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

 

Gary Harris. Man of the theatre

On my recent visit to Brisbane to catch a performance of Greg Horsman’s Sleeping Beauty by Queensland Ballet, I was especially taken by the designs of Gary Harris. In particular, I loved his sets with their sweeping sense of space, which is clearly evident in the image below from the Queensland Ballet season.

Yanela Pinere as Aurora 'The Sleeping Beauty', Queensland ballet, 2015. Photo: David Kelly

 Yanela Piñera as Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty, Queensland Ballet, 2015. Photo: © David Kelly

I recall talking to Harris, over ten years ago now, while he was artistic director of Royal New Zealand Ballet and I recently came across the text of the article based on that interview. I wrote it for ballet.co in the UK, where it was published online in May 2003. As my ballet.co articles are not presently available online due to a server change, and also because I only recently found the text of the ballet.co article, which I thought was lost, I am re-publishing it below.

****************

‘Oh he’s wearing a shirt with Mambo written all over it today,’ the theatre usher tells me as I wait in the foyer of the Princess Theatre in Launceston, Tasmania. Gary Harris, artistic director of Royal New Zealand Ballet, is running late (or has forgotten our appointment?). He arrives, Mambo clothes and all, full of apologies. It’s the final day of performances for the sixteen dancers of Royal New Zealand Ballet who are on tour to Tasmania for the biennial festival, Ten Days on the Island. It’s just a short season, four performances in three days—3–5 April 2003. The rest of the company, another sixteen dancers, is touring back home in New Zealand. We find time for our interview over a meal between the late afternoon matinee and the evening show.

London-born Harris, a warm and engaging man, first visited New Zealand in 1996 as guest teacher for Royal New Zealand Ballet and kept returning over the next few years. In 2001 he was appointed artistic director of  the company and is full of enthusiasm for his job and his dancers.

‘I loved the honesty I found amongst the New Zealand dancers,’ he explains. ‘They are so versatile too. They work beautifully with what they’ve got and respond to the space they’re in. I want the company to keep that honesty and to have a real understanding of the rules of classical ballet and of correctness of presentation.’

Watching his dancers in the repertoire they have brought to Tasmania—a mixed bill comprising four works—there is certainly a distinctive quality to the way they move. Dancing on the tiny stage of the Princess Theatre is not an enviable task. There’s not much space to fling oneself around and Harris’ staging of Paquita Variations, the opening work on the program, perhaps suffers most. The formal quality of its choreography, which Harris based on that of Petipa for the original Paquita of 1846, really needs a bigger stage to do it justice. But the delicious freedom that the dancers have in the upper body makes up for the feeling that things are a bit cramped. The sense of the body moving through rather than in space is also quite noticeable, as is the turn-out of the feet and legs. There is real teaching going on behind the scenes of this company.

‘I really like teaching,’ Harris says. ‘And I love getting together with the dancers for the process of rehearsing. The New Zealand dancers here are very responsive and I love getting an energetic atmosphere going.’

In addition to showing the classical strengths of the Royal New Zealand dancers, Paquita Variations shows up Harris’s talents as a designer. The costumes are his design, with the women’s tutus inspired, he says, by a Degas sculpture of which he is very fond. The softness of the skirts is beguiling. A blouse-like top and a corset-like bodice, which fits closely from the top of the rib cage to the hips, completes what is a beautifully old-fashioned costume. Harris says he loved to draw as a child and also mentions that his father made him a play theatre, complete with working lights. So his wide-ranging involvement in all aspects of getting a show on stage is something he accepts as a perfectly normal part of an artistic director’s life.

Harris’s international connections are clearly evident in the company’s repertoire, although he is quick to mention that nurturing New Zealand artists is part of his plan. Nevertheless in Launceston, along with Paquita Variations, the company danced two works by Mark Baldwin, Melting Moments and FrENZy, and one by Javier de Frutos, Milagros.

The de Frutos piece, a commissioned work and de Frutos’ first for Royal New Zealand Ballet is the surprise package. Milagros takes its name from the Spanish word used to describe both miracles and votive offerings, and the work is danced to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring recorded on a piano roll. Played on a pianola the music sounds distorted and lacks the orchestral colour that the ear expects. But the drama is still there, the rhythms are still frenetic and the new and unexpected sound sets the scene for a work that is far from ordinary. Both the men and women wear long white skirts that swirl and swing with the motion of the dancers. On top both sexes wear flimsy, white, straight-cut shirts with long, loose sleeves. On the back of each shirt, quite hard to see but definitely there, is a number. The costumes, designed by de Frutos, give a clue to the piece. There is uniformity yet diversity. There is calmness and purity yet an eddy within.

Dancers of Royal New Zealand ballet in 'Milagros'. Photo: Bill Cooper

Dancers of Royal New Zealand Ballet in Milagros. Photo: © Bill Cooper

Choreographically de Frutos juxtaposes highly sculpted sequences—long lines of dancers, clear circular formations for example—with phrases that appear to be wildly individualistic. This dualism is accompanied by other sets of opposites. Some movements flow expressively, others look quite stilted. At times the dancers react with restraint to their colleagues; at other times they appear to be absolutely fired with passion. The light changes back and forth from a stark white to a soft gold. The work also has a few unusual phrases of movement that keep occurring and remain in the memory afterwards. There is a limping step. There is another where the dancers thrust the chest out, fling the head and one arm back and move purposefully forward by transferring the weight on and off one heel. And another where a woman in a deep plié in second position with hands on hips propels herself in a circle, again using the heels to give the momentum. Sometimes dancers make their exit by walking on their knees as if doing penance. It’s absolutely mesmersing choreography.

Milagros on the one hand discomposes the viewer. It never answers the questions that it seems to present. It suggests both vodoo activities as well as organised religion. But it is also an incredibly satisfying piece that speaks to the viewer on an intuitive level. There is something inevitable about the way it unfolds and something fulfilling about its unexpectedness.

The two Baldwin pieces look a little tame by comparison. While Melting Moments is a lyrical and seamless duet, a serious piece, first made for New Zealand’s Limbs Dance Company in 1980, its vocabulary seems dated, almost contrived, by comparison with the de Frutos work. FrENZy on the other hand is great fun. Danced to a selection of top of the pops songs from the band Split Enz, it was first performed by the Royal New Zealand Ballet in 2001. It has a contemporary edge that recalls, without appropriating, the vocabulary of William Forsythe. There’s lots of movement that’s upside down, off centre, racy. There’s lots of glamour, lots that’s out there and in your face. It’s a real crowd pleaser. How often does a contemporary ballet have an audience whistling and shouting with enjoyment at the end? Twyla Tharp’s In the Upper Room has that effect and so does Baldwin’s FrENZy.

Royal New Zealand Ballet has lots to offer, not the least of which is its own, unique repertoire. Its dancers are unpretentious, technically capable and move with a real freedom. It’s history is fascinating too. The company is fifty years old this year having been founded in 1953 by Poul Gnatt who trained at the Royal Danish Ballet School and was a principal with the Royal Danish Ballet. Gnatt is also fondly remembered in Australia as a principal with the Borovansky Ballet and as a teacher in the 1960s at the Australian Ballet School.

Christopher Hampson’s Romeo and Juliet is Royal New Zealand Ballet’s next work. It opens in Wellington on 6 June 2003. And the company has been invited to appear at Sadler’s Wells next year. Plans for a five week tour include visits to Manchester, Edinburgh and Glasgow. Next year Adrian Burnett, a New Zealander by birth who is currently a senior artist with the Australian Ballet, will be making a work for the company. And Harris mutters about wanting a Nutcracker in there somewhere. He wants a repertoire that is solid but that also challenges and educates and he’s well on the way to having it.

Michelle Potter, 4 November 2015
(originally published in the May 2003 edition of ballet.co magazine)

Sue Healey filming Sarah Jayne Howard for 'Virtuosi'

‘Virtuosi’. Sue Healey

Sue Healey has been making dance films since 1997. However, her latest production, Virtuosi, is different in a very major way. At around 80 minutes in length, Virtuosi is a documentary, whereas until now Healey has focused on making short films. Virtuosi is eight stories in one, dance portraits of eight New Zealanders, ‘artists from the edge of the world’, who have made careers beyond their homeland: Mark Baldwin, Craig Bary, Lisa Densem, Raewyn Hill, Sarah-Jayne Howard, Ross McCormack, Jeremy Nelson and Claire O’Neil. And of course both Healey and the composer of the film’s music, Mike Nock, fall into the same category. They too are New Zealanders whose careers have taken them well beyond their homeland.

Healey says when the opportunity arose she was ready to take on the challenge of a full-length film. She says she always enjoyed making short films, using what she refers to as ‘the distillation approach, honing the idea to its essence’, but that it was time for her to investigate ‘a different duration and its inherent qualities and demands’. Not that it was all smooth sailing, apparently. Healey says that finding a structure for the documentary was a huge challenge and that she was more than fortunate to work with an expert editor in Lindi Harrison and with Judd Overton as director of photography. Of Overton, Healey says: ‘Judd’s shooting style is extremely improvisatory—he is willing to solve problems in the here and now, rather than having pre-conceived notions of shot and frame. This is an extremely exciting way of making film and art’. This approach fitted nicely with Healey’s own strategies.

‘As a filmmaker’, she says, ‘I am still very much influenced by the choreographic approach, preferring to allow the structure to find itself organically through the process. Now, this goes against the usual film canon and can land you in very hot water when you realise you don’t have the necessary shots and logic to fully render an idea. However, I was extremely confident that I had more than enough material to create a range of outcomes’.

Specifically, Healey set a range of tasks for her eight subjects asking them, for example, to create movement sequences in iconic locations in their ‘new’ homes. Each of the artists created an outdoor ‘public’ dance (stills and production shots from some of these dances are in the mosaic below). Each also created a ‘still life’ solo in an interior location. And each created an intimate, close-up hand dance.

Raewyn Hill being filmed for 'Virtuosi'. Photo: Jacqui Ferry
Sarah-Jayne Howard being filmed for 'Virtuosi'
Craig Bary being filmed for 'Virtuosi'
Jeremy Nelson in 'Virtuosi', filmed in New York

Scenes from the filming of  Virtuosi.
Top row: Raewyn Hill; Sarah-Jayne Howard. Bottom row: Craig Bary with film crew; Jeremy Nelson
Images courtesy Sue Healey

Virtuosi has already been shown at festivals from New York to Tasmania (and of course in New Zealand where it premiered in 2012). Healey has recently heard that is in competition in the Golden Prague International Television Festival, and also that it will get a theatrical release throughout New Zealand. In addition, Virtuosi exists as a 3 channel installation for gallery spaces.

Canberra audiences have the opportunity to see Virtuosi as part of Scinema: Dance science and dance memories, a week-long program of dance films at the National Film and Sound Archive. Virtuosi screens on Thursday 15 August at 7 pm in the ARC cinema at the National Film and Sound Archive and is preceded by one of Healey’s short films called Once in a blue moon.

Virtuosi is short listed at the 2013 Australian Dance Awards in the category Outstanding Achievement in Dance on Film or New Media. Recipients of awards will be announced in Canberra on 5 August 2013.

More on the Arc screening …   More on the 2013 Australian Dance Awards short list …  [ Update: these links are no longer available]

Watch the Virtuosi trailer below:

Michelle Potter, 19 July 2013

Featured image: Film maker Sue Healey with performer Sarah-Jayne Howard. Courtesy Sue Healey

Sue Healey filming Sarah Jayne Howard for 'Virtuosi'