Subtle Dances. BalletCollective Aotearoa with New Zealand Trio

8 April 2021. Bruce Mason Theatre, Takapuna, Auckland
reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

The Auckland Arts Festival presentation of the premiere season of a new contemporary ballet company, BalletCollective Aotearoa, at the Bruce Mason Theatre in Takapuna, was nothing short of a triumph. Come the curtain-call, many in the sizeable audience were on their feet to salute the choreographers and composers, the dancers, musicians and designers, the courage and commitment—the whole fresh resilient New Zealand-ness of it all.  

Artistic director and company leader, Turid Revfeim, has led her stalwart little troupe of  dancers in and out, around and back to find a way through the Covid-induced challenges and shadows of these past many months. They must have walked close to the edge more than once, as funding began then disappeared (questions should be asked about that), lockdowns descended (‘Just do the right thing and stay home’), schedules postponed (‘Well, let’s just re-schedule’), flights and accommodation booked then cancelled (‘OK, let’s just re-book’), ‘Let’s just abandon the project since there’s no budget to keep going,’ (‘Never, never. Let’s do it anyway’).  

It was an Edmund Hillary sort of moment as out into the light they danced, with the intensely passionate musicians of New Zealand Trio right there, just off-centre, upstage left, throughout the whole performance. Three separate choreographies came to seem like a trefoil of faith, a shamrock of hope, a clover of charity. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. Bach walked 400 miles to hear a concert. I only had to sit on a plane for an hour.

There is an impressive interview with Turid Revfeim on RNZ Nine to Noon, 9 April, (the podcast on RNZ website is well worth listening to), which sets the background and context of this courageous ballet initiative. If you think this is a rave review of the performance and of the entire enterprise, you are right.  

Scene from Sarah Knox’s Last Time We Spoke. BalletCollective Aoteraoa, 2021. Photo: © John McDermott

The opening work—Last Time We Spoke—by Sarah Knox, to composition by Rhian Sheehan, was an abstract yet poetic treatment of themes of how to be alone together. The cast of six dancers in fluid pairings across several sections of the work found connection in the lyrical music to make friends with consolation and memory. Tabitha Dombroski and William Fitzgerald were striking among the cast of six dancers.

Helix, the second work by Cameron Macmillan, one of New Zealand’s ex-pat choreographers whose work we all want to see more of, borrowed its title from the music, Helix, composed by John Psathas, leading New Zealand composer. It was preceded by an excerpt from Island Songs, a different composition by Psathas, a staggeringly virtuosic challenge to musicians who rose to every thrilling, throbbing quaver of its melodic percussion.

Scene from Cameron Macmillan’s Helix. BalletCollective Aoteraoa, 2021. Photo: © John McDermott

In Helix, the drama continued as Macmillan traced a journey, not exactly narrative but with suggestions of story nonetheless—a woman, a man, and shades of relationships between them. Some woman. This was the phenomenal Abigail Boyle who is quite simply the leading ballet dancer in the country, no contest. Just standing still she is dancing, such is her sense of line and presence, but when she moves, o my. Her investment in the role as she journeyed round the corners of the stage carrying her chair, and through the centre of the stage as she contained emotion in her every movement, was a deeply anchored yet airborne performance. Boyle is a national treasure of dance in New Zealand and we are overjoyed to see her performing still at the peak of her powers. William Fitzgerald partnered her with a strong and sensitive quality that reminded us of his dancing which has also been much missed here of late. Tabitha Dombrowski and Medhi Angot were powerful among the committed cast of eight performers.

Scene from Loughlan Prior’s Subtle Dances. BalletCollective Aoteraoa, 2021. Photo: © John McDermott

The third work, Subtle Dances, choreographed by Loughlan Prior, composed by Claire Cowan, takes its title from the music, which in turn becomes the title for the triple-bill as well. Prior and Cowan are a pairing of major talents. The work explores and explodes with themes of gender blurring—swirls of hot tango as the boys and girls and boys come out to play. It is saucy, spicy, dark and compelling. Complex courtships, allusion alternating with illusion, remind us of nature’s best dancers. It invites searing performances from all the cast, and confirms this BalletCollective Aotearea as a troupe of striking dance talent, in fabulous collaboration with the phenomenal musicians of the New Zealand Trio.

As soon as the box office opens for their next season we will be in the queue, however many hundred miles of travel that might mean. Here is a link to the RNZ podcast featuring Turid Revfeim.

Jennifer Shennan, 10 April 2021

Featured image: Scene from Loughlan Prior’s Subtle Dances. BalletCollective Aoteraoa, 2021. Photo: © John McDermott

Transfigured Night. Ballet Collective Aotearoa & Chamber Music New Zealand

15 March 2021, Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington
reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

This was an evening of triumph on several levels. Transfigured Night is the first of six concerts in Chamber Music New Zealand’s nationally touring programme for 2021. Audiences in ten cities will have the chance to witness a performance of light and colour, wit and freedom, deep beauty and poignant poetry, of music and dance making love. We don’t often get to watch that, and we won’t forget it. 

The New Zealand String Quartet have earlier worked with choreographer Loughlan Prior in various projects, and their mutual trust and shared excitement is apparent in every quaver and quiver. That is what will have given lift-off to this project. 

The Ides of March was the day Team Emirates New Zealand won two spectacular races in the America’s Cup series, in boats that fly above the water and turn slow pirouettes in high attitude—even those who know nothing about yachting can see that. The Fowler Centre is not a proscenium theatre space and it’s a challenge to stage dance there (it’s where in 1988 Nureyev performed, which proved a mistake). Here though a great triangular sail, white silk with patterns of colour, designed by dancer William Fitzgerald, is back lit and suspended high above the stage—an inspiration to preface the performance and shape the space.

The opening work was the premiere of a composition, I Danced, Unseen, by Tabea Squire. Laura Saxon Jones enters first, to silence—a curious creature, a lithe and hungry fox perhaps, who sniffs out and inspects the music stands and scores, what is all this about? what are these music scores? can you eat them? Hilarious. The whimsy and teasing continue as the musicians enter, wearing similar costumes as the three dancers, all of them echoing the patterns on the sailcloth overhead. There are naughty interferences from the dancers to the players and their instruments, but these musos are staunch, could play blind, and it would take a lot more than choreographed mosquitoes to throw them. It’s a darling and fun-filled opener.

The Dvorak String Sextet in A major, op.48, was superbly played, and the dancers continued in similar vein to find places in the music where they could actively, passively, openly or surreptitiously involve themselves. The three dancers had a million moves, yet the choreographic vocabulary and style were refreshingly free from clichés of ballet so often seen displayed elsewhere ‘just because we can’. They danced as individuals with personality and spirit, and the freedom that conveyed to the audience seemed liberating.  Hardened chamber music followers with little prior exposure to dance may possibly have found it distracting from the music they have long known and loved well, but not those around me who giggled and applauded and loved it, as indeed did I.  It was a commedia dell’arte romp, full of cheer and light, with inspired little fragments of Hungarian folk dance, dumka and czardas, caught in the many nimble rhythm and tempo changes. Two of those repeated movement motifs carried me back decades to pas and port de bras of the little Russian dance in RAD’s Grade 5 ballet syllabus I have loved ever since 1957, happy and grateful for the reminder. 

(l-R) Laura Saxon Jones, William Fitzgerald and Tabitha Dombrowski in rehearsal for Transfigured Night, 2021. Photo: © Sarah Davies

But peel back now for the major work of the second half, Transfigured Night, early Schoenberg. It proved a choreographic masterwork, and will position Loughlan Prior firmly on the international choreographic scene. It’s a safe bet that there will be future seasons of this work, both here and, when it becomes possible, abroad as well. There wouldn’t be another choreographed work anywhere that so centrally positions the intercourse between music and dance. In that sense it harks back to the masques of 17th century Europe, with costumed musicians traversing the stage, playing from memory, mingling with dancers and actors. At the same time Prior is in full control of a contemporary ballet vocabulary that moves like a fresh nor-easterly wind across our harbour. This skipper knows the local conditions.

The skilful absorption of two massive silk cloths, one red and one white, mirrored the theme of human physical interactions, a couple, a trio, a new couple, moving through their dreams and hopes and fears, their longing and love and loss. It moved the audience, aficionados or not, to responses—‘stunning … sublime … superb … breathtaking. When can we see it again?’  The central role played by Laura Saxon Jones was calm yet nuanced, poetic and powerful. It is good to see her dancing here again after several years absence.

Laura Saxon Jones with musicians of New Zealand String Quartet in rehearsal for Transfigured Night, 2021. Photo: © Sarah Davies

The choreographer and the three dancers are all graduates of New Zealand School of Dance, credit to all concerned, and are now members of Ballet Collective Aotearoa. This new and courageous initiative, directed by Turid Revfeim, is a free-lance ensemble, to date only minimally funded [how courageous is that?], yet poised to offer the country a new and fresh approach to streamlined, clean, clear ballet for our time. The premiere season of BCA, in the Auckland Arts Festival [postponed a fortnight ago due to Covid lockdown] will now instead take place on 8 and 9 April, then in Dunedin Arts Festival on 16 April. We are holding our breath and we won’t be disappointed. The calibre of choreography, dance and music is already assured, with Poul Gnatt’s pioneering spirit in spades. Split Enz have a song—History never repeats. I wager they are wrong.           

Hamish Robb’s superb program notes on music and dance interactions will help keep alive the memory   

Composition: Tabea Squire, Antonin Dvorak, Arnold Schoenberg
Musicians: New Zealand String Quartet and colleagues
Choreography: Loughlan Prior
Dancers: Laura Saxon Jones, William Fitzgerald, Tabitha Dombrowski of Ballet Collective Aotearoa
Presenters: Chamber Music New Zealand

Jennifer Shennan, 16 March 2021

Featured image: Scene from Transfigured Night, Ballet Collective
Aoteraoa and New Zealand String Quartet and colleagues, 2021. Photo: © Jack Hobbs

Moon Water performed by Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan. Photo: © Liu Chen-Hsiang

Choreographing a way through lockdown. Some thoughts

by Jennifer Shennan

In all the upheavals of 2020 ̶ 21, there has been a seismic range of responses to Covid-induced constraints from dance companies, artists, entrepreneurs and media worldwide. Film-makers and videographers have engaged with choreographers and dancers as never before, and the results have been in some cases breathtaking.

Plenty of companies initially took a standard line of having dancers capture themselves on smartphones in daily work outs in their apartment kitchens and sending in the somewhat underwhelming results for their company to stream. It certainly highlighted, by their absence, the critical importance of the ballet masters’ role in the daily life of a dancer.  Other companies saw the opportunity to make income from subscribers who could watch existing films of their repertoire broadcast within a limited time frame. Others again recognised with vision the unprecedented chance for what amounted to free publicity for their companies or theatres, and generously offered open viewing of works to audiences worldwide. 

New York City Ballet presented several new choreographies designed for socially distanced preparation and performance, and these were screened alongside commentary and discussion with the performers. For me though the highlight was the exquisite Moon Water by Cloudgate Dance Theatre of Taiwan, due to be performed live at Sadler’s Wells, instead broadcast through pre-existing film. It was introduced especially for the occasion by choreographer, Lin Hwai-Min, and will remain indelibly memorable, in my mind and also those of friends who took the tip I sent them to watch. Many are still thanking me months later for what they describe as the most serene and consoling dance experience they have ever known.

Two further memorable examples of dance films that have crossed my screen as Arts Channel broadcasts during the Covid era are of flamenco artists—both of them phenomenally though differently talented. Rocío Molina was the subject of a documentary, Impulso, that tracked the choreographic progress of her new work from its beginnings in Madrid, through various previews in different Spanish venues, through to its premiere at the Théâtre national de Chaillot in Paris. Molina is a wild child but her passion to live through dance burns holes in your television screen.  

The other program more recently screened, again through Sadler’s Wells, is of Maria Pagés from Seville. Her company’s mid-year season in London was cancelled, so a documentary was made instead. The choreographic vision ranged from portrayals of the seasons through traditional flamenco movement, in floreo and braceo arm movements, both timeless and sinuous. As well she draws on contemporary global phenomena—such as the rise of populism, weakening of democracy, culture of bullying. There were astonishing film clips of the braying, barking oratory of Adolf Hitler, the hammering rhythms and cadences of his declamations,  which were then reproduced to startling effect in the rhythmic patterns of the dancers’ stamped canes. The sophistication of choreographic vision invites us all to consider how bullying in any situation can be countered or contained. Top marks to Sadler’s Wells for bringing this stage work to the screen.

Jennifer Shennan, 10 March 2021

Featured image: Moon Water performed by Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan. Photo: © Liu Chen-Hsiang

Moon Water performed by Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan. Photo: © Liu Chen-Hsiang

Not a dance as such …

Daily Deaths
5 December 2020, Futuna Chapel, Wellington

reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

The practice of dance notation has always intrigued me. The notion of recording in symbols a choreography, of studying a dance form, style or technique, of documenting a dance tradition or of analysing human movement for medical and therapeutic purpose, seems intrinsically interesting. Using a camera to video a dance does not begin to capture or analyse the depth, detail and intricacy of movement as a notation can. Different systems of dance notation exist, and it is interesting to compare the analytic concepts on which they are based. The foresight of Doris Humphrey and Jose Limon in commissioning notations of their entire choreographic repertoires into kinetography Laban (Laban notation) ensures that their numerous classic works can continue to be performed long after their lifetime. 

The very earliest examples of notated dances in European history, date from 14th century France, Spain and Italy. They are the mediaeval basses danses, scribed into exquisite miniature calligraphy, jewel-like in silver and gold on a black background. The music tenor, the guidelines to the composition and the initials of the names of the steps are all notated. Musicians today can play from these notes ( they are breves on a stave, without bar lines ), dancers can learn the style and memorise the steps—thus an eight hundred year old dance can be breathed back into life. I always say to students that doing a basse danse is a bit like dancing the rosary—a string of steps with variations, in a sequence that creates a meditative quality of abstract thought. That is not a bad description of a music performance I just witnessed in Wellington last weekend—so, not a dance as such, but a meditative witnessing of tragic statistics of Covid mortalities. You could have set a basse danse to the music.     

Performance of Daily Deaths, 5 December 2020. Photo: © Russ Beban

Futuna Chapel in Karori proved an ideal venue for this highly unusual event. John Scott’s architecture is itself a work of art, and the stained-glass panels by sculptor Jim Allen threw a wash of colour, backlit by sunshine, into the space. Those attending might have felt they were at a vigil for a global phenomenon in history, rather than merely an audience at a conventional concert. There were no doubt challenges for some who are new to this world of alternative music-making, but the strong and sustained final applause signalled that many had had a uniquely memorable experience.

Composer Daniel Beban made an hour long work from the sobering statistics of 8 different countries’ Covid mortality rates these past months, layering and morphing these into graphic scores for 18 musicians in a range of paired wind and string instruments.

Long slow breaths from each performer in the opening section developed into breathings through the instruments without yet sounding tones. Then notes were blown for the length of a sustained slow breath, or bowed for the duration of a slow single stroke. Some instruments merged into each other’s sounds, some became more dominant, evoking images of individuals struggling to breathe, to survive, against whatever odds. It seemed like an abstracted report on experience from the front line, at times dreamlike, though sometimes involving nightmares.

The composition played out as a serious witnessing of untold numbers who have suffered, survived, or not survived this vicious pandemic. I felt grateful to be able to contemplate that sad wider picture without the cacophony of reports of a few braying politicians in denial of science, recipients of hugely expensive treatments for their own care yet with no sense of community or empathy—contrasting with the reality of pleas for help from the front-line, and epidemiologists who need us to listen and to act responsibly and humanely.    

The fact that the composer is my son-in-law and one of the musicians my daughter is what some might perceive as a conflict of interest within this review, but for me that only reinforced the truth that for every name on the lists of the dead, there’s a family left to hold on to memory. This work seemed like a basse danse, a rosary of consolation for them.  

Jennifer Shennan, 9 December 2020

Featured image: Page from the manuscript Basse danses de Marguerite d’Autriche, XV century, Flemish School. Bibliothèque royale de Belgique. Brussels.

The Sleeping Beauty. Royal New Zealand Ballet/Orchestra Wellington

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jennifer Shennan, 31 October 2020

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

Beneath Sky Snakes. Cameron McMillan—dance on screen

reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

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

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

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

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

Cameron McMillan in Beneath Sky Snakes, 2020. Screenshot

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

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

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

Cameron McMillan in Beneath Sky Snakes, 2020. Screenshot

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

Jennifer Shennan, 11 September 2020

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

Kristian Fredrikson. Designer. Book review

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

reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jennifer Shennan, 18 August 2020

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

Douglas Wright—the last dance. Tempo Dance Festival Online video viewing

15–19 July 2020
Reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

Auld Lang Syne

Several repeat viewings of this enigmatic little dance have reminded me of auld acquaintance —never to be forgotten, but still very good to have it brought to mind. I see it as Douglas’s conversation with the Vitruvian Man by Leonardo da Vinci. He moves but does not locomote. He stays within his kinesphere. 

The first minute is a spoken explanation from Douglas of the work’s gestation—’The images came to me. I told them to go away but they wouldn’t go away, they stayed like a cat scratching its paw on the door to be let in. I found a theme—one we all know about—the search for ecstasy—be that chocolate éclair, heroin rush, or orgasm. That quest is part of everyone’s life. The images grew into the work The Kiss Inside.’

Douglas stands his ground and lets his gestures speak. You can ‘hear’ as his hands sign and pray and plea, let him rest his cheek a little then wake him up. His arms spread like a tree branch, fold like a bird wing, or arc up and over like those of an angel. He signs himself with a cross, touches his fingertip to the pulse points in his throat or face, his breast or groin. He reaches down to walk his hands over the floor in front of him, to check the ground, terra firma, terra incognito. There’s driving pulse in the music by Naftuke Brandwein—Escorting the Bride and Groom Home.

The dance is first shown in Douglas’ home, in his jeans and boots, on the living room carpet, in front of his bookshelf, an art piece on the wall, a statue of a female saint adjacent. The year is 2014. The dance ends with the right arm forward, hand upwards, palm facing us, in a gesture that says ‘Wait’ or ‘Stop’. In Part Two of the film, Douglas dances on stage, within the choreography The Kiss Inside.  (Sky City, Auckland, 2015)

Douglas Wright in his solo from The Kiss Inside, 2015. Photo: © Pippa Samaya

A giant tree branch is suspended overhead. Trees exist both above and below ground. Douglas always was a dendrophile, so there are echoes for us of his first choreography for RNZBallet, decades ago, The Decay of Lying—and of the later works, A Far Cry and Forever.

Here Douglas walks on stage, bare foot, dressed in white pyjama. A uniformed nurse, on standby, watches him closely. She’ll be his first responder. His final gesture has re-shaped to become a right arm raised high, with the fist declaring ‘I hereby pledge. This is my truth.’  Douglas then walks to exit stage left.

(Update of 19 July 2020)

*******************************

Douglas Wright, New Zealand’s uniquely meteoric dancer, choreographer, writer, artist, died in late 2018. His last choreography, a short solo, M_Nod, was reviewed in On Dancing. His last full-length work, The Kiss Inside, was also reviewed here.

Douglas’ close colleague, rehearsal director and now choreographic executor, Megan Adams, has produced an unusual and poignant video document which traces the solo Douglas choreographed for himself within The Kiss Inside, but which he was only able to dance at some performances, when his health and stamina permitted.

Tempo Dance Festival, normally an annual live season in Auckland, has become a digital season this year due to Covid restrictions. Megan’s film is being screened this week, until Sunday.

From TDF website: It is an absolute honour to be hosting Douglas Wright’s The Kiss Inside (solo) this week on the Tempo digital stage. Thank you to Megan Adams for bringing this film together and allowing us to share such rare and beautiful footage. 

Here’s what Megan has to say about the work:

The Kiss Inside (2015) was the last time Douglas Wright performed on stage. He made an exquisite solo which sadly, due to sickness, he was unable to perform at every venue, so many people missed the opportunity to see him dance. In fact, Douglas didn’t advertise that he was performing, so many people didn’t even know that he had choreographed a solo for himself in this work. This solo was made over many weeks in his lounge in Mount Albert, Auckland. He would make choreographic material and I would visit him every week and he would show me what he had made, tell me where he thought it would go and we’d listened to music he was considering. We would share choreographic ideas and scrutinise every detail of the movement. Afterwards we would drink tea, talk about life and laugh. I occasionally videoed the sessions and the rehearsal footage in the film is of the first time that Douglas performed the entire dance from start to finish. I love the intimacy of the footage, we can hear him breathe and sigh and feel his vulnerability as he finds his way through such an intricate solo for the first time. What an absolute privilege it is to witness visionary artist Douglas Wright rehearsing at home, in his jeans and boots, in front of his favourite chair and the statue of a saint.

Douglas Wright’s The Kiss Inside (solo) will be up on the Tempo website from the 15–19 of July. 

There are motifs in this dance we recognise and remember from other work by Douglas (especially Elegy)—a kind of urgent semaphore of gesture, a celestial signing, in which we are being told things. This is before or beyond language—dance typically has no script anyway—but Douglas always had an urgent need to communicate—and indeed used dance, also visual art of found sculpture, and drawing—plus a considerable body of writing, to do just that.

Body of work. Work of the body. How he savoured language and its parallel existence alongside movement to say what he thought we should know.

This ascetic dance catches death by the tail and cheats it by 9 minutes. You can say a lot in 9 minutes if that’s all the time you’ve got. It’s how long it took me to write this review.

Don’t miss the dance.

Jennifer Shennan, 16 July 2020

Featured image: Douglas Wright rehearsing his solo from The Kiss Inside, 2014.

Chrissy Kokiri_of New Zealand Dance Company. Photo: ©John McDermott

New Directions at New Zealand Dance Company

Comment by Jennifer Shennan

The proposed Bubble between Australia and New Zealand for health, travel and trade purposes sits comfortably on the Anzac matrix in our common history. There’s a long weave of dance exchanges and interactions between Australia and New Zealand over many decades—tours from the 1950s by the Melbourne-based National Theatre Ballet of the first full-length Swan Lake here (with Lynne Golding and Henry Danton); the years of Borovansky visits; the Australian Ballet; Sydney Dance Company; productions mounted on New Zealand Ballet by Peggy van Praagh, Ray Powell, Jonathan Taylor, Graeme Murphy; the major directorship of the Company by Harry Haythorne; Douglas Wright works in Sydney Dance Company—and numerous other visits and exchanges in both directions—most recently by New Zealand Dance Company.  

The appointment of the new directors to NZDC, including Australian James O’Hara, thus has an inbuilt thread which could see further weaving between performers and audiences in the trans-Tasman Bubble.

Chances to view the global wealth of streamed dance videos has been most welcome during Lockdown but all of us are surely looking forward to the introduction of live performances in the not-too-distant future. Safe lift-off to the new team at NZDC.

An excerpt from the media release announcing the changes is below.

THE NEW ZEALAND DANCE COMPANY APPOINTS WORLD CLASS NEW LEADERSHIP TEAM
The Board of the New Zealand Dance Advancement Trust today announced the appointment of former Nederlands Dans Theater chief executive Janine Dijkmeijer as The New Zealand Dance Company’s (NZDC) Executive Director; and renowned dance artists and directors Victoria (Tor) Colombus and James O’Hara, as Co-Artistic Directors.

Board Chair Sharon van Gulik welcomed the new team saying the company was well placed for its next phase of development, building on the incredible artistic and organisational legacy of cofounder and former Chief Executive/Artistic Director, Shona McCullagh.

“The Trust was founded on the ambition of creating a full-time contemporary dance company for New Zealand by bringing together a high-calibre community of dancers, creative collaborators, arts managers and supporters dedicated to creating inspiring new dance. In appointing Janine, Tor and James, we believe we now have the talent to grow the artform of contemporary dance, and take the company into its next era”, van Gulik says.

Janine Dijkmeijer, currently living in the Netherlands as an advisor in the performing arts, say one of her missions in life is to be an advocate for the language of dance.

“I come from a family of researchers, innovators and doctors. I understand why I have come to be passionate about dance, because dance is deeply healing and always tells a true story. This language is nonviolent and global. Communicating through dance is playful and is never judgmental. The New Zealand Dance Company is a jewel. I have known Shona through her films and it feels we are family. Shona’s wide vision of what is possible within dance and communication has always been close to me. I have seen the company perform in the Netherlands and always been impressed with the high quality of dancers. I’m very much looking forward to working with the new artistic directors and the team in New Zealand – the possibilities are unlimited”, she says.

The new NZDC team: (l-r ) Janine Dijkmeijer (Executive Director), Tor Columbus (Co-artistic Director) and James O’Hara (Co-artistic Director)

The full media release, which includes further news and biographies of the artists involved is at this link.

Follow this tag link to read posts relating to NZDC on this website.

Jennifer Shennan, 3 June 2020

Featured image: Chrissy Kokiri of New Zealand Dance Company, 2018. Photo: © John McDermott

Chrissy Kokiri_of New Zealand Dance Company. Photo: ©John McDermott
Moon Water performed by Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan. Photo: © Liu Chen-Hsiang

Moon Water. Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan

Choreography Lin Hwai-min to Bach solo cello suites, cellist Mischa Maisky. Video screening by Sadler’s Wells, via YouTube until 22 May 2020

Reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

Moon Water, choreographed by Lin Hwai-min, to Bach’s six solo cello suites, is performed by Cloud Gate Dance Theatre, one of the world’s most accomplished and respected dance ensembles. In lieu of Cloud Gate’s planned season at Sadler’s Well’s, this free screening is being made available on YouTube throughout the week, until Friday 22 May.  Lin speaks in the introduction: ‘In these times of uncertainty, I hope this lyrical dance will bring you joy and peace.’  He’s right about ‘the times’ and his hope is realised in a sublime work of light shining out of shadow, and of the dancers’ calm and supple strength that accepts and yet conquers the force of gravity. As inspiration for the making of Moon Water, Lin quotes the mantra for Tai Chi practitioners: ‘Energy flows as water, water’s spirit shines as the moon’, as well as the associated Chinese proverb: ‘Flowers in the mirror and moon on the water are both illusions.’ These are all the program notes we need. 

I first saw Moon Water performed at the cultural festival which acted as prelude to the Sydney Olympics in 2000.

[The hugely impressive dance program within that festival also included Masurco Fogo, Pina Bausch’s choreography by Wuppertal Dance Theatre, The Cost of Living, Lloyd Newson’s choreography by DV8, as well as seasons by Sydney Dance Company in Graeme Murphy’s work on the Olympics in Ancient Greece, Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, and The Australian Ballet].

As the world’s media turns to the Olympic Games every four years, with typically spectacular Opening and Closing Ceremonies framing the sports contests, it has always seemed a pity that the associated arts festivals that act as precursor to the Games receive next-to-no international media promotion or coverage. Lucky I was to get to Sydney for so many memorable performances in 2000. I’ve been in love with Cloud Gate ever since.

The company was formed in 1973 by Lin Hwai-min and has remained under his consistent and visionary leadership for decades. Performing exclusively his choreography, the company’s extensive international touring has made it one of the world’s leading and most respected dance enterprises. The extensive repertoire grows from Lin’s deep searches into the philosophy, lifeways and art forms of Chinese history and traditions. Each work is a model of meditative calm and clarity as a single concept is explored—yet there’s an undertow of complexity and passion there for those who would see it. If you want novelty, fashion, sensation and display of virtuosity for its own sake, yawn yawn, you should probably look elsewhere.

Moon Water performed by Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan. Photo: © Liu Chen-Hsiang

Cloud Gate’s movement vocabulary and aesthetic grows from the suppleness, strength and flow of Tai Chi meditative and martial art, intertwined with contemporary dance, somewhat after Martha Graham technique. The play of vertical and horizontal is not in contrast but in segue, and there is astonishing control as a dancer moves from standing then into a deep plié, then onto the floor, then back to standing as though this is just one sequence of movement, and it fair slows your breathing. A line becomes a curve becomes a circle becomes a wheel becomes a windmill. A standing figure of eight has become a reclining infinity sign. In Moon Water there are solos, duos and a chorus grouping that take us through a night where the moves of dancers clad in white silk clad are bathed in light that reflects on backdrop, overhead, and finally beneath them, in the water which slowly washes across the stage. Mostly adagio, with the occasional subito, there are images that evoke a large bird standing (crane or heron, kotuku) or flying (gannet, albatross, toroa). The presence and power in their contained energy somehow also includes the qualities of tenderness towards a newborn, a trusting child, a calm adult, a weak but hopeful elder, all slowly moving towards a life-affirming first white light before dawn.

I visited Taiwan in 2017 and had the loveliest of times with Cloud Gate. I could write about them forever but reading that would be a waste of your time when you could be watching Moon Water.  

And a tribute to all that a second company, Cloud Gate 2, was formed to create opportunities for dancers to choreograph new repertoire.Upon Lin Hwai-min’s retirement last year, the leader of that ensemble, Cheng Tsung-lung, was appointed as the new artistic director of the main company. How affirming to see the wisdom and generosity of spirit involved in managing this company’s heritage—a rare achievement among the competitive politics of many a professional dance company you and I could think of.  

Jennifer Shennan, 17 May 2020

Featured image: Moon Water performed by Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan. Photo: © Liu Chen-Hsiang

Moon Water performed by Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan. Photo: © Liu Chen-Hsiang