Choreographer Gabrielle Nankivell's new work for the Sydney Dance Company was inspired by a conundrum. CREDIT: STEVEN SIEWERT
Neon Aether: Choreographer Gabrielle Nankivell's imagination makes air apparent

Neon Aether: Choreographer Gabrielle Nankivell's imagination makes air apparent

By Valerie Lawson
Sydney Morning Herald
March 24, 2019

"How do you make a work with the idea of air?"

This conundrum was the starting point for choreographer Gabrielle Nankivell in creating her new work, Neon Aether.

But when Nankivell walked into the Sydney Dance Company's studios she and the dancers she chose soon found plenty of ways to dive deeply into our essential need for air, the elusive concept of air, its invisibility and translucence and the mythical way in which it was once described.

Working at the airy studios in Ultimo they began with the simple things as Nankivell and the dancers moved, noticing how the air touched them but also knowing they were touching it.

Soon the dancers had gone far beyond imagination. Their bodies were moving from freedom to restriction, from appearing to balance in the air around them but also withdrawing as if they were controlled by a powerful invasion of air.

Jumping, spinning, flickering and shaking, the dancers sweated while Nankivell watched and praised with gentle empathy.

Instead of the old school director's rehearsal demands to "do it again", Nankivell asked if the dancers would like to do it again.

There's a thread running through the work, as, in several episodes, the audience will have a glimpse of how air was perceived in ancient times and how it's used now in new ways such as in the International Space Station, which generates its own oxygen.

As with most contemporary dance the audience has to go with the flow. The title Neon Aetherdoesn't make sense unless you know the history of Greek philosophers who believed gods breathed pure air in the upper atmosphere.

Plato maintained there were different kinds of air with "the brightest part called the aether". This he believed was the fifth element of the universe.

Nankivell's new work for the Sydney Dance Company is the opposite of her award-winning Wildebeest, first presented in the Sydney Dance Company's annual New Breed season in 2014 and later on the main stage.

While Wildebeest was fixated on the ground, and the animal world, Neon Aether is at the other end of the spectrum, up in the air.

"I wanted to challenge myself, to make something completely different," Nankivell says.

She has challenged herself all her life. After training as a ballet dancer in Adelaide, Nankivell moved to Melbourne where she discovered contemporary dance in all its different styles.

With the help of a scholarship she travelled through Europe.

"It was quite a pilgrimage. I was 19 and fortunate to have this chunk of money [$18,000] so I could go exploring. I had a list of companies in Europe and got a train pass and rocked up, found the stage door and found someone and asked 'Can I do classes with you?'"

Her base is the Adelaide Hills where she lives with her partner, the composer and dancer, Luke Smiles, but she still travels often through Europe finding inspiration from people and places such as the time many years ago when she had a random conversation with "someone sitting on the side of a hill overlooking Vienna on a summer evening, talking of all kinds of things, about life and art".

"Does that sound tacky?" she asks.

No, quite the opposite.

Neon Aether premiered at the Roslyn Packer Theatre in Sydney in April 2019 in a triple bill including Rafael Bonachela's new work, Cinco, and Melanie Lane's 2017 New Breed hit, WOOF.