Artists of the Royal Ballet in Flight Pattern. © ROH 2017. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Flight Pattern. The Royal Ballet Digital Season 2020

Crystal Pite’s Flight Pattern premiered in London in 2017 and it was a revival from 2019 that was streamed for the Royal Ballet’s 2020 digital season. Danced to a movement from Henryk Górecki’s sombre Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, it has a cast of 36 dancers and is ambitious in both scale and concept. It is also immensely moving and choreographically absorbing.

Flight Pattern draws on Pite’s thoughts about the plight of refugees, and the humanitarian crisis that their plight generates and that affects us all in one way or another. But its focus is strongly on the emotional plight of these people and it is Pite’s skill that we too are emotionally drawn into the work.

It begins in a darkened space with the dancers looking up, around, down, in all directions really. It is choreographed so that it is varied unison dancing we see. As one group looks one way, another may look in another direction. This varied unison continues throughout the piece and gives us the feeling that while these people are united in their plight they are also individuals. They bend their bodies up and down; they rush forward, lurch and stumble together. But at one stage we see a single dancer lying on the ground, alone, perhaps dead? And individuals start to become more apparent when we see, for example, a duet between two men.

Artists of the Royal Ballet in Flight Pattern. © ROH 2017. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Eventually the refugees reach a certain stage in their flight and remove their coats. They lie down as if to sleep, but it is fitful and interrupted. Their individuality then becomes clear again in a duet between Marcelino Sambé and Kristen McNally. It begins with McNally dancing with a folded coat in her arms, as if holding something precious, but the choreography quickly moves into a duet that is full of swirling lifts and stretched limbs. The duet comes at the moment where a soprano voice (that of Nigerian-American singer Francesca Chiejina) becomes part of the score and her beautiful voice adds another emotional element to the unfolding drama.

Marcelino Sambé and Kristen McNally in Flight Pattern. © ROH 2017. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Group dynamics become stronger again and snow begins to fall. As the stage darkens and a black curtain begins to close off the space, McNally cannot face her situation any longer and stays sitting downstage, rocking and shaking. Sambé stays with her dancing out his feelings until the end. What is their fate?

Flight Pattern is a stunning, affecting work. For me its essence is contained in its title. ‘Flight’ draws us into the humanitarian crisis that is at its heart, but also makes sense of its choreographic focus on arm movements that recall flying. ‘Pattern’ reflects Pite’s exceptional manner of filling the space of the stage. But none of this matters really. What matters is the incredible way Pite is able to draw us into the work.

Watch below for Pite’s discussion of the making of Flight Pattern.

Michelle Potter, 11 November 2020

Featured image: Artists of the Royal Ballet in Flight Pattern. © ROH 2017. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Artists of the Royal Ballet in Flight Pattern. © ROH 2017. Photo: Tristram Kenton

 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

Abigail Boyle and Paul Mathews in 'The Piano. The Ballet'. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2018. Photo: © Stephen A'Court

It never rains, it pours

afterthoughts to Festivals in Wellington, and Auckland…and RNZB The Piano:the ballet

by Jennifer Shennan

Recent worldwide weather events have seen unprecedented extremes in both directions. As we cool down into autumn in New Zealand, we could be mindful of the northern hemisphere’s rite of spring (loads of daffodils apparently, but still cold and wet). We might all be wondering about the proportion of human responsibility for climate change, and what we, each and together, can do about it. So what’s that got to do with dancing? Well, nothing and everything. It’s a global globe that’s turning and we’re all on it.

Recent remarks locally have stated that the New Zealand dance scene is so isolated from the rest of the world. Poppycock, I say, isolation is a state of mind and everywhere is isolated from somewhere. We are entitled to believe that the centre of the world is wherever we are on the day, and that size has nothing to do with it. But it is at the same time true that you sometimes want to see a dance that is not on in your town. What to do about that?

  • Read this website for a review of the recent retrospective of Graeme Murphy’s works by the Australian Ballet. Think about the issues involved in such retros, and follow the Comments with interest. This triggers memories of Murphy’s works for RNZBallet over the years (too few in my estimation). Thought-provoking.
  • Read Joan Acocella’s insightful writings on dance in the New Yorker. Her recent pieces on Arthur Mitchell, Twyla Tharp, Alex Ratmansky give rich commentary on dance in America at its best. Acocella is for me the most lucid dance writer in the English language and I hang on her words. You can catch four articles per month in the New Yorker online, or inherit copies from your kind subscribing friends.
  • Watch Sky Arts television channel’s current broadcast of the 90 minute programme of Patricia Brown’s work. I’d seen photos of her dancers for years but never watched them in motion. Now I have. Intriguing.
  • Be glad of Arts Festivals. Both Wellington and Auckland have just ended their seasons, plus Fringes, with a remarkable range of dance events on offer that have brought us great works, still warm and wet,  from far afield, as well as new local work with much cause to celebrate.  RNZBallet’s The Piano:the ballet  (see review below); English National Ballet’s Giselle (s.r.b.); Crystal Pite’s and Jonathan Young’s Betroffenheit (s.r.b.); Michael Parmenter’s Orpheus; Malia Johnston’s Rushes; and the all time standout for me in Michael Keegan Dolan’s Swan Lake Loch na hEala (already reviewed on this website at this link)

In recent years Auckland has staged a festival in the alternate years to Wellington’s longer-established biennial, and the airlines were happy as folk winged their way north or south. That worked fine. Now however Auckland has made theirs an annual festival, to run concurrently with Wellington’s, and that does not work fine. I was conscious of a number of friends who watched wistfully as I flew to Auckland for English National Ballet’s Giselle. A number of other friends did go north too but, in doing so, missed out on the remarkable Betroffenheit back here in Wellington. I fear that the two festivals going up against each other across the same three weeks (they claim to co-ordinate and share events, but they do not…) will cause over time a weakening of both programs, and confuse the punters. Australia staggers her cities’ festival seasons better than we do, which makes sense, and also keeps the airlines happy.

I had to fly back to Auckland within the same week for the legendary percussion ensemble, From Scratch, headed by Philip Dadson. (I had danced to their Drumwheel in performances at the National Art Gallery in 1979. Now the striking Carol Brown dances to the same work. Interesting contrasts). My daughter was also involved in a collaboration with From Scratch at the breathtaking Te Uru gallery complex in Titirangi, west Auckland, the great Manukau harbour sprawling below the rooftop venue, in the treetops, at sunset … the first site specific performance of the many I have attended that has ever really thrilled me.

Back in Wellington The Flamenco Project, by Isabel Rivera Cuenca from Barcelona, was the Fringe Festival’s triumph, a strong and spirited yet subtly playful offering of the best of southern Spain—with return visits to New Zealand on offer. The fabulous Cuba Dupa street festival, as fringe to the Fringe, just squeezed in before the end of a golden summer. Included was a riveting Javanese wayang kulit shadow puppet show by dhalang Joko Susilo, effortlessly accompanied by the local Gamelan Padhang Moncar. The astonishingly dance-like arm movements of the puppets was a revelation of this dhalang’s expertise.

Withdrawal from Festival mania? Nah, no time for the blues. Within a day a local cinema was screening Royal Ballet’s The Winter’s Tale by Christopher Wheeldon in live telecast. A knockout. The Bernstein Project and Manon are coming hard on its heels. Isolated in New Zealand? If you say so, but I don’t.

———————–

Abigail Boyle and Alexandre Ferreira in 'The Piano, the ballet'. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2018. Photo : ©Stephen A’Court
Abigail Boyle and Alexandre Ferreira in The Piano: the ballet. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2018. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

The Royal New Zealand Ballet has just completed the national tour of The Piano: the ballet, which saw seasons in both Wellington and Auckland festivals then to eight? cities nationwide. Following inspiration of Jane Campion’s celebrated film from 1980s, the ballet is choreographed by Jiri Bubenicek, in collaboration with his brother Otto on music and design.

The work was originally commissioned for RNZB by Francesco Ventriglia, and extended into two acts from its beginnings as a one-act for Dortmund Ballet in 2014.

(very interesting to read their online promo of that production. I guess isolation works in a variety of ways)…

Specifically for Ballet Dortmund he [Bubenicek] has arranged his newest creation, inspired by Jane Campion’s Oscar-winning film The Piano. He tells the story of a mute woman living in Australia in the 19th century, at the outpost of civilization. In the midst of brutal plantation owners and disenfranchised aborigines she can only express herself through the piano. Together with the film’s Australian director, Jiří and Otto Bubeníček sought the original setting of the film to find out what art can be for people who find themselves in extreme situations—everything.

RNZB’s was a major project that has attracted nationwide accolades for the production, and rightly praising outstanding performances by Abigail Boyle and Paul Mathews, among others in alternate casts. The role of the child was a fabulous opportunity for a juvenile player, making far more dramatic demands than the usual cute child dancer cast in many a ballet you and I have seen. (see theatreview, for links to a number of reviews of the production).

Abigail Boyle and Hazel Couper in The Piano. The Ballet. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2018. Photo: © Stephen A'Court
Abigail Boyle and Hazel Couper in The Piano: the ballet. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2018. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

The mise en scene of New Zealand land and seascapes was impressive, monumental even, yet did not overpower the danced story. The music excerpts were sourced from numerous different works by numerous different composers, and some (well, me anyway) found that problematic, sensing an opportunity missed by the Company not to have commissioned a New Zealand composer to produce a through-composed score  (such as Gareth Farr? John Psathas? There are also other composers who could have managed it, and the cost would not be astronomical alongside the rights to composers, recording companies and performers that must have been required). If that were in place (and it still could be) the work could tour Europe and show the world we’re the best little ballet company on Earth. As it stands the music does not cumulatively and fully support the shift between the picaresque Act One and the emotional depths of Act Two. Some colleagues found a familiar music excerpt distracting when they heard it, wondering  (‘Oh, I know that piece so well … whatever is it?. Oh whoops, he’s fetched an axe … what’s he going to do with it now?’)

The ballet has raised other interesting issues along the way, prominently the depiction of  Maori in the choreography. Even though respected Maori choreographer, Moss Paterson, was brought in to oversee that dimension, a raft of patronising Pakeha nevertheless commented that the performance of haka should not be left to ‘European’ dancers, and that Maori dancers should themselves be included in the cast instead. One could reply that the challenge to professional dancers in the theatre is to portray ‘other’ in almost every role they take. They may not particularly identify with a repressed and violent husband, a reluctant or duplicit lover, or specially feel like a Cupid or Tinkerbell, a sylphide, or Te Rauparaha, but that’s their trade and the best of them do it with aplomb … witness Abigail Boyle, witness Paul Mathews (whose internalised haka of fury upon discovering he had been cuckolded crosses all ethnic divides) and  witness Luke Cooper, Maori dancer in RNZB.

Depiction  of Maori in RNZB repertoire over the years has not happened often. Ihi Frenzy, with Te Matarae I Orehu, back in Matz Skoog’s day as director, was one.

(The real strength of that project was to take company to the marae in Rotorua for an immersion orientation…then to tour both ensembles nationwide. By the end of that tour, RNZB dancers were indistinguishable from Maori at the haka finale). The indelible memory for me however is from Gray Veredon’s Tell me a Tale, (during Harry Haythorne’s directorate) when Warren Douglas played the Maori brother, who warned the Pakeha settler coming ashore that his sister would not be available as a girlfriend, and confirmed that in haka. End of story. We could well see that work again—Jon Trimmer, Kerry-Anne Gilberd and Kim Broad who played the lead roles are all still around and could help Gray Veredon with re-staging. Design by Kristian Fredrikson was one of his best, and the choreography suited our company extremely well.

The choreography of The Piano follows Campion’s film in great and faithful detail, including the spirited caricature of the preacher and local congregation of early settlers. I found it a good idea to watch the film again, in tandem with this ballet—and you couldn’t help but notice that the choreographed portrayal of Maori was immensely more successful than the film’s very peculiar treatment of ‘the natives’ who lay around mostly swathed in blankets and draped in mangrove trees.

Having said that, I also noted that I very much preferred the film’s shape-shifting epilogue to the ballet’s ambiguous ‘ending’. Plays in the theatre have endings. The ballet would be stronger for having one too. Then it could really take Europe by storm. There’s the wero to you.

Jennifer Shennan, 4 April 2018

Featured image: Abigail Boyle and Paul Mathews in The Piano: the ballet. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2018. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

Abigail Boyle and Paul Mathews in 'The Piano. The Ballet'. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2018. Photo: © Stephen A'Court

Dark Matters. Crystal Pite and Kidd Pivot Frankfurt RM

Dance in performance does not respond easily or well to intellectualising—except in the hands of a truly exceptional choreographer. Dark Matters, a work by Canadian choreographer Crystal Pite shown recently at the Sydney Festival, makes that quite clear.

Dark Matters is in two quite discrete sections. The work opens with a man hunched over a table making something. It turns out to be a marionette, which is then manipulated by a number of people dressed all in black who also double as stage hands moving props and set when required. The marionette eventually turns on his maker, stabs him and proceeds to demolish the set.

The second part is more ‘dancerly’ in a conventional sense, and the six dancers of Kidd Pivot are remarkable movers. They have beautifully fluid bodies and they connect with each other seamlessly. Pite is skilled too at arranging her dancers in the space of the stage to create haunting images of bodies meeting, communicating and parting. An absorbing duet for Pite and partner closes the work.

The connecting thread through the entire work is an extract from Voltaire’s Poem on the Lisbon Disaster, written in 1756, including the lines:

  • What is the verdict of the vastest mind?
    Silence: the book of fate is closed to us.
    Man is a stranger to his own research;
    He knows not whence he comes, nor whither goes. (Translation by Joseph McCabe, ca. 1911)

It is not instantly clear, however, exactly what connection the two sections have to each other, nor how they connect to Voltaire. It’s not clear later on, on reflection, either. And herein lies my issue with Dark Matters. It relies on Voltaire to move its intellectual content forward, not on the choreography. It relies in my opinion on Voltaire to connect the two sections as well. Without Voltaire it is hard to see any connection. I yearn for choreographic exposition.

While the dancers of Kidd Pivot can scarcely be faulted in terms of their mastery of movement, I also yearn to see choreography that is more than a series of movements, each one attempting to be more inventive in where parts of the body are put, more flexible and rubbery, more twisted and contorted than the one before. It’s beautiful and engaging, but what does it mean in the context of a work that purports to be ‘about’ something?

Sydney Festival publicity for Dark Matters invoked the name of William Forsythe, quoting words from the British newspaper, The Independent: Think William Forsythe with a woman’s touch, drawn more to beauty than its opposite.’ Forsythe is one of those exceptional choreographers who is able to intellectualise AND do so choreographically. I don’t think Dark Matters measures up. It did, however, send me to Voltaire.

Michelle Potter, 25 January 2010