New Zealand School of Dance 50th anniversary celebration—with Royal New Zealand Ballet

24, 25 November 2017, St James Theatre, Wellington

Reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

This program was a dazzling line-up of works that showcased and celebrated the strengths and talent of young dancers and graduands of New Zealand School of Dance (NZSD). The moment when fledglings leave the nest is always poignant. Some of these young dancers have taken instant wing and are moving straight into positions with prestigious companies—Queensland Ballet, West Australian Ballet for example. Godspeed to them. Most curiously, not one is joining Royal New Zealand Ballet (RNZB).

With numerous dancers departing from RNZB this week, that raises a number of questions, which this review is not placed to answer, but should none-the-less be somewhere, somehow addressed.  Eva Radich in her Radio New Zealand Concert Upbeat program recently asked the question in interview with the company’s artistic director—’Royal New Zealand Ballet. What’s the New Zealand moniker mean?’ We all need to think about the answer. A major part of New Zealand’s dance identity is at stake. That belongs within, not apart from, international dance identity.

In years back, NZSD graduation was always staged in the Opera House, a similar proscenium theatre to the St.James. Some years ago the School moved into newly refurbished premises, Te Whaea, which includes an in-house theatre, which naturally became the venue for dance performances. While that suited some of the contemporary repertoire and choreographic experimentation programs, it is a truth that ballet repertoire had to become differently scaled and proportioned to fit the much smaller venue. Here, back in a proscenium arch theatre with scope and size on their side, all the students were launched into orbit and became dancers. They’ll have now become infected with what Lincoln Kirstein called ‘the red and gold disease’.

It is pleasing to note that of the 11 works on the program, 5 are choreographed by NZSD alumni.

The opening, Beginners, Please! offers a glimpse of two small children at the barre, in a simple sequence of plié to rond-de-jambe; then light moved to another young pair; then to two current NZSD students. Staged by Sue Nicholls, this was a beguiling cameo that evoked the celebrated ballet Etudes, by Harald Lander, 1948. It is poignant to think that Poul Gnatt would have danced in that work in Royal Danish Ballet, and Anne Rowse, director emeritus of NZSD, sitting to my left, danced it many times in Festival Ballet, as also did Russell Kerr. Martin James, single most illustrious graduate in NZSD’s history, no contest, is sitting to my right. He trained at the School, danced most wonderfully in RNZB, then performed in English National Ballet and elsewhere in Europe, eventually to Royal Danish Ballet where he became leading solo dancer, was knighted for his services to ballet, and eventually became the company’s ballet master. These are the seeding sources that cast prismatic variations across professional dance in New Zealand that students need to know about. We can give more than lip service to that. Given the Danish heritage of RNZB, Etudes is a work many of us have waited years to see here, and why wouldn’t Martin James stage it? This echoes the Maori whakatauki proverb, ‘walking backwards into the future’. We can only see what has already happened. Look at that as you go.  All these thoughts were caught in the little opening miniature. Well done, Sue.

Tempo di Valse, arranged by Nadine Tyson, to Tchaikovsky’s Waltz of the Flowers, was ‘an exuberant work for a large ensemble, festive in mood’. Program notes are not always accurate but this one certainly was.

Aria, solo for a masked male, choreographed by Val Caniparoli, to Handel/Rinaldo overture and aria, is a remarkable dance, performed to breathtaking perfection by Mali Comlekci. Small wonder he flies straight into a contract at Queensland Ballet where an outstanding career awaits him. What a shame we won’t be able to see that develop, but we wish him airborne joy.

Mali Comlecki in 'Aria'. New Zealand School of Dance, 2017. Photo: © Stephen A'Court

Mali Comlekci in Aria. New Zealand School of Dance, 2017. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

Curious Alchemy by Loughlan Prior, to Beethoven and Saint-Saens, is a fresh lively lovely dance in which youth is celebrated, and hints of the ties of friendship and the possibilities of relationship are subtly subtexted to the movement which suits the young dancers extremely well. The cast—Clementine Benson, Saul Newport, Jaidyn Cumming and Song Teng —are thrilled to be dancing, and that excitement shines through. Loughlan, himself a spirited dancer with RNZB, and a former graduate of NZSD, is loaded with choreographic energy and ideas, so that is fortunately one continuing career we will be able to follow.

Forgotten Things, by Sarah Foster-Sproull, is a very special choreography, initially developed on students at NZSD in 2015, and here brought to a stunning re-staging with a cast of 23 contemporary dance students. The music composed by Andrew Foster, begins full of life-affirming rhythms that evoke the best Renaissance dance music, then moves to percussive richness that support this mysterious procession—Sarah’s best work to date in my opinion. It is a stunning achievement to use parts of the dancers’ bodies, beautifully lit, as nano units of life force, and then thread these as metaphor into life at the level of society and community. This is a work that could be performed by any school or company, classical or contemporary dancers. Now there’s something for every choreographer to aspire to, since that’s nearer the reality of the dance profession today.

The wedding pas de deux from Don Quixote was danced, by Mayu Tanigaito and Joseph Skelton, as a gift from RNZB—and what a gift. That pas de deux would have been danced in New Zealand several hundred times over the decades, but never has it steamed and sizzled like this. Skelton dances with calm control of his prodigious technique and has a most interesting career we are always keen to follow. The transition from class-in-the-studio to role-on-stage that Tanigaito always brings to her performances is rare, and something to study, if only you can. She reveals the nature of dance.

Kenneth MacMillan’s Concerto pas de deux, dates from 1966 but carries its vintage timelessly. With two grand pianos soixante-neuf on stage, the Shostakovich beautifully played by the School’s pianists, Craig Newsome and Phillip O’Malley, the stage was set for Olivia Moore and Calum Gray to give the performance of their young lives to date.

Olivia Moore and Calum Gray in ‘Concerto’. New Zealand School of Dance, 2017. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

S.U.B. (Salubrious Unified Brotherhood) was a duo by Victoria Columbus working with performers Connor Masseurs and Toa Paranihi. The ‘Nesian identity with rap and break dance, its isolations, its nonchalance, its cut & thrust, its mock battling, was brilliantly timed and caught in this sassy little number.

Toa Paranihi and Connore Masseurs in 'S.U.B.'. New Zealand School of Dance, 2017. Photo: © Stephen A'Court

Toa Paranihi and Connor Masseurs in S.U.B. New Zealand School of Dance, 2017. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

Allegro Brillante, by George Balanchine, dates from 1956 and is more of a period piece. It was performed with great verve and aplomb by the cast of eight dancers.

The Bach, by Michael Parmenter, to a Bach cantata, Erfreut euch, had a cast of 15 dancers who revelled in the exuberant dance sequences and sets of striking ensemble patterns. These were interspersed with walking sequences that stood rhythmically quite apart from the baroque energy and motivation of the danced sections.

The final work, William Forsythe’s In the middle somewhat elevated, was first performed in this theatre by Frankfurt Ballet during the international arts festival 1990. The choreography is as challenging and confrontational now as it was then, as is also the score by Thom Willems. The intensely asymmetrical and aggressive aesthetic comes across as thrilling, or scary, depending on the viewer. I am in the former camp, but can hear what others say—it is either loved or hated. Passionate opinions about dance in a theatre in New Zealand are no bad thing, but it’s for sure that the asymmetries that pull within the classical technique represent a post-modern departure from the canon that Forsythe represents. It’s a pity that the two gilded cherries hanging from on high, giving title to the choreography, are set so high they are noticed by no-one.

The RNZB dancers in the cast who stood out most memorably include Abigail Boyle, Tonia Looker, Alayna Ng,  Shaun James Kelly, Kirby Selchow, Mayu Tanigaito, Kohei Iwamoto, Paul Mathews, Felipe Domingos. We wish all the Company dancers and all the School’s students well.

Jennifer Shennan, 27 November 2017

Featured image: Jill Goh (centre) with dancers from the New Zealand School of Dance in Forgotten Things, 2017. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

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

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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

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

Elizabeth Dalman in the Silk Moth 2014. Photo Barbie Robinson

Dance diary. August 2016

  • Elizabeth Dalman

When I interviewed Elizabeth Dalman in July for the National Library of Australia’s oral history program she told me, off the record, of a potential performing opportunity that she hoped might come her way. Well, the potential opportunity is now a reality and Dalman is currently in Ireland rehearsing for the role of the Mother in a new Irish production based on the story of Swan Lake. This Swan Lake is being created by Michael Keegan-Dolan, former director of Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre, which closed down in 2014. Keegan-Dolan’s present company has the name MKD Dance.

The opportunity came via a casting call on Keegan-Dolan’s Facebook page for ‘a woman aged between … 60 and 70.’ The notice went on: ‘The Mother needs a powerful presence and ideally she should have long white hair.’ Dalman is now in her eighties so didn’t fit exactly into the age range. But she certainly has presence and long white hair. She got the role.

This Swan Lake, danced to an original score based on traditional Irish and Nordic folk music played live on fiddle, nyckelharpa, cello, voice and percussion, will premiere as part of the 2016 Dublin Theatre Festival. Its Dublin season will be from 28 September to 8 October, after which it goes to Aarhus in Denmark and then to Sadler’s Wells, London, with 2017 seasons planned for Stuttgart and Luxembourg with other venues in the planning stage.

  • News from James Batchelor

James Batchelor is currently working at Tasdance in Launceston on Deepspace, a production emerging from his expedition to Antarctica on board the RV Investigator earlier this year. His Tasdance residency is supported by the Australia Council and is being conducted in conjunction with visual artist Annalise Rees (also part of the Investigator expedition), performer Amber McCartney and sound artist Morgan Hickinbotham. Later this year there will be another development at Arts House in Melbourne as part of the CultureLAB program. The work is set to premiere in 2017.

Read my previous post on the Investigator expedition here. Footage of Batchelor’s work on board the Investigator is below.

 

  • Joseph Skelton, Royal New Zealand Ballet

Having had the pleasure of seeing Royal New Zealand Ballet in performance recently, I was interested to learn that RNZB dancer Joseph Skelton will be appearing as guest artist with the Australian Ballet shortly. He will dance the leading role of Albrecht in a New South Wales regional tour of Giselle. ‘The Regional Tour’ appears to be a new name for the Dancers Company, which name seems to have quietly left the vocabulary of the Australian Ballet. The Australian Ballet website notes that this production will feature ‘artists from The Australian Ballet and graduating students from The Australian Ballet School.’

Whatever is behind the mysterious name change, Joseph Skelton’s performances will be worth watching. In Wellington earlier this month, I admired his performances in the Stiefel/Kobborg production of Giselle. I saw him in the peasant pas de deux (with Bronte Kelly), and as the Older Albrecht (a character unique to the Stiefel/Kobborg production), where his quiet but commanding presence was impressive.

Joseph Skelton in Giselle rehearsals. Royal New Zealand Ballet. Photo Stephen A'Court

Joseph Skelton in rehearsal for the Ethan Stiefel/Johan Kobborg production of Giselle. Royal New Zealand Ballet. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

  • On the subject of musicals …

For those who love musicals with lots of dance, a new production of Mamma Mia will be part of the 2017 Australian musical theatre scene. The Canberra Theatre Centre has just announced that the Australian premiere of the new production will be in Canberra in November 2017 ahead of performances in other Australian cities. No details yet of cast or creatives (who will be the choreographer?). More information when it becomes available.

  • Press for August 2016

‘Strings attached.’ Preview of the debut performance by the Australian Dance Party. The Canberra TimesPanorama, 13 August 2016, p. 15. Online version.

Michelle Potter, 31 August 2016

Featured image: Elizabeth Dalman in The Silk Moth, 2014. Photo: © Barbie Robinson

Elizabeth Dalman in the Silk Moth 2014. Photo Barbie Robinson

Dancers of Royal New Zealand Ballet in 'Passchendaele', 2015. Photo: Evan Li

‘Salute’. A program of four works by Royal New Zealand Ballet

22–24 May 2015, St. James Theatre, Wellington (and following national tour)
Reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

  • Dear Horizon—choreography, Andrew Simmons; music Gareth Farr
  • Soldiers’ Mass—choreography Jiri Kylian; music B. Martinu
  • Salute—choreography Johan Kobborg; music H.C. Lumbye
  • Passchendaele—choreography Neil Ieremia; music Dwayne Bloomfield

with

  • New Zealand Army Band
  • Rolf Gjeltsen, cello
  • Graham Hickman, conductor

This program is strong, the season short, dance and music groundbreaking, the impact immense. Salute is the Royal New Zealand Ballet’s tribute to the country’s experiences at war, but it has much to offer the conscientious objector as well. There are two major premieres, one searing classic from the 20th century, and a bagatelle of most welcome levity.

The utter futility, red carnage and grey grief of war is unambiguously referenced, yet there is also a dance of first love in peacetime, as poignant as anything all evening. I don’t often tell Australian cousins to cross the Tasman to come to the ballet, but I think I am suggesting just that for Salute—and hey, half the roll call of dancers is Australian.

Andrew Simmons has had a number of commissions to choreograph for this company (outstandingly, Of Days. q.v.) and Dear Horizon is a welcome addition to the list. He responds with empathy to Gareth Farr’s remarkable music, which opens with a high tremolo from the brave solo cello, so quiet, so carrying, before the brass enters the fray. The ballet is dreamlike, dark shadowed, hazy, enigmatic. Time runs both forward and back. War means death, or damaged lives. Dancer Mayu Tanigaito is extraordinary, and designer Tracey Grant Lord’s evocative set of letters and red poppies is suspended on high above this poetic opener.

Dancers of Royal New Zealand Ballet in 'Dear Horizon'. Photo: Ellie Richards, 2015

Dancers of Royal New Zealand Ballet in Dear Horizon, 2015. Photo: © Ellie Richards

Next is Soldiers’ Mass, for twelve men, Jiri Kylian’s masterwork made in 1980. This marks a return season from 1998–1999 when Royal New Zealand Ballet first performed the work. Performers from that season have left the company now, but were remarkably evoked again here … Paul Mathews ‘playing’ Ou Lu, Shaun James Kelly ‘playing’ Shannon Dawson. Loughlan Prior and Joseph Skelton are transformed, but a phenomenal performance is given by one woman dancer called in to replace an injured male. Back then it was Pieter Symonds, ‘Joan of Arc comes to town’ I called it—well, Joan of Arc returned to town when Laura Jones, tall, young and spunky, replaced an injured male this weekend, but gave the performances of her life, as good as any man.

Dancers of Royak New Zealand Ballet in 'Soldiers' Mass'. Photo: Evan Li

Dancers of Royal New Zealand Ballet in Soldiers’ Mass, 2015. Photo: © Evan Li

Kylian has put a couple of telling movement quotes early in his piece to the ‘great’ (anti) war ballet of all time, Kurt Jooss’ The Green Table, and it’s too sad that politicians and armaments manufacturers don’t know these ballets as well as dancers do. The most remarkable truth about Kylian’s choreographic marathon is that, by the time of the Kyrie in the Martinu Mass, the dancers have actually metamorphosed into real soldiers. The effect is devastating, and makes it one of the finest works this company has ever brought into their repertoire.

An interval is welcome but an ice-cream seems ridiculous, it’s cold here, though I don’t refuse when Jon Trimmer shouts me champagne. Soon we are back in the theatre, and it’s Salute, with Lumbye waltzes and galops from old-world Denmark, and a 19th century romp at the cadets prom, young girls all coy, the lads up for a lark, and a stitch of a sergeant-major. It’s a long way from a battlefield and one resists its charms for a while, till remembering, hang on, I’m still sipping champagne, and everyone around me is wearing sparkly earrings and a bit of dress-up, we are at the ballet after all, so Salute is no sillier than we are. Just because it’s full of biedermeier charm doesn’t mean the dancing’s easy. Lucy Green dances with Damir Emric and her serious first love tugs your heart.

web Dancers Damir Emric and Lucy Green in RNZB's Salute credit Evan Li

Damir Emric and Lucy Green in Salute. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2015. Photo: © Evan Li

Neil Ieremia has made a colossus of a choreography in Passchendaele. It may be short by number of minutes but it brings that miserable battle home to us like nothing else. Of course all battles are miserable but I’ve always been especially choked by Passchendaele since hearing in a millenium documentary in 2000, where one soldier’s tale was of spending all day every day in a trench of mud up to his neck, close enough to see ‘the enemy’ yet unable to advance. Come nightfall, if you could get back through the mud you could expect some food rations but the only way to cross the sea of mud was to step on your fallen comrades, though only so long as they were lying face down, so their bony spines could offer you footfall. That might be the most disgusting thing I have ever heard in all history—that you went to war so as to die so your spine could be a footprint for your mate to go and get an army biscuit. The disappointment we all share is that war seems genetic in the human condition, and that ‘the Great War to end all wars’ has proved anything but. Historians seem to be still puzzling as to why it even happened at all. One of my great uncles lies buried ‘near the Somme’. Another returned but had been so badly gassed that he coughed and choked for the next 53 years back home. Which would be worse?

Well, Ieremia has put all of this anger into his thundering dance. Abigail Boyle and Jacob Chown are on fire. All the dancers punch out the fight, and phrases from haka were never more tellingly choreographed on a stage. The composition is a tour de force by Dwayne Bloomfield, his own name echoed in the red and black back projections, the work of Geoff Tune. Out of sight but well within earshot are more dancers, not onstage but underneath it, playing snare drums to add to the orchestra pit swelling full of brass. The dancing women have to walk away and leave their men lying there motionless. There’s a knock on the door from the telegram boy, then a tune from a lone whistler in the dark. Curtain.

Jennifer Shennan, 25 May 2015

Featured image: Dancers of Royal New Zealand Ballet in Passchendaele, 2015. Photo: © Evan Li

web Passchendaele - RNZB dancers credit Evan Li