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.

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.

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

©

This week in New Zealand

There’s only one dance to report on from New Zealand this week—the haka taparahi, performed in the road in Christchurch, to leaders and members of the Muslim community, by members of Black Power, the bikers gang who do not ordinarily appear in public to demonstrate emotion in a dance. But these are not ordinary times.

A haka like that is done to challenge some force in opposition, to threaten and to conquer it, to annihilate it. Pukana! In this case the force was the hate-filled act of massacre and attack on hundreds of Muslims at prayer by a white supremacist among us, killing 50 of them, and wounding as many more. At the same time the haka exhorts people to kia kaha, to be strong, against whatever tide is threatening to overwhelm them. Pukana!

The country is devastated, struck down in grief and disbelief. In truth we are struggling with how to choreograph expression of that. To date there are millions of flowers lying silently against the walls of mosques, in parks and gardens, on street corners, on beaches countrywide. Candles are burning along human chains of witnesses, and from the windows of shops and houses.

We are undone, but we will be back. This Friday, Gamelan Padhang Moncar of Indonesian heritage will play at Victoria University to accompany visiting dancers from Bali. The gamelan will be led by Budi Putra, whose good friend was gunned down at the mosque last Friday. This performance will echo that haka, and we will not be undone.

(TVNZ website carries footage of the haka by Black Power on Sunday 17 March)

Jennifer Shennan, Tuesday 19 March 20

Hannah Tasker-Poland and Emmanuel Reynaud in 'Thursday'. Borderline Arts Ensemble, 2019. Photo: © Philip Merry

Thursday. Borderline Arts Ensemble

3 March 2019. Wellington Railway Station Foyer

Choreography: Lucy Marinkovich/Borderline Arts Ensemble 
Performers: Hannah Tasker-Poland and Emmanuel Reynaud
Music: Sergei Rachmaninoff, Piano Concerto No.2 (Adagio)

after 1945 David Lean /Noel Coward film classic, Brief Encounter. 

Reviewed by Jennifer Shennan.

You’ve reached the Wellington Railway Station. In 15 mins your train is due to leave for Waikanae, so there’s time, no great hurry. It’s a fine day, just a bit draughty across the foyer, probably as well to keep your coat on. You stroll around a little and admire the warm pinkish-brown of carrara marble walls, the high vaulted ceiling panels painted in bright lightness. It’s all quite beautiful, must be the finest railway station in the world. The speakers are piping familiar Rachmaninoff, which is somehow comforting in such a transitory space.

Damn, something is caught in your eye and it stings, A man passing tries to help you. Whoa! Who is this? All the longing you’ve always kept inside but never voiced out loud, your secret that you could love someone till the end of time, even if there is no such actual person, or, if there is, you’ll never meet, it’s just a longing that you’ve always lived—perhaps others have it too?—but how would you know because this is not anything you can talk about. That would be unlucky and you might be overheard by strangers. There is no such person, too true to be real, too beautiful to last, to have a name, and she may not even notice you, and you’d risk losing her when you’d only just met. No, he’s just a kind man passing by, trying to help you sort your eye problem. Or let’s say it is just the thing called hope, the thing with feathers, that you nurture in the breast while reading Emily Dickinson’s poems on train journeys.

It’s not that you’re at all the type to fall carelessly and deeply in love with a stranger in a public place—for example, the man sitting in the third row of the No.14 bus that time you went to town … that was a breath-holding ride, you thought you could be together forever … but he knew nothing about you, did not even notice you, so the affair was safely over by the time you alighted at the third-section bus-stop. There was no dance, it was all in your mind, your soft head. So how come this day is different? This man does notice you, more than that—he pauses, he stops, he turns, he offers to help, he wants to meet you, he feels the same as you do. This is a film script, surely? You’re actually in this film, yet you never auditioned, and there was never any rehearsal. Who’s the choreographer here? Swan Lake is the story of a man and a woman who meet, they dance and love, but she is due to fly out that evening and he will lose her forever. This is different, it’s just a train station, remember.

Hannah Tasker-Poland and Emmanuel Reynaud in Lucy
Marinkovich’s Thursday. Borderline Arts Ensemble, 2019. Photo: © Philip Merry

A number of other travellers  stop to watch the couple—and are fixed by the beautiful figures-of-eight they see traced, like infinity signs lying sideways. Small fires flicker inside those who are watching too. No one is voicing a commentary, there are no subtitles, no flyers to hand out, no powerpoint. The dance is the point of power. This is not pornography, it’s not erotic (though nearly it is…), it’s just a 13 minute love dance on the marble floor of a railway station, by a man and a woman who keep their coats on while they fall into the depths of each other’s eyes and drown there, just managing to save each other by doing beautiful things, whatever their bodies will allow— like waves and billows, like leaning and longings, with arms, and hands, with legs, feet, faces, eyes, the backs of their heads too—they don’t always need to be watching to know what the other is doing, they can just tell. He knows they will never have to argue or disagree, they will love and hold and be held forever. This is better than all the lyrics of all the love songs on all the shelves of all the music shops of the world. These are minutes of assurance that you can love someone you don’t even know by name, and still catch your train. But, hold the Rachmaninoff … the voice-over announces that the Waikanae train will be leaving in two minutes time. You both pause, you raise hands in the gesture of a farewell wave—oh no—but yes—but no, let it go without you. You walk back towards each other, hold still, hold tight. She has let the train go without her.

All the dance moves up till this point were just rehearsal, so now it’s time to do them all again, only more fully, and slower, deeper to lunge, higher to lift, wider to arc, stronger to clasp. The watching travellers are all choosing to miss their trains too. They can’t walk away from lovemaking. At the start there was a posterboard on the edge of the space that read ‘New World, special coffee & muffin offer free. Today only’ but the message has been changed while no-one was looking and now reads ‘Innocence is contagious, if you like’ which everyone knows is true, and better value than coffee and a muffin, even when that’s free.

They continue dancing and it is the loveliest thing you ever saw in a Railway Station. Then the voice-over for the next train to Waikanae, and oh, she must leave now, and so she does. He turns and walks to the street, it’s his eyes that are stinging now, holding the memory of all that just happened. Probably. Today only. In 13 minutes. And will last forever. Surely.

————-

Lucy and partner/colleague, Lucien Johnson, will take up the year-long Harriet Friedlander Residency in New York. May they keep their coats on. while at the subway station.

Jennifer Shennan, 3 March 2019

Featured image: Hannah Tasker-Poland and Emmanuel Reynaud in Lucy
Marinkovich’s Thursday. Borderline Arts Ensemble, 2019. Photo: © Philip Merry

Hannah Tasker-Poland and Emmanuel Reynaud in 'Thursday'. Borderline Arts Ensemble, 2019. Photo: Philip Merry