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

Chocolate. Java Dance Company

11 July 2019. Te Auahi, Wellington

reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pouring cacao in Chocolate, Java Dance Company, 2019

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

Jennifer Shennan, 14 July 2019

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

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

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

Dancers of the Monte Carlo Ballet in 'LAC', 2019. Photo: © Alice Blangero

LAC. Les Ballets de Monte Carlo

29 June 2019. State Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre

This production was yet another re-imagining of Swan Lake. It centres, we are told, on the choice between good and evil and on connections to our childhood fears and nightmares, all against ‘a Machiavellian family backdrop’. It began with a short film clip in which the story we were to see on stage unfolded before us as moving image. Although I baulked slightly at the robotic depiction of the King and Queen, and at the von Rothbart/Black Swan/evil character with her black sunglasses, lovely to watch were the Prince as a little boy playing with his fair-haired companion dressed all in white (the future Odette/White Swan), and the dark haired child dressed in black (the future Odile/Black Swan) who tried to intervene.

The work closed dramatically and had me on the edge of my seat as a large dark cloth swirled across the stage engulfing the dead bodies that lay there.

In between the opening and closing scenes it was a different matter. The storyline was easy to follow, there was some good strong dancing, and one or two characters stood out for me. I especially admired the dancing and acting of Daniele Delvecchio as the Prince’s Confidant (Benno figure?). And I admired the stage presence and ‘architectural’ choreography of the Black Swan and the Archangels of Darkness who often accompanied her.

The Black Swan with the Archangels of Darkness in LAC. Les Ballets de Monte Carlo. Photo: © Alice Blangero

But I truly disliked the way the Prince seemed so goofy, standing there with bent shoulders and head down. Yes, his father was trying to make a man of him, the notes tell us, but I wished he could have been a little more princely in bearing. On the whole I found the choreography quite bland and I also found the way Tchaikovsky score was chopped around a little hard to take.

Still it’s always interesting to see a new take on an old classic. Some are just better than others.

Michelle Potter, 4 July 2019

Featured image: Dancers of the Monte Carlo Ballet in LAC, 2019. Photo: © Alice Blangero

Dancers of the Monte Carlo Ballet in 'LAC', 2019. Photo: © Alice Blangero

Please consider supporting my Australian Cultural Fund project to raise money to have hi-res images made for my book on the career of designer Kristian Fredrikson, which is heading towards publication. See the project, which closes on 30 July 2019, at this link. Donations are tax deductible.

Jake McLarnon as the Host with Josephine Weirse, Jag Popham, Isabella Hood and Bernhard Knauer in 'The Dinner Party'. Expressions Dance Company 2019. Photo © Kelly

The Dinner Party. Expressions Dance Company

21 June 2019. The Q, Queanbeyan

The Dinner Party has had a couple of manifestations. Choreographed by Natalie Weir for Expressions Dance Company, it was shown in 2015 as The Host. I suspect, however, that the inspiration for it can be traced back much further to 1989 when Janet Karin commissioned Weir to make a short work for the National Capital Dancers, which was also called The Host. The current production, which opened in Brisbane in May and is now on a national/regional tour, is probably somewhat different in impact from the 2015 showing, given that Weir no longer directs Expressions. The company is now under the directorship of Amy Hollingsworth and her dancers are a quite different group, which definitely adds a new feel to the company.

I was a little taken aback by The Dinner Party. The storyline, or theme, explores the manipulative side of human beings. The character of the Host (Jake McLarnon) attempts to wield power over his four guests, although not all of them wish to be manipulated. The work thus lends itself to a choreographic display of power, and power is what we get. One of Weir’s strengths as a choreographer has always been an ability to combine movement in unexpected ways, especially in duets or with other small combinations of dancers. We saw those unexpected movement combinations in The Dinner Party, not only between dancers but also between dancers and the table and chairs that made up the set. There was a lot that was acrobatic, hugely energetic, and definitely powerful.

It was a thrill to see Bernhard Knauer, whose work with Sydney Dance Company I had admired over several years before he moved on. He played the role of the Rival and his solo on the table, and his duet with McLarnon towards the end of the work, were highlights.

Bernhard Knauer in The Dinner Party. Expressions Dance Company, 2019. Photo: © David Kelly

But overall I was taken aback because for me the exploration of the human psyche through choreographed interpersonal relations between the cast members seemed, in the end, to be the least important part of the work. There seemed just to be a lot of gymnastic-type dancing around or on a table, which didn’t advance the theme. I did, however, enjoy the costumes by Gail Sorronda, which captured the intrinsic qualities of each of the characters, and the lighting by Ben Hughes, which cast great light and shadow at appropriate times.

Michelle Potter, 22 June 2019

Afterthought: it would have been helpful had there been a cast list (at least) somewhere in the theatre foyer, if no handout was being offered. The program was available online (with a character listed who did not appear in Queanbeyan), which I looked up after the show. But not everyone goes to the company’s website prior to or after the show.

Featured image: Jake McLarnon as the Host with Josephine Weirse, Jag Popham, Isabella Hood and Bernhard Knauer in The Dinner Party. Expressions Dance Company 2019. Photo: © David Kelly

30 years of sixty five thousand. Bangarra Dance Theatre

13 June 2019. Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House

Bangarra Dance Theatre is 30 years old this year and its latest program, 30 years of sixty five thousand, celebrates that anniversary. It also acknowledges the extent of the heritage on which the company is built, and to which it looks for inspiration.

First up on the program was a revival of Unaipon, Frances Rings’ 2004 portrait of Aboriginal inventor, philosopher, writer and storyteller David Unaipon, whose portrait now appears on the Australian $50 note. Unaipon opens with a sequence in which a figure, representing Unaipon himself, dances behind a scrim in a mystical evocation of man’s existence. It then focuses on aspects of Unaipon’s early background as a Ngarrindjeri man, and subsequently follows some of his thoughts and ideas in areas of science and religion.

Every scene in Unaipon had its unique choreographic qualities. On the one hand, for example, there was Bangarra’s distinctive take on traditional movement in Sister baskets, a section about the intricate style of weaving that is distinctive to Ngarrindjeri culture. On the other, and in contrast, one of Unaipon’s particular scientific interests was the concept of motion and this concept was explored with choreography in which walking across the stage dominated. I don’t usually enjoy those moments that find their way into a lot of choreography where walking and running around the stage go on forever, or so it seems. But in the case of Unaipon, the movement was diverse as dancers dodged each other, passed each other, and gently bumped each other, all the time reflecting Unaipon’s interest in bodies in space.

The absolute stand-out performer in Unaipon was Tyrel Dulvarie, who danced the role of David Unaipon. In the opening sequence, gliding across the stage (on some hidden device?) and using exquisitely lyrical arm movements, he transported us into a world of dreams and ideas. Then in the section called Four Winds, which dealt with man’s need for knowledge about the seasons, he danced as Tolkami (the West Wind) wearing an astonishing grass costume by Jennifer Irwin. Dulvarie’s presence was commanding and his dancing transfixing in this solo. In the final section, which focused on Unaipon’s interest in religion, Dulvarie showed his ability to isolate individual movements (even toes played a role) and, again, his powerful stage presence was clear and imposing

Scene from 'Unaipon'. Bangarra Dance Theatre, 2019. Photo: © Daniel Boud
Tyrel Dulvarie as Tolkami (the West Wind) in Unaipon. Bangarra Dance Theatre, 2019. Photo: © Daniel Boud

The middle work on the program was Jiří Kylián’s Stamping Ground created in 1983 after a momentous visit made by Kylián to Groote Eylandt in 1980. In the Bangarra program, Stamping Ground was preceded by a brief video clip in which Kylián explained the origins of the work; his emotional response to his experiences on Groote Eylandt; and that the work was created not with the aim of copying Indigenous movement but as an homage to Indigenous culture. The dance itself was performed by six dancers, three male, three female. It was a revelation as it had all the characteristics of Kylián’s later choreography, including the manner in which he uses a backcloth as part of a work; the little snatches of humour; the beautiful, bird-like use of extended arms; the incredible lifts; and so on. Staged for Bangarra by Roslyn Anderson, Stamping Ground was stunningly danced by Tara Gower, Baden Hitchcock, Rika Hamaguchi, Ella Havelka, Tyrel Dulvarie, and Ryan Pearson. Their performance indicated the growing technical strengths of Bangarra dancers, who can now hold their own across a range of choreographic styles.

Rika Hamaguchi and Ryan Pearson in Stamping Ground. Bangarra Dance Theatre, 2019. Photo: © Daniel Boud

Bangarra means ‘to make fire’ in the Wiradjuri language and, for the closing section of Bangarra’s anniversary program, artistic director Stephen Page brought together a selection of moments from previous Bangarra productions and curated them under the name To make fire. The selections showed different aspects of Bangarra’s output, including biographical productions with selections from Mathinna; stories from the Torres Strait Islands with selections from About; and, in the final section given the over-arching name Clan, excerpts from Belong and Walkabout. This final section suggests a vision for a future in which identity can be reclaimed and reconciled with contemporary society.

A trio from Mathinna was a highlight for me. It suggested, through its varied movement and differing connections between the dancers, the potential nature of relationships between Mathinna, a young Tasmanian woman of Lowreenne heritage, and the colonial couple who adopted but then rejected her. Another highlight came in Clan when a short section called Wiradjuri was danced strongly by Beau Dean Riley Smith (a Wiradjuri man as it happens). Its music by David Page was mesmerising with a whispering voice-over murmuring the single word ‘Wiradjuri’ over and over.

Trio from 'Mathinna'.Bangarra Dance Theatre, 2019.. Photo: Daniel Boud
Lillian Banks as Mathinna, Rikki Mason as John Franklin and Tara Gower as Jane Franklin from Mathinna. Bangarra Dance Theatre, 2019. Photo: © Daniel Boud

In program notes for 30 years of sixty five thousand, Stephen Page suggests that Bangarra’s greatest achievement is that it has survived for those 30 years. But Bangarra has done more than survive. It has flourished. It can now claim an extensive repertoire of music and dance, which it can and does draw upon; it has a spirited associate artistic director in Frances Rings, who supports the dynamic director Stephen Page; and its dancers are polished performers whose movement vocabulary has gone from strength to strength over those 30 years. And if you are lucky enough to be at an opening night in Sydney, the company’s home base, it becomes very clear that the company has an appreciative audience unafraid to express its pride in and appreciation for Bangarra.

Michelle Potter, 15 June 2019

Featured image: Scene from To make fire. Bangarra Dance Theatre, 2019. Photo: © Lisa Tomasetti

West Side Story. Opera Australia

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

                                          The same only different.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jennifer Shennan, 8 June 2019

All photos: © Jeff Busby

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

Black Swan, White Swan. Royal New Zealand Ballet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jennifer Shennan, 1 June 2019

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

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

New Zealand School of Music + Dancers

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

Talking about Music, Dancing about Architecture.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jennifer Shennan, 28 May 2019

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

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

Orbiculus. New Zealand School of Dance Choreographic Season

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Overall though the lighting was effective and atmospheric.

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

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

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

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

Jennifer Shennan, 23 May 2019

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

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

The Masters Series. Queensland Ballet

17 May 2019. Lyric Theatre, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane

One of the strongest aspects of Queensland Ballet’s programming at the moment is Li Cunxin’s masterful ability to curate an engrossing triple bill. This is no easy task, but it is something that has characterised the work of the best companies across the decades. The Masters Series, the current Queensland Ballet offering, is no exception. Li has put together an exceptional triple bill. It gives us George Balanchine’s Serenade, and Jiří Kylián’s Soldier’s Mass, both outstanding works from two of the world’s most respected choreographers. These two works are joined by a new work, The Shadows Behind Us, from American choreographer Trey McIntyre.

I have no hesitation in saying that, for me at least, Serenade, the first work of the evening, was the highlight. It was the first original work that Balanchine created in America, and it gives a foretaste of what his future works would be like—at least from a technical point of view. At times the spatial patterns Balanchine creates are so arresting that they seem to be the main feature of the work. He is a master of placing dancers on, and moving them around the stage.

But looking beyond the beautiful patterns, the steps that Balanchine asks of the dancers are complex— full of turns and fast footwork—and the dancers of Queensland Ballet rose to the occasion. Standout performances came from Yanela Piñera and Victor Estévez, who had the main pas de deux, and Lucy Green, Georgia Swan and Patricio Revé, who had soloist roles. The final few moments in which these dancers held the stage were quite moving. But the entire corps de ballet danced with thrilling technique throughout, and with a great feeling for the changing moods of the ballet.


(from top) Georgia Swan, Patricio Revé and Yanela Piñera in Serenade, Queensland Ballet, 2019. Photo: © Darren Thomas

The closing work was Kylián’s Soldiers’ Mass a work for 12 male dancers with choreography that is driving and relentless. The fascinating aspect of the work is the way in which Kylián manipulates the group. The dancers form into lines, break apart, regather, divide up again, leaping, falling, and partnering each other, and moving all the time to the very powerful 1939 composition by Bohuslav Martinu, Field Mass. Kylián’s work is a comment on war and the emotional toll it takes on those who are forced to engage in it. Emotion and drama surge throughout the work. Kohei Iwamoto was the star for me. Whether in his solos, or when he was dancing with his fellow soldiers, every inch of his body told the story. But then every dancer seemed totally committed.

Kohei Iwamoto in Soldiers’ Mass, Queensland Ballet, 2019. Photo: © Darren Thomas

In the middle, The Shadows Behind Us was, for me, the least successful work of the evening. Danced to songs by Jimmy Scott, it was brash and slick in an American idiom. Made on ten dancers, it consisted basically of six duets, including one between two men, in which relationships were played out. The set by Thomas Mika was a great addition to the work. It gave some kind of narrative element to the action. It consisted of a large white frame, or partial frame, in the downstage area, forming a kind of proscenium where the action was located. Behind it was a black void into which the dancers disappeared as they finished their duet (the shadows behind us). But I have to admit to finding the choreography quite stilted in many respects and some of the poses the men were asked to take seemed quite awkward.

Laura Hidalgo and Samuel Packer in The Shadows Behind Us, Queensland Ballet, 2019. Photo: © Darren Thomas

Despite my reservations about The Shadows Behind Us, The Masters Series was a great evening of dance, and a triple bill that fulfilled one’s expectations of the variety of dance that good mixed bills should contain.

Michelle Potter, 20 May 2019

Featured image: Lucy Green and dancers in Serenade, Queensland Ballet, 2019. Photo: © Darren Thomas

Silvia Saint-Martin and Simon Le Borgne in 'Speak for yourself'. Paris Opera Ballet. © 2019 Agathe Poupeney/OnP

LEÓN/LIGHTFOOT/VAN MANEN. Paris Opera Ballet

5 May 2019, Palais Garner, Paris

This short and sparse triple bill, consisting of two works from the team of Sol León and Paul Lightfoot, along with a single work from Dutch master Hans van Manen, showed more than anything the extreme physicality of the dancers of the Paris Opera Ballet. The men in particular displayed a muscularity that was not, for the most part, concealed by decorative costumes and all the dancers showed a strength of technique that was powerful and engaging.

The works of León and Lightfoot are not, however, the most comfortable to watch. It is not that ‘comfort’ is necessarily an important aspect of dance, but both of their works on this program, Sleight of hand and Speak for yourself, had features that seemed to me to be like stunts and gimmicks. Hans van Manen, on the other hand, had a different approach with his Trois gnossiennes, danced to Erik Satie’s piano score of the same name. Van Manen relied on the manipulation of his chosen movement vocabulary, basically that of classical ballet, to create effects. To that vocabulary he added upturned feet, tilted torsos that rarely, however, lost the straight line of the spine, expansive lifts, bodies pulled off centre, and other manipulative features that gave us a beautifully sculpted work. It was finely danced by Léonore Baulac and Florian Magnenet and for me it was the highlight of the program, despite being only eight minutes in length. The Satie score was played live by Elena Bonnay.

Léonore Baulac and Florian Magnenet in Trois gnossiennes .Paris Opera Ballet. © 2019 Agathe Poupeney/OnP

Léonore Baulac and Florian Magnenet in Trois gnossiennes. Paris Opera Ballet. © 2019 Agathe Poupeney/OnP

Of the other two works Speak for yourself was the more interesting in my mind. There was a kind of narrative or concrete idea behind the work, which related (the program notes tell me) to masculinity and femininity. These ideas were symbolised by the presence of smoke and water. Smoke represented speed and rapid action (masculinity) while water represented gentleness and calm (femininity). There was a contrast between the fast movement of the early part when one dancer had some kind of device attached to his body that pushed smoke into the surrounding space, and the slower movement of the final section when water poured down onto the stage as a kind of backdrop. But, quite honestly, I think this kind of representation of male and female differences is outmoded and I enjoyed the work mostly for the way in which the choreographers played with the human body in their movement vocabulary. Bodies curled in on themselves and stretched out beyond what one might expect, for example.

As for Sleight of hand, it was hard to comprehend what was behind it. As the work opens, two dancers, one male, one female, stand on obelisks (although we cannot see those structures as they are covered by the extension of the costumes). They tower above the rest of the cast. Who are they? They scarcely move at first but then do so only from the waist upwards. They gesticulate wildly. Other dancers come on stage and perform until at the end one dancer is left alone as the curtain falls. I love being asked to create my own interpretation of a work, but this one, despite its inherent theatricality, left me without anything to hang on to.

I have so much admiration for the dancers of the Paris Opera Ballet, but this program was not the most admirable one I have seen.

Michelle Potter, 8 May 2019

Featured image: Silvia Saint-Martin and Simon Le Borgne in Speak for yourself. Paris Opera Ballet. © 2019 Agathe Poupeney/OnP

'Speak for yourself'. Paris Opera Ballet. © 2019 Agathe Poupeney/OnP