Moon Water performed by Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan. Photo: © Liu Chen-Hsiang

Moon Water. Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan

Choreography Lin Hwai-min to Bach solo cello suites, cellist Mischa Maisky. Video screening by Sadler’s Wells, via YouTube until 22 May 2020

Reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

Moon Water, choreographed by Lin Hwai-min, to Bach’s six solo cello suites, is performed by Cloud Gate Dance Theatre, one of the world’s most accomplished and respected dance ensembles. In lieu of Cloud Gate’s planned season at Sadler’s Well’s, this free screening is being made available on YouTube throughout the week, until Friday 22 May.  Lin speaks in the introduction: ‘In these times of uncertainty, I hope this lyrical dance will bring you joy and peace.’  He’s right about ‘the times’ and his hope is realised in a sublime work of light shining out of shadow, and of the dancers’ calm and supple strength that accepts and yet conquers the force of gravity. As inspiration for the making of Moon Water, Lin quotes the mantra for Tai Chi practitioners: ‘Energy flows as water, water’s spirit shines as the moon’, as well as the associated Chinese proverb: ‘Flowers in the mirror and moon on the water are both illusions.’ These are all the program notes we need. 

I first saw Moon Water performed at the cultural festival which acted as prelude to the Sydney Olympics in 2000.

[The hugely impressive dance program within that festival also included Masurco Fogo, Pina Bausch’s choreography by Wuppertal Dance Theatre, The Cost of Living, Lloyd Newson’s choreography by DV8, as well as seasons by Sydney Dance Company in Graeme Murphy’s work on the Olympics in Ancient Greece, Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, and The Australian Ballet].

As the world’s media turns to the Olympic Games every four years, with typically spectacular Opening and Closing Ceremonies framing the sports contests, it has always seemed a pity that the associated arts festivals that act as precursor to the Games receive next-to-no international media promotion or coverage. Lucky I was to get to Sydney for so many memorable performances in 2000. I’ve been in love with Cloud Gate ever since.

The company was formed in 1973 by Lin Hwai-min and has remained under his consistent and visionary leadership for decades. Performing exclusively his choreography, the company’s extensive international touring has made it one of the world’s leading and most respected dance enterprises. The extensive repertoire grows from Lin’s deep searches into the philosophy, lifeways and art forms of Chinese history and traditions. Each work is a model of meditative calm and clarity as a single concept is explored—yet there’s an undertow of complexity and passion there for those who would see it. If you want novelty, fashion, sensation and display of virtuosity for its own sake, yawn yawn, you should probably look elsewhere.

Moon Water performed by Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan. Photo: © Liu Chen-Hsiang

Cloud Gate’s movement vocabulary and aesthetic grows from the suppleness, strength and flow of Tai Chi meditative and martial art, intertwined with contemporary dance, somewhat after Martha Graham technique. The play of vertical and horizontal is not in contrast but in segue, and there is astonishing control as a dancer moves from standing then into a deep plié, then onto the floor, then back to standing as though this is just one sequence of movement, and it fair slows your breathing. A line becomes a curve becomes a circle becomes a wheel becomes a windmill. A standing figure of eight has become a reclining infinity sign. In Moon Water there are solos, duos and a chorus grouping that take us through a night where the moves of dancers clad in white silk clad are bathed in light that reflects on backdrop, overhead, and finally beneath them, in the water which slowly washes across the stage.  Mostly adagio, with the occasional subito, there are images that evoke a large bird standing (crane or heron, kotuku) or flying (gannet, albatross, toroa). The presence and power in their contained energy somehow also includes the qualities of tenderness towards a newborn, a trusting child, a calm adult, a weak but hopeful elder, all slowly moving towards a life-affirming first white light before dawn.

I visited Taiwan in 2017 and had the loveliest of times with Cloud Gate. I could write about them forever but reading that would be a waste of your time when you could be watching Moon Water.  

And a tribute to all that a second company, Cloud Gate 2, was formed to create opportunities for dancers to choreograph new repertoire.Upon Lin Hwai-min’s retirement last year, the leader of that ensemble , Cheng Tsung-lung, was appointed as the new artistic director of the main company. How affirming to see the wisdom and generosity of spirit involved in managing this company’s heritage—a rare achievement among the competitive politics of many a professional dance company you and I could think of.  

Jennifer Shennan, 17 May 2020

Featured image: Moon Water performed by Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan. Photo: © Liu Chen-Hsiang

Moon Water performed by Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan. Photo: © Liu Chen-Hsiang
NZSD Choreographic Season 2019. NZSD dancers in 'Huddle'. Photo: © Stephen A'Court

Orbiculus. New Zealand School of Dance Choreographic Season

22–28 May 2019, Te Whaea, Wellington
reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

Thirteen short works comprise this program of new choreography by graduating contemporary dance students at NZSD, directed by Victoria Columbus. In past years, such a performance, while always spirited, has proved challenging to review since each piece, albeit of different style and tenor, with many contrasting music sources and costume changes throughout, has seemed disconnected from what followed, yet hard to separate out in the dark. 

This year a most welcome coherence, with light and shade alternating, emerges within the sequence of dances. The same costumes, soft neutral greens, greys, creams and browns, are worn throughout and this helps enormously with focus and cohesion, both for dancers and for audience. A thematic momentum with echoes and resonances from one piece to another builds towards real theatre. Across an 80-minute unbroken run-time of new work, that’s nothing short of remarkable. 

The opener, Huddle, (by Vourneen Canning), takes place in the foyer. Twelve dancers are drawn slowly into a circle that surrounds a central figure, soon replaced, as momentum builds within a calm centrifugal timeless strength. This natural grace gives way to robotic staccato movement as the second piece, 0110100001100001 (by Alec Katsourakis) orders us by beckoning gestures to follow the dancers into the theatre. Two worlds in stark contrast, one green, one bionic, yet we all live in both.  

As we enter the auditorium, bright lime green spotlights are dotted here and there, some shining into our eyes, not sure why, unless it’s to emphasise an atmosphere of alienation. Now seated, in the half round, we watch in comfort the 11 dances that are loosely stitched together by the performers’ subtle entrances and exits from the aisles threading between our seats. That suggests we’re all in this together.  

Silence s’il vous plaît (by Chase Clegg-Robinson) has a sculptural quality and an air of prayer, even lament, from its choral accompaniment. Micro Muse (by Neve Pierce), Hana (by Olivia Castagna), In a Moment of Reckless Freedom (by Alessia Augello), Adrift (by Rachel Trent), Plato’s Atlantis (by Bjorn Aslund), Charged (by Cheyanne Teka), Manuka (by Franky Drousioti), La Luna (by Jasmine Susic), Papa (by Arohanui Watene), The Kids are Alright (by Nadiyah Akbar) share similar features of a large number as chorus, with occasional solo, couple or small group moments, yet each has its singularity. 

(left) Courtney Mae Lim in Papa; (right) Nadiyah Akbar and Amit Noy in Plato’s Atlantis. Photos © Stephen A’Court

There’s irony in the song Mr. Sandman, bring me a dream.  We are surprised by an exquisite duet, one man one woman, dancing love with each other. It lies at the kernel of the suite of dances. There’s a welcome explosion of joy and fun as E Papa Waiare is sung and danced and smiled.

Dancers are not pedestrians, they’re high flyers. But amid the movement vocabulary these days there’s less jumping, leaping, soaring—the things that dance does so well— the airborne stuff. There’s more gesturing, more sculpture, walking, running, falling, rolling, standing—the groundborne stuff. In each case of course, motivation is what matters.

The printed program notes are amorphous at best, incomprehensible at worst. (Why is this such a lost art? There are models to study, some to emulate, some to eschew. Douglas Wright probably produced the best program copy I’ve encountered—pithy, poetic, themed; locally, Lucy Marinkovich and Sasha Copland know how to write about what they’ve choreographed; then there’s Cloud Gate, and Hamburg Ballet, and the weekly listings of events in The New Yorker that capture mercurial dance in wondrously lucid precis. Words about dance matter because, memories aside, they are what remains after curtain-fall).

Whenever I see a sign on the box office counter ‘This show contains strobe’ I ask why, then ready myself to close my eyes whenever it begins. (It always reminds me of the roadside sign ‘Beware Falling Rocks’. Not a lot you can do about that either).

Overall though the lighting was effective and atmospheric.

But the dancing itself, which is primarily what we’re here for, is beautifully modulated and impeccably performed. All these performers can expect to find professional careers and good work somewhere. One is an absolute knockout and would score a job tomorrow in many a company worldwide.

The program’s themes and mood seemed to share something of the concern we are hearing from young protesters, local and world-wide, begging for governments to take urgency over environment and climate-related issues, to examine the quality of life, to think and to listen. I felt echoes of what David Attenborough, and our foremost climate scientist, James Renwick, are speaking. Following their lead, youngsters are saying to oldsters ‘If you won’t behave as adults, we will’.  All power to them, and to these dancers.

There’s a nationwide Teacher Strike planned for next Wednesday, the day after this season ends. That will flood the streets with school students who would thrill to see this program, as many will share its concerns. Challenge to NZSD to add two extra matinee performances on that day. There are ways to spread the word, and the auditorium would overflow. You could invite those students to then write about what they saw.

I am well aware that the young dance-makers may not have consciously intended any of the themes I found arising from their work. That’s the good thing about a dance performance. We make of it what we will. Lucky us.

Jennifer Shennan, 23 May 2019

Featured image: NZSD Choreographic Season 2019. NZSD dancers in Huddle. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

NZSD Choreographic Season 2019. NZSD dancers in 'Huddle'. Photo: © Stephen A'Court
 Leeshma Srirankanathan during her arangetram, Wellington 2018. Image supplied (no photographer named)

2018—New Zealand Dance Year in Retrospect

by Jennifer Shennan

As New Year approaches I like to think back over Old Year and, without consulting notes, check what dance highlights remember themselves.

During 2018 we have lost four treasured and hugely important people from our dance / arts community.

Nigel Boyes, dearest friend and colleague to so many dancers, particularly members of Royal New Zealand Ballet where he was office manager and archivist for many years, and was also a member of prominent Wellington choirs, died in July. (His obituary is on this website).

Sue Paterson, legendary force in the arts, held a sequence of important positions in dance management over decades—at Limbs Dance Company, at Creative New Zealand, at RNZB, as director of the International Arts Festival—and was a generous member of many governing boards. (Her obituary is online at stuff.co.nz).

June Greenhalgh, wife of Russell Kerr who was a stalwart pillar of ballet history in New Zealand, was a foundation member of England’s Festival Ballet. She performed here in the 1959 – 60 season of New Zealand Ballet, but her abiding contribution was as the lifetime companion to Russell. (Her obituary is on this website).

Douglas Wright, giant of New Zealand dance makers, hugely prolific choreographer and indelibly memorable dancer, was rehearsing his last choreography, M-Nod, from the hospice. He was an artist without peer in this country—working also in literature and in visual arts. (A review of M_Nod, and an obituary, are on this website).

To all four of these dear friends and colleagues – Valete. Requiescant in pace,

Haere, haere atu.

———-

In February we were delighted by the spirited response to the inaugural session in the series of the Russell Kerr Lecture in Ballet & Related Arts, held at Victoria University. The lecture, on Kristian Fredrikson’s life and work in theatre design, was delivered by Dr. Michelle Potter who has since continued work on her biography of Kristian which is now heading towards publication. The occasion also included the performance of Loughlan Prior’s choreography, Lark, with Jon Trimmer and William Fitzgerald in the cast, and Hamish Robb accompanying on piano.

A trip to Auckland’s Arts Festival was warranted to see Akram Khan’s dramatic and atmospheric production Giselle performed by English National Ballet. Tamara Rojo, the young artistic director and manager of this company, is clearly a leader of intelligent and visionary force. It’s always edifying to check the New Zealand involvement in the history of any dance company and there are several prominent soloist careers to note of New Zealand dancers who performed with English National Ballet, formerly Festival Ballet—Russell Kerr, Anne Rowse, Loma Rogers, Donald McAlpine, Martin James, Adrienne Matheson, Cameron McMillan among them.

In Wellington’s International Arts Festival, the hugely memorable Loch na hEala/Swan Lake by Michael Keegan-Dolan (of Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre fame) had the stellar Alex Leonhartsberger in the lead male role. Alex has previously danced in Douglas Wright productions and it was a renewed thrill to see him in this season. Keegan-Dolan’s work has interested me intensely for some years and I rate him, with Lin Hwai Min and Douglas Wright, as the three choreographers who have kept my world turning for decades. An intriguing new project, under the auspices of this Festival, will next year have Keegan-Dolan in residence here, developing a new work and offering a public involvement for those interested to trace that process.

Betroffenheit, by luminary Canadian choreographer Crystal Pite, in collaboration with Jonathan Young, was another highlight of this Festival season. Its theme explored the reactions and after-effects of an unspecified catastrophic event, and suited well the mood of disastrous developments we see in current world affairs, as well as referencing tragedy at a personal level. It proved a remarkable and mature work of theatre.

Closer to home we saw the remarkable season of Meremere by Rodney Bell. This has rightly proved an award winning choreography and performance, produced under the auspices of Malia Johnston’s MOTH (Movement of the Human). Rodney lives and works in a wheelchair, but his mana and charisma in both his life and his dance are the operatives. It takes about five minutes to forget the fact that he’s using a wheelchair. His stories are what matter. Sarah Foster Sproull also made Drift, for Rodney and a female dancer, resulting in a miraculous menuet for our time.

The second half of RNZB’s Dancing to Mozart—in two works by Jiří Kylián—revealed the calibre of both choreography and performance we have been accustomed to from our national ballet company. At New Zealand School of Dance graduation season, two works After the Rain by Christopher Wheeldon, and Wicked Fish by Cloud Gate choreographer, Huang Yi, proved outstanding. The time-honoured question from Irish poet W B Yeats, ‘O body swayed to music, o brightening glance, how can we know the dancer from the dance?’ always comes to mind when choreography and performance are equally inspirational. There’s a causal connection of course, but it’s a symbiotic and reflexive one between dancer and dance.

Tempo Dance Festival billed Between Two—with works by Kelly Nash and by Douglas Wright. That season, reviewed on this website, is remembered as a most poignantly crafted, perfectly balanced program with birth and death book-ending the life between. No more fitting tribute to Douglas Wright’s astonishing body of work could be imagined. I do not expect to see again anything like this multi-talented artist who was so resolute in communicating his vision. There was a heartfelt memorial service held in his favourite Cornwall Park in Auckland, and then gatherings at both Nga Taonga Film Archive and City Art Gallery in Wellington, to hear tributes and watch fine films of Wright’s work, including the stunning documentary, Haunting Douglas, made by Leanne Pooley.

Many were very sorry that Anton Carter’s contract as director of DANZ, the national networking agency, was ended, since he had been a stalwart and popular supporter of dance events and individuals across many different forms and communities. Although now working at Museums Wellington, he continues to attend performances and that is the kind of loyal support, outside the call of duty, that is so appreciated by dance practitioners.

The news is recently announced that Lucy Marinkovich, outstanding dancer/choreographer working independently on projects with her partner and colleague musician, Lucien Johnson, are the joint winners of the Harriet Friedlander award which gives them $100,000 to reside in New York. When asked ‘How long will you stay there?’ they answer ‘Till the money runs out’. I personally and rather selfishly hope they do not get offered something they can’t refuse since I want to continue seeing their fresh and invigorating dance work here. They have wit and style and ideas, together with all the skills needed to bring dance and music alongside each other where they belong. More of that is needed for all our sakes.

In the books department, Marianne Schultz’ history of Limbs Dance Company—Dance for the People— was welcome (see my review in New Zealand Books, December 2018), as also was the memoir of Sir Jon Trimmer—Why Dance ? by Jon with Roger Booth (my review of that is on DANZ website).

As I write this retrospective I am still happily high from last night’s astonishing Indian dance event—the arangetram, or graduation recital, of Leeshma Srirankanathan, student of Sri Vivek Kinra, of Mudra dance school and academy. This was a two hour wonder of solo performing by an extremely talented 18 year old dancer, and the 42nd arangetram directed by Kinra in his 30 years as a master teacher here in Wellington. Leeshma’s Hindu father and Catholic mother were each honoured in the opening prayers and puja of this event. A lesson of peace and tolerance to the world I reckon, if only the world would listen.

We are anticipating the second Russell Kerr lecture in Ballet & Related Arts which will be delivered on Sunday 10 February, on the topic of Russian Ballet companies that visited Australia and New Zealand in 1937 and 1939. It will be delivered at Victoria University of Wellington by Dr. Ian Lochhead, dance critic for The Press, Christchurch. All are welcome, rsvp for further details to jennifershennan@xtra.co.nz

Happy New Year to all readers, and my thanks to Michelle Potter for hosting this website so generously.

Jennifer Shennan, 30 December 2018

Featured image: Leeshma Srirankanathan during her arangetram, Wellington 2018. Photo: © Buskar

Dancers of New Zealand School of Dance in 'Wicked Fish'. Graduation Season 2018. Photo: © Stephen A' Court

New Zealand School of Dance Graduation Season, 2018 (2)

Innovation—contemporary program

22 November 2018. Te Whaea, Wellington
by Jennifer Shennan

This Graduation season offers two programs, Tradition (Ballet) and Innovation (Contemporary Dance), on alternate nights. Does this suggest that new choreography is expected only in the latter but not in the former? If anything, the opposite swing of the pendulum is needed, with a balance of heritage and newly minted work, across both streams. Students of ballet should be just as actively encouraged to explore choreography as their ‘siblings’ are, and by the same token, classics of New Zealand contemporary work need to be staged more often. There are plenty of choreographers whose works would be eminently suitable—Douglas Wright, Michael Parmenter, Raewyn Hill, Daniel Belton, Mary-Jane O’Reilly, Taiaroa Royal would be among the first to consider.

It is in fact globally recognised that ballet and contemporary dance today exist in a symbiotic relationship, and that a hard-out ballet class (minus the pointe shoes perhaps) is a daily fix for dancers of all textures. The old binary does not hold, and today’s dancers have to be able to do whatever choreographers ask for. Having said that, the Innovation program showed strong, committed performers willing to share a passion that depends less on physique than personality, more on commitment than technique.

E Tolu, the opening trio, had its premiere in Mangere in South Auckland in June, and will have been just as welcome there as it was here. Starting with the summons of putatara, there followed a range of patterns and moods from contemplative to forceful to humorous, suggesting haka, siva, fautapati with a nod to Bob Marley and Nina Simone. It brought centre stage the quick and ready wit of Maori/Pasifika dancing men in a great program opener.

Chris Clegg in Victoria Columbus’ E Tolu. NZSD Graduation 2018. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

Laifa Taala in Victoria Columbus’ E Tolu. NZSD Graduation 2018. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

Wicked Fish, by Huang Yi of Cloud Gate Dance II, Taiwan, was an astonishing achievement. A relentless surging of bodies in both vertical and horizontal, linear in both directions, in mysterious shadowed light of silver, grey and white, it was completely mesmerising. Cloud Gate is one of the most interesting dance companies in the world today and it can only do good for young students, and all of us, to be made aware of them and their repertoire. Music by Xenakis was the water they danced in.

Huri Koaro (Inside out), by Gabrielle Thomas, assisted by Megan Adams, is a work from Atamira dance collective’s repertoire. It brought a welcome and convincing Maori female presence to the stage, with patterns suggesting taniko and kowhaiwhai, then moves to a driving pate rhythm. There was an unusual and welcome stillness and silence for some of the groupings, then poi swinging across the stage brought contrast to the solo central dancer.

It’s Written in the Walls by Adam Barruch had an atmosphere of trouble in an unidentified situation…a refugee camp perhaps, or some confined place? The dancers’ focus remained internalised, and a sense of urgency or risk was caught in the striking linear groupings of the performers.

Jareen Wee and Chris Clegg with dancers of NZSD in Adam Barrach's 'It's Written in the Walls. NZSD Graduation 2018. Photo: © Stephen A'Court

Jareen Wee and Chris Clegg with dancers of New Zealand School of Dance in Adam Barrach’s It’s Written in the Walls. NZSD Graduation 2018. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

Static by Lauren Langlois set itself a hard task in portraying the neurotic and obsessive behaviour of two dancers as the starting point, which, true to its title, seemed also to be its endpoint.

Les Méduses, a work by Damien Jalet, involved a large group of dancers in striking formations and curiously stylised costumes which occasionally suggested the weaving of spider webs. By contrast, a sound score of relentless chisel-like strikes evoked the notion of arduous work in progress of carving or sculpting from a large mass of stone or marble. It brought high energy to the closing work on the program.

Dancers of New Zealand School of Dance in Damien Jalet's Les Meduses. NZSD Graduation 2018. Photo: © Stephen A'Court

Dancers of New Zealand School of Dance in Damien Jalet’s Les Méduses. NZSD Graduation 2018. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

All told, a spirited evening. Wicked Fish will stay long in the memory for the images and atmosphere it evoked, of dangerous and mysterious forces, of relentless drive and unstoppable momentum. It uncannily evoked history, presaged the future, and kept reminding me of the three books I am reading – Vincent O’Malley’s New Zealand Wars, Stephen Fry’s Mythos, and Douglas Wright’s Terra Incognito. That’s a big ask of a short dance, but just occasionally that’s what choreographic masterpieces can deliver.

Jennifer Shennan, 23 November 2018

Featured image: Dancers of New Zealand School of Dance in Huang Yi’s Wicked Fish. Graduation Season 2018. Photo: © Stephen A’ Court

Dancers of New Zealand School of Dance in 'Wicked Fish'. Graduation Season 2018. Photo: © Stephen A' Court