Woman Life Freedom. Crows Feet Dance Collective

24 March 2024. Hannah Playhouse, Wellington
reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

This dance work is choreographed by Jan Bolwell and performed by 35  members of Crows Feet Dance Collective, an ensemble of mature dancers, marking 25 years since the formation of the group in 1999.

‘Anyone can join Crows Feet—you just have to be a woman over 35. There are no auditions’ reads the program note. It’s a courageous undertaking to put trained former dancers together with others who have never performed professionally—never mind mid-30s, some are in their 70s and 80s. In today’s dance culture, which typically favours technical virtuosity and the prowess of youth, it is refreshing to see this dignified and measured yet impassioned meditation on the roles and rights of women in several parts of the world, focussing principally on Iranian and Kurdish societies.

Anna Groves in two moments from Woman Life Freedom, 2024. Photos: © Rob Edwards

The hour-long dance work is a vigil, a witnessing, a lament, a letter to the world. It plays against Gorecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, and incorporates text from a number of sources, including the utterly wonderful poem by Maya Angelou—A Brave and Startling Truth. There’s not meant to be a star in a show of this nature but, since her words address all of humankind, Angelou (who was herself a dancer of some note) is that star—or do I mean that Annie Ruth delivers her text with an empathy and luminous vocal quality that binds the performance together. The poem Home, by Warsan Shire, is equally memorably spoken. 

Gorecki had Poland’s tragedies in mind—Angelou knew too well the violent savagery meted out to Black Americans—Shire is British-Somali—so the show’s telling of Iranian women’s struggles and resilience finds echo in many other times and places in the world. Processions resemble mediaeval basses danses, tableaux and groupings use lengths of cloth to double as hijab or the shrouded bodies of dead babies, a serpentine farandole of grief acts as a poroporoaki to farewell family and friends.  

It’s sad and sobering, but finds a way to end with resilience and hope—which are words you can equally apply to Jan Bolwell herself, both in her life and her work. It’s a yes from me.

Jennifer Shennan, 29 March 2024

Featured image: Anna Groves in a moment from Woman Life Freedom, 2024. Photo: © Bob Zuur

Paradise Rumour. Black Grace

22 March 2024. St James Theatre, Wellington
reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

Paradise Rumour, commissioned by Sharjah Festival in UAE (now that’s different), has toured in USA, and also performed in Auckland and Christchurch. This single performance in Wellington marks the end of its current season though further performances in Australia and the Pacific—Noumea? Suva? Honolulu? would make a lot of sense.

The Black Grace team is on top of their game—producing a printed program which contains Ieremia’s fine poem by way of libretto for the work, all the production info you need, and also folds out as a striking poster (see featured image above). It costs $3 and I shouldn’t think there’d be many copies headed for recycling any time soon.

This is dark and courageous choreography from Neil Ieremia in which he calls out the controlling power that missionaries historically claimed in 19th century Pacific, and Samoa in particular. Its message is one of resilience.

The work is strikingly staged with copious tropical vegetation on both sides of the stage, and lighting that follows sunrise through to dark night. This very effectively creates a Pacific Island locality, though be sure this is not anything to do with the Paradise of contemporary tourist attraction. Instead the work runs deep the into the complexity of interactions that missionaries historically required of their original converts, willing or otherwise, and the subsequent generations of migrants.  

Paradise Rumour is layered, complex, enigmatic and elliptical, poignant and provocative. There are intriguing sculptural images of costumes or props that change before our eyes in a range of lighting variations. Quite often lately we have seen big shows where, although billed as dance, there’s a much reduced role for dancers to play as high tech audio-visuals move in to play the lead roles. Here there’s miles and miles of intrepid dancing, in fresh and unpredictable rhythms within a stunning score. 

There are contrasting movement qualities among the six performers. Fuaao Tutulu Faith-Schuster, Demi-Jo Manaio, Rodney Tyrell—a lyrical woman, a female pocket rocket, a strong graceful male—are dancers who establish the emotional experiences. Three actor-musicians—Vincent Farane, Sione Fataua and Leki Jackson-Bourke—carry the story of the conflicted missionary forward. The rich soundscape by Faiumu Matthew Salapu underpins the whole show.

Fuaao Tutulu Faith-Schuster and Rodney Tyrell in Neil Ieremia’s Paradise Rumour. Black Grace, 2024. Photo: © Duncan Cole

The dancers are running—and my, how they are running! Is that to get to somewhere or away from somewhere? The answer is yes, because they are running on the spot. Alchemy turns this dance show into powerful theatre which is more than the sum of its parts. Such qualities rank Black Grace with Bangarra Dance Theatre’s explorations of Australian indigenous experience, and that’s high praise from me. 

The capacity audience left buzzing and smiling—not that the show was cheerful exactly, but because it’s about something, it’s a stunning achievement from every angle, and because its stamina is infectious. Folks on the bus home were still talking animatedly about it. That doesn’t happen often.

Jennifer Shennan, 24 March 2024

Featured image: Poster image for Paradise Rumour. Photo: Duncan Cole/Toaki Okano

Belle—A Performance of Air. Movement of the Human

14 March 2024. St James Theatre, Wellington
reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

Belle—A Performance of Air is a theatrical event of monumental proportions. 

The stage is mostly a launching pad for take-off from gravity, with high-flying spinning aerialists and moving sculptures that evoke time past and time future in a range of astonishing ways.

There’s a striking opening image—backlit figures wired into a ground control centre, they’re there then they’re not—what’s real and what’s virtual? what’s human and what’s AI? who are you and who are you sitting next to?

Five ‘movement and dance specialists’ Brydie Colquhoun, Anu Khapung, Jemima Smith, Aleeya McFadyen-Rew and Nadiyah Akbar, perform dance sequences (still on the ground) of electric staccato movement, as though thoughts are being cancelled before they can be completed, lending urgency and frustration. The ‘aerialist specialists’ are Imogen Stone, Katelyn Reed, Rosita Hendry and Ellyce Bisson. A human standing inside a circle always evokes Leonardo da Vinci’s Vetruvian Man, one of my favourite images of all time. Here that’s a Woman, and her airborne spinning dance within the hoop is something to behold. An impressive singing violinist, Anita Clark, is live and also reflected onto high angled screens that shape-shift before our eyes.

Stunning lighting design offers many a trompe l’oeil that spills the work up into the flies, into the auditorium and the royal boxes, then searches out the audience with waves of blinding light. The stage becomes a sea of mist in which the performers hide, and finally disappear in a devastatingly uncompromising finale.

The work lasts less than a hour, and is described as ‘a meditation on what lies beyond’. It’s the work of Malia Johnston as director/producer, Rowan Pierce as stage and lighting director, Jenny Ritchie as aerial choreographer and costume designer, and composition by Eden Mulholland. You could have called it millennial twenty-five years ago, let’s call it apocalyptic now. Over and again I found echoes from Major Tom—Take your protein pills and put your helmet on … Commencing countdown, engines on … Check ignition and may God’s love be with you … Now it’s time to leave the capsule if you dare … I’m stepping through the door And I’m floating in a most peculiar way … And the stars look very different today … Though I’m past one hundred thousand miles … I’m feeling very still … And I think my spaceship knows which way to go… Tell my wife I love her very much she knows Your circuit’s dead, there’s something wrong. Far above the Moon Planet Earth is blue And there’s nothing I can do.

I then thought of Yuri Gagarin, who after he returned to the ship, albeit late, from the first ever space walk , said ‘I felt as though I had been dancing’.

You can probably tell that the various sensory stimuli of the show, the stunning ‘smoke and mirrors’ that worked without a hitch, invite a high kinaesthetic response in us. We have been warned several times of the haze, strobe, and bright light spill, and such goods were delivered in no small measure. The trouble with that is—as with the road sign ‘Beware of falling rocks’—there’s not a  lot you can do about it once you’re on the road. You can always stay home of course—but I wouldn’t have missed the show for the world.

I just close my eyes during strobes, and hold up the programme sheet to block out painfully bright lights (as do a number of the audience around me, even though none of us wants to miss the rest of the imagery). Those breaks in turn mean we are made aware of ourselves watching the show, rather than being totally transported by it, even though we are that too. 

You get the feeling there will be more shows from this talented team. I challenge them to find a way of lighting the show to ilIuminate their ideas without trapping us in the headlights. They’ve proved they can do almost anything, so of course they can do this too.       

Jennifer Shennan, 15 March 2024

Images: © Andi Crown Photography

Jungle Book Reimagined. Akram Khan Company

23 February 2024. St James Theatre, Wellington
reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

A fascinating in-depth interview late last year on Radio New Zealand between Akram Khan and Kim Hill—(which of her interviews has not been deep and fascinating?)—is well worth accessing in RNZ archive. It’s no surprise to learn there that the bright mind and ferocious drive from Khan’s youngest days has followed through to his celebrated career as choreographer today.

We have seen other work by Khan here some Festivals back, in a program shared with French dancer Sylvie Guillem, and more recently and most memorably, in English National Ballet’s production of his Giselle in an Auckland season. That classic too was ‘re-imagined’ in a timeless setting, and a huge set was used to great effect for the dramatic dancing that nonetheless remained central to the work. 

Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book is a favourite among memories of childhood reading. There’s always a frisson to have old names and images recalled—Mowgli the child, Shere Khan the lurking tiger, Baloo the Bear, the Wolves of course. Its underlying theme of man in practical and ethical relation to other animal species and to nature is carried through, but is here darkly thrust into a contemporary setting of looming environmental disasters.   

The show opens with giant animated images of desperate refugees on boats struggling to reach the shores of new lands, but there’s disaster on all sides and many do not make it. Sound familiar? Mowgli the girl child is a casualty, separated from her family, and she ends up in a wild place, a jungle where the wolves will discuss who’s to care for her. Sound familiar? How prescient was Kipling, how sharp is Khan.

Throughout the show many other large-scale images are projected onto several gauze curtains layered across the stage … herds of giraffes stampeding, huge elephants pondering with dread on the state of the natural environment. An atmospheric sound track is loud and throbbing, but to my disappointment prevents us from hearing the numerous excerpts of dialogue that are no doubt bringing further dimension to the work. As there is no printed program available that opportunity to quote from these excerpts is also lost.

Baloo the Bear is an entertaining comic, the girl-cub is central, and a number of mesmerising group dances bring further urgency to the performance. Readers wanting further detail about the cast and choreography may find it online.

I know there are arguments these days against printed programs—’Audiences don’t want to be told what to think’ … ‘Too much historical information we don’t need’ … ‘Save trees and protect the environment’ etc.  I personally think that’s a pity—printed programs don’t need to be lavish and glossy (though I agree they sometimes are). They can be simple and modest but still packed with a wealth of information and profiles of performers. Without them we will soon move to a scenario without archives, memoirs, biographies, histories of the performing arts—nothing to store in the attic for decades—nothing to trigger and relish memory, to show and share with friends, and with grandchildren to encourage them to go to the theatre, and to read Kipling… and probably many fewer reviews to share thoughts and opinions, to help document an enduring but ephemeral art. 

Jennifer Shennan, 29 February 2024

Featured image: The elephants from Jungle Book Reimagined. Photo: Supplied

Tutus on Tour. Royal New Zealand Ballet

24 February 2024. Te Raukura, Kapiti
reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

The two recently appointed directors at RNZB, Tobias Perkins and Ty King-Wall, express in the program’s introduction their hope that the national Tutus on Tour production will leave the audience captivated, moved and wanting more. It did and we do.

The program opens with a set of excerpts from Swan Lake, staged after Russell Kerr’s treasured production from 1996. Usually we see either the complete four act ballet (which RNZB will perform in May this year), or just Act II as a stand-alone piece. Here however is a totally new experience—the full four acts reduced to a 40 minute abridged version, so it’s the classic story but without the trimmings, and on a tiny budget. Far from reducing the impact of the mighty original, this in an unexpected way brings out a poignancy and intimacy in the interactions between the characters, in what is effectively a chamber version of the choreography. And with soloists of this calibre, we lose nothing of the quality.

Turid Revfeim has staged the piece with care—but she swiftly credits David McAllister (who has been Interim Artistic Director at RNZB this past year) with the actual choice and sequence of excerpts. There’s no von Rothbart on stage for example but his evil presence is caught in the orchestral overture (in very good amplification in this excellent venue). The performance is danced to a 2013 recording of Nigel Gaynor conducting the NZSO, back in that memorable era when RNZB retained their own conductor on the staff, and he’d be the best ballet conductor, music advisor and arranger that you could want. We’re off to a very good start indeed, bathing in sumptuous Tchaikovsky.

The cygnets are the pert little favourites and do very well. Laurynas Vejalis, a brooding Siegfried, dances powerful allegro legwork with adagio arms (that’s a whole lot harder to do than it sounds, and the results affect our pulse and breathing). Then he and Mayu Tanigaito as Odette develop an exquisite rapport in the pas de deux from Act II. This was a revelation and may have to do with the smaller proportions of the venue? In a full-sized theatre all the dancers have to project a larger-than-life scale to reach the back of the Gods. Here there’s little distance from stage to audience and that means the pair can dance solely to, with and for each other. Neither of them looks at the audience, we are merely voyeurs of their love-making. I’ve never seen anything quite like it.

There’s a charming pas de trois danced by Calum Gray, Catarina Estévez Collins and Cadence Barrack. Calum has a new strength and presence which is a pleasure to see. Then follows a smashing Neopolitan number by Ema Takahashi and Dane Head that sizzles the stage. Wow.

There’s a new Siegfried now, the sharp and spirited Kihiro Kusukami, to dance with Odile, Katherine Minor—and here’s another triumph, again I think in part due to the intimate scale of the venue. Siegfried looks only at his ‘love’ (but it’s ‘the wrong woman’, you fool), while she, the beautiful brazen two-faced prostitute, looks at him just often enough to keep him mesmerised, but also at times at us, not with a smile exactly, more of a sneer and a wink, as if to say ‘Aren’t I clever to seduce a prince like this and do my father’s bidding at the same time?’ It’s a very skilled performance indeed, and cadences a miniature ballet we will long remember.

After the interval comes Alice Topp’s Clay, a pas de deux from her Logos, to music by Einaudi, seen here in 2023. Performed by Mayu Tanigaito and Levi Teachout, this is in extreme contrast of movement style and vocabulary from the previous work and Mayu reveals the great range of her performing ability. With tightly focussed tension, the drama of their pas de deux recalls the choreography of the full work.

Shaun James Kelly has re-worked Prismatic (from the larger cast first seen in last year’s Platinum season). The bright and energised piece pays homage to the neo-classical gem, Prismatic Variations, co-choregraphed by Russell Kerr and Poul Gnatt in 1959. The ascetic aura of that talisman work cannot be easily imitated, but I do wonder if the dancers’ facial expressions and smiles could be reined in and at least in parts replaced by the meditative neutrality that gave the original work such a celestial aura and mana. There are striking sequences and shapes throughout the choreography, with a final triumphant sculpture of the group of twelve dancers that suggests the crow’s nest or bowsprit of a ship sailing on the high seas. 

I very much value the printed program for its thoughtful and detailed content. The Company is entering a new era, and one can only wish them all safe travels and happy dancing in this tour around the country. Half the Company does the North and half the South Island, which gives valuable access for younger dancers to try new roles. Audiences in twelve centres will be thrilled to have them back. Some in those audiences will remember the tours of 156 towns that Poul Gnatt took New Zealand Ballet to in 1950s. He persuaded them to enrol as Friends of the Ballet and their 5-shillings subs paid for the petrol to drive to the next town. The rest is history.    

Jennifer Shennan, 26 February 2024

Featured image: Front cover image for the program for Tutus on Tour showing Mayu Tanigaito as Odile in Swan Lake. Photo: © Ross Brown

Hatupatu Kurungaituku—A Forbidden Love. Taki Rua Productions

Artistic Direction: Tānemahuta Gray
Kapa Haka choreography: Wētini Mītai-Ngãtai
at Tawhiri in Wellington. 20 – 24 February 2024 and following tour to Auckland, Christchurch & Rotorua
reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

It’s always a special moment for an audience when the poster image for a production is revealed in the course of play—only fleetingly, there it was, but we recognise it instantly since we have been looking forward to this show for some time and wondering how the combination of its many threads might weave together. And what an image it is, also on the program cover—a Maori man, Hatupatu, wearing a fine piupiu (woven fibre skirt), stands looking at us, his left fist strongly clenched, his right arm lifted to embrace the Maori bird-woman, Kurungaituku, who is suspended upside-down beside him, their cheeks adjacent, faces wreathed in red feathers and foliage, her bird body marked with feather shapes. It speaks of love and tragedy, of what is possible and what’s not, a man and a woman together but who can never be united, and one of them will die. The cryptic mystery of the legend of Hatupatu and the Bird-Woman is told in dialogue, all of it in te reo (Maori language), four males, gun performers of haka and taiaha. Female aerial artists are the birds, their urgent calls screeching out as they soar and sway overhead.

It is a courageous and innovative opening performance of the Aotearoa New Zealand Arts Festival, in a new venue that Wellington will see more of.

You’d have to be a visionary to even attempt such a production but if anyone can do it that would be Tānemahuta Gray in tandem with Taki Rua theatre enterprise. Tāne has been thinking for years about creating this show, let’s call it an aerial dance-play, drawn from a legend of Te Arawa Maori. It’s a remarkable project but he would be swift to credit the team of collaborators. Principal among those is Wētini Mītai-Ngatai, (of the leading cultural group in Rotorua, Te Mātārae I Ōrehu), who choreographed the kapa haka and taiaha sequences which Hatupatu and his three brothers deliver with power, precision and grace. There is contrasting humour when they goof around sparring with each other, to the great delight of the capacity audience which is seated or standing either side of the long thrust-stage. The Bird-Woman and her fellow creatures fly and soar above us, but without indulging in virtuosity merely to impress us. We are the more impressed by that.

Another stage at one end is backed by a drop screen with projected stunning images, stylised from the natural world phenomena around Rotorua. (Lucky me, I visited there by coincidence just last week so was thrilled to be reminded here of the wondrous dancing sands at Hamurana, the deafeningly wonderful waterfall at Okere, the fuming Pohutu geyser, the glorious soaring trees and exquisite bird life in the bush at Maungatautari). A trap door opens and recreates Pohutu geyser, and another trapdoor opens to reveal a mammoth cage in which the Bird Woman traps her man. These are all special effects that could go wrong 100 different ways. Nothing went wrong.

Paddy Free’s supportive sound score incorporated taonga puoro (traditional Maori music instruments) played by Alistair Fraser. John Verryt’s set design, Jo Kilgour’s lighting, Elizabeth Whiting’s and Amy Macaskill’s costume design are all faultless.

I specially appreciated the illuminated taniko weaving patterns that replaced a proscenium arch. That personified the title Taki Rua, the long-standing theatre company that presented this work. (Former director of Taki Rua, playwright Hone Kouka says of the name, ‘Taki Rua is a weaving pattern and means to go in twos—signifying the bi-cultural aspect of the theatre.’) This is an assembled tribe of Aotearoa New Zealand’s premier theatre artists all at their stunning best. Eds Eramiha as Hatupatu, a magnetic presence, is a natural performer across several genres without a cliché anywhere. Kasina Campbell as Kurungaituku is the compelling Bird Woman, every one of her gestures finely chiselled. Both are experienced in film, theatre and kapa haka so not a shred of performance nerves near them. Others in the cast include graduates from Toi Whakaari Drama School, Whitireia Performing Arts, Unitec, UCol, University of Auckland, New Zealand School of Dance, which accounts for a refreshing combination of performance styles. 

Tāne Gray is himself a graduate of New Zealand School Dance and still maintains a presence for Maori tikanga there. This production carries further echo back to the 2001 season of Royal New Zealand Ballet’s Ihi FreNZy, which combined Mark Baldwin’s choreography to songs of Split Enz, and the kapa haka group of Te Mātārae I Ōrehu, led by Wētini Mītai-Ngātai. This production brings the promises from that early season to fruition here, 23 years later.

The production will now tour to Auckland, Christchurch and Rotorua—where I imagine the roof will lift off the venue, the audience rise in haka to applaud them, then everyone will be flying on high-wires.

Ka mua ka muri. Look back to look forwards.

Jennifer Shennan, 22 February 2024

Featured image: Hatupatu, played by Eds Eramiha, and Kurungaituku the Bird Woman played by Kasina Campbell. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

Tribute to Jon Trimmer

2 February 2024. Opera House, Wellington
by Jennifer Shennan

Sir Jon Trimmer, dancer extraordinaire and leading artist of the Royal New Zealand Ballet for decades, died in October 2023. Yesterday a Tribute to the man and artist was presented in Wellington to a capacity audience at the Opera House. Guest of Honour was Jacqui, Lady Trimmer, also a dancer with RNZB, who was at Jon’s side throughout his 60 year performance career 

The event was designed and prepared by Turid Revfeim, former dancer with Company, and more recently artistic director of her independent Ballet Collective Aotearoa.

We were reminded of the extraordinary range of Jonty’s roles in spoken tributes, photo images, film excerpts of him dancing, and live performances by current members of RNZB. Jon had danced in all the classics—(his favourite was Albrecht, and we also saw film of him as the visionary poet in Les Sylphides). In dramatic roles there were so many favourites but let’s mention Friar Lawrence and Duke of Verona in Christopher Hampson’s Romeo and Juliet; the debauched King in André Prokovsky’s Königsmark; Dr Coppélius in Russell Kerr’s Coppélia; the stunning Swan in Bernard Hourseau’s Carmina Burana; a compelling toa/warrior in Gaylene Sciascia’s Moko; the enigmatic Man in Ashley Killar’s No Exit; and the poignant Leopold in Gray Veredon’s Wolfgang Amadeus—in a duet-minuet with the inimitable Eric Languet. In comedy roles Jon relished Stepmother in Cinderella, Pantalone in Veredon’s The Servant of Two Masters, The Matron in Gary Harris’ The Nutcracker, and goofing through the title role in Harris’ Don Quixote.

Jon Trimmer as the wealthy Pantalone and Harry Haythorne as Dr Lombardi in 'A Servant of Two Masters'
Jon Trimmer (left) as the wealthy Pantalone and Harry Haythorne as Dr Lombardi in A Servant of Two Masters. Royal New Zealand Ballet. Photo: © Martin Stewart, Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington. PACOLL-8050-36-04

All those memories are worth gold, but it’s apparent to anyone who thinks about it that Gray Veredon was/is New Zealand’s exceptional choreographer with a unique imagination, style and sensibility. Jon was 41 when he first danced the outrageously wonderful solo as The Entertainer in Veredon’s Ragtime Dance Company. No one on the planet ever did or could match that performing. At age 80 Veredon is still active on the international choreographic stage, with recent successes in Warsaw and Venice, and now in Mexico. How fine and fitting it would be for RNZB to re-stage some of his stellar works—perhaps Firebird and Tell Me A Tale for starters.    

In 2006 Peter Coates directed and produced a wonderful documentary of Jon’s career from which excerpts were screened. How wonderful to see and hear Russell Kerr in such good voice analysing Jon’s talents. The film will be a valuable resource for years to come. 

Tributes were received from former artistic directors of RNZB—Harry Haythorne (by proxy from Mark Keyworth), Ashley Killar, Patricia Rianne, Gary Harris, Matz Skoog, Ethan Stiefel and Francesco Ventriglia—and were read by Anne Rowse, former director of New Zealand School of Dance.

Breathing stopped when Helen Moulder started a cameo from her poignant play, Meeting Karpovsky, that she and Jon performed many times. How could she do that with half the cast missing? But suddenly there was Kim Broad who quietly appeared from the shadows in a miraculous summoning of Jon’s presence. That was the true moment of theatre in the whole event.

The next Russell Kerr Lecture in Ballet & Related Arts, the sixth in the annual series, to be held in Wellington on Sunday 25 February 2024, will be all about Jon Trimmer. Turid Revfeim is the main presenter, with a number of other contributors, and we will also screen the complete Coates’ documentary. For those readers able and interested to attend, please email jennifershennan@xtra.co.nz for an invitation.

We are already thinking ahead that 2025’s lecture will be on Gray Veredon. Perhaps the year after that might be Eric Languet?

Jennifer Shennan, 3 February 2024

Featured image: Jon Trimmer in Helen Moulder’s Meeting Karpovsky. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

Arangetram—Indian Dance Performance. Mudra Dance Company

14 January 2024. Whirinaki Arts Centre, Upper Hutt, Wellington
reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

An arangetram is a graduation recital in the Bharata Natyam tradition of Indian classical dance. It’s effectively a solo performance lasting close to two hours—a phenomenon in any dance terms, demanding stamina and memory of heroic proportions. To witness a young performer achieve the standard where they can share what they have learned in up to ten years of study and training is not easily matched in any other dance practice that comes to mind.

Vivek Kinra is a renowned teacher in this tradition, and 45 graduates of his Wellington-based Mudra Dance Academy have performed an arangetram over these past three decades, an extraordinary statistic. Typically, the young dancer will be in late teens, perhaps early 20s (though there are exceptions. ‘You perform when I say you are ready,’ says their teacher) so it echoes the achievement of Solo Seal in ballet terms, though in the Indian case this is a fully choreographed and costumed performance in a theatre. The music is recorded in India, the costumes are made there. Detailed and beautifully illustrated printed programs are given out. Tasty Indian refreshments will be provided in the intermission, and upon arrival you have been greeted by a line of smiling hosts who offer a sugar crystal, and a bindi for your forehead. (‘A bindi … symbolizes spirituality, identity, and heritage, and is associated with the activation of the third eye chakra’).

It’s clear we are in for a special experience. The audience is radiantly attired, so whatever you wear you will be outshone, but you don’t waste time wondering what on earth you have done to deserve an invitation to such an auspicious gathering. You just sit down and read your program because there’s a lot of good guidance in it.

I told you there were exceptions, but today’s arangetram takes some beating. Esther McCreadie is the first full-European student to graduate from Mudra. She is of Irish descent and did not begin her study of Indian dance until seeing Vivek perform when in her 20s. She is now aged 46. I suck the little sugar crystal to calm my nerves. I can only imagine how Esther is feeling.

Kinra is a celebrated graduate of the renowned Kalakshetra Academy in Chennai. It is Wellington’s fortune that he has taught here since 1992. The high standards of his own performing, choreography and teaching are well recognised and his pupils are in safe hands.

The first half of the program comprised Mangalam, Alarippu, Shabdam and Ranjani Mala, a varnam. These dance types have contrasting rhythmic demands and dramatic qualities, but in each of them Esther’s technique and sense of line in sculptural poses are secure and give much aesthetic pleasure. We are immediately at ease to see her mudra handwork beautifully articulated, her strong rhythmic security, and the varied range of abhinaya, facial expressions. Creatures galore are evoked—gods and kings, devotees and cupids, gopis and demons, as well as lotus flowers and jewels of adornment.

After the intermission there are keertanam, bhajan, padam and thillana—in celebratory or meditative mood. The padam, Asai Mugam, is particularly poignant as it laments the dancer’s separation from Lord Krishna whose face she can no longer remember, and she struggles to understand what she has done to deserve that punishment. The final scintillating thillana makes a triumphant end to a beautiful and memorable performance.

Various experts pronounce regularly on the benefits of extreme physical exercise for our human body to function at optimum health. Many people count how many steps they walk each day. I think they’d be better to take Bharata Natyam classes since the mind as well as the body is involved to the maximum, and the music is way way better. Namaskar.

Jennifer Shennan, 16 January 2024

All photos: © Gerry Keating

Featured image: A moment from Esther McCreadie’s arangetram, 2024

Farewell to a year of dance, 2023

by Jennifer Shennan

In Maori custom an address or oratory always opens with acknowledgment of those recently deceased, recognising ‘the mighty totara trees that have fallen.’ That puts Jon Trimmer right up there in the first line since he is/was unarguably the hero of New Zealand dance. Knighted for his unmatched artistry, and the longevity of his fabled performance career, Jon was loved by so many—for all the roles he danced but also for the plain common decency in the man. Fastidiously professional about his own work, he was always interested in the work of others, ever standing by to help should that be needed. Jon may have passed (26 October 2023, aged 84) but the memories of his mighty performance career will never be forgotten, never. Nor will we see his like again, ever. Jon carried the mantle from Poul Gnatt and Russell Kerr to safeguard the Company for decades. That now passes to those performers and directors who lead RNZBallet. One can only wish them courage.  [The Company’s public tribute to Jon will be held in Wellington on Friday 2 February, 2024. See Company’s website for details and reservations. The next Russell Kerr lecture in Ballet & Related Arts, on Sunday 25 February 2024, will be devoted to Jon. Presenters include Turid Revfeim, Anne Rowse, Kerry-Anne Gilberd, Michelle Potter. For details and reservations, email jennifershennan@xtra.co.nz). Links to my obituaries for Jon are at this link and at www.stuff.co.nz

Jon Trimmer as Dr Coppélius in Coppélia. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 1996. Photo: © Stephen A’Court


The Auckland Arts Festival began the year with two striking productions—Revisor, stunning dance-theatre choreographed by Crystal Pite, with dancers playing actors playing dancers. Scored in Silence was a deeply moving film-dance testament to the experiences of the profoundly deaf community of Hiroshima 1945.  

Royal New Zealand Ballet’s mid-year season Lightscapes, had four works with for me the standout Requiem for a Rose by Annabella Lopez-Orcha—a beautiful mysterious meditation, and the powerfully atmospheric Logos by Alice Topp (an RNZB alumna). Their single performance Platinum, was a tribute to 70 years achievement. My enduring memory is of Sara Garbowski dancing exquisitely in the excerpt from Giselle Act II. Sara has since retired from her 15 year performance career, and I for one am sorry we did not see her in the complete ballet. (Perhaps if she finds retirement over-rated she could come back as a guest artist to perform it in a year’s time?). The Company’s year ended with a romping return season of Loughlan Prior’s Hansel & Gretel which the rejuvenated company performed with great gusto.

Sara Garbowski in Giselle, Act II. Platinum season, Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2023. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

Mary-Jane O’Reilly’s Ballet Noir, a contemporary treatment of Giselle Act II, was a phenomenal achievement—independent dancers who nevertheless performed as a seasoned company, with flawless technique, integrated design and powerful dramatic effect. We don’t do Dance Oscars, thank goodness, but if we did, this work would probably score. Another memorable season was the dance opera, (m)Orpheus, with direction and choreography by Neil Ieremia of Black Grace dance company. The dancers combined seamlessly with the singers who found nobility in a contemporary urban setting.

It was terrific to hear of Raewyn Hill’s staging Douglas Wright’s exquisite Gloria on her Co3 in Perth. Rumours of other works by Douglas in their planning for re-staging, mean I’d better be saving for an airfare. In Wellington an exhibition, Geist, of Tessa Ayling-Guhl’s photo portraits of Douglas Wright from 2015, was a moving experience. Björn Aslund choreographed a solo, geist dance, accompanied by Robert Oliver on bass viol, in the gallery. It’s always special when a dance enhances an art gallery space, uniting both art forms. A gathering was held at The Long Hall on October 14 to mark Douglas’ birthdate — and an archival screening of The Kiss Inside made compelling viewing. We plan to host a similar event every year on that date, and are grateful to Megan Adams who maintains the Douglas Wright archive with fastidious care.

A capacity audience attended the Russell Kerr lecture, this time focussing on Patricia Rianne’s celebrated career, and viewing her 1986 ballet, Bliss, based on the Katherine Mansfield short story. 2023 marks the centenary of Mansfield’s death and I was honoured to present a paper KM and Dance, at the VUW conference held to mark that.

2023 also marked the centenary of the tragic incident in which a young dancer, Phyllis Porter, was performing in the Opera House in Wellington, when her tarlatan skirt caught on the gaslight in the wings and she was horribly burnt, and died four days later. Shades of Emma Livry in Paris, though no-one here makes a pilgrimage to Phyllis’ resting place.

2023 offered several memorable dance videos—the Arts channel had a repeat screening of the splendid Cloudgate in Lin Hwai Min’s Rice. Firestarter about Bangarra Dance Theatre again made compelling viewing. A doco, The Boy Who Couldn’t Stop Dancing told of Tom Oakley, a young Liverpool boy with serious cystic fibrosis yet who had danced his way to win a scholarship to Rambert Dance school. The outstanding force in German dance, Susanne Linke, sent me an intriguing video of her dance project, Inner Suspension, in which she shares her pedagogy and technique. (Anyone interested to receive the link could email Inge Zysk at info@susannelinke.com).

Several dance books of interest featured in my year. David McAllister was appointed Interim Artistic Director at RNZBallet. His two books, Ballet Confidential and the earlier Solo, provide access to the backstage life of the ballet and proved popular among local readers. The book Royal New Zealand Ballet at Sixty which Anne Rowse and I co-edited back in 2013, was released in a digital edition by Victoria University Press.

If I had to signal the hour and a half of the year that offered the purest dance pleasure, it would be the RNZB Company class I observed taught by David McAllister. Clarity of physics, and the miracle of anatomy, combined with music and poetry from each dancer, reveals the art, unmarked by choreography, casting, costumes and champagne—all the things we go to the ballet for. Here by contrast is the forge and the chapel where the art of the dancer is daily honed and made good. It’s my favourite thing.

Season’s greetings to all—in happy anticipation of 2024 which will see Akram Khan’s The Jungle Book Reimaginedand mid- year an intriguing project, Bismaya, in which Chamber Music New Zealand are bringing musicians from India to combine with Vivek Kinra’s Mudra dance company in a national tour and workshops. Russell Kerr’s pedigree production of Swan Lake from RNZB comes up in May, and later their mixed bill, Solace which includes a new work by Alice Topp. A return season of Liam Scarlett’s magical Midsummer Nights’ Dream is the work that keeps his talent alive.

Jennifer Shennan, 30 December 2023

Featured image: Jon Trimmer as a Stepmother in Cinderella. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 1987. Photo courtesy Royal New Zealand Ballet

New Zealand School of Dance: Performance Season 2023

29 & 30 November 2023. Te Whaea, Wellington
by Jennifer Shennan

NZSD offered alternating programs, one of Classical and one of Contemporary dance, across a five-day season. There was a consistently high standard of dancing from all the students across both programs, though a number of audience members admitted they would have liked to see pieces from each stream combined onto one program, since they were only able to attend a single performance. That too would have demonstrated the range of technical and aesthetic strengths that the School offers, and varied the choreographic experiences for us all.

The timing of the season makes it effectively a Graduation though it is not billed as such, so we surmise it’s the Third Years who are graduating, or Second Years who may be leaving if they have already been offered a contract somewhere. All the students deserve congratulations for staying the distance, and we wish them courage and stamina as they seek out pathways to long and fruitful dance careers. There’s a rich legacy, since the School’s beginning in 1967, of many graduates who have done just that, and that list would read as tribute to all the former and present faculty and students who have made the world a better place by dancing.

The Classical program comprised four works all by American choreographers with, unusually, all of them staged by one person, Betsy Erickson, an American visiting teacher to the School.  Meistens Mozart was choreographed in 1991, by Helgi Tomasson, long-time artistic director to San Francisco Ballet (recently retired—and replaced now by the wunderkind of international ballet, Tamara Rojo—it will be of considerable interest to see how she handles the American ballet scene after ten tears at the helm of English National Ballet). The work was lively and danced with enthusiasm, to a set of songs by Mozart and contemporaries.

Tessa Cockerton Holmes and Angus O’Connell in Helgi Tomasson’s Meistens Mozart. New Zealand School of Dance Performance Season, 2023. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

Aria, by Val Caniparoli, is a striking solo for a masked male, danced here with much aplomb by Joshua Douglas (a 2nd year student already headed for a career opportunity at Queensland Ballet). The Handel sarabande is sublime dance music and the choreography etches its way into a beautiful response to that, inviting a fine performance. It would have been fascinating to watch a Contemporary dance student, maybe a female, in a following repeat performance, to help us all see and appreciate where technique and virtuosity give way to character and emotion. Therein lies theatre.

Vivaldi Concerto Grosso, choreographed in 1981 by Lew Christensen, also of San Francisco Ballet, gave further lively opportunity to a larger cast, though had a similar choreographic structure and style to the opening work.

A piece that reflected New Zealand’s ballet legacy would have provided welcome contrast—from Bournonville, Fokine, Kerr or Veredon for example. The current NZSD faculty includes Anne Gare, Turid Revfeim, Sue Nicholls, Nadine Tyson, Vivencio Samblaceno—most of them graduates of NZSD and all of them formerly with RNZBallet, so staging something from the Company’s repertoire would have been in safe hands, and acknowledged the relationship between the two enterprises.     

Another work from Val Caniparoli, made in 1980 for Seattle’s Pacific Northwest Ballet, used the familiar and playfully percussive Schulwerk of Carl Orff for Street Songs, that captured a young and optimistic mood and fitting finale to the evening.

Classical ballet students in Val Caniparoli’s Street Songs. New Zealand School of Dance Performance Season, 2023. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

The following evening’s Contemporary dance program had an altogether different sense of occasion, with Vice Regal and Ambassadorial attendance, and opened with a substantial whakatau (Maori welcome) delivered by Tanemahuta Gray.

The first work, a premiere this season, Thank You, was by Felix Sampson, a graduate of NZSD, now in DanceNorth company in Townsville, Australia. The tongue-in-cheek opener with a cleverly judged tone was a spirited piece, and the large group of dancers made a well-bonded ensemble.

Outlier, also a premiere, by Kit Reilly, a recent NZSD graduate, was a standout choreography with reflections of sounds, rhythms and forms in natural surrounds. At times there were poetic echoes of the kinds of creatures that David Attenborough brings to our attention, and that is high praise from me. We can look forward to more dance-making from Reilly since he clearly has what it takes to shape movement into ideas, and vice versa.

Contemporary dance students in Kit Reilly’s Outlier. New Zealand School of Dance Performance Season, 2023. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

Excerpts from The Beginning of Nature by Australian choreographer Garry Stewart, to music by Brendan Woithe, used solos and duos as well as group work that made for intriguing counterpoint. It’s hard to know from these excerpts what the complete work is like, the program note reads that it ‘…delves into territoriality, senescence and symbiosis, offering a glimpse into life’s beauty.’ A solo danced by Mārie Jones will stay with me a long time however. (A second-year student but leaving NZSD and heading for Canada, I’m guessing she will make waves wherever she dances).

Contemporary dance students in Garry Stewarts’s The Beginning of Nature. New Zealand School of Dance Performance Season, 2023. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

Re:Action, by Ross McCormack, to a combination of musics, is a series of responses by the dancers to a large rock-like prop, designed by Max Deroy,  and named ‘the force’. The deliberately slow pace of movement did not seem to aim for any denouement or cadence to help us in our own response to the choreography.

The final work, Incant—summoning the lost magic of intuition, by Amber Haines, of DanceNorth, is an attractive set of large and smaller group pieces, with some effective sculptural shapes caught in a series of arm movements. 

All of the students in both programs gave completely committed performances and they should know we wish every one of them a long and wonderful career.

A note on strobe lighting: A warning in the foyer that there will be strobe, and also loud music, during the performance is a bit like the road sign ‘Beware of falling rocks.’  Not a lot you can do about it except close your eyes—which is what I always do when strobe starts. Not an ideal way to review a dance performance I admit, but I’m not prepared to compromise on that.   

And a comment in retrospect—that Classical and Contemporary dance training share much more similarity than difference. The profession needs dancers who can do everything a choreographer asks, so a combination of works from both NZSD programs would help us to celebrate what dance in the theatre can do for us all. 

Jennifer Shennan, 5 December 2023

Featured image: Joshua Douglas in Val Caniparoli’s Aria. New Zealand School of Dance Performance-Season, 2023. Photo: © Stephen A’Court