The golden ties that bind

by Jennifer Shennan

Memories from across 40 years of life and work and people at New Zealand School of Dance were triggered by a recent gathering. 

Christine Gunn has been on the faculty at New Zealand School of Dance as classical ballet tutor for 40 years. A celebratory gathering took place at Te Whaea, the school’s venue, in early September to mark the occasion but no-one is taking that as a signal of her impending retirement. The opening speech of heartfelt thanks by director Garry Trinder acknowledged that Christine prefers not to play the diva but just to get on with the work. He quipped how pleased he was to have found her the perfect fridge magnet which asks ‘Would you like to speak to the person in charge, or to the person who knows what’s going on?’ Perhaps they’ll let her retire after another 40 years?

Christine masterminded the art of  timetabling the curriculum for both the classical and contemporary dance streams—(this is tantamount to completing Sudoku puzzles while simultaneously playing two Chess games). It was not merely the timetabling skills being remembered and celebrated however, but the dedication to teaching consistent, supportive classical technique and repertoire classes that have guided many a ballet student towards their performance careers. Raising her own family of two daughters must have required further skills of time management on many occasions.

Anne Rowse was director of the then National School of Ballet when Christine joined the staff in 1979. With Anne, plus Dawn Sanders as part-time tutor and secretary, that made a staff of three. How ever did they do it, in those asymmetric studios that you had to traverse to gain access to the dressing rooms? Well, you’d never have guessed from the calibre of the repertoire in annual Graduation seasons in the Opera House that training conditions were anything less than perfect. It takes hindsight to recognise pioneering of course, but the list of graduates from New Zealand School of Dance, then and since, includes major figures in world dance. Piano accompanists were always the best in town and, over time, other teaching staff were appointed, new premises found, and resources grew.

Turid Revfeim (who has recently written the 50 year history of the School, and is now a tutor there) was a student in the year Christine arrived, and she reminisced on what was done despite those meagre resources. Turid later joined Royal New Zealand Ballet as did many other graduates, Dawn had also earlier been a dancer with them, and such links ensured a genuinely close rapport between the School and the Company, at that time directed by Harry Haythorne. Students used to turn up in droves at the theatre each night to meet the stalwart Company Managers, Warren Douglas or Brendan Meek, themselves both NZSD graduates, for passes to every performance of the season which those days spanned a fortnight. Standing room if need be, but students seized every chance to glean inspiration of what their training was all about, in the context of the theatre. The resulting artistic harvest was bountiful, but it only grew from old-fashioned common sense and the best kind of opportunism.

Christine’s choice at her gathering was for students to perform an excerpt from Balanchine’s Concerto Barocco which they did with a commendable clarity of line and musical acuity. Luke Cooper, a recent graduate now dancing with RNZB, had organized video messages to Christine from former students living and working afar. All the students then performed a massed Maori tribute, a waiata with the talisman wiri of quivering arms and hands that breathes life into dance. The male students  delivered a mightily galvanised haka taparahi that could have given the All Blacks the shivers.  

The large gathering was a spirited one and no doubt evoked many and varied memories among former teachers and students of their experiences across those 40 years—of things trained, learned, rehearsed, performed, triumphed, loved, hoped, danced and dreamed. I’ll put the (injuries and heartbreaks) into parentheses. Nothing about dance is easy—it’s only meant to look that way, with the grace of divine nonchalance suggesting that you, the audience, could be dancing too.

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Anne Rowse invited me to join the staff in 1982, to tutor in Dance Studies—Renaissance and Baroque repertoire, Dance notation, History & Library studies, World Dance Traditions including Pacific and Asian cultures—all the interesting things no one else wanted to teach. How lucky was I? I also offered public courses of dance interest through the Centre for Continuing Education of Victoria University of Wellington, so there was some creative accounting as Anne agreed to let the School premises be used in exchange for free places for students. Win-Win. I was also entrusted to build up the School’s library from fairly meagre holdings, so it was surely a stroke of luck that Smith’s Bookshop, the town’s very best second-hand bookshop, run by Dick Reynolds, was in an adjacent building, so I could each week sniff out dance and related arts books for bargain prices. One day, to my astonishment I found David Garnett’s Lady into Fox, a short story that had been famously adapted, by Andrée Howard, into a choreography by the same name, and the one ballet I most wished I could have seen. I consider myself quite old, but not quite old enough to have caught it when Ballet Rambert toured here in 1949. You could search the shelves of bookshops worldwide and not find Garnett’s stories, so this was a glint of gold. I recall cancelling that day’s planned class and telling the students all about Lady into Fox instead. 

How poignant it was some years later at a matinee of the School’s graduation, with the front rows of the stalls at the Opera House filled with audience from an old folks’ home (another of Anne’s initiatives), to sight Dick Reynolds propped up in a wheel chair, nodding and faintly clapping along as the students rollicked through The Lancers’ Quadrille, but I believe he was wiping away tears when Chopin’s music for the Prelude from  Les Sylphides began.

Another standout memory was a visit from the iconoclast dance-maker Mary Fulkerson from Dartington, an important centre for the arts in Devon. Mary brought her eight hour long performance saga, titled Don’t Tell the Prime Minister I’m coming. The first instalments were performed across two evenings in the Blue Room at the National Art Gallery, when director Luit Beiringa opened those doors for us, but the third and fourth evenings were across a weekend, posing a problem of access to the NAG. There was no budget. (How ever did we do these things on zero budgets? Well, we just did. You could say they were free because they were priceless, which is of course the opposite of worthless). Anne with typical generosity handed over the school keys for the weekend. That gesture remains as memorable as the dance itself, which ended with Fulkerson tossing each of the eight dresses she had worn through the evenings high up into the air, all the while still dancing, singing, and smiling. But wait, only seven dresses ever came back down to earth. The eighth one caught on a high ceiling beam and dislodged a decade’s worth of dust, glinting in the light as it sent a shaft of golden stars down onto our heads. That was 1983 but I can see that glinting still. And no, we didn’t tell the Prime Minister Mary was coming since Muldoon wouldn’t have known what to do with the information, though nowadays you could tell PM. Jacinda Adern, since she is also Minister for the Arts.

The School moved to new premises in Cable St., the entrance to which sat between adjacent doorways—one to Cash Convertors, the other to Abundant Life Spiritual Centre, daily reminders of the spectrum of possibilities in life as well as art. We tried to ignore the nine months of deafening pile-driving as Te Papa construction across the road got under way, and just got on with our work.

Patricia Rianne, one of New Zealand’s most celebrated expatriate dancers, had returned home and become Head of Classical Studies at the School, a most valued teacher and mentor to the students. Her Summer’s Day, to music by Jenny McLeod, and Bliss, inspired by Katherine Mansfield’s story, were staged by RNZB and the graduates dancing there found joy in performing them.

George Dorris and Jack Anderson, leading New York dance writers, walked in the door one day as I was teaching Baroque dance. I squealed in delight to recognise them, introduced them to Anne, we both scolded them for not warning us they were coming, so they returned a year later and gave a wonderful seminar which we also opened to the public. We surveyed the many titles of the fabled Dance Perspectives, a series of periodicals edited by our mutual colleague, Selma Jeanne Cohen. No other dance journal can hold a candle to this series so I was emboldened to beg our National Library to lend us their complete run from the Stacks. No-one had ever borrowed them because no-one knew they were there. They do now. What a weekend we were treated to. I can’t remember if we thanked Anne, but she will have known that the real rewards survive in the minds and memories of those who attended. The threads that weave, and the ties that bind.

Ann  Hutchinson, leading authority in dance notation, visited and gave a workshop in which she mounted from her score Nijinsky’s l’Apres Midi d’un Faune, to music by Debussy. Nijinsky was the true pioneer of modern choreography, as well as a legendary dancer. Sad that he is remembered more for his schizophrenia than his art, but such is the ephemeral nature of dance. The cast of Faune calls for seven dancers, one male and six females. As luck would have it, just 14 students turned up, two males and 12 females, so Ann set about teaching the work to two casts and the whole piece was completed by the end of the afternoon, which you would have to rate a small miracle. The mercurial Warren Douglas was there that day and danced the Faune, as well as many roles at RNZB in following years. Years later but still young, he died tragically, of complications from Aids. It was so sad and so wrong to have to write his obituary. We must never forget the dancers whose lives that cursed illness snatched away. Warren might well have become a brilliant director of RNZB, and would have changed the world.

The most treasured heritage for me throughout my 20 years teaching at the School  was undoubtedly the repertoire of choreographies by Doris Humphrey and José Limon, pioneers of the best of American modern dance, taught and staged by Louis Solino who had been a member of their company in  New York for years. It was another of Anne’s courageous moves to appoint Louis to the staff, since there might have been resistance to the distinctive technique and repertoire, but he was an unusual and quiet genius and in fact over the years turned up gold in a repertoire we’d have been lucky to catch in any world capital … Air for the G String,  Day on Earth, The Shakers, Two Ecstatic Themes, There is a Time, La Malinche, The Unsung, Dances for Isadora, Choreographic Offering, The Moor’s Pavane in seminar. Later the mighty Bach Chaconne was performed by Louis’ partner, the multi-talented Paul Jenden. Paul has since died and a broken-hearted Louis returned to the States, but make no mistake, anyone who ever danced in, or saw rehearsals and performances of those Limon and Humphrey masterworks will never have forgotten them. Next month’s story might tell the detail of how that came about.

Everyone present at Christine’s celebration will have had memories like these, all the same, all different. The following weekend, large numbers of us gathered at parties in  Paekakariki to help Sir Jon Trimmer celebrate his 80th birthday, and his 60 years of performing with RNZB. Jon’s sister, Coral, came from Melbourne with her harmonica in her pocket and played jazz numbers from the 1920s like a shimmering hummingbird, cavorting and gliding about, giving total lie to her 89 years. We knew this was her instrument but hadn’t heard her play. Now we have. That will have to be the next next month’s story.

Between those two gatherings, our daughter gave birth to her firstborn, a baby girl. I’ll let her grow a while and then maybe I’ll make for next next next month, a story about the dance-like movements of a wee, serious, busy, tiny one as she explores the world around her, learning to latch on and to change sides, to yawn and to hiccup, to sneeze and to gurgle, to make frog’s leg kicks that Jeremy Fisher might envy, and, when her arms are unswaddled, to conduct and wave at symphony orchestras. The baby as dancer—I’m up to review that.

It was Eugene O’Neill who said, ‘‘There is no present or future—only the past, happening over and over again—now.’  I like that, so think I will help myself to his words.

Jennifer Shennan, 30 September 2019

Featured image: Christine Gunn cutting her anniversary cake. New Zealand School of Dance

One thought on “The golden ties that bind

  1. What a fabulous article! I was so sorry to miss it but just couldn’t make it! I’m sure was a wonderful day and Christine hugs from me and see you soon, Martin.

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