Subtle Dances. BalletCollective Aotearoa with New Zealand Trio

8 & 9 April 2021. Bruce Mason Theatre, Takapuna, Auckland
Auckland Arts Festival
reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

This long-awaited premiere season of a new contemporary ballet company, BalletCollective Aotearoa, was nothing short of a triumph. Come the curtain-call, many in the sizeable audience were on their feet to salute the choreographers and composers, the dancers, musicians and designers, the courage and commitment—the whole fresh resilient New Zealand-ness of it all. Many are in the team but artistic director and producer, Turid Revfeim, is responsible, and deserves acclaim.

Revfeim has led her stalwart little troupe of dancers in and out, around and back through the Covid-induced challenges and shadows of these past many months. They must have walked close to the edge more than once, as funding began then disappeared (the Minister of Arts might ask questions about that), lockdowns descended (‘Just do the right thing and stay home’), schedules postponed (‘Well, let’s just re-schedule then’), flights and accommodation booked then cancelled (‘OK, let’s just re-book then’), ‘Let’s just abandon the project since there’s no budget and it’s so hard to keep going?’ (‘Never, never, never. We will dance’). ‘Intrepid’ and ‘indomitable’ are the adjectives they have earned.

There were shades of 1953 and the pioneering endeavours of Edmund Hillary, or perhaps I mean Poul Gnatt, as the performance got under way. The intensely passionate and utterly stunning musicians of New Zealand Trio were right there, just off-centre, upstage left, for the whole performance. By that staging, the three separate choreographies on the program merged as a trefoil of faith, a shamrock of hope, a clover of charity. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. J. S. Bach walked 400 miles to hear a concert. I only had to sit on a plane for one hour.

There is an impressive interview with Turid Revfeim on RNZ Nine to Noon, 9 April, (the podcast on RNZ website is well worth listening to), which sets the background and context of this courageous ballet initiative. If you think this is a rave review of the performance and of the entire enterprise, you are right.  

Scene from Sarah Knox’s Last Time We Spoke. BalletCollective Aoteraoa, 2021. Photo: © John McDermott

The opening work—Last Time We Spoke—by Sarah Knox, to composition by Rhian Sheehan, was an abstract yet poetic treatment of themes of how to be alone together. The cast of six dancers in fluid pairings across several sections of the work found connection in the lyrical music to make friends with consolation and memory. Tabitha Dombroski and William Fitzgerald were striking among the cast of six dancers.

Helix, the second work by Cameron Macmillan, one of New Zealand’s ex-pat choreographers whose work we all want to see more of, borrowed its title from the music, Helix, composed by John Psathas, leading New Zealand composer. It was preceded by an excerpt from Island Songs, a different composition by Psathas, a staggeringly virtuosic challenge to musicians who rose to every thrilling, throbbing quaver of its melodic percussion.

Scene from Cameron Macmillan’s Helix. BalletCollective Aoteraoa, 2021. Photo: © John McDermott

In Helix, the drama continued as Macmillan traced a journey, not exactly narrative but with suggestions of story nonetheless—a woman, a man, and shades of relationships between them. Some woman. This was the phenomenal Abigail Boyle who is quite simply the leading ballet dancer in the country, no contest. Just standing still she is dancing, such is her sense of line and presence, but when she moves, o my. Her investment in the role as she journeyed round the corners of the stage carrying her chair, and through the centre of the stage as she contained emotion in her every movement, was a deeply anchored yet airborne performance. Boyle is a national treasure of dance in New Zealand and we are overjoyed to see her performing still at the peak of her powers. William Fitzgerald partnered her with a strong and sensitive quality that reminded us of his dancing which has also been much missed here of late. Tabitha Dombrowski and Medhi Angot were powerful among the committed cast of eight performers.

Scene from Loughlan Prior’s Subtle Dances. BalletCollective Aoteraoa, 2021. Photo: © John McDermott

The third work, Subtle Dances, choreographed by Loughlan Prior, composed by Claire Cowan, takes its title from the music, which in turn becomes the title for the triple-bill as well. Prior and Cowan are a pairing of major talents. The work explores and explodes with themes of gender blurring—swirls of hot tango as the boys and girls and boys come out to play. It is saucy, spicy, dark and compelling. Complex courtships, allusion alternating with illusion, remind us of nature’s best dancers. It invites searing performances from all the cast, and confirms this BalletCollective Aotearea as a troupe of striking dance talent, in fabulous collaboration with the phenomenal musicians of the New Zealand Trio.

As soon as the box office opens for their next season we will be in the queue, however many hundred miles of travel that might mean. Here is a link to the RNZ podcast featuring Turid Revfeim.

Jennifer Shennan, 10 April 2021

Featured image: Scene from Loughlan Prior’s Subtle Dances. BalletCollective Aoteraoa, 2021. Photo: © John McDermott

Transfigured Night. Ballet Collective Aotearoa & Chamber Music New Zealand

15 March 2021, Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington
reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

This was an evening of triumph on several levels. Transfigured Night is the first of six concerts in Chamber Music New Zealand’s nationally touring programme for 2021. Audiences in ten cities will have the chance to witness a performance of light and colour, wit and freedom, deep beauty and poignant poetry, of music and dance making love. We don’t often get to watch that, and we won’t forget it. 

The New Zealand String Quartet have earlier worked with choreographer Loughlan Prior in various projects, and their mutual trust and shared excitement is apparent in every quaver and quiver. That is what will have given lift-off to this project. 

The Ides of March was the day Team Emirates New Zealand won two spectacular races in the America’s Cup series, in boats that fly above the water and turn slow pirouettes in high attitude—even those who know nothing about yachting can see that. The Fowler Centre is not a proscenium theatre space and it’s a challenge to stage dance there (it’s where in 1988 Nureyev performed, which proved a mistake). Here though a great triangular sail, white silk with patterns of colour, designed by dancer William Fitzgerald, is back lit and suspended high above the stage—an inspiration to preface the performance and shape the space.

The opening work was the premiere of a composition, I Danced, Unseen, by Tabea Squire. Laura Saxon Jones enters first, to silence—a curious creature, a lithe and hungry fox perhaps, who sniffs out and inspects the music stands and scores, what is all this about? what are these music scores? can you eat them? Hilarious. The whimsy and teasing continue as the musicians enter, wearing similar costumes as the three dancers, all of them echoing the patterns on the sailcloth overhead. There are naughty interferences from the dancers to the players and their instruments, but these musos are staunch, could play blind, and it would take a lot more than choreographed mosquitoes to throw them. It’s a darling and fun-filled opener.

The Dvorak String Sextet in A major, op.48, was superbly played, and the dancers continued in similar vein to find places in the music where they could actively, passively, openly or surreptitiously involve themselves. The three dancers had a million moves, yet the choreographic vocabulary and style were refreshingly free from clichés of ballet so often seen displayed elsewhere ‘just because we can’. They danced as individuals with personality and spirit, and the freedom that conveyed to the audience seemed liberating.  Hardened chamber music followers with little prior exposure to dance may possibly have found it distracting from the music they have long known and loved well, but not those around me who giggled and applauded and loved it, as indeed did I.  It was a commedia dell’arte romp, full of cheer and light, with inspired little fragments of Hungarian folk dance, dumka and czardas, caught in the many nimble rhythm and tempo changes. Two of those repeated movement motifs carried me back decades to pas and port de bras of the little Russian dance in RAD’s Grade 5 ballet syllabus I have loved ever since 1957, happy and grateful for the reminder. 

(l-R) Laura Saxon Jones, William Fitzgerald and Tabitha Dombrowski in rehearsal for Transfigured Night, 2021. Photo: © Sarah Davies

But peel back now for the major work of the second half, Transfigured Night, early Schoenberg. It proved a choreographic masterwork, and will position Loughlan Prior firmly on the international choreographic scene. It’s a safe bet that there will be future seasons of this work, both here and, when it becomes possible, abroad as well. There wouldn’t be another choreographed work anywhere that so centrally positions the intercourse between music and dance. In that sense it harks back to the masques of 17th century Europe, with costumed musicians traversing the stage, playing from memory, mingling with dancers and actors. At the same time Prior is in full control of a contemporary ballet vocabulary that moves like a fresh nor-easterly wind across our harbour. This skipper knows the local conditions.

The skilful absorption of two massive silk cloths, one red and one white, mirrored the theme of human physical interactions, a couple, a trio, a new couple, moving through their dreams and hopes and fears, their longing and love and loss. It moved the audience, aficionados or not, to responses—‘stunning … sublime … superb … breathtaking. When can we see it again?’  The central role played by Laura Saxon Jones was calm yet nuanced, poetic and powerful. It is good to see her dancing here again after several years absence.

Laura Saxon Jones with musicians of New Zealand String Quartet in rehearsal for Transfigured Night, 2021. Photo: © Sarah Davies

The choreographer and the three dancers are all graduates of New Zealand School of Dance, credit to all concerned, and are now members of Ballet Collective Aotearoa. This new and courageous initiative, directed by Turid Revfeim, is a free-lance ensemble, to date only minimally funded [how courageous is that?], yet poised to offer the country a new and fresh approach to streamlined, clean, clear ballet for our time. The premiere season of BCA, in the Auckland Arts Festival [postponed a fortnight ago due to Covid lockdown] will now instead take place on 8 and 9 April, then in Dunedin Arts Festival on 16 April. We are holding our breath and we won’t be disappointed. The calibre of choreography, dance and music is already assured, with Poul Gnatt’s pioneering spirit in spades. Split Enz have a song—History never repeats. I wager they are wrong.           

Hamish Robb’s superb program notes on music and dance interactions will help keep alive the memory   

Composition: Tabea Squire, Antonin Dvorak, Arnold Schoenberg
Musicians: New Zealand String Quartet and colleagues
Choreography: Loughlan Prior
Dancers: Laura Saxon Jones, William Fitzgerald, Tabitha Dombrowski of Ballet Collective Aotearoa
Presenters: Chamber Music New Zealand

Jennifer Shennan, 16 March 2021

Featured image: Scene from Transfigured Night, Ballet Collective
Aoteraoa and New Zealand String Quartet and colleagues, 2021. Photo: © Jack Hobbs

Dance diary. November 2020

This month’s dance diary has an eclectic mix of news about dance from across the globe. I am beginning with a cry for help from a New Zealand initiative, Ballet Collective Aotearoa, led by Turid Revfeim, dancer, teacher, coach, mentor, director across many dance organisations. I am moved to do this as a result of two crowd funding projects I initiated when I was in a similar position and needed an injection of funds to help with the production of my recent Kristian Fredrikson book. I was overwhelmed by the generosity of the arts community. It made such a difference to what my book looked like and I will forever be grateful.

  • Ballet Collective Aotearoa

Ballet Collective Aotearoa was unsuccessful in its application to Creative New Zealand for funding to take its project, Subtle Dances, to Auckland and Dunedin in early 2021. The group has secured performances at the arts festivals at those two New Zealand cities. BCA’s line-up for Subtle Dances brings together a great mix of experienced professional dancers and recent graduates from the New Zealand School of Dance. They will perform new works by Cameron McMillan, Loughlan Prior and Sarah Knox.

For my Australia readers, Prior has strong Australian connections, having been born in Melbourne and educated at the Victorian College of the Arts Secondary School. Then, Cameron McMillan, a New Zealander by birth, trained at the Australian Ballet School and has danced with Australian Dance Theatre and Sydney Dance Company. And, dancing in the program will be William Fitzgerald who was brought up in Canberra, attended Radford College and has been a guest dance teacher there, and studied dance in Canberra with Kim Harvey.

The campaign to raise money for Turid Revfeim’s exceptional venture is via the New Zealand organisation, Boosted. See this link to contribute. See more on the BCA website.

  • Interconnect. Liz Lea Productions

Liz Lea’s Interconnect was presented as part of the annual DESIGN Canberra Festival and focused on connections between India and Canberra. The idea took inspiration from the designers of the city of Canberra, Walter Burley and Marion Mahoney Griffin, and from the fact that Walter Burley Griffin spent his last years in India where he died in Lucknow in 1937. As a result, the program featured a cross section of dance styles from Apsaras Arts Canberra, the Sadhanalaya School of Arts and several exponents of Western contemporary styles.

Promotional image for Interconnect. Photo: © Kevin Thornhill and Andrew Sikorski. Design by Andrea McCuaig

Interconnect was shown at Gorman Arts Centre in a space that was previously an art gallery. Physical distancing was observed, as we have come to expect. I enjoyed the through-line of humour that Lea is able to inject into all her works, including Interconnect. I was also taken by a short interlude called Connect in which Lea danced to live music played on electric guitar by Shane Hogan, and which featured on film in the background a line drawing of changing patterns created by Andrea McCuaig. Multiple connections there!

  • Gray Veredon

Choreographer Gray Veredon has put together a new website set out in several parts under the headings ‘The Challenge’, ‘New Ways in Set Design’, and ‘Influences and Masters’. His themes are developed using as background his recent work in Poland, A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Gray Veredon’s website can be viewed at this link.

  • Jean Stewart

Jean Stewart, whose dance photographs I have used many times on this website, is the subject of a short video put together by the State Library of Victoria. Jean died in 2017 and donated her archive to the SLV. Here is the link to video. And below are two of my favourite photographs from other sources. I can’t get over the costumes in the background of the Coppélia shot! Is that Act II?

Other Stewart favourites appear in the brief tribute I wrote back in 2017.

  • Jacob’s Pillow fire

Devastating and heartbreaking news came from Jacob’s Pillow during November. Its Doris Duke Theatre was burnt to the ground.

Here is a link to the report from the Pillow.

  • Nina Popova (1922-2020)

Nina Popova, Russian born dancer who danced in Australia during the third Ballets Russes tour in 1939-1940, died in Florida in August 2020. I was especially saddened to learn that her death was a result of COVID-19.

  • Kristian Fredrikson. Designer. More comments and reviews

Kristian Fredrikson. Designer was ‘Highly Recommended’ on the Summer Reading Guide in its ‘Biography’ category.

Mention of it also appeared on the Australian Ballet’s site, Behind Ballet, Issue # 252 of 18 November 2020 with the following text:

KRISTIAN FREDRIKSON, DESIGNER A lavish new book by historian and curator Michelle Potter takes us inside the fascinating world of Fredrikson, whose rich and inventive designs grace so many of our productions.    MORE INFO

I was also thrilled to receive just recently a message from Amitava Sarkar, whose photographs from Stanton Welch’s Pecos and Swan Lake for Houston Ballet are a magnificent addition to the book. He wrote: ‘Congratulations.  What a worthwhile project in this area of minimal research.‘ He is absolutely right that design for the stage is an area of minimal research! Let’s hope it doesn’t always remain that way.

Michelle Potter, 30 November 2020

Featured image: Abigail Boyle and William Fitzgerald in a promotional image for Subtle Dances, Ballet Collective Aoteaora, 2020. Photo: © Celia Walmsley, Stagebox Photography