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

Jungle Book Reimagined from Akram Khan Company. A review

3 February 2024. Canberra Theatre

Below is a slightly expanded review of Jungle Book Reimagined originally published by Canberra’s City News on 4 February 2024.

English choreographer Akram Khan has made a name for himself as an artist who pushes boundaries and who looks for new ways of presenting well known stories. His 2016 production of Giselle, which he removes from its 19th century origins and sets in a modern context of migrant labour, is one example. So too is Jungle Book Reimagined which takes as a starting point Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, a collection of stories that, like Giselle, dates back to the 19th century. Jungle Book Reimagined points out how vulnerable we are as our climate changes and becomes catastrophic. The opening scenes are gripping as we see well-known buildings collapsing—Big Ben, the Eiffel Tower, and others—and we listen to emergency broadcasts about the situation.

Scene from Jungle Book Reimagined. Photo: © Ambra Venuccio

In Act I we are introduced to Mowgli, a girl child in this production rather than the boy we encounter in Kipling’s book. She has been separated from her family when she falls off a boat that is taking the family away from their now uninhabitable home, made so as a result of rising water and other disastrous climate changes. The child is discovered by a pack of animals who eventually name her Mowgli and we follow the decisions made about her future by these animals. While some of the animals are represented by dancers, others, including Hathi a large and dominant leader of the elephants, and a line of mice who scurry across the downstage space at one point, are shown using line-drawn animation techniques created by director of animation Adam Smith.

In Act II other animals, who have come from human testing laboratories, attempt to have Mowgli teach them to become human and take on characteristics that they find may help them in some way as they become inhabitants of the earth, including the use of fire. But Mowgli eventually realises she must support the friends with whom she has found peace rather than give in to the demands of this group.

The story is told in large part by a soundtrack of voices from various actors, each representing a different character, with an original musical score from Jocelyn Pook. Many of the major events are presented in video form and have been created by technician and projectionist Matthew Armstrong. A particular feature of the video elements is the interaction that occurs between the human performers and the video footage.

But perhaps the most interesting aspect of Jungle Book Reimagined is that, for all intents and purposes, it is classed as dance. Khan, who has a Bangladeshi heritage, is well versed in the Indian dance style of kathak. The hybrid choreography he has developed in Jungle Book Reimagined is Western contemporary dance with kathak overtones, especially in some movements of the hands and fingers and the feet, which occasionally flex up with the heel remaining on the ground. The dance sections, which are interspersed throughout the two-hour production, are magnificently performed. There are some exceptional group sections and moments when a single character dances solo. The dancing is nothing short of spectacular.

But Jungle Book Reimagined defies characterisation as any specific theatrical genre. Given the animation, the voices, the songs and other such elements, it is definitely more than dance. It is not a play although the use of narrative techniques is a strong element throughout, perhaps as a representation of the fact the work is based on a written text? Nor is it an item of musical theatre even though song plays a part. It is hard to know how to pin it down other than to say it crosses boundaries in the most creative manner.

I did, however, find it difficult sometimes to follow the jumble of conversations that happened among the characters. I also found it frustrating that the sound often seemed to be coming from spots in the auditorium, which I guess was meant to make the production immersive, although to me it was distracting. While there were also parts of the show that probably needed a second viewing to fully understand the story, I nevertheless found Jungle Book Reimagined, and the transmission of its message for those who inhabit our earth, terrifyingly brilliant.

Here is a link to the City News version. See also my earlier post on this production.

Michelle Potter, 5 February 2024

Featured image: Scene from Jungle Book Reimagined. Photo: © Ambra Venuccio

On View: Icons. Sue Healey and collaborators

16 January 2024. Neilson Studio, Walsh Bay. Sydney Festival

Sue Healey’s latest dance film, On View: Icons, looks at six artists who have contributed remarkably to the growth of dance in Australia. Seen in the featured image, they are (left to right) Eileen Kramer, Nanette Hassall, Elizabeth Cameron Dalman, Lucette Aldous, Elma Kris and Shirley McKechnie. I was privileged to be invited to attend the launch of this latest work from Healey at which the four artists who are still with us (Dalman, Hassall, Kramer and Kris) were present and performed briefly for us. On View has been an ongoing project from Sue Healey and her collaborators for a number of years and in this current iteration some of the footage has been shown publicly before, some has been slightly expanded from previous showings, some is new to this version of On View.

I especially enjoyed the section devoted to Nanette Hassall, which I had not seen previously. Hassall’s exceptional career has included work as a dancer, choreographer and director in Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom. Her achievements have included performing with Merce Cunningham Dance Company, the establishment of the Melbourne-based Danceworks in the 1980s, and the leadership of the dance area of West Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA) in Perth. Some of the most interesting footage in the Hassall section was filmed by drone cinematographer Ken Butti and showed multiple images of Hassall as a tiny figure twirling and weaving through space.

Nor had I seen the section featuring Elma Kris, whose work I have admired immensely during the period in which she danced with Bangarra Dance Theatre. In On View: Icons we see Kris, a Torres Strait Islander woman, engaging within the landscape and showing us through dance her relationship with earth and water.

I also loved seeing again Elizabeth Cameron Dalman dancing on the dry lakebed of Weereewa (known to many as Lake George), which is no longer dry but, following recent climate events, is now quite full. The section in which she dances in a white, ‘winged’ costume, reminiscent of that worn on one occasion by dance pioneer Loie Fuller, continues to be quite mesmerising.

But all six sections were full of beauty and inspired dancing and filming. Healey continues to pay respect to those who have influenced her film making and who, in some cases, have shaped her own career (she danced for example with Hassall’s Danceworks, and her work with Eileen Kramer over the past few years has been extraordinary). Her work with cinematographer Judd Overton and composer Darrin Verhagen has always been a close and exceptional collaborative activity and this version of Icons was no exception.

On View: Icons was a featured event at the 2024 Sydney Festival. Below is a teaser.

Michelle Potter, 20 January 2024

Featured image: Promotional image for On View: Icons.

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

New Breed. Sydney Dance Company, 2023

9 December 2023. Carriageworks, Eveleigh (Sydney)

New Breed, an annual program of new works from four emerging choreographers, celebrated its tenth year in 2023. While I haven’t seen all ten seasons, two works from previous seasons stand out in my mind—Melanie Lane’s WOOF from 2017, which has gone on to have main stage performances and has lost none of its brilliant approach to choreography and theme, and Reign in 2015 from Daniel Riley, who is now artistic director of Australian Dance Theatre. For me, however, none of the fours works in the 2023 season, one each from choreographers Riley Fitzgerald, Eliza Cooper, Tra Mi Dinh and Beau Dean Riley Smith, had anywhere near the same impact as the two works I remember so clearly from the past. Unfortunately! But then I guess we can’t expect necessarily that every season will have a work that is so good that it remains in the memory for years.

From a purely visual point of view, Eliza Cooper’s Revenge tales and romance looked spectacular with its remarkable, colour-drenched costumes designed by Aleisa Jelbart. But it was hard to follow what exactly Cooper was getting at. After reading the program notes, it seems there were many thoughts (too many) going through Cooper’s mind as she put the work together. Brazen heroism? The appropriateness of symbolism and archetype? Legacy and canon? And so on. Dance doesn’t lend itself to a multitude of abstract ideas in my opinion and I found Revenge tales and romance entertaining in some respects, but frustrating to follow in many others.

Scene from Revenge tales and romance. Photo: © Pedro Greig

Choreographically I particularly enjoyed Tra Mi Dinh’s Somewhere between ten and fourteen, which explored the changing light of the period of dusk. Although it seemed rather long (even though it lasted just 22 minutes), it was well constructed with its group of dancers changing patterns and moving through space quite nicely. With just one major idea at its centre, it was a work that spoke clearly and allowed further, personal thoughts to emerge at times.

Riley Fitzgerald’s EverybOdy’s gOt a bOmb (and yes, the upper case O in three spots is how it was spelled) was based on several distressing events that occurred during the 1999 Woodstock Festival in Rome, New York State. Fitzgerald’s program notes says his work explores ‘raw, primal behaviours that emerge during such chaotic events’. The choreography was sometimes ugly (appropriate given the theme?) in its groupings, and it was certainly chaotic, but, a little like Cooper’s work, it was not an easy topic to follow.

Having been a longtime admirer of Beau Dean Riley Smith’s work as a dancer and occasionally choreographer with Bangarra Dance Theatre, I had been looking forward to his Gubba, a work in which he set out to examine the demolition of First Nation’s peoples over time by white colonists. It was a great topic and well worth telling through an Indigenous perspective. I admired the choreography, with overtones of Bangarra vocabulary, but it was a shame I thought that Smith chose to think of the colonists as akin to Martians. The word ‘gubba’, which gave its name to the work, is defined in the Macquarie Dictionary as ‘n. Aboriginal English, (oft. derog.) a white man’. That was enough to reflect an opinion, especially given the derogative nuance of the word, and perhaps it was somewhat unnecessary to go ‘off the planet’ as it were.

New Breed, produced with a principal partnership from the Balnaves Foundation, is a terrific initiative and, despite my various misgivings, I look forward to seeing another iteration in 2024. You never know what and who might emerge.

Michelle Potter, 18 December 2023

Featured image: (l-r) Eliza Cooper, Beau Dean Riley Smith, Tra Mi Dinh and Riley Fitzgerald. Photo: © Pedro Greig

Possum Magic. The Ballet. The Australian Ballet School

8 December 2023. The Playhouse, Victorian Arts Centre, Melbourne

I was more than curious when I heard that Loughlan Prior was preparing a ballet based on the much-loved children’s book by Mem Fox, Possum Magic. I mean how on earth was he going to manage the invisibility of Hush, the possum character on whom Grandma Poss casts a spell making Hush disappear from sight in order to save her from danger in the bush? Despite the invisibility, Hush continues to play an ongoing, major role as her visibility slowly reappears. She rarely leaves the stage.

Well I need not have worried. It all happened with cleverly introduced costume changes and terrific input from the other characters who acted beautifully throughout to stage a pretence that they couldn’t see Hush while she was under the spell of invisibility.

Grandma Poss has forgotten the magic that will return Hush to a state of visibility and, as the story progresses, the invisible Hush and Grandma Poss hop on a bike and travel through the Australian countryside and the country’s major cities, nicely shown through snippets of film, looking for human food that might restore Hush’s visibility. After eating some typical Australian delicacies at various stops, including Pavlova, Lamingtons, Vegemite, Minties, Anzac biscuits and others, Hush returns slowly to a visible state. The critical items are Pavlova, Vegemite and Lamingtons and the return to visibility, and arrival back in the bush where the characters live, is warmly welcomed by everyone.

Milana Gould as Hush danced beautifully. Her finely boned body and her long and flexible limbs brought out the best in Prior’s choreography, which shows not only classical steps and combinations, but some more contemporary movements as well. Kit Thompson as Grandma Poss gave an outstanding performance with excellent stage presence and I especially enjoyed watching two sparring kangaroos (Thomas Boddington and Tadgh Robinson) and an impressive and quite dominant koala (Ethan Mrmacovski).

Possum Magic. The Ballet showed Loughlan Prior at his theatrical best. His insertion of film was exceptional as was his varied choreography to suit the characters, especially for the Pavlova ladies whose dancing was very classical indeed. His collaborators worked beautifully with him with a very danceable score from Claire Cowan, costumes and set from Emma Kingsbury (I especially loved the Pavlova tutus—red skirts trimmed with white Pavlova slices around the edges); and lighting from Jon Buswell. The ballet is a delight to watch and encapsulates beautifully the Mem Fox book on which it is based. It deserves further showings.

Grandma Poss and Hush (foreground) with Palova ladies in Perth. Photo: © Sergey Konstantinov

The second half of the program consisted of three short items, Degas dances from Paul Knobloch and largely danced by Level 4 students of the School with some outstanding solo sections from Ruito Takabatake; Nexus from Stephen Baynes for Level 7 students; and Techno Requiem from Lucas Jervies showing a contemporary dance style and strongly performed by Level 8 students. I was particularly thrilled to see Nexus as Baynes’ choreography is not often on show these days. Nexus, danced to Capriccio for Piano and String Orchestra by Graeme Koehne, shows Baynes’ innate musicality, his beautiful and sometimes surprising use of space, and his unique choreographic style and structure. But in all this second part showed off the range of dance that is taught at the Australian Ballet School.

Michelle Potter, 13 December 2023

Featured image: The characters in Possum Magic. The Ballet with Milana Gould as Hush (centre, held aloft by Koala). Photo: © Sergey Konstantinov

Swan Lake. The Australian Ballet (2023). A second look

9 December 2023 (matinee). Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House

There’s nothing like being there!

My first impressions of David Hallberg’s vision for a new Swan Lake were not entirely positive—but I saw it first on film. My second viewing was a live performance and, while the stage of the Joan Sutherland Theatre is really too small (as we have all known for years) to stage a fully successful production of any large scale ballet, being there rather than watching ‘from the comfort of my own home’ gave me a new and more positive impression.

In Act I, following an interesting Prologue in which we learnt of the long-standing role of von Rothbart, the dancing from those gathered to celebrate Prince Siegfried’s name day was joyful and just gorgeous to watch. As often happens, my eye was drawn to Joseph Romancewicz* who always seems to inhabit the role he has taken on, even when it’s simply a character in the corps de ballet. But everyone in the corps of dancers looked and performed just beautifully. Nathan Brook as Siegfried was suitably withdrawn as he pondered his future, although his solo, which concludes the first act, was a little shaky in parts. It would have been a stronger Act I, however, if the Queen Mother (Gillian Revie) had had more dominance in the unfolding of the narrative. She seemed almost superfluous.

Unfortunately however, my original thoughts on Act II didn’t change much with the stage performance I saw. The dancing, especially from the corps de ballet and soloists, was exceptional but there was still little emotion on display, including from Dimity Azoury who danced Odette. I have never seen Act II of Swan Lake danced with the coldness, or apparent lack of emotion, that seems to be what is required in this production. Why is it like this? Very disappointing.

Things changed a little in Act III. The national dances were more spirited than what I saw on film and both Odile and Siegfried were more believable as characters, even if Azoury as Odile needed to be more seductive (rather than just smiling out at the audience). Sadly too Azoury’s 32 fouettés were somewhat out of control.

The last act, however, was quite stunning. I was transfixed by the beautifully minimal aspect of the choreographic structure, and how the dancers’ performance made this structure very clear. I also loved the way the four little swans and the two leading swans (Isobelle Dashwood and Saranja Crowe) were so clearly included in the group sections of the choreography in this act. In addition, the unfolding of the story in this final act was very clearly shown and, to my immense pleasure, there was at last some measure of emotion between Odette and Siegfried, especially noticeable from Brook’s strong input in relation to his feelings for Odette and for his betrayal of her in the previous act. What a difference a bit of emotional input makes!

As for the curtain calls, they were distinguished by the loud boo-ing that greeted von Rothbart (Jarryd Madden) as he entered to take his call. A real accolade for Madden’s fine interpretation of von Rothbart especially in Act III where his belief in his superiority (even to the extent of his sitting in the vacant chair next to the Queen Mother), and his absolute single-mindedness that Odile would triumph, were very clear.

And as a final point, the orchestra, led by Jonathan Lo, was in fine form. We could almost see the music and hear the choreography so well were they together.

Michelle Potter, 11 December 2023

Featured image: A choreographic moment from the corps de ballet in Swan Lake. The Australian Ballet, 2023. Photo: © Daniel Boud

*Joseph Romancewicz danced von Rothbart at some performances. I regret that I didn’t see him in that role. I’m sure he would have made it his own!

Postscript: One of my recent second-hand purchases was a book I previously never knew existed: Misha. The Mikhail Baryshnikov Story (London: Robson Books, 1989) by Barbara Aria. In it the author talks about the Baryshnikov staging of Swan Lake for American Ballet Theatre. Speaking of Swan Lake as brought out of Russia in annotated form by Nikolai Sergeyev, Aria writes on p. 175, ‘It was these contemporary Soviet versions that Misha restaged at ABT, adapting and streamlining them in the process.’ While Hallberg was not part of ABT when Baryshnikov was leading the company, I can’t help wondering whether there is some influence from the ‘adapting and streamlining’ that Aria suggests characterised the Baryshnikov ABT production (which perhaps was also there in subsequent ABT productions?) in the ‘boiled down and refined’ production that Hallberg was seeking, which I mentioned in my previous review.

In the same book the author quotes from a review by esteemed New York-based dance critic Joan Acocella. Writing on p. 197 on Baryshnikov’s portrayal of Siegfried in Swan Lake’, Acocella is quoted as saying, ‘[Baryshnikov’s] mere shoulder, seen from behind, told you everything you need to know about the Act III Siegfried: that he’s a prince, that he is in love, that he is in doubt.’ There it is—the way in which simple movements can portray aspects of narrative!

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