NZSD Choreographic Season 2019. NZSD dancers in 'Huddle'. Photo: © Stephen A'Court

Orbiculus. New Zealand School of Dance Choreographic Season

22–28 May 2019, Te Whaea, Wellington
reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

Thirteen short works comprise this program of new choreography by graduating contemporary dance students at NZSD, directed by Victoria Columbus. In past years, such a performance, while always spirited, has proved challenging to review since each piece, albeit of different style and tenor, with many contrasting music sources and costume changes throughout, has seemed disconnected from what followed, yet hard to separate out in the dark. 

This year a most welcome coherence, with light and shade alternating, emerges within the sequence of dances. The same costumes, soft neutral greens, greys, creams and browns, are worn throughout and this helps enormously with focus and cohesion, both for dancers and for audience. A thematic momentum with echoes and resonances from one piece to another builds towards real theatre. Across an 80-minute unbroken run-time of new work, that’s nothing short of remarkable. 

The opener, Huddle, (by Vourneen Canning), takes place in the foyer. Twelve dancers are drawn slowly into a circle that surrounds a central figure, soon replaced, as momentum builds within a calm centrifugal timeless strength. This natural grace gives way to robotic staccato movement as the second piece, 0110100001100001 (by Alec Katsourakis) orders us by beckoning gestures to follow the dancers into the theatre. Two worlds in stark contrast, one green, one bionic, yet we all live in both.  

As we enter the auditorium, bright lime green spotlights are dotted here and there, some shining into our eyes, not sure why, unless it’s to emphasise an atmosphere of alienation. Now seated, in the half round, we watch in comfort the 11 dances that are loosely stitched together by the performers’ subtle entrances and exits from the aisles threading between our seats. That suggests we’re all in this together.  

Silence s’il vous plaît (by Chase Clegg-Robinson) has a sculptural quality and an air of prayer, even lament, from its choral accompaniment. Micro Muse (by Neve Pierce), Hana (by Olivia Castagna), In a Moment of Reckless Freedom (by Alessia Augello), Adrift (by Rachel Trent), Plato’s Atlantis (by Bjorn Aslund), Charged (by Cheyanne Teka), Manuka (by Franky Drousioti), La Luna (by Jasmine Susic), Papa (by Arohanui Watene), The Kids are Alright (by Nadiyah Akbar) share similar features of a large number as chorus, with occasional solo, couple or small group moments, yet each has its singularity. 

(left) Courtney Mae Lim in Papa; (right) Nadiyah Akbar and Amit Noy in Plato’s Atlantis. Photos © Stephen A’Court

There’s irony in the song Mr. Sandman, bring me a dream.  We are surprised by an exquisite duet, one man one woman, dancing love with each other. It lies at the kernel of the suite of dances. There’s a welcome explosion of joy and fun as E Papa Waiare is sung and danced and smiled.

Dancers are not pedestrians, they’re high flyers. But amid the movement vocabulary these days there’s less jumping, leaping, soaring—the things that dance does so well— the airborne stuff. There’s more gesturing, more sculpture, walking, running, falling, rolling, standing—the groundborne stuff. In each case of course, motivation is what matters.

The printed program notes are amorphous at best, incomprehensible at worst. (Why is this such a lost art? There are models to study, some to emulate, some to eschew. Douglas Wright probably produced the best program copy I’ve encountered—pithy, poetic, themed; locally, Lucy Marinkovich and Sasha Copland know how to write about what they’ve choreographed; then there’s Cloudgate, and Hamburg Ballet, and the weekly listings of events in The New Yorker that capture mercurial dance in wondrously lucid precis. Words about dance matter because, memories aside, they are what remains after curtain-fall).

Whenever I see a sign on the box office counter ‘This show contains strobe’ I ask why, then ready myself to close my eyes whenever it begins. (It always reminds me of the roadside sign ‘Beware Falling Rocks’. Not a lot you can do about that either).

Overall though the lighting was effective and atmospheric.

But the dancing itself, which is primarily what we’re here for, is beautifully modulated and impeccably performed. All these performers can expect to find professional careers and good work somewhere. One is an absolute knockout and would score a job tomorrow in many a company worldwide.

The program’s themes and mood seemed to share something of the concern we are hearing from young protesters, local and world-wide, begging for governments to take urgency over environment and climate-related issues, to examine the quality of life, to think and to listen. I felt echoes of what David Attenborough, and our foremost climate scientist, James Renwick, are speaking. Following their lead, youngsters are saying to oldsters ‘If you won’t behave as adults, we will’.  All power to them, and to these dancers.

There’s a nationwide Teacher Strike planned for next Wednesday, the day after this season ends. That will flood the streets with school students who would thrill to see this program, as many will share its concerns. Challenge to NZSD to add two extra matinee performances on that day. There are ways to spread the word, and the auditorium would overflow. You could invite those students to then write about what they saw.

I am well aware that the young dance-makers may not have consciously intended any of the themes I found arising from their work. That’s the good thing about a dance performance. We make of it what we will. Lucky us.

Jennifer Shennan, 23 May 2019

Featured image: NZSD Choreographic Season 2019. NZSD dancers in Huddle. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

NZSD Choreographic Season 2019. NZSD dancers in 'Huddle'. Photo: © Stephen A'Court
Scene from 'Sigan', New Zealand Dance Company, 2019. Photo: © John McDermott

Kiss the sky. New Zealand Dance Company

1 May 2019. Opera House, Wellington
Reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

New Zealand Dance Company’s Kiss the Sky is a highly energised and energising program of three works that appealed to an enthusiastic audience. Production values are always strong with this company, and the six dancers are all smart, sharp, sophisticated and cleanly co-ordinated movers who share singular commitment. While the three separate works have visual and aesthetic contrasts, each uses a similar casting, shape of choreographic structure, percussive accompaniment, and movement vocabulary that, taken together, also resonate as a triptych. 

The opening work, Sigan, by Korean choreographer, KIM Jae Duk, has a cast of four dancers—Chrissy Kokiri, Katie Rudd, Carl Tolentino and Xin Ji. The contrasting qualities of thrust and parry, speed and stillness, light and shade of several Asian martial arts are evoked. When all four dancers are moving together, even if in canon, we have the fascinating chance to see individual differences within ‘sameness’. It is Xin Ji’s combination of strength and softness, not sequentially but simultaneously in different parts of his body, a felt not a taught quality, that always steals my eye.

The Fibonacci, by Victoria Columbus, is a premiere work dedicated to the memory of Sue Paterson, who was New Zealand’s leading dance and arts manager for decades, and is still and always will be deeply missed by many. This choreography, based on patterns in the Fibonacci series of numbers, would have thrilled Sue by the translation of mathematics to the stage. It starts with a contemplative illumination but soon becomes a river of intriguing movement. Lighting ideas (Jo Kilgour) and costume design (Elizabeth Whiting) are intrinsic to the work and contribute beautifully to the choreographic vision.

The Fibonacci New Zealand Dance Company, 2019. Photo © Claire Gordon

Stephanie Lake, whose own dance company is based in Melbourne, was invited to set If Never was Now on NZDC. It is a high-octane work with a similar mix of solo, duo and group dances in some eye-catching episodes. ‘Snow’ falls, scatters and is scattered across the stage, adding to the enigma within the choreography.


Scene from If never was now, New Zealand Dance Company, 2019. Photo: © John McDermott

In a contemporary dance program such as this, there is by choreographers’ choice no directly delivered reference to human experience or emotion, no conflict or drama to resolve, no consolation in lyricism, no primacy given to story, no levity in comedy (other than a brief duet of frenzied flirtation between two unidentified insect-like animals in the final work). Instead we see individuals’ staccato head movements, isolated gestures of limbs detached from lines or follow-through into the torso, a minimum of elevation, relatively little physical contact between dancers, an indirect relationship with the audience, a parallel rather than juxtaposed music accompaniment. All of this combines to suggest a grounded timelessness rather than the specifics of individual lives here and now. There is much high speed and there is sculptured stillness, but little of measured adagio in between. This creates effective references to a mix of robotic and mechanical moves in contrast with people’s states of being. It invites us to view our human condition and experiences against that perspective. Sequences of abstract movement vocabulary, danced at sometimes breathtaking speed, provide mesmerising visuals that we can take at face value of the physics and mathematics of life, or as metaphor if we choose.

Jennifer Shennan, 2 May 2019

Featured image: Scene from Sigan, New Zealand Dance Company, 2019. Photo: © John McDermott

Scene from 'Sigan', New Zealand Dance Company, 2019. Photo: © John McDermott

A gamelan concert

22 March 2019. Victoria University of Wellington
Reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

A gamelan concert at The Hub, the central arena of Victoria University campus, had long been planned for the evening of Friday 22 March. A combination of two gamelan—Javanese, Gamelan Padhang Moncar, and the Balinese, Gamelan Taniwha Jaya, would play. A dance troupe from Surabaya in Java would join as special guests to the program, and the local Indonesian community choir would also participate. Late in the planning, funding to bring the full dance troupe from Indonesia was not forthcoming so the leader, Sri Mulyani, director of Mulyo Joyo group, travelled to perform as a solo dancer.

One week to the day before the concert, all hell broke loose in New Zealand. Fifty Muslims attending Friday prayers at two mosques in Christchurch were killed by a rabid white supremacist, 50 more were injured. The country came to its knees and the world looked on in disbelief. Jacinda Ardern has been widely praised and thanked for her instinctive and tireless leadership in stepping up to lift the nation out of the mire. Sadly that’s going to be a slow process as we are still stunned by the surreality of it all.  Tens of thousands of New Zealanders have been searching for ways to say how saddened we are.

Many speeches have been delivered, opinion pieces written, uncountable numbers of flowers and messages placed in tribute, human chains formed around mosques, beacons lit and songs sung, haka performed, messages chalked onto footpaths and walls and windows the length and breadth of the country. Black Power and Mongrel Mob gang members have stepped forward and spoken their thoughts to unify the thinking of hitherto disparate groups. Their public and spontaneous haka, and their offers to stand guard outside a mosque while Muslims pray inside, are not expressions I had expected to see or hear. I feel changed by them.

Should Friday’s concert proceed? Yes it should. Gamelan has a 45 year presence at VUW and will not be easily silenced. More than ever before it seems that listening to and looking at and learning about ‘other’ music and dance is one pathway to understand and appreciate ‘other’ cultures. But what is this ‘other’? The gamelan over these decades is self-evidently a mix of Indonesian, other Asian, Pakeha, Maori and Pasifika players. 

New Zealand does not, as many countries do, require proof of percentages and proportions in its official count of ethnicities, but instead invites citizens to register their ethnicity of choice, and apparently we have 200 of those. Intermarriage doesn’t weaken anybody, it strengthens bodies. We are different, we are the same, we are many, we are one might sound like a mantra but it does cover the realities, or at least the possibilities, or it should. (mantra: originally in Hinduism and Buddhisma word or sound repeated to aid concentration in meditation). It’s the balance, the mix, the layering of what is distinctive about us and what is the same, what can be shared and what can be exchanged, that we could source. We might start with the facts: gravity exists and, mostly speaking, the human body locomotes on two legs, in the vertical. That much is universal.

How we dance, and how we appreciate a dance, is part of who we are. There is work to be done. Dedication to high and lively standards in music and dance is one path to walk. Interpretation and commentary in program notes from performer to audience are welcome challenges, and these were well met on Friday. (No one questions a Chinese professor playing a fabulously furious piano concerto by English composer Benjamin Britten, or the tender breathing of German composer Robert Schumann’s Kinderscenen. OK those composers are European, but the pianist is Chinese, remember. Just let it be good).

No one questions who should play gamelan. How it’s played is the measure, just let it be good. Sharp and on the beat, or upbeat or offbeat, quiet or strident, let the cues be clean, the timing tight and the rhythms secure. Let its ornaments escape and float above the keys of a gatra.

To an audience possibly double the size that might have been originally expected, the program opened with a Muslim greeting followed by a minute’s silence in memoriam. Introductions by Dr Megan Collins, manager of the gamelan, and Professor Sally Jane Norman, Director of NZ School Music, Te Koki, set a dignified yet welcoming tone. The Indonesian Ambassador was absent, attending the 7th day memorial gathering in Christchurch (one of those killed and several of those injured were Indonesians) so the Embassy’s cultural attaché spoke in his place.

The Javanese gamelan’s name, Padhang Moncar, can be interpreted in several ways. Padhang is brightness or daylight. Moncar means growing or developing vigorously. Padhang Moncar can refer to the sunrise (the growing light), and the fact that in Aotearoa we are the first gamelan in the world to see the new day. The Balinese gamelan’s name combines the Maori word Taniwha, a mythical water monster, with the Balinese word Jaya, meaning glorious or victorious, to symbolise the mix of New Zealand and Balinese cultures. Both names seemed freshly relevant on Friday evening.

The opening item was a ritual-like dance in which Sri Mulyani carried a large flickering lamp on her head and danced it onto the floor—’to rid the performance space of evil’. Budi Putra, director of Padhang Moncar, who had lost a close friend in the Christchurch attack, had arranged the item to the poem Tembang Macapat Sinom Gedong Kuning, in the particularly striking poetic form of macapat.

A gamelan colleague in Dunedin, Dr Joko Susilo, a 7th generation traditional dhalang/puppeteer from Java, has made a doctoral study of the song poetry macapat, used as a form of exorcism. ‘Martial art’ is too amorphous a term to catch the qualities of strength, clarity and authority in the dancer’s arm gestures and facial expressions that are employed to command and cleanse a space of illness, evil and wrong.

A Balinese gamelan item followed, with the theme referencing the handsome King Arsa Wijaya. It was masterfully led by Rupert Snook as the distinctive sounds of this glistening ensemble were released to fly around in the open acoustic. The intricate rhythmic patterns and connections seemed galvanising. Items from the Indonesian Chorus included themes of the sound of the flute, and other relaxation pleasures, in several songs and dances.

Mulyani’s dance is a Surabaya style fused with the hallmark angularities of Balinese—and elbow, knee and ankle alignments, and mercurial movements of head and neck, hands and fingers, darting eye glances and spontaneous changes of direction—measures to ward off the evil spirits that travel in straight lines. A further item was in striking contrast to her opening macapat, a shimmering affair this, with the solo dancer simultaneously depicting a pair of courting Birds of Paradise. Now that takes skill and we should pay attention to how a dancer can depict two creatures at once, and birds at that.

Dancer Sri Mulyani. Photo: © Jacques Sirot

[Many forms of  indigenous dance traditions absorb a people’s long-standing observation of native birds and the detail of their appearance, their nesting and courting behaviour into stylised choreography. Mythological reference to birds, their song-making and ability to fly to distant realms are found in many performance contexts. Most notably in Melanesia the fabled Birds of Paradise are absorbed into ritual and choreographed display as a people locate themselves within the flora and fauna of their surroundings.

Birds of Paradise, after their deaths, had their legs and sometimes wings removed, in mythological re-definition of them as birds that had not needed to land on Earth, nor needed flapping wings to fly, but were simply able to glide and swoop on draughts of air, while visiting their homes in Paradise then returning to the skies above Earth. Their feathers worn in dancers’ body decoration connected humans with the avian and celestial realms.

Banabans dance as the frigate bird flies. Their connection to their former Central Pacific homeland, long destroyed by mining for phosphate, is evoked through talisman dance forms that incorporate frigate feathers into their costume and ornaments. That’s about as close to home as Banabans are able to reach. 

Margaret Orbell in her beautiful book, Birds of Aotearoa, documents how Maori incorporated birds into their lives and lore. It’s a book for every library in the country. Her evocations of the ancient Dawn Chorus include description of the little piopio, now extinct, that used to continue singing solo for one hour after all the other birds had ceased. We might have a birdsong broadcast each morning on Radio New Zealand but for a minute not an hour, and never the piopio].

Swathes of silk attached to the dancer’s fans are thrust and tossed, reminders of other incorporation of textiles into Asian— Chinese silk sleeves, ribbons and banners, of Indian and Japanese elaborate costumes. These are not just arbitrary dress-ups, but are images and characters from stories, and we will always need stories if we are to make sense of our lives and ourselves.

A Javanese gamelan item then referenced a character from the Mahabharata, the evil King Rahwana a multi-headed demon-king who wrought wholesale carnage. A resonant theme indeed this evening, but it also evoked for me the monstrous Puputan events in Bali, 1906 and 1908, when armed Dutch invaders headed into the crowds of Balinese priests and performers who had donned ceremonial garb and processed their way into mass suicide, over 1000 of them it is said, since they had no other weapons to use. It’s not a good story but it’s not an ancient one, dramatised into epic literature either. It’s only just over a century old. The themes of The Mahabharata involving huge and violent clashes and ongoing battles between forces of Good and of Evil, were never more apparent than at this concert.

A few days ago we were hearing, amid anguished tears from those who were there, reports of the river of blood that flowed out the doors and down the steps in front of the Christchurch mosques. Police, ambulance staff and medical colleagues had to work to identify 50 bodies within that scene of carnage, a challenge that required five days and nights of dedication to unimaginable tasks. After that the mosques had to be cleaned in readiness for the return to prayer.

Themacapat in Wellington will have helped spiritually albeit from a distance. King Rawhana stepped from the pages of The Mahabharata, came to Christchurch uninvited and wrought unspeakable carnage. He has since been banished by the stronger forces of courage, compassion and care, by police, emergency staff, medical personnel, leaders and citizens, media, and by musicians and dancers.

If this review reads as ‘over the top’, that is precisely as intended.

Jennifer Shennan, 23 March 2019

Featured image: Gamelan Wellington with dancer Sri Mulyani and community choir. Photo: © Jacques Sirot

©

This week in New Zealand

There’s only one dance to report on from New Zealand this week—the haka taparahi, performed in the road in Christchurch, to leaders and members of the Muslim community, by members of Black Power, the bikers gang who do not ordinarily appear in public to demonstrate emotion in a dance. But these are not ordinary times.

A haka like that is done to challenge some force in opposition, to threaten and to conquer it, to annihilate it. Pukana! In this case the force was the hate-filled act of massacre and attack on hundreds of Muslims at prayer by a white supremacist among us, killing 50 of them, and wounding as many more. At the same time the haka exhorts people to kia kaha, to be strong, against whatever tide is threatening to overwhelm them. Pukana!

The country is devastated, struck down in grief and disbelief. In truth we are struggling with how to choreograph expression of that. To date there are millions of flowers lying silently against the walls of mosques, in parks and gardens, on street corners, on beaches countrywide. Candles are burning along human chains of witnesses, and from the windows of shops and houses.

We are undone, but we will be back. This Friday, Gamelan Padhang Moncar of Indonesian heritage will play at Victoria University to accompany visiting dancers from Bali. The gamelan will be led by Budi Putra, whose good friend was gunned down at the mosque last Friday. This performance will echo that haka, and we will not be undone.

(TVNZ website carries footage of the haka by Black Power on Sunday 17 March)

Jennifer Shennan, Tuesday 19 March 20

Hannah Tasker-Poland and Emmanuel Reynaud in 'Thursday'. Borderline Arts Ensemble, 2019. Photo: © Philip Merry

Thursday. Borderline Arts Ensemble

3 March 2019. Wellington Railway Station Foyer

Choreography: Lucy Marinkovich/Borderline Arts Ensemble 
Performers: Hannah Tasker-Poland and Emmanuel Reynaud
Music: Sergei Rachmaninoff, Piano Concerto No.2 (Adagio)

after 1945 David Lean /Noel Coward film classic, Brief Encounter. 

Reviewed by Jennifer Shennan.

You’ve reached the Wellington Railway Station. In 15 mins your train is due to leave for Waikanae, so there’s time, no great hurry. It’s a fine day, just a bit draughty across the foyer, probably as well to keep your coat on. You stroll around a little and admire the warm pinkish-brown of carrara marble walls, the high vaulted ceiling panels painted in bright lightness. It’s all quite beautiful, must be the finest railway station in the world. The speakers are piping familiar Rachmaninoff, which is somehow comforting in such a transitory space.

Damn, something is caught in your eye and it stings, A man passing tries to help you. Whoa! Who is this? All the longing you’ve always kept inside but never voiced out loud, your secret that you could love someone till the end of time, even if there is no such actual person, or, if there is, you’ll never meet, it’s just a longing that you’ve always lived—perhaps others have it too?—but how would you know because this is not anything you can talk about. That would be unlucky and you might be overheard by strangers. There is no such person, too true to be real, too beautiful to last, to have a name, and she may not even notice you, and you’d risk losing her when you’d only just met. No, he’s just a kind man passing by, trying to help you sort your eye problem. Or let’s say it is just the thing called hope, the thing with feathers, that you nurture in the breast while reading Emily Dickinson’s poems on train journeys.

It’s not that you’re at all the type to fall carelessly and deeply in love with a stranger in a public place—for example, the man sitting in the third row of the No.14 bus that time you went to town … that was a breath-holding ride, you thought you could be together forever … but he knew nothing about you, did not even notice you, so the affair was safely over by the time you alighted at the third-section bus-stop. There was no dance, it was all in your mind, your soft head. So how come this day is different? This man does notice you, more than that—he pauses, he stops, he turns, he offers to help, he wants to meet you, he feels the same as you do. This is a film script, surely? You’re actually in this film, yet you never auditioned, and there was never any rehearsal. Who’s the choreographer here? Swan Lake is the story of a man and a woman who meet, they dance and love, but she is due to fly out that evening and he will lose her forever. This is different, it’s just a train station, remember.

Hannah Tasker-Poland and Emmanuel Reynaud in Lucy
Marinkovich’s Thursday. Borderline Arts Ensemble, 2019. Photo: © Philip Merry

A number of other travellers  stop to watch the couple—and are fixed by the beautiful figures-of-eight they see traced, like infinity signs lying sideways. Small fires flicker inside those who are watching too. No one is voicing a commentary, there are no subtitles, no flyers to hand out, no powerpoint. The dance is the point of power. This is not pornography, it’s not erotic (though nearly it is…), it’s just a 13 minute love dance on the marble floor of a railway station, by a man and a woman who keep their coats on while they fall into the depths of each other’s eyes and drown there, just managing to save each other by doing beautiful things, whatever their bodies will allow— like waves and billows, like leaning and longings, with arms, and hands, with legs, feet, faces, eyes, the backs of their heads too—they don’t always need to be watching to know what the other is doing, they can just tell. He knows they will never have to argue or disagree, they will love and hold and be held forever. This is better than all the lyrics of all the love songs on all the shelves of all the music shops of the world. These are minutes of assurance that you can love someone you don’t even know by name, and still catch your train. But, hold the Rachmaninoff … the voice-over announces that the Waikanae train will be leaving in two minutes time. You both pause, you raise hands in the gesture of a farewell wave—oh no—but yes—but no, let it go without you. You walk back towards each other, hold still, hold tight. She has let the train go without her.

All the dance moves up till this point were just rehearsal, so now it’s time to do them all again, only more fully, and slower, deeper to lunge, higher to lift, wider to arc, stronger to clasp. The watching travellers are all choosing to miss their trains too. They can’t walk away from lovemaking. At the start there was a posterboard on the edge of the space that read ‘New World, special coffee & muffin offer free. Today only’ but the message has been changed while no-one was looking and now reads ‘Innocence is contagious, if you like’ which everyone knows is true, and better value than coffee and a muffin, even when that’s free.

They continue dancing and it is the loveliest thing you ever saw in a Railway Station. Then the voice-over for the next train to Waikanae, and oh, she must leave now, and so she does. He turns and walks to the street, it’s his eyes that are stinging now, holding the memory of all that just happened. Probably. Today only. In 13 minutes. And will last forever. Surely.

————-

Lucy and partner/colleague, Lucien Johnson, will take up the year-long Harriet Friedlander Residency in New York. May they keep their coats on. while at the subway station.

Jennifer Shennan, 3 March 2019

Featured image: Hannah Tasker-Poland and Emmanuel Reynaud in Lucy
Marinkovich’s Thursday. Borderline Arts Ensemble, 2019. Photo: © Philip Merry

Hannah Tasker-Poland and Emmanuel Reynaud in 'Thursday'. Borderline Arts Ensemble, 2019. Photo: Philip Merry

Royal New Zealand Ballet Choreographic Series

1-2 March 2019, Opera House Wellington

Reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

This program to open 2019 has four new and contrasting works that will appeal to audiences in different ways. The dancers, as always, give their all, but the production needs to settle down yet, and the lighting effects be reduced by perhaps 50%, if it is to source the power of theatre.

Hine the first work, by Moss Paterson, opens with a strongly rendered haka fronted by males, but the following sequence for females, with the unexpected choices of pointe shoes and scantily clad dancers, is a challenge to reconcile with the evocation of a whare whakairo. The first woman in Maori mythology, Hine ahu one, has been a number of times choreographed—(I think of Louise Potiki Bryant, of Kelly Nash, and of Merenia Gray’s works, and believe they could all be considered for future possible restagings). I found the back projections for this Hine often distracting, and the aural overload a challenge. I am no fan of strobe light in the theatre at the best of times, believing it belongs to the rock concert stage or the disco bar, and often weakens the development of form in a choreography. So Hine was for me, with its various quotes from other dances we have seen recently, a work in progress.

Y(It is decades since this company performed it, but no-one forgets how Gray Veredon harnessed the ihi, wehi and wana of haka into his classic cameo work, Tell Me A Tale. Anyone wishing to choreograph Te Ao Maori onto a ballet stage needs to study that work, and Veredon, a pioneering member of this Company, would be willing to help—right now though he is impressively occupied with staging a new full-length commission at Polish National Ballet. One could also consider bringing back to their home company some of our other ex-pat choreographers and teachers who have made strong careers abroad—Cameron McMillan, Mark Baldwin, Andrew Simmons, Martin James and Patricia Rianne come to mind).

The second work is by James O’Hara, The Sky Is Not So Different From Us, Perhaps… with musician Anita Clark on stage. The work has a layered movement texture I found cumulatively mesmerising. Ceaseless pulses and undulations hint at the physics inside a human body—the rhythms of breathing and of blood circulating, as measures of life, except for one sad Pierrot figure standing in catatonic contrast until the violin vibrations thaw her out. The ever-repeating tape-loop of violin and vocals adds to the work’s atmosphere and mystery. Multi-layered costumes echo the choreographic theme, though for some of them, less would be more (and why a very tall man would wear a constricting mid-calf pink skirt I found impossible to fathom). The best of this work is very good indeed.

(left) Mayu Tanigaito in The ground beneath our feet; (right) Abigail Boyle in Artemis rising, Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2019. All photos: © Stephen A’Court

Shaun James Kelly’s work, The Ground Beneath our Feet, is a winner. He summons the airborne energy and élan we have always welcomed from the dancers in our Company, whatever the chosen choreographic style or aesthetic. I personally prefer to hear Bach in the scores as left to us, so the doctored treatment of the Violin Concerto, while you can do it, did not seem to me to add anything new. A galvanising pleasure though to see the commitment between partners within each dancing couple. The total frisson of the evening for me was Mayu Tanigaito. The prodigious technique of this dancer allows her to transform to a hummingbird, a diving swallow, a fairy tern. That she can do it all and more, and flash a smile the while, puts her in a class of her own. (Many of us have long wished that the superb full-length work Madame Butterfly, by Australian choreographer Stanton Welch, and stunning design by Peter Farmer, could be re-staged from our Company’s strong and richly defined repertoire, and the title role offered to this dancer as a vehicle for her talent).

This season marks the retirement, after 13 stalwart years dancing, of Abigail Boyle, a much loved and highly versatile performer with classical, dramatic and comic abilities in spades. The work Artemis Rising, choreographed for her by Sarah Foster-Sproull, was effectively a solo, with other dancers as a shadow chorus. It leaves some striking images for us to savour, and acts as tribute to Abigail’s performing, and a blessing on her future career transition (she plans to develop a teaching and coaching career).

The purest combination of technique, phrasing and line was to be seen whenever watching Abigail in class in the studio—an experience I will treasure to the end of my days. Many know and love this dancer, and wish her the very best for the coming years. (Readers may care to read the fine interview with Bess Manson published in The Dominion Post, 2 March 2019, and available online at www.stuff.co.nz—Dancer Abigail Boyle, Breaking through the fourth wall).She has been given a spirited and fitting farewell.

A recent Company newsletter advised that they are also currently considering how to honour the significant contribution to ballet and theatre in New Zealand of Sir Jon Trimmer who gave his retirement performance late last year. If that turns out to be an 80th Birthday Benefit Gala in September, say, one can imagine the Opera House dome needing to be opened to let out the tsunami of excitement and gratitude that New Zealanders would want to show him by way of salute and thanks for the legendary 60+ years career with this Company. Kia ora rawa atu, he totara nui o te ao kanikani o Aotearoa. I nga ra o mua, i nga ra inaianeihe wiri mo he takahia taonga enei. Tena koe, e hoa.

Jennifer Shennan, 2 March 2019

Featured image:Caroline Wiley in The sky is not so different from us … perhaps. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2019. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

 Leeshma Srirankanathan during her arangetram, Wellington 2018. Image supplied (no photographer named)

2018—New Zealand Dance Year in Retrospect

by Jennifer Shennan

As New Year approaches I like to think back over Old Year and, without consulting notes, check what dance highlights remember themselves.

During 2018 we have lost four treasured and hugely important people from our dance / arts community.

Nigel Boyes, dearest friend and colleague to so many dancers, particularly members of Royal New Zealand Ballet where he was office manager and archivist for many years, and was also a member of prominent Wellington choirs, died in July. (His obituary is on this website).

Sue Paterson, legendary force in the arts, held a sequence of important positions in dance management over decades—at Limbs Dance Company, at Creative New Zealand, at RNZB, as director of the International Arts Festival—and was a generous member of many governing boards. (Her obituary is online at stuff.co.nz).

June Greenhalgh, wife of Russell Kerr who was a stalwart pillar of ballet history in New Zealand, was a foundation member of England’s Festival Ballet. She performed here in the 1959 – 60 season of New Zealand Ballet, but her abiding contribution was as the lifetime companion to Russell. (Her obituary is on this website).

Douglas Wright, giant of New Zealand dance makers, hugely prolific choreographer and indelibly memorable dancer, was rehearsing his last choreography, M-Nod, from the hospice. He was an artist without peer in this country—working also in literature and in visual arts. (A review of M_Nod, and an obituary, are on this website).

To all four of these dear friends and colleagues – Valete. Requiescant in pace,

Haere, haere atu.

———-

In February we were delighted by the spirited response to the inaugural session in the series of the Russell Kerr Lecture in Ballet & Related Arts, held at Victoria University. The lecture, on Kristian Fredrikson’s life and work in theatre design, was delivered by Dr. Michelle Potter who has since continued work on her biography of Kristian which is now heading towards publication. The occasion also included the performance of Loughlan Prior’s choreography, Lark, with Jon Trimmer and William Fitzgerald in the cast, and Hamish Robb accompanying on piano.

A trip to Auckland’s Arts Festival was warranted to see Akram Khan’s dramatic and atmospheric production Giselle performed by English National Ballet. Tamara Rojo, the young artistic director and manager of this company, is clearly a leader of intelligent and visionary force. It’s always edifying to check the New Zealand involvement in the history of any dance company and there are several prominent soloist careers to note of New Zealand dancers who performed with English National Ballet, formerly Festival Ballet—Russell Kerr, Anne Rowse, Loma Rogers, Donald McAlpine, Martin James, Adrienne Matheson, Cameron McMillan among them.

In Wellington’s International Arts Festival, the hugely memorable Loch na hEala/Swan Lake by Michael Keegan-Dolan (of Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre fame) had the stellar Alex Leonhartsberger in the lead male role. Alex has previously danced in Douglas Wright productions and it was a renewed thrill to see him in this season. Keegan-Dolan’s work has interested me intensely for some years and I rate him, with Lin Hwai Min and Douglas Wright, as the three choreographers who have kept my world turning for decades. An intriguing new project, under the auspices of this Festival, will next year have Keegan-Dolan in residence here, developing a new work and offering a public involvement for those interested to trace that process.

Betroffenheit, by luminary Canadian choreographer Crystal Pite, in collaboration with Jonathan Young, was another highlight of this Festival season. Its theme explored the reactions and after-effects of an unspecified catastrophic event, and suited well the mood of disastrous developments we see in current world affairs, as well as referencing tragedy at a personal level. It proved a remarkable and mature work of theatre.

Closer to home we saw the remarkable season of Meremere by Rodney Bell. This has rightly proved an award winning choreography and performance, produced under the auspices of Malia Johnston’s MOTH (Movement of the Human). Rodney lives and works in a wheelchair, but his mana and charisma in both his life and his dance are the operatives. It takes about five minutes to forget the fact that he’s using a wheelchair. His stories are what matter. Sarah Foster Sproull also made Drift, for Rodney and a female dancer, resulting in a miraculous menuet for our time.

The second half of RNZB’s Dancing to Mozart—in two works by Jiri Kylian—revealed the calibre of both choreography and performance we have been accustomed to from our national ballet company. At New Zealand School of Dance graduation season, two works After the Rain by Christopher Wheeldon, and Wicked Fish by Cloudgate choreographer, Huang Yi, proved outstanding. The time-honoured question from Irish poet W B Yeats, ‘O body swayed to music, o brightening glance, how can we know the dancer from the dance?’ always comes to mind when choreography and performance are equally inspirational. There’s a causal connection of course, but it’s a symbiotic and reflexive one between dancer and dance.

Tempo Dance Festival billed Between Two—with works by Kelly Nash and by Douglas Wright. That season, reviewed on this website, is remembered as a most poignantly crafted, perfectly balanced program with birth and death book-ending the life between. No more fitting tribute to Douglas Wright’s astonishing body of work could be imagined. I do not expect to see again anything like this multi-talented artist who was so resolute in communicating his vision. There was a heartfelt memorial service held in his favourite Cornwall Park in Auckland, and then gatherings at both Nga Taonga Film Archive and City Art Gallery in Wellington, to hear tributes and watch fine films of Wright’s work, including the stunning documentary, Haunting Douglas, made by Leanne Pooley.

Many were very sorry that Anton Carter’s contract as director of DANZ, the national networking agency, was ended, since he had been a stalwart and popular supporter of dance events and individuals across many different forms and communities. Although now working at Museums Wellington, he continues to attend performances and that is the kind of loyal support, outside the call of duty, that is so appreciated by dance practitioners.

The news is recently announced that Lucy Marinkovich, outstanding dancer/choreographer working independently on projects with her partner and colleague musician, Lucien Johnson, are the joint winners of the Harriet Friedlander award which gives them $100,000 to reside in New York. When asked ‘How long will you stay there?’ they answer ‘Till the money runs out’. I personally and rather selfishly hope they do not get offered something they can’t refuse since I want to continue seeing their fresh and invigorating dance work here. They have wit and style and ideas, together with all the skills needed to bring dance and music alongside each other where they belong. More of that is needed for all our sakes.

In the books department, Marianne Schultz’ history of Limbs Dance Company—Dance for the People— was welcome (see my review in New Zealand Books, December 2018), as also was the memoir of Sir Jon Trimmer—Why Dance ? by Jon with Roger Booth (my review of that is on DANZ website).

As I write this retrospective I am still happily high from last night’s astonishing Indian dance event—the arangetram, or graduation recital, of Leeshma Srirankanathan, student of Sri Vivek Kinra, of Mudra dance school and academy. This was a two hour wonder of solo performing by an extremely talented 18 year old dancer, and the 42nd arangetram directed by Kinra in his 30 years as a master teacher here in Wellington. Leeshma’s Hindu father and Catholic mother were each honoured in the opening prayers and puja of this event. A lesson of peace and tolerance to the world I reckon, if only the world would listen.

We are anticipating the second Russell Kerr lecture in Ballet & Related Arts which will be delivered on Sunday 10 February, on the topic of Russian Ballet companies that visited Australia and New Zealand in 1937 and 1939. It will be delivered at Victoria University of Wellington by Dr. Ian Lochhead, dance critic for The Press, Christchurch. All are welcome, rsvp for further details to jennifershennan@xtra.co.nz

Happy New Year to all readers, and my thanks to Michelle Potter for hosting this website so generously.

Jennifer Shennan, 30 December 2018

Featured image: Leeshma Srirankanathan during her arangetram, Wellington 2018. Photo: © Buskar

June Greenhalgh & Russell Kerr in Prismatic Variations.Choreographed by Russell Kerr and Poul Gnatt. New Zealand Ballet 1960

June Kerr (1932–2018)

by Jennifer Shennan

Russell Kerr has been the treasured father of ballet in New Zealand since he returned here in 1957 after some years dancing in UK, where he had married fellow dancer, June Greenhalgh. His directorship of New Zealand Ballet in 1960s was a visionary and courageous one and his loyal contribution has continued in all the years since. June danced in the celebrated United Ballet seasons of 1959–1960, but then became the mother of two children. Her contribution to ballet in this country may not have been as publicly visible as her husband’s but it was just as real, and she was with him every step of the way.

June Kerr, nee Greenhalgh, was born in 1932, in Southend-on-Sea, England, the youngest of three children.  Her father had started his seafaring career on sailing ships and later became a merchant navy captain while her mother held the home fires during his extended periods of time away at sea.

As a child June attended the Cone-Ripman school where the curriculum combined general education with ballet and related theatre-arts training.  Originally based in London but relocated during WWII to Hertfordshire, it later became known as Arts Educational School.

Anton Dolin, having danced with Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, became a pioneer of ballet in England (and toured New Zealand with the Covent Garden Russian Ballet in late 1930s). Dolin visited the Cone-Ripman school after World War II and selected 12 young dancers, June Greenhalgh among them, to join a troupe he and Alicia Markova were forming. This later developed into a permanent London-based company, Festival Ballet, of which June was thus a foundation member. (Renamed English National Ballet in 1989, this is the company that performed a season of Giselle in Auckland earlier this year. The ballet world sits across national boundaries and through time, its best dancers becoming citizens of an international ‘country’).

In 1952 Anne Rowse, a young New Zealand dancer training in London, also joined Festival Ballet, and she and June became instant friends. Anne spoke movingly at the funeral of the  lifelong friendship that ensued.

June Greenhalgh in Ruth Page’s The Merry Widow/Vilia. Festival Ballet 1953

In 1953 another young New Zealander, Russell Kerr, joined Festival Ballet. He and June held hands, but he explained to her they’d better not get too serious because he would at some stage be returning to New Zealand, feeling a moral obligation to do that on account of the Government bursary he had been awarded. ‘Not a problem. I’d come too,’ replied June, and so they were married without delay.

Festival Ballet, under the Polish impresario Julian Braunsweg, toured and performed in UK, Europe, Canada and US with memorable programs, and the likes of Igor Stravinsky conducting in the pit. In 1957 the Kerrs left all that behind and came to settle in New Zealand. (Lucky I was, to be a child pupil at Nettleton-Edwards School of Ballet in Auckland where Russell became a partner. I continue to learn from him to this day).

Make no mistake—Russell would become the lion, and June the lioness, of ballet in this country when they moved to Wellington in 1962 and he became director of New Zealand Ballet. (Poul and Rigmor Gnatt had been the pioneering tiger and tigress who preceded them, since 1953). With unstinting loyalty, Kerr delivered pedigree standards of heritage repertoire (Swan Lake, Petrouchka, Prince Igor, Schéhérazade, Coppélia, Nutcracker, and much more), to put New Zealand firmly on the world ballet map. His own choreographic output was enormously prolific and gave the Company some of its greatest hits—Prismatic Variations, Carnival of the Animals, Peter Pan, A Christmas Carol, Terrible Tom … it’s a very long list.

The spouse of such a driven choreographer is the supportive, attentive, unpaid and often invisible, kindest critic who stays calm and acts as a beacon when storms rage and finances plummet—or, in the Kerrs’ case, when Russell worked himself close to death to sustain the company endeavour, through to 1969. A disastrous fire that had destroyed almost all the Company’s resources in 1967 had not helped.

There were later periods directing Auckland Dance Centre, then the Kerrs moved to Christchurch which would remain their home until today. Southern Ballet Theatre was a highly enterprising initiative and for years productions were mounted there on a miniature scale but uncompromising in dance and music standards. There were numerous collaborations with composer, Philip Norman, and designer, Peter Lees-Jeffries, so Christchurch was well served in that time. No-one can remember how it was financed probably because there was no budget worth remembering.

June would accompany Russell to Wellington whenever he was engaged by Royal New Zealand Ballet to stage a production on the company. She was always so pleased to walk in the Botanical Gardens, to visit a gallery, or over a coffee to swap family news, always with the kindest interest and sweetest nature. ‘No I won’t have another coffee thanks. I’ll be meeting Russell for lunch in the rehearsal break so I’ll have one with him then.’ In later years the dear couple would still venture out together to a local café and continue their lifelong habit of people-watching in public places. ‘That’s where you learn about different characters—how they move, what they look like, you can guess much of their experiences from such things. It’s like research for choreography,’ Russell would say.

They were still holding hands when June died last week. The photos on the order of service show a fine-boned, wide-eyed, gorgeous redhead, gamine beauty, a shade reminiscent of Moira Shearer (the ballerina in the famed film, The Red Shoes ). Ballet in New Zealand owes much to the Kerr family.

In 1940, June, aged 8, was on the list of children to be repatriated out of war-time London to live out the duration of the war elsewhere, in her case on the SS City of Benares to Canada. For reasons never explained, her parents removed their daughter from the passenger list the day before it sailed, and just as well because the ship was torpedoed in mid-Atlantic.

June would later tell that story, and when asked ‘What happened to the 90 children on board?’ would answer ‘Oh, they were all saved’ and she went to her grave believing that to be so. In fact, 77 of the 90 children on board died, but it’s a reasonable guess June’s parents believed that an 8-year-old didn’t need to know that. It was a heart-stopping moment at the funeral to learn about what was probably the only ‘lie’ anyone ever told to this kind and trusting woman

June Kerr: Born South-end-on Sea, England, 12 June 1932; married Russell Kerr, 1 son, 1 daughter; died Christchurch, New Zealand, 29 October 2018

A version of this obituary first appeared in The Dominion Post on 24 November 2018. Sources: Russell Kerr, David Kerr, Anne Rowse, Keith McEwing.

Featured image: June Greenhalgh & Russell Kerr in Prismatic Variations. Choreographed by Russell Kerr and Poul Gnatt; designed by Raymond Boyce. New Zealand Ballet 1960. Photo: © John Ashton

June Greenhalgh & Russell Kerr in Prismatic Variations.Choreographed by Russell Kerr and Poul Gnatt. New Zealand Ballet 1960

 

 

 

 

Dancers of New Zealand School of Dance in 'Wicked Fish'. Graduation Season 2018. Photo: © Stephen A' Court

New Zealand School of Dance Graduation Season, 2018 (2)

Innovation—contemporary program

22 November 2018. Te Whaea, Wellington
by Jennifer Shennan

This Graduation season offers two programs, Tradition (Ballet) and Innovation (Contemporary Dance), on alternate nights. Does this suggest that new choreography is expected only in the latter but not in the former? If anything, the opposite swing of the pendulum is needed, with a balance of heritage and newly minted work, across both streams. Students of ballet should be just as actively encouraged to explore choreography as their ‘siblings’ are, and by the same token, classics of New Zealand contemporary work need to be staged more often. There are plenty of choreographers whose works would be eminently suitable—Douglas Wright, Michael Parmenter, Raewyn Hill, Daniel Belton, Mary-Jane O’Reilly, Taiaroa Royal would be among the first to consider.

It is in fact globally recognised that ballet and contemporary dance today exist in a symbiotic relationship, and that a hard-out ballet class (minus the pointe shoes perhaps) is a daily fix for dancers of all textures. The old binary does not hold, and today’s dancers have to be able to do whatever choreographers ask for. Having said that, the Innovation program showed strong, committed performers willing to share a passion that depends less on physique than personality, more on commitment than technique.

E Tolu, the opening trio, had its premiere in Mangere in South Auckland in June, and will have been just as welcome there as it was here. Starting with the summons of putatara, there followed a range of patterns and moods from contemplative to forceful to humorous, suggesting haka, siva, fautapati with a nod to Bob Marley and Nina Simone. It brought centre stage the quick and ready wit of Maori/Pasifika dancing men in a great program opener.

Chris Clegg in Victoria Columbus’ E Tolu. NZSD Graduation 2018. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

Laifa Taala in Victoria Columbus’ E Tolu. NZSD Graduation 2018. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

Wicked Fish, by Huang Yi of Cloudgate Dance II, Taiwan, was an astonishing achievement. A relentless surging of bodies in both vertical and horizontal, linear in both directions, in mysterious shadowed light of silver, grey and white, it was completely mesmerising. Cloudgate is one of the most interesting dance companies in the world today and it can only do good for young students, and all of us, to be made aware of them and their repertoire. Music by Xenakis was the water they danced in.

Huri Koaro (Inside out), by Gabrielle Thomas, assisted by Megan Adams, is a work from Atamira dance collective’s repertoire. It brought a welcome and convincing Maori female presence to the stage, with patterns suggesting taniko and kowhaiwhai, then moves to a driving pate rhythm. There was an unusual and welcome stillness and silence for some of the groupings, then poi swinging across the stage brought contrast to the solo central dancer.

It’s Written in the Walls by Adam Barruch had an atmosphere of trouble in an unidentified situation…a refugee camp perhaps, or some confined place? The dancers’ focus remained internalised, and a sense of urgency or risk was caught in the striking linear groupings of the performers.

Jareen Wee and Chris Clegg with dancers of NZSD in Adam Barrach's 'It's Written in the Walls. NZSD Graduation 2018. Photo: © Stephen A'Court

Jareen Wee and Chris Clegg with dancers of New Zealand School of Dance in Adam Barrach’s It’s Written in the Walls. NZSD Graduation 2018. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

Static by Lauren Langlois set itself a hard task in portraying the neurotic and obsessive behaviour of two dancers as the starting point, which, true to its title, seemed also to be its endpoint.

Les Méduses, a work by Damien Jalet, involved a large group of dancers in striking formations and curiously stylised costumes which occasionally suggested the weaving of spider webs. By contrast, a sound score of relentless chisel-like strikes evoked the notion of arduous work in progress of carving or sculpting from a large mass of stone or marble. It brought high energy to the closing work on the program.

Dancers of New Zealand School of Dance in Damien Jalet's Les Meduses. NZSD Graduation 2018. Photo: © Stephen A'Court

Dancers of New Zealand School of Dance in Damien Jalet’s Les Méduses. NZSD Graduation 2018. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

All told, a spirited evening. Wicked Fish will stay long in the memory for the images and atmosphere it evoked, of dangerous and mysterious forces, of relentless drive and unstoppable momentum. It uncannily evoked history, presaged the future, and kept reminding me of the three books I am reading – Vincent O’Malley’s New Zealand Wars, Stephen Fry’s Mythos, and Douglas Wright’s Terra Incognito. That’s a big ask of a short dance, but just occasionally that’s what choreographic masterpieces can deliver.

Jennifer Shennan, 23 November 2018

Featured image: Dancers of New Zealand School of Dance in Huang Yi’s Wicked Fish. Graduation Season 2018. Photo: © Stephen A’ Court

Dancers of New Zealand School of Dance in 'Wicked Fish'. Graduation Season 2018. Photo: © Stephen A' Court

 

 

 

Jaidyn Cumming and Bo Hao ZHan in 'La Sylphide'. New Zealand School of Dance Graduation, 2018. Photo: Stephen A'Court

New Zealand School of Dance Graduation Season, 2018 (1)

Tradition—classical program

21 November 2018. Te Whaea, Wellington
by Jennifer Shennan

New Zealand School of Dance is one school with two discrete streams, Classical Ballet and Contemporary Dance. Their Graduation season is always an uplifting affair as the fledgling dancers leave the nest where they have spent the past three years in intensive training. We can guess they’ll each be wishing for just one thing—life as a dancer. I can see no reason why they shouldn’t all get what they wish for, though over time that will, for some of them at least, stretch to include ‘teacher’ and ‘choreographer’ as well.

There are students from New Zealand, including Maori and Pasifika, and several countries beyond, Australia and Asia. The seeds of teacher training included in the curriculum here would help them find work for life back home if not here. We won’t be done with our life on Earth until everyone, in every country, has had a chance to dance, if only as a way to enhance recognition of choreographic masterpieces when they see them. There was such a masterpiece on each of the two programs and I’m shivering to tell you about them, as well as share a few thoughts about possible future directions.

The Ballet program, Tradition, opened with an excerpt of La Sylphide, from Bournonville heritage. Nadine Tyson (alumna of the School and a long-term dancer with RNZB), staged the work which was danced with care and love. The fact that Henning Albrechtsen, the world’s finest free-lance Bournonville teacher, had a residency at the School just last year, will have paid off in the students’ understanding of this demanding and darling style, renowned for its contained vigour and life-affirming ebullient spirit within ballet heritage. (A pity no program note could remind us that Poul Gnatt was for years the most renowned interpreter in the world of the leading role of James. His oral history includes a fabulous story about that, and relates to New Zealand).

Bo Hao Zhan in August Bournonville's 'La Sylphide'. New Zealand School of Dance Graduation, 2018. Photo: ©Stephen A'Court

Bo Hao Zhan in August Bournonville’s La Sylphide. New Zealand School of Dance Graduation, 2018. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

It was Gnatt who first raised the voice to form a School to serve the needs of the Company he had already established in 1953. It would be 1967 before the National School of Ballet opened its doors. A paragraph to that effect could be included within the printed program, with further reference to its 50 year history recently written by Turid Revfeim (alumna of the School and long-term dancer with RNZB). History will not go away just by our staying quiet, and a background program essay is needed to pick up and weave back together the threads between School and Company that have recently, by neglect, been torn asunder.

It is deeply satisfying to sight a young dancer in the back row of the corps of La Sylphide who, as have others, used her time at the School to develop the technique and to hone the style that she simply did not have three years ago, but that she will now carry back to her Asian homeland and thus spread good in the world. She may not know that this sentence is about her, but I do. Well done all.

The following Tarantella, by Balanchine, 1964, a romp to Gottschalk music, gave a superb chance to a pair of young students to strut some marvellous stuff. There’s also a link across to Bournonville via the tambourine, but these days dancers with tambourines are so polite. If you’re going to dance with one, don’t you need to thrash hell out of it and rattle the discs to let everyone know that dancing with one is different from dancing without one?

Brittany Jayde Duwner and Rench Soriano in George Balanchine's 'Tarantella'. New Zealand School of Dance Graduation, 2018. Photo: Stephen A'Court

Brittany Jayde Duwner and Rench Soriano in George Balanchine’s Tarantella. New Zealand School of Dance Graduation, 2018. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

Sfumato by Betsy Erikson (we need program notes to identify the choreographers) was an extended work, from 1986, to Boccherini, but that does not carry the vitality of the Baroque repertoire that preceded his era. The work is staged by Christine Gunn, long-term teacher at the School, and by Nadine Tyson. The dancers all do well, but the challenges of choreographic structure on this music remain. In past years there has been one work on the program done to live piano accompaniment (after all, the two best ballet pianists in town—Phillip O’Malley and Craig Newsome—are on the staff here) but this line-up did not offer that opportunity.

Then followed After the Rain, a pas de deux by Christopher Wheeldon, and the theatre fell silent. A man and a woman, dancing to Arvo Pärt’s music, Spiegel im Spiegel, for piano and violin (offering resonance back some years to alumna Raewyn Hill’s memorable choreography, Angels with Dirty Feet, to the same music). Every moment, every gesture, every position held and line followed, every lifting, sliding and lowering, shows choreographic mastery. They are not having sex, they are making love, in any generous understanding of those words you care to bring to reading them. It’s a triumph for a School anywhere to include Wheeldon’s work in its Graduation program. It was rehearsed by Qi Huan, premier dancer for years at RNZB, and the calibre of his work shines through the students’ performance.

Sook Meng Lim and Isaak McLean in Christopher Hampson’s Saltarello. NZSD Graduation 2018. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

Sook Meng Lim and Isaak McLean in Christopher Wheeldon’s After the Rain. NZSD Graduation 2018. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

Emerge, a solo for a male, by Australian choreographer Louise Deleur, was a world premiere. Also rehearsed by Qi Huan, it received a focused performance.

Christopher Hampson’s Saltarello, choreographed for RNZB in 2001, is a smart and sultry number and a fitting finale to this satisfyingly varied program. Here staged by Turid Revfeim, again a School alumna as well as long-term Company stalwart dancer, teacher, choreographer and administrator there, and now teacher at the School, it gives scope to a large cast who find the style and pizzaz to mix humour into its moves.

2018 marks 20 years since Garry Trinder became Director of the School and there can be no doubting his commitment to the wellbeing and developing careers of the students. Chair of the Board, Russell Bollard, spoke in tribute. The small print in the program reminds us that dancer and staff reps are included on the Board. Any decent workplace these days knows to represent the spectrum of its people among its governance. It’s a mark of confidence, high morale, respect, common sense and fair play. Top marks to this institution for that

Jennifer Shennan, 23 November 2018

Featured image: Jaidyn Cumming and Bo Hao Zhan in August Bournonville’s  La Sylphide. New Zealand School of Dance Graduation, 2018. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

Jaidyn Cumming and Bo Hao ZHan in 'La Sylphide'. New Zealand School of Dance Graduation, 2018. Photo: Stephen A'Court