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

NZSD Choreographic Season 2019. NZSD dancers in 'Huddle'. Photo: © Stephen A'Court

Orbiculus. New Zealand School of Dance Choreographic Season

22–28 May 2019, Te Whaea, Wellington
reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

Thirteen short works comprise this program of new choreography by graduating contemporary dance students at NZSD, directed by Victoria Columbus. In past years, such a performance, while always spirited, has proved challenging to review since each piece, albeit of different style and tenor, with many contrasting music sources and costume changes throughout, has seemed disconnected from what followed, yet hard to separate out in the dark. 

This year a most welcome coherence, with light and shade alternating, emerges within the sequence of dances. The same costumes, soft neutral greens, greys, creams and browns, are worn throughout and this helps enormously with focus and cohesion, both for dancers and for audience. A thematic momentum with echoes and resonances from one piece to another builds towards real theatre. Across an 80-minute unbroken run-time of new work, that’s nothing short of remarkable. 

The opener, Huddle, (by Vourneen Canning), takes place in the foyer. Twelve dancers are drawn slowly into a circle that surrounds a central figure, soon replaced, as momentum builds within a calm centrifugal timeless strength. This natural grace gives way to robotic staccato movement as the second piece, 0110100001100001 (by Alec Katsourakis) orders us by beckoning gestures to follow the dancers into the theatre. Two worlds in stark contrast, one green, one bionic, yet we all live in both.  

As we enter the auditorium, bright lime green spotlights are dotted here and there, some shining into our eyes, not sure why, unless it’s to emphasise an atmosphere of alienation. Now seated, in the half round, we watch in comfort the 11 dances that are loosely stitched together by the performers’ subtle entrances and exits from the aisles threading between our seats. That suggests we’re all in this together.  

Silence s’il vous plaît (by Chase Clegg-Robinson) has a sculptural quality and an air of prayer, even lament, from its choral accompaniment. Micro Muse (by Neve Pierce), Hana (by Olivia Castagna), In a Moment of Reckless Freedom (by Alessia Augello), Adrift (by Rachel Trent), Plato’s Atlantis (by Bjorn Aslund), Charged (by Cheyanne Teka), Manuka (by Franky Drousioti), La Luna (by Jasmine Susic), Papa (by Arohanui Watene), The Kids are Alright (by Nadiyah Akbar) share similar features of a large number as chorus, with occasional solo, couple or small group moments, yet each has its singularity. 

(left) Courtney Mae Lim in Papa; (right) Nadiyah Akbar and Amit Noy in Plato’s Atlantis. Photos © Stephen A’Court

There’s irony in the song Mr. Sandman, bring me a dream.  We are surprised by an exquisite duet, one man one woman, dancing love with each other. It lies at the kernel of the suite of dances. There’s a welcome explosion of joy and fun as E Papa Waiare is sung and danced and smiled.

Dancers are not pedestrians, they’re high flyers. But amid the movement vocabulary these days there’s less jumping, leaping, soaring—the things that dance does so well— the airborne stuff. There’s more gesturing, more sculpture, walking, running, falling, rolling, standing—the groundborne stuff. In each case of course, motivation is what matters.

The printed program notes are amorphous at best, incomprehensible at worst. (Why is this such a lost art? There are models to study, some to emulate, some to eschew. Douglas Wright probably produced the best program copy I’ve encountered—pithy, poetic, themed; locally, Lucy Marinkovich and Sasha Copland know how to write about what they’ve choreographed; then there’s Cloudgate, and Hamburg Ballet, and the weekly listings of events in The New Yorker that capture mercurial dance in wondrously lucid precis. Words about dance matter because, memories aside, they are what remains after curtain-fall).

Whenever I see a sign on the box office counter ‘This show contains strobe’ I ask why, then ready myself to close my eyes whenever it begins. (It always reminds me of the roadside sign ‘Beware Falling Rocks’. Not a lot you can do about that either).

Overall though the lighting was effective and atmospheric.

But the dancing itself, which is primarily what we’re here for, is beautifully modulated and impeccably performed. All these performers can expect to find professional careers and good work somewhere. One is an absolute knockout and would score a job tomorrow in many a company worldwide.

The program’s themes and mood seemed to share something of the concern we are hearing from young protesters, local and world-wide, begging for governments to take urgency over environment and climate-related issues, to examine the quality of life, to think and to listen. I felt echoes of what David Attenborough, and our foremost climate scientist, James Renwick, are speaking. Following their lead, youngsters are saying to oldsters ‘If you won’t behave as adults, we will’.  All power to them, and to these dancers.

There’s a nationwide Teacher Strike planned for next Wednesday, the day after this season ends. That will flood the streets with school students who would thrill to see this program, as many will share its concerns. Challenge to NZSD to add two extra matinee performances on that day. There are ways to spread the word, and the auditorium would overflow. You could invite those students to then write about what they saw.

I am well aware that the young dance-makers may not have consciously intended any of the themes I found arising from their work. That’s the good thing about a dance performance. We make of it what we will. Lucky us.

Jennifer Shennan, 23 May 2019

Featured image: NZSD Choreographic Season 2019. NZSD dancers in Huddle. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

NZSD Choreographic Season 2019. NZSD dancers in 'Huddle'. Photo: © Stephen A'Court
Scene from 'Sigan', New Zealand Dance Company, 2019. Photo: © John McDermott

Kiss the sky. New Zealand Dance Company

1 May 2019. Opera House, Wellington
Reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

New Zealand Dance Company’s Kiss the Sky is a highly energised and energising program of three works that appealed to an enthusiastic audience. Production values are always strong with this company, and the six dancers are all smart, sharp, sophisticated and cleanly co-ordinated movers who share singular commitment. While the three separate works have visual and aesthetic contrasts, each uses a similar casting, shape of choreographic structure, percussive accompaniment, and movement vocabulary that, taken together, also resonate as a triptych. 

The opening work, Sigan, by Korean choreographer, KIM Jae Duk, has a cast of four dancers—Chrissy Kokiri, Katie Rudd, Carl Tolentino and Xin Ji. The contrasting qualities of thrust and parry, speed and stillness, light and shade of several Asian martial arts are evoked. When all four dancers are moving together, even if in canon, we have the fascinating chance to see individual differences within ‘sameness’. It is Xin Ji’s combination of strength and softness, not sequentially but simultaneously in different parts of his body, a felt not a taught quality, that always steals my eye.

The Fibonacci, by Victoria Columbus, is a premiere work dedicated to the memory of Sue Paterson, who was New Zealand’s leading dance and arts manager for decades, and is still and always will be deeply missed by many. This choreography, based on patterns in the Fibonacci series of numbers, would have thrilled Sue by the translation of mathematics to the stage. It starts with a contemplative illumination but soon becomes a river of intriguing movement. Lighting ideas (Jo Kilgour) and costume design (Elizabeth Whiting) are intrinsic to the work and contribute beautifully to the choreographic vision.

The Fibonacci New Zealand Dance Company, 2019. Photo © Claire Gordon

Stephanie Lake, whose own dance company is based in Melbourne, was invited to set If Never was Now on NZDC. It is a high-octane work with a similar mix of solo, duo and group dances in some eye-catching episodes. ‘Snow’ falls, scatters and is scattered across the stage, adding to the enigma within the choreography.


Scene from If never was now, New Zealand Dance Company, 2019. Photo: © John McDermott

In a contemporary dance program such as this, there is by choreographers’ choice no directly delivered reference to human experience or emotion, no conflict or drama to resolve, no consolation in lyricism, no primacy given to story, no levity in comedy (other than a brief duet of frenzied flirtation between two unidentified insect-like animals in the final work). Instead we see individuals’ staccato head movements, isolated gestures of limbs detached from lines or follow-through into the torso, a minimum of elevation, relatively little physical contact between dancers, an indirect relationship with the audience, a parallel rather than juxtaposed music accompaniment. All of this combines to suggest a grounded timelessness rather than the specifics of individual lives here and now. There is much high speed and there is sculptured stillness, but little of measured adagio in between. This creates effective references to a mix of robotic and mechanical moves in contrast with people’s states of being. It invites us to view our human condition and experiences against that perspective. Sequences of abstract movement vocabulary, danced at sometimes breathtaking speed, provide mesmerising visuals that we can take at face value of the physics and mathematics of life, or as metaphor if we choose.

Jennifer Shennan, 2 May 2019

Featured image: Scene from Sigan, New Zealand Dance Company, 2019. Photo: © John McDermott

Scene from 'Sigan', New Zealand Dance Company, 2019. Photo: © John McDermott

A gamelan concert

22 March 2019. Victoria University of Wellington
Reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

A gamelan concert at The Hub, the central arena of Victoria University campus, had long been planned for the evening of Friday 22 March. A combination of two gamelan—Javanese, Gamelan Padhang Moncar, and the Balinese, Gamelan Taniwha Jaya, would play. A dance troupe from Surabaya in Java would join as special guests to the program, and the local Indonesian community choir would also participate. Late in the planning, funding to bring the full dance troupe from Indonesia was not forthcoming so the leader, Sri Mulyani, director of Mulyo Joyo group, travelled to perform as a solo dancer.

One week to the day before the concert, all hell broke loose in New Zealand. Fifty Muslims attending Friday prayers at two mosques in Christchurch were killed by a rabid white supremacist, 50 more were injured. The country came to its knees and the world looked on in disbelief. Jacinda Ardern has been widely praised and thanked for her instinctive and tireless leadership in stepping up to lift the nation out of the mire. Sadly that’s going to be a slow process as we are still stunned by the surreality of it all.  Tens of thousands of New Zealanders have been searching for ways to say how saddened we are.

Many speeches have been delivered, opinion pieces written, uncountable numbers of flowers and messages placed in tribute, human chains formed around mosques, beacons lit and songs sung, haka performed, messages chalked onto footpaths and walls and windows the length and breadth of the country. Black Power and Mongrel Mob gang members have stepped forward and spoken their thoughts to unify the thinking of hitherto disparate groups. Their public and spontaneous haka, and their offers to stand guard outside a mosque while Muslims pray inside, are not expressions I had expected to see or hear. I feel changed by them.

Should Friday’s concert proceed? Yes it should. Gamelan has a 45 year presence at VUW and will not be easily silenced. More than ever before it seems that listening to and looking at and learning about ‘other’ music and dance is one pathway to understand and appreciate ‘other’ cultures. But what is this ‘other’? The gamelan over these decades is self-evidently a mix of Indonesian, other Asian, Pakeha, Maori and Pasifika players. 

New Zealand does not, as many countries do, require proof of percentages and proportions in its official count of ethnicities, but instead invites citizens to register their ethnicity of choice, and apparently we have 200 of those. Intermarriage doesn’t weaken anybody, it strengthens bodies. We are different, we are the same, we are many, we are one might sound like a mantra but it does cover the realities, or at least the possibilities, or it should. (mantra: originally in Hinduism and Buddhisma word or sound repeated to aid concentration in meditation). It’s the balance, the mix, the layering of what is distinctive about us and what is the same, what can be shared and what can be exchanged, that we could source. We might start with the facts: gravity exists and, mostly speaking, the human body locomotes on two legs, in the vertical. That much is universal.

How we dance, and how we appreciate a dance, is part of who we are. There is work to be done. Dedication to high and lively standards in music and dance is one path to walk. Interpretation and commentary in program notes from performer to audience are welcome challenges, and these were well met on Friday. (No one questions a Chinese professor playing a fabulously furious piano concerto by English composer Benjamin Britten, or the tender breathing of German composer Robert Schumann’s Kinderscenen. OK those composers are European, but the pianist is Chinese, remember. Just let it be good).

No one questions who should play gamelan. How it’s played is the measure, just let it be good. Sharp and on the beat, or upbeat or offbeat, quiet or strident, let the cues be clean, the timing tight and the rhythms secure. Let its ornaments escape and float above the keys of a gatra.

To an audience possibly double the size that might have been originally expected, the program opened with a Muslim greeting followed by a minute’s silence in memoriam. Introductions by Dr Megan Collins, manager of the gamelan, and Professor Sally Jane Norman, Director of NZ School Music, Te Koki, set a dignified yet welcoming tone. The Indonesian Ambassador was absent, attending the 7th day memorial gathering in Christchurch (one of those killed and several of those injured were Indonesians) so the Embassy’s cultural attaché spoke in his place.

The Javanese gamelan’s name, Padhang Moncar, can be interpreted in several ways. Padhang is brightness or daylight. Moncar means growing or developing vigorously. Padhang Moncar can refer to the sunrise (the growing light), and the fact that in Aotearoa we are the first gamelan in the world to see the new day. The Balinese gamelan’s name combines the Maori word Taniwha, a mythical water monster, with the Balinese word Jaya, meaning glorious or victorious, to symbolise the mix of New Zealand and Balinese cultures. Both names seemed freshly relevant on Friday evening.

The opening item was a ritual-like dance in which Sri Mulyani carried a large flickering lamp on her head and danced it onto the floor—’to rid the performance space of evil’. Budi Putra, director of Padhang Moncar, who had lost a close friend in the Christchurch attack, had arranged the item to the poem Tembang Macapat Sinom Gedong Kuning, in the particularly striking poetic form of macapat.

A gamelan colleague in Dunedin, Dr Joko Susilo, a 7th generation traditional dhalang/puppeteer from Java, has made a doctoral study of the song poetry macapat, used as a form of exorcism. ‘Martial art’ is too amorphous a term to catch the qualities of strength, clarity and authority in the dancer’s arm gestures and facial expressions that are employed to command and cleanse a space of illness, evil and wrong.

A Balinese gamelan item followed, with the theme referencing the handsome King Arsa Wijaya. It was masterfully led by Rupert Snook as the distinctive sounds of this glistening ensemble were released to fly around in the open acoustic. The intricate rhythmic patterns and connections seemed galvanising. Items from the Indonesian Chorus included themes of the sound of the flute, and other relaxation pleasures, in several songs and dances.

Mulyani’s dance is a Surabaya style fused with the hallmark angularities of Balinese—and elbow, knee and ankle alignments, and mercurial movements of head and neck, hands and fingers, darting eye glances and spontaneous changes of direction—measures to ward off the evil spirits that travel in straight lines. A further item was in striking contrast to her opening macapat, a shimmering affair this, with the solo dancer simultaneously depicting a pair of courting Birds of Paradise. Now that takes skill and we should pay attention to how a dancer can depict two creatures at once, and birds at that.

Dancer Sri Mulyani. Photo: © Jacques Sirot

[Many forms of  indigenous dance traditions absorb a people’s long-standing observation of native birds and the detail of their appearance, their nesting and courting behaviour into stylised choreography. Mythological reference to birds, their song-making and ability to fly to distant realms are found in many performance contexts. Most notably in Melanesia the fabled Birds of Paradise are absorbed into ritual and choreographed display as a people locate themselves within the flora and fauna of their surroundings.

Birds of Paradise, after their deaths, had their legs and sometimes wings removed, in mythological re-definition of them as birds that had not needed to land on Earth, nor needed flapping wings to fly, but were simply able to glide and swoop on draughts of air, while visiting their homes in Paradise then returning to the skies above Earth. Their feathers worn in dancers’ body decoration connected humans with the avian and celestial realms.

Banabans dance as the frigate bird flies. Their connection to their former Central Pacific homeland, long destroyed by mining for phosphate, is evoked through talisman dance forms that incorporate frigate feathers into their costume and ornaments. That’s about as close to home as Banabans are able to reach. 

Margaret Orbell in her beautiful book, Birds of Aotearoa, documents how Maori incorporated birds into their lives and lore. It’s a book for every library in the country. Her evocations of the ancient Dawn Chorus include description of the little piopio, now extinct, that used to continue singing solo for one hour after all the other birds had ceased. We might have a birdsong broadcast each morning on Radio New Zealand but for a minute not an hour, and never the piopio].

Swathes of silk attached to the dancer’s fans are thrust and tossed, reminders of other incorporation of textiles into Asian— Chinese silk sleeves, ribbons and banners, of Indian and Japanese elaborate costumes. These are not just arbitrary dress-ups, but are images and characters from stories, and we will always need stories if we are to make sense of our lives and ourselves.

A Javanese gamelan item then referenced a character from the Mahabharata, the evil King Rahwana a multi-headed demon-king who wrought wholesale carnage. A resonant theme indeed this evening, but it also evoked for me the monstrous Puputan events in Bali, 1906 and 1908, when armed Dutch invaders headed into the crowds of Balinese priests and performers who had donned ceremonial garb and processed their way into mass suicide, over 1000 of them it is said, since they had no other weapons to use. It’s not a good story but it’s not an ancient one, dramatised into epic literature either. It’s only just over a century old. The themes of The Mahabharata involving huge and violent clashes and ongoing battles between forces of Good and of Evil, were never more apparent than at this concert.

A few days ago we were hearing, amid anguished tears from those who were there, reports of the river of blood that flowed out the doors and down the steps in front of the Christchurch mosques. Police, ambulance staff and medical colleagues had to work to identify 50 bodies within that scene of carnage, a challenge that required five days and nights of dedication to unimaginable tasks. After that the mosques had to be cleaned in readiness for the return to prayer.

Themacapat in Wellington will have helped spiritually albeit from a distance. King Rawhana stepped from the pages of The Mahabharata, came to Christchurch uninvited and wrought unspeakable carnage. He has since been banished by the stronger forces of courage, compassion and care, by police, emergency staff, medical personnel, leaders and citizens, media, and by musicians and dancers.

If this review reads as ‘over the top’, that is precisely as intended.

Jennifer Shennan, 23 March 2019

Featured image: Gamelan Wellington with dancer Sri Mulyani and community choir. Photo: © Jacques Sirot

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