‘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

Bronte Kelly and Joseph Skelton as the Wedding Couple, 'Giselle', Royal New Zealand Ballet. Photo: Bill Cooper

‘Giselle’. Royal New Zealand Ballet

12 & 13 August 2016, St James Theatre, Wellington, New Zealand

There are a number of things to admire in Royal New Zealand Ballet’s current production of Giselle, choreographed and produced for the company by Ethan Stiefel and Johan Kobborg in 2012. As one enters the theatre a front curtain is down and it immediately promises something interesting. We see a finely drawn tree with a brown trunk and spreading brown branches with small, red, heart-shaped leaves attached. The colours set the season (the ballet traditionally takes place at harvest time), as well as giving a clue to the emotional story we will encounter. As the curtain rises, small white shapes, a little like tear drops, appear on the cloth, and dark twisted roots emerge and move mysteriously (lighting by Kendall Smith). It is a wonderful piece of scenic art by American designer Howard C Jones. It has a beautiful simplicity and yet prefigures so many of the ballet’s themes.

As Act I unfolded, I admired the way in which Stiefel and Kobborg had developed the male characters. The peasant men seemed a rough and tumble lot and at one stage engaged in a bout of light-hearted pushing and shoving. They were not the overly genteel peasants we so often see standing in perfect ballet poses. In fact we often saw them slouching around in the background.

The character of Hilarion was also nicely developed. He was given a solo in the first act, which drew more attention to his participation in the life of the village and his place in the story as Giselle’s long-term admirer. The role was strongly danced by Jacob Chown in one cast and Paul Mathews in another. Mathews in particular showed some exceptional elevation and seemed to relish every vigorous moment of the Act I solo. On the other hand, Chown was the one who put up a thrilling fight against the Wilis in Act II and in his dancing seemed to be buffeted back and forth by some supernatural power.

Jacob chown as Hilarion in 'Giselle'. Royal New Zealand Ballet. Photo: Bill Cooper

Jacob Chown as Hilarion in Giselle. Royal New Zealand Ballet. Photo: © Bill Cooper

Wilfred, aide to Albrecht (disguised as Lenz—not Loys!), was also encouraged to be a stronger character than usual. It was not that he was given anything extra to do, so bouquets to the dancers and to the coaching staff. I saw Jacob Chown and William Fitzgerald and enjoyed both interpretations, although Chown seemed to add a mature factor to his characterisation, which I thought particularly suitable.

I also was surprised, but pleased, to find, with the arrival of the titled landowners (usually on a hunting excursion, but in this production out riding), that the Duke and and his daughter Bathilde did not enter Giselle’s cottage to rest, as usually happens—I have often pondered why they would take a rest in such a rudimentary structure. Instead, in this production, they headed off to continue their ride. This of course meant that other arrangements had to be made to call them back to the village for the unmasking of Albrecht, of which more later.

I also enjoyed the inclusion of children and older people as extras in the village scenes of Act I. It made for a more natural look than what we are used to.

Choreographically Stiefel and Kobborg have kept some of the well-known sections, especially in Act II where the steps performed by Giselle and Albrecht (pas de deux and solos); some sections by Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis; and some of the corps de ballet work were familiar. But large sections of Act I, especially the dances for the corps de ballet, had been reworked and were more like character dances than the classically-based choreography we usually see. Some of the group dances for the Wilis in Act II had also been reworked and there seemed to be focus on circular patterns and movements.

I saw two casts in the leading roles of Giselle and Albrecht—Mayu Tanigaito partnered by Daniel Gaudiello and Lucy Green partnered by Qi Huan and all danced more than adequately. Gaudiello made something spectacular of Albrecht’s solo dances in Act II. His cabrioles were breathtaking in their precision and he soared into his jumps. A triple attitude turn was a thrill to see, and his set of entrechats was stunning. But he also brought many charming extras to his portrayal—a little brush of his hand along Tanigaito’s arm before taking her hand, a benign glance here and there. Such things have long been a feature of Gaudiello’s acting and it was a treat to see him once again.

Daniel Gaudiello and Mayu Tanigaito in rehearsal for 'Giselle', Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2016

Daniel Gaudiello and Mayu Tanigaito in rehearsal for Giselle. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2016. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

But in this production of Giselle, there were also a number of things not to like. Much impact was lost in Act I when Berthe, who needs to recount the story of the Wilis and the effect they have on jilted young girls, had been allocated a much reduced story to tell. Neither of the dancers I saw as Berthe—Alayna Ng and Madeleine Graham—was able to impart a sense of impending doom. And not only that, Giselle’s friends took absolutely no notice of  Berthe’s story. They were busy upstage admiring a friend’s wedding outfit. And sadly, nothing in a mime or choreographic sense was made of the musical leitmotif for the Wilis, which we hear during Berthe’s mime scene. It is the musical link between the first and second acts and recurs during the mad scene and then at the beginning of Act II. Berthe needs to be clearly aware of this leitmotif in her mime, or with some kind of reaction, so she can begin a dramaturgical link.

Then there was the issue of the horn, usually hung outside the cottage by a member of the hunting party when the Duke and Bathilde retire to the cottage. Hilarion uses it to call the hunting party back after he has discovered Albrecht’s true identity. But since there was a change to the storyline in the Stiefel/Kobborg production, Albrecht arrives in the village with a sword at his side and the horn around his neck. Now why would he be carrying a horn? It didn’t make sense to me and looked like a clumsy addition and simply (as indeed it was) a way of sneaking the horn in so that Hilarion had something to use when he needs to summon the hunting/riding party.

I also wondered why there was a need to remove the grape harvest part of the original narrative, thus weakening the story. The grape harvest is a rationale for the Duke and his party to stop to quench their thirst at Giselle’s village. They drink the wine of the area, which is served with pride by Giselle and/or Berthe. Removing this aspect of the story also denies Giselle a place as the Harvest Queen and makes her, in many ways, a lesser person in the village. Replacing the Harvest Queen with a Wedding Couple, who also dance the peasant pas de deux, is interesting but to my mind is playing with the story for no apparent purpose.

I was also unimpressed by some of the costumes (designed by Natalia Stewart) especially that for Albrecht in Act II. His jacket had such a high collar that his neck all but disappeared and occasionally reduced the classical look of the choreography. And there were times when Albrecht seemed to have a hunchback due, I can only surmise, to the cut of the jacket. This happened more in the case of Gaudiello as the costume seemed to be a better fit on Qi. I wish too that Myrtha had been given the wreath of flowers she usually wears as a headdress. It would have given Clytie Campbell, whom I saw as Myrtha at both performances, added presence and would have distinguished her somewhat from the band of Wilis she leads. It may not have seemed so annoying had the role of Myrtha been given the same attention as the minor principal roles of Hilarion and Wilfred. As it was parts of the second act seemed a little underwhelming.

Stiefel and Kobborg have added a rather nice framework within which the story unfolds. When the ballet opens we see, through a scrim and seemingly within the swirling roots of the tree of the front curtain, the figure of a man, the Older Albrecht. He appears briefly at the beginning and end of both acts as an observer and relives, as a program note tells us, ‘the story that has possessed his being for nearly a decade.’ But for me this Giselle does not stand up to those productions that have brought tears to my eyes and sent me home from the theatre on a high.

Michelle Potter, 15 August 2016

Featured image: Bronte Kelly and Joseph Skelton as the Wedding Couple, Giselle. Royal New Zealand Ballet. Photo: © Bill Cooper

Bronte Kelly and Joseph Skelton as the Wedding Couple, 'Giselle', Royal New Zealand Ballet. Photo: Bill Cooper

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