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

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. Photo: © 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