Kirby Selchow as Gretel in 'Hansel and Gretel', Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2019. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

Hansel & Gretel. Royal New Zealand Ballet & Orchestra Wellington

6 November 2019. Opera House, Wellington
reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

Hansel & Gretel is choreographer Loughlan Prior’s first full-length ballet, though he has a number of accomplished short works (including a memorable Lark, for Sir Jon Trimmer and William Fitzgerald), as well as choreographed films (including Memory House, for Trimmer) already to his credit. Since this premiere, another of his works, The Appearance of Colourwas recently performed as part of Queensland Ballet’s Bespoke program.

The energised success of Hansel & Gretel reveals the close rapport developed between Prior and composer Claire Cowan, who has produced a colourful and affecting score. Right from the first sounds (‘applause’ from orchestral percussion to walk the conductor to his podium), it is clear that the choreographer and composer share a sense of humour and fun. Conductor Hamish McKeich and Orchestra Wellington miss not a beat or a feat throughout.

Design by Kate Hawley, together with Jon Buswell’s lighting, delivers some striking effects. The opening visual, projected onto a gauze front curtain, is the number countdown of a film reel (the grandchildren whisper to ask , ‘Is this a ballet pretending to be a movie?’). A number of references to black and white silent movies of the 1920s are cleverly choreographed into the first scenes, making fitting resonance from the accompanying orchestra in the pit. A prologue of wealthy characters strutting in the street contrast with the poverty of the family of Hansel, Gretel and parents, with the father unable to sell his street brooms to anyone. There is a poignant scene of the hungry family around the table in their cabin, though the following long love duet between the parents seems to stall the choreographic pace somewhat.

Later, black and white scenes turn into the garish colours of cancan Candyland, aided and abetted by the Ice Cream Witch whose hurdy-gurdy bicycle is a creation Heath Robinson would have been proud of. A large cast of Dew Fairies, a Sandman, numerous confectionery and gingerbread assistants, and spooky creatures of the forest all offer a number of divertissements of entertainment and humour. There are echoes of the 1930s now, of Busby Berkeley film scenarios, with deliberate extravagances that send it in the direction of pantomime, leading, by their own admission, to sensory overload of props and costumes.

Scene from Hansel & Gretel. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2019. Photo: ©Stephen A’Court

Spectacle is preferenced over sustaining the narrative with its dark themes of the original version of the Grimm brothers’ tale. In that regard, Prior has chosen to follow casting of Humperdinck’s opera of the late 19th century, as well as the recent choreographies by Liam Scarlett for the Royal Ballet and by Christopher Hampson for Scottish Ballet. In those versions, the familiarity of the children’s father bullied by a scheming cruel stepmother is converted to their simply being poor but loving parents. This results in a weakening of the dramatic bite and thematic link of evil between both Stepmother and Witch (read in some interpretations as alter-egos of each other).

Different birds are dramatically involved in the original tale—sitting on the roof of the family cottage, stealing the trail of breadcrumbs, leading the children to the Witch’s lair, and finally back home. In this production the only birds are portrayed in a brief scene by child extras, very fetchingly costumed in raincoats with beak-shaped hoods, and carrying brooms to sweep up crumbs. Perhaps more could have been made of the avian potential in the story since birds are often convincingly stylised into ballet.

Highlight memories are of Hansel and Gretel—or should that be Gretel and Hansel since it’s the girl who always takes the initiative and makes sure little brother is in tow —with Shaun James Kelly as a naïve and playful boy, Kirby Selchow as the feisty older sister. The dazzling Mayu Tanigaito as Queen of the Dew Fairies, delivers radiantly, but also easily shifts into the syncopations of the jazz references that Prior and Cowan have skillfully introduced as cameo sequences.

Paul Mathews as the Witch and Shaun James Kelly as Hansel in Hansel & Gretel. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2019. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

The Ice Cream Witch is played by Katharine Precourt who, with mobile expressive face, clearly relishes the role. The Transformed Witch, played by Paul Mathews, is in full pantomime mode and takes hilarious advantage of the satirical strokes the choreography offers (including the tossing of a pair of pointe shoes into the cauldron, together with a large manny rat that proves inedible but will doubtless flavour/poison the stew). Mathews always inhabits rather than just portrays his roles and here he exaggerates wonderfully without ever wasting a gesture. 

Kirby Selchow as Gretel closes the cauldron in Hansel & Gretel. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2019. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

Thank goodness for curtain calls in character. The dancers have clearly had a rollicking good time in this production which will certainly entertain audiences in the forthcoming national tour.

Jennifer Shennan, 12 November 2019

Featured image: Kirby Selchow as Gretel in Hansel & Gretel, Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2019. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

Kirby Selchow as Gretel in 'Hansel and Gretel', Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2019. Photo: © Stephen A’Court
Dancers of Royal New Zealand Ballet in Mário Radačovský's 'Black Swan, White Swan', 2019. Photo: © Stephen A'Court

Black Swan, White Swan. Royal New Zealand Ballet

31 May ̶ 2 June 2019, Opera House, Wellington
reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

Black Swan, White Swan is a two-act ballet by Mário Radačovský performed to a recorded abridged version of Tchaikovsky’s score. It borrows some themes from the classic Swan Lake but introduces new features and motifs in a re-working of the story that has Siegfried at its centre. The choreography plays out less as dramatic theatre working towards a denouement, or as a poem about love and grief, and instead presents a psychological profile of a man undergoing painful and confusing experiences in his life. In the opening performance in Wellington, the role of Siegfried, on stage throughout, with naturalistic movement, stillness and passages of dancing combined, was performed by Paul Mathews. His presence and thoughtful expression has an actor’s depth, while his intuitively musical dancing and strengths as a partner put him in a class of his own.

Paul Mathews in Black Swan, White Swan. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2019. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

It may be worth reproducing here “The Story” from the printed program.
Act 1:  On his birthday Siegfried receives devastating news. In his anguish, he sees a mysterious stranger, Von Rothbart. Siegfried’s wife has arranged a surprise birthday party, but he is not in the mood to celebrate. He collapses, and Von Rothbart returns. Von Rothbart begins to manipulate Siegfried’s emotions, including his feelings towards his wife, and he becomes confused, no longer able to distinguish between reality and fantasy. Siegfried tries to resist Von Rothbart and looks to his doctor for support. She becomes his White Swan and he becomes obsessed with her as the saviour who can bring him back to health and sanity. But Von Rothbart is not defeated.

Act 2:  Siegfried struggles to regain his identity, but Von Rothbart has the upper hand. To further confuse him, Von Rothbart brings out Siegfried’s wife, transformed into the Black Swan, and no longer the woman that Siegfried knows and loves. The Black Swan toys with him and once again Siegfried has to fight to keep his grip on reality. As Siegfried fights harder and harder he finally begins to weaken Von Rothbart’s control, only to collapse once again. As Siegfried awakes, back at his birthday party, he has no idea what is real and what is not. But Von Rothbart is still there…

This conveys the situational rather than narrative or dramatic aspect chosen for choreographic treatment, with life for Siegfried much the same at the end as at the beginning. A clue in the program synopsis  “As Siegfried awakes…” (I had not picked up that he was asleep) perhaps suggests the whole thing was his nightmare?  There are effectively four soloists—Siegfried, von Rothbart (Kihiro Kusukami), White Swan (Sara Garbowski), Black Swan (Kirby Selchow). They all perform strongly but the three characters seem not required to interact with each other but only with Siegfried. Kusukami’s dancing is certainly striking and his evil force is sinister yet expressionless, giving him a two rather than three-dimensional impact, which reinforces his place within Siegfried’s psychological state. Kirby Selchow as Black Swan has a sparkling edge to her taunting of Siegfried. The dance highlight of the evening for me is the pas de deux between Siegfried and White Swan who has by now dropped her doctor’s coat and become his friend, enabling Garbowski and Mathews to dance with real rapport.

Kirby Selchow in Black Swan, White Swan. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2019. Photo: © Stephen A’Court
Sara Garbowski and Paul Mathews in Black Swan, White Swan. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2019. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

The large corps or chorus of dancers, some grinning, some blank-faced, a mix of party goers, nurses maybe, then swans, were given contemporary movement vocabulary, which reflected against the backdrop of shiny metal curtain strips used for entrances and exits. Twists and flexes of foot, turn-in, hooked hands at the end of raised arms to portray swan beaks, paddling legs to suggest swimming were gestures and motifs repeated to good effect. It seemed less convincing, however, when the Cygnets and Lead Swans danced.

My perception was that much of their dancing was shaded behind the beat, which is not musically what one expects with a Tchaikovsky score. (A similar tardiness among the corps was noted in the recent production of The Nutcracker). Musicality in a dancer involves anticipation of the beat and the note, much as a conductor does, so their movement can speak through the music. That work takes place in the studio on a daily basis, the light and lifeblood of ballet. Sometimes choreography allows dancers to create the illusion that their movement produces the music, dancing with rather than to it. To see that art and alchemy at work, watch a dancer like Paul Mathews.

The performance is peppered throughout with applause and calls that do nothing to sustain dramatic conviction, but it is not so long ago that the audience was invited ‘if you see us do something you specially like then clap, call out, stamp and let us know you liked it’. Audiences, mostly, do what you tell them so interruptions become part of the experience. Opera goers always applaud an aria, even if the singer’s character has just died, but this doesn’t happen in music concerts or at plays in the theatre, and it comes at a price, a bit like an ad break. Diaghilev and Stravinsky, Douglas Wright and Lin Hwai Min knew how to choreograph for the theatre without inviting, or even allowing, applause in fits and starts.

I was waiting and wondering how the themes might coalesce by the end, enjoying anticipation of that, but will confess I found the sudden dumping from a great height of a large bucket of water onto both Siegfried and von Rothbart, was a surprise ending more suggestive of The Wizard of Oz rather than the coup de theatre it might have been turned into. Further challenge to us to interpret the work as we will, which is no bad thing. 

It is true of many of our experiences that perception is the filter of facts—nothing altogether black and white but that saying makes it so. Radačovský has presented that trope in a choreography that sincerely recreates his personal experiences some decades ago of cancer and associated trauma. It is good to know from his artist’s profile that he has recovered from the illness, though he has deliberately chosen to end this ballet at an unresolved point in the story. 

Jennifer Shennan, 1 June 2019

Featured image: Dancers of Royal New Zealand Ballet in Mário Radačovský’s Black Swan, White Swan, 2019. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

Dancers of Royal New Zealand Ballet in Mário Radačovský's 'Black Swan, White Swan', 2019. Photo: © Stephen A'Court
Nadia Yanowski and Paul Mathews in 'Remember, Mama', Royal New Zealand Ballet 2018. Photo: © Stephen A'Court

Strength and Grace. Royal New Zealand Ballet

17 & 18 August 2018. Opera House, Wellington

Reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

The Royal New Zealand Ballet’s Strength & Grace program consists of  four choreographies by women invited to mark the 125th anniversary of women achieving suffrage, with Kate Sheppard and her many New Zealand followers having led the world in that. It’s Sheppard’s face on our $10 bill, she is honoured in many parts of the country, particularly Christchurch her home town, and is considered by many to be New Zealand’s second most influential person, so a good choice by RNZB to allow choreographies to grow from her inspiration.

Overall, each of the four works has considerable strengths, but it is the dancers’ outstanding performances of commitment and calibre that made the night. I consider one of the works would be a true standout in any context or themed season, but each of them will have appealed to one section or another of the audience. It was in fact easy to find colleagues and friends, both younger and older, who had chosen a different favourite. Thankfully it is not a competition.

The first piece, So To Speak, by American choreographer Penny Saunders, explored the domestic relationships within a family. Kirby Selchow and Loughlan Prior, as Mother and Father, used striking gestures of clarity and fine timing in a highly effective opening motif, around a table downstage left, though the work became somewhat diffused when a large chorus-like cast entered. The use of pointe shoes for the Mothers but soft shoes for the Daughters, with close to identical dress for both generations of women, were subtle design choices lost on many I suspect. Dramatic opportunity to express the tensions between parents and children was lightly referenced, but the music of four different composers made for a somewhat meandering choreographic structure. Nonetheless the work made its mark and the performances were strong.

Loughlan Prior and Kirby Selchow in 'So to Speak', Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2018. Photo: © Stephen A'Court
Loughlan Prior and Kirby Selchow in So to Speak, Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2018. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

The second piece, Despite the Loss of Small Detail, by New Zealander Sarah Foster-Sproull, was sharp and spunky, and held great appeal for younger audience members. Eden Mulholland provided a lively percussive accompaniment, and the strength of movement delivered by the dancers certainly matched it. Abigail Boyle was a compelling central figure, supported by a somewhat enigmatic group of dancers. One memorable sequence had them stabbing the stage using pointe shoes as weapons, in a trope reminiscent of Akram Khan’s recent Giselle. The fashion-led design choice of costuming brought whimsy to what was nonetheless a serious declaration of independence.

Abigail Boyle in Despite the Loss of Small Detail, Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2018. Photo: © Jeremy Brick

Abigail Boyle in Despite the Loss of Small Detail, Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2018. Photo: © Jeremy Brick

The third work, Remember, Mama, by Australian Danielle Rowe, was to my mind the clearest work overall in both structure and theme. Although it also used four different composers, there was a distinct adjustment within the choreography at each section which made for welcome coherence to its unfolding. Nadia Yanowsky gave a strongly felt performance as The Mother, relating to The Son at various ages played by three different dancers. Shaun James Kelly always dances with quality and was a sparkling delight as the young child, using Mozart’s Ah! Vous Dirais-je Maman to great effect. Fabio lo Giudice was a sultry teenager, but Paul Mathews danced the adult son with a deep empathy and tenderness for his mother that will have touched many. He is a dancer with the intuition of an actor for how to portray character, and is one of the company’s real strengths. The group of men seemed like soldiers lost to the call of war, perhaps. The group of women fought as hard as any soldiers.

Dancers of Royal New Zealand Ballet in 'Remember, Mama', 2018. Photo: © Stephen A'Court
Dancers of Royal New Zealand Ballet in Remember, Mama, 2018. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

The fourth work, Stand to Reason, by South African choreographer Andrea Schermoly, took as reference one of the pamphlets Sheppard had produced in her stalwart campaigning years, projected as text behind the dancers. (That raised laughs among the audience but would have seemed anything but comic 125 years ago). Of the three composers used, the richest and most eloquent dance music of the whole evening was the Folie d’Espagne of Marin Marais, in a recording by Jordi Savall (the highlight performer of Wellington’s Arts Festival earlier this year). That drew a strong response from the cast of eight women, with particularly galvanised and striking performances from Mayu Tanigaito, Madeleine Graham and Kirby Selchow. Despite many standout performances of the program, a following solo by Selchow gave her a true claim to being the dancer of the evening. The work was at its strongest at that point and might well have finished there, in orbit.

Madeleine Graham in 'Stand to Reason'. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2018. Photo: © Stephen A'Court

 

(left) Madeleine Graham and (right) Kirby Selchow in Stand to Reason. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2018. Photos: © Stephen A’Court

So overall, this is a program of strong choreographic ventures, a few unusual costume design choices, and effective lighting throughout by Andrew Lees. There’s a mosaic of different music compositions (12 in all across four works) and I know that can pose a distracting challenge for musicians and music-followers who tend to stay away because of that. Most memorably there is stunning dancing from a pedigree company that is half the age of the Suffragettes’ achievements

Jennifer Shennan, 19 August 2018 

Featured image: Nadia Yanowski and Paul Mathews in Remember, Mama, Royal New Zealand Ballet 2018. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

Nadia Yanowski and Paul Mathews in 'Remember, Mama', Royal New Zealand Ballet 2018. Photo: © Stephen A'Court

 

Afterthoughts:
The sightlines in the Opera House are quite different from those in the St. James Theatre where the company usually performs, and that needs to be borne in mind for choreographic staging and video projections, both of which were compromised on several occasions. (My two immediate neighbours left at half-time since their view was seriously affected, and the seats were not classed as restricted viewing at the box office). The sound system is also perhaps settling in, and music volumes were at times uncomfortably loud.

This Wellington season of only two performances, and no tour to other centres, has left many dance followers further afield hoping for a future opportunity to see this program. The company website lists “Details Soon” for the Harry Haythorne Choreographic Awards towards the end of the year, now in its fourth year, so they may be planning to attend that season instead. New choreography brings fresh blood, and these stalwart dancers always perform, new work and old, as though lives depended on it. JS

A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Royal New Zealand Ballet

27 November 2016, St.James Theatre, Wellington

Reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

Truly, madly, deeply

If I were to list all the good things about this pedigree production, it would amount to a catalogue of joy. And what would be wrong with that?

Ethan Stiefel, previous artistic director of RNZB, certainly knew what he was about when he invited Liam Scarlett to choreograph this full-length work, and negotiated a co-production with Queensland Ballet. By all accounts that collaboration has worked very well, so might set a happy precedent for future co-productions. All those in favour…? The work only premiered last year yet is already a classic.

Nigel Gaynor, at the time Musical Director at RNZB, found close rapport with Scarlett and made a wondrous extension of Mendelssohn’s one act incidental music into a two acter by drawing on other of his numerous compositions. With motifs for many characters ingeniously set for string, woodwind and brass sections, plus of course the quijada (jawbone of an ass), Gaynor creates a seamless accompaniment. He also returns to conducts the excellent Orchestra Wellington. This is ballet musicianship at its best.

Tracy Grant Lord as set and costume designer has always known how to make this company look good (witness Cinderella and Romeo & Juliet). With Kendall Smith’s inspired lighting, the ballet grows from a swirl of smoke on a front cloth into a midnight blue faerie world of phosphorescent glowworms, moonlight, madness, mayhem and enchantment.

Liam Scarlett has made a brilliant distillation of the play, missing not a trick by slanting all the poetry into different characters’ experiences of love, true, mad and deep. This is a young but obviously hugely talented choreographer. And then, O my, there’s the dancing…

Qi Huan, former leading dancer has returned (again) from ‘retirement’ to play Oberon, bringing a maturity in his interpretation of a complex character, powerful, proud, duplicit, scheming, sometimes roving into the human world, yet ultimately forgiving (maybe). You hear his every thought as it motivates his every gesture, charging the role with real theatrical power that makes Oberon the central role to the entire ballet in a way new since the premiere season last year.

Tonia Looker is a gorgeous, romantic Titania, quick to claim the Changeling child, swift to fall in love. Her adoration of Bottom the Ass is quite something to behold. The band of ten Fairies shimmering and quivering in spiky blue tutus are as mercurial as the creatures they evoke. Harry Skinner gets maximum comic mileage from his doltish Bottom and creates an endearingly entertaining Ass that invites empathy for this ambiguous role. Shaun Kelly as the dazzling irrepressible Puck is stunning in his role of wicked mischief-maker. You wouldn’t trust him with your grandmother’s thimble. The Lovers are played with great spirit—by Kirby Selchow and Joseph Skelton, with some deeply lyrical dancing, and by Abigail Boyle and Paul Mathews, masters of comic timing. The Rustics are a hoot and they know it.

Shaun Kelly as Puck in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Royal New Zealand Ballet. Photo: Evan Li

Shaun Kelly as Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Royal New Zealand Ballet. Photo: © Evan Li

When all the mayhem is at its wildest, with Puck quaking at Oberon’s wrath, the entire cast of mis-matched lovers—jilted, unrequited, confused, and with the mad rustics in tow—charge on a diagonal across the stage in a comic moment of cartoon art that captures the complexities of the entire plot into a 30 seconds drive-by stroke of choreographic genius. The audience erupts in delight, and Shakespeare the librettist would have been well pleased.

The Changeling child in a onesie, with his toy donkey and bedtime storybook, bookends the whole glorious ballet, winching it in quite close to the world where you and I know of parents who quarrel over who ‘owns’ a child, or who ‘loves’ him more, and where he should live. It is ultimately Scarlett’s triumph to delve into the mystery and chemistry of where love comes from, its turns and tricks and travails that never run smooth, and to flow the faerie in and out of the human world. Take care in shady places. Puck is probably lurking.

There are many warps and wefts of New Zealand and Australia that weave the dancers from the two countries together, and the more you look the more you find. Lucy Green, in a few hours time, will dance Titania in her last performance with RNZB, before returning to Australia to join Queensland Ballet. We’ll be so sad to lose this beautiful dancer, but surely glad that we had such memorable performances from her these past years. Perhaps we’ll charge Puck to steal away her passport?

Lucy Green as Titiania in 'A Midsummer Night's Dream'. Royal New Zealand Ballet. Photo Evan Li

Lucy Green as Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Royal New Zealand Ballet. Photo: © Evan Li

 *********************************

There’s an on-stage class to watch before a performance. Thoroughbreds flexing.

There’s a Q&A session with dancers after a matinee; a pre-performance talk on the music; usually a forum a fortnight before; workshops where children learn the moves for the first 32 bars of Bottom the Ass. There’s a solid printed program, plus  complimentary cast sheets. There’s a production team out back, with highest production values that put numerous tired ‘imperial’ visiting ballet companies well into the shade.  The indomitable Friends are selling subs and t-shirts in the intervals, since that’s what Poul Gnatt told them to do in 1953. A mix of Oberon and Puck, that man. All this amounts to RNZB being the best little ballet company on Earth. (The best big company, for my money, is Hamburg Ballet. What’s yours?)

Only the St.James theatre wine-bar seems not to know how to uncork bureaucracy and pour a glass of bubbly for the happy punters. Another job for Puck perhaps?

Jennifer Shennan, 28 November 2016

Featured image: Tonia Looker as Titania and Harry Skinner as Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Royal New Zealand Ballet (2015 season). Photo: © Stephen A’Court

Tonia Looker as Titanaia and Harry Skinner as Bottom in 'A Midsummer Night's Dream'. Royal New Zealand Ballet. Photo: ©Stephen A’'Court