‘The Kiss Inside’. Douglas Wright Dance Company

4 & 5 March, Opera House, Wellington

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

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

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