The Kiss Inside. Douglas Wright Dance Company

4 & 5 March 2016, Opera House, Wellington
Reviewed by Jennifer Shennan 

The Kiss Inside is replete with images of humans questing for the divine, for ecstasy. Agony is never far away of course, and there are numerous distractions with demons, as folk fall down and religions’ promises go bad. It’s a wild ride with music of Patti Smith, Sufi turning, throat singing, to Palestrina, and home to Bach. There’s a closing measured poem, spoken by the choreographer. (I paraphrase and summarise … ): ‘No eyes, no taste, no touch—no pain, no hate, no war—no love—no wisdom—no understanding—no way.’  The ambiguity in the last two words is quintessential Douglas Wright.  There’s no easy way. Light comes in the same package as dark, so it’s both or neither. Take both.

Te Ao Hurihuri, the turning world of Maori traditional belief, provides the striking opening image, under a mighty inverted tree, of a dancer suspended from his ankles, chanting a karakia, then spinning in and out of our hearing. A number of Maori resonances recur throughout the work.

Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam and more, are referenced through symbols and mantras. A mimed solo conveys by signing the things that will need to be communicated. Eventually the Sign of the Cross emerges from the gestures, as though choreographed for the first time. We see it again when four dancers slowly advance, to Palestrina’s moving Kyrie. One is praying a Sign of the Cross, one makes the calm Namasde of Hindu greeting, one holds arms aloft in an urgent Maori wiri, one kneels with cupped hands catching unstoppable tears.

There’s a tender love dance that rings true, yet is free of all clichés; a duo between two blokes in camaraderie; pilgrims burdened down with the weight of book learning; an exquisite young woman hammering a stone till blood is drawn; Breugel’s blind leading the blind; a mangled poi dance by a figure in total burka, driving a young man to intravenous distraction; a gorilla offering orange cuts for refreshment at half time. They are rejected.

Soaring leaps, forward and upward, over other bodies rolling backward, on and up, over and over, forever. Other bodies lie dying in agony in the trenches, calling for Mum … then a powerful and poignant solo, breathtaking standout of the night, is danced by Sarah-Jayne Howard. Such tenderness should move enemies to delay declaring war, if only …

We recognise a string of images from Douglas’ earlier choreographies—the suspended tree from The Decay of Lying, an arc of candles from Halo, an authoritative nurse from Forever, prancing horses from A Far Cry, braying sheep from Inland, the ventriloquist voice and  the thrilling dance of creation from Black Milk, the thrusting bucking leaps from rapt. In the absence of a company that would have enabled these choreographies to be retained in a retrospective repertoire, the fragments seem like Douglas now taking leave from the legacy of his works.

The Kiss Inside  contrasts sublime with grotesque. Courageous dancers deliver rock-sure performances without faltering. For the record, they are Craig Bary, Eddie Elliott, Luke Hanna, Sarah-Jayne Howard, Simone Lapka, Tara Jade Samaya. Set design by Michael Pearce, and Jeremy Fern’s lighting, create the perfectly judged  atmosphere that carries throughout.

The Pina Bausch season here will soon show equally rich and imaginative performances, the major difference between the two companies being the level of resources their respective countries have made available to them over decades. Wim Wenders in his celebrated film, Pina, has done her  proud. Leanne Pooley in her splendid documentary, Haunting Douglas, has done the same for Douglas Wright, and us.

Jennifer Shennan, 8 April 2016

Featured image: Dancers of Douglas Wright Dance Company in The Kiss Inside. Photo: Matt Grace. New Zealand Festival, 2016

The Royal New Zealand Ballet at 60. Jennifer Shennan & Anne Rowse

This handsomely produced book celebrates sixty years of performances by the Royal New Zealand Ballet. I say handsomely produced because its square-ish format is aesthetically pleasing and easy to hold in one’s hand, its illustrations are well reproduced and there are plenty of them both in black and white and colour, its paper is smooth and glossy and lovely to touch, and the layout of text and image leaves plenty of white space on the page so nothing looks jammed up.

Edited by Jennifer Shennan and Anne Rowse and published by Victoria University Press, The Royal New Zealand Ballet at 60 brings together a collection of articles, letters, reminiscences and poems covering the company’s fortunes from 1953 when it was set up by Danish dancer Poul Gnatt to its present manifestation under the direction of American artist Ethan Stiefel.
RNZB book cover web

The first section consists of contributions from each of the company’s artistic directors, where they are still living. Poul Gnatt and Bryan Ashbridge, who are no longer alive, are represented with writing from Jennifer Shennan and Dorothea Ashbridge respectively. Then follows a collection of reminiscences and thoughts from a whole variety of people who work or have worked with the company—dancers, choreographers, board members, wardrobe staff and others closely connected with the company’s activities.

With this kind of arrangement of material, where there are at least fifty different contributors, some writing is bound to stand out and some is bound to be less interesting, less well written. The unevenness in the quality of the writing is perhaps the book’s shortcoming. But this is tempered by some vibrant writing and some fascinating stories that bring to life both the highs and lows of the company’s chequered history.

What struck me as I was reading the section on artistic directors was how much is revealed of a person’s approach to life and work through his or her writing. Harry Haythorne’s essay, for example, reveals the depth of thought that went into, and that continues to inform his work. Haythorne directed the company from 1981−1992. From this perspective I also enjoyed the essay by Gary Harris, artistic director from 2001−2010. It reminded me of the times I interviewed him and the friendliness of the man that I encountered on those occasions. I also enjoyed Shennan’s essay about founding director Poul Gnatt, filled as it is with information about Gnatt’s early life in Denmark.

From the reminiscences, I loved reading about Eric Languet, dancer with the company from 1988−1998 and for a few years resident choreographer, in his essay ‘I would like to come home one day’. Although he has some Australian connections, his and my paths have never crossed. He writes with admirable honesty about his time in New Zealand and one of my favourite images in the book is from Alice, which he choreographed in 1997. And reading Douglas Wright’s account of performing the leading role in Petrouchka is, quite simply, a rare privilege. It is unusual to hear in some depth from artists about their approach to a role and their thoughts as they prepare for and then perform it. Wright’s essay is followed by a poem, ‘Herd’ written by Wright and beginning with the delicious line ‘a herd of cows does not need a choreographer’. Readers may be surprised at how the poem ends too!

One typo in the book makes me wince somewhat. In Una Kai’s essay (Kai was director from 1973−1975), which is interesting for a whole variety of reasons, Lew Christensen’s name is wrongly spelt. Typos are the bane of all our lives but it is not the best when personal names don’t get the attention they deserve.

Unlike other recent publications in a similar vein, and despite any shortcomings I might find in it, The Royal New Zealand Ballet at 60 makes a useful contribution to the history of the Royal New Zealand Ballet. Its editors, contributors and publisher deserve to be congratulated for avoiding making it into some kind of media driven, ultimately barren publication.

Jennifer Shennan and Anne Rowse (eds), The Royal New Zealand Ballet at 60,  (Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2013) Hardback, 350 pp., illustrated
ISBN 978086473891
RRP NZD 60.00

Michelle Potter, 29 August 2013