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

Douglas Wright, 2016. Photo: © John Savage

Douglas Wright (1956–2018)

Douglas James Wright, dreamer of dances
by Jennifer Shennan

Douglas Wright, dancer, choreographer, writer, poet, visual artist, has died at the age of 62.

An obituary is normally about the deceased, but I begin with my declaration of conflict of interest (actually, deeply shared interest)—namely, that Douglas is the single most important artist in my life. His fearless vision through an astonishingly prolific artistic output moved us beyond comfort, beyond normalcy, beyond the already known. Not fantasy, not surrealism, not escapism, but expressionist art of the highest order, framed with wit—dark, caustic, incorrigible, ironic and hilarious by turns, and teeming with alternative perceptions of the natural and social givens. As a New Zealand artist across five genres, Douglas Wright remains a phenomenon without peer.

The Solomon Islands term for a choreographer translates as ‘dreamer of dances’. That epithet pleased Douglas since he often referenced Morpheus, god of dreams, son of Hypnos, god of sleep. His last dance, commissioned by art gallery director Michael Lett, was exquisitely performed by Sean MacDonald at Tempo Dance Festival in October, with final rehearsals conducted at the hospice. Titled M_Nod, with Morpheus in mind, it incorporated a James Joyce reading from Finnegan’s Wake, an aesthetic that suited Douglas well. The work was dedicated to the late Sue Paterson, Douglas’ long-standing colleague and friend.

In 1998 Douglas was made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit, and in 2000 a Laureate of The Arts Foundation. His company, Douglas Wright and Dancers, only ever received project-based funding from the Arts Council and there can be no easy way to analyse why his phenomenal talent was not better supported and continuously facilitated across the decades. Permanent funding of company management and adequate resources to tour his work internationally were what he wanted and deserved, but they were never forthcoming. In that, we let down both him and ourselves.

Now that Douglas is safely silenced, the tributes are flowing in torrents. Our best honour to him however is to remember his work, and lucky we are that he has written about dance, the most ephemeral of the arts, in depth and detail. The outstanding video documentary Haunting Douglas by Leanne Pooley (Spacific Films) is the finest portrait of a dance artist anywhere.

A consummate man of the theatre, the words Douglas loathed most were ‘bland’ and ‘boring’. His constant attention was to our experiences—the public, the personal and the private. If it had happened, or been thought or dreamt, then spit it out, say it loud, choreograph it, write it, draw it, sculpt it, tell it as it is. If some audiences or critics took offence, at least they were not bored. It was proof they were engaged. An indelible image remains—from Black Milk—when Three Graces, dressed in nurses’ uniforms, brought forward a tray of medical syringes then knelt to inject the stage floor, presumably a local anaesthetic to help us through what was to follow.

Douglas certainly had a gift for naming his dances—listen to them—Now is the Hour, Passion Play, How on Earth, As It Is, Buried Venus, Inland, Forever, Black Milk, Rapt, The Kiss Inside. He did not need tertiary education to lead him to literature, but as a school boy simply raided the library. His voracious reading habits included an early affinity with the writings of Janet Frame. His memoir, Ghost Dance, (Penguin, 2004, awarded the Montana prize for Best First Book) makes clear the abiding importance of his relationship with artist Malcolm Ross. (David Eggleton’s 2004 review for The Listener of Ghost Dance is definitive).

Douglas grew up in rural New Zealand, in Tuakau. The place name means tu = to stand, akau = river bank. You get a good view of a river when you stand on its bank. You get a good view of Douglas Wright through Pooley’s documentary, about his childhood intrigue at the woman dancing in a white dress on the porch of the neighbouring house in moonlight (‘…perhaps she was a moth who laid her eggs in me’) and fascination with his grandmother taking him to Catholic Mass (later referenced in Halo, for Royal New Zealand Ballet).

To his father’s disgust, rugby held no interest for the child but Douglas’ childhood talent for gymnastics brought him junior champion status and photos reveal a strength, grace and line that would eventually lead him to dance. The boy travelled alone from Tuakau to Auckland for regular training sessions, which led into the darkness of predatory sexual abuse in bus stations as bad as anything you’ve imagined. He was robbed of his childhood and the scars lasted for life, yet he could later communicate the complexity of the experiences without letting it destroy him. One poem, in his volume CactusFear (Steele Roberts, 2011) tells us about it, if you can get through it without crying.

After leaving school there was a dramatic drug career, eventually supplanted by his dance career, initially with Auckland-based Limbs Dance Company (1980–1983). Teacher Dorothea Ashbridge imparted the ballet technique that helped Douglas ‘map my body … give names and directions to movements my body already knew’. He spent 1983–1987 with Paul Taylor Dance Company in New York, a spectacular career, with performances and choreography (Hey Paris, Faun Variations) still remembered decades later by New Yorkers who probably see six dance performances every week.

Douglas’ astonishing strength combined with lyricism can be seen in DV8’s talisman and horrifyingly brilliant work by Lloyd Newson, Dead Dreams of Monochrome Men, in 1988 (available on dvd). Back in New Zealand Douglas’ grief at losing friends to Aids is choreographed into Elegy, 1992. Although not the death sentence it once signaled, Douglas’ own HIV diagnosis was encompassed in choreographies Forever and Ore.

In 1993 Russell Kerr cast Douglas in the title role of his production of Petrouchka for Royal New Zealand Ballet, described in Royal New Zealand Ballet at Sixty (VUP, 2013). His insights into performing that celebrated role, created by Nijinsky, are rare, if not unique, in the annals of ballet history. Douglas wrote what Nijinksy was unable to.

Douglas Wright as Petrouchka 1993, Royal New Zealand Ballet. Photo: © Photo Guy Robinson

Douglas Wright as Petrouchka 1993, Royal New Zealand Ballet. Photo: © Photo Guy Robinson

Three works commissioned by Royal New Zealand Ballet, The Decay of Lying (1992), Rose and Fell, (1997) and Halo (2000) are all remembered by the dancers. Critics were challenged, as critics often are, but Douglas remained disappointed that the company never re-staged any of those works.

Douglas’ mercurial and multi-faceted personality was reflected in his works—by turns ecstatic (Gloria, A Far Cry); melancholic (Terra Incognito, Black Milk); grief-stricken (Elegy, Rose & Fell); satirical (The Decay of Lying); gender-shifting (Hey Paris, Forever); political (Black Milk); spiritual (Rapt, The Kiss Inside). We sense that whatever happened to him surfaced somewhere in one of his choreographies, but were never just about himself. He staged themes that may have shocked, or saddened, but they rang with truth.

Douglas released the artistry in many dancers and they know who they are. Lisa Densem (in the astonishing photo montage by Peter Molloy on the cover of the Pooley documentary) told me, ‘After you’ve worked with Douglas you have had more than a dance experience. He lets you become his friend.’

Several dancers became his muses: Debbie McCulloch with whom he shared an early close rapport; the enigmatic ‘goddess-like’ Kilda Northcott; Sarah Jayne Howard, a fiery furnace of a performer. Alex Leonhartsberger danced like Douglas-come-again, then Sean MacDonald became the final trusted courier of Douglas’ dream visions. Repertoire has been expertly staged in recent years by rehearsal director, Megan Adams.

There were only the briefest tours taking Douglas’ works abroad, yet, had that been responsibly managed and financed, he would have earned an international reputation as the Pina Bausch of the Southern Hemisphere. Nought to be done about that now but live with it. At least his treasures are in Nga Taonga Film & Sound Archive, in art galleries, on bookshelves, and in the Alexander Turnbull Library.

Douglas once asked me how baroque dance works—not that he wanted to perform one, just to understand how people danced in different times and places, so I showed him. He instantly caught the implications of the highly stylised technique, then quoted Louis XIV to me, and in one hour learned a sarabande that would take a ‘normal’ student a year to master.

Five of Douglas’ drawings, purchased by the Chartwell Collection for Auckland Art Gallery, hang in a current exhibition there alongside works by Colin McCahon, by Gretchen Albrecht (who provided the backdrop for Douglas’ first full-length work, Now is the Hour) and Jim Allen, celebrated sculptor of light. Douglas’ note alongside his work reads, ‘The figures in my drawings are verbs not nouns’. A number of these drawings are incorporated into his volume of poetry, Laughing Mirror, (Steele Roberts, 2007) where he famously penned the line, ‘Never trust an artist who is always trying to explain their work’.

Perhaps Auckland City Council might consider converting Douglas’ council flat, his home for many decades, in Norgrove Ave, Mt. Albert, into a choreographic residence? Alongside all else, Douglas was a perfectionist, not to say obsessive, gardener. The ancient cycads growing there (he would groom the spider webs off them with a toothbrush) might inspire a younger generation of home-grown dance-makers. Goodness knows, the country needs them.

Helen Aldridge, a Waiheke teacher and arts advocate, commissioned from Douglas a choreography to commemorate the life of her daughter, Deirdre Mummery, who died of an accidental drug overdose. Helen told me she did not know what to expect—perhaps a lament, or lachrimae? Instead, Douglas produced the exquisite Gloria, to Vivaldi, celebrating the life of his young friend. Gold silk-clad dancers fly and twist and turn in an airborne wonder. It’s the best dance ever made, by anyone, anywhere.

Beautifully filmed by Alun Bollinger, it’s there on YouTube (note, inexplicably, in two parts), posted anonymously by ‘a Rugby supporter’. Where is James Joyce when you need him?

Douglas is survived by his loyal and devoted mother, Pat, and the dancers of New Zealand.

Douglas James Wright: born 14 October 1956, Pukekohe; died 14 November 2018, Auckland

Acknowledgements: Megan Adams, Helen Aldridge, Lisa Densem, Sarah (Lawrey) George, Sean MacDonald, Keith McEwing, Leanne Pooley, Turid Revfeim, Guy Robinson, Anne Rowse, Roger Steele

This obituary is posted with the permission of The Dominion Post where it appeared on 17 November 2018.

Featured image: Douglas Wright, 2006. Photo: © John Savage

Douglas Wright, 2016. Photo: © John Savage

 

Ghost Dance by Douglas Wright

For other posts on this website about Douglas Wright, including reviews about some of the works mentioned above, follow this link. See too the review of Douglas Wright’s memoir, Ghost Dance, also mentioned above, at this link.

Douglas Wright's 'M_Nod'

Between Two. Kelly Nash and Douglas Wright

5–13 October, 2018. The Vault, Q Theatre, Auckland. Tempo Dance Festival

Reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

Between Two is a tandem of two 15 minute choreographies. The first, Tipu, is by Kelly Nash. The second, M₋Nod, is by Douglas Wright. Although not designed as such, the two works act as prologue and epilogue to each other. It is a perfect program.

Less than perfect is the venue, a tiny cramped vault in the Q Theatre complex, with the audience sitting in three rows of chairs on the same level as the performance space, and with an overhead stud the lowest since the New Zealand Ballet performed in A&P sheds around the country in 1953. ‘Don’t jump too high dears or you’ll crack your skulls open on the beam that’s two inches above your heads.’

There’s a noisy fan left on throughout the performance blowing cold air into our faces. Why? It’s not a hot night. ‘Oh because the fan’s droning helps block out the voices and footfalls of people in the foyer upstairs. This is a sustained and demanding 15 min solo so the dancer needs to concentrate.’ Well, I can understand the dancer’s need to concentrate, but Wright has for decades been New Zealand’s premier dance-maker, a force of theatre, the most important artist in my and many people’s life, and this dance will be his last. Was there no better space available in all of enormous Auckland for his swansong?

‘May I have a program or cast sheet please?’ (it’s hard to review without one). ‘Oh there isn’t a printed program,’ the box-office informs. Well I don’t believe that and sure enough, after it’s all over we are indeed handed a program. Hence this review.

Kelly Nash, working with Atamira Dance Company, has choreographed a number of memorable works of clear style and coherent proportions. The most recent I saw made a depth-sounding on Maori mythology and had extremely interesting collaboration with taonga puoro and karakia of Maori music. She’s an interesting choreographer who does not repeat herself. What will Tipu (meaning ‘seed’) offer? In a word, magic.

To Eden Mulholland’s inventive soundscape, two women, Nancy Wijohn and Atayla Loveridge, are encased in strong, transparent light-reflecting tights that seem like an otherworldy membrane of gladwrap. They move in sinewy duet, of sustained thread and thrust, suggesting female fecundity. It makes sense then that the two other members of the cast are Milly Kimberly Grant, a beautiful woman who sits, stands and moves about in the shadows upstage, singing snatches of lullaby, sometimes quiet sometimes strong, to Te-Whakanoa-sage, her five-month-old baby in her arms. He listens to her, looks about at the dancers, snuggles in, suckles a little, traces the other breast while doing so, just to check that there will be more milk for later. He strokes his mother’s cheeks and sucks on her chin, looks at the dancers, looks at us. We can’t see Te Whakanoa altogether clearly because our eyes are brimming at his total absence of guile, at his sweet soft gentle exploration of air, movement for its own sake. Who wouldn’t want to slow down time and embrace a five-month-old baby? The first dance.

All four performers take a simple graceful bow and walk quietly away. M_Nod, which is a nod to Morpheus, the god of dreams, opens with the recorded voice of Douglas Wright instructing us ‘Please close your eyes’ and so we do. After a minute or two ‘Please open your eyes’ and so we do. The scene is now set with a prone figure in a shroud, his head beneath a regular kitchen chair. Three knocks of the baroque conductor’s baton on the floor to warn us that the theatre-piece is about to start, that we should steady ourselves, and so we do.

There is text spoken through the muffle of the shroud. ‘I must get up’. But that only results in the dancer bashing his forehead against the seat of the chair. The shroud is pulled down to expose his face which turns towards us, the head shaking slowly as if to say ‘No’ but at ever increasing speed is soon a frantic blur of features. The body wriggles out, removes and tosses away the shroud. There stands Sean MacDonald, tall, dark and handsome, but no stranger to the dance stage here. Last week he was in Black Grace’s Crying Men. Here is rather more comfortably centre-stage, poised and open, ready to perform a solo masterpiece made for him by Douglas, for his protégé, friend and colleague.

Sean wears a black armband and we all know what that means. What follows is a flawless performance that encompasses the shade and light of all there is. The curiosity, the experimentation, the reaction to folly, the fury at incompetence, the search for explanations, the grace and the gladness expressed in strong clean diagonals, both within the body’s held line and gesture, as well as in the sequences of movement that will find the upstage-right to downstage-left diagonal line as a river of sweet strength to bathe in. James Joyce’s voice is heard reading from his Finnegan’s Wake. There will be an excerpt from Stockhausen’s Stimmung. Tuvan throat singing is heard.

Douglas Wright likes to choreograph for the throat, which always reminds me of Lord Krishna whose throat turned blue after he drank all the poisoned ocean so his people would be safe. There are motifs and echoes throughout the dance that refer to several of Wright’s own earlier works—Elegy for example, in atmosphere and costume (a woman’s negligee top and a man’s brown trousers); A Mystery Play in the head bashing (though here, mercifully, it is against the air rather than the wall); Forever and Black Milk and rapt in the arresting opening images; halo in the search for spiritual expression amid daily distractions; Gloria in the eye’s questing for transcendence. We can’t see Sean altogether clearly because our eyes are brimming at his total absence of guile, at the sweet soft gentle exploration of air, movement for its own sake. The last dance.

Fortunately there are four performances of this perfect program across two days and you can see them all because, incomprehensibly, the season is not sold out. There will be four more performances this weekend. By then the queues should be round the block, but who knows? This is Douglas’s last dance. He is in the hospice now—where the last rehearsals for M_Nod took place, all the above managed by rehearsal director Megan Adams who is working quiet miracles to do so.

The work was commissioned by Michael Lett, a young Auckland art gallery director, and had its premiere in the Grey Lynn Public Library hall back in July. Top marks to him, and to Carrie-Rae Cunningham, director of Tempo, for recognizing its importance and including it in the festival. I am assured there will be future performances, and that a good film has been made of the work.

Five of Douglas’ art works are currently hanging in New Zealand Art, an exhibition at the Auckland Art Gallery, where they sit alongside Colin McCahon, Jim Allen, Gretchen Albrecht (whose work was used as set design for Douglas’ first full length work, Now is the Hour, with Limbs in late 1980s—and we can rejoice that there is excellent film of that in Nga Taonga Film Archive).

… not to mention Douglas’ three published books, Ghost Dance, Terra Incognito (not a typo) and Black Milk, as well as his three volumes of poetry. Michael Lett is agent for the most recent art works. When I visited Douglas in the hospice, he murmured a worry that his work is not ‘out there’. I could assure him that it is.

Jennifer Shennan, 10 October 2018

Featured image: Sean MacDonald in rehearsal for Douglas Wright’s M_Nod.

Douglas Wright's 'M_Nod'

Black Grace + Friends. Artistic Direction, Neil Ieremia. Photo: Duncan Cole

Crying Men. Black Grace

20 September 2018. Te Rauparaha Stadium, Porirua

Reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

Crying Men broke powerful new ground for Black Grace and director Neil Ieremia in a three-performance season at Te Rauparaha stadium in Porirua.

The opening work, Gone, resulted from a recent workshop conducted with 16 pupils from local schools, Porirua College, Mana College and Aotea College. Its taut atmosphere centred on the theme of sudden disappearance of family and the familiarity of home. The work was accompanied by The Virtuoso Strings, a local young orchestral ensemble (along the lines of  El Sistema) conducted by Liz Sneyd. They played an astonishingly sustained and inventive composition by Craig Utting (tho’ the central string section had over-loud amplification—my impression was it did not need amplification at all).

The second work, E Toa, E Toa, choreographed by Ieremia and by Tuaine Robati, was performed by students from Whitireia Performing Arts. Its beautiful opening image, a circle of female and male dancers, arms intertwined, red hibiscus flowers bright on the dark costumes and bare skin glowing in the light, had a prayer-like quality as the dancers chanted their hope for a better world. It was a focused work from a large cast who moved with compelling energy, and the drum accompaniment was with them every beat of the way.

Both these works made strong atmospheric contribution to the serious theme of the following major work. Gone in particular reminded me of the Urban Youth Movement  workshop projects in South Auckland that were part of Black Grace’s program some time ago.

In Crying Men, a powerful element of theatre was introduced through the script of playwright Victor Roger, centering on the desperation and sorrow of a man unable to break free from the physical violence that has marked his life as husband, father and grandfather. A major work in four scenes, its recorded narration by Nathaniel Lees was poignant but would be wonderful to include as a live component of the work.

Black Grace, 'Crying Men'. Artistic Direction, Neil Ieremia. Photo: Duncan Cole

Black Grace, Crying Men. Artistic Direction, Neil Ieremia. Photo: © Duncan Cole

Ieremia’s role as the grandfather had pathos, and the early scene of his wife being led away by female aitua (spirits) of death to the afterworld was shocking in its beauty.

A group dance of abstract design, simple in gestures but intricate in the canon and syncopation of its delivery, was a memorable gem that echoed weaving and carving patterns familiar from Pacifica arts.

The tense and violent encounters between three generation of males in one family was the continuing theme of darkness to the dance-play. A shot of humour was allowed in male/female interaction but there was no attempt made to cover up the central issue that remains a challenge in all societies as gender dynamics play out.

It seemed a pity not to employ the very considerable dramatic talents of Sean MacDonald, a foundation member of Black Grace back in 1995—but overall this was a  powerful group performance. If at times sections of the work seemed repetitive or over-long, that I suspect was intended to echo the very point … where is this violence going?  Where does it end?  Not on Mars I think, but right here, in New Zealand, and in the Pacific. In India. How’s Australia doing? Probably every country on Earth has issues that choreography could help to confront. Black Grace is equal to that task.

Jennifer Shennan, 21 September 2018

Featured image: Black Grace + Friends. Artistic Direction, Neil Ieremia. Photo: © Duncan Cole

Black Grace + Friends. Artistic Direction, Neil Ieremia. Photo: Duncan Cole