Chrissy Kokiri_of New Zealand Dance Company. Photo: ©John McDermott

New Directions at New Zealand Dance Company

Comment by Jennifer Shennan

The proposed Bubble between Australia and New Zealand for health, travel and trade purposes sits comfortably on the Anzac matrix in our common history. There’s a long weave of dance exchanges and interactions between Australia and New Zealand over many decades—tours from the 1950s by the Melbourne-based National Theatre Ballet of the first full-length Swan Lake here (with Lynne Golding and Henry Danton); the years of Borovansky visits; the Australian Ballet; Sydney Dance Company; productions mounted on New Zealand Ballet by Peggy van Praagh, Ray Powell, Jonathan Taylor, Graeme Murphy; the major directorship of the Company by Harry Haythorne; Douglas Wright works in Sydney Dance Company—and numerous other visits and exchanges in both directions—most recently by New Zealand Dance Company.  

The appointment of the new directors to NZDC, including Australian James O’Hara, thus has an inbuilt thread which could see further weaving between performers and audiences in the trans-Tasman Bubble.

Chances to view the global wealth of streamed dance videos has been most welcome during Lockdown but all of us are surely looking forward to the introduction of live performances in the not-too-distant future. Safe lift-off to the new team at NZDC.

An excerpt from the media release announcing the changes is below.

THE NEW ZEALAND DANCE COMPANY APPOINTS WORLD CLASS NEW LEADERSHIP TEAM
The Board of the New Zealand Dance Advancement Trust today announced the appointment of former Nederlands Dans Theater chief executive Janine Dijkmeijer as The New Zealand Dance Company’s (NZDC) Executive Director; and renowned dance artists and directors Victoria (Tor) Colombus and James O’Hara, as Co-Artistic Directors.

Board Chair Sharon van Gulik welcomed the new team saying the company was well placed for its next phase of development, building on the incredible artistic and organisational legacy of cofounder and former Chief Executive/Artistic Director, Shona McCullagh.

“The Trust was founded on the ambition of creating a full-time contemporary dance company for New Zealand by bringing together a high-calibre community of dancers, creative collaborators, arts managers and supporters dedicated to creating inspiring new dance. In appointing Janine, Tor and James, we believe we now have the talent to grow the artform of contemporary dance, and take the company into its next era”, van Gulik says.

Janine Dijkmeijer, currently living in the Netherlands as an advisor in the performing arts, say one of her missions in life is to be an advocate for the language of dance.

“I come from a family of researchers, innovators and doctors. I understand why I have come to be passionate about dance, because dance is deeply healing and always tells a true story. This language is nonviolent and global. Communicating through dance is playful and is never judgmental. The New Zealand Dance Company is a jewel. I have known Shona through her films and it feels we are family. Shona’s wide vision of what is possible within dance and communication has always been close to me. I have seen the company perform in the Netherlands and always been impressed with the high quality of dancers. I’m very much looking forward to working with the new artistic directors and the team in New Zealand – the possibilities are unlimited”, she says.

The new NZDC team: (l-r ) Janine Dijkmeijer (Executive Director), Tor Columbus (Co-artistic Director) and James O’Hara (Co-artistic Director)

The full media release, which includes further news and biographies of the artists involved is at this link.

Follow this tag link to read posts relating to NZDC on this website.

Jennifer Shennan, 3 June 2020

Featured image: Chrissy Kokiri of New Zealand Dance Company, 2018. Photo: © John McDermott

Chrissy Kokiri_of New Zealand Dance Company. Photo: ©John McDermott
Moon Water performed by Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan. Photo: © Liu Chen-Hsiang

Moon Water. Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan

Choreography Lin Hwai-min to Bach solo cello suites, cellist Mischa Maisky. Video screening by Sadler’s Wells, via YouTube until 22 May 2020

Reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

Moon Water, choreographed by Lin Hwai-min, to Bach’s six solo cello suites, is performed by Cloud Gate Dance Theatre, one of the world’s most accomplished and respected dance ensembles. In lieu of Cloud Gate’s planned season at Sadler’s Well’s, this free screening is being made available on YouTube throughout the week, until Friday 22 May.  Lin speaks in the introduction: ‘In these times of uncertainty, I hope this lyrical dance will bring you joy and peace.’  He’s right about ‘the times’ and his hope is realised in a sublime work of light shining out of shadow, and of the dancers’ calm and supple strength that accepts and yet conquers the force of gravity. As inspiration for the making of Moon Water, Lin quotes the mantra for Tai Chi practitioners: ‘Energy flows as water, water’s spirit shines as the moon’, as well as the associated Chinese proverb: ‘Flowers in the mirror and moon on the water are both illusions.’ These are all the program notes we need. 

I first saw Moon Water performed at the cultural festival which acted as prelude to the Sydney Olympics in 2000.

[The hugely impressive dance program within that festival also included Masurco Fogo, Pina Bausch’s choreography by Wuppertal Dance Theatre, The Cost of Living, Lloyd Newson’s choreography by DV8, as well as seasons by Sydney Dance Company in Graeme Murphy’s work on the Olympics in Ancient Greece, Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, and The Australian Ballet].

As the world’s media turns to the Olympic Games every four years, with typically spectacular Opening and Closing Ceremonies framing the sports contests, it has always seemed a pity that the associated arts festivals that act as precursor to the Games receive next-to-no international media promotion or coverage. Lucky I was to get to Sydney for so many memorable performances in 2000. I’ve been in love with Cloud Gate ever since.

The company was formed in 1973 by Lin Hwai-min and has remained under his consistent and visionary leadership for decades. Performing exclusively his choreography, the company’s extensive international touring has made it one of the world’s leading and most respected dance enterprises. The extensive repertoire grows from Lin’s deep searches into the philosophy, lifeways and art forms of Chinese history and traditions. Each work is a model of meditative calm and clarity as a single concept is explored—yet there’s an undertow of complexity and passion there for those who would see it. If you want novelty, fashion, sensation and display of virtuosity for its own sake, yawn yawn, you should probably look elsewhere.

Moon Water performed by Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan. Photo: © Liu Chen-Hsiang

Cloud Gate’s movement vocabulary and aesthetic grows from the suppleness, strength and flow of Tai Chi meditative and martial art, intertwined with contemporary dance, somewhat after Martha Graham technique. The play of vertical and horizontal is not in contrast but in segue, and there is astonishing control as a dancer moves from standing then into a deep plié, then onto the floor, then back to standing as though this is just one sequence of movement, and it fair slows your breathing. A line becomes a curve becomes a circle becomes a wheel becomes a windmill. A standing figure of eight has become a reclining infinity sign. In Moon Water there are solos, duos and a chorus grouping that take us through a night where the moves of dancers clad in white silk clad are bathed in light that reflects on backdrop, overhead, and finally beneath them, in the water which slowly washes across the stage.  Mostly adagio, with the occasional subito, there are images that evoke a large bird standing (crane or heron, kotuku) or flying (gannet, albatross, toroa). The presence and power in their contained energy somehow also includes the qualities of tenderness towards a newborn, a trusting child, a calm adult, a weak but hopeful elder, all slowly moving towards a life-affirming first white light before dawn.

I visited Taiwan in 2017 and had the loveliest of times with Cloud Gate. I could write about them forever but reading that would be a waste of your time when you could be watching Moon Water.  

And a tribute to all that a second company, Cloud Gate 2, was formed to create opportunities for dancers to choreograph new repertoire.Upon Lin Hwai-min’s retirement last year, the leader of that ensemble , Cheng Tsung-lung, was appointed as the new artistic director of the main company. How affirming to see the wisdom and generosity of spirit involved in managing this company’s heritage—a rare achievement among the competitive politics of many a professional dance company you and I could think of.  

Jennifer Shennan, 17 May 2020

Featured image: Moon Water performed by Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan. Photo: © Liu Chen-Hsiang

Moon Water performed by Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan. Photo: © Liu Chen-Hsiang
Dancers of Royal New Zealand Ballet in 'Passchendaele', 2015. Photo: Evan Li

Anzac Day 2020. Aotearoa New Zealand

by Jennifer Shennan

This year, for the first time in over 100 years, all public gatherings to mark Anzac Day were cancelled, due to the lockdown imposed as part of the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic: an enemy if ever there was one, not war between nations this time but a hope that all countries might join a common fight.

Traditionally Anzac Day commemorations shape up as a kind of countrywide choreography, starting with a Dawn Parade in every city, town, village or marae—a bugle, a salute, a karakia, a march, a haka, a hymn, a prayer, a poem—‘They shall grow not old’—a minute’s silence and The Last Post

There are church services, radio and television broadcasts, concerts, gatherings and wakes throughout the day to remember sacrifice—the war dead and wounded, refugees and fugitives, and the whole sad sorry waste of it all. It is a statutory public holiday, restaurants, shops, schools and theatres are closed, normal life is on hold for a day, then it’s back to busy business. But ‘normal life’ has been on hold these many weeks now. So how was this Anzac Day different from other years?

Some today stood alone at the roadside in front of their home, before dawn at 6am, holding a candle perhaps, and a transistor radio to hear the national broadcast, or watched television coverage of the Prime Minister standing at her gate. Many families had made sculptures or graphics of poppies to display in their gardens. Some of the 1000s of teddy bears in house windows to cheer passersby these past weeks were today wearing poppies too. Many of us will have been mindful of the shocking statistic that in two months of the 1918 influenza pandemic more New Zealanders died than had been killed during the whole of World War I.

We’ve grown so accustomed to the commercialisation of Christmas and to a degree Easter, surrounded as we are by tsunamis of merchandise ‘to show we care’. Today was differently focused. Some folk had developed their own ideas and found resources to express an experience, share a thought, address a concern, tell a story, to give a voice to hope. Isn’t that what art does? Mere entertainment has to me never seemed sufficient, either in peace or wartime.

Numerous dance companies worldwide, stymied by the current pandemic and obliged to cancel many performances and productions, have in past weeks moved to make selected works from their repertoire available online. The Royal New Zealand Ballet have already screened video of Loughlan Prior’s Hansel & Gretel, Liam Scarlett’s  A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Christopher Hampson’s Cinderella. For today their program from 2015, Salute, was aired, comprising  two works—Andrew Simmons’ Dear Horizon and Neil Ieremia’s Passchendaele. My review of the Company’s season in 2015 is at this link.

Dancers of Royal New Zealand Ballet in 'Dear Horizon', 2015. Photo: Ellie Richards
Dancers of Royal New Zealand Ballet in Dear Horizon, 2015. Photo: © Ellie Richards

What a pity this broadcast could not have included Jiri Kylian’s masterwork, Soldatenmis/Soldiers’ Mass, to Martinu, from the same program—(prohibitive fees or copyright issues perhaps?) since it was a work that suited the Company’s dancers of that time to the drumbeat of their hearts and ours. Laura Saxon Jones, sole female performing alongside all the male dancers of the Company, will never be forgotten.    

Other outstanding choreographies  with a war, or anti-war theme, include Jose Limon’s noble Missa Brevis, dedicated to the spirit of Polish resistance; Young Men, Ivan Perez’ choreography startlingly performed by Ballet Boyz; and of course the legendary work Der grüne Tisch/The Green Table, by Kurt Jooss, a work I used to dream might one day be performed by RNZB, so well it would have suited them until just a few years ago. I remain grateful to have seen the Joffrey Ballet’s  authoritative performances however, and another unforgettable production in which the late Pina Bausch played The Old Woman—a performance of such chiselled beauty stays with one for life, as though she had stepped from a painting by Modigliani, or Munch, or a figure from the mediaeval Danse Macabre of Lübeck Cathedral.   

(I’m often reminded of the very fine study by William McNeill, Harvard historian, who in his book Keeping Together in Time, considers how coordinated rhythmic movement, and the shared feelings it evokes, has been a powerful force in holding human groups together—how armies of the world, train and march and move—be that in quick, slow, double or dead march, the goose step, the North Koreans’ grand battement smash, or the soldiers’ antics at the Pakistan-Indian border).

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Both RNZB works, Simmons’ Dear Horizon and Ieremia’s Passchendaele, retain all the impact and power of their first staging, with the New Zealand Army Band playing to precise perfection, for the former the music of Gareth Farr, for the latter the composition by Dwayne Bloomfield. The contained emotion of the music, particularly in cello and brass solos, stops time.   

Ieremia’s early career, as for so many of the dancers who worked with Douglas Wright, absorbed much influence from the driven and airborne choreography  of that master dance-maker. An indelible image that remains with me is from Wright’s The Kiss Inside—a scene in which a gorilla-suited figure passes a tray of cut oranges around a group of boys (a team of rugby players, refreshments at half time?). Soon, just a little older, the same young men are in a faraway other place, a different game, writhing on the ground, in an agony of wounds, bleating like sheep. The gorilla passes a microphone among them to record their messages for relaying home. The bleating becomes recognisable as a cry of pathos, ‘Mummy, Mummy’ from one dying soldier after another. Says it all really.  

Jennifer Shennan, 25 April 2020

Featured image: Dancers of Royal New Zealand Ballet in Passchendaele, 2015. Photo: © Evan Li

Dancers of Royal New Zealand Ballet in 'Passchendaele', 2015. Photo: Evan Li

A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Royal New Zealand Ballet—another look

Royal New Zealand Ballet is making available a range of videos of productions from the repertoire for free home viewing for a brief period during the covid-19 lockdown. The dress rehearsal of their 2015 production of  A Midsummer Night’s Dream screened last week.

Comment by Jennifer Shennan

This ballet was originally commissioned by director Ethan Stiefel in a promising initiative for Royal New Zealand Ballet and Queensland Ballet to share resources, production and performance rights. The project could have grown to include other productions, teacher and dancer exchanges and residencies, and the concept of trans-Tasman co-productions was heartening. The premiere season of MND was staged here during the term of the next director Francesco Ventriglia.

The shimmering overture of Mendelssohn’s music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream evokes a humming faerie world. The dark blue-black midnight stage flickers alight with fireflies and glow worms. This is a visit to Waitomo Caves, after-dark Zealandia, Otari Bush or Botanical Gardens, the remembered hush of night in those places. You don’t need a grandchild holding your hand, though it helps, to know the feeling that magic could be out there, or look there, or quick another one over there. This entire production delivers on the promise caught in those quivering opening moments—with choreography, design and music inseparably part of what is arguably one of the best works in the company’s repertoire.

Liam Scarlett’s exquisite choreography drew galvanised performances from each of the dancers who were members of RNZB back in 2015. This viewing is a welcome reminder of their verve and style, the stage positively buzzing with the wit of a team of dancers who knew each other well and could together rise to a performance of such assured calibre. It is poignant in the extreme that we have loved and then lost so many of these artists in the swift turnover of dancers during the months that followed. There’s always a mobility of dancers amongst ballet companies but the scale and timing of that particular exodus wrought a major shift in the RNZB’s artistic identity.

Nigel Gaynor, music director back in the day, made an inspired full-length score by extending Mendelssohn’s original incidental music with seamlessly interpolated excerpts from others of his compositions. Gaynor conducted the NZ Symphony Orchestra and the result was a transport of delight.

Tracy Grant Lord produced fabulous designs for a number of major RNZB productions—for Christopher Hampsons’s Cinderella and Romeo & Juliet, as well as this Midsummer Night’s Dream. Lighting design by Kendall Smith positively sparkles with the wit of illuminating fairies and caverns themselves, rather than simply throwing light at them.

My review in 2015 was based on the performance by Lucy Green as Titania, Qi Huan as Oberon, both splendidly cast. This video has Tonia Looker and Maclean Hopper as leads and they do an equally fine job. Harry Skinner plays Bottom with a grounded quality that delights without overplaying the role, revealing an actor’s sensibility. Kohei Iwamoto is the quintessential Puck that Shakespeare must have had in mind when he wrote the character—daredevil, wicked, witty, mercurial rascal. Whatever the role, Kohei has always absorbed his virtuosic technique into characterisation and never used it for display. Even to watch him in a studio class was to see how his strength, precision and swiftness could grow into grace and the sprezzatura that Shakespeare knew all about ‘…that you would e’er do nothing but that.’

You could be moved by every moment of this ballet, beginning with a vulnerable young child caught in the crossfire of his quarrelling parents and their eventual hard-earned reconciliation, but one hilarious mid-moment breaks in to the action narrative as all of the cast dash en diagonale across the stage in pursuit of each other for the wrong and/or the right reasons—it’s a like a side-stage glimpse of the backstage life of all these characters—a cheeky wave and a wink to savour forever.

The fairies are a shimmering line-up—Lucy Green and Mayu Tanigaito among them—and Scarlett’s sense of comic timing draws a host of terrific performances—from Abigail Boyle, Paul Mathews, Laura Saxon Jones, Joseph Skelton, William Fitzgerald, Loughlan Prior, Jacob Chown. These assured performers really did work as a magic team, lucky we were. ‘Hence away. Now all is well. One alone stand sentinel …’

A recent saga has seen Liam Scarlett’s career with the Royal Ballet and elsewhere collapse into apparent ruin. The media fair bristled with leaked early reports (oh how salaciousness boosts ratings) but now the investigation seems to be over and the word is mum with the Royal Ballet declaring  ‘There were no matters to pursue…’ So through that vagueness all we know is the heartbreak of Scarlett’s gifts destroyed, his career for now anyway at a standstill. Let’s meantime be grateful for the wondrous talents and team that made this ballet in the first place, and hope there can be some eventual resolution to the current impasse. Good on RNZB for screening his choreographic masterwork. 

Jennifer Shennan, 20 April 2020

Featured image: Tonia Looker as Titania and Harry Skinner as Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2015. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

Lucien Johnson as The Musician with Katie Rudd as a Choreomanic Strasbourg 1518. Borderline Arts Ensemble, 2020. Photo: © Philip Merry

Strasbourg 1518. Borderline Arts Ensemble

12 & 13 March 2020. Circa Theatre, Wellington
reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

Choreographer/dancer Lucy Marinkovich and composer/saxophonist Lucien Johnson combined to produce Strasbourg 1518, a fusion of dance, music and story into theatre. Their take on that specific historic outbreak of dancing mania is given psychological and political context using tropes of religion, rationality, visual art and literature. The work does not stay quaintly back in earlier centuries however, but alludes to 20th and 21st century dance marathons, protests and populist movements, epidemics and pandemics. Art as protest, as revolution, is their call.

Whoa! Isn’t that a heady mix with too much libretto already? (We’ve all seen from time to time a choreography top-heavy with content, though in my experience we are far more often shown dance that has no tangible content whatsoever … as in program notes that claim, for example ‘My choreography is about the turbulent uncertainties of the human experience’ or ‘I’m a female choreographer and this prop is a metaphor of my gendered existence but audiences are welcome to interpret it in any way they like’ or ‘Look at what I can do with my body if I just keep trying harder to point my foot like a raven’s claw’ etc. etc. etc.). Strasbourg 1518 is a danse macabre that remains accessible through a string of riveting scenarios of times and places beyond the reference of its title. It’s as chilling and wild, and as beautiful, as you want dance in the theatre to be.

A show like this will have taken between two and five years to prepare, shape and produce. It is about choreomania, a series of dance epidemics in Europe recurring through different periods of 14th through 16th centuries, as well as closer to our time. Some of the best dance literature is written around the topic of dance and emotion co-existing—by Backman, Meerloo, Bourguignon, de Zoete, Lange, Schiefflin—but this work does not simply reproduce known material. As we arrive at the theatre, couples are already quietly mooning in close dancing, slow motion, in the foyer. In the auditorium we find the stage filled with more couples, in a nod to the exhausting dance marathons of 1920s and 30s. A special couple emerges from among—Michael Parmenter and Lucy Marinkovich, a.k.a. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, a.k.a. Death and the Maiden.  

Michael Parmenter as Death and Lucy Marinkovich as The Maiden in Strasbourg 1518. Borderline Arts Ensemble, 2020. Photo: © Philip Merry

Johnson is a central presence onstage throughout, playing saxophone brilliantly (so what if the instrument was invented in mid-19th century?) and driving all the music that shapes the show. Marinkovich is luminous as The Maiden, veteran dancer Parmenter plays Death with an assuring calm and alluring equanimity. There’s a cast of six wild Choreomaniacs (Jana Castillo, Sean MacDonald, Xin Ji, Katie Rudd, Emanuelle Reynaud and Hannah Tasker-Poland) who dance their pants off, more or less literally, and their relentless moving demands a stamina that itself verges on the insane. France Hervé is stunning as The Rational Man narrating the commentary, but by the end has mystically transformed into a kind and loving Woman.

Lucien Johnson as The Musician with Hannah Tasker-Poland (centre back) and Xin Ji (right) as Choreomaniacs in Strasbourg 1518. Borderline Arts Ensemble, 2020. Photo: © Philip Merry

All the performers are stellar and deliver way beyond the call of duty, though the character edge is held by Castillo as Frau Troffea who led the mania, by MacDonald as The Bishop, and by Tasker-Poland as a reluctant lunatic. Politicians cried out ‘Stop dancing, it is forbidden’, Rich Men cried out ‘Keep dancing so we can tax you and fine you’, Doctors cried out ‘Only increased physical activity will cure this illness of the boiling blood, so dance more and dance faster’. Small wonder people went mad.

Slogans on banners shout out the pain and confusion of those who protest, who suffer, who do not understand, or who understand all too well—’Feral pigs steal food’; ‘Collection of firewood is illegal’; ‘We deeply distrust landlords’; ‘All my friends are sick. Is it infectious?’; ‘We all have syphilis’; ‘We are burdened with taxes’; “Je danse donc je suis’.  

We feel a frisson of recognition whenever images of European paintings are evoked—Breugel and Bosch are there, the blind leading the blind, Dürer and Rembrandt are there, the body beautiful and the body ill. Are we in El Prado? or a novel by Saramago? A shaft of respite eventually enters when Death and the Maiden bring a trolley of gifts to ease the pain and despair—a pair of red shoes for each dancer. O dear, we know the dancing will not stop after this chord, this cord, connects a motif from old folktale to modern film…condemned to dance until dead.

Scene from Strasbourg 1518. Borderline Arts Ensemble, 2020. Photo: © Philip Merry

But it’s become a different dancing now—not old so much as timeless. Now come movements borrowed from the linked lines of farandole archways, the beat of estampie, a swaying branle, a folding reprise and conversion from basse danse, a cheerful path of tordion, an uplifting saltarello. These are dances for life not for death, for a community of friends on Earth, not for those out of control on a slippery path to a fake Heaven or a real Hell.

No-one in the team could have anticipated how the premiere season here would play out. Lucky me, I saw the first two performances but also planned to see the remaining two since there’s a lot in such a show to think and write about. Unfortunately the third and fourth performances were cancelled minutes before curtain-up, and confusion around how that was communicated by management could have come straight from the choreographic libretto itself. Eventually it transpired it was a covid-19 health-related issue though no one in authority would say so when it mattered, as the audience continued to assemble in the foyer. That weekend was also the first anniversary of the brutal mass attack on Christchurch mosques, 15 March 2019, so although citizens went about their weekend calmly here, there was always an eye being kept on the rear-vision mirror wherever you were. 

Lucy, devastated by the course of events that sabotaged their season, begged me to write about the work and not the cancellations. Sorry Lucy, they belong together, and your show is the stronger for that. Life will move on, some things will change but some will not. I imagine you and Lucien will use your filming of the work to create a prelude to the prologue and a postlude to the epilogue. There will be a return season, and your work will come to earn the recognition it deserves. It evokes for me Martha Clarke’s The Garden of Earthly Delights, and that’s high praise.

Jennifer Shennan, 17 March 2020

Featured image: Lucien Johnson as The Musician with Katie Rudd as a Choreomaniac in Strasbourg 1518. Borderline Arts Ensemble, 2020. Photo: © Philip Merry

Lucien Johnson as The Musician with Katie Rudd as a Choreomanic Strasbourg 1518. Borderline Arts Ensemble, 2020. Photo: © Philip Merry
Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker's work for 'Trois Grandes Fugues'. Photo © Michel Cavalca

Trois Grandes Fugues. Lyon Opera Ballet

11 March 2020. Opera House Wellington
Reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

Lyon Opera Ballet’s Trois Grandes Fugues is a program of three separate works each set to Beethoven’s Die Grosse Fuge, opus 133. Any dance can offer access into its music. Might three distinct choreographies set to the same music enhance that experience threefold?

Originally composed for string quartet this is dense and passionate music. Here, to different recordings, are set the works of choreographers Lucinda Childs, Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, Maguy Marin. Would Beethoven have accepted them all? withheld copyright? encouraged the endeavour? been flattered? had preferences, maybe even a favourite? How about you? Is there any purpose to rhetorical questions? (Of course there is. I ask them all the time and like the fact that they invite but don’t insist on answers).

Childs’ dance was calm, analytical (she had opted for an orchestral version with its larger merged sound, very different from the distinct instrumental voices in the quartet used by the other two choreographers). Here the music score moved the dancers, six couples, through many combinations and permutations, torsos and limbs, verticals and diagonals, within the theme and variations, but chose not to transition the performers into a human, social, dramatic or poetic space. They danced to us.

Scene from Lucinda Childs’ Grande Fugue in Trois Grandes Fugues, Lyon Opera Ballet. Photo © Stofleth

(It made me long to see a revival of the similarly abstract yet highly resonant Prismatic Variations, choreographed by Poul Gnatt and Russell Kerr, from our own national ballet company repertoire).  

In real contrast, De Keersmaeker’s choreography was energized by its dancers, six men and two women, excited and committed performers, occasionally stepping back for a breather or to adjust their clothing—then up and at it again, full tilt, every move delivered with clarity and light. They danced for us.

Marin’s piece opened to music only, in the dark. What a powerful reminder of her extraordinary MayB, brought to an earlier festival here. That work distilled her encounters with Samuel Beckett and all the characters in all his plays—opening with a long strain of Schubert played in the pitch dark. (‘I’ve forgotten half my life, but I still remember this’—that’s Leonard Cohen in posthumous song lyrics). Then came the dancers, a quartet of women in dark red dresses, one dancer per instrument, absorbed into Beethoven’s emotion. They were occasionally airborne in galvanised elevation but only as attempt to escape, not to celebrate. At one point they moved forward and sat at the front of the stage, as if to explain something. They danced inside us. 

Scene from Maguy Marin’s Grosse Fuge in Trois Grandes Fugues, Lyon Opera Ballet. Photo: © Jaime Roque de la Cruz

The clean, the engaged, the deep? the morning, the evening, the night? air, water, earth? cerebral, social, wild? skin, flesh and blood? reveal, illuminate, absorb? Which would you remember the longest? Which would you prefer? You can of course say yes to everything if you don’t want to judge or to choose.

For this Festival season the artistic director invited three artists to take a week each in a lightly defined curatorial role, to guide us in anticipating and accessing their take on the forthcoming program highlights.

I accepted this as a personal invitation to curate my own Festival (which we all do to some degree anyway, depending on family responsibilities and other constraints)—so my curated version of Trois Grandes Fugues opens with New Zealand String Quartet sitting centre-stage playing the Beethoven through, first as music alone. (It’s in their repertoire, actually now in their dna, and they performed it here in recital only a few weeks ago. The players are second to none in the world so how ironic to have been sitting beside them in the audience). After all, musicians in a string quartet move in a kind of miniature ballet all their own—sustaining urgent eye contact, exchanging taut gestural signals and cues among themselves, not sending communication just one way towards a conductor who is controlling an orchestral ensemble. I’d have asked them to play it again for each of the three choreographies. Then as a sublime and anchoring epilogue, we’d have sat, audience and musicians, in total pitch darkness, while they played it all again a fifth and final time. That way we’d have come to know the music in live renditions (I don’t believe audiences listen with care to recordings …) and the middle slow movement, searching among sadness for some hope, might have become ours to have and to hold forever

Jennifer Shennan, 15 March 2020

Featured image: Scene from Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker’s Die Grosse Fuge in Trois Grandes Fugues, Lyon Opera Ballet. Photo © Michel Cavalca

Scene from Mám, Teaċ Daṁsa, Wellington 2020. Photo: © Ros Kavanagh

Mám. Teaċ Daṁsa

5–8 March 2020, TSB Arena, Wellington

reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

When you circle the date in your diary for a show choreographed by Michael Keegan-Dolan and his company Teaċ Daṁsa (House of Dance), you expect a wild ride with infusions of Gaelic spirit, memory and vocabulary. There will be stunning movers, musicians onstage, a choreographed mosaic of themes that may be light on narrative yet teeming with ideas, atmospheric lighting design and a visual epilogue of staggering proportions. So how does Mám deliver?

The New Zealand Festival of Arts invited a Wellington residency a year ago for Keegan-Dolan and Teaċ Daṁsa to kickstart the making of Mám, subsequently developed in tandem with Dublin Theatre Festival and Sadler’s Wells London. (At least one of the local dancers involved made it through to the final cast. The printed program gives space to ads for other Festival shows in town, for non-Festival shows and for a restaurant, yet, disappointingly, no profiles of tonight’s performers, so no highlighting is made of that local involvement. One of my absolutely favourite dancers in the world was in the workshop but isn’t in this cast. Where is he, I wonder?)

For Mám we are in the TSB Arena, a vast dark cavern of a venue, possibly the ugliest in Wellington, named for a bank. You’ve been to shows here before—David Byrne, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Patti Smith, Robert Lepage’s Seven Streams of the River Ota, once to WOW (World of Wearable Art), and some years to the Indian Festival of Light, Diwali. All of which has nothing to do with Mám, or perhaps something, or perhaps everything, if you believe in the resonant memories of place, which I do.

Keegan-Dolan’s first Wellington season in the 2008 festival, with his then Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre, was a visionary, heartbreaking Giselle, in the adjacent venue, Shed 6. Based on that season, some of us went to Melbourne in 2013 to see his riveting takes on Petrouchka and The Rite of Spring. He returned to Wellington for the 2014 festival to stage a throbbing Rian, and for 2018 his breathtaking masterpiece, Swan Lake Loch na h’Eala, both of those at St.James Theatre. Each of his works has invoked memories of the others. The Bull we only know by reputation here, but some claim it was his finest.

The word Mám is Gaelic for mountain pass, yoke, threshold, handful. The work is all of these, and is less and more than these. The opening image is of a giant-headed ram sitting centre stage, vaping smoke and playing concertina. Is he the Devil of Old Ireland, or God’s Jester? Will he be shorn for wool to knit a giant-sized Aran sweater to clothe the world? Is the choreography all just a knitting pattern for that cosmic garment? He removes his mask so these questions now become rhetorical. Downstage of the musician is a young girl wearing a white (Communion?) dress and lying on a table, her feet towards the audience.

The dancers in Teaċ Daṁsa present as a community, not a tiered hierarchy but a large group of people moving in sync, though, refreshingly, not in unison. Individuals alternate in a series of striking cameo solos. When one of them staggers to fall, a swift response from others catches him just in time. When one urgently seeks comfort, embraces are offered to her. The young girl is peripatetic among them though often seems isolated, and a number of her encounters with adults have an ambiguous aspect. The dancers fill the space with a myriad of moves at high speed yet no crashes ensue. There is much wild whirling and there’s watchful standing still. There’s opportunity on the dance floor for a couple of couples to waltz closely but only briefly, so don’t blink. There are chairs used as supports, for sitting, for planking, as dervish sleeves, or as shields and weapons of war. You might interpret these motifs and messages as literal or metaphorical, political or personal, or all of these, but there’s no doubt about the skill with which they are executed.

Scene from Mám, Teaċ Daṁsa, Wellington 2020. Photo: © Ros Kavanagh

There are no star performers but the planet among them is concertina virtuoso, Cormac Bagley, who coaxes the history of the world out of his trio of pitched instruments. Stargaze, an unconventional ensemble of remarkable musicians, arrives in the second half.

There is a token sharing of food and drink—not breaking bread, nor any elegant afternoon tea, just a few small packets of crisps (made from potatoes of course) and a can of beer or fizzy drink, today’s Last Supper? An item of clothing is removed, a jacket say, or shoes, then replaced. It’s not organized into ritual, yet some of the repeated moves suggest gestures with early religious connotation, such as hands in prayer, a sign of the cross, a genuflection, on your knees. Some of the footwork might later grow into a jig or a reel but Riverdance would be unlikely to recognise that.

Vast curtains—black, then white, then blue—are rent asunder as though an era has passed, a layer peeled away, a temple destroyed. Is this a take on history, or are we being drawn towards some inner space or sanctum, a denouement, apotheosis, apparition, prayer, hope—all, or none, of the above?

The rhythms shaping all these moves are as clear and precise as life at the level of physics. At a social level, the numerous encounters between performers might seem random yet are in fact all tightly choreographed. It makes for an unpredictable 90mins of riveting performance which ricochets around the audience leaving some thrilled, some confronted, some admiring, some bemused, some on their feet, some unengaged, some planning to come back for another viewing.

A million moves are matched to as many notes in the music. My abiding memory of the evening will be those occasional moments where percussive, precise, swift, strong movements of pulsing and heartbeating are slowed to half tempo, and a sinewy adagio of limb, head or torso is allowed to move at its own safe pace, of breathing and savouring, which is to say a language of love and compassion. Such transitions slay me, every time, even if the overall choreographic development does not transport me as totally as the poetry and pathos within other works by Keegan-Dolan have.

In various public venues in Wellington, even in churches before funerals, a show these days starts with the announcement, a legal requirement from OSH—(Occupational Safety & Health) of an earthquake warning to drop, cover and hold. Sometimes this is delivered with a coy humour that rarks an audience up so as to then deflate nervousness. Other times, as here, it was ignored—and fair enough because the show itself is earthquake enough in its implications and suggestions. A quiet walk home afterwards, along Wellington’s waterfront, city lights reflecting in the harbour, calm now though the air is still freezing from the earlier southerly, a gibbous moon in a clear sky, the same moon that shines on us and on Ireland. Ngā hau e whā.

Jennifer Shennan, 6 March 2020

Featured image: Scene from Mám, Teaċ Daṁsa, Wellington 2020. Photo: © Ros Kavanagh

Scene from Mám, Teaċ Daṁsa, Wellington 2020. Photo: © Ros Kavanagh

The Russell Kerr Lecture, February 2020

by Jennifer Shennan

In 2018, in Wellington, an annual series named the Russell Kerr Lecture in Ballet & Related Arts was established to honour the celebrated and loved father figure of ballet in New Zealand. [The series’ title was borrowed from the Lincoln Kirstein lecture in Ballet & Related Arts annually offered at New York University. We were particularly inspired by their 2016 presentation by Ian Bostridge on Song & Dance ... it’s online, and well worth listening to].

Russell Kerr rehearsing 'Swan Lake'. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 1997. Photo: © Maarten Holl
Russell Kerr rehearsing Swan Lake. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 1997. Photo: © Maarten Holl

In 2018 our inaugural lecture was delivered by Dr Michelle Potter, dance historian and writer from Canberra, who gave an insightful profile of the life and work of costume and set-designer Kristian Fredrikson, local Wellington boy made good, with a prolific career both in New Zealand and Australia. (The book resulting from Michelle’s many years of research is to be published by Melbourne Books, in July/August 2020).

Each of our sessions opens with a cameo dance performance which in 2018 was Loughlan Prior’s Lark, a tightly-stitched witty duet, a bespoke choreography for Jon Trimmer (longstanding colleague of Fredrikson) and William Fitzgerald—the older dancer savouring decades of memories and moves, the younger dancer questing to catch them. Piano accompaniment (Glinka, Rachmaninoff, Borodin ) was by Dr Hamish Robb, and Beth Chen, members of staff at Te Koki/New Zealand School of Music, which is the venue  for the event. 

In 2019, Dr Ian Lochhead’s account of the Ballets Russes visits to Australia and New Zealand in 1937 and 1939, opened with the poignant Prelude from Les Sylphides danced by Taylor-Rose Frisby from New Zealand School of Dance—and The Swan by Abigail Boyle, until recently leading artist with Royal New Zealand Ballet. Accompaniment was by Hamish Robb, piano, and Inbal Megiddo, cellist. Ian is planning to publish a longer article to be developed from his script. 

On 9 February 2020, I delivered the third lecture: Douglas Wright—dance-maker, time-keeper, meteor. Tracing metaphors in the work of dancer, choreographer, writer Douglas Wright, 1956–2018.

The opening dance performed was a menuet danced by Anne Rowse and Keith McEwing, to menuets 1 & 2 from the Partita no.1, J. S. Bach, played by Hamish Robb. The lecture began with my story of an encounter with Wright:

Douglas Wright pressed me to show him how the technique and music of baroque dance worked, sensing it as a seeding ground for much of ballet’s vocabulary. His dance intelligence and curiosity were like nothing I’ve ever encountered, so we explored the different accents and interactions that give character to a beguiling menuet, cheerful bourrée, courageous chaconne, flirtatious gavotte, madcap passepied, saucy gigue, majestic courante, tender sarabande.

Douglas liked their effects of distilled emotion, so to remember that, and him, the session opened with a menuet. Typically composed in pairs, the first, major, the second, minor, then back to the major, menuets are in triple-time, stepped in counter-rhythm to the music (2 + 4 against 3 + 3), with further asymmetry between phrase lengths. A subtle pull between movement and music—we want to see resolved, to see how two things can become one.

The handhold central to its ‘narrative’—right, then left, then both—signals a greeting, a conversation, a friendship. We know how to dance a menuet thanks to notation by English dancing master Kellom Tomlinson. The earliest European dance resource in New Zealand is a 300 year old ms. workbook by the same Tomlinson, gifted to the Alexander Turnbull Library through the generosity of the Trimmer family.

Our plan was that Jon Trimmer would dance with Anne Rowse, but once rehearsing, it became clear that Jon’s long-standing ankle injury would prevent him from enjoying the experience. The initial injury from years back didn’t stop him dancing then but he has carried it ever since, a price that dancers often pay. Keith McEwing stepped up to take Anne’s hand on the upbeat, because passing the baton is what dancers do.   

In the following lecture I read a number of excerpts from Douglas’ writings, what he called ‘autobiographical fiction’, Ghost Dance (Penguin 2004) and Terra Incognito (Penguin 2006), and from his two volumes of poems, published by Steele Roberts, Laughing Mirror and Cactusfear. Video illustrations were sourced from the documentary Haunting Douglas, made by Leanne Pooley in 2003. The film is an award-winning profile of the work and life of arguably New Zealand’s leading performer and dance-maker, a legend in his lifetime whose astonishingly prolific output will be remembered for decades to come. Haunting Douglas is available on Vimeo, or for purchase from Spasifik Films, and is highly recommended viewing.

Planning is already under way for the next lecture in the series which will be held on Sunday 10 February 2021, with details of topic and presenter to be confirmed.

Jennifer Shennan, 19 February 2020

Featured image: Portrait of Russell Kerr, 2007

Helen Moulder and Sir Jon Trimmer recreating a moment from 'Petrouchka' in 'Meeting Karpovsky', Willow Productions 2019. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

2019–Dance Highlights from New Zealand

by Jennifer Shennan

Happy New Year to all readers of ‘On Dancing’—even though the weeks are passing, the year still feels new … but in saying that, might I add that we have all been following the numerous stories of courage and heartbreak as the summer fires in Australia have been taking such a terrible toll in the loss of life, and wreaking havoc to homes and livelihoods. Kia kaha. Find and take courage.

In reading Michelle’s highlights of her year, it is clear that Liam Scarlett’s Dangerous Liasons for Queensland Ballet was a standout. How disappointing that the earlier path which was set with his ballet A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in co-production between Royal New Zealand Ballet and Queensland Ballet, was not continued with this project. The team of Scarlett, Tracy Grant Lord in design and Nigel Gaynor’s truly wonderful amalgam of Mendelssohn’s score gave our company one of the very best works ever in its repertoire. That notion of collaboration between the companies had so much promise, both in terms of productions but also the possibilities of dancer exchange. All the ways that New Zealand can exchange and strengthen dance ties with Australia make sound common sense from artistic, economic and pedagogic points of view, and could only enhance international awareness of dance identity in our part of the world.

Outstanding memories of 2019 here in Wellington started with the interesting residency of Michael Keegan-Dolan and his ensemble of dancers, working also with local students or free-lance dancers as he began preparations towards the season of Mam, for the International Arts Festival this March. Alex Leonhartsberger in the cast is as compelling a performer as ever, and we welcomed echoes of Loch na h’Eala, the inspired Gaelic take on Swan Lake from this company back in our 2018 festival.

Other 2019 memories would include Andrea Schermoly’s Stand to Reason in an RNZB season; Victoria Columbus’ Fibonacci Series in NZDance Company season; the fresh setting for Orbiculus—NZSchool of Dance choreographic season; Sarah Foster-Sproull’s Orchids at Circa Theatre. Loughlan Prior’s Hansel & Gretel for RNZB showed him in command of all the forces needed for a full-length work and the choreographer/composer collaboration with Claire Cowan worked particularly well. Images of Paul Mathews in his role as The Witch remain impressive.

Kirby Selchow as Gretel, Shaun James Kelly as Hansel and Paul Mathews as the Witch in Hansel & Gretel. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2019. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

Another performance that lingers in the memory was that by NZSD student Rench Soriano, in Five Variations on a Theme, in their Graduation program. His career, unfortunately not local, will be one to watch. On that same program Raewyn Hill’s choreography Carnival.4, had a very strong presence. It is heartening to see earlier graduates from the School returning to mount works in the mature stages of their careers.

If I must choose my single personal highlight, it would be the last of the year—Meeting Karpovsky—the play by Helen Moulder and Jon Trimmer. Just the two of them in the cast but between them they offer a poignant and profound depth-sounding of what dance can be and mean to an audience. The work continues to hold its power and will not be forgotten by those who were drawn in to its mystery and alchemy.

The upcoming Festival will have a broad dance program, with high expectations for the Keegan-Dolan work, as well as the visiting Lyon Ballet in Trois Grandes Fugues—(three distinct choreographies to the same music, an intriguing idea) and Lucy Marinkovich’s Strasbourg 1518.

Happy New Year to all.

Jennifer Shennan, 13 January 2020

Featured image: Helen Moulder and Sir Jon Trimmer recreating a moment from Petrouchka in Meeting Karpovsky. Willow Productions, 2019. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

Helen Moulder and Sir Jon Trimmer recreating a moment from 'Petrouchka' in 'Meeting Karpovsky', Willow Productions 2019. Photo: © Stephen A’Court
Rench Soriano in 'Five Variations on a Theme'. New Zealand School of Dance, 2019. Photo © Stephen A'Court

New Zealand School of Dance Graduation Season, 2019

20-30 November 2019. Te Whaea Theatre, Wellington
reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

NZSD’s Graduation season always displays the talent and enthusiasm of graduating dancers who, after three years’ training, are poised to venture forth and seek ways to make a professional career. Commitment and courage are needed in equal measure. Selected first and second year students are included in the casting, which is credit to them and their tutors since no dancer is less than fully prepared and present.

This year’s season combines classical ballet and contemporary dance works, eight in all, on the same program. (Last year’s had alternate nights for classical and contemporary works). Either formula offers the chance for us to consider how the two dance lineages as taught in the School, contrast with, or relate to, each other in the professional dance world—in technique, movement vocabulary, choreographic themes, aesthetic choices, relationship to music.

While many aspects of each are distinct, dances labelled ‘classical’ or ‘contemporary’ are not the opposites of each other. My take is that it’s the individual choreographer who places a work where it lies on the spectrum. If it’s good, then dance is the winner on the night. Memories of a masterpiece by Jiří Kylián in a  recent Grad. program combined performers from both streams of training and demonstrated that truth (as also did a recent film viewing of Douglas Wright’s masterpiece from Royal New Zealand Ballet repertoire, rose and fell—truly superb contemporary choreography being performed by ballet dancers. QED.)

O body swayed to music, o brightening glance,
how can we know the dancer from the dance?    
William Butler Yeats

The performance opens with Concerto Barocco by George Balanchine, to the Double Violin concerto by Bach. The clarity of music is matched in dance line, alignment and groupings. It is luminous, timeless, time less, time more.

My verses cannot comment
on your immortal moment or tell you what you mean;
only Balanchine
has the razor edge and knows that art of language         
Robert Lowell

Velociraptor, by Scott Ewen, to music by Kangding Ray, is a premiere. The opening section is swift and driven. Among the cast of nine, we notice a wrist bandage on one dancer. Have the rehearsals come at a cost? We notice another. Soon the bandages unravel and become strings that tie and bind, forming mesmerizing tensions between groupings, and becoming cats’ cradles for bodies lifted horizontally.

Mind is music…
Invisible dancer who dances quicksilver vision
 
James Schevill

Courtney Lim and Tessa Redman in Velociraptor. New Zealand School of Dance, 2019. Photo © Stephen A’Court

Not Odd Human, by Sam Coren, to music by Richard Lester, recently premiered at Tempo Dance Festival. It’s a manic mediaeval mayhem, its sardonic humour propelling characters from long ago and faraway into our midst. Mad Joan and Dull Grethe are there, Joan of Arc, Lady Godiva perhaps? You could credit Breugel with its design. 

Such rollicking measures, prance as they dance
In Breugel’s great picture, the Kermess.
William Carlos Williams

Five Variations on a Theme, by David Fernandez, to a Bach Violin Concerto, is a solo danced by Rench Soriano. Everything about this phenomenally gifted dancer, a second year student, combines precision with poetry, and is a joy to witness. His dancing is redolent of his tutor Qi Huan, who has rehearsed him in this work. For many years Huan was the leading dancer in Royal New Zealand Ballet, where his peerless command of technique gave him the expressive freedom that dance at its soaring best can offer. Before him, Ou Lu, before him Martin James, before him Jon Trimmer, before him Poul Gnatt. Soriano is clearly profiting from his teacher and this pedigree heritage, and will make a fine career for himself.

The dancer dances. The dance does not dance…
The saved world dances, and the dance dances.     
Jacques Audiberti

 Re:Structure, by Ross McCormack, to music by Jason Wright, was another premiere work. A 5 metre long pole is the central prop around which the cast of 8 dancers  manipulate and explore its positioning. One dancer vertically atop the pole makes a striking image to which you could supply your own narrative, but there is deliberately no denouement to the work overall.

Your props had always been important:…
Things without a name you fell upon

Or through …
Richard Howard

Round of Angels, by Gerald Arpino, from 1983, to music of Mahler, has a cast of six males, then joined by a single female. As a couple, Brittany-Jayde Duwner and Jordan Lennon dance with secure command and lyrical expression, becoming the central tender core  of the work.

I said that she had danced heart’s truth 
W.B Yeats

Brittany-Jayde Duwner and Jordan Lennon in Round of Angels. New Zealand School of Dance, 2019. Photo © Stephen A’Court

Handel—A Celebration by Helgi Tomasson, to excerpts by Handel, has a large cast of spirited movers who rise to the spirit of the celebratory music. Rehearsed by Christine Gunn and Nadine Tyson, the staging had enthusiasm and style in equal and full measure.               

Dancer: O you translation
Of all transiency into action, how you made it clear!
And the whirl of the finish, that tree of motion,
Didn’t it wholly take in the hard-won year
Rainer Maria Rilke

Carnival.4, by Raewyn Hill, was anything but carnivalesque in its mood. Its effect was percussive, tight, driven, insistent, urgent, pulsing. It evoked youth in support of each other, demanding to be listened to.

What is the hardest task of Art?
To clear the ground and make a start …
To tell the tale…
That when the millions want the few
Those can make Heaven here and do.
John Masefield

New Zealand School of Dance Contemporary Students in Carnivale.4, 2019. Photo © Stephen A’Court

Nothing about dancing is easy—it’s just meant to look that way, and the quality of sprezzatura, nonchalance, while delivering virtuosic choreography is the one you’d aspire to. The most outstanding dancer of the evening is for me the personification of that gift of grace, and will surely make the world a better place wherever he dances. We all need to consider and study that quality, and pray for a bit of it in our lives, dancing and all the rest.

Come to the edge.
We might fall.
 Come to the edge.
It’s too high!
Come to the edge.
And they came,
and he pushed,
And they flew.
Christopher Logue

Jennifer Shennan, 22 November 2019

Featured image: Rench Soriano in Five Variations on a Theme. New Zealand School of Dance, 2019. Photo © Stephen A’Court

Rench Soriano in 'Five Variations on a Theme'. New Zealand School of Dance, 2019. Photo © Stephen A'Court