Black Grace + Friends. Artistic Direction, Neil Ieremia. Photo: Duncan Cole

Crying Men. Black Grace

20 September 2018. Te Rauparaha Stadium, Porirua

Reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

Crying Men broke powerful new ground for Black Grace and director Neil Ieremia in a three-performance season at Te Rauparaha stadium in Porirua.

The opening work, Gone, resulted from a recent workshop conducted with 16 pupils from local schools, Porirua College, Mana College and Aotea College. Its taut atmosphere centred on the theme of sudden disappearance of family and the familiarity of home. The work was accompanied by The Virtuoso Strings, a local young orchestral ensemble (along the lines of  El Sistema) conducted by Liz Sneyd. They played an astonishingly sustained and inventive composition by Craig Utting (tho’ the central string section had over-loud amplification—my impression was it did not need amplification at all).

The second work, E Toa, E Toa, choreographed by Ieremia and by Tuaine Robati, was performed by students from Whitireia Performing Arts. Its beautiful opening image, a circle of female and male dancers, arms intertwined, red hibiscus flowers bright on the dark costumes and bare skin glowing in the light, had a prayer-like quality as the dancers chanted their hope for a better world. It was a focused work from a large cast who moved with compelling energy, and the drum accompaniment was with them every beat of the way.

Both these works made strong atmospheric contribution to the serious theme of the following major work. Gone in particular reminded me of the Urban Youth Movement  workshop projects in South Auckland that were part of Black Grace’s program some time ago.

In Crying Men, a powerful element of theatre was introduced through the script of playwright Victor Roger, centering on the desperation and sorrow of a man unable to break free from the physical violence that has marked his life as husband, father and grandfather. A major work in four scenes, its recorded narration by Nathaniel Lees was poignant but would be wonderful to include as a live component of the work.

Black Grace, 'Crying Men'. Artistic Direction, Neil Ieremia. Photo: Duncan Cole

Black Grace, Crying Men. Artistic Direction, Neil Ieremia. Photo: © Duncan Cole

Ieremia’s role as the grandfather had pathos, and the early scene of his wife being led away by female aitua (spirits) of death to the afterworld was shocking in its beauty.

A group dance of abstract design, simple in gestures but intricate in the canon and syncopation of its delivery, was a memorable gem that echoed weaving and carving patterns familiar from Pacifica arts.

The tense and violent encounters between three generation of males in one family was the continuing theme of darkness to the dance-play. A shot of humour was allowed in male/female interaction but there was no attempt made to cover up the central issue that remains a challenge in all societies as gender dynamics play out.

It seemed a pity not to employ the very considerable dramatic talents of Sean MacDonald, a foundation member of Black Grace back in 1995—but overall this was a  powerful group performance. If at times sections of the work seemed repetitive or over-long, that I suspect was intended to echo the very point … where is this violence going?  Where does it end?  Not on Mars I think, but right here, in New Zealand, and in the Pacific. In India. How’s Australia doing? Probably every country on Earth has issues that choreography could help to confront. Black Grace is equal to that task.

Jennifer Shennan, 21 September 2018

Featured image: Black Grace + Friends. Artistic Direction, Neil Ieremia. Photo: © Duncan Cole

Black Grace + Friends. Artistic Direction, Neil Ieremia. Photo: Duncan Cole

Scene from Jack Ziesing's work for 'This Poisoned Sea'. Photo: Maylei Hunt

Dance diary. June 2017

  • Jack Ziesing on This Poisoned Sea

I recently spoke to several people associated with This Poisoned Sea, a forthcoming production to be performed in late July by Quantum Leap, the senior performing group of Canberra’s youth dance organisation, QL2. The story I subsequently wrote for The Canberra Times has yet to be published and, as often happens in these situations, I was unable to use everything I gleaned from those who were kind enough to talk to me.

Independent dancer/choreographer, Jack Ziesing, is one of three choreographers engaged with this evening length work, which is inspired by Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner. He spoke to me in some detail about the thoughts behind his section, which was made during a residency early in 2017. It has already been performed in Melbourne and Canberra as a stand alone piece. Looking at some of the production images from those performances I was struck by the the black cloth that seemed to be used throughout his work, and the images of black figures that were posted on the walls of the QL2 studio and that had been used as inspiration.

‘I responded to the figures in black,’ Ziesing remarked, ‘because the black looks like clothing but draped in the right way it could also look like a flag, a weapon, or oil. I liked the idea of a transformable substance that the dancers could use to clothe themselves, protect themselves, and build with. But all the while it’s the very substance that contributes to the degradation of their environment. They are trying to shelter themselves with the very material that hurts them.

‘The tone of this work is definitely very dark. I am concerned for what the future holds and at times it can seem overwhelming and very hopeless. I wanted to convey this same sense of bleakness. Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem gave such a strong example of the consequences of thoughtless action. I can’t help but want to do the same in my own medium.’

This Poisoned Sea, section by Jack Ziesing. Photo: © Maylei Hunt, from the Melbourne production, 2017

The other choreographers contributing to This Poisoned Sea are Caudia Alessi and Eliza Sanders. The full, three-section work will be performed at the Playhouse, Canberra Theatre Centre, 27–29 July 2017.

  • News from New Zealand

Early in June, Royal New Zealand Ballet announced the appointment of Patricia Barker as its incoming artistic director. She replaces Francesco Ventriglia, who ended his contract with the company in mid-June. Barker was a principal dancer with Pacific Northwest Ballet during the directorship of Kent Stowell and Francia Russell and, most recently, has been artistic director of Grand Rapids Ballet in Michigan.

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A review by Jennifer Shennan of Neil Ieremia’s As night falls for Black Grace makes interesting listening at this link. ‘A poetic ode to our troubled world’ is how Ieremia describes it, but listen to what Shennan has to say.

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A comment from a New Zealand reader on my recent post about the Royal Ballet’s tour to Australia and New Zealand in 1958 sent me hunting for a photo of Anna Pavlova photographed in Wellington in 1926 by S. P. Andrew. The story goes, according to my correspondent, that Pavlova liked the photograph so much that she ordered 800 copies of it and paid in cash from a large black handbag! It is likely that the photograph below on the left is the one in question, although I rather like the one on the right as well, also taken in 1926 by S. P Andrew.

Anna Pavlova in Wellington, New Zealand, 1926 (1). Photo: S. P. Andrew, Alexander Turnbull Library
Anna Pavlova in Wellington, New Zealand, 1926 (1). Photo: S. P. Andrew, Alexander Turnbull Library

Two portraits of Anna Pavlova in Wellington, New Zealand, 1926. Photo: S. P. Andrew, Alexander Turnbull Library (left image, right image)

  • Rohalla

I was interested to hear that, as part of Refugee Week in the ACT, a dance-theatre work, based on the true story of a refugee from Afghanistan, whose name is Rohallah, was being produced for showing at the Courtyard Studio, Canberra Theatre Centre. I went along to see it.

In my opinion, the work didn’t live up to expectations as a piece of professional dance and, given that Canberra’s several professional dance artists struggle hard to find sources of funding, I was taken aback to find that Rohallah had received support from the ACT government. It is not clear whether that support was financial or not, but apparently the ACT arts minister, Gordon Ramsay, was a first nighter. And indeed the ACT government logo appeared on the handout.

I plead with the ACT arts minister to consider in greater depth what his department is supporting. We are grown-up, seasoned dance-watchers in Canberra. Please support work that treats audiences as such.

  • Press for June 2017

‘Pushing the boundaries of contemporary dance.’ Review of Sydney Dance Company’s Orb. The Canberra Times, 2 June 2017, p. 20. Online version

Michelle Potter, 30 June 2017

Featured image: Scene from Jack Ziesing’s work for This Poisoned Sea. Photo: © Maylei Hunt from the Melbourne production, 2017

Scene from Jack Ziesing's work for 'This Poisoned Sea'. Photo: Bec Thompson

Kelly Nash. Photo: © Jinki Cambronero

. 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