Black Grace + Friends. Artistic Direction, Neil Ieremia. Photo: Duncan Cole

Crying Men. Black Grace

20 September 2018. Te Rauparaha Stadium, Porirua

Reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

Crying Men broke powerful new ground for Black Grace and director Neil Ieremia in a three-performance season at Te Rauparaha stadium in Porirua.

The opening work, Gone, resulted from a recent workshop conducted with 16 pupils from local schools, Porirua College, Mana College and Aotea College. Its taut atmosphere centred on the theme of sudden disappearance of family and the familiarity of home. The work was accompanied by The Virtuoso Strings, a local young orchestral ensemble (along the lines of  El Sistema) conducted by Liz Sneyd. They played an astonishingly sustained and inventive composition by Craig Utting (tho’ the central string section had over-loud amplification—my impression was it did not need amplification at all).

The second work, E Toa, E Toa, choreographed by Ieremia and by Tuaine Robati, was performed by students from Whitireia Performing Arts. Its beautiful opening image, a circle of female and male dancers, arms intertwined, red hibiscus flowers bright on the dark costumes and bare skin glowing in the light, had a prayer-like quality as the dancers chanted their hope for a better world. It was a focused work from a large cast who moved with compelling energy, and the drum accompaniment was with them every beat of the way.

Both these works made strong atmospheric contribution to the serious theme of the following major work. Gone in particular reminded me of the Urban Youth Movement  workshop projects in South Auckland that were part of Black Grace’s program some time ago.

In Crying Men, a powerful element of theatre was introduced through the script of playwright Victor Roger, centering on the desperation and sorrow of a man unable to break free from the physical violence that has marked his life as husband, father and grandfather. A major work in four scenes, its recorded narration by Nathaniel Lees was poignant but would be wonderful to include as a live component of the work.

Black Grace, 'Crying Men'. Artistic Direction, Neil Ieremia. Photo: Duncan Cole

Black Grace, Crying Men. Artistic Direction, Neil Ieremia. Photo: © Duncan Cole

Ieremia’s role as the grandfather had pathos, and the early scene of his wife being led away by female aitua (spirits) of death to the afterworld was shocking in its beauty.

A group dance of abstract design, simple in gestures but intricate in the canon and syncopation of its delivery, was a memorable gem that echoed weaving and carving patterns familiar from Pacifica arts.

The tense and violent encounters between three generation of males in one family was the continuing theme of darkness to the dance-play. A shot of humour was allowed in male/female interaction but there was no attempt made to cover up the central issue that remains a challenge in all societies as gender dynamics play out.

It seemed a pity not to employ the very considerable dramatic talents of Sean MacDonald, a foundation member of Black Grace back in 1995—but overall this was a  powerful group performance. If at times sections of the work seemed repetitive or over-long, that I suspect was intended to echo the very point … where is this violence going?  Where does it end?  Not on Mars I think, but right here, in New Zealand, and in the Pacific. In India. How’s Australia doing? Probably every country on Earth has issues that choreography could help to confront. Black Grace is equal to that task.

Jennifer Shennan, 21 September 2018

Featured image: Black Grace + Friends. Artistic Direction, Neil Ieremia. Photo: © Duncan Cole

Black Grace + Friends. Artistic Direction, Neil Ieremia. Photo: Duncan Cole

Scene from Jack Ziesing's work for 'This Poisoned Sea'. Photo: Maylei Hunt

Dance diary. June 2017

  • Jack Ziesing on This Poisoned Sea

I recently spoke to several people associated with This Poisoned Sea, a forthcoming production to be performed in late July by Quantum Leap, the senior performing group of Canberra’s youth dance organisation, QL2. The story I subsequently wrote for The Canberra Times has yet to be published and, as often happens in these situations, I was unable to use everything I gleaned from those who were kind enough to talk to me.

Independent dancer/choreographer, Jack Ziesing, is one of three choreographers engaged with this evening length work, which is inspired by Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner. He spoke to me in some detail about the thoughts behind his section, which was made during a residency early in 2017. It has already been performed in Melbourne and Canberra as a stand alone piece. Looking at some of the production images from those performances I was struck by the the black cloth that seemed to be used throughout his work, and the images of black figures that were posted on the walls of the QL2 studio and that had been used as inspiration.

‘I responded to the figures in black,’ Ziesing remarked, ‘because the black looks like clothing but draped in the right way it could also look like a flag, a weapon, or oil. I liked the idea of a transformable substance that the dancers could use to clothe themselves, protect themselves, and build with. But all the while it’s the very substance that contributes to the degradation of their environment. They are trying to shelter themselves with the very material that hurts them.

‘The tone of this work is definitely very dark. I am concerned for what the future holds and at times it can seem overwhelming and very hopeless. I wanted to convey this same sense of bleakness. Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem gave such a strong example of the consequences of thoughtless action. I can’t help but want to do the same in my own medium.’

This Poisoned Sea, section by Jack Ziesing. Photo: © Maylei Hunt, from the Melbourne production, 2017

The other choreographers contributing to This Poisoned Sea are Caudia Alessi and Eliza Sanders. The full, three-section work will be performed at the Playhouse, Canberra Theatre Centre, 27–29 July 2017.

  • News from New Zealand

Early in June, Royal New Zealand Ballet announced the appointment of Patricia Barker as its incoming artistic director. She replaces Francesco Ventriglia, who ended his contract with the company in mid-June. Barker was a principal dancer with Pacific Northwest Ballet during the directorship of Kent Stowell and Francia Russell and, most recently, has been artistic director of Grand Rapids Ballet in Michigan.

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A review by Jennifer Shennan of Neil Ieremia’s As night falls for Black Grace makes interesting listening at this link. ‘A poetic ode to our troubled world’ is how Ieremia describes it, but listen to what Shennan has to say.

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A comment from a New Zealand reader on my recent post about the Royal Ballet’s tour to Australia and New Zealand in 1958 sent me hunting for a photo of Anna Pavlova photographed in Wellington in 1926 by S. P. Andrew. The story goes, according to my correspondent, that Pavlova liked the photograph so much that she ordered 800 copies of it and paid in cash from a large black handbag! It is likely that the photograph below on the left is the one in question, although I rather like the one on the right as well, also taken in 1926 by S. P Andrew.

Anna Pavlova in Wellington, New Zealand, 1926 (1). Photo: S. P. Andrew, Alexander Turnbull Library
Anna Pavlova in Wellington, New Zealand, 1926 (1). Photo: S. P. Andrew, Alexander Turnbull Library

Two portraits of Anna Pavlova in Wellington, New Zealand, 1926. Photo: S. P. Andrew, Alexander Turnbull Library (left image, right image)

  • Rohalla

I was interested to hear that, as part of Refugee Week in the ACT, a dance-theatre work, based on the true story of a refugee from Afghanistan, whose name is Rohallah, was being produced for showing at the Courtyard Studio, Canberra Theatre Centre. I went along to see it.

In my opinion, the work didn’t live up to expectations as a piece of professional dance and, given that Canberra’s several professional dance artists struggle hard to find sources of funding, I was taken aback to find that Rohallah had received support from the ACT government. It is not clear whether that support was financial or not, but apparently the ACT arts minister, Gordon Ramsay, was a first nighter. And indeed the ACT government logo appeared on the handout.

I plead with the ACT arts minister to consider in greater depth what his department is supporting. We are grown-up, seasoned dance-watchers in Canberra. Please support work that treats audiences as such.

  • Press for June 2017

‘Pushing the boundaries of contemporary dance.’ Review of Sydney Dance Company’s Orb. The Canberra Times, 2 June 2017, p. 20. Online version

Michelle Potter, 30 June 2017

Featured image: Scene from Jack Ziesing’s work for This Poisoned Sea. Photo: © Maylei Hunt from the Melbourne production, 2017

Scene from Jack Ziesing's work for 'This Poisoned Sea'. Photo: Bec Thompson

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