New Zealand School of Dance 50th anniversary celebration—with Royal New Zealand Ballet

24, 25 November 2017, St James Theatre, Wellington

Reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

This program was a dazzling line-up of works that showcased and celebrated the strengths and talent of young dancers and graduands of New Zealand School of Dance (NZSD). The moment when fledglings leave the nest is always poignant. Some of these young dancers have taken instant wing and are moving straight into positions with prestigious companies—Queensland Ballet, West Australian Ballet for example. Godspeed to them. Most curiously, not one is joining Royal New Zealand Ballet (RNZB).

With numerous dancers departing from RNZB this week, that raises a number of questions, which this review is not placed to answer, but should none-the-less be somewhere, somehow addressed.  Eva Radich in her Radio New Zealand Concert Upbeat program recently asked the question in interview with the company’s artistic director—’Royal New Zealand Ballet. What’s the New Zealand moniker mean?’ We all need to think about the answer. A major part of New Zealand’s dance identity is at stake. That belongs within, not apart from, international dance identity.

In years back, NZSD graduation was always staged in the Opera House, a similar proscenium theatre to the St.James. Some years ago the School moved into newly refurbished premises, Te Whaea, which includes an in-house theatre, which naturally became the venue for dance performances. While that suited some of the contemporary repertoire and choreographic experimentation programs, it is a truth that ballet repertoire had to become differently scaled and proportioned to fit the much smaller venue. Here, back in a proscenium arch theatre with scope and size on their side, all the students were launched into orbit and became dancers. They’ll have now become infected with what Lincoln Kirstein called ‘the red and gold disease’.

It is pleasing to note that of the 11 works on the program, 5 are choreographed by NZSD alumni.

The opening, Beginners, Please! offers a glimpse of two small children at the barre, in a simple sequence of plié to rond-de-jambe; then light moved to another young pair; then to two current NZSD students. Staged by Sue Nicholls, this was a beguiling cameo that evoked the celebrated ballet Etudes, by Harald Lander, 1948. It is poignant to think that Poul Gnatt would have danced in that work in Royal Danish Ballet, and Anne Rowse, director emeritus of NZSD, sitting to my left, danced it many times in Festival Ballet, as also did Russell Kerr. Martin James, single most illustrious graduate in NZSD’s history, no contest, is sitting to my right. He trained at the School, danced most wonderfully in RNZB, then performed in English National Ballet and elsewhere in Europe, eventually to Royal Danish Ballet where he became leading solo dancer, was knighted for his services to ballet, and eventually became the company’s ballet master. These are the seeding sources that cast prismatic variations across professional dance in New Zealand that students need to know about. We can give more than lip service to that. Given the Danish heritage of RNZB, Etudes is a work many of us have waited years to see here, and why wouldn’t Martin James stage it? This echoes the Maori whakatauki proverb, ‘walking backwards into the future’. We can only see what has already happened. Look at that as you go.  All these thoughts were caught in the little opening miniature. Well done, Sue.

Tempo di Valse, arranged by Nadine Tyson, to Tchaikovsky’s Waltz of the Flowers, was ‘an exuberant work for a large ensemble, festive in mood’. Program notes are not always accurate but this one certainly was.

Aria, solo for a masked male, choreographed by Val Caniparoli, to Handel/Rinaldo overture and aria, is a remarkable dance, performed to breathtaking perfection by Mali Comlekci. Small wonder he flies straight into a contract at Queensland Ballet where an outstanding career awaits him. What a shame we won’t be able to see that develop, but we wish him airborne joy.

Mali Comlecki in 'Aria'. New Zealand School of Dance, 2017. Photo: © Stephen A'Court

Mali Comlekci in Aria. New Zealand School of Dance, 2017. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

Curious Alchemy by Loughlan Prior, to Beethoven and Saint-Saens, is a fresh lively lovely dance in which youth is celebrated, and hints of the ties of friendship and the possibilities of relationship are subtly subtexted to the movement which suits the young dancers extremely well. The cast—Clementine Benson, Saul Newport, Jaidyn Cumming and Song Teng —are thrilled to be dancing, and that excitement shines through. Loughlan, himself a spirited dancer with RNZB, and a former graduate of NZSD, is loaded with choreographic energy and ideas, so that is fortunately one continuing career we will be able to follow.

Forgotten Things, by Sarah Foster-Sproull, is a very special choreography, initially developed on students at NZSD in 2015, and here brought to a stunning re-staging with a cast of 23 contemporary dance students. The music composed by Andrew Foster, begins full of life-affirming rhythms that evoke the best Renaissance dance music, then moves to percussive richness that support this mysterious procession—Sarah’s best work to date in my opinion. It is a stunning achievement to use parts of the dancers’ bodies, beautifully lit, as nano units of life force, and then thread these as metaphor into life at the level of society and community. This is a work that could be performed by any school or company, classical or contemporary dancers. Now there’s something for every choreographer to aspire to, since that’s nearer the reality of the dance profession today.

The wedding pas de deux from Don Quixote was danced, by Mayu Tanigaito and Joseph Skelton, as a gift from RNZB—and what a gift. That pas de deux would have been danced in New Zealand several hundred times over the decades, but never has it steamed and sizzled like this. Skelton dances with calm control of his prodigious technique and has a most interesting career we are always keen to follow. The transition from class-in-the-studio to role-on-stage that Tanigaito always brings to her performances is rare, and something to study, if only you can. She reveals the nature of dance.

Kenneth MacMillan’s Concerto pas de deux, dates from 1966 but carries its vintage timelessly. With two grand pianos soixante-neuf on stage, the Shostakovich beautifully played by the School’s pianists, Craig Newsome and Phillip O’Malley, the stage was set for Olivia Moore and Calum Gray to give the performance of their young lives to date.

Olivia Moore and Calum Gray in ‘Concerto’. New Zealand School of Dance, 2017. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

S.U.B. (Salubrious Unified Brotherhood) was a duo by Victoria Columbus working with performers Connor Masseurs and Toa Paranihi. The ‘Nesian identity with rap and break dance, its isolations, its nonchalance, its cut & thrust, its mock battling, was brilliantly timed and caught in this sassy little number.

Toa Paranihi and Connore Masseurs in 'S.U.B.'. New Zealand School of Dance, 2017. Photo: © Stephen A'Court

Toa Paranihi and Connor Masseurs in S.U.B. New Zealand School of Dance, 2017. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

Allegro Brillante, by George Balanchine, dates from 1956 and is more of a period piece. It was performed with great verve and aplomb by the cast of eight dancers.

The Bach, by Michael Parmenter, to a Bach cantata, Erfreut euch, had a cast of 15 dancers who revelled in the exuberant dance sequences and sets of striking ensemble patterns. These were interspersed with walking sequences that stood rhythmically quite apart from the baroque energy and motivation of the danced sections.

The final work, William Forsythe’s In the middle somewhat elevated, was first performed in this theatre by Frankfurt Ballet during the international arts festival 1990. The choreography is as challenging and confrontational now as it was then, as is also the score by Thom Willems. The intensely asymmetrical and aggressive aesthetic comes across as thrilling, or scary, depending on the viewer. I am in the former camp, but can hear what others say—it is either loved or hated. Passionate opinions about dance in a theatre in New Zealand are no bad thing, but it’s for sure that the asymmetries that pull within the classical technique represent a post-modern departure from the canon that Forsythe represents. It’s a pity that the two gilded cherries hanging from on high, giving title to the choreography, are set so high they are noticed by no-one.

The RNZB dancers in the cast who stood out most memorably include Abigail Boyle, Tonia Looker, Alayna Ng,  Shaun James Kelly, Kirby Selchow, Mayu Tanigaito, Kohei Iwamoto, Paul Mathews, Felipe Domingos. We wish all the Company dancers and all the School’s students well.

Jennifer Shennan, 27 November 2017

Featured image: Jill Goh (centre) with dancers from the New Zealand School of Dance in Forgotten Things, 2017. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

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

Mayu Tanigaito and Daniel Gaudiello in 'Carmen'. Royal New Zealand Ballet. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

‘Carmen.’ Royal New Zealand Ballet

Reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

16 & 18 February 2017, Isaac Theatre Royal, Christchurch (opening of national tour)

The first work on this program, l’Arlésienne, is over 40 years old, and the second, Carmen, is pushing 70 years. Both are dramatic one-act ballets by leading French choreographer, Roland Petit, hitherto only known by reputation here in New Zealand, or through film of his work, which often starred the stunning dancer, Zizi Jeanmaire, his wife.

Francesco Ventriglia, RNZB’s artistic director, was influenced by Petit in his own early career and he has judged well how much these works would suit our company. Unlike ballet’s classics, Swan Lake and the like, which can be staged in new settings (much as we are familiar with Shakespeare in modern dress), these works by Petit are not in the public domain, and need to be re-staged with impeccable care by the trustees of his repertoire.

A number of our dancers find scope for their talents, with personality, stage presence, comoedic gifts and individual character (more than in your average/larger ballet company, where the perfect symmetry of the many is aspired to). We saw talent in spades among the different casts in Christchurch.

In l’Arlésienne, a young man on the eve of marriage to a beguiling young woman is suddenly struck with confusion, and haunted by the vision of ‘the girl from Arles’, whom we never meet, save through the reflection of his eyes. Shaun James Kelly played the lead role with an astonishing portrayal of the onset of his mental disarray. The role of the bride was most poignantly danced by Madeleine Graham. and the corps of villagers dance a compelling semi-ritualised support to the unfolding drama. This then is in no way the frivolous cabaret number I had been expecting to act as curtain-raiser for the main work, Carmen. It is a tight and strong classic work that mesmerises the audience towards the inevitability of its conclusion, and Kelly’s performance will be long remembered.

Shaun James Kelly and Madeleine Graham in L'Arlésienne. Royal New Zealand Ballet. Photo: ©Stephen A'Court

Shaun James Kelly and Madeleine Graham in l’Arlésienne. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2017. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

The opening cast of Carmen had guest artist Natalya Kusch in the title role, her excellent technique and poetic style proving most attractive, and with Joseph Skelton dancing beautifully as Don José, initially unsuspecting but growing into all the heartbreak of the role. Kirby Selchow as the Bandit Woman lit up the stage, and the cameo comic role of the Toreador was hysterically sent up by Paul Mathews. But it was Mayu Tanigaito, in the following cast, who absolutely nailed the role of Carmen as the minx, the coquette, the sexy wild and headstrong woman who will not be tamed, by any man, at any price. Tanigaito is an astonishing performer in any role, one of the RNZB’s strongest dancers. Daniel Gaudiello was a strong and convincing Don José, and Kohei Iwamoto a striking Chief Bandit.

Mayu Tanigaito in 'Carmen'. Royal New Zealand Ballet. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

Shaun James Kelly in 'l'Arlesienne'. Royal New Zealand Ballet. Photo: Stephen A’Court

(l–r) Mayu Tanigaito in Carmen; Shaun James Kelly in l’Arlésienne. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2017. Photos: © Stephen A’Court

So, a number of highlights among the members of each cast. My advice is to see them both—but do refrain from the patronising and disruptive outbursts of applause that pepper throughout performances, and drive me to distraction. The dancers know when they’ve done a good multiple pirouette or barrel turn, but this is not the circus. Let them get on with developing the drama or poetry within the work, and please save your applause to the end.

Jennifer Shennan, 24 February 2017

Featured image: Mayu Tanigaito and Daniel Gaudiello in Carmen. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2017. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

Mayu Tanigaito and Daniel Gaudiello in 'Carmen'. Royal New Zealand Ballet. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

Liz Lea in a study for a forthcoming show, 'RED'. Photo: © Nino Tamburri

Dance diary. November 2016

  • Canberra Critics’ Circle Awards: Dance 2016

The Canberra Critics’ Circle, a group of Canberra-based, practising critics from across art forms, presented its annual awards in November. Two awards were given in the dance area.

Liz Lea: For her innovative promotion of dance in the ACT exemplified by her co-ordination and presentation of “Great Sport!” at the National Museum of Australia, which spectacularly showcased the work of The Gold Company, Dance for Parkinson’s, Canberra Dance Theatre, and of a number of local and interstate choreographers, in a memorable and remarkable presentation.

Alison Plevey: For her tireless and consistent efforts as a dancer, choreographer and facilitator towards advancing professional contemporary dance in the A.C.T through her performances, collaborations, and programs, culminating in the establishment of her dance company, Australian Dance Party.

Alison Plevey (left) in 'Strings Attached', Australian Dance Party 2016.

Alison Plevey (left) in Strings Attached, the inaugural show from Australian Dance Party, 2016. Photo: © Lorna Sim

As indicated in the citations, both Plevey and Lea have contributed to the growth of a renewed interest in dance in Canberra. A preview of Plevey’s forthcoming show, Nervous, is below under ‘Press for November 2016’. My review of Great Sport!, facilitated, directed, and partly choreographed by Lea is at this link.

  • The Nutcracker: Queensland Ballet

A second viewing of Queensland Ballet’s Nutcracker, with a change of cast, had some new highlights. Neneka Yoshida was a gorgeous Clara. She was beautifully animated and involved throughout and there were some charming asides from her with other characters during those moments when she wasn’t the centre of attention. Mia Heathcote took on the role of Grandmother, a role that couldn’t be further from her opening night role as Clara. But she created a very believable character and, as we have come to expect, never wavered from her characterisation. Tim Neff was a totally outrageous Mother Ginger and Lina Kim and Rian Thompson gave us a thrilling performance as the leading couple in the Waltz of the Flowers.

Another exceptional performance from Queensland Ballet.

  • Ella. A film by Douglas Watkins

Ella, which premiered earlier in 2016 at the Melbourne International Film Festival, traces the journey of Ella Havelka from a childhood spent dancing in Dubbo, New South Wales, to her current position as a corps be ballet member of the Australian Ballet. My strongest recollection of Havelka with the Australian Ballet is her dancing with Rohan Furnell as the leading Hungarian couple in Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake when I called their performance ‘very feisty’.

Scene from the film 'Ella'

Scene from the film Ella, 2016

I found the film largely unchallenging, however, and footage of Havelka dancing with Bangarra Dance Theatre was far more exciting to watch than that showing her with the Australian Ballet. Not only that, the commentary from Stephen Page on the nature of Bangarra, and Havelka’s role as an Indigenous Australian in that company, was far more pertinent and gutsy than the rather non-committal remarks from interviewees from the Australian Ballet. An opportunity missed from several points of view?

  • Royal New Zealand Ballet

Royal New Zealand Ballet is seeking a new artistic director to replace Francesco Ventriglia who will leave his position in mid-2017. Ventriglia will depart ‘to pursue international opportunities.’ Before he departs New Zealand he will take on the new role of guest choreographer to stage his own production of Romeo and Juliet in August. His planned repertoire for 2017 includes works by Roland Petit and Alexander Ekman.

  • Late news: Ruth Osborne

Ruth Osborne, artistic director of QL2 Dance in Canberra, has been awarded a Churchill Fellowship to pursue her interest in developing dance projects for young people. More in a future post.

  • Press for November 2016

‘Wonderful version of Christmas classic.’ Review of The Nutcracker from Queensland Ballet. The Canberra Times, 25 November 2016, p. 37.  Online version.

‘Under the microscope.’ Preview of Nervous from Australian Dance Party. The Canberra TimesPanorama, 26 November 2016, p. 15. Online version.

Michelle Potter, 30 November 2016

Featured image: Liz Lea in a study for a forthcoming show, RED. Photo: © Nino Tamburri, 2016

Liz Lea in a study for a forthcoming show, 'RED'.

 

‘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

Happy returns

On Dancing’s reviews of John Neumeier’s extraordinary choreography, Nijinsky—both the recent Australian Ballet production, which I have not seen, and the link to that of 2012 for the Hamburg Ballet in Brisbane,* are welcome reminders of the Hamburg company’s stellar achievements.

Telling reference is made to the circular shapes incorporated into the set design, echoing paintings by Nijinsky—and lucky we are that one of his paintings is held in a private collection in Wellington, a tiny telescoping of ballet history.

Dimity Azoury. Alexandre Riabko, Francois-Eloi Lavignac and Leanne Stojmenov in 'Nijinsky'. The Australian Ballet, 2016. Photo: Jeff Busby

Dimity Azoury. Alexandre Riabko, Francois-Eloi Lavignac and Leanne Stojmenov in Nijinsky. The Australian Ballet, 2016. Photo: © Jeff Busby

I keep indelible memories of two trips to Hamburg, 2005 and 2015, where I saw in total ten of Neumeier’s full-length works. What astonishing programming in two short weeks, demonstrating the enduring worth of keeping repertoire extant, instead of allowing Rip Van Winkle to steal away with choreographed treasure never more to be seen in a lifetime, as happens in too many places.

Hamburg Ballet’s detailed website is further evidence of this artistic confidence, paying much respect to the casts listed at its premiere and in subsequent seasons, to the audiences’ interest in such things, and in the company’s future programming, which gives us the wherewithal to make fruitful travel plans.

Jiri Bubenicek created the lead role in the 2000 premiere cast of Nijinsky in Hamburg, and his twin brother Otto Bubenicek danced the Golden Slave and the Faun in that same season. After many years with Hamburg Ballet, the brothers, now collaborating and working on an international circuit, Jiri in choreography and Otto in design, will this month prepare a work on New Zealand School of Dance students for their graduation show in November. I look forward to viewing and reviewing it.

Australia’s Daniel Gaudiello proved a most gracious and convincing Albrecht in Royal New Zealand Ballet’s recent Giselle—and soon our Joseph Skelton crosses the Tasman in the other direction to guest as Albrecht in the Australian Ballet’s production.

RNZB will soon offer a studio season of new work by dancers aspiring to choreograph. Again this will be named for memory of dear Harry Haythorne.

Thus the ballet world continues to turn with little more than demi-plié degrees of separation between practitioners and their ephemeral heritage.  Words on dance websites help hold the gossamer together between seasons.

Jennifer Shennan, Wellington 12 October 2016

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*which I did get lucky to see, in their wonderful double billing with A Midsummer Night’s Dream—which in turn makes interesting contrast now with Liam Scarlett’s choreography in the co-production between Royal New Zealand Ballet and Queensland Ballet.  RNZB are performing it this week in Hong Kong at the Shakespeare festival there—then home for a brief Wellington season).

Featured image: Photo: Leanne Stojmenov, Alexandre Riabko, Ako Kondo and Christopher Rodgers-Wilson in Nijinsky, the Australian Ballet 2016. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Leanne Stojmenov, Alexandre Riabko, Ako Kondo and Christopher Rodgers-Wilson in 'Nijinsky', the Australian Ballet 2016. Photo Jeff Busby

Elizabeth Dalman in the Silk Moth 2014. Photo Barbie Robinson

Dance diary. August 2016

  • Elizabeth Dalman

When I interviewed Elizabeth Dalman in July for the National Library of Australia’s oral history program she told me, off the record, of a potential performing opportunity that she hoped might come her way. Well, the potential opportunity is now a reality and Dalman is currently in Ireland rehearsing for the role of the Mother in a new Irish production based on the story of Swan Lake. This Swan Lake is being created by Michael Keegan-Dolan, former director of Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre, which closed down in 2014. Keegan-Dolan’s present company has the name MKD Dance.

The opportunity came via a casting call on Keegan-Dolan’s Facebook page for ‘a woman aged between … 60 and 70.’ The notice went on: ‘The Mother needs a powerful presence and ideally she should have long white hair.’ Dalman is now in her eighties so didn’t fit exactly into the age range. But she certainly has presence and long white hair. She got the role.

This Swan Lake, danced to an original score based on traditional Irish and Nordic folk music played live on fiddle, nyckelharpa, cello, voice and percussion, will premiere as part of the 2016 Dublin Theatre Festival. Its Dublin season will be from 28 September to 8 October, after which it goes to Aarhus in Denmark and then to Sadler’s Wells, London, with 2017 seasons planned for Stuttgart and Luxembourg with other venues in the planning stage.

  • News from James Batchelor

James Batchelor is currently working at Tasdance in Launceston on Deepspace, a production emerging from his expedition to Antarctica on board the RV Investigator earlier this year. His Tasdance residency is supported by the Australia Council and is being conducted in conjunction with visual artist Annalise Rees (also part of the Investigator expedition), performer Amber McCartney and sound artist Morgan Hickinbotham. Later this year there will be another development at Arts House in Melbourne as part of the CultureLAB program. The work is set to premiere in 2017.

Read my previous post on the Investigator expedition here. Footage of Batchelor’s work on board the Investigator is below.

 

  • Joseph Skelton, Royal New Zealand Ballet

Having had the pleasure of seeing Royal New Zealand Ballet in performance recently, I was interested to learn that RNZB dancer Joseph Skelton will be appearing as guest artist with the Australian Ballet shortly. He will dance the leading role of Albrecht in a New South Wales regional tour of Giselle. ‘The Regional Tour’ appears to be a new name for the Dancers Company, which name seems to have quietly left the vocabulary of the Australian Ballet. The Australian Ballet website notes that this production will feature ‘artists from The Australian Ballet and graduating students from The Australian Ballet School.’

Whatever is behind the mysterious name change, Joseph Skelton’s performances will be worth watching. In Wellington earlier this month, I admired his performances in the Stiefel/Kobborg production of Giselle. I saw him in the peasant pas de deux (with Bronte Kelly), and as the Older Albrecht (a character unique to the Stiefel/Kobborg production), where his quiet but commanding presence was impressive.

Joseph Skelton in Giselle rehearsals. Royal New Zealand Ballet. Photo Stephen A'Court

Joseph Skelton in rehearsal for the Ethan Stiefel/Johan Kobborg production of Giselle. Royal New Zealand Ballet. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

  • On the subject of musicals …

For those who love musicals with lots of dance, a new production of Mamma Mia will be part of the 2017 Australian musical theatre scene. The Canberra Theatre Centre has just announced that the Australian premiere of the new production will be in Canberra in November 2017 ahead of performances in other Australian cities. No details yet of cast or creatives (who will be the choreographer?). More information when it becomes available.

  • Press for August 2016

‘Strings attached.’ Preview of the debut performance by the Australian Dance Party. The Canberra TimesPanorama, 13 August 2016, p. 15. Online version.

Michelle Potter, 31 August 2016

Featured image: Elizabeth Dalman in The Silk Moth, 2014. Photo: © Barbie Robinson

Elizabeth Dalman in the Silk Moth 2014. Photo Barbie Robinson

Francesco Ventriglia, artistic director, Royal New Zealand Ballet. Photo: © Stephen A'’Court

Francesco Ventriglia. Royal New Zealand Ballet’s artistic director

My interview with Francesco Ventriglia, which I conducted in Wellington earlier in August, is now available on DanceTabs at this link.

Follow the tag link Royal New Zealand Ballet for more stories and reviews about the company, including posts from Wellington-based dance writer, Jennifer Shennan.

Michelle Potter, 24 August 2016

Featured image: Francesco Ventriglia, artistic director, Royal New Zealand Ballet. Photo: © Stephen A’’Court

Francesco Ventriglia, artistic director, 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

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)