Carmen. The Australian Ballet

17 April 2024 (matinee). Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House

Changes to artistic directorship in any dance company invariably bring changes to repertoire and this current production of Carmen is quite unlike the Carmen many older dance-goers may remember—Roland Petit’s Carmen first performed by the Australian Ballet in 1973. The current production, created in 2015 by Swedish choreographer Johan Inger, follows the love life of Carmen as told originally in Prosper Mérimée’s 1845 novella. But Inger has recontextualised the story, giving it something of a focus on the relationships, often violent and aggressive, between men and women.

But wider than repertoire, new directors usually have a personal vision for a company. Two comments from audience members in relation to Inger’s Carmen, had me thinking about Hallberg’s vision for the Australian Ballet. One person was moved to say, ‘The choreography was magnificent’ but I heard another say as she left, ‘Well I won’t be coming to see that again!’.

Choreographically this Carmen is indeed magnificent, and it was danced magnificently by the artists of the company. It is balletic in a sense, especially in regard to the arms, which are often curved up and over the head in a fourth or fifth position of sorts, and also in the spatial patterns that are formed when a group of dancers moves across the stage space as one.

Jill Ogai (centre) and Australian Ballet artists in a scene from Carmen. The Australian Ballet, 2024. Photo: © Daniel Boud

But there is a very contemporary feel and look to the choreography for much of the time. The feet aren’t pointed to any great extent and, in fact, the heel is often emphasised over the balletic style of the pointed toe, and there is a lot that seems grounded and attached to the floor in some way. In addition the dancers scream and shout about various events that occur, and they do it loudly. It is an unexpected addition but adds an effect that is highly theatrical.

Callum Linnane in a scene from Johan Inger’s Carmen. The Australian Ballet, 2024. Photo: © Daniel Boud

But whatever the choreography, every single person in the cast, led by Jill Ogai as Carmen, Callum Linnane as Don José, Marcus Morelli as Torero, and Brett Chynoweth as Zuñiga, enters into the spirit of the work, and into their individual roles, with gusto. In addition to the principals, special mention goes to Larissa Kiyoto Ward as Manuela, who has an explosive fight with Carmen at one stage, and Lilla Harvey as an addition to the story as the Boy who watches on throughout.

As for the second comment—’Well I won’t be coming to see that again!’—Inger’s Carmen is certainly not for the faint-hearted. It pulls no punches about sexuality, the often violent interaction of men and women, various traumatic and often abusive moments in life, and the like. But to counter this, there are content warnings given such as, ‘Carmen contains mature adult themes including sexual content and depictions of violence that some people may find disturbing’. It’s probably not a work that one would take children to see but, nevertheless, with input from a dramaturg (Gregor Acuña-Pohl), there is a clarity in the way the narrative unfolds that is absorbing and it would be well worth seeing more than once.

There is a certain simplicity to the design elements of the work including lighting by Tom Visser, costumes by David Delfin and a set of moving rectangular structures by Curt Allen Wilmer and Leticia Gañán. The music from Rodion Shchedrin after Georges Bizet with some additional music from Marc Alvarez was thrilling to the ear.

So what to conclude regarding repertoire and the vision of David Hallberg? Let’s hope he continues to give us outstanding contemporary dance works from across the world (like the Inger Carmen), while not forgetting the occasional item that has something pure and classical about it, and material from Australian choreographers.

Michelle Potter, 18 April 2024

Featured image: Jill Ogai as Carmen and Callum Linnane as Don José in Johan Inger’s Carmen. The Australian Ballet, 2024. Photo: © Daniel Boud

A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Queensland Ballet (2024)

12 April 2024. Lyric Theatre, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane

This is not the first time I have seen and reviewed Liam Scarlett’s magnificent version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. And there have also been reviews on this website from Jennifer Shennan given that the work was originally a joint production between Queensland Ballet and Royal New Zealand Ballet. Its world premiere was in New Zealand in Wellington in August 2015 and it was first seen in Australia in Brisbane in April 2016. For me it is a production that benefits from being seen over and over and with new casts. There always seem to be new aspects of the production that I haven’t noticed to the same extent on previous occasions. It is a credit to Scarlett that he embedded so many layers of meaning across the work.

The opening scene, in which fairies set the night time scene for us in a clearing in a forest, is always a treat to observe. The multi-level setting from Tracy Grant Lord, along with her glorious costumes, and the spectacular lighting from Kendall Smith, take us instantly into a different world where we feel unexpected moments may well occur. And they do! In overall approach, Scarlett has kept the Shakespearean storyline of Titania and Oberon and their disagreement over a Changeling child, and kept intact Oberon’s activities to take revenge on Titania. But the storyline has been altered somewhat to add what is perhaps a more humorous aspect to some scenes, or perhaps to modernise some elements.

But those elements aside, Lucy Green as Titania, and Joel Woellner as Oberon were outstanding, both in their characterisation of their roles and in their dancing. Woellner’s first solo, as he pondered how to take his revenge against Titania after she had swept him aside and taken charge of the Changeling, was filled with beautifully fluid movement and fast, perfectly executed turns that allowed Tracy Grant Lord’s Act I costume, with its flowing coat panels, to be an intrinsic part of the action.

There were some brilliant moments too from Green when, thanks to the actions of Puck (Kohei Iwamoto), she had fallen in love with Bottom (Rian Thompson). The physicality of Bottom’s name was played on in a masterly manner.

Titania and Bottom. A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Queensland Ballet, 2024

But perhaps the most exceptional work from Woellner and Green came in their last pas de deux when the issues between Titania and Oberon had been resolved. It was truly a choreographic delight to see such beautiful partnering so attuned choreographically to the music (with the usual, very special input from conductor and arranger Nigel Gaynor and Camerata—Queensland’s Chamber Orchestra). Along with the incredible lifts and the pushing of technical boundaries, that pas de deux was gently calming and demonstrative of a resolution to the extent that tears came close to my eyes. It seemed to link up thematically with the charming nature of the fairies in the opening scene.

Titania and Oberon in the final pas de deux. . A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Queensland Ballet, 2024

Kohei Iwamoto has been playing Puck since the work’s Wellington premiere but never once does he seem to be replaying anything. His performance on this occasion was as fresh as ever and one can’t help but be stunned by his great elevation and awareness of moving through space, as well as the way he plays up to the audience at times while always remaining aware of his place in the storyline.

The Rustics, with their very down-to-earth choreography and their absolute enjoyment of what they were doing, and the four Explorers (and lovers) all held their own. I was especially taken by a pas de deux performed by Hermia (Chiara Gonzalez) and Lysander (Alexander Idaszak), which, apart from being danced beautifully, was like the final pas de deux between Titania and Lysander—perfectly in harmony with the music.

There were just a couple of disappointments for me. One was that the Changeling, such a beautiful addition to the work, seemed not to have been coached to the same extent, or in the same manner, as on previous occasions. I was blown away the first time I saw this Dream with the way in which the Changeling was such an endearing character with such obvious human characteristics. This time he seemed a somewhat static addition, an afterthought even, and perhaps it was not so much to do with the dancer but with the interpretation that had been suggested he take on. A changeling, it seems, can have a number of characteristics, but the approach I saw that first time was such a delight and added such a recognisably human element to the story, which I’m sure Scarlett would have loved.

The other disappointment came with the final pas de deux between Oberon and Titania. In my first viewing of this production I loved the sexiness that was part of the reconciliation. I wrote, ‘…. there was a gorgeous moment in the pas de deux of reconciliation between Oberon and Titania where he ran his hand along her extended leg and she followed that movement with a little shake of the lower part of the leg. A frisson of excitement.’ The ‘frisson’ was missing this time!

But disappointments aside, Liam Scarlett’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a sensational work that never ceases to bring joy, surprise and admiration at every viewing. Queensland Ballet always shows its standout qualities.

Michelle Potter, 14 April 2024

Read my review of the first Australian performance at this link and listen below to Jennifer Shennan’s review of the world premiere, as recorded by Radio NZ.

Featured image (cropped): Three Fairies with the Changeling in the bottom right-hand corner. A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Queensland Ballet, 2024

All photos: © David Kelly. Found on Queensland Ballet’s Facebook page and uploaded by Kelly.

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

Awkward. Catapult Dance Choreographic Hub

27 March 2024. The B, Queanbeyan Arts Centre

Below is a slightly expanded version of my review of Awkward published online by Canberra City News on 28 March 2024.

In just one performance in The B, a former Bicentennial Hall renovated to become a theatre space, the Newcastle-based Catapult Dance Choreographic Hub presented Awkward, a work with a focus on ‘The wit and wisdom of the socially awkward.’

In essence Awkward set out to be a multi-disciplinary work with a strong dance component but centering on a spoken narrative about an event to which six young people, unknown at first to each other, arrived to party together. Some were shy, others weren’t. Some made an effort to connect, others didn’t. A kind of compere, the seventh person in the story, explained to the arrivals how they should behave at such an event, what to do with the eyes when talking to someone new, for example. We watched as the young people slowly began to interact with each other. Sometimes the effort to interact worked, sometimes it didn’t, so there was much changing of relationships.

One performer tries (unsuccessfully) to connect with another in Awkward. Photo: © Ashley de Prazer, ca. 2023

Interaction was most often expressed through dancing, which was performed to popular songs from around the 1980s and 1990s. The songs and the narrative were often closely connected in theme and the choreography, by Cadi McCarthy, a co-director of the Catapult company, was distinguished by some eye-catching lifts and partnering, and tumbles and turns in a grounded contemporary style. The performers, Jordan Bretherton, Cassidy Clarke, Alexandra Ford, Nicola Ford, Romain Hassanin, Remy Rochester, and Anna McCulla, all danced well and performed with strong stage presence. It was extremely frustrating, however, that. without a program or any images on show in the lobby of the theatre, it was not easy to identify which dancer was playing which role. The strongest dancer amongst the seven, at least for me, was the performer in the tartan costume in the left-front position in the featured image. Who is she? No idea. But I really enjoyed her dancing. She also appears in the image below standing across the two bars that make up part of the set.

Photo: © Ashley de Prazer, ca. 2023

The B provided an interesting space for the work. Two levels were used—a relatively small, raised stage became a living area on which the dancers engaged with each other, on and around several lounge chairs, while in front of the stage at ground level was the bar area and the dance floor. Steps on either side of the ground level space led up to the raised area and the dancers used both spaces equally and effectively. I wondered whether or not the Catapult group had used this kind of double performing space when performing this work in other venues? The company certainly looked very comfortable moving up and down, back and forth.

It was a shame, however, that the performance was as long as it was—it lasted around 75 minutes. After a while the choreography started to look repetitive and Awkward could have been 15 or 20 minutes shorter and saved itself from losing its power. The multi-disciplinary nature of the work was somewhat problematic too. While the ‘compere’ took a significant role in the early part of Awkward, the narrative disappeared somewhat as the work progressed and dance took over. I preferred the dance component to the narrative element, which often seemed not so much funny (although much of the audience laughed and laughed) as a little pathetic. But, more importantly, the loss, or lessening of the narrative meant that the intrinsic nature of the work as established at the beginning was lost.

Awkward began as a kind of ‘total work of art’ (Gesamtkunstwerk to use the early name for that idea). But slowly Awkward lost that quality, or the idea of totality was significantly lessened. As a result, and unfortunately the work was uneven in the way it was presented. And, again unfortunately, Awkward was too long. A shortened work and a more consistent approach would have added an ongoing strength to the work.

Michelle Potter, 28 March 2024

The version published by Canberra City News is at this link.

Featured image: The five female performers from Awkward with the ‘compere’ in the central position. Photo: © Ashley de Prazer, ca. 2023

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

Stunt Double. The Farm

14 March 2024. The Playhouse, Canberra Theatre Centre

Stunt Double is a jaw-dropping immersive theatre experience bringing audiences inside the filming of a 1970s Aussie action flick.

So goes one encouragement to attend a performance of Stunt Double, the latest production from the Gold Coast based dance-theatre company The Farm. The work of The Farm, going by the previous productions I have seen to date, pushes dance into highly physical areas and uses the theatre aspect of a production as a means to comment on aspects society and social behaviour in an outrageously flamboyant and conspicuous manner. OTT perhaps? Stunt Double was no exception.

The title Stunt Double does not relate to the narrative behind the work (if the work’s ‘storyline’ can be called a narrative), which is a reflection on filmmaking within the time frame of the 1970s—think (I am told) Wake in Fright, Razorback and BMX Bandits. The phrase ‘Stunt Double’ refers to the fact that the main characters in the story have a double who is able to perform the exceptional flips, falls and flights of the body while the main characters get on with the acting and dialogue. There are several separate scenes relating in some way, I guess, to one or other of the 1970 movies, while also looking at the production of these scenes in a way that suggests that those who push the production along often have little regard for the actors. There is much so-called ‘coarse language’ throughout, the atmosphere is loud and the scenes for the most part brightly lit.

But what about the dancing and the physical movement, although the work does bring up the question of how we define dancing!? According to my feelings about what is dancing, the highlight in Stunt Double was a section in which two women dressed in long red outfits perform a duet that has them working sometimes closely together and sometimes side by side mirroring each other’s movements. I have no idea who the dancers were as there was no easily accessible indication of who was who and who played which role. So, it was a bit hard to locate this scene within the overall context of the work. Perhaps it was in place of interval as there was no regular interval break in the 90 minute show?

As for the stunts, which to me represented the physical movement side of things, they were brilliantly performed. In one spectacular scene, a cricketer, after being part of a winning team, bashed up one of the performers (although actually I’m not sure why?). This section was distinguished by the dramatic sound of those hits (sound design by Luke Smiles), the involvement of the cricketer (who was he?) through his use of the body, and the stunt man who took the hits, flew about and fell to the ground on numerous occasions in such an exceptional manner.

Perhaps the most mind-blowing section, however, was towards the end when a yellow car arrived onstage. It stayed on the spot, but with its wheels turning simulated movement. It became the focus of attention as the performers variously interacted with it, simulating being hit by the car. They threw themselves in the air, landing on the car at times, with one amazing moment when one stunt man threw himself onto the bonnet of the car, slid across the bonnet towards the front window and burst through the window into the interior. (The glass on the front window had been removed I might add!)

But despite some spectacular tricks and a few beautiful moments of dancing (according to my definition of the word), I was not a huge fan of the overall production, although there were plenty in the audience who were. I admire the way The Farm takes on its criticism of society in a unique manner, and the way it focuses on spectacular movement. But Stunt Double seemed somewhat episodic, continually coarse and mostly quite loud. Sometimes a bit of subtlety goes a long way in getting an idea across the footlights. It would have been useful too had there been some king of program material available. Was this kind material available in other venues, I wondered? Or was it Canberra missing out, which sometimes happens?

The Farm is co-directed by Grayson Millwood and Gavin Webber both of whom were performers in Stunt Double. The script was written by Webber and the idea for the show was conceived by Millwood, Webber, Kate Harman and Chloe Ogilvie.

Michelle Potter, 15 March 2024

Images: © Jade Ferguson

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