Reading during Wellington Lockdown

by Jennifer Shennan

  • Out Loud
    by Mark Morris [Penguin Press]
  • Behind the Scenes at the Ballets Russes – Stories from a Silver Age
    by Michael Meylac [Methuen/Drama]

I am always willing to get down on my hands and knees in Wellington’s Unity Bookshop to search for whatever few titles might be on their Dance shelf, down at floor level below the Music shelves, in case something new has arrived since my last genuflection.

That’s the way I discovered Mark Morris’ memoir, Out Loud, last year, and found much stimulation in his vigorous style of memoir-writing. Various friends have not shared my appreciation of the book, finding its ‘no-holds barred’ expression hard-going, but to me its frankness and honesty were refreshing. ‘Judge me if you dare’ Morris seems to be saying. I do judge him, though rather by the musicality in much of his choreography than by the gossip and intrigue with which he furnishes the book.

He writes profiles of different artists and colleagues that vary in their appeal, but I found much interest and insight in the sustained account of his friendship and working partnership with American composer, Lou Harrison. Harrison had spent a year in New Zealand on a Fulbright fellowship back in the early 1980s and his enthusiasm for gamelan music, indeed for many Asian musics, we all found invigorating. I choreographed to his Solstice, (previously choreographed by Jean Erdman of The Open Eye theatre in New York) so I came to know Lou very well, and caught up with him again on subsequent study visits to America. Morris’ every word about Lou evokes his generosity of spirit, the uncompromising commitment that hallmarked all of his composition work, and his abiding interest in dance as a parallel art. Reading about Lou was like meeting up again with a dear friend after many years.     

The Mark Morris Dance Company brought Handel’s L’Allegro, Il Penseroso ed Il Moderato to  the International Arts Festival in Wellington in 1998. Live music was always Morris’ point of departure so the sizeable vocal and instrumental forces were sourced locally. That has meant you can easily find singers or players who were involved in the production, and who still rate it as one of the highlights of their musical careers.

To read Out Loud in tandem with Joan Acocella’s earlier biography of Morris is an interesting exercise that aids our evaluation of this prolific choreographer, while confirming my continuing admiration for Acocella’s outstanding skills as a dance writer.

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Another more recent find from Unity Books’ bottom shelf was Behind the Scenes at the Ballets Russes, by Michael Meylac. It has proved a hugely rewarding read.  [Translation is by Rosanna Kelly].

Meylac’s young days as an ardent follower of ballet in his native Russia, and his subsequent work as a scholar of Russian literature and history, now for decades living and teaching outside his homeland, make him admirably equipped to provide a political and social background of European ballet history, and to discuss the development of distinctive ballet styles in different eras and countries. I often say that the history of ballet is the history of the world, and while I don’t expect anyone should listen to me on the topic, I think we all should listen to Meylac.

A poignant Preface to the English edition is subtitled The West in Russia and Russia in the Westa permeable membrane. The following Introduction is an erudite and thoughtful overview of the way the Russian ballet diaspora spread out in waves across the world during the 20th century … originally via Diaghilev’s and Pavlova’s companies, and subsequently through the number of other ‘Russian Ballet’ companies that formed in their wake and toured to far corners of the world. But that worked not only in one direction and it is the genius of this book that allows Meylac to identify many continuities and connections, within ballet’s endeavours, rather than the single block treatment of just one country or one company, as so many books have already done. His Introduction provides context for the interviews that form the main part of the book, conducted with more than thirty practitioners of the many generations in this ballet lineage.

The interviews are in two parts, then divided further into clusters—Part OneThe Ballets Russes—In the Shadow of Diaghilev; Remembering Colonel de Basil’s Baby Ballerinas; The Dancers; The BaIlets Russes in Australia; The Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in America. Part Two—The Marquis de Cuevas and Others.

Interviews are with Rachel Cameron (on Tamara Karsavina—a pearl), Tamara Geva, Alexandra Danilova (if star rating I would give this a 5), Irina Baronova, Tamara Toumanova (a black pearl this one), Tatiana Riabouchinska and more and more (27 in total). It brings tears to your reading eyes to catch the tumultuous early decades of the 20th century as background to these stories. it is refreshing, sometimes riveting, to hear so many voices, and each reader will be bound to find traces and links to their own dance experience, maybe only two degrees of separation between their teacher and someone who may have danced with Nijinsky, or been hired or fired by Diaghilev, or been in or at the premiere of legendary productions—The Firebird, say—to learn what Pavlova said when she watched a class, hear how starving dancers found food, or what Fokine said when Hitler marched by in the street below. Pavlova and Fokine were both here in New Zealand so you can place a couple of jigsaw pieces into the wider picture of this country’s dance history.

I was intrigued by the interview with Nini Theilade, born in Java but who finished up in Denmark where she choreographed works on the Royal Danish Ballet that Poul Gnatt danced in. There was further interest in the interview with Jean Babilée, a stellar performer with les Ballets des Champs Elysées when Gnatt joined that company immediately after World War II. That will perhaps be where he gained inspiration for the legendary Bluebird that he danced here in 1953, in the same Opera House in Wellington where Pavlova had danced in 1926, and where Loughlan Prior’s Firebird has just premiered in 2021. And so it continues, the ties that bind. The recent remarkable documentary Force of Nature Natalia, about Osipova, offers contemporary evidence that new choreography can still be appreciated on both sides of the Ballet Curtain, ‘the permeable membrane’, despite the political treachery that exists around them in the impermeable Iron Curtain that has rung down again.

All the above were reasons to read the book, but it is Meylac’s dedication to John Neumeier, choregrafo assoluto, and his exquisite final interview with him, plus his Afterword Like a tree, the art of ballet has many roots…that would make me buy it twice. Neumeier’s prolific choreographic oeuvre and directorial responsibility for Hamburg Ballet (since 1973!) are phenomenal achievements that leave other ballet companies in the shade. Meylac identifies Neumeier as the most deeply inspired inheritor of the best of the Russian heritage—his work with Galina Ulanova, his closeness to Vera Volkova, and his museum collection of works by and about his adored Nijinsky, and his new choreographies revisiting masterpieces are all unparalleled elsewhere.

Meylac’s discerning book reeks with integrity — looking back in ballet history so as to look forward, guiding us to understand so as to appreciate, leaving varying opinions verbatim to speak for themselves, and celebrating the lifelines that secure our dancelines.

footnote – Hamburg Ballet is my favourite ballet company on the planet and I am still in thrall to the Goethe Institut for offering me, back in 2005, many weeks of a dance study tour through Germany that wound up in Hamburg, enabling me to see eight of Neumeier’s full-length ballets, each in a ‘one night stand’ through a searingly memorable week. No other ballet company on Earth begins to match that production record. I’ve returned to Hamburg since, to repeat the pleasure, and just to be sure I hadn’t imagined it all on the previous visit. It was worth another separate trip to Copenhagen to see his The Little Mermaid by Royal Danish Ballet, a choreography I’ll be taking to Heaven with me when my time comes. It’s extra thrill that ‘our’ Martin James has many times danced the lead role in Neumeier’s Ulysses.

I’ve always enjoyed the synchronicity that Cloud Gate Dance Theatre in Taiwan, my all-time favourite contemporary dance company (now that Douglas Wright has gone) was also founded by Lin Hwai-Min in the same year as Neumeier’s company, in 1973. The repertoire of both companies has been exclusively of their choreographer/director’s works. These are phenomenal periods of longevity in performance arts and demonstrate that dance companies can survive on artistic genius with administration serving that vision, rather than the reverse situation of bureaucracies controlling artistic output.

Jennifer Shennan, 1 September 2021

Josephine Baker. Legendary dancer

by Jennifer Shennan

Josephine Baker, singer and dancer, heroine of wartime French Resistance, later a civil rights and peace activist, will be re-interred at the Panthéon monument in Paris, making the entertainer the first black woman to receive the country’s highest honour.

American-born but by choice a Parisian, Baker, who died in 1975, was buried in Monaco, dressed in a French military uniform with the medals she received for her role as part of the French Resistance. President Macron has announced that a re-interment ceremony is planned for November 30, 2021, at the Paris monument, which houses the remains of scientist Marie Curie, French philosopher Voltaire, writer Victor Hugo and other French luminaries.

Born in St Louis, Missouri, in 1906, Baker moved to Paris in 1925 in flight from the racism and segregation she encountered in the United States. She performed at le Théâtre des Champs-Elysées and later at les Folies-Bergère in Paris, becoming a mega-star, adulated by many followers. She posed for Picasso, among other artists; F. Scott Fitzgerald and numerous writers praised her, with Colette calling her a ‘beautiful panther’. André Levinson wrote:  ‘Some of her poses, with her waist curved inward, her rump projecting, her arms interlaced and lifted in semblance of a phallic symbol … evoke all the marvels of noble black statuary: she is no longer the dancing girl… she is the Black Venus…’

Baker, together with Maurice Chevalier, entertained many of the French troops, during WWII, and also was a Resistance courier of information passed between the French and their allies as she used her celebrity status for travel purposes (with documents hidden in her underwear).

Baker took part in 1963 in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom alongside the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., who made his ‘I have a Dream’ speech there. She had become a French citizen after her marriage to industrialist Jean Lion in 1937. Between 1954 and 1965, three husbands later, she adopted 12 orphaned or destitute children of different ethnicities, calling them her ‘rainbow tribe’. One of her most celebrated numbers was ‘J’ai deux amours—mon pays et Paris.’

A fine biography, Jazz Cleopatra, by Phyllis Rose was published in 1989. The International Encyclopedia of Dance entry on Baker has an inspiring cameo of her by Marie-Francoise Christout, which reads—‘The “black pearl” is remembered for her feline walk, her warmth, and her exceptional rhythmic spontaneity. She received France’s Croix de Guerre for her work during the war, as well as the medal of the City of Paris and membership in the Legion’.  The French certainly know how to honour and re-bury their dead.

Jennifer Shennan, 23 August 2021

Featured image: Josephine Baker, 1949. Photo: Carl van Vechten, Van Vechten Collection at Library of Congress, Public Domain

Many Happy (re)Turns

By Jennifer Shennan

Anne Rowse is a well-known and much-loved figure in the New Zealand dance scene. Her 90th birthday was recently celebrated in style at several events in her home town of Wellington, and at a family gathering at Queenstown in the following days. London called in long-distance, as did many colleagues and former students from a global spread of cities. 

Anne had early ballet training in New Zealand, continued that in London, then had a performance career with Festival Ballet between 1952 and 1960, when she danced alongside fellow New Zealander Russell Kerr. She retired from performing and returned home with husband Ken Sudell to start a family. After some years she commenced teaching and in 1979 was appointed Director of the National School of Ballet, in 1982 re-named New Zealand School of Dance to mark the introduction of contemporary dance as well as teacher-training courses.

Everyone invited to the birthday events accepted, since ‘Joyous occasions are few. We will celebrate’ (that’s a quote from composer, the late Douglas Lilburn). Perhaps they were also hoping that Anne’s renowned optimism, elegance and positivity would prove infectious, and that they might catch some of whatever she’s got.

Anne recently performed the central role in Doris Humphrey’s movingly beautiful Air for the G-String, something she has done maybe a dozen times over the years, her serenity and presence more poignant on every occasion. (Air, along with a dozen other Humphrey and Limon repertoire, was first staged by Louis Solino when he was on the faculty at New Zealand School of Dance. Anne rates it as a major coup to have appointed Solino to the staff since none of those fine classic choreographies would otherwise ever have been seen here). A number of other highly successful initiatives date back to her time at the School. It is heartening to learn that Anne is mid-stream writing her Memoirs so there will be a record of important dimensions in New Zealand dance.

Early in the week an open class of Renaissance and Baroque dance included Anne dancing a menuet-à-deux from Kellom Tomlinson’s 18th century treatise. With Robert Oliver on bass viol, and Keith McEwing as partner, she brought a striking grace to the menuet—(I here declare a very happy ‘conflict of interest’ since I set the dance). Matz Skoog (former artistic director of RNZBallet) was in the room and reference to his experience in late Baroque theatre productions at Drottningholm in Sweden gave an extra resonance to the lines and legacy we trace in ballet history—not for old time’s sake, but for future time’s sake.

Anne Rowse and Keith McEwing in Menuet-à-deux. Photo: © Sharon Vanesse

A few days later a large crowd of well-wishers attended an event at New Zealand School of Dance where director Garry Trinder and associate director Christine Gunn, together with present and past staff and students, acknowledged Anne’s contribution and celebrated her milestone. Other speakers included Liz Davey and Deirdre Tarrant, and The Royal Academy of Dance, itself celebrating 100 years of achievement, made a presentation of the President’s Award on behalf of Luke Rittner from London.

The junior scholars performed a piece set by Sue Nicholls, a contemporary work by Holly Newsome was danced by 1st year students, then the pas de deux from the second movement of Concerto by Kenneth MacMillan was given a flawless performance by Louise Camelbeke and Zachary Healy. The luminous choreography, to the Shostakovich Second Piano Concerto, beautifully played by Philip O’Malley, was a blessing without words.

Louise Camelbeke and Zachary Healy in Kenneth MacMillan’s Concerto. New Zealand School of Dance, 2021. Photo:© Stephen A’Court

The school song—E te whaea e—was given a robust rendition by all students and staff, thus ending the presentation in high spirits.

Dance … so intensely in and of the present … can equally invoke other times, places and people, their work then and now, their memories of then, and the books they write now.

Many happy returns, Anne. We celebrate 21sts, why not 91sts? See you next year.

Jennifer Shennan, 19 August 2021   

Featured image: Anne Rowse, 2015. Photo: © Kerry Ferigo

Navarasa. Mudra Dance Company

2 – 4 July 2021, Little Theatre, Lower Hutt
reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

For over 30 years Shri Vivek Kinra has been teaching Bharata Natyam in Wellington, at Mudra Dance Academy. There have been hundreds of pupils over the decades, many reaching advanced level and performing the arangetram, two-hour solo recital, that marks their professional debut. Others have arrived more recently in New Zealand and are of Indian, Sri Lankan or Fijian origin. One is of Anglo-Irish descent, proving anyone could be in if prepared to do the work.

Kinra draws on this pool of talent to form Mudra Dance Company, presenting traditional and new works in seasons that have become a shining beacon in the city’s annual dance program. The technique and expression from each performer is always delivered with the assured musicality that is built in to Bharata Natyam from young pupils’ first class (5 year olds have been known to weep at the door of the Academy since pupils are not accepted until the age of six).

Kinra choreographs and directs these seasons but announced his own retirement from performing in 2015. Fortunately for us he continues to perform mimed cameos of each choreography, by way of narrated introduction to the themes and moods to expect. These little jewels are like dances you can hold in your hand, and are alone worth the time and ticket price. His own training was at Kalakshetra, in Chennai, where he still maintains strong connections, and works with colleagues, Gayatri Lakshmanan chief among them, and the musicians who play the compositions recorded on Kinra’s annual visits to India.

Of the eight items on the program, six are choreographed by Kinra. The main one, Navarasa, which translates as Nine Emotions, lends its name to the whole program. 

It is a stunning depiction of the gamut of valour, love, wonder, amusement, disgust, anger, fear, compassion and benevolence as experienced by the Mother Goddess Meenakshi in various encounters with gods, demons, humans and animals both tame and wild. In Tamil sung poetry, it is, as I was expecting, a miniature masterpiece.

(l-r) Emotions of anger, wonder and valour. Mudra Dance Company, 2021. Photo: © Gerry Keating

In its mimed prologue, there was a sudden dying of the light. Kinra continued in the dark but knew it would be better if we could see him. A voice cried out for the gods to send light, which will have shaken awake the lighting technician to do as bid, and all was well. Was this part of the choreography all along? A nod to the Covid year that has darkened so many dance stages around the world? Could have been, should have been. You just have to turn the light back on and carry on as before. Vaccines and danced prayers will see us through.

Another item, this time in Sanskrit, is the Shlokas from Shri Krishna Karnamritam. The intoxicating beauty of this god is depicted through musk paste on his forehead, a jewel on his chest, a pearl at the tip of his nose, bracelets, sandalwood paste and a pearl necklace. But wait, there’s more. A herd of cows, a flock of peacocks, dark clouds and strikes of lightning. The piece ends in a dance about dancing—high sophistication this. The Ras Leela is a renowned depiction of ecstasy, usually performed with sticks that percussively mark the beat and interweaving positions of the dancers. Here subtle handclaps were substituted for sticks and it was poignant to hear a swelling response that had a number of the audience gently joining in that handclapping.  

I first saw a Ras Leela danced by a large group from the Indian community at the first Pacific Arts Festival in Suva in 1972 (when Kinra was a babe in arms). Performed by 100 dancers out of doors, it was staged by the artists based at the Indian Cultural Centre in Fiji, five musicians and dancers resident in a full-time program for two years at a time, funded by ICCR from India. A short while later Professor Jenny McLeod brought those artists to Victoria University for a memorable intensive workshop at the School of Music. Political events in Fiji followed, the Centre was closed, and the next time I visited Suva it was a sorry sight to see the once vibrant place now empty and derelict with doors and windows creaking on their hinges and banging open in the wind. Life goes on but it’s hard to claim that all of history is progress. 

There is a long and interesting history of Indian dance in New Zealand—beginning with Sivaram’s and Louise Lightfoot’s visit in 1950s, Liong Xi in 1960s, Amala Devi in 1970, the Balachandrans, Chandrabhanu, Kanan Deobhakta, two astonishing visits by Kathakali dance theatre, and there are others. Fortunately for audiences who wish to deepen their appreciation of the art, there is a vast literature on the subject. Two leading scholars of the field, Dr Kapila Vatsyayan and Dr Sunhil Kothari, have died recently, but were both aware of Kinra’s work here in New Zealand, in the world map of dance.

There was an exuberant cadence to the performance in the final Thillana, choreographed by the late Rukmini Devi, founder of Kalakshetra. (She too once visited New Zealand, as guest of the Theosophical Society). Mudra’s line-up of radiantly costumed and bejewelled dancers was a joy to the capacity audience. It is not to demote any of their previous memorable seasons to mark Navarasa as their strongest choreography yet.

Jennifer Shennan, 03 July 2021

Featured image: Senior dancers of the Mudra Dance Company, 2021. Photo: © Gerry Keating

Te Mauri o Pōhutu. Kia Mau Festival

Fridays through June, 2021. Toi Poneke Arts Centre Gallery, Wellington
…from Jennifer Shennan

At Toi Poneke Gallery last Friday evening, we watched Te Mauri o Pōhutu (The Life-Force of Pōhutu) , a lyrical duo performed by Bianca Hyslop and Paige Shand, with vocals by Tūī Matira Ranapiri Ransfield, with Rowan Pierce as sound and spatial designer. The event, with an extended karanga of welcome and challenge, opened the month-long Kia Mau Festival in Wellington.

This is a dance of flow and surge and curve and turn and return, of arc and arch and sweep and pull and tilt—not a straight limb nor an angled joint in sight, no pointed hook for a dancer’s foot, no self-conscious strut or mannered striving of torso and limbs, just two beautifully-tuned bodies, dressed in the sacred red of blood and of mana, moving with grace and nature, dancing a twenty-minute lullaby and homage to an old woman’s life, to family, to village, to history and to the present, to gravity, to the air around and above, with their bare feet on the same ground we all stand on. The dance is an embrace, a mapping, a marking. Bianca has said elsewhere … ‘I’m not interested in making works of protest, rather to create living works of beauty that serve as reminders…’ and in her program note here …’Te Mauri o Pōhutu is a sensual offering that addresses the fragility of memory, connection to whenua and reclamation of culture from within foreign frameworks.’  Amen and Kia Mau to that.

After a koru of curving swirling hands, growing into arms then swelling into torso spirals, we are reminded of the kowhaiwhai shapes of painted ceiling panels in nga whare whakairo, meetings houses, and of the tossing flights of poi in Maori dance. An intriguing section follows with the two dancers picking up marker pens to draw the outline of a village on an adjacent boardfirst the landline, then the road, the houses, a church, a bridge, a river – a story without words.

Movement in the following section suggests stronger claim to emotions of closeness, strife, then a mood of acceptance as the two dancers move behind a screen to make shadows of their thoughts. It’s a poignant image of mind and body taking their leave of each other…followed by video of Te Pōhutu in close-up. The potency of the geyser’s force is clear, but the dance has found a space to co-exist in its shadow. We all know how unpredictable geysers and volcanoes can be, witness the horrors of the Whakaari Island recent eruption, with devastating injuries and loss of life. At the entrance to the gallery, we have passed a plinth on which sits a tiny ‘sculpture’, a cone of sand, a miniature mountain. A reminder. 

Toi Pōneke, Rotorua’s famous cone geyser, Pōhutu, has been mecca for decades of tourists watching and wondering at its power. For centuries before that it has been a central landmark in Ohinemutu village for Te Arawa people, whose home is Rotorua and surrounding areas. We all as children watched Pōhutu, and marvelled at its mighty forces escaping from under the ground, wondering if it would blow all the way up to the sky and take us with it. The geyser blows on average every twenty minutes—the same duration of this dance which has borrowed its name. The geyser will have blown several times as I have been writing this appreciation, and probably at least once while you have been reading it.

All photos: © Roc Torio

Jennifer Shennan, 6 June 2021

A Tiwi woman dancing

… from Jennifer Shennan

Tiwi woman Gerardine Tungatalum performing a relationship dance, 1988. Photo: © Heide Smith

There are perhaps 1,000 images in the iconography I have assembled over decades from my interest in the anthropology of dance and in world dance traditions. I was encouraged in this project by my teacher, Professor Roderyk Lange, whose publications demonstrate his encyclopaedic knowledge of dance in many times and places. 

Of all these images, there is one I return to again and again, believing it to be the most beautiful dance photograph I know. Taken by Heide Smith, it appears in her book Tiwi: The Life and Art of Australia’s Tiwi People, published in 1990. The caption reads ‘a Relationship dance’, which in turn reminds me of the book by anthropologist Jane Goodale—Tiwi Wives, a book containing detailed accounts of traditional indigenous dances, with particular reference to the ways that different gestures and movements of certain parts of the body are recognised as defining the relationships between a dancer and those for whom the dance is being performed on a given occasion.    

In the photo a woman, Gerardine Tungatalum, stands poised on one leg, her other foot raised behind the calf of the supporting leg. Her hips are swayed to one side to counterbalance the raised foot, then the waist curves to correct, so that the upper body comes back into the vertical line, thus creating a sinuous curve that weaves back and forth across the central axis from foot to head. One arm is stretched out low to the side, the other arm bent with her hand lifted to touch her forehead. The overall impression conveyed is one of serene equilibrium, with deep involvement in the meaning and mood of the dance. 

There are countless graphic images in sculpture and painting of the many classical dance traditions of India. The associated literature is possibly the most extensive and detailed analysis of a peoples’ dance aesthetics and related mythology anywhere in the world. Celebrated scholars, Dr Kapila Vatsyayan and Dr Sunhil Kothari, have both written about this trope of a dancing body simultaneously moving in and out of balance, as though in subtle defiance of gravity. I am reminded of those writings by this exquisite photo portrait of a Tiwi woman.

Heide Smith’s photograph is framed by two figures—a  woman seated on the ground watching, possibly singing, possibly marking percussion on her knee, and a man who sits nearby, also watching intently. Other photographs in the book suggest they are recordings of actual situations and events, with no indication that they are being posed for a visiting photographer. It is a gift indeed to be able to capture such a sense of movement and context within a still image of a dance, and I thank Heide for it.

Jennifer Shennan, 20 May 2021

Subtle Dances. BalletCollective Aotearoa with New Zealand Trio

8 & 9 April 2021. Bruce Mason Theatre, Takapuna, Auckland
Auckland Arts Festival
reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

This long-awaited premiere season of a new contemporary ballet company, BalletCollective Aotearoa, was nothing short of a triumph. Come the curtain-call, many in the sizeable audience were on their feet to salute the choreographers and composers, the dancers, musicians and designers, the courage and commitment—the whole fresh resilient New Zealand-ness of it all. Many are in the team but artistic director and producer, Turid Revfeim, is responsible, and deserves acclaim.

Revfeim has led her stalwart little troupe of dancers in and out, around and back through the Covid-induced challenges and shadows of these past many months. They must have walked close to the edge more than once, as funding began then disappeared (the Minister of Arts might ask questions about that), lockdowns descended (‘Just do the right thing and stay home’), schedules postponed (‘Well, let’s just re-schedule then’), flights and accommodation booked then cancelled (‘OK, let’s just re-book then’), ‘Let’s just abandon the project since there’s no budget and it’s so hard to keep going?’ (‘Never, never, never. We will dance’). ‘Intrepid’ and ‘indomitable’ are the adjectives they have earned.

There were shades of 1953 and the pioneering endeavours of Edmund Hillary, or perhaps I mean Poul Gnatt, as the performance got under way. The intensely passionate and utterly stunning musicians of New Zealand Trio were right there, just off-centre, upstage left, for the whole performance. By that staging, the three separate choreographies on the program merged as a trefoil of faith, a shamrock of hope, a clover of charity. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. J. S. Bach walked 400 miles to hear a concert. I only had to sit on a plane for one hour.

There is an impressive interview with Turid Revfeim on RNZ Nine to Noon, 9 April, (the podcast on RNZ website is well worth listening to), which sets the background and context of this courageous ballet initiative. If you think this is a rave review of the performance and of the entire enterprise, you are right.  

Scene from Sarah Knox’s Last Time We Spoke. BalletCollective Aoteraoa, 2021. Photo: © John McDermott

The opening work—Last Time We Spoke—by Sarah Knox, to composition by Rhian Sheehan, was an abstract yet poetic treatment of themes of how to be alone together. The cast of six dancers in fluid pairings across several sections of the work found connection in the lyrical music to make friends with consolation and memory. Tabitha Dombroski and William Fitzgerald were striking among the cast of six dancers.

Helix, the second work by Cameron Macmillan, one of New Zealand’s ex-pat choreographers whose work we all want to see more of, borrowed its title from the music, Helix, composed by John Psathas, leading New Zealand composer. It was preceded by an excerpt from Island Songs, a different composition by Psathas, a staggeringly virtuosic challenge to musicians who rose to every thrilling, throbbing quaver of its melodic percussion.

Scene from Cameron Macmillan’s Helix. BalletCollective Aoteraoa, 2021. Photo: © John McDermott

In Helix, the drama continued as Macmillan traced a journey, not exactly narrative but with suggestions of story nonetheless—a woman, a man, and shades of relationships between them. Some woman. This was the phenomenal Abigail Boyle who is quite simply the leading ballet dancer in the country, no contest. Just standing still she is dancing, such is her sense of line and presence, but when she moves, o my. Her investment in the role as she journeyed round the corners of the stage carrying her chair, and through the centre of the stage as she contained emotion in her every movement, was a deeply anchored yet airborne performance. Boyle is a national treasure of dance in New Zealand and we are overjoyed to see her performing still at the peak of her powers. William Fitzgerald partnered her with a strong and sensitive quality that reminded us of his dancing which has also been much missed here of late. Tabitha Dombrowski and Medhi Angot were powerful among the committed cast of eight performers.

Scene from Loughlan Prior’s Subtle Dances. BalletCollective Aoteraoa, 2021. Photo: © John McDermott

The third work, Subtle Dances, choreographed by Loughlan Prior, composed by Claire Cowan, takes its title from the music, which in turn becomes the title for the triple-bill as well. Prior and Cowan are a pairing of major talents. The work explores and explodes with themes of gender blurring—swirls of hot tango as the boys and girls and boys come out to play. It is saucy, spicy, dark and compelling. Complex courtships, allusion alternating with illusion, remind us of nature’s best dancers. It invites searing performances from all the cast, and confirms this BalletCollective Aotearea as a troupe of striking dance talent, in fabulous collaboration with the phenomenal musicians of the New Zealand Trio.

As soon as the box office opens for their next season we will be in the queue, however many hundred miles of travel that might mean. Here is a link to the RNZ podcast featuring Turid Revfeim.

Jennifer Shennan, 10 April 2021

Featured image: Scene from Loughlan Prior’s Subtle Dances. BalletCollective Aoteraoa, 2021. Photo: © John McDermott

Transfigured Night. Ballet Collective Aotearoa & Chamber Music New Zealand

15 March 2021, Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington
reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

This was an evening of triumph on several levels. Transfigured Night is the first of six concerts in Chamber Music New Zealand’s nationally touring programme for 2021. Audiences in ten cities will have the chance to witness a performance of light and colour, wit and freedom, deep beauty and poignant poetry, of music and dance making love. We don’t often get to watch that, and we won’t forget it. 

The New Zealand String Quartet have earlier worked with choreographer Loughlan Prior in various projects, and their mutual trust and shared excitement is apparent in every quaver and quiver. That is what will have given lift-off to this project. 

The Ides of March was the day Team Emirates New Zealand won two spectacular races in the America’s Cup series, in boats that fly above the water and turn slow pirouettes in high attitude—even those who know nothing about yachting can see that. The Fowler Centre is not a proscenium theatre space and it’s a challenge to stage dance there (it’s where in 1988 Nureyev performed, which proved a mistake). Here though a great triangular sail, white silk with patterns of colour, designed by dancer William Fitzgerald, is back lit and suspended high above the stage—an inspiration to preface the performance and shape the space.

The opening work was the premiere of a composition, I Danced, Unseen, by Tabea Squire. Laura Saxon Jones enters first, to silence—a curious creature, a lithe and hungry fox perhaps, who sniffs out and inspects the music stands and scores, what is all this about? what are these music scores? can you eat them? Hilarious. The whimsy and teasing continue as the musicians enter, wearing similar costumes as the three dancers, all of them echoing the patterns on the sailcloth overhead. There are naughty interferences from the dancers to the players and their instruments, but these musos are staunch, could play blind, and it would take a lot more than choreographed mosquitoes to throw them. It’s a darling and fun-filled opener.

The Dvorak String Sextet in A major, op.48, was superbly played, and the dancers continued in similar vein to find places in the music where they could actively, passively, openly or surreptitiously involve themselves. The three dancers had a million moves, yet the choreographic vocabulary and style were refreshingly free from clichés of ballet so often seen displayed elsewhere ‘just because we can’. They danced as individuals with personality and spirit, and the freedom that conveyed to the audience seemed liberating.  Hardened chamber music followers with little prior exposure to dance may possibly have found it distracting from the music they have long known and loved well, but not those around me who giggled and applauded and loved it, as indeed did I.  It was a commedia dell’arte romp, full of cheer and light, with inspired little fragments of Hungarian folk dance, dumka and czardas, caught in the many nimble rhythm and tempo changes. Two of those repeated movement motifs carried me back decades to pas and port de bras of the little Russian dance in RAD’s Grade 5 ballet syllabus I have loved ever since 1957, happy and grateful for the reminder. 

(l-R) Laura Saxon Jones, William Fitzgerald and Tabitha Dombrowski in rehearsal for Transfigured Night, 2021. Photo: © Sarah Davies

But peel back now for the major work of the second half, Transfigured Night, early Schoenberg. It proved a choreographic masterwork, and will position Loughlan Prior firmly on the international choreographic scene. It’s a safe bet that there will be future seasons of this work, both here and, when it becomes possible, abroad as well. There wouldn’t be another choreographed work anywhere that so centrally positions the intercourse between music and dance. In that sense it harks back to the masques of 17th century Europe, with costumed musicians traversing the stage, playing from memory, mingling with dancers and actors. At the same time Prior is in full control of a contemporary ballet vocabulary that moves like a fresh nor-easterly wind across our harbour. This skipper knows the local conditions.

The skilful absorption of two massive silk cloths, one red and one white, mirrored the theme of human physical interactions, a couple, a trio, a new couple, moving through their dreams and hopes and fears, their longing and love and loss. It moved the audience, aficionados or not, to responses—‘stunning … sublime … superb … breathtaking. When can we see it again?’  The central role played by Laura Saxon Jones was calm yet nuanced, poetic and powerful. It is good to see her dancing here again after several years absence.

Laura Saxon Jones with musicians of New Zealand String Quartet in rehearsal for Transfigured Night, 2021. Photo: © Sarah Davies

The choreographer and the three dancers are all graduates of New Zealand School of Dance, credit to all concerned, and are now members of Ballet Collective Aotearoa. This new and courageous initiative, directed by Turid Revfeim, is a free-lance ensemble, to date only minimally funded [how courageous is that?], yet poised to offer the country a new and fresh approach to streamlined, clean, clear ballet for our time. The premiere season of BCA, in the Auckland Arts Festival [postponed a fortnight ago due to Covid lockdown] will now instead take place on 8 and 9 April, then in Dunedin Arts Festival on 16 April. We are holding our breath and we won’t be disappointed. The calibre of choreography, dance and music is already assured, with Poul Gnatt’s pioneering spirit in spades. Split Enz have a song—History never repeats. I wager they are wrong.           

Hamish Robb’s superb program notes on music and dance interactions will help keep alive the memory   

Composition: Tabea Squire, Antonin Dvorak, Arnold Schoenberg
Musicians: New Zealand String Quartet and colleagues
Choreography: Loughlan Prior
Dancers: Laura Saxon Jones, William Fitzgerald, Tabitha Dombrowski of Ballet Collective Aotearoa
Presenters: Chamber Music New Zealand

Jennifer Shennan, 16 March 2021

Featured image: Scene from Transfigured Night, Ballet Collective
Aoteraoa and New Zealand String Quartet and colleagues, 2021. Photo: © Jack Hobbs

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

Choreographing a way through lockdown. Some thoughts

by Jennifer Shennan

In all the upheavals of 2020 ̶ 21, there has been a seismic range of responses to Covid-induced constraints from dance companies, artists, entrepreneurs and media worldwide. Film-makers and videographers have engaged with choreographers and dancers as never before, and the results have been in some cases breathtaking.

Plenty of companies initially took a standard line of having dancers capture themselves on smartphones in daily work outs in their apartment kitchens and sending in the somewhat underwhelming results for their company to stream. It certainly highlighted, by their absence, the critical importance of the ballet masters’ role in the daily life of a dancer.  Other companies saw the opportunity to make income from subscribers who could watch existing films of their repertoire broadcast within a limited time frame. Others again recognised with vision the unprecedented chance for what amounted to free publicity for their companies or theatres, and generously offered open viewing of works to audiences worldwide. 

New York City Ballet presented several new choreographies designed for socially distanced preparation and performance, and these were screened alongside commentary and discussion with the performers. For me though the highlight was the exquisite Moon Water by Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan, due to be performed live at Sadler’s Wells, instead broadcast through pre-existing film. It was introduced especially for the occasion by choreographer, Lin Hwai-Min, and will remain indelibly memorable, in my mind and also those of friends who took the tip I sent them to watch. Many are still thanking me months later for what they describe as the most serene and consoling dance experience they have ever known.

Two further memorable examples of dance films that have crossed my screen as Arts Channel broadcasts during the Covid era are of flamenco artists—both of them phenomenally though differently talented. Rocío Molina was the subject of a documentary, Impulso, that tracked the choreographic progress of her new work from its beginnings in Madrid, through various previews in different Spanish venues, through to its premiere at the Théâtre national de Chaillot in Paris. Molina is a wild child but her passion to live through dance burns holes in your television screen.  

The other program more recently screened, again through Sadler’s Wells, is of Maria Pagés from Seville. Her company’s mid-year season in London was cancelled, so a documentary was made instead. The choreographic vision ranged from portrayals of the seasons through traditional flamenco movement, in floreo and braceo arm movements, both timeless and sinuous. As well she draws on contemporary global phenomena—such as the rise of populism, weakening of democracy, culture of bullying. There were astonishing film clips of the braying, barking oratory of Adolf Hitler, the hammering rhythms and cadences of his declamations,  which were then reproduced to startling effect in the rhythmic patterns of the dancers’ stamped canes. The sophistication of choreographic vision invites us all to consider how bullying in any situation can be countered or contained. Top marks to Sadler’s Wells for bringing this stage work to the screen.

Jennifer Shennan, 10 March 2021

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

Not a dance as such …

Daily Deaths
5 December 2020, Futuna Chapel, Wellington

reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

The practice of dance notation has always intrigued me. The notion of recording in symbols a choreography, of studying a dance form, style or technique, of documenting a dance tradition or of analysing human movement for medical and therapeutic purpose, seems intrinsically interesting. Using a camera to video a dance does not begin to capture or analyse the depth, detail and intricacy of movement as a notation can. Different systems of dance notation exist, and it is interesting to compare the analytic concepts on which they are based. The foresight of Doris Humphrey and Jose Limon in commissioning notations of their entire choreographic repertoires into kinetography Laban (Laban notation) ensures that their numerous classic works can continue to be performed long after their lifetime. 

The very earliest examples of notated dances in European history, date from 14th century France, Spain and Italy. They are the mediaeval basses danses, scribed into exquisite miniature calligraphy, jewel-like in silver and gold on a black background. The music tenor, the guidelines to the composition and the initials of the names of the steps are all notated. Musicians today can play from these notes ( they are breves on a stave, without bar lines ), dancers can learn the style and memorise the steps—thus an eight hundred year old dance can be breathed back into life. I always say to students that doing a basse danse is a bit like dancing the rosary—a string of steps with variations, in a sequence that creates a meditative quality of abstract thought. That is not a bad description of a music performance I just witnessed in Wellington last weekend—so, not a dance as such, but a meditative witnessing of tragic statistics of Covid mortalities. You could have set a basse danse to the music.     

Performance of Daily Deaths, 5 December 2020. Photo: © Russ Beban

Futuna Chapel in Karori proved an ideal venue for this highly unusual event. John Scott’s architecture is itself a work of art, and the stained-glass panels by sculptor Jim Allen threw a wash of colour, backlit by sunshine, into the space. Those attending might have felt they were at a vigil for a global phenomenon in history, rather than merely an audience at a conventional concert. There were no doubt challenges for some who are new to this world of alternative music-making, but the strong and sustained final applause signalled that many had had a uniquely memorable experience.

Composer Daniel Beban made an hour long work from the sobering statistics of 8 different countries’ Covid mortality rates these past months, layering and morphing these into graphic scores for 18 musicians in a range of paired wind and string instruments.

Long slow breaths from each performer in the opening section developed into breathings through the instruments without yet sounding tones. Then notes were blown for the length of a sustained slow breath, or bowed for the duration of a slow single stroke. Some instruments merged into each other’s sounds, some became more dominant, evoking images of individuals struggling to breathe, to survive, against whatever odds. It seemed like an abstracted report on experience from the front line, at times dreamlike, though sometimes involving nightmares.

The composition played out as a serious witnessing of untold numbers who have suffered, survived, or not survived this vicious pandemic. I felt grateful to be able to contemplate that sad wider picture without the cacophony of reports of a few braying politicians in denial of science, recipients of hugely expensive treatments for their own care yet with no sense of community or empathy—contrasting with the reality of pleas for help from the front-line, and epidemiologists who need us to listen and to act responsibly and humanely.    

The fact that the composer is my son-in-law and one of the musicians my daughter is what some might perceive as a conflict of interest within this review, but for me that only reinforced the truth that for every name on the lists of the dead, there’s a family left to hold on to memory. This work seemed like a basse danse, a rosary of consolation for them.  

Jennifer Shennan, 9 December 2020

Featured image: Page from the manuscript Basse danses de Marguerite d’Autriche, XV century, Flemish School. Bibliothèque royale de Belgique. Brussels.