14 January 2024. Whirinaki Arts Centre, Upper Hutt, Wellington reviewed by Jennifer Shennan
An arangetram is a graduation recital in the Bharata Natyam tradition of Indian classical dance. It’s effectively a solo performance lasting close to two hours—a phenomenon in any dance terms, demanding stamina and memory of heroic proportions. To witness a young performer achieve the standard where they can share what they have learned in up to ten years of study and training is not easily matched in any other dance practice that comes to mind.
Vivek Kinra is a renowned teacher in this tradition, and 45 graduates of his Wellington-based Mudra Dance Academy have performed an arangetram over these past three decades, an extraordinary statistic. Typically, the young dancer will be in late teens, perhaps early 20s (though there are exceptions. ‘You perform when I say you are ready,’ says their teacher) so it echoes the achievement of Solo Seal in ballet terms, though in the Indian case this is a fully choreographed and costumed performance in a theatre. The music is recorded in India, the costumes are made there. Detailed and beautifully illustrated printed programs are given out. Tasty Indian refreshments will be provided in the intermission, and upon arrival you have been greeted by a line of smiling hosts who offer a sugar crystal, and a bindi for your forehead. (‘A bindi … symbolizes spirituality, identity, and heritage, and is associated with the activation of the third eye chakra’).
It’s clear we are in for a special experience. The audience is radiantly attired, so whatever you wear you will be outshone, but you don’t waste time wondering what on earth you have done to deserve an invitation to such an auspicious gathering. You just sit down and read your program because there’s a lot of good guidance in it.
I told you there were exceptions, but today’s arangetram takes some beating. Esther McCreadie is the first full-European student to graduate from Mudra. She is of Irish descent and did not begin her study of Indian dance until seeing Vivek perform when in her 20s. She is now aged 46. I suck the little sugar crystal to calm my nerves. I can only imagine how Esther is feeling.
Kinra is a celebrated graduate of the renowned Kalakshetra Academy in Chennai. It is Wellington’s fortune that he has taught here since 1992. The high standards of his own performing, choreography and teaching are well recognised and his pupils are in safe hands.
The first half of the program comprised Mangalam, Alarippu, Shabdam and Ranjani Mala, a varnam. These dance types have contrasting rhythmic demands and dramatic qualities, but in each of them Esther’s technique and sense of line in sculptural poses are secure and give much aesthetic pleasure. We are immediately at ease to see her mudra handwork beautifully articulated, her strong rhythmic security, and the varied range of abhinaya, facial expressions. Creatures galore are evoked—gods and kings, devotees and cupids, gopis and demons, as well as lotus flowers and jewels of adornment.
After the intermission there are keertanam, bhajan, padam and thillana—in celebratory or meditative mood. The padam, Asai Mugam, is particularly poignant as it laments the dancer’s separation from Lord Krishna whose face she can no longer remember, and she struggles to understand what she has done to deserve that punishment. The final scintillating thillana makes a triumphant end to a beautiful and memorable performance.
Various experts pronounce regularly on the benefits of extreme physical exercise for our human body to function at optimum health. Many people count how many steps they walk each day. I think they’d be better to takeBharata Natyam classes since the mind as well as the body is involved to the maximum, and the music is way way better. Namaskar.
In Maori custom an address or oratory always opens with acknowledgment of those recently deceased, recognising ‘the mighty totara trees that have fallen.’ That puts Jon Trimmer right up there in the first line since he is/was unarguably the hero of New Zealand dance. Knighted for his unmatched artistry, and the longevity of his fabled performance career, Jon was loved by so many—for all the roles he danced but also for the plain common decency in the man. Fastidiously professional about his own work, he was always interested in the work of others, ever standing by to help should that be needed. Jon may have passed (26 October 2023, aged 84) but the memories of his mighty performance career will never be forgotten, never. Nor will we see his like again, ever. Jon carried the mantle from Poul Gnatt and Russell Kerr to safeguard the Company for decades. That now passes to those performers and directors who lead RNZBallet. One can only wish them courage. [The Company’s public tribute to Jon will be held in Wellington on Friday 2 February, 2024. See Company’s website for details and reservations. The next Russell Kerr lecture in Ballet & Related Arts, on Sunday 25 February 2024, will be devoted to Jon. Presenters include Turid Revfeim, Anne Rowse, Kerry-Anne Gilberd, Michelle Potter. For details and reservations, email firstname.lastname@example.org). Links to my obituaries for Jon are at this link and at www.stuff.co.nz
The Auckland Arts Festival began the year with two striking productions—Revisor, stunning dance-theatre choreographed by Crystal Pite, with dancers playing actors playing dancers. Scored in Silence was a deeply moving film-dance testament to the experiences of the profoundly deaf community of Hiroshima 1945.
Royal New Zealand Ballet’s mid-year season Lightscapes, had four works with for me the standout Requiem for a Rose by Annabella Lopez-Orcha—a beautiful mysterious meditation, and the powerfully atmospheric Logos by Alice Topp (an RNZB alumna). Their single performance Platinum, was a tribute to 70 years achievement. My enduring memory is of Sara Garbowski dancing exquisitely in the excerpt from Giselle Act II. Sara has since retired from her 15 year performance career, and I for one am sorry we did not see her in the complete ballet. (Perhaps if she finds retirement over-rated she could come back as a guest artist to perform it in a year’s time?). The Company’s year ended with a romping return season of Loughlan Prior’s Hansel & Gretel which the rejuvenated company performed with great gusto.
Mary-Jane O’Reilly’s Ballet Noir, a contemporary treatment of Giselle Act II, was a phenomenal achievement—independent dancers who nevertheless performed as a seasoned company, with flawless technique, integrated design and powerful dramatic effect. We don’t do Dance Oscars, thank goodness, but if we did, this work would probably score. Another memorable season was the dance opera, (m)Orpheus, with direction and choreography by Neil Ieremia of Black Grace dance company. The dancers combined seamlessly with the singers who found nobility in a contemporary urban setting.
It was terrific to hear of Raewyn Hill’s staging Douglas Wright’s exquisite Gloria on her Co3 in Perth. Rumours of other works by Douglas in their planning for re-staging, mean I’d better be saving for an airfare. In Wellington an exhibition, Geist, of Tessa Ayling-Guhl’s photo portraits of Douglas Wright from 2015, was a moving experience. Björn Aslund choreographed a solo, geist dance, accompanied by Robert Oliver on bass viol, in the gallery. It’s always special when a dance enhances an art gallery space, uniting both art forms. A gathering was held at The Long Hall on October 14 to mark Douglas’ birthdate — and an archival screening of The Kiss Inside made compelling viewing. We plan to host a similar event every year on that date, and are grateful to Megan Adams who maintains the Douglas Wright archive with fastidious care.
A capacity audience attended the Russell Kerr lecture, this time focussing on Patricia Rianne’s celebrated career, and viewing her 1986 ballet, Bliss, based on the Katherine Mansfield short story. 2023 marks the centenary of Mansfield’s death and I was honoured to present a paper KM and Dance, at the VUW conference held to mark that.
2023 also marked the centenary of the tragic incident in which a young dancer, Phyllis Porter, was performing in the Opera House in Wellington, when her tarlatan skirt caught on the gaslight in the wings and she was horribly burnt, and died four days later. Shades of Emma Livry in Paris, though no-one here makes a pilgrimage to Phyllis’ resting place.
2023 offered several memorable dance videos—the Arts channel had a repeat screening of the splendid Cloudgate in Lin Hwai Min’s Rice.Firestarter about Bangarra Dance Theatre again made compelling viewing. A doco, The Boy Who Couldn’t Stop Dancing told of Tom Oakley, a young Liverpool boy with serious cystic fibrosis yet who had danced his way to win a scholarship to Rambert Dance school. The outstanding force in German dance, Susanne Linke, sent me an intriguing video of her dance project, Inner Suspension, in which she shares her pedagogy and technique. (Anyone interested to receive the link could email Inge Zysk at email@example.com).
Several dance books of interest featured in my year. David McAllister was appointed Interim Artistic Director at RNZBallet. His two books, Ballet Confidential and the earlier Solo, provide access to the backstage life of the ballet and proved popular among local readers. The book Royal New Zealand Ballet at Sixty which Anne Rowse and I co-edited back in 2013, was released in a digital edition by Victoria University Press.
If I had to signal the hour and a half of the year that offered the purest dance pleasure, it would be the RNZB Company class I observed taught by David McAllister. Clarity of physics, and the miracle of anatomy, combined with music and poetry from each dancer, reveals the art, unmarked by choreography, casting, costumes and champagne—all the things we go to the ballet for. Here by contrast is the forge and the chapel where the art of the dancer is daily honed and made good. It’s my favourite thing.
Season’s greetings to all—in happy anticipation of 2024 which will see Akram Khan’s The Jungle Book Reimagined—and mid- year an intriguing project, Bismaya, in which Chamber Music New Zealand are bringing musicians from India to combine with Vivek Kinra’s Mudra dance company in a national tour and workshops. Russell Kerr’s pedigree production of Swan Lake from RNZB comes up in May, and later their mixed bill, Solace which includes a new work by Alice Topp. A return season of Liam Scarlett’s magical Midsummer Nights’ Dream is the work that keeps his talent alive.
Jennifer Shennan, 30 December 2023
Featured image: Jon Trimmer as a Stepmother in Cinderella. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 1987. Photo courtesy Royal New Zealand Ballet
Darpana is a retrospective program of excerpts from the past three decades of seasons choreographed by Vivek Kinra for his company, Mudra. It’s a garden of earthly delights with celestial resonance, story-telling laced with joyous cavorting. There are sudden flashes of fury whenever forces of evil are encountered. Furious stamping, piercing glares and dismissive gestures will rid us of them. Only the good survive, only the safe are free.
This vividly expressive form of Indian dance, Bharata Natyam, runs the gamut of human emotions and motives, portraying figures from the parallel realm of deities whose examples are to be followed. It’s an art form in which singing, instrumental music (mridangam drum, violin, flute) and visual rhythm (dance)—in dramatic, poetic, and abstract patterned aspects—all find equal share in the performers’ finely-tuned detail and precise geometry of the body. And then there’s the dress-ups, further feast for the eyes, with carefully gradated lighting effects from full colour to serene silhouettes, from dawn to day to dusk.
After weeks of balmy mid-winter weather, the afternoon suddenly drops 10o, feels like zero, and icy rain drenches us on the way to the theatre. Never mind, Lower Hutt is closer than India so it’s a small price to pay for the transport of joy awaiting us. Every season of Mudra since the mid 90s has revived memories of my visit to India for dance studies in the previous decade. O India, the country with the world’s richest of dance traditions. Time flies, time stands still, to be here is to be there.
Mudra’s troupe of eight senior performers are all in full flower—joined by 15 junior dancers in bud—(one of them already on the way to stardom, but steady on, no sensible dance teacher wants a prodigy, a meteor that falls and burns out, better a star to last forever. I’ve had my eye on this youngster for 7 or so years now, and she is doing exactly as her teacher and I predicted she would).
Kinra was trained at Kalakshetra, the epicentre of Bharata Natyam teaching, near Chennai. The founder of the school, Rukmini Devi, envisaged a centre of arts and related crafts to thrive alongside community education initiatives. As a theosophist Devi visited New Zealand to connect with the Theosophical Society here, and also devoted time to animal rights’ causes. As a young dancer she had met Anna Pavlova who was touring with her company to India in 1922. Pavlova encouraged Devi in a revitalisation of Bharata Natyam away from the temple, towards the theatre. Her contemporary, Balasaraswati, was the legendary dancer who toured the world’s capitals and showed what heights a solo performer could reach, even towards the age of 70. They say Martha Graham sat in the audience and wept, and she was not alone. (If you don’t believe me, watch Bala, the film about her made by Satyajit Ray. It’s on Youtube). A century later, many cities of the world offer training in Bharata Natyam India’s gift to the world—which takes on intriguing differences depending on each locale.
Kinra’s students are drawn from all the states of India, whether born there and migrated here, or born here. Others are of Sri Lankan or Malaysian Tamil, or maybe Fiji-Indian descent. But wait, there’s a Pakeha of Anglo/Irish line among them—though you only know that from the program note, her dancing is up there with the best of the rest.
Read the BBC news item from a few days ago, a lengthy and fascinating report of the ancient and mysterious folk ritual, Theyyam practised in Kerala—where members of Dalit, the lowest caste, perform in an ancient dance-drama. High caste members are required to attend and revere them. Think about that.
Here with Mudra we watch the daughters of Brahmin neurosurgeons or scientists (so long as under-resourcing of health or academic budgets has not closed down their work places) or of the local corner dairy (so long as ram raiders or armed invaders have not knifed them to death). Many of these dancers hold professional careers in law, education, science, technology, commerce—yet their radiant performances would have you believe they are full-time professional artists.
Each of the nine works is choreographed from the subtle tension between tradition and individual dancers’ personalities, all of whom deserve praise. One dancer leaps high and sideways, lands in ‘first position’ on the half foot, slowly continues down to a deep full plie, leans sideways then slips onto her knee and hip while sliding over the floor, then she comes back into the vertical and slowly returns to standing, all the while smiling. (Don’t try this at home. Well, the smile maybe, but for the rest you’ll need to be in training for years).
Varshini Suresh makes a stunning position flow to the next with great grace and it’s hard to take your eyes off that as she invests her dancing with expressive joy. Banu Siva has a wonderful poetic and rhythmic clarity in every aspect of her movement. Shrinidhi Bharadwaj is the dramatic force who propels the power of story-telling to great effect. The treasured Zeenat Vintiner is most welcome back as she rejoins Mudra after several years break. Her personal life reads like something from the Mahabharata, and echoes the story of the Polish refugee children who were given haven in New Zealand 80 years ago. Her own experience is a triumph for her, her family and her teacher.
My grandchildren were agog at the stamina demanded of these performers—loved the contrasting qualities between them—and were greatly taken with the calm way the dancers managed the tiniest little ‘things’ that happened: a tiny bell from an anklet falls off onto the stage—we can see it glinting and hope that the other dancers can too because you would not want to leap and land on that piece of metal. One dancer’s long black braid plaited with flowers comes loose from the belt which holds it in place as she twirls at speed. With great aplomb she continues dancing but ensures by various miniature twists that it not fly out and hit her fellow dancer in the face. (This is like a pilot realising that one engine is malfunctioning. Nought to do but keep calm, switch it off and use the other engine to make a faultless landing). Another dancer leaps high into a very narrow space between two others and knows her foot might catch in the swathe of silk that she’s wearing—so mid-air she leaps even higher and ever so slightly changes course. Stunning. My grandkids say ‘We love watching how these little things are managed—it makes the dancers seem more human and a little bit like all of us.’
They are equally pleased by the refreshments at intermission — the best samosa and ladoo in town—and a program note that the catering is by Awhina, the impressive New Zealand enterprise that fundraises to help women widowed by war in Sri Lanka, in a range of small scale development projects. I thank the young woman for my spicy masala tea, tell her how well the performance is going and hope she gets to glimpse some of it herself. ‘Oh I was dancing in last night’s cast—I’m just helping out front tonight.’ she smiles.
Poul Gnatt founded our New Zealand Ballet on ingenuity like that, 70 years ago. He’d have loved this performance as much as I did.
The year everywhere saw curtailment of a number of dance events but the resilience in dancers’ responses still gave us plenty of highlights to savour …
Ballet Collective Aotearoa launched its long-awaited premiere season, Subtle Dances, in the Auckland and Dunedin Arts Festivals early in the year. Artistic direction of BCA by Turid Revfeim, to establish a new national independent ballet enterprise, is supported by her troupe’s pioneering and committed spirit that refuses to let funding challenges affect their vision, as further festival bookings eventuate and new sponsorship initiatives are waiting in the wings. BCA achieved an outstanding professional level of dance and music presentation with this triple-bill that premiered choreographies by Sarah Knox, Cameron Macmillan and Loughlan Prior, in collaboration with the New Zealand String Trio, who played onstage throughout. This was chamber performance of the highest order, and impressive that the two arts could bring such coherence to a triple-bill. It was further affirmation to see Abigail Boyle, nationally treasured dancer, performing at her peak. Young company member Kit Reilly is one to watch out for (he has recently received the inaugural Bill Sheat Memorial Award for a dancer prepared to commit to New Zealand identity in their career).
Later in the year Loughlan Prior achieved what is arguably his finest choreography—Transfigured Night, beautifully themed to the Schoenberg score, performed by New Zealand String Quartet in a NZChamber Music national tour, in an impressive staging where musicians and dancers again shared the stage space. The calibre of choreography, fine dancers and fabulous musicians ensured that the totality was greater than the sum of its considerable parts. That doesn’t happen just by cutting the stage into two halves, but grows out of the skill and vision of the choreographer, and willingness of the musicians to take risks (NZSQ have always been up for that). Laura Saxon Jones, another much valued New Zealand dancer, was here in her prime, as Prior, who knows her work well, intuited exactly how to create a searingly memorable role for her. Thanks to inspired set and costume design by William Fitzgerald (who also danced in the work), the unlikely space of the Fowler Centre was transformed into a grail of poignant and poetic beauty. At the end, audience members, primarily music followers, were either on their feet or reduced to tears by this outstanding work, which would hold its strength in any venue worldwide. Perhaps it is music audiences that will enlarge a future following for dance as they find music treated with equal respect as choreography, without distracting interruptions of shouting and whistling that haul balletic virtuosity out of the context of choreography (as though dancers need encouragement to tackle the next entrechat or pirouette).
Lucy Marinkovich brought her remarkable Strasbourg 1518 back to Circa Theatre after its premiere season there was cut short last year. It remains the most powerful experience of dance theatre seen here in a very long time, and its Auckland season also made huge and visceral impact. Lucien Johnson’s sound design plus saxophone drove the performers into the stratosphere. I remember the narrator from the original production, France Hervé, for the remarkable transition within her role that edged its way through the performance. No easy way to turn that alchemy into words.
Bianca Hyslop choreographed and Rowan Pierce designed Pohutu, performed for the Toi Poneke gallery, a highly effective setting for a work of empathy with unfolding references to both geographical landscape and mental inscape.
The New Zealand School of Dance graduation offered a program of interesting contrasts within the classical and contemporary vocabularies, and I felt thrilled to encounter the choreographic instinct and potential of Tabitha Dombrowski’s new work, Reset Run.
Vivek Kinra’s company Mudra presented Navarasa, to his customary highest standard of Bharata Natyam, a consistent contribution to Wellington’s artistic life for decades. One of my favourite things is to observe a dance class, to sight the seeds planted that over time grow into performance. It’s one of the ways to prepare for the privilege of writing about dance in its ephemeral, enduring path. Kinra is one of the most naturally gifted dance teachers across all genres in Wellington, in his command of discipline that is shared with, but not imposed upon, his students. In this Indian dance form there is a wonderful continuity between studio and stage which offers a cleansing and rewarding experience.
I attended a spirited gathering at Parliament, where a book documenting the Irish population resident in New Zealand was launched. Every address was laced with a song, as we are so accustomed to in Maori whaikōrero (oratory) and following waiata (song) but it was especially apparent here that Celtic dance is as readily available as song, poetry, literature, instrumental music—fiddle and pipes—as affirmations in Irish communication. No choreographer to be named here—just dancing from the heart.
The Royal New Zealand Ballet’s restaging of Liam Scarlett’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream brought us many poignant reminders of the premiere season in 2016 and its stellar cast. Previous artistic director Ethan Stiefel had initially proposed and negotiated with Queensland Ballet for the two companies to share a series of productions, which was a truly exciting prospect. Queensland Ballet did mount A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 2016 but after that, unfortunately, the project did not proceed further. But the calibre of choreography and design (Tracy Grant Lord) of Dream remains intact. It was Scarlett’s masterstroke to frame the plot with a prologue of the young child caught between fractious parents yet resolved by the epilogue, hence the genius to telescope a 500 year old theme into contemporary society. That Liam Scarlett died at 35, earlier this year, is something that Shakespeare, in heartbreaking tragedy, would be challenged to account for.
I watched on Sky Arts several sizzling programs of documentary/performance by Flamenco artists, memorably Rocio Molina. The best-made dance films for my eye are those of Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan, superb record of the company’s prolific repertoire in perpetuity, and their viewings always prompt me to send a message to everyone in my contacts list to watch if at all possible.
Dance reading helped fill some of the quieter stretches of the year—Michel Meylac on Russian Ballet emigrés was exactly what it claimed—whereas I found totally delightful surprise, when reading the fresh and fabulous Zadie Smith—Feel Free—to happen upon her essay Dance Lessons for Writers, in which she brilliantly couples and compares Fred Astaire & Gene Kelly … ‘aristocracy v. proletariat…the floating and the grounded …’; Harold Nicholas & Fayard Nicholas … ‘propriety and joy, choose joy…’; Michael Jackson & Prince; Janet Jackson, Madonna, Beyoncé; David Byrne & David Bowie; Rudolf Nureyev & Mikhail Baryshnikov… ‘the one dancer faced resolutely inwards, the other is an outward-facing —artist…’. It’s heartening to find such perceptive analysis from a writer who is not exclusively describing dance performances, but who can trace and evaluate how these technical and aesthetic qualities resonate with the rest of our experiences.
For the fourth Russell Kerr Lecture in Ballet & Related Arts, Anne Rowse brought her own 90 years alongside her decades of friendship with 91 year old Russell Kerr to trace their parallel careers—and what fabulously sustained careers those have been. The event was coupled with a celebration of Michelle Potter’s book, Kristian Fredrikson, Designer, generously supported by the Australian High Commission.
The same event also saw the launch of DNA—Dance Needs Attention, a networking enterprise to invite artistic associates to support each other as individuals in independent dance studies and writing projects. Among early tasks was the opportunity for me to read the manuscript of associate Ashley Killar’s forthcoming biography of John Cranko—a fascinating read and one certainly to watch out for.
2022 will see Patricia Rianne, in the fifth lecture of the RKL series, trace her own life and career—including the ballet, Bliss, that she choreographed after a Katherine Mansfield story, for New Zealand Ballet in 1986. There will be several seminars throughout following months in which we will celebrate Poul Gnatt’s arrival in New Zealand in 1952, when he first taught open classes in Auckland as the Borovansky Ballet toured here, before he founded the New Zealand Ballet the following year.
May we all be safe and sound through 2022… 100 years since James Joyce published Ulysees, TS Eliot published The Waste Land, Virginia Woolf is writing, Katherine Mansfield is writing… and Sergei Diaghilev invited Igor Stravinsky, Pablo Picasso, Marcel Proust, James Joyce, Erik Satie and Clive Bell to dine together in Paris at the Majestic hotel. Wonder what was on the menu that night. Choreographic scenario, anyone?
For over 30 years Shri Vivek Kinra has been teaching Bharata Natyam in Wellington, at Mudra Dance Academy. There have been hundreds of pupils over the decades, many reaching advanced level and performing the arangetram, two-hour solo recital, that marks their professional debut. Others have arrived more recently in New Zealand and are of Indian, Sri Lankan or Fijian origin. One is of Anglo-Irish descent, proving anyone could be in if prepared to do the work.
Kinra draws on this pool of talent to form Mudra Dance Company, presenting traditional and new works in seasons that have become a shining beacon in the city’s annual dance program. The technique and expression from each performer is always delivered with the assured musicality that is built in to Bharata Natyam from young pupils’ first class (5 year olds have been known to weep at the door of the Academy since pupils are not accepted until the age of six).
Kinra choreographs and directs these seasons but announced his own retirement from performing in 2015. Fortunately for us he continues to perform mimed cameos of each choreography, by way of narrated introduction to the themes and moods to expect. These little jewels are like dances you can hold in your hand, and are alone worth the time and ticket price. His own training was at Kalakshetra, in Chennai, where he still maintains strong connections, and works with colleagues, Gayatri Lakshmanan chief among them, and the musicians who play the compositions recorded on Kinra’s annual visits to India.
Of the eight items on the program, six are choreographed by Kinra. The main one, Navarasa, which translates as Nine Emotions, lends its name to the whole program.
It is a stunning depiction of the gamut of valour, love, wonder, amusement, disgust, anger, fear, compassion and benevolence as experienced by the Mother Goddess Meenakshi in various encounters with gods, demons, humans and animals both tame and wild. In Tamil sung poetry, it is, as I was expecting, a miniature masterpiece.
In its mimed prologue, there was a sudden dying of the light. Kinra continued in the dark but knew it would be better if we could see him. A voice cried out for the gods to send light, which will have shaken awake the lighting technician to do as bid, and all was well. Was this part of the choreography all along? A nod to the Covid year that has darkened so many dance stages around the world? Could have been, should have been. You just have to turn the light back on and carry on as before. Vaccines and danced prayers will see us through.
Another item, this time in Sanskrit, is the Shlokas from Shri Krishna Karnamritam. The intoxicating beauty of this god is depicted through musk paste on his forehead, a jewel on his chest, a pearl at the tip of his nose, bracelets, sandalwood paste and a pearl necklace. But wait, there’s more. A herd of cows, a flock of peacocks, dark clouds and strikes of lightning. The piece ends in a dance about dancing—high sophistication this. The Ras Leela is a renowned depiction of ecstasy, usually performed with sticks that percussively mark the beat and interweaving positions of the dancers. Here subtle handclaps were substituted for sticks and it was poignant to hear a swelling response that had a number of the audience gently joining in that handclapping.
I first saw a Ras Leela danced by a large group from the Indian community at the first Pacific Arts Festival in Suva in 1972 (when Kinra was a babe in arms). Performed by 100 dancers out of doors, it was staged by the artists based at the Indian Cultural Centre in Fiji, five musicians and dancers resident in a full-time program for two years at a time, funded by ICCR from India. A short while later Professor Jenny McLeod brought those artists to Victoria University for a memorable intensive workshop at the School of Music. Political events in Fiji followed, the Centre was closed, and the next time I visited Suva it was a sorry sight to see the once vibrant place now empty and derelict with doors and windows creaking on their hinges and banging open in the wind. Life goes on but it’s hard to claim that all of history is progress.
There is a long and interesting history of Indian dance in New Zealand—beginning with Sivaram’s and Louise Lightfoot’s visit in 1950s, Liong Xi in 1960s, Amala Devi in 1970, the Balachandrans, Chandrabhanu, Kanan Deobhakta, two astonishing visits by Kathakali dance theatre, and there are others. Fortunately for audiences who wish to deepen their appreciation of the art, there is a vast literature on the subject. Two leading scholars of the field, Dr Kapila Vatsyayan and Dr Sunhil Kothari, have died recently, but were both aware of Kinra’s work here in New Zealand, in the world map of dance.
There was an exuberant cadence to the performance in the final Thillana, choreographed by the late Rukmini Devi, founder of Kalakshetra. (She too once visited New Zealand, as guest of the Theosophical Society). Mudra’s line-up of radiantly costumed and bejewelled dancers was a joy to the capacity audience. It is not to demote any of their previous memorable seasons to mark Navarasa as their strongest choreography yet.
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 Jiří Kylián—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 Cloud Gate 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—WhyDance ? 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 firstname.lastname@example.org
Happy New Year to all readers, and my thanks to Michelle Potter for hosting this website so generously.
Ever since Vivek Kinra began teaching Bharata Natyam classical dance in Wellington in 1990, there has been a little corner here, an enclave of India, brought close. His commitment to highest standards and consistent discipline is familiar from all dance training, but the way Kinra has single-handedly built up his academy for the daughters of Indian families here to study to the same level and standard that would be available to them back in India, is remarkable.
Over the years, there have been 27 public seasons of original choreography performed by Mudra Dance Company, there have been 40 arengetram or solo graduation recitals each of several hours duration, and the number of pupils attending classes over the years would be close to 2250. At least as impressive as these numbers is the fact that Kinra can probably tell you the names of them all without having to look up any records. The incisive mind and indefatigable memory of an Indian dancer is a source of wonder, and it is heartening to know that Kinra’s work here has been recognised when he was made a member of the New Zealand Order of Merit (MNZM) in the 2010 Queen’s Birthday honors for his ‘huge contribution to the New Zealand dance scene’. In February 2015 he received the Absolutely Positively Wellingtonian Award for his ‘outstanding contribution to Wellington through his work with Indian classical dance’.
Krishnaveni Lakshmanan was one of Kinra’s main teachers at the renowned Kalakshetra School in Chennai where he trained full-time from 1982 to 1987. Her daughter, Gayatri, and Vivek have been close colleagues since their student days, and she has visited New Zealand four times as a guest teacher at Mudra Dance Academy, and to act as artistic associate in the preparation of choreography and related arts for Mudra productions. Gayatri has performed in three productions in New Zealand with Kinra.
I watched Gayatri teach a number of classes at the junior and senior levels, and also spoke with her at length. (I am fortunate to be currently pursuing a PhD in Anthropology at VUW, profiling three dance communities in Wellington—free-lance ballet artists, the dancers at Mudra, and the Tokelau community dance group at Te Umiuminga in Naenae).
Gayatri instructed the pupils, ‘The little boy Krishna has long black curly hair—you show that by this gesture—not just wavy hair, but truly curly locks—lit from behind by a silver moon, a new moon, giving him a natural halo—quite different from a full bright moon that would be impossible to look at. He is an adorable little boy playing about. Of course you are going to fall in love with him, and it’s sure that we will too. You have to show us these things in the way you dance…’ I remark later that portraying the soft light of a crescent moon as opposed to a full moon is a sophisticated concept for young students to master. She replies, ‘Well, if dancing was so easy we would all be somewhere else.’ True.
‘Actually I don’t separate myself as a dancer from the dance itself. I’m lucky—I believe in Krishna so I can easily dance about him. But for my young students (Gayatri runs her own school in Chennai, where she has 75 pupils)—and these young ones here, many of them do not go to the temple, they possibly they do not believe in Krishna. So I have to encourage them to look inside themselves, to think about what similar qualities they do believe in, to portray those instead.
I will tell you something. When I was 15 years old, I was with my Father—and he had an accident. It was just terrible. I stayed with him, but he died from that accident. After that, I hated the Gods, I did not want anything to do with them. I gave up dancing—left it altogether—for three and a half years, I did other studies. After that long time, I came back to dancing, and started preparing for a special performance where I was to portray a devotee of Krishna. I had to search for him, to make some sense of what I believed in, what those beliefs represented and how they related to my dancing. By degrees I found him. Now his spirit is in me, always close by.
My mother taught me “Do not look at the audience while performing, do not try to connect with them. You will distract yourself, and them as well. Concentrate on creating the character, the little child. You will disappear and the audience will see the child in your place”.’
To her students, ‘Now listen—Siva from many temples can be depicted in dancing in a number of different ways—this mudra, that pose, that movement—but if it is Siva as Nataraj from Chidambaram you are dancing about, there is only one way to show him. You must first depict the architecture of the temple, the circular points, your arms are there, your wrists are here, your fingers are thus. This is uniquely Siva as Nataraj, in Chidambaram.’
The temple at Chidambaram, a Hindu pilgrim centre in southern Tamil Nadu has all the original poses of classical dance depicted in sculpture. I was lucky to visit there in 1985, en route to Kerala for Kathakali studies, and can summon the impressions from that visit as though it was yesterday.
Kinra’s students are primary school pupils, or at college, or university … some work as school teachers, engineers, accountants, hospital theatre nurses. All are female, most are Indian, a few are pakeha. None of it is easy for anyone though they must strive to make it seem so. ‘My Mother says dancing is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration’, Gayatri reminds them. There is an electric atmosphere of concentration from every pupil in the studio.
I slip away after the class in awe of the 8 year old pupil I have just seen who is most exquisitely immersed in perfecting this demanding dancing. She hasn’t a clue how strikingly talented she is. She’s too busy portraying little Krishna stealing the butter without being caught. We will see more of this child, both of them.
Jennifer Shennan, June 2018, Wellington
Featured image: Gayatri Lakshmanan (right) and Vivek Kinra, Mudra Dance Academy, Wellington