Roll the dice. Pump Dance Studios

5 November 2022. Opera House, Wellington
reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

When I taught Dance Studies to students at New Zealand School of Dance several decades ago, one of the sessions I enjoyed the most, and students assured me they did too, was built around the documentary of the celebrated New York City Ballet dancer, Jacques d’Amboise—He Makes Me Feel Like Dancin’ * and his associated book, Teaching the Magic of Dance.**         

Each year d”Amboise would book the theatre at Lincoln Center, then through the National Dance Institute which he had founded, liaise with teachers in numerous Manhattan schools, to prepare a full-length narrated show with a cast of thousands, well, at least 1000. He would borrow artists from NYCB to play lead roles, then recruit local cops, street sweepers or truck drivers and teach them a few numbers to widen the scene. It was always the irrepressible enthusiasm and musicality in d’Amboise that proved infectious for everyone to give their best.  ‘Give it a go—you don’t know if you can dance until you try’ … was his encouraging word, and the resulting film is evidence of their lift-off. Small wonder it won Academy awards, and made its mark worldwide.

A high-spirited and imaginative dance show, Roll The Dice, in a 2.5 hour long performance played twice last weekend to capacity audiences at Wellington’s Opera House. Pump Dance Studios brought what seemed like 200 young dancers together in a tightly sequenced show combining hip-hop, jazz and contemporary dance with faultless timing and spirited expression. It brought alive for me the memory of Jacques d’Amboise, who died last year aged 86, but whose legacy endures. No one who saw his fine performing or witnessed his spirited dance-making will forget him.

Roll the Dice followed the structure of a Monopoly game, with a narrative of rhyming couplets highlighting the greed that has driven so much of the world’s destruction of its natural resources. Starting with youth in protest, this became a journey of how to play the game and get out of jail without the Earth being the loser. Baddies v. Goodies played out in numerous episodes in which huge businesses, bankers, entrepreneurs, politicians, money lenders, pirates, war-profiteers and polluters were in contrast with young, hardworking and clear-thinking youth on a mission. Natural forces of water, wind, sun and air were danced and mimed into hydroelectricity, solar heating, sustainable building practices. There was a plea for the preservation of the environments for animals—meerkats, hyenas, panthers and penguins all disarmingly portrayed in dance. By re-writing the rules and disrupting the greed, The Goodies won in the end. What a heartening change from the daily news bulletins in our lives.

I particularly enjoyed the show’s atmosphere of inclusivity—there were soloists and leaders among the cast but also a sense that there’s no such thing as a minor role, and the resulting commitment was exponential in effect. There were numerous inventive ideas in lighting and staging—costume racks on wheels transformed into train carriages, onesie suits becoming hot dogs, $2 shop red bandanas signalling a band of pirates, a black net curtain reducing lives to mere shadows in death—numerous effective transitions that all prioritised ideas and imagination ahead of big budget and wardrobe. It worked so well because the narrative stayed alive at the spine of the show, and every performer believed in it. Jacques d’Amboise would have been tickled pink.

* The film is available on YouTube
** the book listed with Amazon

Jennifer Shennan, 18 November 2022

All photos: © Nick George Creative

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