New Zealand School of Dance 50th anniversary celebration—with Royal New Zealand Ballet

24, 25 November 2017, St James Theatre, Wellington

Reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

This program was a dazzling line-up of works that showcased and celebrated the strengths and talent of young dancers and graduands of New Zealand School of Dance (NZSD). The moment when fledglings leave the nest is always poignant. Some of these young dancers have taken instant wing and are moving straight into positions with prestigious companies—Queensland Ballet, West Australian Ballet for example. Godspeed to them. Most curiously, not one is joining Royal New Zealand Ballet (RNZB).

With numerous dancers departing from RNZB this week, that raises a number of questions, which this review is not placed to answer, but should none-the-less be somewhere, somehow addressed.  Eva Radich in her Radio New Zealand Concert Upbeat program recently asked the question in interview with the company’s artistic director—’Royal New Zealand Ballet. What’s the New Zealand moniker mean?’ We all need to think about the answer. A major part of New Zealand’s dance identity is at stake. That belongs within, not apart from, international dance identity.

In years back, NZSD graduation was always staged in the Opera House, a similar proscenium theatre to the St.James. Some years ago the School moved into newly refurbished premises, Te Whaea, which includes an in-house theatre, which naturally became the venue for dance performances. While that suited some of the contemporary repertoire and choreographic experimentation programs, it is a truth that ballet repertoire had to become differently scaled and proportioned to fit the much smaller venue. Here, back in a proscenium arch theatre with scope and size on their side, all the students were launched into orbit and became dancers. They’ll have now become infected with what Lincoln Kirstein called ‘the red and gold disease’.

It is pleasing to note that of the 11 works on the program, 5 are choreographed by NZSD alumni.

The opening, Beginners, Please! offers a glimpse of two small children at the barre, in a simple sequence of plié to rond-de-jambe; then light moved to another young pair; then to two current NZSD students. Staged by Sue Nicholls, this was a beguiling cameo that evoked the celebrated ballet Etudes, by Harald Lander, 1948. It is poignant to think that Poul Gnatt would have danced in that work in Royal Danish Ballet, and Anne Rowse, director emeritus of NZSD, sitting to my left, danced it many times in Festival Ballet, as also did Russell Kerr. Martin James, single most illustrious graduate in NZSD’s history, no contest, is sitting to my right. He trained at the School, danced most wonderfully in RNZB, then performed in English National Ballet and elsewhere in Europe, eventually to Royal Danish Ballet where he became leading solo dancer, was knighted for his services to ballet, and eventually became the company’s ballet master. These are the seeding sources that cast prismatic variations across professional dance in New Zealand that students need to know about. We can give more than lip service to that. Given the Danish heritage of RNZB, Etudes is a work many of us have waited years to see here, and why wouldn’t Martin James stage it? This echoes the Maori whakatauki proverb, ‘walking backwards into the future’. We can only see what has already happened. Look at that as you go.  All these thoughts were caught in the little opening miniature. Well done, Sue.

Tempo di Valse, arranged by Nadine Tyson, to Tchaikovsky’s Waltz of the Flowers, was ‘an exuberant work for a large ensemble, festive in mood’. Program notes are not always accurate but this one certainly was.

Aria, solo for a masked male, choreographed by Val Caniparoli, to Handel/Rinaldo overture and aria, is a remarkable dance, performed to breathtaking perfection by Mali Comlekci. Small wonder he flies straight into a contract at Queensland Ballet where an outstanding career awaits him. What a shame we won’t be able to see that develop, but we wish him airborne joy.

Mali Comlecki in 'Aria'. New Zealand School of Dance, 2017. Photo: © Stephen A'Court
Mali Comlekci in Aria. New Zealand School of Dance, 2017. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

Curious Alchemy by Loughlan Prior, to Beethoven and Saint-Saens, is a fresh lively lovely dance in which youth is celebrated, and hints of the ties of friendship and the possibilities of relationship are subtly subtexted to the movement which suits the young dancers extremely well. The cast—Clementine Benson, Saul Newport, Jaidyn Cumming and Song Teng —are thrilled to be dancing, and that excitement shines through. Loughlan, himself a spirited dancer with RNZB, and a former graduate of NZSD, is loaded with choreographic energy and ideas, so that is fortunately one continuing career we will be able to follow.

Forgotten Things, by Sarah Foster-Sproull, is a very special choreography, initially developed on students at NZSD in 2015, and here brought to a stunning re-staging with a cast of 23 contemporary dance students. The music composed by Andrew Foster, begins full of life-affirming rhythms that evoke the best Renaissance dance music, then moves to percussive richness that support this mysterious procession—Sarah’s best work to date in my opinion. It is a stunning achievement to use parts of the dancers’ bodies, beautifully lit, as nano units of life force, and then thread these as metaphor into life at the level of society and community. This is a work that could be performed by any school or company, classical or contemporary dancers. Now there’s something for every choreographer to aspire to, since that’s nearer the reality of the dance profession today.

The wedding pas de deux from Don Quixote was danced, by Mayu Tanigaito and Joseph Skelton, as a gift from RNZB—and what a gift. That pas de deux would have been danced in New Zealand several hundred times over the decades, but never has it steamed and sizzled like this. Skelton dances with calm control of his prodigious technique and has a most interesting career we are always keen to follow. The transition from class-in-the-studio to role-on-stage that Tanigaito always brings to her performances is rare, and something to study, if only you can. She reveals the nature of dance.

Kenneth MacMillan’s Concerto pas de deux, dates from 1966 but carries its vintage timelessly. With two grand pianos soixante-neuf on stage, the Shostakovich beautifully played by the School’s pianists, Craig Newsome and Phillip O’Malley, the stage was set for Olivia Moore and Calum Gray to give the performance of their young lives to date.

Olivia Moore and Calum Gray in Concerto. New Zealand School of Dance, 2017. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

S.U.B. (Salubrious Unified Brotherhood) was a duo by Victoria Columbus working with performers Connor Masseurs and Toa Paranihi. The ‘Nesian identity with rap and break dance, its isolations, its nonchalance, its cut & thrust, its mock battling, was brilliantly timed and caught in this sassy little number.

Toa Paranihi and Connore Masseurs in 'S.U.B.'. New Zealand School of Dance, 2017. Photo: © Stephen A'Court
Toa Paranihi and Connor Masseurs in S.U.B. New Zealand School of Dance, 2017. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

Allegro Brillante, by George Balanchine, dates from 1956 and is more of a period piece. It was performed with great verve and aplomb by the cast of eight dancers.

The Bach, by Michael Parmenter, to a Bach cantata, Erfreut euch, had a cast of 15 dancers who revelled in the exuberant dance sequences and sets of striking ensemble patterns. These were interspersed with walking sequences that stood rhythmically quite apart from the baroque energy and motivation of the danced sections.

The final work, William Forsythe’s In the middle somewhat elevated, was first performed in this theatre by Frankfurt Ballet during the international arts festival 1990. The choreography is as challenging and confrontational now as it was then, as is also the score by Thom Willems. The intensely asymmetrical and aggressive aesthetic comes across as thrilling, or scary, depending on the viewer. I am in the former camp, but can hear what others say—it is either loved or hated. Passionate opinions about dance in a theatre in New Zealand are no bad thing, but it’s for sure that the asymmetries that pull within the classical technique represent a post-modern departure from the canon that Forsythe represents. It’s a pity that the two gilded cherries hanging from on high, giving title to the choreography, are set so high they are noticed by no-one.

The RNZB dancers in the cast who stood out most memorably include Abigail Boyle, Tonia Looker, Alayna Ng,  Shaun James Kelly, Kirby Selchow, Mayu Tanigaito, Kohei Iwamoto, Paul Mathews, Felipe Domingos. We wish all the Company dancers and all the School’s students well.

Jennifer Shennan, 27 November 2017

Featured image: Jill Goh (centre) with dancers from the New Zealand School of Dance in Forgotten Things, 2017. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

11 thoughts on “New Zealand School of Dance 50th anniversary celebration—with Royal New Zealand Ballet

  1. It is ludicrous that the NZSD graduates are not placed in our National Company after 3 years of intensive training and achievement. I for one will not continue to support the RNZB and its company of foreign dancers until this peculiar issue is addressed. The 2017 graduation performance was world class and yet not one dancer has secured a contract with RNZB. Why?

  2. After a lifetime of supporting young NZ dancers to secure jobs and succeed in companies overseas because subsequent RNZBallet company directors have deemed them not good enough to join their national company, preferring to hire foreign trained dancers I weep to hear that this practice continues . The history, continuity, identity, and soul that should by now be the essence of ‘ what is great ‘ about dance in NZ and the ability of the NZ dancer seems for various reasons to be being allowed to erode. Shame. Sadness. I have been part of dance in NZ Company and School all of my life from the age of 16 to 73years inclusive of a celebrated career abroad I am mortified to see that exceptional young aspirants get pushed out of their nest and are not nurtured within their home company. In my lifetime I have seen so much talent leave the company or , never to enter it ,therefore to take their abilities abroad having been passed over by ‘ visiting ‘ directors.
    When will we have a collective vision , voice and passion to change .?
    Poul Gnatt gave us a Company. The choreographic master who is Russell Kerr continued. The rot set in and looking ‘ outside NZ’ for talent stopped the growth and development, with the odd exception, of our dance identity. By now in history , NZ icons like Douglas Wright and Mike Parmenter among others should have several works in the permanent repertoire. Classics should be reproduced but our special athleticism and qualities should be being celebrated at home . I want in my lifetime to see School feed Company. Company develop what is ‘ us ‘ as dancers , our artistic / choreographic voice, our imagination , our New Zealandness.

  3. Thank you for your comments Yvette and Patricia, and I feel your pain! I find it hard to understand why the idea that ‘overseas is better’ has such strength in some eyes. I thought it might be good to share the thoughts of Li Cunxin, artistic director of Queensland Ballet, in regard to Kohei Iwamoto and Tonia Looker with you. They will join Queensland Ballet in 2018, although of course they are not recent graduates of NZSD but part of another ‘movement’. In his press release issued just a day or so ago Li said:

    ‘In 2018 we will welcome two dancers from Royal New Zealand Ballet into our family and we couldn’t be happier. Kohei Iwamoto will join us as a Soloist and Tonia Looker will join as a Company Artist. Both of these dancers are incredibly accomplished and talented and both have been stand outs as part of the RNZB ensemble. Kohei is originally from Japan and moved to Australia to take up a scholarship at the Australian Ballet School. He joined Royal New Zealand Ballet in 2010 and has since performed many male solo and lead roles in all the classical repertoire. Kohei was awarded second prize at the Youth America Grand-Prix Competition in 2007. Kohei is a virtuoso dancer with strong technique. He has an incredible ability to radiate through the music and makes any dancing look effortless.

    Tonia is Australian and trained at the Australian Ballet School before accepting a scholarship to train at the School of American Ballet in New York and at Toronto’s National Ballet School. Tonia joined RNZB in 2008 and is a much-loved dancer who has performed many title roles. Tonia is a dancer with such expressiveness and grace. Her lyrical quality and musicality has made her an exceptional talent. We are thrilled to be welcoming Tonia and Kohei to our Company and are certain they will become favourites on our stages very quickly.’

    Li has a terrific eye for talent and, having watched him and his wife Mary teach and rehearse just recently, I was impressed with the encouragement they pass on to their dancers, who of course respond appropriately. Small comfort I know but they will at least be well looked after.

  4. Having traveled to Wellington to see the NZSD’s 50th anniversary programme I can echo the sentiments of Jennifer Shennan’s review concerning the outstanding quality of the performances given by the school’s graduands and current students but I also share her disquiet that none of the graduating class have found places in the Royal New Zealand Ballet. This situation seems even more extraordinary now that the unprecedented exodus of 16 permanent members of the company in the week following the graduation show has been revealed. What is going on? Comings and goings are the norm in any performing arts company but the departure of close to half the dancers from a company of 36 is difficult to comprehend. Some are leaving of their own accord but a significant number of dancers, among them experienced performers who have toured internationally with the company and have given years of loyal and distinguished service, have been unceremoniously dumped. Although year-on-year contracts are the norm for dancers someone who has danced with the company consistently for over a decade should have, under New Zealand employment law, the same rights as a permanent employee. If senior management is, in fact, acting illegally, the company’s trust board needs to act swiftly to set this right before serious damage is inflicted on a company that, in recent years, has been performing at a remarkably high level. If these changes are part of a coherent rethink of artistic policy then it is time these ideas were shared with the people whom the RNZBs’ website describes as “the heart of the ballet”, the dancers themselves, as well as with the company’s loyal audience. Failure to do this makes the sudden exodus of dancers look suspiciously like a purge. It is time for both artistic management and the board to front up.

    With the company effectively at half strength and announcements of new signings not being made until the new year questions must hang over the company’s capacity to deliver the demanding schedule of performances already advertised for 2018. These include performances at the New Zealand and Auckland Festivals in less than three months time. New Zealand dance audiences have become accustomed to performances of a consistently high standard from their national ballet company and the absence of familiar and much respected dancers from the company’s 2018 casts will be a cause for concern to many. It is very likely that any decline in artistic standards will be met with a similar decline in audience numbers.

  5. Hello all, I’ve had a couple of relaxing days now in Sydney after NZSD 50th birthday, but will be returning to NZ in January 2018 for my summer programmes. I wish to make a comment that I feel strongly about! I find myself no less than depressed about the current situation in NZ’s ballet world. I am making this comment because I believe in the Royal New Zealand Ballet and ALL students and Schools within NZ and Australia, so this is my own view of the current circumstances for the company I grew up in. RNZB seems to have chaos! Of course, you are welcome to like or dislike me and either way is not problematic for me, but something must happen to preserve our NATIONAL company, being Royal New Zealand Ballet.

    The festivities for NZSD’s 50th anniversary and graduation performance are over now, and what wonderful times catching up with so many who are as passionate still about the school and company – as I am! The company has now tied up their 2017 season and it is disturbing to see the number of dancers in the company now apparently without jobs! My personal feeling is this… If a new director comes to a company anywhere in the world, one surely doesn’t just get rid of dancers! One should perhaps fire the entire company and re-audition respectfully, not just throw dancers away!? I’m not at all happy for our dancers in NZ NOW, but more so for the future talent in NZ (and I’m around the NZ a great deal seeing it all).

    So I ask the question, where will all of this remarkable talent eventually go? Some questions and answers should be properly discussed soon if we are to preserve our nation’s integrity and talent. After all, NZ is a small country but has highly valued cultural dignities, heritage and talent, not only dance-wise but across the entire range of the arts. It is absolutely worth preserving, and perhaps one day the people who choose directors and staff/dancers might consider this?

    My very best wishes to all at RNZB and NZSD, but especially those dancers in the company who now have to pack their bags and pursue new avenues, whether in dance or elsewhere. I am in no way trying to interfere but I believe this matter should be taken seriously and with decent integrity,

    Regards, Martin James

  6. Just a short message now as I’ve got to get to Melbourne Shortly , my being a grandfather again! What I’m stating is simple and just a caring and experienced man! Having danced with the all time stars I fail to understand right now where in my own country is going but rest assured, I’ll during my travels will help when time! I wish Patricia and everyone to Please wait as also, remember, it’s a tough job even though I’m not happy but one can only at least give her a chance for now no?

  7. Last comment for now, it is very good such caring people take time to ponder and consider these predicaments and its very CLEAR that some things should be addressed isn’t it!? No one wishes turmoil but sadly it has become so. Have a wonderful Christmas all and above all, take care and believe in yourselves dancers as I’m sure things will improve with future developments hopefully for New Zealand on all dance and culture in general.

  8. I would add my encouragement to Michelle’s, that we must believe in a better future.
    Too much good behind us for that to ever be forgotten. Challenges are ahead and we will meet them.
    But we do not forget that a number of Company’s excellent dancers are stood down, and there is no artistic sense or justice in that. To them we send special encouragement to pursue dance in their lives somehow, somewhere.

    ‘Dance, dance, else we are lost’. [Pina Bausch]. We are not lost. We are dancing. It’s hard, but transitions are possible … and living well is the best revenge.

    Peace on Earth, and in Wellington. Goodwill to all. Christmas. New Year.
    I’m looking to hitch a ride with Lady Luck.

    with love, Jennifer

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