New Zealand School of Music + Dancers

24 May 2019. The Hub, Victoria University, Wellington    
reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

Talking about Music, Dancing about Architecture.

A striking performance by New Zealand School of Music last Friday brought instrumental music and dance into unusual proximity. Those who, like myself, believe in the vibrancy of live music and dance interactions are drawn to the alchemy that can result from interwoven performing of both arts.

The Hub is at the centre of students’ common space at Victoria University. It is occasionally used for performance though remains accessible at the edges to students’ coming and going. This creates an atmosphere of openness and something less than the formality of a recital in a dedicated concert space.

Loughlan Prior and Laura Saxon Jones with musicians. The Hub, New Zealand School of Music, 2019. Photo: Stephen Gibbs

Hamish Robb and Beth Chen on piano as Duo Ombré opened with Debussy’s Petite Suite with its resonances of dance rhythm bedded in to the score. These were given welcome comment in Hamish Robb’s spoken introduction.

‘Talking about music is like dancing about architecture’ is a saying attributed to many, and points to the primacy of an original work, and the sometimes superfluous attempts to translate that into verbal form. Robb however has a natural gift of talking about features in the score, and can highlight moments in playing them without sounding in the least arcane. This commentary is both refreshing and helpful to our listening.

Mozart’s Sonata for Piano Four Hands was of course quivering with dance life. It’s on record somewhere that Mozart declared he’d rather have been a dancer than a musician, and you can hear what he means. Rachmaninoff’s Six Morceaux was then played and we were invited to ‘listen orchestrally’ to suggestions of colours in the keyboard rendition.  

The New Zealand String Quartet, also based at NZSM, performed the second half of the concert. They played renditions of two dances by Erwin Schulhoff: Alla Czecha and Alla Tango Milonga. Schulhoff’s career was cut tragically short in war time yet what he did compose is full of interest. The big one though, most enthusiastically introduced by cellist Rolf Gjelsten, and also alive with dance rhythms, was Bartok’s String Quartet No.5

Loughlan Prior (centre) and musicians. New Zealand School of Music, 2019. Photo: Stephen Gibbs

Two dancers—Loughlan Prior and Laura Saxon Jones performed to several movements within these works. Their clean and attractive movement was expertly and intimately positioned in and around the musicians, even at times playfully daring to act as conductor to their performing. There were lines and angles suggesting architecture, light images, costume as shared skin, pauses and speeds that emphasised the dance-like qualities of movement of the musicians in performance… and the dancers’ movement seemed to produce an empathy of  visual music.

This is close to the way that Tokelau people behave—different music, different dance, but the same marriage between both.

Jennifer Shennan, 28 May 2019

Featured image: Loughlan Prior and Laura Saxon Jones performing with artists from the New Zealand School of Music, 2019. Photo: Stephen Gibbs

Dancing with Mozart. Royal New Zealand Ballet

31 May 2018, Opera House, Wellington

Reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

Ballet companies anticipate repertoire and book programs in long to mid-term time frames. Perhaps for that reason, the four works in Dancing with Mozart sit somewhat unevenly. The opening Balanchine Divertimento No. 15, and a newly commissioned work were the choices of the current artistic director, whereas the two Kylián works, Petite Mort and Sechs Tänze were chosen by the previous artistic director some time ago.

My guess is that Mozart would have found the Divertimento No. 15 somewhat laboured, with its numerous unmotivated entrances and exits, delivering the patterns that are its only content. I am not against patterns per se, in truth I love them if they are danced with élan and clarity, when they can represent all manner of things. In this work, however, there is little hint of meaningful rapport between dancers, and no development of a relationship to the audience, so zero effect of theatre from this extended piece.

Mayu Tanigaito and Joseph Skelton in Divertimento No. 15. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2018. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

The use of guest stars who are of varying aesthetic is hard to understand when the company has so many fine dancers, or until very recently did have, within its ranks. Mayu Tanigaito and Alexandre Ferreira save the day in their brief solos when with sparkling nonchalance they mask the effort involved in the demanding virtuosity.

This is the only work on the program played by Orchestra Wellington. Recorded music is used for the two Kylián works, evidently as required by the choreographic contract, but that is not made clear in the marketing of the season and has caused some upset reactions among those who booked to attend expecting live orchestra throughout.

The Corey Baker commission, The Last Dance, is a challenged work—no aspersion on the dancers who give it their best, but its ideas and images seem oddly static. All new choreographic challenge has to take risks and no one can guarantee the outcome, but whoever commissions and whoever choreographs needs to know a company’s strengths and production values as starting points.  A pick-up group of dancers may have been a better choice for this project. It gives me no pleasure to report that it is the least appropriate use of Mozart’s Requiem that I could imagine.

How grateful we are then for some real choreography that claims space and gives dancers the moves they need to show the complexity and ambiguity, the serious, the strong and the playful options available to those of us who want to recognise life celebrated in dance. Both Kylián works, Petite Mort and Sechs Tänze, would have pleased Mozart no end, alive as they are with vitality and madcap, laced with wicked wit and the spin of genius. Every image and every move is deliciously carved and carried, suggestive and sensual, teeming with nuances from the choreographer’s rich train of thought.

Tristan Gross and Massimo Margaria in Sechs Tänze. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2018. Phot:o:© Stephen A‘Court

Both these dances, performed by Nederlands Dans Theater, are on YouTube, with Stephan Zeromsky, who has so ably staged the works here, in that cast. The fact that you can watch on Youtube is no reason to stay away from a live performance. But it does give you and me the real and rare chance to study the works in all the depth and detail that repeat viewings allow. Kylián’s personal website also offers much insight into his remarkable career, prolific choreography, and his haunting muse.

I also welcomed several memories that this season triggered—for starters, during Ashley Killar’s term here, probably the definitive Balanchine work ever seen in this country, Agon, exquisitely performed by Ou Lu and Amy Hollingsworth. Pure Balanchine at his best.  

Another treasured memory is Harry Haythorne’s beautiful staging of Balanchine’s Serenade on the New Zealand School of Dance in 1984.  (It is a little known but fascinating fact that Haythorne was the first person to script Serenade into Laban Notation. The original score held in the Dance Notation Bureau in New York carries his signature, H.H., in the bottom corner. Dance history is a mercurial creature).

None of us is likely to forget Kylián’s masterwork Soldatenmis/Soldiers’ Mass, to Martinu’s Mass of the Unknown Soldier, which has been twice so brilliantly staged by RNZB, during Matz Skoog’s and again during Francesco Ventriglia’s directorates. The work throbs with the urgency and pain and horror and courage required in battle. It demands extraordinary stamina. Every male dancer in the company is cast. If one injures there is no recourse but to bring in the strongest female dancer in the company to replace him. In the first season that was Pieter Symonds. I wrote at the time this was the night Joan of Arc came to town—and Pieter has used that epithet in her cv ever since. In the most recent season, another male dancer injured, and Laura Saxon-Jones was brought in to replace him. I wrote then that Joan of Arc had returned to town. Laura’s fine dancing, and her own spunky choreography that we have seen in two of the Harry Haythorne award seasons, are much missed from the company’s ranks.  

Back to 1991 and there was something!—the full-length Wolfgang Amadeus, the life and work of the composer, choreographed by Gray Veredon, combining story, drama, poetry, comedy and heartbreak. RNZB seasons were longer then, spanning two weeks, so we had more chance for repeat viewings. The entire celebratory work was accompanied by live orchestra, and the Requiem sung by live choir, with singers crowded into the boxes to the sides of the stalls and circle levels. Eric Languet danced Wolfgang. Jon Trimmer played his father, Leopold. Who could forget them? Dance history might be mercurial but it is also tidal, and never dies completely.

Jennifer Shennan, 4 June 2018

Featured image: Katherine Minor and Fabio Lo Giudice in Petite Mort. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2018. Photo: © Stephen A‘Court