New Zealand Dance Company in a study for 'Lumina'. Photo: John McDermott

‘Lumina’. New Zealand Dance Company

The New Zealand Dance Company’s Lumina has just toured to 5 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.

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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

‘Rotunda’. The New Zealand Dance Company

My review of Rotunda, a very special piece of dance theatre from Shona McCullagh and her New Zealand Dance Company, has now been posted on DanceTabs at this link.

'Rotunda', the New Zealand Dance Company. Photo: John McDermott

Scene from Rotunda. The New Zealand Dance Company. Photo: © John McDermott, 2013

Take another look, too, at Jennifer Shennan’s comments on Rotunda at this link.

'Rotunda'. The New Zealand Dance Company. Photo: Caroline Bindon, 2015

Scene from Rotunda. The New Zealand Dance Company. Photo: © Caroline Bindon, 2015

Michelle Potter, 20 May 2015

The New Zealand Dance Company and New Zealand Army Band, 'Rotunda'. Photo: John McDermott

‘Rotunda’. The New Zealand Dance Company and New Zealand Army Band

In many a park in New Zealand … the same in Australia I’m sure … sits an octagonal band rotunda … shades of Vauxhall Gardens and the public pleasures of outdoor music played by local brass bands or other ensembles. These days children play in a rotunda, not much good for hide’n’seek since the sides are open, but its roof will shelter you if there’s a sudden downpour on your picnic.

Mostly rotundas are quiet sentinels to an earlier era of music-making. In peacetime, well and good, but, in wartime, brass bands are readily associated with the many concerts and farewells involved when the armed forces are on the move. Drum roll. Slow March. The Last Post. You know it well.

2015 is the year commemorating Word War I and the scar on the Anzac nation that the Gallipoli landing represents, 25 April 1915. It’s also 70 years since the end of World War II, 40 years since the end of the Vietnam War, one minute since the latest slaughter somewhere in the name of power, wealth or religion … and so it goes … every year marking some anniversary of the human propensity to conflict, to fight, rather than, as Shakespeare pithily put it … ‘to dance out the answer’.

Thoinot Arbeau’s dance manual, Orchesographie from France, 1589, offers a fascinating glimpse of martial arts overlapping with dance practices of the time, and remains accessible today in a Dover edition, with an appendix of Laban notation. Another important book on the topic, Keeping Together in Time, by William H. McNeill has rightly been described as a tour de force of imagination and scholarship.

There are several classics of what one might call ‘war dances’ choreographed in the 20th century—the indelible masterpiece by Kurt Jooss, The Green Table, Jiri Kylian’s extraordinary Soldiers’ Mass (which will be restaged by the Royal New Zealand Ballet mid-2015), and Jose Limon’s heartfelt Missa Brevis to Kodaly’s mass. Each of them contains witness to war that translates into a prayer for peace. Nijinsky, in his last performance, ‘danced the war’ and we all know what happened to him after that.

The New Zealand Dance Company has joined forces with the New Zealand Army Band, in the production of Rotunda, a full-length work which has recently toured New Zealand, had earlier been performed in Europe, and will shortly tour to Australia. The Army Band plays a range of New Zealand compositions and the incorporation of its players into the heart of the staged work is memorable. The result is impressive, highly unusual, spectacular, powerful and poignant by turns.

'Rotunda'. The New Zealand Dance Company (1). Photo: Caroline Bindon

Rotunda. The New Zealand Dance Company, 2015. Photo: Caroline Bindon

For the cast of four male and four female dancers, the choreographic focus is on the young … boys playing shoot-outs with twigs from the apple tree, bang bang you’re dead, but not too much later they are on a battlefield, shooting and being shot with real guns now. One of them stays down, bang bang you’re dead alright. But your mate can’t believe that, so lifts you and carries you to dance. It is a painfully exquisite duo that would bring you back to life, but if course, it can’t.

Another duo between a young woman in a poppy-red dress, full of all the reasons youth have to live, dances with her dazed, glazed shell-shocked young man but he cannot be persuaded to thaw from the horrors of what he has seen. ‘Incurably insane’ is what the medical records called them. [Trudi Schoop, dancer and cabaret artist in Switzerland during World War II, turned after the war to a career in dance therapy, stating that she would thereafter work with catatonic schizophrenics, who were just that, whereas the men who had manufactured the war were the criminally insane].

'Rotunda.' The New Zealand Dance Company, 2015. Photo: Caroline Bindon

Rotunda. The New Zealand Dance Company, 2015. Photo: Caroline Bindon

In choreographing a commemoration of ‘the’ war (as in ‘The War to End All Wars’), one wishes neither to celebrate triumphs (they are few) nor record casualties (they are many), but rather to remember, lest we forget.

The stage set and lighting of the performance are inspired. A white silk banner flies high and swoops low, caught and tossed in the updraught of a circle of fans placed on the stage. A dancer engages with it before it is swept away and up. Image of a soul, a spirit, a person, gone. But not forgotten.

'Rotunda', the New Zealand Dance Company, 2015. Photo: Celia Walmsley

Rotunda. The New Zealand Dance Company, 2015. Photo: Celia Walmsley

Jennifer Shennan, Wellington, April 2015

Australian schedule for Rotunda:

  • Adelaide: Her Majesty’s Theatre, Adelaide Festival Centre. Friday 1 May, 7.30pm; Saturday 2 May, 2pm & 7.30pm
  • Melbourne: The Playhouse, Arts Centre Melbourne. Thursday 7 May, 8pm; Friday 8 May, 8pm;  Saturday 9 May, 2pm & 8pm
  • Parramatta: Riverside Theatre, Parramatta. Wednesday 13 May, 8pm; Thursday 14 May, 8pm; Friday 15 May, 8pm; Saturday 16 May, 2pm & 8pm
  • Geelong: The Playhouse Theatre, Geelong Performing Arts Centre. Thursday 21 May, 8pm; Friday 22 May, 8pm; Saturday 23 May, 1pm

Publications mentioned in the text:

  • Arbeau, Thoinot. Orchesographie, edited by Julia Sutton, translated by Mary Stewart Evans (Dover: New York, 1967)
  • McNeill, William H. Keeping Together in Time: Dance and Drill in Human History (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1995)

Featured image: The New  Zealand Dance Company and New Zealand Army Band, promotional shot for Rotunda. Photo: John McDermott