Nadia Yanowski and Paul Mathews in 'Remember, Mama', Royal New Zealand Ballet 2018. Photo: © Stephen A'Court

Strength and Grace. Royal New Zealand Ballet

17 & 18 August 2018. Opera House, Wellington

Reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

The Royal New Zealand Ballet’s Strength & Grace program consists of  four choreographies by women invited to mark the 125th anniversary of women achieving suffrage, with Kate Sheppard and her many New Zealand followers having led the world in that. It’s Sheppard’s face on our $10 bill, she is honoured in many parts of the country, particularly Christchurch her home town, and is considered by many to be New Zealand’s second most influential person, so a good choice by RNZB to allow choreographies to grow from her inspiration.

Overall, each of the four works has considerable strengths, but it is the dancers’ outstanding performances of commitment and calibre that made the night. I consider one of the works would be a true standout in any context or themed season, but each of them will have appealed to one section or another of the audience. It was in fact easy to find colleagues and friends, both younger and older, who had chosen a different favourite. Thankfully it is not a competition.

The first piece, So To Speak, by American choreographer Penny Saunders, explored the domestic relationships within a family. Kirby Selchow and Loughlan Prior, as Mother and Father, used striking gestures of clarity and fine timing in a highly effective opening motif, around a table downstage left, though the work became somewhat diffused when a large chorus-like cast entered. The use of pointe shoes for the Mothers but soft shoes for the Daughters, with close to identical dress for both generations of women, were subtle design choices lost on many I suspect. Dramatic opportunity to express the tensions between parents and children was lightly referenced, but the music of four different composers made for a somewhat meandering choreographic structure. Nonetheless the work made its mark and the performances were strong.

Loughlan Prior and Kirby Selchow in 'So to Speak', Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2018. Photo: © Stephen A'Court
Loughlan Prior and Kirby Selchow in So to Speak, Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2018. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

The second piece, Despite the Loss of Small Detail, by New Zealander Sarah Foster-Sproull, was sharp and spunky, and held great appeal for younger audience members. Eden Mulholland provided a lively percussive accompaniment, and the strength of movement delivered by the dancers certainly matched it. Abigail Boyle was a compelling central figure, supported by a somewhat enigmatic group of dancers. One memorable sequence had them stabbing the stage using pointe shoes as weapons, in a trope reminiscent of Akram Khan’s recent Giselle. The fashion-led design choice of costuming brought whimsy to what was nonetheless a serious declaration of independence.

Abigail Boyle in Despite the Loss of Small Detail, Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2018. Photo: © Jeremy Brick

Abigail Boyle in Despite the Loss of Small Detail, Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2018. Photo: © Jeremy Brick

The third work, Remember, Mama, by Australian Danielle Rowe, was to my mind the clearest work overall in both structure and theme. Although it also used four different composers, there was a distinct adjustment within the choreography at each section which made for welcome coherence to its unfolding. Nadia Yanowsky gave a strongly felt performance as The Mother, relating to The Son at various ages played by three different dancers. Shaun James Kelly always dances with quality and was a sparkling delight as the young child, using Mozart’s Ah! Vous Dirais-je Maman to great effect. Fabio lo Giudice was a sultry teenager, but Paul Mathews danced the adult son with a deep empathy and tenderness for his mother that will have touched many. He is a dancer with the intuition of an actor for how to portray character, and is one of the company’s real strengths. The group of men seemed like soldiers lost to the call of war, perhaps. The group of women fought as hard as any soldiers.

Dancers of Royal New Zealand Ballet in 'Remember, Mama', 2018. Photo: © Stephen A'Court
Dancers of Royal New Zealand Ballet in Remember, Mama, 2018. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

The fourth work, Stand to Reason, by South African choreographer Andrea Schermoly, took as reference one of the pamphlets Sheppard had produced in her stalwart campaigning years, projected as text behind the dancers. (That raised laughs among the audience but would have seemed anything but comic 125 years ago). Of the three composers used, the richest and most eloquent dance music of the whole evening was the Folie d’Espagne of Marin Marais, in a recording by Jordi Savall (the highlight performer of Wellington’s Arts Festival earlier this year). That drew a strong response from the cast of eight women, with particularly galvanised and striking performances from Mayu Tanigaito, Madeleine Graham and Kirby Selchow. Despite many standout performances of the program, a following solo by Selchow gave her a true claim to being the dancer of the evening. The work was at its strongest at that point and might well have finished there, in orbit.

Madeleine Graham in 'Stand to Reason'. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2018. Photo: © Stephen A'Court

 

(left) Madeleine Graham and (right) Kirby Selchow in Stand to Reason. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2018. Photos: © Stephen A’Court

So overall, this is a program of strong choreographic ventures, a few unusual costume design choices, and effective lighting throughout by Andrew Lees. There’s a mosaic of different music compositions (12 in all across four works) and I know that can pose a distracting challenge for musicians and music-followers who tend to stay away because of that. Most memorably there is stunning dancing from a pedigree company that is half the age of the Suffragettes’ achievements

Jennifer Shennan, 19 August 2018 

Featured image: Nadia Yanowski and Paul Mathews in Remember, Mama, Royal New Zealand Ballet 2018. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

Nadia Yanowski and Paul Mathews in 'Remember, Mama', Royal New Zealand Ballet 2018. Photo: © Stephen A'Court

 

Afterthoughts:
The sightlines in the Opera House are quite different from those in the St. James Theatre where the company usually performs, and that needs to be borne in mind for choreographic staging and video projections, both of which were compromised on several occasions. (My two immediate neighbours left at half-time since their view was seriously affected, and the seats were not classed as restricted viewing at the box office). The sound system is also perhaps settling in, and music volumes were at times uncomfortably loud.

This Wellington season of only two performances, and no tour to other centres, has left many dance followers further afield hoping for a future opportunity to see this program. The company website lists “Details Soon” for the Harry Haythorne Choreographic Awards towards the end of the year, now in its fourth year, so they may be planning to attend that season instead. New choreography brings fresh blood, and these stalwart dancers always perform, new work and old, as though lives depended on it. JS

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