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 Cloudgate 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.

The Sleeping Beauty. Royal New Zealand Ballet/Orchestra Wellington

29 October 2020, Opera House, Wellington
reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

This is a long-awaited season since the Company’s program, Venus Rising, had to be cancelled due to the Covid situation earlier this year. That had offered an interesting quartet of works, which we could hope to still see at some future date.

The Sleeping Beauty is a major undertaking for any ballet company, demanding high technical skills from a large cast of soloists. Those we saw perform on opening night were all equal to the challenges and danced with much aplomb, carried by the quality of the Tchaikovsky composition, a masterpiece of instrumental wonder, with Hamish McKeich conducting Orchestra Wellington. My seat allowed a view into the orchestra pit which was an extra thrill since there’s a whole other ‘ballet’ of tension, movement, drama and passion going on there.

2018 was the bicentenary of the birth of Marius Petipa, choreographer of this and other iconic ballets from 19th century Russia. That has occasioned new biographies as well as re-worked productions of his ballets, with the recent version by Alexei Ratmansky for American Ballet Theatre winning widespread acclaim for its historical aesthetic coupled with contemporary sensibility. (It is worth looking into The New Yorkers of 1 & 8 June 2016 for Joan Acocella’s brilliant appraisal of the Ratmansky production and style, illustrating how a ballet classic can combine the best of old, though that takes both research and vision). Disney’s Maleficent from 2014 offers another take on who is in charge of evil in the world, updating his 1959 animation classic.

It is always the choices of style and setting, design and drama that, dancing aside, carries a production’s conviction in the passage of time from a christening to a 16th birthday to a sleeping spell of 100 years, to a dénouement and a wedding. This production, originally planned by Danielle Rowe, was instead here staged by Artistic Director Patricia Barker, with Clytie Campbell, Laura McQueen Schultz and Nicholas Schultz, and Michael Auer as dramaturg. With five different credits for various aspects of design, they took a generalised fairystory line, concentrating on light and bright pastel colours for the good, to contrast with the dark and shadowy world of evil.

It was a nice touch to have a poetic verse of the storyline projected onto the screen at the beginning of each ‘chapter’ but the design of set and costumes for the Court of the Rose seemed lightweight rather than royal. The courtiers were reserved in personality and confidence, yet overdressed in costume detail, rather than majestic as befits the mighty orchestral score. Only Loughlan Prior as the addled nervous M.C., (whose initial mistake was to leave Carabosse off the guest list, thus causing all the mayhem) brought caricature and comedy to the play, though the courtiers seemed unwilling to respond in character.   

Children in Royal New Zealand Ballet’s production of The Sleeping Beauty. Wellington 2020. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

The already-long ballet incorporated several groups of small children—page boys and court attendants. Charming as they were, they seemed more reminiscent of The Nutcracker than this classic which has an important story with a moral thrust in the forces of good versus evil. The King and Queen stood stiff and passionless with gestures portraying this or that but little in the way of emotion at their impending tragedy—and the seating of them and their baby directly upstage of all the court action effectively disappeared them from the scene as they sat behind all the dancing that followed.

Each of the good fairies performed their brief variations with technical flair and aplomb—Generosity by Ana Gallardo Lobaina, Honesty by Lara Flannery, Serenity by Caroline Wiley, Joy by Cadence Barrack, Curiosity by Madeleine Graham and Clarity by Katherine Skelton.  (It is impressive to note that four different castings of Aurora are planned over the season. Skelton will be one of them and her delicate precision should carry the role well). Sara Garbowski as the Lilac Fairy offered particular warmth in the portrayal of her promise to save the day. My young companions were impressed at the Aurora Borealis lighting effects—‘Hey, that’s where the baby’s name comes from.’ they whispered in delighted recognition. 

Kate Kadow as Princess Aurora danced radiantly and with an assured technique. Kirby Selchow as Carabosse took her role with relish, conveying macabre delight in wreaking havoc and trouble. Disguising her sidekick Morfran, Paul Mathews, to attend as one of the four suitors to the Princess Aurora on her 16th birthday was a clever ruse to introduce the dreaded spindle disguised as a black rose.

Kirby Selchow as Carabosse in Royal New Zealand Ballet’s production of The Sleeping Beauty. Wellington 2020. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

[Intermission. Some day a production might use the auditorium and foyer to help convey the passage of 100 years? That always seems too long a time for a production to ignore].

In Chapter Three, ‘The Hunt Picnic’ brought a group from a faraway court in Lithuania with a lonely Prince ready for a challenge, so the Lilac Fairy showed him the way to wake the sleeping kingdom. The Prince’s name is Laurynas Vėjalis—whoops, that’s the dancer’s name but I’ll use it for the character too since he was immediately apparent as one and the same. From his first entrance, there was the lyricism, strength, nobility and grace one always hopes for in a Principal dancer. Even while standing still, he conveyed those—then his dancing combined agility and strength with musical cadencing that flooded me with joy. This ability to merge the preparation for, together with delivery of, bravura steps into nonchalant movement, is the true heritage of baroque noble dancing, whence the original fairytale hails.

Laurynas Vėjalis as the Prince in Royal New Zealand Ballet’s production of The Sleeping Beauty. Wellington 2020. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

Vėjalis’ strength and speed of allegro movements of his legs and feet, with a simultaneous bone-creaming adagio quality of arm, head and épaulement movements, all without the slightest suggestion of effort or concentration, is a rare natural talent, in the line of Poul Gnatt, Jon Trimmer, Martin James, Ou Lu, Qi Huan, Kohei Iwamoto, Abigail Boyle, proud legacy of this company. It is good, as always, to see the printed program full of content (the work of Susannah Lees-Jeffries) acknowledging the Company’s previous productions.

In the variations from the guests at the wedding—The White Cat by Leonora Voigtlander, and Puss in Boots  by Joshua Guillemot-Rodgerson were suitably coquettish, the Bluebirds by Katherine Minor and Kihiro Kusukami in striking flight, Little Red Riding Hood and The Wolf by Georgia Baxter and Jack Lennon bringing character to the scene.

So, all told, a big ballet to big music—though with design of both set and costume in the first two acts less authoritative than might have been. The dancing was stronger and more accomplished than the sense of theatre throughout, where the timing of action needed attention—until along came a Prince who changed all that. I’ll aim to catch the last performance of the tour and see if the production has travelled well, which I’m sure it will.

Jennifer Shennan, 31 October 2020

Featured image: Laurynas Vėjalis as the Prince and Kate Kadow as Princess Aurora in Royal New Zealand Ballet’s production of The Sleeping Beauty. Wellington 2020. Photo: © Stephen A’Court.

Beneath Sky Snakes. Cameron McMillan—dance on screen

reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

The power and excitement of Len Lye’s kinetic sculpture is clearly etched in the memory from visits I have made to the Govett-Brewster Gallery in Taranaki New Plymouth over the years. (Len Lye, a New Zealander, b.1901, began his arts experiments here but his subsequent career, based in New York through many decades, earned him a huge international reputation. His monumental sculptures with kinetic, aural and cinematic dimensions have been much discussed in publications by Wystan Curnow and by Roger Horrocks, and in a particularly fine documentary, Flip & Two Twisters, directed by Shirley Horrocks).

The Govett-Brewster gallery building is an inspired architectural presence in its own right. In tandem with the Len Lye Foundation, a major collection of Lye’s work is housed there and shown in sequential displays throughout the year. One of my visits I remember particularly well, since my companion and I lingered long in the gallery and then spent the rest of the afternoon in the cafe discussing Lye’s work, as well as the gallery’s achievement which originated with the vision of arts philanthropist Monica Brewster, who established it back in 1960s, independently of local council and other institutional governance.

That in turn led to my comparative thoughts about dance and the structure of performing arts companies versus independent artists—about who ‘owns’, who directs, who funds, who governs, who controls, who survives, who thrives—about how heritage repertoire is guarded, how programming is selected, how the welfare of the artists in companies is maintained, and how free-lance artists develop their work, who of them survive, who thrives, who is the dramaturg?—in a word, how dancers work, how dance works. All of these aspects are apparent to audiences, even if only subliminally, since they are reflected in the morale and calibre of each dancer we see in any given performance. It is said we get the politicians we deserve. Do we get the dances we deserve? Do the dancers get the recognition they deserve? As usual the answer is Yes & No.

Cameron McMillan, New Zealand born and raised, is a thriving surviving dance-maker. His current website is zinging testament to that. Born and raised in New Plymouth, he later trained at the Australian Ballet School and then joined RNZBallet in 1997, under Artistic Director, Matz Skoog. It was in 2000 that Cameron was noticed and singled out in glowing words in a review by Joan Acocella who saw him in Mark Morris’ Drink to me only with thine eyes—with the music most memorably played by pianist David Guerin onstage.(We had brought Acocella from New York to an Arts Festival here, under a Fulbright project on arts writing. The British Council had brought Michael Billington, drama critic, as part of the same program).

Cameron McMillan in Beneath Sky Snakes, 2020. Screenshot

Acocella wrote that McMillan’s talent was striking already but that his potential was huge and that he could expect a major international career. She has proved not wrong. He choreographed Unsuspecting View for the Tutus on Tour of 2001, left RNZB not long after and has developed a stellar international career abroad, unfortunately little reported on back here, among several of our ex-pat choreographers whose work should be shared here but never is. Turid Revfeim’s Ballet Collective enterprise is soon to help redress that regrettable situation.

In 2015, I saw and reviewed a performance of Cameron’s work at the Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts where Ou Lu had appointed him choreographer-in-residence. It’s a poignant work, with a large cast of dancers, string quartet playing on stage. The theme concerns a corps-de-ballet dancer’s experience—a glimpse into something we all see but rarely discuss. The work would thrill audiences here, if only they had the chance to see it.

During the extraordinary times of Covid 2020, dancers and dance companies worldwide have been both staunch and flexible in streaming videoed responses to the wild changes in their lives and work. In some cases that has brought publicity and exposure they could never have dreamed of, and we have been offered access to extraordinary choreographic riches—Saarinen’s Borrowed Light, Lin Hwai Min’s Moonwater, Marston’s The Cellist  would be some of the finest examples—though we have probably all seen enough of the dances videoed on a mat in the living room or on the patio—as a message of dancers’ resilience they’re fine, but as choreography they were mostly short of the mark.

Cameron McMillan in Beneath Sky Snakes, 2020. Screenshot

Cameron McMillan, in collaboration with the Govett-Brewster Gallery, has made a work in response to Len Lye’s Sky Snakes, which had its premiere exhibition in February 2020. Beneath Sky Snakes is an absorbing choreographic response to a sculpture that was moving already. The dance has a man on the ground, beneath a sky with huge forces of stalactite proportions. Tempo Dance Festival, an annual Auckland season, enterprisingly made the video available during this year’s digital season since the live program was cancelled. The choreography is yet in early stages of the film treatment it deserves but the dance shows a performer still moving with the mesmerising fluidity that Acocella described back in 2000. Perhaps a Govett-Brewster commission to Cameron could see a series of dances relating to other of Len Lye’s works. We all benefit from writing, talking, thinking about and remembering good dancing. Malo and Manuia

Jennifer Shennan, 11 September 2020

Featured image: Cameron McMillan in Beneath Sky Snakes, 2020. Screenshot

Kristian Fredrikson. Designer. Book review

Kristian Fredrikson, Designer by Michelle Potter
Melbourne Books. AUD 59.95

reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

This book is treasure and joy. It covers the lifelong career of Wellington-born Kristian Fredrikson, designer for ballet, theatre, opera, film and television in both New Zealand and Australia. The volume is itself an achievement of fine design—superbly presented and generously illustrated, though selective in the careful interpolation of images, both drawings and performance photographs, into the text. It is an appreciative profile by an author who clearly loves the work of her subject but, resisting hagiography, has produced perceptive analysis and an enduring record of his lifetime’s work in a notoriously ephemeral performing art. Both she and the publisher are to be congratulated.

Extensive research (Potter first conducted an oral history with Fredrikson in 1993) has allowed coverage of his prolific body of work. There are frequent quotations from his own unpublished writings about ideas and work processes, which I found illuminating. The appendices provide extensive documentation, leaving the text refreshingly accessible.

There are stimulating insights and analyses of both the aesthetic and historical influences in Fredrikson’s work (Klimt is there, Rothko is there, mediaeval Sicily, 19th century New Zealand, war-time Vietnam, outback and small-town Australia are there). Potter’s invaluable commentaries will help audiences follow, in retrospect, ‘new narratives from old texts’ in the innovative reworkings of classics such as Harry Haythorne’s Swan Lake (1985) for Royal New Zealand Ballet, Graeme Murphy’s Nutcracker. The Story of Clara (1992) and his Swan Lake (2002) both for The Australian Ballet.

Tutu for Princess Odile in Harry Haythorne’s Swan Lake, Act III. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 1985. The Dowse Art Museum, Lower Hutt, New Zealand. Gift of Royal New Zealand Ballet

Long-time ballet followers in New Zealand would say they knew Fredrikson’s work well, keeping memories for decades of his sumptuous Swan Lakes, the ingenious A Servant of Two Masters, a poignant Orpheus, a searing Firebird, an enigmatic Jean [Batten], a spirited Peter Pan, atmospheric A Christmas Carol, and hilarious The Nutcracker. The book also includes his prolific output across other genres of theatre away from ballet. It is fascinating to learn of Fredrikson’s sensitive and restrained approaches to plays and films such as Hedda Gabler, with Cate Blanchett, or those with Australian Aboriginal, Vietnamese or American Indian settings … ‘away from dancers who spend their time twirling around on their toes’. We thus see a different side to the designer who always prioritised the contribution he could make to a collaborative project, rather than use it as an opportunity to primarily display his own aesthetic.       

Interviews with his ballet colleagues, especially Gray Veredon and Graeme Murphy, contribute to the portrayal of a deeply intelligent, thoughtful, private man with uncompromising respect for those trusted choreographers and directors with whom he worked most closely. The standout choreographic collaborations would have been with Murphy, Veredon and Russell Kerr, and they are quoted as appreciating the close integration of design and choreographic ideas, with a sense of movement always portrayed in the designs. Fredrikson did not dress mannequins, he dressed movers.

Dancers, too, appreciated this empathy, even when his costumes of period or character required particular weights, silhouettes and textiles. There are descriptions of his attending dance rehearsals to photograph sequences so as to be sure whatever fantasy he had in mind would also prove practical. Compromises and re-workings were sometimes required. 

Increasingly, today’s ballet practitioners seem less and less interested in the source and history of their art. It is heartening to learn how Fredrikson’s starting point for his concepts grew out of impeccable historical research. Since my own work and interests lie in Renaissance and Baroque dance and related arts, I was pleased to copy out a passage from his own words, about transforming, or inventing a historical period:

The problem is most of us don’t know true period. We look at a Watteau painting and we say, ‘Oh that’s how they dressed in Watteau’s time.’ Well they didn’t. Watteau made up his own people. We look at Rembrandt and say, ‘That’s how they dressed in Rembrandt’s day.’ They did not. Rembrandt created costumes for them… Our understanding of the past is so unreal that even if I do the real history, it’s surreal. And I suppose that’s what I do. I go towards the real history and that seems extraordinary.

I am now very happy to have this quote as a fridge magnet in my kitchen. It seems to echo the equally interesting and challenging practice of a writer using historical or autobiographical fiction as an imaginative way of telling a ‘true’ story.

Study for Captain Hook in Russell Kerr's 'Peter Pan', 1999. © 1998 Kristian Fredrikson
Study for Captain Hook and Peter Pan in Russell Kerr’s Peter Pan, 1999. © 1998 Kristian Fredrikson

Chapter 6, New Zealand Impressions, has a fabulous full-page image of Captain Hook in Russell Kerr’s Peter Pan. Jon Trimmer is portrayed as the seductively beautiful pirate, Peter Pan squatting at his feet is Everyboy—with a somewhat perplexed expression on his face, wondering why anyone would want to leave childhood and become an adult. The study for the Angel of Death in Murphy’s Orpheus is chillingly beautiful. The priceless comic play of Harry Haythorne as Dr Lombardi and Jon Trimmer as Pantalone in Veredon’s A Servant of Two Masters is evidence of one of the best productions RNZB ever staged.

Jon Trimmer as the wealthy Pantalone and Harry Haythorne as Dr Lombardi in 'A Servant of Two Masters'
Jon Trimmer as the wealthy Pantalone and Harry Haythorne as Dr Lombardi in A Servant of Two Masters, Royal New Zealand Ballet, 1989. Photographer not identified. Courtesy Arthur Turnbull LIbrary, Wellington, New Zealand.

But it is the two quietly dramatic photographs from Veredon’s Tell me a Tale that could slow your breathing. The choreography tells a particular story, though it could have been the story of many a family. The cast are early European settlers arriving in New Zealand, meeting and interacting with Maori people. The young pakeha boy befriending a Maori girl brings forth a furious haka from her brother—performed by the much admired (and then much missed ) Warren Douglas. This was the most convincing representation of haka on a ballet stage I have seen in six decades of watching a range of attempts.  What a sorry business that Tale was never restaged by RNZB, and it’s a safe if sad bet it is never likely to be—even though the original cast are around and could still be involved, and indeed the choreographer, one of New Zealand’s finest dance-makers, is still actively staging his works in Europe. I treasure these fine photographs of a talisman work from RNZB ‘s early repertoire, gone but not forgotten. It belongs here in New Zealand, exists nowhere else, and should be neither gone nor forgotten.     

The eighth and final chapter ‘The Ultimate Ballet: Swan Lake’ is an insightful comparison of  approaches taken to this classic work, tracing the five different productions Fredrikson worked on. There are both similar and contrasting elements within those stagings—revealing the nature of von Rothbart’s evil, learning that Odette’s mother’s tears created the lake that her daughter will drown in, and the possibility of lovers separated by death though reuniting in an afterlife. The themes of love, treachery and loyalty are the same as those we live by, so even quite different settings in any production of calibre are as close to home as we choose to invite them.  

You could call this an illustrated biography of the life’s work of a totally committed theatre designer. His life was his work, and the book emulates the man. There is no gossip, no bodice-ripping tell-all of a private life, no imposed psychoanalysis, and Alleluia to that I say. If you want to know who Kristian Fredrikson was and what was important to him, read his work. Read this book.

Kristian Fredrikson with costumes for Cinderella. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 1991. Photo: © Ross Giblin. Courtesy Stuff/The Evening Post

Jennifer Shennan, 18 August 2020

Featured image: Stephen McTaggart and Kerry-Anne Gilberd in a scene from Gray Veredon’s Tell Me a Tale (detail). Royal New Zealand Ballet, 1988. Photographer not identified. Collection of Gray Veredon