Sir Jon Trimmer and William Fitzgerald in 'Lark' from 'whY Cromozone'. Tempo Dance Festival, 2017. Photo: © Amanda Billing

whY Chromozone. Tempo Dance Festival

7 October 2017, Q Theatre, Auckland.

Reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

Tempo Dance Festival has always had a program slot, Y Chromozone, for an exclusively male line-up of choreographers and dancers to do their thing.

I remember it in previous years being overlong, over compered, and in need of more insightful programme notes—but as one who thinks gender has little to do with choreographic vision anyway, I was always going to be hard to convince of the concept. (I know, I know, I’m in a minority here, but I am a member of many minority groups and that is no bother to me, per se). OK, let’s to the dance…

The first listed item did not happen, but there was no announcement to warn us of that. That’s a serious issue for a reviewer working in the dark through a program of 13 separate items without interval. I don’t usually take notes during a performance but prefer to remember what is memorable, consulting the program before and after. For that to work, you don’t want the second item playing as the first.

That said, the opener was stunning—Not, choreographed and performed by Oliver Carruthers, to music Tourists by Nicolas Jaar. He was carried onstage in a twisted knot which then unfolded, limb by twist, to open finally into the straight line of his body. A secure mover this one, from Unitec.

Asmodeus, choreographed and performed by Jay Clement (to Arsonist’s Lullaby by Hosier), a gymnast harnessing extraordinary strength and balance. He spent most of the dance upside down, on the palm of one hand, legs airborne, slowly rotating on top of three poles, in a delicious slow-motion dance that held tight to its music, thus allowing poetry to emerge from its power.

Enough, choreographed by val smith, was performed by two great wild things swathed in 1000 shaggy sheepskins. They edged on walking sticks hesitantly and painfully from downstage left to upstage right. About mid-stage they rolled over each other, and one great monster pulled apart to become two—so I guess you could say they sprogged. They then continued the pilgrimage across the stage. These were creatures that Maurice Sendak might have designed. Music is identified as ‘anonymous vaporwave track pirated from a gay porn site’. Well, they said it. The whole strange hilarious thing was possibly a metaphor, depending on what you want from your metaphors.

Me, Myself But Why? choreographed by Stephen Hidalgo, performed by Stephen Hidalgo and Stephen Hidalgo. This screen-to-stage conversation between ‘himselves’ as screen figure and on-stage dancer was played with brilliant timing and a sharp dry wit that had us in stitches. Lucky this isn’t a competition as we’ve had four winners already and we’re not even a third of the way through the program.

This is a thing, choreographed and performed by Connor Masseurs, to Freefallin Dreams by Saje, was a contemplative solo at times reminiscent of a breakdancing insect, at other times a beguiling man. No program note to profile the dancer, just an obtuse paragraph that did no justice to the interesting textures of the very well-shaped dance we saw.

Dane Head, a 14 year old pupil of Allan Barry at Mt. Eden Ballet Academy, performed the peasant pas male variation from Giselle. His impressively clean technique and sound musicality, coupled with his obvious delight in dancing, made for a pleasant experience for him and us, both.

Outcast by Fenjay Sapon was a quartet of Unitec dancers often pitching one against three. Confident in their strength and their ability to build atmosphere, their use of rhythms and canon added interesting depth to this piece.

Liberate-He, by Earl de Castro was a thrust of waacking and voguing, tight jeans and high heels, all pitch perfect.

Joe Carvalho performed a mesmerising solo on an acrobatic circus apparatus, the cyr wheel. Harnessed through music, A Little Walk to Nowhere by Brain Damage, this performance brought Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian man, after waiting 530 years in a manuscript, to spend time with us. This was a miracle of true proportion and conversation with gravity. Carvalho’s heroic performance was delivered with a modesty that will not easily be forgotten

Lark, choreographed by Loughlan Prior, of Royal New Zealand Ballet, performed by Jon Trimmer and William Fitzgerald, proved a masterwork. There’s little surprise in that since Prior has already earned considerable choreographic kudos. 78 year-old Trimmer’s presence on stage, before he even moves a muscles, reeks with the authenticity of a performer who deeply knows how dance works. Fitzgerald moves with a calm clarity that makes virtuosity seem effortless, and his elevation is something to savour. Suffice to say this piece portraying an older dancer as he sifts memories of dances past, alongside a younger dancer’s questing after the kinds of things that will bring meaning to his future performances, had a poignancy to treasure.

Blue Bird, by Christopher Olwage, has recently been performed as part of Viennese Pride celebrations in Austria and we can be sure it received the same audience appreciation there as here. To Young and Beautiful by Lana Del Ray, the dancer en pointe and with costume of blue feathers that were shed in stages, suggested a cabaret twilight of happiness tinged with yearning.

The final slot, Idco Next Generation—Swagganauts, is a team of nine young Hip Hop dancers who have all the cut and thrust of seasoned street dance. Precision, speed, agility, cool, and a cap with the peak going down the back are all stitched in place so’s you couldn’t slip a knife between the moves. Josh Cesan should take credit for this spirited finale.

Jennifer Shennan, 15 October 2017

Featured image: Sir Jon Trimmer and William Fitzgerald in Lark from whY Cromozone. Tempo Dance Festival, 2017. Photo: © Amanda Billing

Sir Jon Trimmer and William Fitzgerald in 'Lark' from 'whY Cromozone'. Tempo Dance Festival, 2017. Photo: © Amanda Billing

 

Emily Hancock, Oliver Carruthers and Atalya Loveridge in Douglas Wright's 'Knee Dance'. Photo Amanda Billing

The DANZ season of Limbs @ 40. Tempo Dance Festival

5 & 6 October 2017, Q Theatre, Auckland, Tempo Dance Festival

Reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

Tempo Dance Festival is an energising fortnight every October at the Q Theatre complex and surrounds, when Aucklanders have a sea of performances and workshops to navigate. This year’s theme marked important anniversaries in dance—Limbs Dance Company at 40, New Zealand School of Dance at 50, Northern Dance Network at 20. I’m a starter for that, since everything that happens is caused by what went before.

Limbs was formed in 1977 and directed by Mary Jane O’Reilly from 1978 so good to have her back as Artistic Director of this retrospective program. The first work, her own  Poi, to music commissioned of Jack Body, is sustained and serious and beautiful and evocative and green. No actual poi are used but the curved and circular arm gestures at a range of rhythms and tempi bring them close. There are evocations too of the bird life in shaded fern and dappled bush (I remember a lovely lighting design in the original season). This work from 1983, reworked and extended in 1987, is available on dvd and makes an excellent educational resource. It was here well performed by seven dancers from Unitec Performing and Screen Arts program.

Next, from 1980, Melting Moments by Mark Baldwin, to Dvorak’s American string quartet is a rich and very red dance. Six dancers in three pairings—deep and slow, contained yet erotic, sensual and gorgeous—just as I remember it. It was here well performed by students from New Zealand School of Dance.

Talking Heads, by O’Reilly, to Seen and not seen from 1980, is a goofy hilarious quartet of wobbling robots who nod and jiggle their way around the stage. It needs a tight command of movement isolations, and sense of humour from all of us.

Then came Knee Dance, one of Douglas Wright’s classics, from 1982. To music by Laurie Anderson, this is a compelling work that dances out the magnetism and interdependence among three dancers—the invisible bonds of relationships made visible. In Wright’s choreography, each move grows out of the one that went before, so is both parent and child of itself. A miracle of a dance, here exceptionally well performed by Unitec dancers.

Emily Hancock, Oliver Carruthers and Atalya Loveridge in Douglas Wright's 'Knee Dance'. Photo Amanda Billing

Emily Hancock, Oliver Carruthers and Atalya Loveridge in Douglas Wright’s Knee Dance. Photo: © Amanda Billing

Perhaps Can is a sensuous solo for a skirted woman who does a kind of slow motion flamenco number to Miles Davis’ The Pan Piper. A reverie, made in 1979 by O’Reilly.

There’s a view which might see each of Douglas Wright’s works as talisman. Nonetheless, that would be a fair claim for Quartet, to Vivaldi, first performed in New York and in 1987 set on Limbs. I have colleagues in New York who still remember that early performance, and everything else Wright put on that program on the eve of his departing from the Paul Taylor company. It will always be New Zealand’s arts administrators and funders biggest, saddest mistake that they consistently failed to provide Douglas Wright with the resources to sustain a company and his repertoire produced over the decades. Instead we have provided many more dollars for much less talented choreographers. It is too late now, Wright has turned to literature and visual arts, so although no longer choreographic, his output continues to pour forth. (An interview on www.RadioNewZealand/Saturday with Kim Hill, September 2017, is a remarkable portrait of the artist as a middle-aged man—insightful, compassionate and well worth listening to).

Quartet, here performed by students from New Zealand School of Dance, perhaps needed more rehearsal time? Nonetheless we saw perfectly well what the work is, but it is additionally something to be truly grateful for—that Marianne Schultz, formerly a dancer with Limbs, and in the original cast of this work, has published a book on the history, repertoire and context of the company, in time for this 40th anniversary. It is her considerable achievement to include a close-up, gesture-by-move, limb-by-leap description of Wright’s choreography. That is a demanding and pedestrian task to set oneself and she does it faithfully and with great aplomb.

[Marianne Schultz, 2017. Limbs Dance Company—Dance for All People. 1977–1989]

Let the record stand. Audiences today can see what they missed. A Maori whakatauki or proverb has it that we walk backwards into the future. Despite the ephemerality of dance performance, we can see, to a degree and depending on our vision and our memory, what went before.  We cannot see what hasn’t yet happened. History is not bunk. It’s all there is. It’s now two minutes in the past that I wrote that sentence. Your reading of it lies, one hopes, in the future, except that by the time you’ve read that, it too is past. Well done, all of us.

Jennifer Shennan, 14 October 2017

Featured image: Emily Hancock, Oliver Carruthers and Atalya Loveridge in Douglas Wright’s Knee Dance. Photo: © Amanda Billing

Emily Hancock, Oliver Carruthers and Atalya Loveridge in Douglas Wright's 'Knee Dance'. Photo Amanda Billing

 

Louise Potiki-Bryant in 'Ngaro' Photo Tessa Chrisp

‘Ngaro.’ Tempo Dance Festival

4 October 2017. Q Theatre, Auckland. Tempo Dance Festival. Choreography Louise Potiki-Bryant

Reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

Louise Potiki-Bryant gave the premiere and sole performance of Ngaro, the solo work that results from her time on the prestigious Marti Friedlander Residency in New York. (Friedlander, a child orphan refugee to New Zealand from war-torn Europe, became one of the country’s leading photographers, and her portraits of New Zealand artists are the finest we have. Additionally, her bequest of this stimulating residency will ensure that her legacy continues, and how pleased she would be that a choreographer took up the challenge).

The word ‘ngaro’ in Maori means ‘hidden, out of sight, disappeared, absent, missing, lost, destroyed, consumed, passed into, undetected, unnoticed, passed off, passed away, subsided, forgotten, unintelligible, beaten, baffled, at a loss, distressed, oppressed, overcome by emotion, unavenged, unrequited, secretly’. Such are the riches of Maori vocabulary; there are also secondary and tertiary meanings—’fly, blowfly, supposed to represent the life or spirit of a person—or a roller used to drag a canoe—or a piece of wood set up for certain purposes’. It has a further meaning—’to be certain’. So there are all the words one needs to write about this.

This is an important, striking, dark, at times troubling work. Secrets are hinted at, troubles encountered, fears faced and not entirely conquered. There is a yearning … is that for a child? Was there a child not born? The work is enigmatic and its references and symbols tap into the interior of experiences. New York as a busy city full of people seems full of loneliness instead. Video clips are projected onto strip screens that slide across the stage like days and a night across the stage. The creative team—Potiki-Bryant  & Paddy Free (video/sound) and Rona Ngahuia Osborne & Paddy Free (costume/set ) are a strong cohort bringing visual and audio depth and dimension to the production. I wish they too had come to share the curtain call.

There is extraordinary courage involved in mounting a work as personal as this one. I do think it a most inappropriate choice of Festival management to have billed it as the opening event of Tempo’s fortnight program however, and would have preferred it in an early evening slot with a quiet korero session to follow, rather than a reception with wine and cheese and chatter. Come the curtain call we had seen a tired, sad, exhausted slip of a woman talking a bow, a wan smile and then an exit. It just made you want to go after her, hug her, and assure her that everything will be alright. There’s a word for that in the dictionary too. It is ‘aroha’.

Jennifer Shennan, 14 October 2017

Featured image: Louise Potiki-Bryant in Ngaro. Photo: © Tessa Chrisp

Louise Potiki-Bryant in 'Ngaro' Photo Tessa Chrisp

 

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

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*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.

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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…

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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