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

Strasbourg 1518. Borderline Arts Ensemble

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jennifer Shennan, 17 March 2020

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

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

Trois Grandes Fugues. Lyon Opera Ballet

11 March 2020. Opera House Wellington
Reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jennifer Shennan, 15 March 2020

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

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

Mám. Teaċ Daṁsa

5–8 March 2020, TSB Arena, Wellington

reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jennifer Shennan, 6 March 2020

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

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

The Russell Kerr Lecture, February 2020

by Jennifer Shennan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jennifer Shennan, 19 February 2020

Featured image: Portrait of Russell Kerr, 2007

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

2019–Dance Highlights from New Zealand

by Jennifer Shennan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy New Year to all.

Jennifer Shennan, 13 January 2020

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

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

New Zealand School of Dance Graduation Season, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or through …
Richard Howard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jennifer Shennan, 22 November 2019

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

Rench Soriano in 'Five Variations on a Theme'. New Zealand School of Dance, 2019. Photo © Stephen A'Court
Kirby Selchow as Gretel in 'Hansel and Gretel', Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2019. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

Hansel & Gretel. Royal New Zealand Ballet & Orchestra Wellington

6 November 2019. Opera House, Wellington
reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

Hansel & Gretel is choreographer Loughlan Prior’s first full-length ballet, though he has a number of accomplished short works (including a memorable Lark, for Sir Jon Trimmer and William Fitzgerald), as well as choreographed films (including Memory House, for Trimmer) already to his credit. Since this premiere, another of his works, The Appearance of Colourwas recently performed as part of Queensland Ballet’s Bespoke program.

The energised success of Hansel & Gretel reveals the close rapport developed between Prior and composer Claire Cowan, who has produced a colourful and affecting score. Right from the first sounds (‘applause’ from orchestral percussion to walk the conductor to his podium), it is clear that the choreographer and composer share a sense of humour and fun. Conductor Hamish McKeich and Orchestra Wellington miss not a beat or a feat throughout.

Design by Kate Hawley, together with Jon Buswell’s lighting, delivers some striking effects. The opening visual, projected onto a gauze front curtain, is the number countdown of a film reel (the grandchildren whisper to ask , ‘Is this a ballet pretending to be a movie?’). A number of references to black and white silent movies of the 1920s are cleverly choreographed into the first scenes, making fitting resonance from the accompanying orchestra in the pit. A prologue of wealthy characters strutting in the street contrast with the poverty of the family of Hansel, Gretel and parents, with the father unable to sell his street brooms to anyone. There is a poignant scene of the hungry family around the table in their cabin, though the following long love duet between the parents seems to stall the choreographic pace somewhat.

Later, black and white scenes turn into the garish colours of cancan Candyland, aided and abetted by the Ice Cream Witch whose hurdy-gurdy bicycle is a creation Heath Robinson would have been proud of. A large cast of Dew Fairies, a Sandman, numerous confectionery and gingerbread assistants, and spooky creatures of the forest all offer a number of divertissements of entertainment and humour. There are echoes of the 1930s now, of Busby Berkeley film scenarios, with deliberate extravagances that send it in the direction of pantomime, leading, by their own admission, to sensory overload of props and costumes.

Scene from Hansel & Gretel. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2019. Photo: ©Stephen A’Court

Spectacle is preferenced over sustaining the narrative with its dark themes of the original version of the Grimm brothers’ tale. In that regard, Prior has chosen to follow casting of Humperdinck’s opera of the late 19th century, as well as the recent choreographies by Liam Scarlett for the Royal Ballet and by Christopher Hampson for Scottish Ballet. In those versions, the familiarity of the children’s father bullied by a scheming cruel stepmother is converted to their simply being poor but loving parents. This results in a weakening of the dramatic bite and thematic link of evil between both Stepmother and Witch (read in some interpretations as alter-egos of each other).

Different birds are dramatically involved in the original tale—sitting on the roof of the family cottage, stealing the trail of breadcrumbs, leading the children to the Witch’s lair, and finally back home. In this production the only birds are portrayed in a brief scene by child extras, very fetchingly costumed in raincoats with beak-shaped hoods, and carrying brooms to sweep up crumbs. Perhaps more could have been made of the avian potential in the story since birds are often convincingly stylised into ballet.

Highlight memories are of Hansel and Gretel—or should that be Gretel and Hansel since it’s the girl who always takes the initiative and makes sure little brother is in tow —with Shaun James Kelly as a naïve and playful boy, Kirby Selchow as the feisty older sister. The dazzling Mayu Tanigaito as Queen of the Dew Fairies, delivers radiantly, but also easily shifts into the syncopations of the jazz references that Prior and Cowan have skillfully introduced as cameo sequences.

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

The Ice Cream Witch is played by Katharine Precourt who, with mobile expressive face, clearly relishes the role. The Transformed Witch, played by Paul Mathews, is in full pantomime mode and takes hilarious advantage of the satirical strokes the choreography offers (including the tossing of a pair of pointe shoes into the cauldron, together with a large manny rat that proves inedible but will doubtless flavour/poison the stew). Mathews always inhabits rather than just portrays his roles and here he exaggerates wonderfully without ever wasting a gesture. 

Kirby Selchow as Gretel closes the cauldron in Hansel & Gretel. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2019. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

Thank goodness for curtain calls in character. The dancers have clearly had a rollicking good time in this production which will certainly entertain audiences in the forthcoming national tour.

Jennifer Shennan, 12 November 2019

Featured image: Kirby Selchow as Gretel in Hansel & Gretel, Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2019. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

Kirby Selchow as Gretel in 'Hansel and Gretel', Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2019. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

Meeting Karpovsky. Willow Productions

6–16 November 2019, Circa Theatre, Wellington

Meeting Karpovsky was created by Helen Moulder, Sue Rider and Sir Jon Trimmer, and was performed by Helen Moulder and Sir Jon Trimmer

reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

Now here’s something different—a play about the ballet. Sylvia, an older woman living alone, is hanging onto the memories of the 127 times in her life she has seen the celebrated ballet dancer, Alexander Karpovsky, in performance. She uses those memories, and the sorting of her daughter Anna’s possessions that are cluttered in the attic, to keep the surface of each day moving along, and to fill her slow quiet nights.

Apart from the many boxes of Anna’s possessions, the set features posters of Karpovsky in his roles as Petrouchka, Albrecht, Widow Simone and Drosselmeyer. Sylvia converses with each character in turn, venting her woes and frustrations, but hastening to assure herself and us that she is in control, of course she is in control, why would she not be in control, the painful ankle is better some days than others, and she thinks the frozen shoulder is coming right, there’s food in the sparse pantry, she’ll probably settle for a baked potato with a sprinkle of cheese and chives for her supper tonight, or two baked potatoes perhaps, and it’s true cream cheese is very nice with baked potatoes but she thinks she might be out of cream cheese so never mind, just the cheddar and chives will do nicely.

Helen Moulder (Sylvia) and Sir Jon Trimmer (Karpovsky) take tea together. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

In haunting evocations of the personality that each ballet character represents in the original choreographies, Sylvia wants to understand what happened to them, why, what it meant, what happened next?  She searches for what she and the characters might have in common experience—’Petrouchka, you’re a puppet, but who is pulling your strings? Albrecht, how could you have let Giselle die and then became a wili? Widow Simone, I’ll bet you regret leaving your daughter so badly guarded. Drosselmeyer, what’s the use of your feeble magic wand if you can’t use it to put right the bad things that happen to people?’

Karpovsky’s spectre visits Sylvia in a series of vignettes, but it transpires he’s more guardian angel than ghost. These are not nostalgic remnants of performance memories fluttering about, but more like threads from a string of prayer flags loosed into the wind. Should Sylvia catch them or let them go? Both or neither? Collect them and weave them back together again, into a tablecloth for an afternoon tea-party, say?

Helen Moulder and Sir Jon Trimmer (Karpovsky) dance together. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

No one else I know bothers to think about the libretti and narrative thrust of ballets in this way. Rider, Moulder, Trimmer, Sylvia and Karpovsky do, and invite us to follow their lead and do likewise. The effect is astonishing—strange yet familiar, secret yet shared, a duty of care, a literature of narratives salvaged from the archive of performances forgotten, choreographies abandoned, hopes postponed, dreams denied. How many of the ballets you have ever danced in, or seen performed, have anything to do with the life you or your family have lived?

The poignancy of these questions, to which there are no ready responses, is beyond words by the following day, so we’ll just have to accept that as the ephemeral nature of an enduring art, as food for thought, and swiftly book to go back for another performance.

Besides, there are too many spoiler alerts needed. A knife, a yelp of pain from an audience member taken totally unawares, a distant siren in the following silence—police? ambulance? (now, that can’t have been a planned sound effect of the play. It must be a sign from the dark night outside that what’s going on inside the theatre is another but related reality). 

This production won the Listener Best Play of the Year at its premiere season, and the lambent Helen Moulder, an exquisitely musical performer, won the Chapmann Trip Best Actress of the Year award. It’s easy to see why. 

That Jon Trimmer has just celebrated his 80th birthday only adds to the wonder of his totally focused performance. He is required to speak just one word the whole evening, but for the rest he moves with the mana, memory, muscles, and mercurial mind of a genius of dance and theatre. He mimes, demonstrates and teaches Sylvia little fragments from the ballets—’step and point, incline, epaulement … gallop and turn … scuff and shuffle’—that she might do the clog dance from La Fille Mal Gardée, or step through the throbbing of Giselle’s pain and of the sorrowing wilis, or pay attention to the conjuring tricks of Drosslemeyer. But it’s Trimmer’s recreation of the Booth and Cell scenes from Petrouchka that will ache you, break you and mend you again. You’d better remember it because you won’t ever see the like again.

Helen Moulder (Sylvia) and Sir Jon Trimmer (Karpovsky) recreate a moment from Petrouchka. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

From the opening sounds of a train hurtling by at speed (where might that railway journey be headed?) to the softest strains of Sylvia’s remembered lullaby, ‘Shine little glowworm, glimmer’,there are hints of the several griefs that are layered into her life, and we are carried by a spellbinding 90 minutes of faultless performances by Helen Moulder and Jon Trimmer, both of them impeccably timed and modulated. It  cadences in a never-to-be forgotten scene of redemption. I feel sorry for people who don’t live in Wellington and can’t get to one of the remaining performances this week.

Jennifer Shennan, 11 November 2019

Featured image: Helen Moulder (Sylvia) watches as Sir Jon Trimmer (Karpovsky) performs as Drosselmeyer. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

The golden ties that bind

by Jennifer Shennan

Memories from across 40 years of life and work and people at New Zealand School of Dance were triggered by a recent gathering. 

Christine Gunn has been on the faculty at New Zealand School of Dance as classical ballet tutor for 40 years. A celebratory gathering took place at Te Whaea, the school’s venue, in early September to mark the occasion but no-one is taking that as a signal of her impending retirement. The opening speech of heartfelt thanks by director Garry Trinder acknowledged that Christine prefers not to play the diva but just to get on with the work. He quipped how pleased he was to have found her the perfect fridge magnet which asks ‘Would you like to speak to the person in charge, or to the person who knows what’s going on?’ Perhaps they’ll let her retire after another 40 years?

Christine masterminded the art of  timetabling the curriculum for both the classical and contemporary dance streams—(this is tantamount to completing Sudoku puzzles while simultaneously playing two Chess games). It was not merely the timetabling skills being remembered and celebrated however, but the dedication to teaching consistent, supportive classical technique and repertoire classes that have guided many a ballet student towards their performance careers. Raising her own family of two daughters must have required further skills of time management on many occasions.

Anne Rowse was director of the then National School of Ballet when Christine joined the staff in 1979. With Anne, plus Dawn Sanders as part-time tutor and secretary, that made a staff of three. How ever did they do it, in those asymmetric studios that you had to traverse to gain access to the dressing rooms? Well, you’d never have guessed from the calibre of the repertoire in annual Graduation seasons in the Opera House that training conditions were anything less than perfect. It takes hindsight to recognise pioneering of course, but the list of graduates from New Zealand School of Dance, then and since, includes major figures in world dance. Piano accompanists were always the best in town and, over time, other teaching staff were appointed, new premises found, and resources grew.

Turid Revfeim (who has recently written the 50 year history of the School, and is now a tutor there) was a student in the year Christine arrived, and she reminisced on what was done despite those meagre resources. Turid later joined Royal New Zealand Ballet as did many other graduates, Dawn had also earlier been a dancer with them, and such links ensured a genuinely close rapport between the School and the Company, at that time directed by Harry Haythorne. Students used to turn up in droves at the theatre each night to meet the stalwart Company Managers, Warren Douglas or Brendan Meek, themselves both NZSD graduates, for passes to every performance of the season which those days spanned a fortnight. Standing room if need be, but students seized every chance to glean inspiration of what their training was all about, in the context of the theatre. The resulting artistic harvest was bountiful, but it only grew from old-fashioned common sense and the best kind of opportunism.

Christine’s choice at her gathering was for students to perform an excerpt from Balanchine’s Concerto Barocco which they did with a commendable clarity of line and musical acuity. Luke Cooper, a recent graduate now dancing with RNZB, had organized video messages to Christine from former students living and working afar. All the students then performed a massed Maori tribute, a waiata with the talisman wiri of quivering arms and hands that breathes life into dance. The male students  delivered a mightily galvanised haka taparahi that could have given the All Blacks the shivers.  

The large gathering was a spirited one and no doubt evoked many and varied memories among former teachers and students of their experiences across those 40 years—of things trained, learned, rehearsed, performed, triumphed, loved, hoped, danced and dreamed. I’ll put the (injuries and heartbreaks) into parentheses. Nothing about dance is easy—it’s only meant to look that way, with the grace of divine nonchalance suggesting that you, the audience, could be dancing too.

    *********

Anne Rowse invited me to join the staff in 1982, to tutor in Dance Studies—Renaissance and Baroque repertoire, Dance notation, History & Library studies, World Dance Traditions including Pacific and Asian cultures—all the interesting things no one else wanted to teach. How lucky was I? I also offered public courses of dance interest through the Centre for Continuing Education of Victoria University of Wellington, so there was some creative accounting as Anne agreed to let the School premises be used in exchange for free places for students. Win-Win. I was also entrusted to build up the School’s library from fairly meagre holdings, so it was surely a stroke of luck that Smith’s Bookshop, the town’s very best second-hand bookshop, run by Dick Reynolds, was in an adjacent building, so I could each week sniff out dance and related arts books for bargain prices. One day, to my astonishment I found David Garnett’s Lady into Fox, a short story that had been famously adapted, by Andrée Howard, into a choreography by the same name, and the one ballet I most wished I could have seen. I consider myself quite old, but not quite old enough to have caught it when Ballet Rambert toured here in 1949. You could search the shelves of bookshops worldwide and not find Garnett’s stories, so this was a glint of gold. I recall cancelling that day’s planned class and telling the students all about Lady into Fox instead. 

How poignant it was some years later at a matinee of the School’s graduation, with the front rows of the stalls at the Opera House filled with audience from an old folks’ home (another of Anne’s initiatives), to sight Dick Reynolds propped up in a wheel chair, nodding and faintly clapping along as the students rollicked through The Lancers’ Quadrille, but I believe he was wiping away tears when Chopin’s music for the Prelude from  Les Sylphides began.

Another standout memory was a visit from the iconoclast dance-maker Mary Fulkerson from Dartington, an important centre for the arts in Devon. Mary brought her eight hour long performance saga, titled Don’t Tell the Prime Minister I’m coming. The first instalments were performed across two evenings in the Blue Room at the National Art Gallery, when director Luit Beiringa opened those doors for us, but the third and fourth evenings were across a weekend, posing a problem of access to the NAG. There was no budget. (How ever did we do these things on zero budgets? Well, we just did. You could say they were free because they were priceless, which is of course the opposite of worthless). Anne with typical generosity handed over the school keys for the weekend. That gesture remains as memorable as the dance itself, which ended with Fulkerson tossing each of the eight dresses she had worn through the evenings high up into the air, all the while still dancing, singing, and smiling. But wait, only seven dresses ever came back down to earth. The eighth one caught on a high ceiling beam and dislodged a decade’s worth of dust, glinting in the light as it sent a shaft of golden stars down onto our heads. That was 1983 but I can see that glinting still. And no, we didn’t tell the Prime Minister Mary was coming since Muldoon wouldn’t have known what to do with the information, though nowadays you could tell PM. Jacinda Adern, since she is also Minister for the Arts.

The School moved to new premises in Cable St., the entrance to which sat between adjacent doorways—one to Cash Convertors, the other to Abundant Life Spiritual Centre, daily reminders of the spectrum of possibilities in life as well as art. We tried to ignore the nine months of deafening pile-driving as Te Papa construction across the road got under way, and just got on with our work.

Patricia Rianne, one of New Zealand’s most celebrated expatriate dancers, had returned home and become Head of Classical Studies at the School, a most valued teacher and mentor to the students. Her Summer’s Day, to music by Jenny McLeod, and Bliss, inspired by Katherine Mansfield’s story, were staged by RNZB and the graduates dancing there found joy in performing them.

George Dorris and Jack Anderson, leading New York dance writers, walked in the door one day as I was teaching Baroque dance. I squealed in delight to recognise them, introduced them to Anne, we both scolded them for not warning us they were coming, so they returned a year later and gave a wonderful seminar which we also opened to the public. We surveyed the many titles of the fabled Dance Perspectives, a series of periodicals edited by our mutual colleague, Selma Jeanne Cohen. No other dance journal can hold a candle to this series so I was emboldened to beg our National Library to lend us their complete run from the Stacks. No-one had ever borrowed them because no-one knew they were there. They do now. What a weekend we were treated to. I can’t remember if we thanked Anne, but she will have known that the real rewards survive in the minds and memories of those who attended. The threads that weave, and the ties that bind.

Ann  Hutchinson, leading authority in dance notation, visited and gave a workshop in which she mounted from her score Nijinsky’s l’Apres Midi d’un Faune, to music by Debussy. Nijinsky was the true pioneer of modern choreography, as well as a legendary dancer. Sad that he is remembered more for his schizophrenia than his art, but such is the ephemeral nature of dance. The cast of Faune calls for seven dancers, one male and six females. As luck would have it, just 14 students turned up, two males and 12 females, so Ann set about teaching the work to two casts and the whole piece was completed by the end of the afternoon, which you would have to rate a small miracle. The mercurial Warren Douglas was there that day and danced the Faune, as well as many roles at RNZB in following years. Years later but still young, he died tragically, of complications from Aids. It was so sad and so wrong to have to write his obituary. We must never forget the dancers whose lives that cursed illness snatched away. Warren might well have become a brilliant director of RNZB, and would have changed the world.

The most treasured heritage for me throughout my 20 years teaching at the School  was undoubtedly the repertoire of choreographies by Doris Humphrey and José Limon, pioneers of the best of American modern dance, taught and staged by Louis Solino who had been a member of their company in  New York for years. It was another of Anne’s courageous moves to appoint Louis to the staff, since there might have been resistance to the distinctive technique and repertoire, but he was an unusual and quiet genius and in fact over the years turned up gold in a repertoire we’d have been lucky to catch in any world capital … Air for the G String,  Day on Earth, The Shakers, Two Ecstatic Themes, There is a Time, La Malinche, The Unsung, Dances for Isadora, Choreographic Offering, The Moor’s Pavane in seminar. Later the mighty Bach Chaconne was performed by Louis’ partner, the multi-talented Paul Jenden. Paul has since died and a broken-hearted Louis returned to the States, but make no mistake, anyone who ever danced in, or saw rehearsals and performances of those Limon and Humphrey masterworks will never have forgotten them. Next month’s story might tell the detail of how that came about.

Everyone present at Christine’s celebration will have had memories like these, all the same, all different. The following weekend, large numbers of us gathered at parties in  Paekakariki to help Sir Jon Trimmer celebrate his 80th birthday, and his 60 years of performing with RNZB. Jon’s sister, Coral, came from Melbourne with her harmonica in her pocket and played jazz numbers from the 1920s like a shimmering hummingbird, cavorting and gliding about, giving total lie to her 89 years. We knew this was her instrument but hadn’t heard her play. Now we have. That will have to be the next next month’s story.

Between those two gatherings, our daughter gave birth to her firstborn, a baby girl. I’ll let her grow a while and then maybe I’ll make for next next next month, a story about the dance-like movements of a wee, serious, busy, tiny one as she explores the world around her, learning to latch on and to change sides, to yawn and to hiccup, to sneeze and to gurgle, to make frog’s leg kicks that Jeremy Fisher might envy, and, when her arms are unswaddled, to conduct and wave at symphony orchestras. The baby as dancer—I’m up to review that.

It was Eugene O’Neill who said, ‘‘There is no present or future—only the past, happening over and over again—now.’  I like that, so think I will help myself to his words.

Jennifer Shennan, 30 September 2019

Featured image: Christine Gunn cutting her anniversary cake. New Zealand School of Dance

Dancers of Royal New Zealand Ballet in George Balanchine's 'Serenade', 2019. Photo: © Stephen A'Court

Bold Moves. Royal New Zealand Ballet

16 August 2019, Opera House, Wellington
reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

Bold Moves is a ‘something for everyone’ mixed bill of four works that include old, older, new and not so new, with the dancers proving more than equal to the demands of stylistic versatility for each of the contrasting choreographies. The program requires a majority of female dancers across all the pieces, and among them are three standout performers.

Serenade (to Tchaikovsky, Serenade for Strings), was choreographed 85 years ago by George Balanchine for students at his company’s ballet school. Among the prolific choreographer’s scores of works, it sits lyrically apart, an abstract style of classical movement with tweaks here and whimsy there, as he built little mistakes made in rehearsal into the choreography, reflecting his sense of fun when working with young dancers. The work was first staged here by Una Kai, renowned former dancer with New York City Ballet, and our company’s artistic director in 1970s. Harry Haythorne, subsequent director, staged it on New Zealand School of Dance in 1980s and found there the perfect setting for it with a student cast. 

This line-up of 17 females in ‘moonlight blue’ danced the long first section with line and ensemble aspects finely wrought, but I missed the lightness of subtleties remembered (and a number of dancers from those earlier productions who were in  the audience later agreed). Some performers had ethereal and distant facial expressions, while others grinned cheerfully at the audience—somewhat distracting since it’s not just the movement we are watching, but also the dancers’ thoughts we are following. What are they thinking? The second section with fewer dancers has a range of sculptured arm shapes and attractive groupings that are satisfying to follow. The woman beside me swooned and gasped with pleasure throughout as she sipped her wine. It’s always good to witness people enjoying themselves, but to my taste this was an oaked chardonnay.

Mayu Tanigaito and Laurynas Vejalis in 'Flames of Paris' pas de deux. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2019. Photo: © Stephen A'Court
Mayu Tanigaito and Laurynas Vejalis in Flames of Paris pas de deux. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2019. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

The pas de deux that followed, Russian style from 1932 but fashioned as though much earlier, Flames of Paris, is a sizzler for ballet competitions and the virtuoso display of gala nights, so no great poetry here. Wrong. It’s all in the how, not the what—and the quality of dancing by Mayu Tanigaito is a revelation, as always. Her technique is so fabulously assured she can afford to toss it to one side and simply offer us her pure pleasure at delivering a clean line, an effortless turn, a nonchalant pose, all effort masked, a laughing toss of the head, a loving smile, a way to live. She is the company’s longstanding leading dancer in all these respects. Her partner was Laurynas Vejalis, also a dancer of great technical ability, but he did not seem to be offering that as a gift to her, so she instead offered hers to us. Lucky us. This was top-shelf champagne.

Stand to Reason, by South African choreographer, Andrea Schermoly, commissioned by RNZB in 2018, marks 125 years since the beginnings of universal suffrage. Danced by eight women who gave it a wonderfully strong and motivated reading, it encourages everyone to believe in democracy in a wider society, and in all the institutions within it. There are numerous back projections of text from suffragettes’ writings, which were not legible however from many areas of the auditorium, and it could seem wise to reduce this distraction since the text is already reproduced in the printed program, and its message built in to the choreography. Kirby Selchow and Madeleine Graham were truly standout performers among the totally focused cast.  Brandy for courage, methinks.

Mayu Tanigaito and Massimo Margaria in William Forsythe's 'Artifact II'. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2019. Photo: © Stephen A’Court
Mayu Tanigaito and Massimo Margaria in William Forsythe’s Artifact II. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2019. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

William Forsythe’s Artifact II, 1984, perhaps with Orwell in mind, was brought here by his Ballett Frankfurt to an International Arts Festival season in 1994. It employs his hallmark extremism of anatomy +, with over-extensions of limbs creating shapes and thrusts that soon amount to shouting rather than speaking. (‘It’s hard to lip-read a shouting man’—Leonardo da Vinci warned us in the 15th century, and that is still the case). Two couples embark on simultaneous pas de deux, which is like four people speaking at once, impossible to watch or ‘hear’ them all. My eye gratefully went to Mayu Tanigaito and Massimo Margaria who danced with a totally immersed care and attention to each other, making quite the quality highlight of the piece. I know there exist interviews galore with Forsythe that explain the aesthetic and the choreographic intention of this work, but the reality is what comes to us across the footlights.

The Bach Chaconne used here means what we hear is the opposite of what we see. A chaconne is a baroque dance & music form that moves ever forward over a ground bass, without the theme & variations/verse & chorus structure of other baroque dances, and thus represents a through-composed journey. Douglas Lilburn caught well the notion of journeying in his solo piano composition by that title (worth choreographing some time?), but Bach’s chaconne is so wedded now to the talisman choreography by Jose Limon (given stellar performances by Baryshnikov in this same venue back in 1990s) with the solo musician alongside him on the stage. The dance, staged by Louis Solino, was also a number of times nobly performed here by Paul Jenden with Richard Mapp playing the Busoni piano transcription. Those achingly beautiful memories create a challenge to reconcile the use of the same music with a ballet like Artifact.

The curtain is rung down numerous times while the work continues onstage (except in this production we had the impression the dancing stopped then started again each time the curtain rose). It has a point the first time, perhaps, but the numerous repeats of the curtain crashing down become increasingly tiresome. I still find this as cynical and fragmented a work as I did on earlier viewing, and one cannot help but wonder what price the dancers pay for such extreme physical demands made on them in its delivery. We have seen Forsythe’s In the Middle Somewhat Elevated in several seasons by RNZB, also an extreme work, though the aesthetic there draws on its thunderbolt percussive accompaniment. Excitement always won the day when our former company dancers performed that work (most memorably Abigail Boyle, Kohei Iwamotu, Laura Saxon Jones, Jacob Chown) who made it strikingly their own. Artifact though is a cocktail of different ingredients. 

For years our company has had an equal weighting of female and male dancers, without a star ranking system but with recognition of the strengths in individual dancers—as classicists and actors, with character or humour—and with seasons extended over ten days to offer opportunities for us to savour alternate casts in lead roles. There was also a number of stellar visiting ballet masters, among the world’s best, who brought refreshing stimulation to the dancers. The company now has a new line-up and a new look—a system of star ranking introduced, seasons reduced to only a few days, no visiting ballet masters, an increased number of dancers, many more females than males, with a number of young performers and apprentices it is too soon to identify individually, some trained locally but still including many more imported to swell the ranks. That recruiting is difficult to accept, given how many fine young dancers are in training throughout this country, and how many other New Zealand dancers continue to search for work abroad. (Wouldn’t a young dancer/graduate ensemble here offer them and the country something to fill that gap?) And the company without Sir Jon Trimmer retained to assist in the styling and staging of works, and as a quietly masterful mentor to younger dancers, is not the one we have known for decades, and a decision that remains indeed difficult to fathom.

Ballet companies, like families, grow from their whakapapa. Every generation is itself, has parents and grandparents, children and grandchildren. Our company’s early repertoire includes classics of New Zealand vintage that could well be re-staged, (consider if you will—Tell me a Tale, Ragtime Dance Company, A Servant of Two Masters, Bliss, No Exit, Dark Waves, The Decay of Lying, rose and fell, halo, Napoli. Broadcast News, Sweet Sorrow, Mantodea, Charade, Prismatic Variations… none of which is older than Serenade) and many of our choreographers and ballet masters with the required experience are free-lancing here and abroad. If we don’t stage these works, no-one will. Kia mau te wehi, kia kaha. Ka tu ka ora, ka noho ka mate. Mauri, mauri, kam na mauri. Tekeraoi. (Bold Moves. Take courage. Standing up, all is well, lying down, all is not well. Spirit, courage, blessings).

Jennifer Shennan, 19 August 2019

Featured image: Dancers of Royal New Zealand Ballet in George Balanchine’s Serenade, 2019. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

Dancers of Royal New Zealand Ballet in George Balanchine's 'Serenade', 2019. Photo: © Stephen A'Court