Neon Aether

Education Resources


We wanted to be the air, omnipresent, glowing bright like neon cut mist

Between the clouds and the edge of our atmosphere

The tangible ethereal

The resonant wonder of future nostalgia

Neon Aether is an ode to the burning intangibles that fuel our imagination. The territory of sensations that seem to be in and of the air – the ethereal, the un-pin-down-able, the just beyond our grasp. This is the material of madness, of stars and magnetism, of space exploration and love. This is precarious fascination, with desire, and the infinite unknown.

Neon Aether started out as the air before me into which I stretched my fingers, searching for a way to articulate things I felt but could not describe. Somewhere between catching one’s breath and the absence of a horizon between water and sky, a rising sensation, the impression of rushing forward through feelings steeped in the past.

This seemed to me a kind of future nostalgia – like heartbeats in glass jars or fireworks in outer space – like being compelled to move inextricably into the future with a Polaroid from 1974 strapped to your chest.

Just like science fiction and space time, this felt like a projection of possibility – like a rocket ascending while humanity holds its breath.

Gabrielle Nankivell

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Choreography: Gabrielle Nankivell

Music: Commissioned composition by Luke Smiles, motion laboratories

Costume Design: Harriet Oxley

Lighting Design: Damien Cooper


READ about the Company Dancers 


A sentimental longing for a vision of the future seems like an impossible conundrum best articulated in the genre of science fiction. So too is the term ‘Space Age’ which also looks to the future but is based on vintage technology. Although I was born too late to witness the moon landing live on TV, space exploration has been an adventure of mammoth proportions that has forever inspired me.

Science Fiction cinema of the 1980’s was a strong influence when considering the score with its neon nostalgic synthesizer sound of the future. Another fascination was found in the informal definition of aether described as ‘air regarded as a medium for radio’.

My work is strongly influenced by techniques normally aligned with cinema sound and Neon Aether presented a great opportunity for me to draw on these interests. The soundtrack intricately incorporates musical composition, field recordings, sound effects, foley and sound design with importance placed on both atmosphere and an attention to detail.

Having also worked as a professional dancer I am in a unique position for connecting with choreographers through a shared experience and direct communication in the dance studio. An ability to read choreography and understand the timing and detail of movement is something I share with Gabrielle, and this allows us to pursue ambitious ideas with the dancers.

Luke Smiles

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To create the design for Neon Aether, I responded to the choreographic material that Gabrielle created and the sound design Luke built. Their intention was to craft an expansive and immersive environment for the piece, and I think they have succeeded beautifully.

At the start of the process, some of the influences were 1980s science fiction films, the exploration of space or deep sea, and human versus non-human. I turned to the idea of boiler-suits, and then the concept of human versus machine led us to the idea of belts, cords, cables, and harnesses.

The question then was how to incorporate those elements into the costume design, while allowing the garments to function as they need to and be user-friendly for the dancers. I wanted to create a sense of lightness and otherworldliness, and visually place the dancers in a unique, specific world. Colour is an integral part of my design process and we created a colour palette for the work early on in our discussions.

Harriot Oxley

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Gabrielle Nankivell’s Neon Aether emerged as a response to her first Sydney Dance Company work Wildebeest. Gabrielle describes Wildebeest as earthbound and primal, and as a result Neon Aether explores the overarching concepts of ‘air’ and the intangible connection we have with it.

Throughout the work, Gabrielle investigates questions such as: how does air as a physical parameter exist? How does air operate as a life maintaining support system? How is air used as a survival tool when entering or existing another atmosphere? And how can atmospheres coexist with each other? Gabrielle treats air as a container for the undefinable – our wonder, curiosity, intentions and desires.

Choreographic Process

Gabrielle’s choreographic process was organic and non-linear. Through various choreographic tasks she simultaneously explored multiple stimuli; both physically and conceptually to create an ambiguous quality and tension in the movement. These concepts were often combined and separated to see if they related to each other or could coexist.

Air Mattress (Jumping Castle)

Gabrielle explored the concept of air inflating and deflating objects, asking the dancers to visualise a jumping castle or air mattress performing these actions. The dancers were tasked to create movement based on this imagery resulting in solo phrases which featured buoyant and floating movement qualities. The movement generated in these solo phrases was then used throughout the dance work.

Smoke Cloud

Gabrielle discussed with the dancers the conceptual relationship humans have with air and the intangible nature of air. Gabrielle tasked the dancers in groups of five to create a phrase referencing the concept of smoke. She asked the dancers to consider how smoke interacts with air and how that could be translated into body movements. This can be seen in the floor pathways, where three dancers orbit a duo, lifting each other through the space.

To further explore this idea, Gabrielle introduced a visual reference of milk diluting into water, highlighting how the milk creates fascinating shapes as it combines with the water. This imagery assisted the dancers to create movement which flows continuously.

Solar System (Orrery)

Gabrielle also provided the dancers with visual references of the solar system and orreries (a mechanical model of the solar system that illustrates the relative motions of the planets) to explore the timeless wonder of stars and the orbital trajectory of planets.

Gabrielle then assigned a dancer to perform a movement phrase in the middle of the space. The remaining seven dancers were tasked to travel around the central dancer, each using a different body part of the central dancer to guide the direction and speed of their circular floor pathway. This created an orbital-like motion which conceptualises an orrery in a physical way.


The structure emerged from the creative process, becoming a series of six scenes which follows the journey of an individual who has landed in an intelligent atmosphere. This individual represents our fascination for the unknown, our capacity for wonder and thought, and our essential need for connection and love.

Scene One: The individual enters a world where it does not belong, uncertain but not fearful of the new atmosphere they find themselves in.

Scene Two: The individual learns about the environment through observance. They experience the atmosphere as pure, balanced, neutral and highly intelligent.

Scene Three: A tension builds as the individual begins to adapt to and assimilate with the atmosphere to survive. It is unclear whether this atmosphere intends to assist or hinder the individual’s progress.

Scene Four: Becoming immersed, the balance of power shifts and the individual starts to affect the atmosphere, activating a solar system – a metaphor for human fascination, desire and endeavour.

Scene Five: Fully immersed in the environment, awe becomes euphoria as human fascination morphs into pure energy.

Scene Six: Through a process of ascension, the individual heads towards an environment beyond – the pure expression of wonder.

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Watch this behind the scenes video of Gabrielle Nankivell’s Neon AetherVIDEO 1 

Watch this behind the scenes video of triple bill, Bonachela/Nankivell/LaneVIDEO 2

Watch this video trailer of Gabrielle Nankivell’s Neon AetherVIDEO 3

Watch this advertisement video of triple bill, Bonachela/Nankivell/LaneVIDEO 4


Read about what to expect in Bonachela/Nankivell/Lane in this CHEAT SHEET.

Read interview with Gabrielle Nankivell, Between clouds and future nostalgia: Gabrielle Nankivell’s Neon Aether. Written by Sydney Dance Company – 13 March 2019.

Read The Sydney Morning Herald feature articleNeon Aether: Choreographer Gabrielle Nankivell’s imagination makes air apparent, written by Valerie Lawson – March 2019.

Read Broadsheet feature articleSydney Dance Company is about to kick off its 50th celebrations, written by Che-Marie Trigg – March 2019.

Read Dance Australia’s feature articleSydney Dance Company: Bonacela, Nankivell, Lane, written by Geraldine Higginson – April 2019.

Read The F’s feature article, Sydney Dance Company is celebrating it’s 50th anniversary in a massive way with Mardi Gras and Cinco, written by James Banham – March 2019.  

Read Sydney Morning Herald reviewSydney Dance Company: Virtuoso display thrills with speed and stillness, written by Jill Sykes – March 2019.

Read The Daily Telegraph reviewSydney Dance Company’s 50th anniversary debut shows what heights the human body can hit, written by Elizabeth Fortescue – March 2019.

Read Daily ReviewSDC Triple bill review, written by Martin Portus – March 2019.

Read Limelight reviewSeason One (Sydney Dance Company), written by Jo Litsen – March 2019.

Read Audrey Journal reviewAbsolutely Electrifying, written by Elissa Blake – March 2019.

Read The Plus Ones reviewBonachela / Nankivell / Lane: An urgent and passionate triptych of dance, written by Eric Qian – March 2019.

Read Bachtrack’s reviewSydney Dance Company launches its 50th year, written by Chantal Nguyen – March 2019.

Read The F’s reviewCinco by Rafael Bonacela and Sydney Dance Company: Contemporary dance at its best, written by James Banham – April 2019.


Listen to interview with Artistic Director Rafael Bonachela and former company dancers Sheree Da Costa and Shane Carroll, Sydney Dance Company turns 50, presented by Michael Cathcart – March 2019.


Creating a Solo Phrase – Individual Task

Aim: To create a movement phrase that explores the act of inflation and deflation.

– As a class, read through the Neon Aether Exploring Stimulus resource and discuss how Gabrielle Nankivell explored the concept of ‘air’.

– As a class, discuss the actions of inflation and deflation. Spread out through the space and visualise a jumping castle inflating and deflating. You may wish to watch videos or consider other inflatable objects to use as further stimulus.

– Individually, improvise and physically explore how many ways you can interpret the stimulus, using a variety of different shapes, sizes/dimensions, levels, tempos/speeds and directions. Specifically, consider how air might flow through your body, which body parts would be the first to inflate and which would be the last, and what movement qualities, energy and weight/force would be appropriate to convey the concept.

– If your phrase is becoming stationary, consider how you could adapt movements to travel through the space using curved or angular floor pathways.

– As a class, share your phrases with each other, performing them to different music tracks.

– Afterwards, reflect and discuss your experience of the choreographic task considering the ways you explored and conveyed inflation and deflation, the aspects you found most challenging, and whether the change of music tracks impacted on your choreography.

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Creating a Trio Phrase – Task in Groups of Three

Aim: To create a group phrase conveying a solar system in motion.

– Individually, create a 32-count phrase, which consists of eight 4-count non-locomotor movements. Each movement should focus on your arms and flow into each other.

– In groups of three, assign yourselves a role: A, B or C. Space yourselves so that student A is in the centre of the group and student B and C are on either side of student A. Note: Student B is positioned one metre from student A and student C is positioned two metres from student A.

– Student B and C: select a specific body part of student A (for example, right ear or left elbow) and align yourself so that you are positioned adjacent to your selected body part.

– Student A: adapt your eight-movement phrase created from the previous task, rotating the phrase clockwise on the spot.

– Students B and C: as student A performs their rotating movement, travel around student A, remaining adjacent to your selected body part.

– Student A: improvise your phrase using different dynamics, tempos (speeds) and movement qualities. This will result in students B and C remaining still, walking or possibly running around student A to keep in line with their chosen body part of person A.

– Repeat the task twice more, with student B and C each taking turns as the dancer positioned in the centre.

– As a class, share your phrases with each other. Reflect and discuss your experience of the choreographic process, the structural relationships between your group members, and the aspects you found most interesting or challenging, and why.

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Suggested Questions for Discussion

  1. Write down your initial thoughts after watching Neon Aether. You may wish to brainstorm this as a group. Use the questions below to assist with articulating your thoughts and ideas:
  • What sections, movements or phrases did you like or dislike, and why? Can you describe these using the elements of dance?
  • What feelings or emotions did you experience when watching the work? What specifically about the performance made you feel this way?
  • What did the work make you think about?
  • What is your interpretation of the work? Compare and contrast your interpretation of Neon Aether with someone else’s.
  • Did you observe any choreographic tools used throughout the work such as symmetrical and asymmetrical movements, unison, repetition, canon, group formations and changes of directions and levels? How did these impact on your interpretation of the work?
  • How did the different aspects (movement, music, set, lighting and costumes) impact your experience?
  • After considering all the aspects above, would you recommend the performance to someone else?
  1. Describe Damien Cooper’s lighting design and explain how it has been used for transitions between sections. How does the lighting design affect the structural flow of the dance work and impact your experience? Justify your evaluation with evidence.
  1. The structure of Neon Aether emerged from the creative process, becoming a series of six scenes which follows the journey of an individual who has landed in an intelligent atmosphere. Using the elements of dance, describe how the individual’s relationship with the other dancers develops throughout the work. Use clear examples from the work to justify your answer.
  1. After reading the Exploring Stimulus resource, describe Gabrielle Nankivell’s use of levels, directions, floor pathways, tempos, accents and stillness in Scene Four (Solar System). What do these elements reveal about the relationship between the dancers?
  1. During the creative process, Gabrielle Nankivell devised choreographic tasks using visual references of the solar system and different air qualities. Can the essence of these tasks be observed in Neon Aether? Why or why not?

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