationally-acclaimed force and Obarzanek was rewarded for his richly eclectic choreography with honours including the 2008 Helpmann Award for Glow and New York’s coveted Bessie Award which he shared with Lucy Guerin and Michael Kantor for 2003’s Tense Dave.

Obarzanek left Chunky Move with more relief than regret. After 16 years with the company, he was weary of the administrative burdens and yearned to devote himself to performers and exploring fresh creative paths.

With L’Chaim, he has come almost full circle. “I was a dancer with the SDC 25 years ago,” he says. “The company’s building and studios have remained almost exactly the same since then and they conjure so many memories. It was a very formative time.”

So, obviously, was his early childhood. The Melbourne-born choreographer was an infant when he moved with his family to a kibbutz in Israel and at age eight, returned with faltering English, though he soon excelled at maths and art.

By his teens, Obarzanek was dance-mad and ended up deferring his plans to study marine biology when he was accepted into the Australian Ballet School. After graduating in 1987, he danced with the Queensland Ballet and SDC, then performed with various companies including the Nederlands Dans Theater, whose daring, innovative repertoire influenced him powerfully.

Under Obarzanek’s direction, Chunky Move became synonymous with his edgy, boundary-breaking works, from 1999’s All The Better To Eat You With – a subversive, erotic take on Little Red Riding Hood that was well-received even among more conservative audiences in Singapore – to one of his swan-song pieces, Connected, which involved a large kinetic sculpture by American artist Reuben Margolin.

No artistic collaborator has been more important to Obarzanek than his gifted long-time partner Lucy Guerin – also a Melbourne dancer-turned-choreographer – who has played a vital role in their home.

“She’s been like mother to my son Jordan, who’s almost 20 and studying composition at the Victorian College of the Arts’ music school,” he says.

Fired by L’Chaim, Obarzanek is continuing his explorations of Jewish identity. This time it’s pure theatre.

“I’m co-writing a play titled Two Jews Walking To A Theatre with (Melbourne theatre director and actor) Brian Lipson. So far it’s just dialogue, but if it’s good enough, we’ll turn it into a stage production. It’s funny and bleak, as is my style.”

The Sydney Dance Company’s triple bill, Interplay, is at  Sydney Theatre, Walsh Bay until April 5 and at Southbank Theatre, Melbourne from May 1-10. Bookings:

REPORT by Zelda Cawthorne

PHOTO of choreographer Gideon Obarzanek (centre) during rehearsals of L’Chaim at the Sydney Dance Company.  Photo by Peter Greig

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