Nick Jachno in 'Falling on succession' from the ONCE season. New Zealand School of Dance, 2017. Photo:© Stephen A'Court.

‘Once.’ New Zealand School of Dance

Te Whaea, Wellington, 8–16 September 2017
Reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

This year is the 50th anniversary since the founding of New Zealand School of Dance (formerly National School of Ballet). It is an inspired idea to mark that by inviting 10 graduates from across the decades to choreograph solos for current students in the contemporary dance stream. The program, Once, is being performed for a season 8–16 September.

To open, all ten performers stand to frame the space, they depart into the shadows, and only the first performer is left. Between items the last dancer links with the next one, in a metaphorical handing on of a baton across the generations.

The rectangular stage space has side seating in four sections, which suits some of the dances well, but does pose a real challenge for lighting design. Sixteen floor level lights are used in the majority of pieces, which means that some lights will be shining straight into the audience’s eyes. Whenever strobe light (none of that here) or other light is shone into my eyes, my instinct is to close them—which is of course not a great way to review a dance performance. The program’s three little masterworks adopted different sources of light and the difference that made for me was exponential.

The program notes for a dance always interest me. I’m happy if there are none, and happy if there are some that help in some way to illuminate the choreographer’s thinking. Not so happy if there are notes but they don’t help at all as that’s usually a sign that the structure of the dance is less well shaped than might be. It’s an opportunity to communicate parallel to the dance, and should not be wasted, ahakoa iti, he pounamu.

Craig Bary made a strongly physical work for Nick Jachno, who gave a committed performance and it was good to be reminded of Craig’s own stellar dancing across the years. Sacha Copland, known for her quirky sense of humour and brilliant handling of props, had Ella Williams dancing with a bowl on her head to fabulous music by Lajko Felix and Boban Markovic. Eliza Sanders’ piece has a sleepwalking and muttering dancer, Holly Brogan, in a study of troubled introversion. Raewyn Hill switched off the footlights and put strong corridors of light around the edge into which stepped Toa Paranihi to dance a strong and beautiful celebration of himself, the moving body, light on skin, him, Raewyn, and us all.

Toa Paranihi in 'Solo for Toa.' ONCE Solo season, New Zealand School of Dance, 2017. Photo: © Stephen A'Court
Georgia Van Gills in 'Wellness.' ONCE solo season, New Zealand School of Dance, 2017. Photo: © Stephen A'Court

(left) Toa Paranihi in Solo for Toa (choreography Raewyn Hill) and (right) Georgia Van Gils in Wellness (choreography Emma Murray) from the Once solo season. New Zealand School of Dance, 2017. Photos: ©Stephen A’Court

Emma Murray has been working in Europe for some years now and the influence shows. Her piece, for Georgia Van Gils, sits within dance-theatre that follows theme and thought rather than display ‘beautiful’ movement for its own sake. It’s not an attractive or easy theme, to witness a young woman in desperate need of help, thinking of asking for it, but not actually asking in case we are not going to help her. It was a poignant piece, and had the best program notes of the night.

Taiaroa Royal knew well the strengths of his performer, Kent Giebel-Date, and made the dance accordingly—with his hallmark wit of engaging with the audience then inviting us to follow to an intimate place where the male body moving could speak without words. Light on human skin, my favourite thing. Mary Jane O’Reilly made Valhalla, for Jill Goh, strong presence of woman, flying pennants, boots and strop, stripping to prove it, suggesting the burlesque style she has recently focussed on. (This year is also the 40th anniversary of Limbs Dance Company, an enterprise that, thanks primarily MJ and Sue Paterson, brought such joy and fun into so many lives).

Kent Giebel-Date in 'Overdone'. New Zealand School of Dance, ONCE solo season 2017. Photo: © Stephen A'Court
Isabella Coluccio in 'Born under the same star' from the ONCE season. New Zealand School of Dance, 2017. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

(left) Kent Giebel-Date in Overdone (choreographer Taiaroa Royal) and (right) Isabella Coluccio in Born under the same star (choreographer Janessa Dufty) from the Once solo season. New Zealand School of Dance, 2017. Photos: ©Stephen A’Court

Janessa Dufty made a work for Isabella Coluccio that was at the same time strong and lyrical, and Lauren Langlois in the final slot set a dance for Christina Guieb that presented a woman in meditative involvement in her thoughts. It might have been better to place Daniel Belton’s well-styled work, XYZ, last, since his preoccupation with astral scale and energies lifts our focus up to astronomical places, where we find a perspective and proportion for all our endeavours—in scale as well as detail.

So, though this is not a contest, my three strong front runners were Raewyn Hill, Emma Murray and Taiaroa Royal. Well done all.

Jennifer Shennan, 11 September 2017

Featured image: Nick Jachno in Falling on succession (choreographer Craig Bary) from the Once solo season. New Zealand School of Dance, 2017. Photo:© Stephen A’Court.

Nick Jachno in 'Falling on succession' from the ONCE season. New Zealand School of Dance, 2017. Photo:© Stephen A'Court.

Kelly Nash. Photo: © Jinki Cambronero

‘Mā.’ Choreography by Kelly Nash. Atamira Dance Company        

Reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

16 June 2017, Hannah Playhouse, Wellington, New Zealand

In Polynesian tradition, many stories are told of Maui, demi-god, culture-hero, voyager, adventurer and trickster. Numerous accounts of his personality and exploits can be found in different parts of the Pacific, but in his Maori manifestation he is renowned for the mighty work of fishing up Te Ika a Maui, The Fish of Maui,  aka the North Island of Aotearoa New Zealand … and for the quest by which he tries to gain immortality for mankind.

To achieve this, Maui must enter the sleeping goddess of the night, Hine-nui-te-po, and ascend through her body to emerge through her mouth. If she stays asleep all the while Maui will have conquered Death. He commences the journey but as it happens, two noisy twittering fantails are so amused by the sight of Maui entering her vagina dentata that they fall about laughing and twittering, and wake her up. Thus we all may live, but all must die.

How could a choreographer resist?

(l–r) Hannah Tasker-Poland as  Hine-nui-te-po, transitioning into contemporary Everywoman; Sean Macdonald as Maui, transitioning into  contemporary Everyman, with Hannah Tasker-Poland  suspended figure. Photos: © Charles Howells

Kelly Nash has assembled a cast of three performers to make , an extraordinary work of 30 minutes duration.

Sean Macdonald, a stalwart of the contemporary dance scene here, freelancer but earlier a protégé of  Douglas Wright and a sometime member of Black Grace, plays Maui. He is both seasoned and innocent, a man with strength yet seemingly unaware of how to harness that. He is Everyman, and not only referencing Maori tradition. His movement has no clichés, but carries a sense of discovery as to what might happen next from moment to moment, position to position. He creates a mime-like honesty, a subtlety that draws us as voyeurs to watch whatever might develop. His performance stays etched in the memory.

Hannah Tasker-Poland, a freelance dancer/actor of considerable theatre and film experience, including with New Zealand Dance Company, brings a quality of mystery to the role of Hine-nui-te-po. Her flaming red hair and startling green eyes are just discernible in the low light and we can tell that she will explain nothing to us as we follow her into the shadows.  What is there to explain?  Her oblique presence suits this character to perfection, and her sinuous art as ecdysiast is beyond compare. Her performance stays etched in the memory.

Milly Kimberly Grant-Koria has extended bloodlines to Chinese, European, Samoan and Maori heritage. On stage throughout, she accompanies the entire performance in vocals and percussion with a mana (presence) and stamina rarely seen and heard on any stage. Sometimes with text, sometimes abstract vocals, she never flinches for a second, and delivers a staggering performance of strength and passion. Her experience as an actor, dancer and spirit-healer gives her much insider knowledge as to how to do this. Her performance stays etched in the memory.

If we cannot speak up about this work, support a project to make a film of it, and  encourage performance in galleries and museums, then we don’t deserve the cameras, the email address list, the technology, or the right to review performance.

The choreographer’s statement is at this link.

Jennifer Shennan, 23 June 2017

Featured image: Kelly Nash, choreographer. Photo: © Jinki Cambronero

Kelly Nash. Photo: © Jinki Cambronero

 

Mayu Tanigaito and Daniel Gaudiello in 'Carmen'. Royal New Zealand Ballet. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

‘Carmen.’ Royal New Zealand Ballet

Reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

16 & 18 February 2017, Isaac Theatre Royal, Christchurch (opening of national tour)

The first work on this program, l’Arlésienne, is over 40 years old, and the second, Carmen, is pushing 70 years. Both are dramatic one-act ballets by leading French choreographer, Roland Petit, hitherto only known by reputation here in New Zealand, or through film of his work, which often starred the stunning dancer, Zizi Jeanmaire, his wife.

Francesco Ventriglia, RNZB’s artistic director, was influenced by Petit in his own early career and he has judged well how much these works would suit our company. Unlike ballet’s classics, Swan Lake and the like, which can be staged in new settings (much as we are familiar with Shakespeare in modern dress), these works by Petit are not in the public domain, and need to be re-staged with impeccable care by the trustees of his repertoire.

A number of our dancers find scope for their talents, with personality, stage presence, comoedic gifts and individual character (more than in your average/larger ballet company, where the perfect symmetry of the many is aspired to). We saw talent in spades among the different casts in Christchurch.

In l’Arlésienne, a young man on the eve of marriage to a beguiling young woman is suddenly struck with confusion, and haunted by the vision of ‘the girl from Arles’, whom we never meet, save through the reflection of his eyes. Shaun James Kelly played the lead role with an astonishing portrayal of the onset of his mental disarray. The role of the bride was most poignantly danced by Madeleine Graham. and the corps of villagers dance a compelling semi-ritualised support to the unfolding drama. This then is in no way the frivolous cabaret number I had been expecting to act as curtain-raiser for the main work, Carmen. It is a tight and strong classic work that mesmerises the audience towards the inevitability of its conclusion, and Kelly’s performance will be long remembered.

Shaun James Kelly and Madeleine Graham in L'Arlésienne. Royal New Zealand Ballet. Photo: ©Stephen A'Court

Shaun James Kelly and Madeleine Graham in l’Arlésienne. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2017. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

The opening cast of Carmen had guest artist Natalya Kusch in the title role, her excellent technique and poetic style proving most attractive, and with Joseph Skelton dancing beautifully as Don José, initially unsuspecting but growing into all the heartbreak of the role. Kirby Selchow as the Bandit Woman lit up the stage, and the cameo comic role of the Toreador was hysterically sent up by Paul Mathews. But it was Mayu Tanigaito, in the following cast, who absolutely nailed the role of Carmen as the minx, the coquette, the sexy wild and headstrong woman who will not be tamed, by any man, at any price. Tanigaito is an astonishing performer in any role, one of the RNZB’s strongest dancers. Daniel Gaudiello was a strong and convincing Don José, and Kohei Iwamoto a striking Chief Bandit.

Mayu Tanigaito in 'Carmen'. Royal New Zealand Ballet. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

Shaun James Kelly in 'l'Arlesienne'. Royal New Zealand Ballet. Photo: Stephen A’Court

(l–r) Mayu Tanigaito in Carmen; Shaun James Kelly in l’Arlésienne. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2017. Photos: © Stephen A’Court

So, a number of highlights among the members of each cast. My advice is to see them both—but do refrain from the patronising and disruptive outbursts of applause that pepper throughout performances, and drive me to distraction. The dancers know when they’ve done a good multiple pirouette or barrel turn, but this is not the circus. Let them get on with developing the drama or poetry within the work, and please save your applause to the end.

Jennifer Shennan, 24 February 2017

Featured image: Mayu Tanigaito and Daniel Gaudiello in Carmen. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2017. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

Mayu Tanigaito and Daniel Gaudiello in 'Carmen'. Royal New Zealand Ballet. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’. Royal New Zealand Ballet

27 November 2016, St.James Theatre, Wellington

Reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

Truly, madly, deeply

If I were to list all the good things about this pedigree production, it would amount to a catalogue of joy. And what would be wrong with that?

Ethan Stiefel, previous artistic director of RNZB, certainly knew what he was about when he invited Liam Scarlett to choreograph this full-length work, and negotiated a co-production with Queensland Ballet. By all accounts that collaboration has worked very well, so might set a happy precedent for future co-productions. All those in favour…? The work only premiered last year yet is already a classic.

Nigel Gaynor, at the time Musical Director at RNZB, found close rapport with Scarlett and made a wondrous extension of Mendelssohn’s one act incidental music into a two acter by drawing on other of his numerous compositions. With motifs for many characters ingeniously set for string, woodwind and brass sections, plus of course the quijada (jawbone of an ass), Gaynor creates a seamless accompaniment. He also returns to conducts the excellent Orchestra Wellington. This is ballet musicianship at its best.

Tracy Grant Lord as set and costume designer has always known how to make this company look good (witness Cinderella and Romeo & Juliet). With Kendall Smith’s inspired lighting, the ballet grows from a swirl of smoke on a front cloth into a midnight blue faerie world of phosphorescent glowworms, moonlight, madness, mayhem and enchantment.

Liam Scarlett has made a brilliant distillation of the play, missing not a trick by slanting all the poetry into different characters’ experiences of love, true, mad and deep. This is a young but obviously hugely talented choreographer. And then, O my, there’s the dancing…

Qi Huan, former leading dancer has returned (again) from ‘retirement’ to play Oberon, bringing a maturity in his interpretation of a complex character, powerful, proud, duplicit, scheming, sometimes roving into the human world, yet ultimately forgiving (maybe). You hear his every thought as it motivates his every gesture, charging the role with real theatrical power that makes Oberon the central role to the entire ballet in a way new since the premiere season last year.

Tonia Looker is a gorgeous, romantic Titania, quick to claim the Changeling child, swift to fall in love. Her adoration of Bottom the Ass is quite something to behold. The band of ten Fairies shimmering and quivering in spiky blue tutus are as mercurial as the creatures they evoke. Harry Skinner gets maximum comic mileage from his doltish Bottom and creates an endearingly entertaining Ass that invites empathy for this ambiguous role. Shaun Kelly as the dazzling irrepressible Puck is stunning in his role of wicked mischief-maker. You wouldn’t trust him with your grandmother’s thimble. The Lovers are played with great spirit—by Kirby Selchow and Joseph Skelton, with some deeply lyrical dancing, and by Abigail Boyle and Paul Mathews, masters of comic timing. The Rustics are a hoot and they know it.

Shaun Kelly as Puck in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Royal New Zealand Ballet. Photo: Evan Li

Shaun Kelly as Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Royal New Zealand Ballet. Photo: © Evan Li

When all the mayhem is at its wildest, with Puck quaking at Oberon’s wrath, the entire cast of mis-matched lovers—jilted, unrequited, confused, and with the mad rustics in tow—charge on a diagonal across the stage in a comic moment of cartoon art that captures the complexities of the entire plot into a 30 seconds drive-by stroke of choreographic genius. The audience erupts in delight, and Shakespeare the librettist would have been well pleased.

The Changeling child in a onesie, with his toy donkey and bedtime storybook, bookends the whole glorious ballet, winching it in quite close to the world where you and I know of parents who quarrel over who ‘owns’ a child, or who ‘loves’ him more, and where he should live. It is ultimately Scarlett’s triumph to delve into the mystery and chemistry of where love comes from, its turns and tricks and travails that never run smooth, and to flow the faerie in and out of the human world. Take care in shady places. Puck is probably lurking.

There are many warps and wefts of New Zealand and Australia that weave the dancers from the two countries together, and the more you look the more you find. Lucy Green, in a few hours time, will dance Titania in her last performance with RNZB, before returning to Australia to join Queensland Ballet. We’ll be so sad to lose this beautiful dancer, but surely glad that we had such memorable performances from her these past years. Perhaps we’ll charge Puck to steal away her passport?

Lucy Green as Titiania in 'A Midsummer Night's Dream'. Royal New Zealand Ballet. Photo Evan Li

Lucy Green as Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Royal New Zealand Ballet. Photo: © Evan Li

 *********************************

There’s an on-stage class to watch before a performance. Thoroughbreds flexing.

There’s a Q&A session with dancers after a matinee; a pre-performance talk on the music; usually a forum a fortnight before; workshops where children learn the moves for the first 32 bars of Bottom the Ass. There’s a solid printed program, plus  complimentary cast sheets. There’s a production team out back, with highest production values that put numerous tired ‘imperial’ visiting ballet companies well into the shade.  The indomitable Friends are selling subs and t-shirts in the intervals, since that’s what Poul Gnatt told them to do in 1953. A mix of Oberon and Puck, that man. All this amounts to RNZB being the best little ballet company on Earth. (The best big company, for my money, is Hamburg Ballet. What’s yours?)

Only the St.James theatre wine-bar seems not to know how to uncork bureaucracy and pour a glass of bubbly for the happy punters. Another job for Puck perhaps?

Jennifer Shennan, 28 November 2016

Featured image: Tonia Looker as Titania and Harry Skinner as Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Royal New Zealand Ballet (2015 season). Photo: © Stephen A’Court

Tonia Looker as Titanaia and Harry Skinner as Bottom in 'A Midsummer Night's Dream'. Royal New Zealand Ballet. Photo: ©Stephen A’'Court

Scene from 'Gallantries', New Zealand School of Dance, 2016. Photo: ©Stephen A'’Court

New Zealand School of Dance Graduation 2016

19 November 2016, Te Whaea, Wellington
Reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

This NZSD Graduation season has all the students performing with a shared confidence and total commitment that offers audiences an energising experience. That is just what Wellingtonians, recently visited by nature’s forces in a major earthquake and subsequent flooding, need for a lift of the spirits.

Meistens Mozart by Helgi Tomasson, from 1991, to seven songs by Mozart and others, is a charming little opener with the enjoyment of youth and friendship shared. Beguiling.

Sophie Arbuckle and Jack Whiter in 'Meistens Mozart', New Zealand School of Dance, 2016. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

Sophie Arbuckle and Jack Whiter in Meistens Mozart, New Zealand School of Dance, 2016. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

Taiaroa Royal and Taane Mete, both of them NZSD alumnae, first staged He Taonga – a Gift in 2009. This powerful group work for an all-male cast of 14 dancers evokes the strength of haka, the most tense and intense dance on earth, yet here using more freely scaled movements of arms and torso. Potent.

Scene from He Taonga, New Zealand School of Dance, 2016. Photo: © Stephen A'’Court

Scene from He Taonga, New Zealand School of Dance, 2016. Photo: © Stephen A’’Court

The Pas de Deux Romantique by Jack Carter, from 1977, to Rossini, is staged by Patricia Rianne and Qi Huan. Mayuri Hashimoto and Jeremie Gan perform with a  competence and grace that disguises all technical challenges and becomes a joy in motion. Uplifting.

The Wanderer, a solo, was made by Victoria Columbus for George Liang to dance at an international competition. Focussed.

Incant – summoning the lost magic of intuition, by Amber Haines, for an all-female cast, proves an enigmatic work exploring things felt and known in the shadow world. Atmospheric.

Dance Gallantries, by Jiri Bubenicek, to Bach sonatas and partitas, is a sharp and fast highly sophisticated work that pits ballet pairings into fresh territory by having the dancers dissolve into nano-seconds of invertebrate states here and there between their straight moves. Dazzling.

Political Mother, an excerpt from Hofesh Schechter’s work which was in a recent International Arts Festival here, is staged by Sam Coren. It is given a searing, tight and impressive delivery by a galvanized group of dancers who work with remarkable rapport. Urgent.

The final Tempo di Valse, by Nadine Tyson, to Tchaikovsky’s Waltz of the Flowers, is a return to safe haven, where the sequences and formations are carried with aplomb by a large ensemble of graceful movers. Cadence.

The program is one of striking contrasts in choreography old and new, across ballet and contemporary dance, which are kept as two separate streams in the NZSD curriculum. Given the realities of the professional dance world where many a company demands a spectrum of strengths in styles across both traditional and new repertoire, one wonders what a work danced by students from both streams combined, would be like.

Holly Newsome in 'Political Mother', New Zealand School of Dance, 2016. Photo: © Stephen A’'Court

©Stephen A’Court

New Zealand School of Dance Graduation Season, 2016. (left) Holly Newsome in Political Mother, (right) Laura Crawford and Yuri Marques in Sleeping Beauty. Photos: © Stephen A’’Court

It’s just possible that Taonga does that already, but if so, a program note to that effect would offer us great insight towards a bi-cultural dance society, and closer link between NZSD and RNZB. Choreography by José Limon, Jiri Kylian, Michael Parmenter, Douglas Wright, Eric Languet, Cameron Mcmillan, Andrew Simmons, Neil Ieremeia, Daniel Belton, Malia Johnston and Laura Jones all come to mind, and that’s just for starters. Thought-provoking.

One’s every good wish goes to the students striking out for the next stage of their careers. A graduate company where they might test those waters would be a dream destination. Dreams are free, but do also sometimes come true. With respect, I offer this paragraph as a gauntlet.

Jennifer Shennan, 22 November 2016

Featured image: Scene from Dance Gallantries, New Zealand School of Dance, 2016. Photo: © Stephen A’’Court

Scene from 'Gallantries', New Zealand School of Dance, 2016. Photo: ©Stephen A'’Court

 

 

 

Happy returns

On Dancing’s reviews of John Neumeier’s extraordinary choreography, Nijinsky—both the recent Australian Ballet production, which I have not seen, and the link to that of 2012 for the Hamburg Ballet in Brisbane,* are welcome reminders of the Hamburg company’s stellar achievements.

Telling reference is made to the circular shapes incorporated into the set design, echoing paintings by Nijinsky—and lucky we are that one of his paintings is held in a private collection in Wellington, a tiny telescoping of ballet history.

Dimity Azoury. Alexandre Riabko, Francois-Eloi Lavignac and Leanne Stojmenov in 'Nijinsky'. The Australian Ballet, 2016. Photo: Jeff Busby

Dimity Azoury. Alexandre Riabko, Francois-Eloi Lavignac and Leanne Stojmenov in Nijinsky. The Australian Ballet, 2016. Photo: © Jeff Busby

I keep indelible memories of two trips to Hamburg, 2005 and 2015, where I saw in total ten of Neumeier’s full-length works. What astonishing programming in two short weeks, demonstrating the enduring worth of keeping repertoire extant, instead of allowing Rip Van Winkle to steal away with choreographed treasure never more to be seen in a lifetime, as happens in too many places.

Hamburg Ballet’s detailed website is further evidence of this artistic confidence, paying much respect to the casts listed at its premiere and in subsequent seasons, to the audiences’ interest in such things, and in the company’s future programming, which gives us the wherewithal to make fruitful travel plans.

Jiri Bubenicek created the lead role in the 2000 premiere cast of Nijinsky in Hamburg, and his twin brother Otto Bubenicek danced the Golden Slave and the Faun in that same season. After many years with Hamburg Ballet, the brothers, now collaborating and working on an international circuit, Jiri in choreography and Otto in design, will this month prepare a work on New Zealand School of Dance students for their graduation show in November. I look forward to viewing and reviewing it.

Australia’s Daniel Gaudiello proved a most gracious and convincing Albrecht in Royal New Zealand Ballet’s recent Giselle—and soon our Joseph Skelton crosses the Tasman in the other direction to guest as Albrecht in the Australian Ballet’s production.

RNZB will soon offer a studio season of new work by dancers aspiring to choreograph. Again this will be named for memory of dear Harry Haythorne.

Thus the ballet world continues to turn with little more than demi-plié degrees of separation between practitioners and their ephemeral heritage.  Words on dance websites help hold the gossamer together between seasons.

Jennifer Shennan, Wellington 12 October 2016

————————

*which I did get lucky to see, in their wonderful double billing with A Midsummer Night’s Dream—which in turn makes interesting contrast now with Liam Scarlett’s choreography in the co-production between Royal New Zealand Ballet and Queensland Ballet.  RNZB are performing it this week in Hong Kong at the Shakespeare festival there—then home for a brief Wellington season).

Featured image: Photo: Leanne Stojmenov, Alexandre Riabko, Ako Kondo and Christopher Rodgers-Wilson in Nijinsky, the Australian Ballet 2016. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Leanne Stojmenov, Alexandre Riabko, Ako Kondo and Christopher Rodgers-Wilson in 'Nijinsky', the Australian Ballet 2016. Photo Jeff Busby

New Zealand Dance Company in a study for 'Lumina'. Photo: John McDermott

‘Lumina’. New Zealand Dance Company

Reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

The New Zealand Dance Company’s Lumina has just toured to 5 centres in the north island—one performance in Whangarei, in Mahurangi, Napier, Wellington, New Plymouth—after a premiere season last year of the same program in its home base, Auckland, and appearances earlier this year at the Holland Dance Festival—where incidentally Black Grace also performed.

The company has been performing since 2012, with the dancers recruited on a project base, rather than employed on continuous contracts. There are eight dancers in the company, all of them strong, svelte and with refreshingly individual qualities. Six are graduates from Unitec in Auckland and two are from New Zealand School of Dance.

We saw NZDC’s Rotunda last year, with the New Zealand Army Band sharing the stage. The three works on this program are choreographed by Dutch/American Stephen Shropshire, and by New Zealanders Louise Potiki Bryant and Malia Johnston. The works result from a specific commission ‘to engage with light, illumination, space, image, movement’.

To some degree of course all choreography does do  that—with music usually the defining part of the equation. In this program though, many graphic effects are sourced by playing with light at various levels, which creates some striking sculptural images. So in a way the evening is more visual than aural, though the music for one work does guide and follow the development of the choreographic structure in an interesting way.

The Geography of an Archipelago, by Stephen Shropshire, makes analogy of the physical isolation of an island, or string of islands, with a human or group of humans.  A huge sculptural triangle is slowly transported about the stage, with the resulting shadows suggesting spaces, real and imagined, that isolate individuals. Some dancing in a pocket of light engages us, then we perceive that a similar sequence is being danced parallel in the dark. How alike we are, how separated we are. The movement has strong contrast between a dancer’s limbs and his torso, as if striving to belong together. The dancers’ ceaseless tramping of feet in another section seems to take us journeying with them.

image

Xin Ji in The Geography of an Archipelago. Photo: © John McDermott. Courtesy New Zealand Dance Company

The work integrates well with the music by Chris O’Connor, his driving percussion leading to Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, then sighs, bells and taonga puoro to suggest opposite ends on the spectrum. One dancer playing a quiet conch implies live music is closer than you think, echoing the ‘meandering journey towards oneself’ from the program note. In this strong and confident choreography, Xin Ji dances with an electric clarity that becomes poetry. A sudden blackout ended the work whereas a slow-motion quiet fade would have suited me better, but I can imagine that for myself.

In Transit, by Louise Potiki Bryant, is a powerful and poignant choreography. Long sticks are used as props, suggesting weapons of defence and attack, of palisade and territory marker. It is not a narrative in the obvious sense, but there are numerous references to the memories of past encounters that Maori have experienced within and between groups. Posture dances but with lyrical rather than forceful limbs are hinted at. A telling female figure in red in the background is a grieving witness to the many incidents obliquely referred to. Numerous stylized images of human forms are projected on to screens and moving bodies, in metaphors that suggest experiences among preceding generations and memories of history.image

Tupua Tigafua and artists of New Zealand Dance Company in In Transit. Photo: © John McDermott. Courtesy New Zealand Dance Company

Brouhaha (a trope from early times used ‘to warn of the devil disguised as clergy’) is Malia Johnston’s whirlwind work that pitches speed of dance movement against the projected lighting effects which build exponentially with the sound throughout. A plethora of light lines travels across the set and connects to the busyness of the soundscape. Extreme stamina is demanded from the dancers throughout—close to exhaustion, they certainly earn the ecstatic and beautiful choral cadence of reaching heaven after such a hard time on earth but it was tantalisingly brief. We needed that too to last longer…

image

Katie Rudd and artists of New Zealand Dance Company in Brouhaha. Photo: © John McDermott. Courtesy New Zealand Dance Company

Each of the three works has strong choreography, wide ranging visual effects with light and shade, and performances in tight tandem. Overall it is sophisticated, and the graphic effects tethered to electronic sound will be exciting for some, but I found at times that these elements of moving light spectacle almost overpowered the dancers’ presence. It’s good to think of them performing in New Plymouth where Len Lye’s kinetic sculptural work, overlapping with dance movement, is housed.

Program notes are an opportunity for a choreographer to speak in clear prose, the thoughts and concerns of a work.  It is pretentious to claim that we should be left to make our own sense of what we see. Of course that is exactly what we do—but a program note is just like an abstract, précis, synopsis, introduction, commentary, caption or storyboard. Such forms have a clear function and need to use specifics, not to philosophise in generalisations or universals if they are to fulfill their purpose. I often find this an area for improvement in dance productions these days.

This is a well-resourced national dance company so it’s a pity there was only one performance in each venue since considerable technical set-up is involved and one assumes that the touring itself is the major outlay. A second performance would allow word of mouth, always the best publicity, to filter through. Most of all, if the performance is astonishing, you can go back for a second viewing. I would certainly have wanted to see the opening work a second time, to savour its dynamic integration of choreography with music.

An aside: I saw a few weeks ago a screening at the New Zealand Film Archive of Douglas Wright’s work, Now is the hour, from 1988.  It is extraordinary and insightful choreography, and wonderful that the work has been so skilfully filmed. Shona McCullagh, now artistic director of the NZDC, is in the cast and moves with very great grace. Dance is such an ephemeral art. Anything to save and savour its repertoire is to be treasured. It shows us where we were and where we are going.

Jennifer Shennan, 25 May 2016

Featured image: Artists of New Zealand Dance Company in a study for Lumina. Photo: © John McDermott. Courtesy New Zealand Dance Company

New Zealand Dance Company in a study for 'Lumina'. Photo: John McDermott

‘The Kiss Inside’. Douglas Wright Dance Company

4 & 5 March 2016, Opera House, Wellington
Reviewed by Jennifer Shennan 

The Kiss Inside is replete with images of humans questing for the divine, for ecstasy. Agony is never far away of course, and there are numerous distractions with demons, as folk fall down and religions’ promises go bad. It’s a wild ride with music of Patti Smith, Sufi turning, throat singing, to Palestrina, and home to Bach. There’s a closing measured poem, spoken by the choreographer. (I paraphrase and summarise … ): ‘No eyes, no taste, no touch—no pain, no hate, no war—no love—no wisdom—no understanding—no way.’  The ambiguity in the last two words is quintessential Douglas Wright.  There’s no easy way. Light comes in the same package as dark, so it’s both or neither. Take both.

Te Ao Hurihuri, the turning world of Maori traditional belief, provides the striking opening image, under a mighty inverted tree, of a dancer suspended from his ankles, chanting a karakia, then spinning in and out of our hearing. A number of Maori resonances recur throughout the work.

Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam and more, are referenced through symbols and mantras. A mimed solo conveys by signing the things that will need to be communicated. Eventually the Sign of the Cross emerges from the gestures, as though choreographed for the first time. We see it again when four dancers slowly advance, to Palestrina’s moving Kyrie. One is praying a Sign of the Cross, one makes the calm Namasde of Hindu greeting, one holds arms aloft in an urgent Maori wiri, one kneels with cupped hands catching unstoppable tears.

There’s a tender love dance that rings true, yet is free of all clichés; a duo between two blokes in camaraderie; pilgrims burdened down with the weight of book learning; an exquisite young woman hammering a stone till blood is drawn; Breugel’s blind leading the blind; a mangled poi dance by a figure in total burka, driving a young man to intravenous distraction; a gorilla offering orange cuts for refreshment at half time. They are rejected.

Soaring leaps, forward and upward, over other bodies rolling backward, on and up, over and over, forever. Other bodies lie dying in agony in the trenches, calling for Mum … then a powerful and poignant solo, breathtaking standout of the night, is danced by Sarah-Jayne Howard. Such tenderness should move enemies to delay declaring war, if only …

We recognise a string of images from Douglas’ earlier choreographies—the suspended tree from The Decay of Lying, an arc of candles from Halo, an authoritative nurse from Forever, prancing horses from A Far Cry, braying sheep from Inland, the ventriloquist voice and  the thrilling dance of creation from Black Milk, the thrusting bucking leaps from rapt. In the absence of a company that would have enabled these choreographies to be retained in a retrospective repertoire, the fragments seem like Douglas now taking leave from the legacy of his works.

The Kiss Inside  contrasts sublime with grotesque. Courageous dancers deliver rock-sure performances without faltering. For the record, they are Craig Bary, Eddie Elliott, Luke Hanna, Sarah-Jayne Howard, Simone Lapka, Tara Jade Samaya. Set design by Michael Pearce, and Jeremy Fern’s lighting, create the perfectly judged  atmosphere that carries throughout.

The Pina Bausch season here will soon show equally rich and imaginative performances, the major difference between the two companies being the level of resources their respective countries have made available to them over decades. Wim Wenders in his celebrated film, Pina, has done her  proud. Leanne Pooley in her splendid documentary, Haunting Douglas, has done the same for Douglas Wright, and us.

Jennifer Shennan, 8 April 2016

Featured image: Dancers of Douglas Wright Dance Company in The Kiss Inside. Photo: Matt Grace. New Zealand Festival, 2016

‘Java Dance’. Swargaloka Dance Troupe (from Jakarta), and Gamelan Wellington

5 December 2015, Adam Concert Room, Te Kōkī  New Zealand School of Music, Victoria University of Wellington
Reviewed by Jennifer Shennan 

Prabhu Sri Bathara Kresna, a character in Indonesian wayang kulit shadow puppet theatre, can wield weapons of supernatural power. One of these, wijaya kusuma, is a flower so beautiful (would that be a lotus, a water lily, or passionfruit flower?), it is said to bring back the dead from their graves.

The director of Gamelan Padhang Moncar, Budi Putra, must have borrowed such a flower for the evening’s performance since Jack Body, loved musician, composer, colleague, mentor and friend, who endeavoured for such a long time to bring this troupe of dancers from Jakarta to New Zealand, died earlier this year so did not live to see their performance. But every member of the capacity audience could sense why he would have wanted to arrange the visit, and their dancing, as beautiful as any lotus, effectively means he came back to spend the evening with us. A miracle.

There are five performers in the visiting troupe, four of them young and sinewy teenagers. Their youth melts away as they begin to dance however, and the quiet authority and mature confidence with which they hold the stage is deeply reassuring. We are not thinking of how they might dance in some years time. They are doing it here and now.

The opening dance of welcome, Sesaji, is an auspicious offering that establishes a mood of serenity for the evening performance. One couple moves as traditional dancers, staying within the highly stylized angularity of etched sculpture that keeps specific emotion disguised, yet still palpably present. The other couple moves in more contemporary style, limbs freer to shape their gestures, to leap, to stretch out into lines that suggest forces of modernity, albeit still carefully measured. The dancers occasionally join in the singing as well. By placing these two generations of styles adjacent and simultaneous, the choreography speaks of past and present not simply by pitching them as alternatives to choose between, but as layers to be absorbed by degrees one into the other. What a civilised and inspired statement about the history of dance.

The second dance, Beksan Enggar-Enggar, depicts a man who has to leave for war saying a reluctant farewell to his wife.

Yani Walandari in 'Beksan Enggar-Enggar, 2015. Photo: Jasper Rain

Yani Walandari in Beksan Enggar-Enggar, Swargaloka Dance Troupe, 2015. Photo: © Jasper Rain

In 2015 as a centennial year from WW I, we have witnessed countless evocations of war and the emotional toll it takes in the lives of ordinary people. Not a one of them would be more poignant than this traditional dance for a couple—who dance so close to each other, yet do not touch, who cast discreet oblique glances as they turn, sway, step, slide, sink and rise to speak their sadness of imminent parting. Their rapport is real, and we sense it will stay strong even when apart. The menuet of French noble dancing from the 18th century court, barely known or understood today other than through its music (think of the adagio movement of Bach’s Double Violin Concerto) shares exactly this same form. When eventually the briefest physical contact is made between the two dancers (he brushes his hand along the back of her waist) the signal of the end of the dance is cast. In this timeless performance by Yani Walundari and Bathara Saverigadi Dewandoro, we saw something that words cannot paraphrase, and should not try to.

Comedy bounded in for the third dance, Bajidor Kahot, when the older member of the troupe, Tri Kadar Nugroho, with a mask-like face of bright pink, and two protruding rabbit teeth, cavorted around in his attempts to imitate the lithe and graceful skills of the younger dancers. With the consummate timing of all best comedians, he succeeded in making a fool of everyone you’ve ever met who tried to persuade you of his handsome and attractive potential. He’s flat on his back, admiring his reflection in the sky, by the time he realises the young couples have escaped far away from his oafish advances.

Balinese dance is one of the most celebrated of world dance traditions. Its shimmering, staccato, deft and unpredicatable dynamics evoke the firefly, the humming bird, the butterfly, the candle flame. To Balinese gamelan now, Taniwha Jaya, directed by Gareth Farr, we see Tari Margapati, a fascinating duo by Chikal Mutiara Diar and Denta Sepdwiansyah Pinandito. In the bebancihan genre, which combines movement from the normally contrasting male and female styles, gender is layered not demarcated. This is a seemingly simple yet subtly presented theme.

In the final dance, Nusantara Indah, several local dancers from the Indonesian community join the visitors. Beguiling sequences move into tableau-like groupings with a final firework of a multi-limbed creature bringing a festive air to the ending of a truly memorable performance.

Throughout the evening the musicians in three gamelan ensembles, as well as Indonesian community playing angklung, rendering Pokarekare ana in Maori, offered affirmation that what is different between people is opportunity for seeing what is shared.

We should treasure the wisdom embedded in the DNA of traditional dances. They are, mostly speaking, an endangered species in the world, but this spirited little troupe, by the calibre of its performance, and its beautiful costuming, is carrying its past into its future.

Jennifer Shennan, 6 December 2015

New Zealand School of Dance Graduation 2015

19 November  2015, Te Whaea, Wellington
Reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

The New Zealand School of Dance (NZSD) graduation program opened with Paquita, staged by Anna-Marie Holmes, after Petipa’s vintage choreography from 1846, offering as many challenges today as it no doubt did back then. In another layer of heritage Nadine Tyson, the tutor who rehearsed the work, danced in it at her own NZSD graduation back in 1988. The luxuriant music by Minkus demands a festive commitment, and the students aspired to this with flair. Soloist Lola Howard in one of the variations caught our eye with her sense of line, and technical command.

Sarah Foster-Sproull, also a former NZSD graduate, created Forgotten Things, to music by Andrew Foster, in a premiere work for this season. A series of highly effective images, with light shining on skin of limbs in a kinetic sculptural effect, cohered the piece throughout. The mediaeval dance-like rhythms supported well the work’s theme of community undergoing change.

Cnoditions [not a typo] of Entry,  an enigmatic and somewhat troubling work choreographed by Thomas Bradley, (no program profile so perhaps he prefers the anonymity?) had a line of robed and hooded figures in very low light levels that suggested sinister or secret machinations of covert behaviour among the members of a small and closed group. The program notes also appear to be in code (and a pity that the printed program is overall an uneven affair).

Tarantella, Balanchine’s quirky number from 1964, to Gottschalk’s jaunty music, was danced with effervescent style and vivacity by Mayuri Hashimoto and Felipe Domingos (the latter a promising young dancer from Brazil who has been confirmed in a contract to join Royal New Zealand Ballet). Diana White staged the piece which was rehearsed by Qi Huan, until recently a fine lead dancer with RNZB. His artistic conviction shone through the students’ performance (though Poul Gnatt would have required their somewhat quiet tambourines to be shredded by the end of the performance).

As It Fades, choreographed by Kuik Swee Boon of Singapore, to an atmospheric score, was performed here in excerpts, so it’s hard to gauge the work’s context. There was noticeable contrast within its structure—speed and flight, moving through to a calm and quietly iexplored place, performed with strong focus—as if above ground, but then under water.

Lola Howard and Jerry Wan Jianjing in 'Concerto'. New Zealand School of Dance Graduation 2015

Lola Howard and Jerry Wan Jiajing in Concerto. New Zealand School of Dance Graduation 2015

The final and major work on the program was Concerto, choreographed by Kenneth MacMillan, premiered in Berlin in 1966. The rapport between MacMillan and dancer Lynn Seymour, whose distinctive qualities as a richly poetic and dramatic dancer inspired the making of the main duet, survives to again inspire the very fine and fresh performance it received here from Lola Howard and Jerry Wan Jiajing. Lynn Wallis staged the work, with Stephen Beagley and Turid Revfeim also involved. The Shostakovich piano concerto #2 was beautifully performed by Ludwig Treviranus and Craig O’Malley on two pianos sidestage. The colour gradations of costumes made attractive foil to each other and were the most successful of the evening.

Ballet is nothing if not faithful to its repertoire, but new choreographies in that idiom are very rarely commissioned or forthcoming—yet its movement vocabulary is able to speak to us of our lives and loves and concerns—witness that serene and timeless Concerto pas de deux. Contemporary dance, by contrast, is rarely studied or staged here through the classics of its own heritage repertoire and too often it has only a single season life. These are not parallel streams in choreography since they are one and the same art. Only through studying and seeing both repertoires do we know and understand that, and ourselves, as performers and as audiences. No doubt the School’s upcoming 50th anniversary will draw attention to the legacy of those decades.

This program offers challenges to the students, and opportunities to be savoured by the audience. The fact that your favourites will be different from mine is the rich treasure that the musical and non-verbal nature of dancing invites. It matters not whether old or new, borrowed or blue, ballet or contemporary dance. What matters is that it be good, and that choreographers and dancers know what to do with their music. All encouragement to the students as they make their way into careers in dance.

Jennifer Shennan, 24 November 2015