My year, 2022

by Jennifer Shennan

My year’s list of dance highlights seems thinner than usual since a number of productions didn’t make it to curtain-up. There are no lowlights though (why would you write about lowlights?) so I’ll just call them lights.

From a screen viewing I followed with interest the choreographic venture, Journey, by Lily Bones. I remember Lily’s serene sense of line as an unusual individual dancer at both NZSchool of Dance and later in RNZBallet.  After a time performing in Europe she is now based in Sydney and is a colleague there of Martin James. Her resilience in surviving serious illness, and her determination to make dances despite zero external resources has given her a maturity and quiet confidence to choreograph themes that speak and that we can hear. No glamour or glitz, just her truth. Refreshing.  

It was a treat indeed to see again an Arts Channel broadcast of Cloud Gate Dance Theatre in Rice. Choreographed by Lin Hwai Min in 2013 (and toured to Auckland in 2017), it is talisman to their repertoire, with typically perfect proportion in shaping the cycle of rice growth and harvesting. Like all Lin’s work, there is pacing and spacing through the episodes that deliver at one level of nature at work in the titled theme, and also allegorical layers of reference to human and personal experience. The erotic sensuality in a single central duet in Rice defines the original power of creation. I own a dvd of this work but choose not to watch it alone—so how is that different from sitting alone and watching a broadcast? just a sense that there will be others out there watching ‘with me’, a feeling of being in the audience that is shaped by a performance in time. Cloud Gate’s repertoire has a strength in its Chinese legacy and vocabulary that is yet accessible to the wider world. Riveting.   

Another memorable experience on screen was the final sequence by the young boy in the studio, as epilogue to the film The White Crow, the dramatisation by Ralph Fiennes of Nureyev’s defection to the west.  Overall I was not as transported by the film as others seemed, but was certainly moved by how that final dance was allowed to speak for itself. Poignant.

Pump Dance Studio’s Roll the Dice also transformed the commitment of young performers  into something more than the sum of its parts. Infectious.

From NZSchool of Dance, Loughlan Prior’s Verse, a solo to the Folies d’Espagne played by the consummate ensemble Hesperion XXI, shone with the clarity of a beacon, both in choreography and performance. Luminous.

Joshua Douglas in Loughlan Prior’s Verse. New Zealand School of Dance, 2022. Photo: © Stephen A’Court.

Two books—by Michelle Potter on Graeme Murphy, and by Ashley Killar on John Cranko—offered insights into those prolific choreographic careers, with welcome reminders of the live performances we have seen by their companies. Revelatory.

Not from this year, but nevertheless shaped by the pandemic term we are still experiencing, the tour de force of Strasbourg 1518 by Lucy Marinkovich and Lucien Johnson, remains the total standout dance season of recent times. Their earlier work, Lobsters, also holds its place on the list of memorable works of the decade. Indelible.

It has been indeed moving to follow the heroic project by Raewyn Hill, artistic director of Co3 Contemporary Dance in Perth, where she re-staged Gloria, the celebrated work by the late Douglas Wright, New Zealand’s visionary choreographer. Immortal.

A dance lives for as long as it is remembered, and can cheat death by a measure. Russell Kerr died earlier this year, and for many people the memory of his production of Petrouchka in which he cast Douglas in the title role, also stands as an indelible milestone in this country’s dance history. Legendary.

We are looking forward to the fifth in the series of the Russell Kerr Lecture in Ballet & Related Arts, in Wellington, late February. The subject will be Patricia Rianne, celebrated dancer, teacher and choreographer whose long career spans years both in New Zealand as well as UK, Europe and Asia. A delight.

Season’s greetings and good wishes to all those who watch dance, who create dances, who perform, who write and who read about dancing. Sprezzatura.

Jennifer Shennan, 21 December 2022

Featured image: Huang Pei-hua and Tsai Ming-yuan in Rice. Cloud Gate Dance Theatre, 2021. Photo: © Liu Chen-hsiang

Gloria. Co3

Digital screening, December 2022 (filmed during a September season from the Heath Ledger Theatre, Perth)

I first saw Douglas Wright’s Gloria in 1993 in Sydney when it was performed by Sydney Dance Company. Then it was a relatively new piece from Wright with its world premiere having taken place in Auckland in 1990. In 1993 I was the Sydney reviewer for Dance Australia so I am in the fortunate position of being able to look back at my reactions to that early production. In fact, a copy of that review appears on this website at this link.

The features of Gloria that thrilled me in 1993 are also powerful features of the Co3 production —its life affirming message, the witty choreography, the unusual and challenging connection (or not) between music and dance, and in general the vigour and vitality of the work. But on this occasion I saw it as a streamed event and, generously from Co3, the Perth-based contemporary company led by Raewyn Hill, I was able to watch it over a 48 hour period. This meant that I had time to go back and look more closely at certain sections. While every section had its highlights, two sections and one particular moment stood out for me.

The one particular moment came at the end of the first movement of Vivaldi’s Gloria, to which the work is danced. The dancers began with quite slow, unison movement that turned into energetic leaps, turns and fast running down the diagonal. As the dancers left the stage, and as the first movement was coming to an end, a single male dancer, Sean MacDonald whose connections with Gloria go back to a 1997 production, was left alone on the stage. His final jump ended with him lying on his back, legs and arms moving slowly as if he was running in that prone position. He rolled over, slowly stood up, and lifted his arms to the front, palms facing upwards. The lights faded but the music continued and the power of MacDonald’s final, simple movement was breathtaking.

Another section that moved me immensely was performed to the ‘Domine Deus’ section, sung (according to the credits that ended the stream) by soprano Sabra Poole Johnson from St George’s Cathedral Consort, the group that provided the vocals for the Vivaldi score. This section began with a group of five dancers moving slowly in a sculptural formation but eventually separating with four sliding off leaving one dancer (Francesca Fenton I believe) alone. She began her solo on the floor but slowly assumed a standing position and, in so doing, seemed to be exploring her physical existence before she broke into a waltz-like dance full of grace and fluidity. Like MacDonald before her, as her dance came to and end she lifted her arms, stretching them forward with palms facing upwards as if to announce she had discovered her identity, her existence, herself.

I also enjoyed the section danced to the movement ‘Et in terra pax’. It featured Claudia Alessi who had danced in Gloria in 1991 when it was staged for the Perth Festival by Chrissie Parrott. What made this section so appealing to me was the sculptural qualities of the choreography, which in fact were noticeable throughout the work, although perhaps not to the same extent as in ‘Et in terra pax’.

There were of course many other moments that continue to resonate: the joyous quality of the dance to ‘Laudamus Te’ and the duet between two male dancers (Sean MacDonald and Scott Galbraith I think) in which we witnessed the changing nature of human relationships. Also great to watch were those moments when a dancer was held and swung back and forth by two other dancers as others ran underneath and around the activity. But I guess I go back to my original review for Dance Australia and confirm more than anything that Wright’s Gloria is life-affirming whatever one might think of specific sections. Wright uses dance to convey a message about humanity. Simple but astounding.

I was lucky to be able to keep going back to watch sections of Gloria but I am sure I missed a lot by not seeing it live, especially as the music was played live by a chamber group from the West Australian Symphony Orchestra and sung live by the St George’s Cathedral Consort, with the whole conducted by Dr Joseph Nolan. Nevertheless, the sound quality of the streamed version was just beautiful and I absolutely loved being immersed in this production from Co3 of Douglas Wright’s spectacular Gloria.

Michelle Potter, 25 December 2022

Featured image: Scene from Gloria. Co3, Perth, 2022. Photo: © Shotweiler Photography

At the time of writing, the streamed Gloria is still available to watch for the small price of AUD 19. The offer is available until mid-January. See ‘Watch at home’ at this link.

Dance diary. August 2022

  • Cranko. The Man and his Choreography. A new book

A new book, Cranko. The Man and his Choreography by Ashley Killar is due to be released in London next month. Killar, who danced extensively with Stuttgart Ballet when John Cranko was the company’s artistic director, presents a detailed and extensively researched analysis of the life and career of Cranko, going right back to his childhood in South Africa. The book will also have an Australian launch in December, coinciding with the production of Cranko’s Romeo and Juliet as part of the Australian Ballet’s Sydney season. At present the book can be pre-ordered from Book Depository or from the British publisher at this link. In Australia it will initially be available through Bloch Dance stores.

Read more about the book at this link, where you’ll find some unexpected items, including recipes (and see above an image of Cranko as chef).

  • Douglas Wright’s Gloria

The latest news from CO3, the Perth-based contemporary company led by Raewyn Hill, is that the company will be staging Douglas Wright’s Gloria in September.

Douglas Wright (centre) performing in his Gloria in 1990. Photo: © Patrick Reynolds

Here is what Jennifer Shennan wrote about Gloria in 2004, which she updated for Raewyn Hill just recently:

Gloria—by Douglas Wright & Antonio Vivaldi

To Vivaldi’s exuberant music, Douglas Wright made Gloria, the best dance ever choreographed in New Zealand. It affirms and celebrates life as it is on Earth. Dancers clad in gold silk launch themselves into the air and seem to stay there, flying over each other in twists and plaits, bodies somehow freed from gravity, aiming for the stars, hitting the sun.

Douglas was commissioned by his friend Helen Aldridge to choreograph a work commemorating the life of her daughter, and also his friend, Deirdre Mummery, who had died of an accidental drug overdose.

Helen did not know what might result—a lament? an elegy? commiseration? She could scarcely have imagined the ecstasy and expression of life’s force as these exquisite dancers walk then run, lean then leap, lift then fall, roll then rise, turn then hold, shimmer then fly.

The physical stamina required is phenomenal but not for a moment do we sense any struggle. The choreography is woven of exquisite lines and loops, allowing the dancers to embrace every baroque quaver in the light and shade of Vivaldi’s Gloria. It affirms and celebrates life as it is in Heaven, where Deirdre and Douglas now live.

Written by Jennifer Shennan in 2004, for BEST—a New Zealand compendium [AWA Press 2004]; reworked for Raewyn Hill, August 2022

My review from 1993, when Gloria was staged by Sydney Dance Company along with Graeme Murphy’s Protecting Veil, is at this link. See also the tag Douglas Wright for more about Wright’s work as it appears on this website.

Further information about the CO3 staging is available on the company’s website.

  • News from James Batchelor

Short Cuts to Familiar Places, James Batchelor’s latest work, will receive its world premiere in Düsseldorf, Germany, in October. The work investigates the concept of ‘body lineage’ and, in his media release, Batchelor describes it as exploring ‘the idea of the body as a site of inscription, a morphing map or text that is continuously re-drawn and re-written’.

Batchelor has been researching the background for this work for a year or so now and he has given particular focus to the work of his teacher at Canberra’s QL2, Ruth Osborne, and her connections through her own teacher, Margaret Chapple. Chappie, as she was familiarly known, was a student of and dancer with Gertrud Bodenwieser and, after Bodenwieser’s death, directed (with Keith Bain) the Bodenwieser Dance Centre in Sydney. Batchelor has also worked with, and considered the heritage of others with connections to Bodenwieser including Eileen Kramer and Carol Brown.

James Batchelor in a study for Short Cuts to Familiar Places. Photo: © Morgan Hickinbotham

With luck Short Cuts to Familiar Places will eventually be shown in Australia. Stay tuned.

Production credits (from the media release):
CHOREOGRAPHY, PERFORMANCE James Batchelor DRAMATURGY, PRODUCTION Bek Berger COMPOSITION Morgan Hickinbotham PERFORMANCE Chloe Chignell LIGHT DESIGN Vinny Jones COSTUME DESIGN Juliane König CHOREOGRAPHIC CONSULTATION Ruth Osborne, Eileen Kramer, Carol Brown RESEARCH CONSULTATION Michelle Potter

  • The end of an era?

It was something of a shock to learn that the world renown dance magazine Dancing Times will publish its very last issue next month, September 2022. The London-based magazine with an international reach was established in 1910 when its predecessor, a house magazine of the Cavendish Rooms, was bought by founding Dancing Times editor P. J. S. Richardson. Since then it has had other editors with the present holder of the position being Jonathan Gray. Current production editor of the magazine, Simon Turner, writes:

Sadly, since 2020, the tremendous economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic, as well as the rapid increase in costs over the past year, means that the magazine is no longer financially viable in its current form.

The news has shocked the international dance world of course and we have to hope that the same fate does not occur with Dance Australia, which already has reduced its schedule from a print version every two months to one every three months.

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But on different although related issue, dance reviews and articles in print outlets in Australia (and elsewhere?), especially those by knowledgeable contributors, seem to be slowly disappearing. Another end to an era? I was struck by a recent notification from the Sydney Opera House of an event due to take place in September called ‘How do you solve a problem like the media?’ Despite the clear allusion in the title to a well-known song and by extension to the arts, this event appears to be focusing on politics, with which I have no issues of course. But the opening remark in the advertisement for the occasion, ‘The media has gone through a huge upheaval in recent decades. Now we’re starting to see the effects …’, applies equally to the arts, and to dance in particular, which scarcely ever gets an informed and in depth mention, even in online outlets associated with newspapers.

  • Liz Lea at the Edinburgh Fringe

As mentioned in the July dance diary, Liz Lea’s RED was set to be part of this year’s Edinburgh Fringe and RED took the stage from 16-28 August. Read Helen Musa’s review of the Edinburgh show for Canberra City News at this link. And in the light of my comments above re the disappearance of the arts from print outlets, we are lucky in Canberra that City News, which has a weekly print edition as well as an online presence, still sees fit to carry news and reviews about the arts, including dance.

  • Glimpses of Graeme. Another new book

My next book is currently being designed, although a release date is not yet available. Called Glimpses of Graeme. Reflections on the work of Graeme Murphy, it consists of a selection of reviews and articles I have written about Murphy and his works. Rather than gathering the pieces together chronologically, as is often the case with such collections, I have arranged them in chapters that reflect themes that I believe characterise Murphy’s oeuvre. More later.

Michelle Potter, 31 August 2022

Featured image: The chair Cranko used for rehearsals in Stuttgart. From Ashley Killar’s website regarding his book.

Douglas Wright—the last dance. Tempo Dance Festival Online video viewing

15–19 July 2020
Reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

Auld Lang Syne

Several repeat viewings of this enigmatic little dance have reminded me of auld acquaintance —never to be forgotten, but still very good to have it brought to mind. I see it as Douglas’s conversation with the Vitruvian Man by Leonardo da Vinci. He moves but does not locomote. He stays within his kinesphere. 

The first minute is a spoken explanation from Douglas of the work’s gestation—’The images came to me. I told them to go away but they wouldn’t go away, they stayed like a cat scratching its paw on the door to be let in. I found a theme—one we all know about—the search for ecstasy—be that chocolate éclair, heroin rush, or orgasm. That quest is part of everyone’s life. The images grew into the work The Kiss Inside.’

Douglas stands his ground and lets his gestures speak. You can ‘hear’ as his hands sign and pray and plea, let him rest his cheek a little then wake him up. His arms spread like a tree branch, fold like a bird wing, or arc up and over like those of an angel. He signs himself with a cross, touches his fingertip to the pulse points in his throat or face, his breast or groin. He reaches down to walk his hands over the floor in front of him, to check the ground, terra firma, terra incognito. There’s driving pulse in the music by Naftuke Brandwein—Escorting the Bride and Groom Home.

The dance is first shown in Douglas’ home, in his jeans and boots, on the living room carpet, in front of his bookshelf, an art piece on the wall, a statue of a female saint adjacent. The year is 2014. The dance ends with the right arm forward, hand upwards, palm facing us, in a gesture that says ‘Wait’ or ‘Stop’. In Part Two of the film, Douglas dances on stage, within the choreography The Kiss Inside.  (Sky City, Auckland, 2015)

Douglas Wright in his solo from The Kiss Inside, 2015. Photo: © Pippa Samaya

A giant tree branch is suspended overhead. Trees exist both above and below ground. Douglas always was a dendrophile, so there are echoes for us of his first choreography for RNZBallet, decades ago, The Decay of Lying—and of the later works, A Far Cry and Forever.

Here Douglas walks on stage, bare foot, dressed in white pyjama. A uniformed nurse, on standby, watches him closely. She’ll be his first responder. His final gesture has re-shaped to become a right arm raised high, with the fist declaring ‘I hereby pledge. This is my truth.’  Douglas then walks to exit stage left.

(Update of 19 July 2020)

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Douglas Wright, New Zealand’s uniquely meteoric dancer, choreographer, writer, artist, died in late 2018. His last choreography, a short solo, M_Nod, was reviewed in On Dancing. His last full-length work, The Kiss Inside, was also reviewed here.

Douglas’ close colleague, rehearsal director and now choreographic executor, Megan Adams, has produced an unusual and poignant video document which traces the solo Douglas choreographed for himself within The Kiss Inside, but which he was only able to dance at some performances, when his health and stamina permitted.

Tempo Dance Festival, normally an annual live season in Auckland, has become a digital season this year due to Covid restrictions. Megan’s film is being screened this week, until Sunday.

From TDF website: It is an absolute honour to be hosting Douglas Wright’s The Kiss Inside (solo) this week on the Tempo digital stage. Thank you to Megan Adams for bringing this film together and allowing us to share such rare and beautiful footage. 

Here’s what Megan has to say about the work:

The Kiss Inside (2015) was the last time Douglas Wright performed on stage. He made an exquisite solo which sadly, due to sickness, he was unable to perform at every venue, so many people missed the opportunity to see him dance. In fact, Douglas didn’t advertise that he was performing, so many people didn’t even know that he had choreographed a solo for himself in this work. This solo was made over many weeks in his lounge in Mount Albert, Auckland. He would make choreographic material and I would visit him every week and he would show me what he had made, tell me where he thought it would go and we’d listened to music he was considering. We would share choreographic ideas and scrutinise every detail of the movement. Afterwards we would drink tea, talk about life and laugh. I occasionally videoed the sessions and the rehearsal footage in the film is of the first time that Douglas performed the entire dance from start to finish. I love the intimacy of the footage, we can hear him breathe and sigh and feel his vulnerability as he finds his way through such an intricate solo for the first time. What an absolute privilege it is to witness visionary artist Douglas Wright rehearsing at home, in his jeans and boots, in front of his favourite chair and the statue of a saint.

Douglas Wright’s The Kiss Inside (solo) will be up on the Tempo website from the 15–19 of July. 

There are motifs in this dance we recognise and remember from other work by Douglas (especially Elegy)—a kind of urgent semaphore of gesture, a celestial signing, in which we are being told things. This is before or beyond language—dance typically has no script anyway—but Douglas always had an urgent need to communicate—and indeed used dance, also visual art of found sculpture, and drawing—plus a considerable body of writing, to do just that.

Body of work. Work of the body. How he savoured language and its parallel existence alongside movement to say what he thought we should know.

This ascetic dance catches death by the tail and cheats it by 9 minutes. You can say a lot in 9 minutes if that’s all the time you’ve got. It’s how long it took me to write this review.

Don’t miss the dance.

Jennifer Shennan, 16 July 2020

Featured image: Douglas Wright rehearsing his solo from The Kiss Inside, 2014.

Dancers of Royal New Zealand Ballet in 'Passchendaele', 2015. Photo: Evan Li

Anzac Day 2020. Aotearoa New Zealand

by Jennifer Shennan

This year, for the first time in over 100 years, all public gatherings to mark Anzac Day were cancelled, due to the lockdown imposed as part of the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic: an enemy if ever there was one, not war between nations this time but a hope that all countries might join a common fight.

Traditionally Anzac Day commemorations shape up as a kind of countrywide choreography, starting with a Dawn Parade in every city, town, village or marae—a bugle, a salute, a karakia, a march, a haka, a hymn, a prayer, a poem—‘They shall grow not old’—a minute’s silence and The Last Post

There are church services, radio and television broadcasts, concerts, gatherings and wakes throughout the day to remember sacrifice—the war dead and wounded, refugees and fugitives, and the whole sad sorry waste of it all. It is a statutory public holiday, restaurants, shops, schools and theatres are closed, normal life is on hold for a day, then it’s back to busy business. But ‘normal life’ has been on hold these many weeks now. So how was this Anzac Day different from other years?

Some today stood alone at the roadside in front of their home, before dawn at 6am, holding a candle perhaps, and a transistor radio to hear the national broadcast, or watched television coverage of the Prime Minister standing at her gate. Many families had made sculptures or graphics of poppies to display in their gardens. Some of the 1000s of teddy bears in house windows to cheer passersby these past weeks were today wearing poppies too. Many of us will have been mindful of the shocking statistic that in two months of the 1918 influenza pandemic more New Zealanders died than had been killed during the whole of World War I.

We’ve grown so accustomed to the commercialisation of Christmas and to a degree Easter, surrounded as we are by tsunamis of merchandise ‘to show we care’. Today was differently focused. Some folk had developed their own ideas and found resources to express an experience, share a thought, address a concern, tell a story, to give a voice to hope. Isn’t that what art does? Mere entertainment has to me never seemed sufficient, either in peace or wartime.

Numerous dance companies worldwide, stymied by the current pandemic and obliged to cancel many performances and productions, have in past weeks moved to make selected works from their repertoire available online. The Royal New Zealand Ballet have already screened video of Loughlan Prior’s Hansel & Gretel, Liam Scarlett’s  A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Christopher Hampson’s Cinderella. For today their program from 2015, Salute, was aired, comprising  two works—Andrew Simmons’ Dear Horizon and Neil Ieremia’s Passchendaele. My review of the Company’s season in 2015 is at this link.

Dancers of Royal New Zealand Ballet in 'Dear Horizon', 2015. Photo: Ellie Richards
Dancers of Royal New Zealand Ballet in Dear Horizon, 2015. Photo: © Ellie Richards

What a pity this broadcast could not have included Jiri Kylian’s masterwork, Soldatenmis/Soldiers’ Mass, to Martinu, from the same program—(prohibitive fees or copyright issues perhaps?) since it was a work that suited the Company’s dancers of that time to the drumbeat of their hearts and ours. Laura Saxon Jones, sole female performing alongside all the male dancers of the Company, will never be forgotten.    

Other outstanding choreographies  with a war, or anti-war theme, include Jose Limon’s noble Missa Brevis, dedicated to the spirit of Polish resistance; Young Men, Ivan Perez’ choreography startlingly performed by Ballet Boyz; and of course the legendary work Der grüne Tisch/The Green Table, by Kurt Jooss, a work I used to dream might one day be performed by RNZB, so well it would have suited them until just a few years ago. I remain grateful to have seen the Joffrey Ballet’s  authoritative performances however, and another unforgettable production in which the late Pina Bausch played The Old Woman—a performance of such chiselled beauty stays with one for life, as though she had stepped from a painting by Modigliani, or Munch, or a figure from the mediaeval Danse Macabre of Lübeck Cathedral.   

(I’m often reminded of the very fine study by William McNeill, Harvard historian, who in his book Keeping Together in Time, considers how coordinated rhythmic movement, and the shared feelings it evokes, has been a powerful force in holding human groups together—how armies of the world, train and march and move—be that in quick, slow, double or dead march, the goose step, the North Koreans’ grand battement smash, or the soldiers’ antics at the Pakistan-Indian border).

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Both RNZB works, Simmons’ Dear Horizon and Ieremia’s Passchendaele, retain all the impact and power of their first staging, with the New Zealand Army Band playing to precise perfection, for the former the music of Gareth Farr, for the latter the composition by Dwayne Bloomfield. The contained emotion of the music, particularly in cello and brass solos, stops time.   

Ieremia’s early career, as for so many of the dancers who worked with Douglas Wright, absorbed much influence from the driven and airborne choreography  of that master dance-maker. An indelible image that remains with me is from Wright’s The Kiss Inside—a scene in which a gorilla-suited figure passes a tray of cut oranges around a group of boys (a team of rugby players, refreshments at half time?). Soon, just a little older, the same young men are in a faraway other place, a different game, writhing on the ground, in an agony of wounds, bleating like sheep. The gorilla passes a microphone among them to record their messages for relaying home. The bleating becomes recognisable as a cry of pathos, ‘Mummy, Mummy’ from one dying soldier after another. Says it all really.  

Jennifer Shennan, 25 April 2020

Featured image: Dancers of Royal New Zealand Ballet in Passchendaele, 2015. Photo: © Evan Li

Dancers of Royal New Zealand Ballet in 'Passchendaele', 2015. Photo: Evan Li

The Russell Kerr Lecture, February 2020

by Jennifer Shennan

In 2018, in Wellington, an annual series named the Russell Kerr Lecture in Ballet & Related Arts was established to honour the celebrated and loved father figure of ballet in New Zealand. [The series’ title was borrowed from the Lincoln Kirstein lecture in Ballet & Related Arts annually offered at New York University. We were particularly inspired by their 2016 presentation by Ian Bostridge on Song & Dance ... it’s online, and well worth listening to].

Russell Kerr rehearsing 'Swan Lake'. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 1997. Photo: © Maarten Holl
Russell Kerr rehearsing Swan Lake. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 1997. Photo: © Maarten Holl

In 2018 our inaugural lecture was delivered by Dr Michelle Potter, dance historian and writer from Canberra, who gave an insightful profile of the life and work of costume and set-designer Kristian Fredrikson, local Wellington boy made good, with a prolific career both in New Zealand and Australia. (The book resulting from Michelle’s many years of research is to be published by Melbourne Books, in July/August 2020).

Each of our sessions opens with a cameo dance performance which in 2018 was Loughlan Prior’s Lark, a tightly-stitched witty duet, a bespoke choreography for Jon Trimmer (longstanding colleague of Fredrikson) and William Fitzgerald—the older dancer savouring decades of memories and moves, the younger dancer questing to catch them. Piano accompaniment (Glinka, Rachmaninoff, Borodin ) was by Dr Hamish Robb, and Beth Chen, members of staff at Te Koki/New Zealand School of Music, which is the venue  for the event. 

In 2019, Dr Ian Lochhead’s account of the Ballets Russes visits to Australia and New Zealand in 1937 and 1939, opened with the poignant Prelude from Les Sylphides danced by Taylor-Rose Frisby from New Zealand School of Dance—and The Swan by Abigail Boyle, until recently leading artist with Royal New Zealand Ballet. Accompaniment was by Hamish Robb, piano, and Inbal Megiddo, cellist. Ian is planning to publish a longer article to be developed from his script. 

On 9 February 2020, I delivered the third lecture: Douglas Wright—dance-maker, time-keeper, meteor. Tracing metaphors in the work of dancer, choreographer, writer Douglas Wright, 1956–2018.

The opening dance performed was a menuet danced by Anne Rowse and Keith McEwing, to menuets 1 & 2 from the Partita no.1, J. S. Bach, played by Hamish Robb. The lecture began with my story of an encounter with Wright:

Douglas Wright pressed me to show him how the technique and music of baroque dance worked, sensing it as a seeding ground for much of ballet’s vocabulary. His dance intelligence and curiosity were like nothing I’ve ever encountered, so we explored the different accents and interactions that give character to a beguiling menuet, cheerful bourrée, courageous chaconne, flirtatious gavotte, madcap passepied, saucy gigue, majestic courante, tender sarabande.

Douglas liked their effects of distilled emotion, so to remember that, and him, the session opened with a menuet. Typically composed in pairs, the first, major, the second, minor, then back to the major, menuets are in triple-time, stepped in counter-rhythm to the music (2 + 4 against 3 + 3), with further asymmetry between phrase lengths. A subtle pull between movement and music—we want to see resolved, to see how two things can become one.

The handhold central to its ‘narrative’—right, then left, then both—signals a greeting, a conversation, a friendship. We know how to dance a menuet thanks to notation by English dancing master Kellom Tomlinson. The earliest European dance resource in New Zealand is a 300 year old ms. workbook by the same Tomlinson, gifted to the Alexander Turnbull Library through the generosity of the Trimmer family.

Our plan was that Jon Trimmer would dance with Anne Rowse, but once rehearsing, it became clear that Jon’s long-standing ankle injury would prevent him from enjoying the experience. The initial injury from years back didn’t stop him dancing then but he has carried it ever since, a price that dancers often pay. Keith McEwing stepped up to take Anne’s hand on the upbeat, because passing the baton is what dancers do.   

In the following lecture I read a number of excerpts from Douglas’ writings, what he called ‘autobiographical fiction’, Ghost Dance (Penguin 2004) and Terra Incognito (Penguin 2006), and from his two volumes of poems, published by Steele Roberts, Laughing Mirror and Cactusfear. Video illustrations were sourced from the documentary Haunting Douglas, made by Leanne Pooley in 2003. The film is an award-winning profile of the work and life of arguably New Zealand’s leading performer and dance-maker, a legend in his lifetime whose astonishingly prolific output will be remembered for decades to come. Haunting Douglas is available on Vimeo, or for purchase from Spasifik Films, and is highly recommended viewing.

Planning is already under way for the next lecture in the series which will be held on Sunday 10 February 2021, with details of topic and presenter to be confirmed.

Jennifer Shennan, 19 February 2020

Featured image: Portrait of Russell Kerr, 2007

Rench Soriano in 'Five Variations on a Theme'. New Zealand School of Dance, 2019. Photo © Stephen A'Court

New Zealand School of Dance Graduation Season, 2019

20-30 November 2019. Te Whaea Theatre, Wellington
reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

NZSD’s Graduation season always displays the talent and enthusiasm of graduating dancers who, after three years’ training, are poised to venture forth and seek ways to make a professional career. Commitment and courage are needed in equal measure. Selected first and second year students are included in the casting, which is credit to them and their tutors since no dancer is less than fully prepared and present.

This year’s season combines classical ballet and contemporary dance works, eight in all, on the same program. (Last year’s had alternate nights for classical and contemporary works). Either formula offers the chance for us to consider how the two dance lineages as taught in the School, contrast with, or relate to, each other in the professional dance world—in technique, movement vocabulary, choreographic themes, aesthetic choices, relationship to music.

While many aspects of each are distinct, dances labelled ‘classical’ or ‘contemporary’ are not the opposites of each other. My take is that it’s the individual choreographer who places a work where it lies on the spectrum. If it’s good, then dance is the winner on the night. Memories of a masterpiece by Jiří Kylián in a  recent Grad. program combined performers from both streams of training and demonstrated that truth (as also did a recent film viewing of Douglas Wright’s masterpiece from Royal New Zealand Ballet repertoire, rose and fell—truly superb contemporary choreography being performed by ballet dancers. QED.)

O body swayed to music, o brightening glance,
how can we know the dancer from the dance?    
William Butler Yeats

The performance opens with Concerto Barocco by George Balanchine, to the Double Violin concerto by Bach. The clarity of music is matched in dance line, alignment and groupings. It is luminous, timeless, time less, time more.

My verses cannot comment
on your immortal moment or tell you what you mean;
only Balanchine
has the razor edge and knows that art of language         
Robert Lowell

Velociraptor, by Scott Ewen, to music by Kangding Ray, is a premiere. The opening section is swift and driven. Among the cast of nine, we notice a wrist bandage on one dancer. Have the rehearsals come at a cost? We notice another. Soon the bandages unravel and become strings that tie and bind, forming mesmerizing tensions between groupings, and becoming cats’ cradles for bodies lifted horizontally.

Mind is music…
Invisible dancer who dances quicksilver vision
 
James Schevill

Courtney Lim and Tessa Redman in Velociraptor. New Zealand School of Dance, 2019. Photo © Stephen A’Court

Not Odd Human, by Sam Coren, to music by Richard Lester, recently premiered at Tempo Dance Festival. It’s a manic mediaeval mayhem, its sardonic humour propelling characters from long ago and faraway into our midst. Mad Joan and Dull Grethe are there, Joan of Arc, Lady Godiva perhaps? You could credit Breugel with its design. 

Such rollicking measures, prance as they dance
In Breugel’s great picture, the Kermess.
William Carlos Williams

Five Variations on a Theme, by David Fernandez, to a Bach Violin Concerto, is a solo danced by Rench Soriano. Everything about this phenomenally gifted dancer, a second year student, combines precision with poetry, and is a joy to witness. His dancing is redolent of his tutor Qi Huan, who has rehearsed him in this work. For many years Huan was the leading dancer in Royal New Zealand Ballet, where his peerless command of technique gave him the expressive freedom that dance at its soaring best can offer. Before him, Ou Lu, before him Martin James, before him Jon Trimmer, before him Poul Gnatt. Soriano is clearly profiting from his teacher and this pedigree heritage, and will make a fine career for himself.

The dancer dances. The dance does not dance…
The saved world dances, and the dance dances.     
Jacques Audiberti

 Re:Structure, by Ross McCormack, to music by Jason Wright, was another premiere work. A 5 metre long pole is the central prop around which the cast of 8 dancers  manipulate and explore its positioning. One dancer vertically atop the pole makes a striking image to which you could supply your own narrative, but there is deliberately no denouement to the work overall.

Your props had always been important:…
Things without a name you fell upon

Or through …
Richard Howard

Round of Angels, by Gerald Arpino, from 1983, to music of Mahler, has a cast of six males, then joined by a single female. As a couple, Brittany-Jayde Duwner and Jordan Lennon dance with secure command and lyrical expression, becoming the central tender core  of the work.

I said that she had danced heart’s truth 
W.B Yeats

Brittany-Jayde Duwner and Jordan Lennon in Round of Angels. New Zealand School of Dance, 2019. Photo © Stephen A’Court

Handel—A Celebration by Helgi Tomasson, to excerpts by Handel, has a large cast of spirited movers who rise to the spirit of the celebratory music. Rehearsed by Christine Gunn and Nadine Tyson, the staging had enthusiasm and style in equal and full measure.               

Dancer: O you translation
Of all transiency into action, how you made it clear!
And the whirl of the finish, that tree of motion,
Didn’t it wholly take in the hard-won year
Rainer Maria Rilke

Carnival.4, by Raewyn Hill, was anything but carnivalesque in its mood. Its effect was percussive, tight, driven, insistent, urgent, pulsing. It evoked youth in support of each other, demanding to be listened to.

What is the hardest task of Art?
To clear the ground and make a start …
To tell the tale…
That when the millions want the few
Those can make Heaven here and do.
John Masefield

New Zealand School of Dance Contemporary Students in Carnivale.4, 2019. Photo © Stephen A’Court

Nothing about dancing is easy—it’s just meant to look that way, and the quality of sprezzatura, nonchalance, while delivering virtuosic choreography is the one you’d aspire to. The most outstanding dancer of the evening is for me the personification of that gift of grace, and will surely make the world a better place wherever he dances. We all need to consider and study that quality, and pray for a bit of it in our lives, dancing and all the rest.

Come to the edge.
We might fall.
 Come to the edge.
It’s too high!
Come to the edge.
And they came,
and he pushed,
And they flew.
Christopher Logue

Jennifer Shennan, 22 November 2019

Featured image: Rench Soriano in Five Variations on a Theme. New Zealand School of Dance, 2019. Photo © Stephen A’Court

Rench Soriano in 'Five Variations on a Theme'. New Zealand School of Dance, 2019. 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

Douglas Wright, 2016. Photo: © John Savage

Douglas Wright (1956–2018)

Douglas James Wright, dreamer of dances
by Jennifer Shennan

Douglas Wright, dancer, choreographer, writer, poet, visual artist, has died at the age of 62.

An obituary is normally about the deceased, but I begin with my declaration of conflict of interest (actually, deeply shared interest)—namely, that Douglas is the single most important artist in my life. His fearless vision through an astonishingly prolific artistic output moved us beyond comfort, beyond normalcy, beyond the already known. Not fantasy, not surrealism, not escapism, but expressionist art of the highest order, framed with wit—dark, caustic, incorrigible, ironic and hilarious by turns, and teeming with alternative perceptions of the natural and social givens. As a New Zealand artist across five genres, Douglas Wright remains a phenomenon without peer.

The Solomon Islands term for a choreographer translates as ‘dreamer of dances’. That epithet pleased Douglas since he often referenced Morpheus, god of dreams, son of Hypnos, god of sleep. His last dance, commissioned by art gallery director Michael Lett, was exquisitely performed by Sean MacDonald at Tempo Dance Festival in October, with final rehearsals conducted at the hospice. Titled M_Nod, with Morpheus in mind, it incorporated a James Joyce reading from Finnegan’s Wake, an aesthetic that suited Douglas well. The work was dedicated to the late Sue Paterson, Douglas’ long-standing colleague and friend.

In 1998 Douglas was made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit, and in 2000 a Laureate of The Arts Foundation. His company, Douglas Wright and Dancers, only ever received project-based funding from the Arts Council and there can be no easy way to analyse why his phenomenal talent was not better supported and continuously facilitated across the decades. Permanent funding of company management and adequate resources to tour his work internationally were what he wanted and deserved, but they were never forthcoming. In that, we let down both him and ourselves.

Now that Douglas is safely silenced, the tributes are flowing in torrents. Our best honour to him however is to remember his work, and lucky we are that he has written about dance, the most ephemeral of the arts, in depth and detail. The outstanding video documentary Haunting Douglas by Leanne Pooley (Spacific Films) is the finest portrait of a dance artist anywhere.

A consummate man of the theatre, the words Douglas loathed most were ‘bland’ and ‘boring’. His constant attention was to our experiences—the public, the personal and the private. If it had happened, or been thought or dreamt, then spit it out, say it loud, choreograph it, write it, draw it, sculpt it, tell it as it is. If some audiences or critics took offence, at least they were not bored. It was proof they were engaged. An indelible image remains—from Black Milk—when Three Graces, dressed in nurses’ uniforms, brought forward a tray of medical syringes then knelt to inject the stage floor, presumably a local anaesthetic to help us through what was to follow.

Douglas certainly had a gift for naming his dances—listen to them—Now is the Hour, Passion Play, How on Earth, As It Is, Buried Venus, Inland, Forever, Black Milk, Rapt, The Kiss Inside. He did not need tertiary education to lead him to literature, but as a school boy simply raided the library. His voracious reading habits included an early affinity with the writings of Janet Frame. His memoir, Ghost Dance, (Penguin, 2004, awarded the Montana prize for Best First Book) makes clear the abiding importance of his relationship with artist Malcolm Ross. (David Eggleton’s 2004 review for The Listener of Ghost Dance is definitive).

Douglas grew up in rural New Zealand, in Tuakau. The place name means tu = to stand, akau = river bank. You get a good view of a river when you stand on its bank. You get a good view of Douglas Wright through Pooley’s documentary, about his childhood intrigue at the woman dancing in a white dress on the porch of the neighbouring house in moonlight (‘…perhaps she was a moth who laid her eggs in me’) and fascination with his grandmother taking him to Catholic Mass (later referenced in Halo, for Royal New Zealand Ballet).

To his father’s disgust, rugby held no interest for the child but Douglas’ childhood talent for gymnastics brought him junior champion status and photos reveal a strength, grace and line that would eventually lead him to dance. The boy travelled alone from Tuakau to Auckland for regular training sessions, which led into the darkness of predatory sexual abuse in bus stations as bad as anything you’ve imagined. He was robbed of his childhood and the scars lasted for life, yet he could later communicate the complexity of the experiences without letting it destroy him. One poem, in his volume CactusFear (Steele Roberts, 2011) tells us about it, if you can get through it without crying.

After leaving school there was a dramatic drug career, eventually supplanted by his dance career, initially with Auckland-based Limbs Dance Company (1980–1983). Teacher Dorothea Ashbridge imparted the ballet technique that helped Douglas ‘map my body … give names and directions to movements my body already knew’. He spent 1983–1987 with Paul Taylor Dance Company in New York, a spectacular career, with performances and choreography (Hey Paris, Faun Variations) still remembered decades later by New Yorkers who probably see six dance performances every week.

Douglas’ astonishing strength combined with lyricism can be seen in DV8’s talisman and horrifyingly brilliant work by Lloyd Newson, Dead Dreams of Monochrome Men, in 1988 (available on dvd). Back in New Zealand Douglas’ grief at losing friends to Aids is choreographed into Elegy, 1992. Although not the death sentence it once signaled, Douglas’ own HIV diagnosis was encompassed in choreographies Forever and Ore.

In 1993 Russell Kerr cast Douglas in the title role of his production of Petrouchka for Royal New Zealand Ballet, described in Royal New Zealand Ballet at Sixty (VUP, 2013). His insights into performing that celebrated role, created by Nijinsky, are rare, if not unique, in the annals of ballet history. Douglas wrote what Nijinksy was unable to.

Douglas Wright as Petrouchka 1993, Royal New Zealand Ballet. Photo: © Photo Guy Robinson
Douglas Wright as Petrouchka 1993, Royal New Zealand Ballet. Photo: © Photo Guy Robinson

Three works commissioned by Royal New Zealand Ballet, The Decay of Lying (1992), Rose and Fell, (1997) and Halo (2000) are all remembered by the dancers. Critics were challenged, as critics often are, but Douglas remained disappointed that the company never re-staged any of those works.

Douglas’ mercurial and multi-faceted personality was reflected in his works—by turns ecstatic (Gloria, A Far Cry); melancholic (Terra Incognito, Black Milk); grief-stricken (Elegy, Rose & Fell); satirical (The Decay of Lying); gender-shifting (Hey Paris, Forever); political (Black Milk); spiritual (Rapt, The Kiss Inside). We sense that whatever happened to him surfaced somewhere in one of his choreographies, but were never just about himself. He staged themes that may have shocked, or saddened, but they rang with truth.

Douglas released the artistry in many dancers and they know who they are. Lisa Densem (in the astonishing photo montage by Peter Molloy on the cover of the Pooley documentary) told me, ‘After you’ve worked with Douglas you have had more than a dance experience. He lets you become his friend.’

Several dancers became his muses: Debbie McCulloch with whom he shared an early close rapport; the enigmatic ‘goddess-like’ Kilda Northcott; Sarah Jayne Howard, a fiery furnace of a performer. Alex Leonhartsberger danced like Douglas-come-again, then Sean MacDonald became the final trusted courier of Douglas’ dream visions. Repertoire has been expertly staged in recent years by rehearsal director, Megan Adams.

There were only the briefest tours taking Douglas’ works abroad, yet, had that been responsibly managed and financed, he would have earned an international reputation as the Pina Bausch of the Southern Hemisphere. Nought to be done about that now but live with it. At least his treasures are in Nga Taonga Film & Sound Archive, in art galleries, on bookshelves, and in the Alexander Turnbull Library.

Douglas once asked me how baroque dance works—not that he wanted to perform one, just to understand how people danced in different times and places, so I showed him. He instantly caught the implications of the highly stylised technique, then quoted Louis XIV to me, and in one hour learned a sarabande that would take a ‘normal’ student a year to master.

Five of Douglas’ drawings, purchased by the Chartwell Collection for Auckland Art Gallery, hang in a current exhibition there alongside works by Colin McCahon, by Gretchen Albrecht (who provided the backdrop for Douglas’ first full-length work, Now is the Hour) and Jim Allen, celebrated sculptor of light. Douglas’ note alongside his work reads, ‘The figures in my drawings are verbs not nouns’. A number of these drawings are incorporated into his volume of poetry, Laughing Mirror, (Steele Roberts, 2007) where he famously penned the line, ‘Never trust an artist who is always trying to explain their work’.

Perhaps Auckland City Council might consider converting Douglas’ council flat, his home for many decades, in Norgrove Ave, Mt. Albert, into a choreographic residence? Alongside all else, Douglas was a perfectionist, not to say obsessive, gardener. The ancient cycads growing there (he would groom the spider webs off them with a toothbrush) might inspire a younger generation of home-grown dance-makers. Goodness knows, the country needs them.

Helen Aldridge, a Waiheke teacher and arts advocate, commissioned from Douglas a choreography to commemorate the life of her daughter, Deirdre Mummery, who died of an accidental drug overdose. Helen told me she did not know what to expect—perhaps a lament, or lachrimae? Instead, Douglas produced the exquisite Gloria, to Vivaldi, celebrating the life of his young friend. Gold silk-clad dancers fly and twist and turn in an airborne wonder. It’s the best dance ever made, by anyone, anywhere.

Beautifully filmed by Alun Bollinger, it’s there on YouTube (note, inexplicably, in two parts), posted anonymously by ‘a Rugby supporter’. Where is James Joyce when you need him?

Douglas is survived by his loyal and devoted mother, Pat, and the dancers of New Zealand.

Douglas James Wright: born 14 October 1956, Pukekohe; died 14 November 2018, Auckland

Acknowledgements: Megan Adams, Helen Aldridge, Lisa Densem, Sarah (Lawrey) George, Sean MacDonald, Keith McEwing, Leanne Pooley, Turid Revfeim, Guy Robinson, Anne Rowse, Roger Steele

This obituary is posted with the permission of The Dominion Post where it appeared on 17 November 2018.

Featured image: Douglas Wright, 2006. Photo: © John Savage

Douglas Wright, 2016. Photo: © John Savage

For other posts on this website about Douglas Wright, including reviews about some of the works mentioned above, follow this tag link.

From 1993 …

I was moved reading Jennifer Shennan’s recent review from Auckland’s Tempo Festival, in which she discussed Douglas Wright’s latest work, M_Nod, and in which she also referred to Wright’s current health issues. My mind went racing back to 1993—it was the year that Wright’s Gloria was first performed in Sydney as part of a Sydney Dance Company season. Those were the days before things were available online and I hunted out the review I wrote of it for Dance Australia. I clearly remember Gloria (who could forget it?), and The Protecting Veil, the work by Graeme Murphy, with which Gloria shared the stage. I am posting the 1993 review below. Reading it now, 25 years and many, many reviews later, there are sections I would probably phrase differently now, but I have resisted changing anything. And I should add that, even though I am focusing my thoughts on Gloria on this occasion, I am in no way wanting to gloss over Murphy’s work, which was equally as thrilling and moving as Wright’s.

The review was originally published in Dance Australia in the issue of February/March 1994.

Truly thrilling
GLORIA, THE PROTECTING VEIL
Sydney Dance Company
Opera Theatre, Sydney Opera House
November 1993

Douglas Wright’s 1990 piece Gloria and Graeme Murphy’s new The Protecting Veil opened what turned out to be a thrilling season of dance. Gloria, performed to Vivaldi’s choral piece of the same name, is Wright’s tribute to a friend who died at twenty. It is, on the one hand, a joyous piece that celebrates life with an outpouring of dance that is full of vigour and vitality.

Part of the joyous feeling that emerges in Gloria stems from the wit of its choreography and from its tongue-in-cheek irreverence towards the classical vocabulary. Here Wright’s work acknowledges a debt to Paul Taylor with whom Wright performed extensively during the 1980s. There is something very Tayloresque about those moments when a split jete, performed flat out, is followed by a jump that looks as though it will be another of the same but instead turns into a delicious movement in which the dancer appears to be running very fast in mid-air. Or in those other moments when a relatively well known step is followed unexpectedly by a hand- or head-stand.

But in addition to its joyous appearance, Gloria also grieves for a particular life cut off in its prime. This dual theme of joy and sorrow is addressed in movement sequences such as the juxtaposition, early in the piece, of a funereal kind of procession of dancers walking in a square formation with another group dancing in circles in and out of and around the sombre square.

A kind of fragmentation also surfaces in the way that the dance connects, or doesn’t connect with the music. Often a particular choreographic sequence will continue during a pause between sections in the music. Often, too, the audience is faced with a darkened stage, devoid of bodies but filled with music.

In the end, however, Gloria is in praise of life. Its constant use of the circle, both as a choreographic theme and in its lighting design by John Rayment, stresses continuity and its final image of rebirth ensures that we come away with a message that is life-affirming.

The Protecting Veil, like Gloria, takes its name from the music that accompanies it, in this case John Taverner’s composition for solo cello and strings inspired by ancient Byzantine church music. Murphy has produced a strong work that is theatrical without being excessively so, and that consolidates his position as a choreographer whose originality constantly astonishes the viewer.

In a structure that recalls last year’s Synergy with Synergy, with its constructions and transitions, The Protecting Veil consists of eight movements separated by what are called in the program “crossings”. In the eight movements, duets, trios and quartets alternate with dances for the whole company. A quartet for Lea Francis, Alfred Taahi, Wakako Asano, and Xue-Jun Wang is memorable for the way in which it combines four individualistic bodies and four equally individualistic ways of moving.

The power of the piece, however, is in the crossings. Here Murphy builds up a tension that aligns itself with the mesmeric aspects of Taverner’s score. All the crossings feature Janet Vernon. They are initially brief, tantalising appearances. But they gradually build in length and complexity, culminating in a duet in which Vernon is, in the beginning, partnered by Carl Plaisted through the veil of a scrim cloth. The shrouded movement that results is intrinsically interesting for its novelty, but it also makes the second section of the duet, performed without the protection of the veil, seem crystalline.

The Protecting Veil also relies for its impact on Murphy’s design concept. In addition to the use of scrims to reveal and conceal, the forest of small lights attached to long wires that are alternately lowered and raised during the piece, and the use of a slit backcloth through which bodies, and seemingly dismembered parts of them, appear and disappear are all part of a play with perception that has frequently characterised Murphy’s work. In The Protecting Veil this approach helps produce a piece that exudes the tension and suspense of a religious ritual.

Sydney Dance is looking great. And that’s not surprising considering the challenges presented to the company by Murphy himself and the choreographers he supports.

Michelle Potter, 12 October 2018

Featured image: The portrait of Douglas Wright contained in the header to this post is by John Savage.