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
Ivy Foster as the Child in 'Ochids'. Foster Dance Group, 2019. Photo: © Jocelen Janon

Orchids. Foster Dance Group

reviewed by Jennifer Shennan
24 -27 July 2019. Circa Theatre, Wellington

Suppose somebody took a stem of orchids, choreographed them into women and tossed their experiences, emotions and memories deep into a seamlessly danced stream of consciousness that we might peer into and look for reflections from the depths. Somebody did.

Orchids, choreographed by Sarah Foster-Sproull, is a continuously flowing hour-long dance performed by a cast of seven—six adult women (Katie Burton, Joanne Hobern, Tori Manley-Tapu, Rose Philpott, Marianne Schultz and Jahra Wasasala) of contrasting age and physique, representing us all in the complexity of light and shade in our experiences. In a choreographic masterstroke, a young girl (Ivy Foster, the choreographer’s daughter), serenely evoked our past as a child, and our hope for a future. 

The work, ‘an allegory for the dark and light masks of the female psyche’, presents emotions and states of being, rather than storylines with cadence. That openness of texture invites the audience to recognise, interpret, contemplate, empathise, sympathise with and wonder at the undercurrents of meaning in the imaginative movement imagery. 

Scene from Orchids. Foster Dance Group, 2019Photo: © Jocelen Janon
Scene from Orchids. Foster Dance Group, 2019. Photo: © Jocelen Janon

There’s a sculptural quality to the torsos, and much use is made of Sproull’s hallmark hand gestures that seem like a celestial signing of some unspoken speech, a pointing finger that suggests a location or an event, but also asks a question, leaving it unanswered. These motifs always remind me of the account I once read of a 116 year old Japanese woman lying in her bed, patiently awaiting her moment of departure, and performing for her family gathered around ‘her second-to-favourite hand dance.’ (One can only wonder how many hand dances she knew, and what she was saving her favourite one for…perhaps for the afterlife?)

The sequence in Orchids has episodes of solo, duo and larger groupings that suggest woman alone, mother and daughter, sister, friend, rival, confidant, devotee. Much of the movement reflects individuals’ personal experiences with strong emotional force and sometimes surprising dynamic attack, but there are also hints of wider cultural resonance in reference to various female deities or spiritual forces. I believe I recognised one of those to come from Indian Hindu mythology—with Shakti, the goddess of many aspects including the strength of a male capable of stamping out underfoot the demon devil of ignorance.

Music composed by Eden Mulholland had percussive clarity that helped shape the work, and was at one point used as accompaniment, a pluck and two strums, for what suggested a Portuguese fado song about to be danced, but then morphed into more sensuous strings for an all-female Zorba’s dance. A most striking image was the ray of the performers’ fingers shaped like a halo round the face of young Ivy Foster which resonated as the Virgin Mary of Guadalupe, a beacon of hope so desperately believed in by millions of Mexican pilgrims.

The dance follows you home to study the orchids flowering in a pot on your window ledge, to read their folds of petals, their crevices of secrets, their shadows that hide hurt on the underside, beneath the hope that shines light on the upside.

Jennifer Shennan, 26 July 2019

Featured image: Ivy Foster as the Child in Orchids. Foster Dance Group, 2019. Photo: © Jocelen Janon

Ivy Foster as the Child in 'Ochids'. Foster Dance Grouyp, 2019. Photo: Jocelen Janon
Cello Embrace from 'Chocolate'. Java Dance Company, 201

Chocolate. Java Dance Company

11 July 2019. Te Auahi, Wellington

reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

Chocolate completes the quartet of shows choreographed these past few years by Sacha Copland for her Java Dance Company. Labelled the Artisan series, ‘a culinary investigation into culture’, each work has been themed for one of the undeniable essentials of a good life—bread (Rise), wine (The Wine Project), cheese (The Creamery) and now chocolate (Chocolate).

(I’ll have a little of everything thanks. We won’t complain about the omission of coffee as that might sound greedy. I just need the one cup each day but it has to be good. Today’s cafes echo the coffee houses of earlier times and there are rich threads of social history one could add into the brew. But perhaps Sacha is a tea drinker? Not that I don’t love a good cup of tea, mind you, and history is full of that beverage too. Maybe Japan and India and China would score a scene each? Maybe there’s a second Artisan series still to come?)

A distinctive feature of this series has been the inclusion of musicians onstage and moving … Tristan Carter on violin, and sundry percussion, Charley Davenport on cello and sundry other percussion, with the three dancers, Emma Coppersmith, Lauren Carr and Ella Williams, smooth movers all. The performers mix and match and interchange, helping each other with an instrument here, a song there, a dance and some devilment. A mood of lightheartedness, gratitude for the goods, scenes of what happens when excesses take over, and the sweetness of getting life’s balance right have flavoured each of the earlier seasons.

Ella Williams (centre) with audience members and performers in Chocolate. Java Dance Company, 2019

The usual demarcation of Players and Audience is deliberately deconstructed. Described as ‘Immersion’ dance theatre, the term signals a more-than-token amount of audience interaction. The timing of that exchange still has to be earned however, if it’s to be effective, and kept in proportion to the more structured part of the performance. My impression this time was that the performers in Chocolate, right from the start, were in direct eye contact anticipating participation of the audience perhaps rather too soon and too eagerly? 

In earlier instalments the artisan skills and actual processes of making, proofing, testing, producing and consuming the goods were all acted out on stage. I learnt things I hadn’t known, and laughed to recognise how close to home our habits are. Certain scenes reminded me of paintings by Breugel, Vermeer, de Hooch, Lowry and Ben Nicholson. There seemed to be a framework for hints at story along the way—ambition and jealousy can be encountered in any kitchen or vineyard, discreet passions experienced in the dairy, arguments can break out in the cellar, peace-making attempted on the factory floor. With troubles resolved, the earlier dances have steered towards a finale of celebratory atmosphere and generous sharing of the goodies with audience members.

Chocolate seemed less researched and lighter throughout in content of allegory and substance than the other pieces had been. It needed a stronger story line—but a distinctly subdued atmosphere did build up for the enigmatic ending when many large bags full of cocoa nibs were slowly tipped all over the stage and onto the reclining body of one of the dancers till she lay almost buried beneath them. Maybe that was suggesting a careless use of produce, back-breaking labour for workers, exploitation of human resources, and a lament for lack of responsibility for the environmental after-effects of crop production? I may have imagined all that, but a paragraph or three in the program would have helped to anchor the thinking and choreographic intention of this unusual, inventive and enterprising work.

Pouring cacao in Chocolate, Java Dance Company, 2019

A note from the choreographer quotes Thomas Merton: ‘Here is an unspeakable secret: Paradise is all around us and we do not understand.’ I googled for the reference, and found there that Thomas was the son of New Zealand-born artist and musician, Owen Merton. So I did learn something I hadn’t known before. Thanks Sacha.

Jennifer Shennan, 14 July 2019

Featured image: Cello Embrace from Chocolate. Java Dance Company, 2019

Cello Embrace from 'Chocolate'. Java Dance Company, 201

Please consider supporting the Australian Cultural Fund project to raise money to have hi-res images made for a book on the career of designer Kristian Fredrikson, which is heading towards publication. See the project, which closes on 30 July 2019, at this link. [Update 1 August 2019: Project closed]

Sir Jon Trimmer in open conversation with Garry Trinder

by Jennifer Shennan
9 July 2019. New Zealand School of Dance         

An armchair conversation with Sir Jon Trimmer was the brainchild of Garry Trinder, Director of New Zealand School of Dance. It was held in the theatre at Te Whaea, mid-week of the school’s winter intensive national seminar, so that many young students, parents and teachers could attend. It was also open to the public and a large contingent of Friends and friends, colleagues, admirers, teachers and audience-goers took the chance to express publicly their appreciation of, and thanks for, this dancer’s phenomenal career. It was twilight hour, so a poignant echo that, on innumerable performance nights across the past six decades, warm-up, make-up, dress-up, curtain-up would have been taking place at around the same time. In reviving the memories and pleasures of those performances, the conversation summoned many ghosts, all of them good. No bad ghosts arrived. Love was in the air.

The names of the main players in his early story include: Jonty’s parents and siblings who danced and sang their way around the family home; Pamela Lowe, his older sister whose dance school in Petone he attended; Poul Gnatt who arrived in 1953 like a lightning bolt from afar and established a ballet company on zero resources yet with the highest of aspirations; Russell Kerr, a quiet genius of ballet, music and theatre arts who succeeded him as Artistic Director of the company in 1962, contributing to its growing international recognition; Alexander Grant, our legendary character dancer expatriate; Peggy van Praagh who offered support during the early years of her directorate of The Australian Ballet—including an enterprising initiative whereby several dancers had three-month exchange residencies between the two companies. Jacqui and Jon Trimmer were later invited to dance with The Australian Ballet on an international tour with guest artists Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev, and entertaining tales were told of those times.

Harry Haythorne, a subsequent director of New Zealand Ballet, was another Australasian success story. He and Jonty were obviously great mates (‘We both knew all the hit songs and numbers from vaudeville and music-hall era—had a ball outdoing each other’). There’s no better illustration of that rapport than their twin roles in A Servant of Two Masters, Gray Veredon’s classic commission with inspired design by Kristian Fredrikson. The Film Archive’s copy of that commedia dell’ arte ballet is still worth viewing for the dazzling line-up of its stellar cast—Trimmer and Haythorne, Kerry-Anne Gilberd, Cathy Goss, Karin Wakefield, Lee Patrice, Eric Languet, Warren Douglas, Kilian O’Callaghan. The earlier romp, The Ragtime Dance Company to Scott Joplin, was another of Veredon’s and Fredrikson’s hits. Bernard Hourseau’s Carmina Burana and Ashley Killar’s choreographies No Exit and Dark Waves also gave Jon some of his strongest roles. Many of the heritage works of the Company’s repertoire exist only in memory, but are no less real for that, and a number of them could do with re-visiting.

Jon Trimmer as the wealthy Pantalone and Harry Haythorne as Dr Lombardi in 'A Servant of Two Masters'
Sir Jon Trimmer (left) as Pantalone and Harry Haythorne as Dr Lombardi in Gray Veredon’s A Servant of Two Masters. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 1989. Photographer not known

Christopher Hampson’s Romeo & Juliet, and Cinderella, Stanton Welch’s Madame Butterfly, Liam Scarlettt’s Midsummer Night’s Dream are further impeccable works that secured RNZB’s reputation for full-length choreographies, combining all the power that dancing, music and design can offer. If asked to name one indelible image of Jon Trimmer on stage, I’d probably first lodge a conscientious objection—What, only one?’ but then describe his power as the Duke of Verona in R&J. He strode in, on a high, elevated back platform, glared down first at the Montagues, then at the Capulets—at everyone stunned by the horror of what had played out, then again at both houses —turned and strode off. His demand that warring end and a truce be declared, delivered in so few gestures, carried all the power of Shakespeare’s tragedy. The timing and the minimalism of those few moments on stage, said it all.

We should tell our grandchildren what we saw. Find the music, tell them the story, show them photos, keep the dress-ups box at hand, take them to a matinee, suggest they draw and write afterwards what they saw, maybe send a postcard to their favourite dancer. Who knows where it might lead, but it can only be a good place.

The clearly important international parts of Jon’s career, with Sadler’s Wells Ballet, and Royal Danish Ballet, were referenced, (‘It certainly helped in Denmark to have Poul Gnatt’s mantle on my shoulders. He was still vividly remembered by everyone there—and clearly had been one of their top dancers’) but it is overwhelmingly apparent that the Trimmers’ commitment and loyalty to the Royal New Zealand Ballet has shaped their lives, and that of so many younger dancers and colleagues here whose artistry they have helped to develop. For that we say Thank You.

Garry asked: ‘When did it first occur to you that the recreation and pleasure you took in dancing as a boy could become your life work, your career?’ Jon replied: ‘Well, you know I’m not sure I can say. I just kept on doing what I loved.’

Garry Trinder (right) asks a question of Sir Jon Trimmer. New Zealand School of Dance, Wellington, 2019.

‘What he loved’ included Poul’s pedigree productions of Bournonville ballets—La Sylphide and Napoli; the talisman Prismatic Variations, Russell’s Prince Igor, Petrouchka, Swan Lake, Giselle, Coppélia, Christmas Carol, Peter Pan; interesting new work with Russell Kerr in an interlude at Auckland Dance Centre; plus 100 more… Servant, Ragtime Dance Company, La Fille mal Gardée, Cinderella, Romeo & Juliet … who’s counting and where do we stop? Clearly this is significant repertoire that earned the Company an international recognition and reputation, as well as its royal charter.

The sagas of company politics, funding and management highs and lows over the years were referred to in the briefest of terms, as also the devastating challenge of the fire that destroyed almost all the company’s resources in 1967. The abiding impression one gains is of the resilience and determination to somehow hold on to the reins—with Poul Gnatt, Beatrice Ashton, Richard Campion, Russell Kerr and the Trimmers as the heroes in those early battles.

Young dancers listening will have taken on board Jon’s words about the importance of breathing while moving—to shape and sustain an arabesque, to support a jump, to control a pirouette … ‘oh and the music of course, that helps enormously.’

Another tip, this one he had from Russell Kerr—’Go and sit outside a café, watch people as they walk by. Study their gait, their timing, how they hold their body. That will tell you much about their character which you can then put into your performance, make it lifelike.’

Jon: ‘I stopped dancing princes at a certain age but went on to old men, old women and witches. Look, it’s been just wonderful to work with all those talented people.’ Jon, one could guess it’s been just as wonderful for them, as it has been for us too.

A friend in the audience commented later—’One thing that struck me was his presence when speaking. When Trinder was talking Jonty seemed like just a genial old man, but as soon as he started to speak you couldn’t take your eyes, or attention, away from him.’ That magnetic presence and practice of paying attention has also worked in the opposite direction and been a way of life for Jon for years. He has watched countless RNZB rehearsals and performances with the most attentive eye, and always found a way of gently encouraging younger dancers, suggesting a tip to a colleague as to how the smallest shift in physics of limbs or expression of eyes or face might enhance their performance. Such generosity in the competitive world of ballet arts is rare, but makes the man worth his weight in gold.

There are more stories to be found in Jon’s recently published memoir, Why Dance?and details of the Company productions are listed in the three published histories of the RNZBallet—at 25, 50 and at 60 years.

Jon has also explored pottery and painting as further means of expression. He is a legendary gardener —and, one senses, a deeply happy man Of course he’s not stupid and wants a much better world for dancers, but the knowledge that he has used his own given talents to the maximum has allowed him to remain positive throughout a career that has seen some tortured ups and downs of politics and make-overs during the decades (every ballet company knows them). His humour is quick but never biting, always gentle with wry amusement, a rich sense of irony, patience in waiting for time to resolve troubles of the political variety, and truckloads of performance memories.

Also apparent is a deep and genuine love of his country—’Oh it was wonderful to travel through the whole countryside as we toured everywhere in the early days—we saw so much, and made so many wonderful friends as billets. We’re still friends.’

Bill Sheat, a pillar in many areas of the arts community in New Zealand, says: ‘During my long term as Chairman of the Board of RNZB I was lucky enough to see Jon T. perform countless times. Whenever he made his first appearance there would be a wave of whispered delight as the audience recognised him. It was a mixture of love, ownership and appreciation.’

Tuesday evening was a sweetheart affair—no notes, no microphones, no bullshit, no self-aggrandisement, no lecturing, no breathless promotions, no shouting and whistling, just an ocean of smiling faces and sustained, warm applause that is echoing yet, and holding history. There is no future without the past.

So what did Jonty do? He joined in the applause of course.

Jennifer Shennan, 12 July 2019

Featured image: Sir Jon Trimmer (left) makes a point during his conversation with Garry Trinder. New Zealand School of Dance, Wellington, 2019

Please consider supporting the Australian Cultural Fund project to raise money to have hi-res images made for a book on the career of designer Kristian Fredrikson, which is heading towards publication. See the project, which closes on 30 July 2019, at this link. [Update 1 August 2019: Project closed]

West Side Story. Opera Australia

7 June 2019. Opera House, Wellington
reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

                                          The same only different.

c. 1590—Shakespeare sets Romeo & Juliet in c.1390 Verona (and the town is happy to remember that still). Poetry tells the drama of youth, rivalry between the gangs Montague and Capulet, loyalties demanded, much street fighting, boy and girl in love affair doomed from the start. Sword fights, authorities not coping, fatal mistakes in timing of survival strategies. Deaths, actors exit, curtain down.

1957—Jerome Robbins, director/choreographer, Leonard Bernstein, composer, Stephen Sondheim, lyricist, and Arthur Laurents, book, set West Side Story in upper west Manhattan (though the area has since been somewhat gentrified). Dance tells the drama of youth, rivalry between the gangs Jets and Sharks, loyalties demanded, much street dancing, boy and girl in love affair doomed from the start. Fist and knife fights, authorities not coping, fatal mistakes in timing of survival strategies. Deaths, actors exit, curtain down.

2019—Australian production opens in Wellington. Seasoned musical director/conductor, Donald Chan, holds brilliantly taut reins on a spirited performance from  the Australian cast and local Orchestra Wellington musicians.

Complex stage sets of towering buildings and balconies are moved seamlessly throughout the performance, so there is a further team out the back performing a dance we don’t see.

There is little spoken dialogue in the show but in a short sequence, two junior members of the Jets confess their fear of the imminent arrival of cops to investigate murder. The pathos struck in their brief confession of individual human emotion makes striking contrast with the kind of confident bravura so readily summoned for group display in the gangs’ dances and songs throughout the show. Of those the romping standouts are I like to be in America and Gee, Officer Krupke. 

The ballet sequence near the end, to Somewhere (perhaps too well-lit for the dream scenario it implies?) sits in marked contrast to the rest of the dancing, and we only hear but do not see the vocalist for that number.  (I would have welcomed the singer to stand in a royal corner box and thus to seem to sing on the audience’s behalf).

West Side Story rocketed to fame on Broadway as a big, big musical, and was soon  translated to a movie that became known worldwide. (Do you know anyone who didn’t see it?) Steven Spielberg is preparing a new movie version, this one to be set in Harlem, so that’s moving to 131st Street, filming to start about now.

Rita Moreno, unforgettable as Anita, the leading lady of the Sharks, won an Oscar for her performance in the original movie. She will play in the Spielberg film, a re-worked version of the character Doc, the shop-owner where Tony (aka Romeo) works.

In the cast we saw here, Doc, the only voice of reason, though no-one would listen until too late, was impeccably played by Ritchie Singer. In the sizzling role of Anita, Chloe Zuel was the knockout member of a large cast where everyone acquitted themselves with verve and commitment. Not a beat was missed throughout. Donald Chan saw to that.

(Makes you want to watch the movie again. Maybe after that I’ll listen to Prokofiev’s Romeo & Juliet score?)

New Zealand apparently holds the dubious title of the per capita world record for the number of gangs and patched members. Territories are guarded, loyalties demanded, external authority rejected. From the occasional reports of events and encounters between them, one might imagine they also know personal storylines not too removed from the above. How we are is who we are.

West Side Story comes from classic stock. Dance followers may be interested, and perhaps surprised, to learn that Belgian choreographer Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker, hitherto renowned for avant garde dance theatre, is also at work on a Broadway revival of West Side Story with entirely new choreography, production date 2020. Clearly it’s a work for our time, and for many times. 

Jennifer Shennan, 8 June 2019

All photos: © Jeff Busby

Dancers of Royal New Zealand Ballet in Mário Radačovský's 'Black Swan, White Swan', 2019. Photo: © Stephen A'Court

Black Swan, White Swan. Royal New Zealand Ballet

31 May ̶ 2 June 2019, Opera House, Wellington
reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

Black Swan, White Swan is a two-act ballet by Mário Radačovský performed to a recorded abridged version of Tchaikovsky’s score. It borrows some themes from the classic Swan Lake but introduces new features and motifs in a re-working of the story that has Siegfried at its centre. The choreography plays out less as dramatic theatre working towards a denouement, or as a poem about love and grief, and instead presents a psychological profile of a man undergoing painful and confusing experiences in his life. In the opening performance in Wellington, the role of Siegfried, on stage throughout, with naturalistic movement, stillness and passages of dancing combined, was performed by Paul Mathews. His presence and thoughtful expression has an actor’s depth, while his intuitively musical dancing and strengths as a partner put him in a class of his own.

Paul Mathews in Black Swan, White Swan. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2019. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

It may be worth reproducing here “The Story” from the printed program.
Act 1:  On his birthday Siegfried receives devastating news. In his anguish, he sees a mysterious stranger, Von Rothbart. Siegfried’s wife has arranged a surprise birthday party, but he is not in the mood to celebrate. He collapses, and Von Rothbart returns. Von Rothbart begins to manipulate Siegfried’s emotions, including his feelings towards his wife, and he becomes confused, no longer able to distinguish between reality and fantasy. Siegfried tries to resist Von Rothbart and looks to his doctor for support. She becomes his White Swan and he becomes obsessed with her as the saviour who can bring him back to health and sanity. But Von Rothbart is not defeated.

Act 2:  Siegfried struggles to regain his identity, but Von Rothbart has the upper hand. To further confuse him, Von Rothbart brings out Siegfried’s wife, transformed into the Black Swan, and no longer the woman that Siegfried knows and loves. The Black Swan toys with him and once again Siegfried has to fight to keep his grip on reality. As Siegfried fights harder and harder he finally begins to weaken Von Rothbart’s control, only to collapse once again. As Siegfried awakes, back at his birthday party, he has no idea what is real and what is not. But Von Rothbart is still there…

This conveys the situational rather than narrative or dramatic aspect chosen for choreographic treatment, with life for Siegfried much the same at the end as at the beginning. A clue in the program synopsis  “As Siegfried awakes…” (I had not picked up that he was asleep) perhaps suggests the whole thing was his nightmare?  There are effectively four soloists—Siegfried, von Rothbart (Kihiro Kusukami), White Swan (Sara Garbowski), Black Swan (Kirby Selchow). They all perform strongly but the three characters seem not required to interact with each other but only with Siegfried. Kusukami’s dancing is certainly striking and his evil force is sinister yet expressionless, giving him a two rather than three-dimensional impact, which reinforces his place within Siegfried’s psychological state. Kirby Selchow as Black Swan has a sparkling edge to her taunting of Siegfried. The dance highlight of the evening for me is the pas de deux between Siegfried and White Swan who has by now dropped her doctor’s coat and become his friend, enabling Garbowski and Mathews to dance with real rapport.

Kirby Selchow in Black Swan, White Swan. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2019. Photo: © Stephen A’Court
Sara Garbowski and Paul Mathews in Black Swan, White Swan. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2019. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

The large corps or chorus of dancers, some grinning, some blank-faced, a mix of party goers, nurses maybe, then swans, were given contemporary movement vocabulary, which reflected against the backdrop of shiny metal curtain strips used for entrances and exits. Twists and flexes of foot, turn-in, hooked hands at the end of raised arms to portray swan beaks, paddling legs to suggest swimming were gestures and motifs repeated to good effect. It seemed less convincing, however, when the Cygnets and Lead Swans danced.

My perception was that much of their dancing was shaded behind the beat, which is not musically what one expects with a Tchaikovsky score. (A similar tardiness among the corps was noted in the recent production of The Nutcracker). Musicality in a dancer involves anticipation of the beat and the note, much as a conductor does, so their movement can speak through the music. That work takes place in the studio on a daily basis, the light and lifeblood of ballet. Sometimes choreography allows dancers to create the illusion that their movement produces the music, dancing with rather than to it. To see that art and alchemy at work, watch a dancer like Paul Mathews.

The performance is peppered throughout with applause and calls that do nothing to sustain dramatic conviction, but it is not so long ago that the audience was invited ‘if you see us do something you specially like then clap, call out, stamp and let us know you liked it’. Audiences, mostly, do what you tell them so interruptions become part of the experience. Opera goers always applaud an aria, even if the singer’s character has just died, but this doesn’t happen in music concerts or at plays in the theatre, and it comes at a price, a bit like an ad break. Diaghilev and Stravinsky, Douglas Wright and Lin Hwai Min knew how to choreograph for the theatre without inviting, or even allowing, applause in fits and starts.

I was waiting and wondering how the themes might coalesce by the end, enjoying anticipation of that, but will confess I found the sudden dumping from a great height of a large bucket of water onto both Siegfried and von Rothbart, was a surprise ending more suggestive of The Wizard of Oz rather than the coup de theatre it might have been turned into. Further challenge to us to interpret the work as we will, which is no bad thing. 

It is true of many of our experiences that perception is the filter of facts—nothing altogether black and white but that saying makes it so. Radačovský has presented that trope in a choreography that sincerely recreates his personal experiences some decades ago of cancer and associated trauma. It is good to know from his artist’s profile that he has recovered from the illness, though he has deliberately chosen to end this ballet at an unresolved point in the story. 

Jennifer Shennan, 1 June 2019

Featured image: Dancers of Royal New Zealand Ballet in Mário Radačovský’s Black Swan, White Swan, 2019. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

Dancers of Royal New Zealand Ballet in Mário Radačovský's 'Black Swan, White Swan', 2019. Photo: © Stephen A'Court

New Zealand School of Music + Dancers

24 May 2019. The Hub, Victoria University, Wellington    
reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

Talking about Music, Dancing about Architecture.

A striking performance by New Zealand School of Music last Friday brought instrumental music and dance into unusual proximity. Those who, like myself, believe in the vibrancy of live music and dance interactions are drawn to the alchemy that can result from interwoven performing of both arts.

The Hub is at the centre of students’ common space at Victoria University. It is occasionally used for performance though remains accessible at the edges to students’ coming and going. This creates an atmosphere of openness and something less than the formality of a recital in a dedicated concert space.

Loughlan Prior and Laura Saxon Jones with musicians. The Hub, New Zealand School of Music, 2019. Photo: Stephen Gibbs

Hamish Robb and Beth Chen on piano as Duo Ombré opened with Debussy’s Petite Suite with its resonances of dance rhythm bedded in to the score. These were given welcome comment in Hamish Robb’s spoken introduction.

‘Talking about music is like dancing about architecture’ is a saying attributed to many, and points to the primacy of an original work, and the sometimes superfluous attempts to translate that into verbal form. Robb however has a natural gift of talking about features in the score, and can highlight moments in playing them without sounding in the least arcane. This commentary is both refreshing and helpful to our listening.

Mozart’s Sonata for Piano Four Hands was of course quivering with dance life. It’s on record somewhere that Mozart declared he’d rather have been a dancer than a musician, and you can hear what he means. Rachmaninoff’s Six Morceaux was then played and we were invited to ‘listen orchestrally’ to suggestions of colours in the keyboard rendition.  

The New Zealand String Quartet, also based at NZSM, performed the second half of the concert. They played renditions of two dances by Erwin Schulhoff: Alla Czecha and Alla Tango Milonga. Schulhoff’s career was cut tragically short in war time yet what he did compose is full of interest. The big one though, most enthusiastically introduced by cellist Rolf Gjelsten, and also alive with dance rhythms, was Bartok’s String Quartet No.5

Loughlan Prior (centre) and musicians. New Zealand School of Music, 2019. Photo: Stephen Gibbs

Two dancers—Loughlan Prior and Laura Saxon Jones performed to several movements within these works. Their clean and attractive movement was expertly and intimately positioned in and around the musicians, even at times playfully daring to act as conductor to their performing. There were lines and angles suggesting architecture, light images, costume as shared skin, pauses and speeds that emphasised the dance-like qualities of movement of the musicians in performance… and the dancers’ movement seemed to produce an empathy of  visual music.

This is close to the way that Tokelau people behave—different music, different dance, but the same marriage between both.

Jennifer Shennan, 28 May 2019

Featured image: Loughlan Prior and Laura Saxon Jones performing with artists from the New Zealand School of Music, 2019. Photo: Stephen Gibbs