From 1993 …

I was moved reading Jennifer Shennan’s recent review from Auckland’s Tempo Festival, in which she discussed Douglas Wright’s latest work, M_Nod, and in which she also referred to Wright’s current health issues. My mind went racing back to 1993—it was the year that Wright’s Gloria was first performed in Sydney as part of a Sydney Dance Company season. Those were the days before things were available online and I hunted out the review I wrote of it for Dance Australia. I clearly remember Gloria (who could forget it?), and The Protecting Veil, the work by Graeme Murphy, with which Gloria shared the stage. I am posting the 1993 review below. Reading it now, 25 years and many, many reviews later, there are sections I would probably phrase differently now, but I have resisted changing anything. And I should add that, even though I am focusing my thoughts on Gloria on this occasion, I am in no way wanting to gloss over Murphy’s work, which was equally as thrilling and moving as Wright’s.

The review was originally published in Dance Australia in the issue of February/March 1994.

Truly thrilling
GLORIA, THE PROTECTING VEIL
Sydney Dance Company
Opera Theatre, Sydney Opera House
November 1993

Douglas Wright’s 1990 piece Gloria and Graeme Murphy’s new The Protecting Veil opened what turned out to be a thrilling season of dance. Gloria, performed to Vivaldi’s choral piece of the same name, is Wright’s tribute to a friend who died at twenty. It is, on the one hand, a joyous piece that celebrates life with an outpouring of dance that is full of vigour and vitality.

Part of the joyous feeling that emerges in Gloria stems from the wit of its choreography and from its tongue-in-cheek irreverence towards the classical vocabulary. Here Wright’s work acknowledges a debt to Paul Taylor with whom Wright performed extensively during the 1980s. There is something very Tayloresque about those moments when a split jete, performed flat out, is followed by a jump that looks as though it will be another of the same but instead turns into a delicious movement in which the dancer appears to be running very fast in mid-air. Or in those other moments when a relatively well known step is followed unexpectedly by a hand- or head-stand.

But in addition to its joyous appearance, Gloria also grieves for a particular life cut off in its prime. This dual theme of joy and sorrow is addressed in movement sequences such as the juxtaposition, early in the piece, of a funereal kind of procession of dancers walking in a square formation with another group dancing in circles in and out of and around the sombre square.

A kind of fragmentation also surfaces in the way that the dance connects, or doesn’t connect with the music. Often a particular choreographic sequence will continue during a pause between sections in the music. Often, too, the audience is faced with a darkened stage, devoid of bodies but filled with music.

In the end, however, Gloria is in praise of life. Its constant use of the circle, both as a choreographic theme and in its lighting design by John Rayment, stresses continuity and its final image of rebirth ensures that we come away with a message that is life-affirming.

The Protecting Veil, like Gloria, takes its name from the music that accompanies it, in this case John Taverner’s composition for solo cello and strings inspired by ancient Byzantine church music. Murphy has produced a strong work that is theatrical without being excessively so, and that consolidates his position as a choreographer whose originality constantly astonishes the viewer.

In a structure that recalls last year’s Synergy with Synergy, with its constructions and transitions, The Protecting Veil consists of eight movements separated by what are called in the program “crossings”. In the eight movements, duets, trios and quartets alternate with dances for the whole company. A quartet for Lea Francis, Alfred Taahi, Wakako Asano, and Xue-Jun Wang is memorable for the way in which it combines four individualistic bodies and four equally individualistic ways of moving.

The power of the piece, however, is in the crossings. Here Murphy builds up a tension that aligns itself with the mesmeric aspects of Taverner’s score. All the crossings feature Janet Vernon. They are initially brief, tantalising appearances. But they gradually build in length and complexity, culminating in a duet in which Vernon is, in the beginning, partnered by Carl Plaisted through the veil of a scrim cloth. The shrouded movement that results is intrinsically interesting for its novelty, but it also makes the second section of the duet, performed without the protection of the veil, seem crystalline.

The Protecting Veil also relies for its impact on Murphy’s design concept. In addition to the use of scrims to reveal and conceal, the forest of small lights attached to long wires that are alternately lowered and raised during the piece, and the use of a slit backcloth through which bodies, and seemingly dismembered parts of them, appear and disappear are all part of a play with perception that has frequently characterised Murphy’s work. In The Protecting Veil this approach helps produce a piece that exudes the tension and suspense of a religious ritual.

Sydney Dance is looking great. And that’s not surprising considering the challenges presented to the company by Murphy himself and the choreographers he supports.

Michelle Potter, 12 October 2018

Featured image: The portrait of Douglas Wright contained in the header to this post is by John Savage.

Douglas Wright's 'M_Nod'

Between Two. Kelly Nash and Douglas Wright

5–13 October, 2018. The Vault, Q Theatre, Auckland. Tempo Dance Festival

Reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

Between Two is a tandem of two 15 minute choreographies. The first, Tipu, is by Kelly Nash. The second, M₋Nod, is by Douglas Wright. Although not designed as such, the two works act as prologue and epilogue to each other. It is a perfect program.

Less than perfect is the venue, a tiny cramped vault in the Q Theatre complex, with the audience sitting in three rows of chairs on the same level as the performance space, and with an overhead stud the lowest since the New Zealand Ballet performed in A&P sheds around the country in 1953. ‘Don’t jump too high dears or you’ll crack your skulls open on the beam that’s two inches above your heads.’

There’s a noisy fan left on throughout the performance blowing cold air into our faces. Why? It’s not a hot night. ‘Oh because the fan’s droning helps block out the voices and footfalls of people in the foyer upstairs. This is a sustained and demanding 15 min solo so the dancer needs to concentrate.’ Well, I can understand the dancer’s need to concentrate, but Wright has for decades been New Zealand’s premier dance-maker, a force of theatre, the most important artist in my and many people’s life, and this dance will be his last. Was there no better space available in all of enormous Auckland for his swansong?

‘May I have a program or cast sheet please?’ (it’s hard to review without one). ‘Oh there isn’t a printed program,’ the box-office informs. Well I don’t believe that and sure enough, after it’s all over we are indeed handed a program. Hence this review.

Kelly Nash, working with Atamira Dance Company, has choreographed a number of memorable works of clear style and coherent proportions. The most recent I saw made a depth-sounding on Maori mythology and had extremely interesting collaboration with taonga puoro and karakia of Maori music. She’s an interesting choreographer who does not repeat herself. What will Tipu (meaning ‘seed’) offer? In a word, magic.

To Eden Mulholland’s inventive soundscape, two women, Nancy Wijohn and Atayla Loveridge, are encased in strong, transparent light-reflecting tights that seem like an otherworldy membrane of gladwrap. They move in sinewy duet, of sustained thread and thrust, suggesting female fecundity. It makes sense then that the two other members of the cast are Milly Kimberly Grant, a beautiful woman who sits, stands and moves about in the shadows upstage, singing snatches of lullaby, sometimes quiet sometimes strong, to Te-Whakanoa-sage, her five-month-old baby in her arms. He listens to her, looks about at the dancers, snuggles in, suckles a little, traces the other breast while doing so, just to check that there will be more milk for later. He strokes his mother’s cheeks and sucks on her chin, looks at the dancers, looks at us. We can’t see Te Whakanoa altogether clearly because our eyes are brimming at his total absence of guile, at his sweet soft gentle exploration of air, movement for its own sake. Who wouldn’t want to slow down time and embrace a five-month-old baby? The first dance.

All four performers take a simple graceful bow and walk quietly away. M_Nod, which is a nod to Morpheus, the god of dreams, opens with the recorded voice of Douglas Wright instructing us ‘Please close your eyes’ and so we do. After a minute or two ‘Please open your eyes’ and so we do. The scene is now set with a prone figure in a shroud, his head beneath a regular kitchen chair. Three knocks of the baroque conductor’s baton on the floor to warn us that the theatre-piece is about to start, that we should steady ourselves, and so we do.

There is text spoken through the muffle of the shroud. ‘I must get up’. But that only results in the dancer bashing his forehead against the seat of the chair. The shroud is pulled down to expose his face which turns towards us, the head shaking slowly as if to say ‘No’ but at ever increasing speed is soon a frantic blur of features. The body wriggles out, removes and tosses away the shroud. There stands Sean MacDonald, tall, dark and handsome, but no stranger to the dance stage here. Last week he was in Black Grace’s Crying Men. Here is rather more comfortably centre-stage, poised and open, ready to perform a solo masterpiece made for him by Douglas, for his protégé, friend and colleague.

Sean wears a black armband and we all know what that means. What follows is a flawless performance that encompasses the shade and light of all there is. The curiosity, the experimentation, the reaction to folly, the fury at incompetence, the search for explanations, the grace and the gladness expressed in strong clean diagonals, both within the body’s held line and gesture, as well as in the sequences of movement that will find the upstage-right to downstage-left diagonal line as a river of sweet strength to bathe in. James Joyce’s voice is heard reading from his Finnegan’s Wake. There will be an excerpt from Stockhausen’s Stimmung. Tuvan throat singing is heard.

Douglas Wright likes to choreograph for the throat, which always reminds me of Lord Krishna whose throat turned blue after he drank all the poisoned ocean so his people would be safe. There are motifs and echoes throughout the dance that refer to several of Wright’s own earlier works—Elegy for example, in atmosphere and costume (a woman’s negligee top and a man’s brown trousers); A Mystery Play in the head bashing (though here, mercifully, it is against the air rather than the wall); Forever and Black Milk and rapt in the arresting opening images; halo in the search for spiritual expression amid daily distractions; Gloria in the eye’s questing for transcendence. We can’t see Sean altogether clearly because our eyes are brimming at his total absence of guile, at the sweet soft gentle exploration of air, movement for its own sake. The last dance.

Fortunately there are four performances of this perfect program across two days and you can see them all because, incomprehensibly, the season is not sold out. There will be four more performances this weekend. By then the queues should be round the block, but who knows? This is Douglas’s last dance. He is in the hospice now—where the last rehearsals for M_Nod took place, all the above managed by rehearsal director Megan Adams who is working quiet miracles to do so.

The work was commissioned by Michael Lett, a young Auckland art gallery director, and had its premiere in the Grey Lynn Public Library hall back in July. Top marks to him, and to Carrie-Rae Cunningham, director of Tempo, for recognizing its importance and including it in the festival. I am assured there will be future performances, and that a good film has been made of the work.

Five of Douglas’ art works are currently hanging in New Zealand Art, an exhibition at the Auckland Art Gallery, where they sit alongside Colin McCahon, Jim Allen, Gretchen Albrecht (whose work was used as set design for Douglas’ first full length work, Now is the Hour, with Limbs in late 1980s—and we can rejoice that there is excellent film of that in Nga Taonga Film Archive).

… not to mention Douglas’ three published books, Ghost Dance, Terra Incognito (not a typo) and Black Milk, as well as his three volumes of poetry. Michael Lett is agent for the most recent art works. When I visited Douglas in the hospice, he murmured a worry that his work is not ‘out there’. I could assure him that it is.

Jennifer Shennan, 10 October 2018

Featured image: Sean MacDonald in rehearsal for Douglas Wright’s M_Nod.

Douglas Wright's 'M_Nod'

Alex Leonhartsberger as Jimmy O'Reilly and Rachel Poirier as Finola in 'Loch na hEala', Wellington, 2018. Photo: © Matt Grace/New Zealand Festival

Swan Lake—Loch na hEala. Michael Keegan-Dolan

St James Theatre Wellington, 14 March 2018
Choreography: Michael Keegan-Dolan. Music: Slow Moving Clouds

Reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

It is revealing to read an interview with Michael Keegan-Dolan in the local press in which he admits that he thinks this latest production, Swan Lake—Loch na hEala, is his best work to date. Many an artist would say the latest work is the best workbut it’s undeniably true that the thrust and ideas in this work are of unparalleled import and poignancy. It is hard to imagine another theatre work grappling so surely with old story and deep themes, revealing dark secrets and offering balm however briefly. This Lake of Swans is painfully beautiful, heartfelt, soulsprung, footstamped, wingborne, endearingly musiced, beyond reach and entirely present.

Keegan-Dolan’s earlier Giselle, Petrouchka and Rite of Spring, with his Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre, were all courageous and hugely memorable works, but Loch na hEala may well prove to be the most outstanding visionary work of its generation. It is an honour to write about the production, and important to thank the New Zealand Festival for their decision to bring this astonishing work to our town.

It’s a thrill to see Alex Leonhartsberger, consummate performer, in the central role (revives memories of Douglas Wright’s choreographies when Alex was in the cast). The exquisite Rachel Poirier is a wounded Dying Swan for our time (as Kilda Northcott was a few years back, muse to Douglas). Keegan-Dolan is to Ireland what Wright has always been to New Zealand, and that has to be my highest praise to them both. Kia ora korua. Salute to the pair of you.

Rachel Poirier as Finola in Michael Keegan-Dolan's 'Loch na eHala (Swan Lake)', Wellington, 2018. Photo: © Matt Grace/New Zealand Festival

Rachel Poirier as Finola in Michael Keegan-Dolan’s Loch na eHala (Swan Lake). Wellington, 2018

W. B. Yeats’ poem, The Wild Swans at Coole, resonates with great birds ‘mysterious, beautiful’ that in turn evoke the exquisite 16th century madrigal by Orlando Gibbons ‘The silver swan that, living, had no note…’ (Swans in old tales are often bewitched women, rendered mute) ‘when Death approached unlocked her silent throat’. This trope is achingly, beautifully caught in the final pas de deux of love and comfort that is permitted to the two wounded and damaged characters of this production—Jimmy O’Reilly (read Prince Siegfried), and his adored Finola, (read Odette). It has the fragility of life, held by love, yet dead and gone too soon. You’ll be weeping now if ever you wept at anything. You’ll be back tomorrow night for a repeat viewing. That’s not masochism, it’s just too beautiful to see only once.

W. B. Yeats The Wild Swans of Coole

The trees are in their autumn beauty,
The woodland paths are dry,
Under the October twilight the water
Mirrors a still sky;
Upon the brimming water among the stones
Are nine-and-fifty swans.

The nineteenth autumn has come upon me
Since I first made my count;
I saw, before I had well finished,
All suddenly mount
And scatter wheeling in great broken rings
Upon their clamorous wings.

I have looked upon those brilliant creatures,
And now my heart is sore.
All’s changed since I, hearing at twilight,
The first time on this shore,
The bell-beat of their wings above my head,
Trod with a lighter tread.

Unwearied still, lover by lover,
They paddle in the cold
Companionable streams or climb the air;
Their hearts have not grown old;
Passion or conquest, wander where they will,
Attend upon them still.

But now they drift on the still water,
Mysterious, beautiful;
Among what rushes will they build,
By what lake’s edge or pool
Delight men’s eyes when I awake some day
To find they have flown away?

Orlando Gibbons’ madrigal, The Silver Swan, is one of the Poems in the London Underground now. The seventh Autumn has come upon me since my Allan slipped down and away, leaving us mute, so shocked at his leaving. Unreal. Not real. Did he not love us enough to fight and slay the dreaded Count Leukaemia von Rothbart and stay with us in the happy nest of our home? What was he thinking to go away and leave the garden unweeded, the lawn all unmown, the orchard overgrowing, the path too thin as its spread of metal wears away, all his books on these shelves with bookmarks still upstanding, his dressing gown hanging on the back of the door, his gumboots by the garden shed, the plum tree that presages Spring, the Christmas pohutukawa of summer, the gold & red leafed grapevine ushering in Autumn, the darling tiny snowdrops so sweet, so perfect, so silent in cold Winter. Why did I waste you? Why did I lose you? Why did I not hold you tighter, stop you getting away? We could have made it. We could have fixed everything. We still could. Don’t unlock your silent throat, don’t sing or Count von Rothbart will get you. The clematis, the one you planted for Beth, needs pruning. Then there’s the little daffodil, the scented one you planted so tenderly under our window when Nell was born. I need you here to help me find that bulb gone underground. Don’t go. Please stay. Don’t leave. No wonder tears drenched my dress as Jimmy danced with Finola. You would have drenched yours too.

Alex Leonhartsberger as Jimmy O'Reilly and Rachel Poirier as Finola in 'Loch na hEala', Wellington, 2018. Photo: © Matt Grace/New Zealand Festival

Alex Leonhartsberger as Jimmy O’Reilly and Rachel Poirier as Finola in Michael Keegan-Dolan’s Loch na hEala (Swan Lake), Wellington, 2018

In the afore-mentioned interview Keegan-Dolan admits he is interested when people come back for repeat viewings of his show, and he wonders why they do. I’ll tell him why. I just did.

Jennifer Shennan, 20 March 2018

Follow this link to Jennifer Shennan’s review for Radio New Zealand’s Upbeat program.

Featured image: Alex Leonhartsberger as Jimmy O’Reilly and Rachel Poirier as Finola in Michael Keegan-Dolan’s Loch na hEala (Swan Lake), Wellington, 2018

Alex Leonhartsberger as Jimmy O'Reilly and Rachel Poirier as Finola in 'Loch na hEala', Wellington, 2018. Photo: © Matt Grace/New Zealand Festival

‘Don’t be afraid of the dark—it is your friend’

All photos: 2018 New Zealand Festival. The Wellington Airport Season of Swan Lake/Loch Na hEala. © Photos: Matt Grace

Lucien Johnson, Carmel McGlone, Emmanuel Reynaud, Lucy Marinkovich. and Matthew Moore in 'Lobsters', 2017. Photo: Philip Merry

Lobsters again, again. Borderline Arts Ensemble

4 November, Circa Theatre, Wellington

Reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

What a lucky stroke that this little show Lobsters ran for a fortnight season at Circa Theatre (most dance seasons here span two or three days, some are even oncers). That gave us a chance to return for several repeat viewings, and there were fresh revelations on each occasion. A late-appearing review in the local daily, in the 2nd week of the season, was nonetheless unstinting in its praise, which of course lifted telephones all over town and eventually gave this intrepid little troupe the sold-out end to the season they deserved. Good…but never underestimate the power, and therefore the ethics, of the timing of a dance review. (Other early reviews had appeared but were more about the writer than the show).

I see more clearly now what has proved so satisfying about this brilliant little, crazy little work. I say ‘little’ because there’s a cast of five, musos included. The show lasts 75 mins, and the venue is intimate. The more miraculous that the dancing is full and generous, fast and slow and still, requiring total torso and limbs all the way through. The three dancers work to the very edges of the stage. You feel the draught as they race by. You can see every hip tilt, shoulder blade, neck curve and ankle stretch, every toe and finger tip (these are verbs not nouns) and there’s not a falter to be found. It’s high dance classicism in disguise, with a drizzle of cabaret jus and very naughty it is too. After numerous extraordinary encounters with surrealism, the girl and the guy eventually make it. That’s a lovely way to let us out into the evening air.

It seems to me that many choreographic ventures over the last five years, maybe more, have shown a trend of apologising as regards dance vocabulary—born, I suppose, of a desire to eschew existing conventions and to seek novelty. Effectively that results in a fractured, often arhythmic, set of hesitant gestures that question meaning and express doubt, offering relativity of position rather than allowing certainty or clarity, resolution, commitment. Such semaphore-like movement of arms and hands effectively asks questions but does not want answers. Don’t get me wrong. I ask questions all the time and many of them are rhetorical… as in ‘Do you love me?’ [not that I actually ask that one of course]. The price we pay for this contemporary post-modern sensibility and fix on innovation is the absence of line and vitality in dancing, and of synopsis or resolution in choreography.

It’s also frequent practice nowadays for a choreographer to give tasks to dancers in workshop fashion, to ‘ask them questions’, and take their resulting ‘answers’, shaping them this way and that into what is then identified as ‘choreography’. This was of course the choreographic practice of Pina Bausch. She was pure choreographic genius of theatre and her instincts caught life on the wing. Imitation of her, or any other art practice, will ever be only that, and worth not a lot, despite that we are surrounded by it, and very well funded it often is too. ‘Creativity in the moment of choreographic collaboration’ sounds like hogwash to me. I prefer Yeats, see below.

Dynamics of light and shade in the fully committed dancing body that is not fearful of itself seem like a rare treat nowadays. Douglas Wright always offered that in spades, but he doesn’t choreograph any more. Lobsters has caught it, thank goodness.

So an accolade please, to Lucy Marinkovich, for choreographing a stunning and super little show that scores top marks on every front. You can tell, come the curtain call, how much they have all enjoyed performing, but there’s no such distracting evidence allowed during the actual performance, with the intense concentration and stylized espression required of each. We laugh a lot but they don’t—until the curtain call.

The music is superbly imagined and delivered, with music and cabaret audiences as well catered for as they might wish. Lucien Johnson has extraordinary talents, including double blowing into his saxophone (Is that normal? Who cares? It works).

Carmel McGlone is Salvador Dali’s lobster, and he would have been struck dumb by her performance.

Lucy will want to share that accolade with dramaturg Miranda Manasiadis who most certainly knows what she is doing. Two years of shared thoughts and preparations between them is how you get a scenario like this. Frequently of late we see ‘dramaturg’ listed in the credits for a dance show but there’s often little evidence of drama in the result, and it really only means another fee for a member of the ‘creative team’. [RNZB’s The Wizard of Oz, and more recent Romeo & Juliet would be two cases in point. It was the beautiful dancers who delivered on those occasions, and we loved them for it, but drama in the production was little in evidence]. So if there’s to be any point in involving a dramaturg, there’s an art involved in a choreographer allowing space for that work.

By repeated viewings of a performance we get a chance to think some more about the lines by W.B Yeats (my favourite) quote:

‘O body swayed to music, o brightening glance
How can we know the dancer from the dance?’

… in other words – how do the performance and choreography relate, intertwine? It can often be hard to tell. In RNZB’s recent Romeo & Juliet, the contrasting casts in the lead roles at different performances gave us a chance to see how. Mayu Tanigaito and Kohei Iwamoto at a matinee transformed the choreography from ‘very good’ by their performance into something ‘stratospheric’, but the critical record has been silent on that, and there is no photographic or videoed evidence of it, which some of us find sad, verging on very sad.

Leah McLean of Borderline Publicity is the best dance administrator I’ve encountered since the longest time. Lobsters really is a team effort and every one of them should take a bow, then pack their bags for the numerous festival invitations that are bound to come their way. Keep your eye on the hustings.

Jennifer Shennan, 5 November 2017

Lucien Johnson, Carmel McGlone, Emmanuel Reynaud, Lucy Marinkovich. and Matthew Moore in 'Lobsters', 2017. Photo: Philip Merry

Featured image: Lucien Johnson, Carmel McGlone, Emmanuel Reynaud, Lucy Marinkovich. and Matthew Moore in Lobsters, 2017. Photo: © Philip Merry

Featured image:

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

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 five 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…

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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

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

The Royal New Zealand Ballet at 60. Jennifer Shennan & Anne Rowse

This handsomely produced book celebrates sixty years of performances by the Royal New Zealand Ballet. I say handsomely produced because its square-ish format is aesthetically pleasing and easy to hold in one’s hand, its illustrations are well reproduced and there are plenty of them both in black and white and colour, its paper is smooth and glossy and lovely to touch, and the layout of text and image leaves plenty of white space on the page so nothing looks jammed up.

Edited by Jennifer Shennan and Anne Rowse and published by Victoria University Press, The Royal New Zealand Ballet at 60 brings together a collection of articles, letters, reminiscences and poems covering the company’s fortunes from 1953 when it was set up by Danish dancer Poul Gnatt to its present manifestation under the direction of American artist Ethan Stiefel.
RNZB book cover web

The first section consists of contributions from each of the company’s artistic directors, where they are still living. Poul Gnatt and Bryan Ashbridge, who are no longer alive, are represented with writing from Jennifer Shennan and Dorothea Ashbridge respectively. Then follows a collection of reminiscences and thoughts from a whole variety of people who work or have worked with the company—dancers, choreographers, board members, wardrobe staff and others closely connected with the company’s activities.

With this kind of arrangement of material, where there are at least fifty different contributors, some writing is bound to stand out and some is bound to be less interesting, less well written. The unevenness in the quality of the writing is perhaps the book’s shortcoming. But this is tempered by some vibrant writing and some fascinating stories that bring to life both the highs and lows of the company’s chequered history.

What struck me as I was reading the section on artistic directors was how much is revealed of a person’s approach to life and work through his or her writing. Harry Haythorne’s essay, for example, reveals the depth of thought that went into, and that continues to inform his work. Haythorne directed the company from 1981−1992. From this perspective I also enjoyed the essay by Gary Harris, artistic director from 2001−2010. It reminded me of the times I interviewed him and the friendliness of the man that I encountered on those occasions. I also enjoyed Shennan’s essay about founding director Poul Gnatt, filled as it is with information about Gnatt’s early life in Denmark.

From the reminiscences, I loved reading about Eric Languet, dancer with the company from 1988−1998 and for a few years resident choreographer, in his essay ‘I would like to come home one day’. Although he has some Australian connections, his and my paths have never crossed. He writes with admirable honesty about his time in New Zealand and one of my favourite images in the book is from Alice, which he choreographed in 1997. And reading Douglas Wright’s account of performing the leading role in Petrouchka is, quite simply, a rare privilege. It is unusual to hear in some depth from artists about their approach to a role and their thoughts as they prepare for and then perform it. Wright’s essay is followed by a poem, ‘Herd’ written by Wright and beginning with the delicious line ‘a herd of cows does not need a choreographer’. Readers may be surprised at how the poem ends too!

One typo in the book makes me wince somewhat. In Una Kai’s essay (Kai was director from 1973−1975), which is interesting for a whole variety of reasons, Lew Christensen’s name is wrongly spelt. Typos are the bane of all our lives but it is not the best when personal names don’t get the attention they deserve.

Unlike other recent publications in a similar vein, and despite any shortcomings I might find in it, The Royal New Zealand Ballet at 60 makes a useful contribution to the history of the Royal New Zealand Ballet. Its editors, contributors and publisher deserve to be congratulated for avoiding making it into some kind of media driven, ultimately barren publication.

Jennifer Shennan and Anne Rowse (eds), The Royal New Zealand Ballet at 60,  (Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2013) Hardback, 350 pp., illustrated
ISBN 978086473891
RRP NZD 60.00

Michelle Potter, 29 August 2013