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 Jiri Kylian—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 Cloudgate 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

Alex Leonhartsberger as Jimmy O'Reilly and Rachel Poirier as Finola in 'Loch na hEala', Wellington, 2018. Photo: © Matt Grace/New Zealand Festival

Swan Lake—Loch na hEala. Michael Keegan-Dolan

St James Theatre Wellington, 14 March 2018
Choreography: Michael Keegan-Dolan. Music: Slow Moving Clouds

Reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

It is revealing to read an interview with Michael Keegan-Dolan in the local press in which he admits that he thinks this latest production, Swan Lake—Loch na hEala, is his best work to date. Many an artist would say the latest work is the best workbut it’s undeniably true that the thrust and ideas in this work are of unparalleled import and poignancy. It is hard to imagine another theatre work grappling so surely with old story and deep themes, revealing dark secrets and offering balm however briefly. This Lake of Swans is painfully beautiful, heartfelt, soulsprung, footstamped, wingborne, endearingly musiced, beyond reach and entirely present.

Keegan-Dolan’s earlier Giselle, Petrouchka and Rite of Spring, with his Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre, were all courageous and hugely memorable works, but Loch na hEala may well prove to be the most outstanding visionary work of its generation. It is an honour to write about the production, and important to thank the New Zealand Festival for their decision to bring this astonishing work to our town.

It’s a thrill to see Alex Leonhartsberger, consummate performer, in the central role (revives memories of Douglas Wright’s choreographies when Alex was in the cast). The exquisite Rachel Poirier is a wounded Dying Swan for our time (as Kilda Northcott was a few years back, muse to Douglas). Keegan-Dolan is to Ireland what Wright has always been to New Zealand, and that has to be my highest praise to them both. Kia ora korua. Salute to the pair of you.

Rachel Poirier as Finola in Michael Keegan-Dolan's 'Loch na eHala (Swan Lake)', Wellington, 2018. Photo: © Matt Grace/New Zealand Festival

Rachel Poirier as Finola in Michael Keegan-Dolan’s Loch na eHala (Swan Lake). Wellington, 2018

W. B. Yeats’ poem, The Wild Swans at Coole, resonates with great birds ‘mysterious, beautiful’ that in turn evoke the exquisite 16th century madrigal by Orlando Gibbons ‘The silver swan that, living, had no note…’ (Swans in old tales are often bewitched women, rendered mute) ‘when Death approached unlocked her silent throat’. This trope is achingly, beautifully caught in the final pas de deux of love and comfort that is permitted to the two wounded and damaged characters of this production—Jimmy O’Reilly (read Prince Siegfried), and his adored Finola, (read Odette). It has the fragility of life, held by love, yet dead and gone too soon. You’ll be weeping now if ever you wept at anything. You’ll be back tomorrow night for a repeat viewing. That’s not masochism, it’s just too beautiful to see only once.

W. B. Yeats The Wild Swans of Coole

The trees are in their autumn beauty,
The woodland paths are dry,
Under the October twilight the water
Mirrors a still sky;
Upon the brimming water among the stones
Are nine-and-fifty swans.

The nineteenth autumn has come upon me
Since I first made my count;
I saw, before I had well finished,
All suddenly mount
And scatter wheeling in great broken rings
Upon their clamorous wings.

I have looked upon those brilliant creatures,
And now my heart is sore.
All’s changed since I, hearing at twilight,
The first time on this shore,
The bell-beat of their wings above my head,
Trod with a lighter tread.

Unwearied still, lover by lover,
They paddle in the cold
Companionable streams or climb the air;
Their hearts have not grown old;
Passion or conquest, wander where they will,
Attend upon them still.

But now they drift on the still water,
Mysterious, beautiful;
Among what rushes will they build,
By what lake’s edge or pool
Delight men’s eyes when I awake some day
To find they have flown away?

Orlando Gibbons’ madrigal, The Silver Swan, is one of the Poems in the London Underground now. The seventh Autumn has come upon me since my Allan slipped down and away, leaving us mute, so shocked at his leaving. Unreal. Not real. Did he not love us enough to fight and slay the dreaded Count Leukaemia von Rothbart and stay with us in the happy nest of our home? What was he thinking to go away and leave the garden unweeded, the lawn all unmown, the orchard overgrowing, the path too thin as its spread of metal wears away, all his books on these shelves with bookmarks still upstanding, his dressing gown hanging on the back of the door, his gumboots by the garden shed, the plum tree that presages Spring, the Christmas pohutukawa of summer, the gold & red leafed grapevine ushering in Autumn, the darling tiny snowdrops so sweet, so perfect, so silent in cold Winter. Why did I waste you? Why did I lose you? Why did I not hold you tighter, stop you getting away? We could have made it. We could have fixed everything. We still could. Don’t unlock your silent throat, don’t sing or Count von Rothbart will get you. The clematis, the one you planted for Beth, needs pruning. Then there’s the little daffodil, the scented one you planted so tenderly under our window when Nell was born. I need you here to help me find that bulb gone underground. Don’t go. Please stay. Don’t leave. No wonder tears drenched my dress as Jimmy danced with Finola. You would have drenched yours too.

Alex Leonhartsberger as Jimmy O'Reilly and Rachel Poirier as Finola in 'Loch na hEala', Wellington, 2018. Photo: © Matt Grace/New Zealand Festival

Alex Leonhartsberger as Jimmy O’Reilly and Rachel Poirier as Finola in Michael Keegan-Dolan’s Loch na hEala (Swan Lake), Wellington, 2018

In the afore-mentioned interview Keegan-Dolan admits he is interested when people come back for repeat viewings of his show, and he wonders why they do. I’ll tell him why. I just did.

Jennifer Shennan, 20 March 2018

Follow this link to Jennifer Shennan’s review for Radio New Zealand’s Upbeat program.

Featured image: Alex Leonhartsberger as Jimmy O’Reilly and Rachel Poirier as Finola in Michael Keegan-Dolan’s Loch na hEala (Swan Lake), Wellington, 2018

Alex Leonhartsberger as Jimmy O'Reilly and Rachel Poirier as Finola in 'Loch na hEala', Wellington, 2018. Photo: © Matt Grace/New Zealand Festival

‘Don’t be afraid of the dark—it is your friend’

All photos: 2018 New Zealand Festival. The Wellington Airport Season of Swan Lake/Loch Na hEala. © Photos: Matt Grace