New Zealand School of Dance. Performance Season

16 November 2022. Te Whaea Theatre, Wellington
reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

This year’s Performance Season by New Zealand School of Dance offers two programs that alternate throughout a ten-day season. The opening program has five works all choreographed by Loughlan Prior, performed by the school’s stream of classical ballet students. The following evening has five works each by a different choreographer, performed by contemporary dance students.        

Loughlan Prior graduated from NZSD, followed a performing career and has more recently become a full-time free-lance choreographer. Even as a student he knew the pull towards choreography and has already a prolific output, one could say outpouring, of both short and full-length works, including a number of dance films, to his credit.  His works have been seen widely in New Zealand and also staged in a number of countries abroad.

His pithy and helpful program notes are reproduced here since they don’t need re-writing…

Storm Surge
Music: Matteo Sommacal, The Forgotten Strains (For Piano and String Quartet);
Exile Upon Earth: 3. Pensive; Follow It Blindly (For Piano and Cello);
The Sign of Gathering (For Piano and String Quartet)
Costume Design: Max de Roy
Inspired by the wild weather of Wellington, this newly created work explores the drama, beauty and fragility of the human body. Placed within varying environments, small fragments of movement are pieced together to create a complex matrix of shifting forms and patterns. The dancers are seen to dart and weave through a vibrant landscape evoking turbulent skies      

The opening section in low light had a mesmerising quality in arm movements suggesting the ebb of kelp tossed in the tide. Next a duo of abstract movement in unison, followed by a sequence with emotion newly introduced, gave the sense that the choreography was evolving through layered references, the weather outside towards the weather inside. All eight dancers were focussed and in form for this premiere performance, with Aidan Tully particularly noticeable in the cast.

Verse
Music: Antonio Martin Y Coll, Differencias sobre las Folias
Physical calligraphy. A script embodied in flesh
dedicated to Wellington arts patron, the late David Carson-Parker

Verse, a solo, beautifully performed by Joshua Douglas, is a carefully chiselled transition of a 17th century sarabande towards a contemporary sensibility. Prior has taken the minimalism of baroque dance movement vocabulary, through which intense emotion can be conveyed, from its iteration as the legendary Folies d’Espagne. The first known review of a dance performance in European literature is of a sarabande, by François Pomey mid 1660s, and I’ve yet to come across a finer account of a danced performance in any era. I’m drawn to art that reminds us infinity lies in both directions, ever outward, ever inward, as we walk backwards into the future. I would vote Verse as my favourite work from both programs if it were a competition, which thankfully it’s not.

Joshua Douglas in Loughlan Prior’s Verse. New Zealand School of Dance, 2022. Photo: © Stephen A’Court.

(Verse takes its strength from the single music source, Diferencias sobre las Folias, theme and variations by Antonio Martin Y Coll, superbly rendered by Jordi Savall and Hesperion XX1. In contrast, a number of the other dances across both evening’s programs use excerpts from many different music sources for a single dance work, leaving a choreography to devise its own structure, predictably with varying degrees of coherence).

Curious Alchemy
Music: L.v Beethoven String Quartet no.3, op.130; C.Saint-Saens, String Quartet no 1, op.112
This short work was commissioned for students of the Canadian National Ballet School for a festival in 2017.

Four dancers in smart red contoured leotards moved with an attractive energy, conveying a playful mood of youthful enthusiasm. MIguel Herrera was particularly immersed in the humour of the style.

Time Weaver
Music: Philip Glass, Metamorphosis
This hypnotic and seemingly infinite, arrangement of Glass’ work for harp is symbolic of our relationship with the continuum of time and the perceived linear passage in which we live our lives. Two figures are captured curving, sculpting, playing, ‘living’ inside an unending duet, an ouroboros. If the stage light was never to fade, the dance could go on forever. 

India Shackel and Aidan Tully performed this sustained pas-de-deux with unflinching care and admirable command of the technical demands it makes, resulting in a ritual or prayer-like atmosphere.

Coloratura
Music: N. Porpora, O. Davis, G.Giacomelli, R.Broschi – numerous excerpts.
Originally created for Palucca Hochschule für Tanz Dresden, this stylish work never made it to the stage due to the Covid pandemic. Now in 2022 the piece finds a new home at NZSD and has been expended into a large ensemble work to feature the talents of every classical student. Fun, quirky and irreverent, Coloratura pays homage to the vocal mastery and comedic timing of world-renowned mezzo soprano Cecilia Bartoli. There is high energy and pure joy in every note, inspiring an infectious celebration of dance and music.

Fun, quirky and irreverent, indeed, as the excesses and extremes of staged opera are satirised. A lip-synching Diva, played by a masked Rilee Scott draped in fineries, struts the stage while he delivers many repeats of soft vague arm gestures in floating arm-covers to assist delivery of the lyrics. However the variety of would-be dynamic gestures that opera singers actually use while performing is a minefield waiting for choreographic exploration, since these are the often clumsy remnants of the earlier time when singers also danced and dancers also sang. Here a large dance chorus of attendants played backing, fronting and siding roles and one could imagine an expanded version of this piece in a heightened explosive finale with the ripped bodices and revelations of star performers in competition laid bare, as opera’s surreal characters sing and love, sing and dance, sing and suffer, sing and die, then come back to life for the curtain calls.

New Zealand School of Dance students with Rilee Scott (centre) in Loughlan Prior’s Coloratura, 2022. Photo: © Stephen A’Court.

One suspects that Loughlan Prior finds a new dance idea every day of his waking life—and more in his dreaming life. This was a special opportunity to showcase his work on many young dancers who clearly relished their roles and gave spirited performances.

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17 November, 2022. Te Whaea Theatre, Wellington

The contemporary dance program opened with the premiere of Craig Bary’s State of Perpetuation. In an arresting beginning to a vocal section, the dancers held sculptural shapings in what was possibly the best lit work of the evening. It invited our own response, and the recurring motifs of hands quivering in wiri, or circular motions of wrist that suggested the thrust of poi movement I found both subtle and memorable.

(I know it’s important to thank the sponsors but one could hope space could be found in an 18-page printed program for a summary profile of each choreographer. Craig Bary was an exceptional student at the school years back, and later a phenomenal performer in a number of Douglas Wright’s choreographies. Dance is ephemeral enough by its nature so deserves the respect of memory within its legacy at every possible opportunity).

Midlight, choreographed by Christina Chan and Aymeric Bichon, was a duet danced by Persia Thor-Poet and Seth Ward. Their two bodies intertwined as one almost throughout, inviting thoughts about where individual identity is reshaped within a relationship.

Rubble, by Holly Newsome, had a large cast moving to vocal and percussion sections. Its theme involved the motivation needed to get up and get on with the daily dance. The song, Rise & Shine, framed the work with humour.   

A Kind Tone, by Tyler Carney-Faleatua, again with a large group cast, explored the lifting of layers, both literally in swathes of draped costume, and metaphorically in regard to how a community supports individuals. Sequences of a slowly locomoting tight-knit group from which different individuals had to push and struggle to emerge, were memorable.

Students of New Zealand School of Dance in Tyler Carney-Faleatua’s A Kind Tone, 2022. Photo: © Stephen-A’Court

Sarah Foster-Sproull, another graduate from NZSD some years back, is a gifted choreographer with a major output. Her work here, To The Forest, To The Island, with music by Eden Mulholland, gave a strong cadence to the program and the dancers were galvanised into energised performances as they explored the notion of the places where we take refuge.

The work was originally conceived for film by students at Auckland’s Unitec. In this live version, a number of tube light sticks carried and positioned around the stage then reflected sequences of many bright colours which moved towards strobe effects. This seriously challenges the audience’s viewing access, and I confess my response is always to close my eyes at any time where lights are shone at the audience or strobe effects are used in the theatre. It was clear however that the committed dancers relished the chance to perform in a strong and animated choreography.

In different ways, works on both programs referenced themes of identity of individuals and of groups, as well as motivation in how to respond to challenges. The last three years of tumultuous experiences related to the global pandemic have affected life for every individual, family, neighbourhood in the country, indeed in every country on the planet. The resilience needed to adapt and continue when continuity is often the first casualty, with dance training programs probably more challenged than most enterprises, is reflected in many of these works.

To many the divide between ‘classical’ and ‘contemporary’ dance is more of an aesthetic concept than a reality in today’s professional dance world, and several of the works we saw could have been performed in either program. The school’s whakatauki or motto—Kia kōrero te katoa o te tinana/to talk with the whole body—offers encouraging reminder of the choreographic aspiration to get the physics of motion to reveal the physics of emotion.

Jennifer Shennan, 19 November 2022

Featured image: India Shackel and Aidan Tully in Loughlan Prior’s Time Weaver. New Zealand School of Dance 2022. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

New Zealand Dance Highlights 2021

by Jennifer Shennan

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.

Scene from Tabitha Dombrowski’s Reset Rerun, New Zealand School of Dance, 2021. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

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?

Jennifer Shennan, 21 December 2021

Featured image: Scene from Helix in Subtle Dances, Ballet Collective Aotearoa, 2021. Photo: © John McDermott

New Zealand School of Dance. Graduation 2021

22 November 2021. Te Whaea, Wellington

reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

The Graduation season of NZSD is always a spirited one and, despite numerous disruptions to the year, this 2021 program of nine short works is an outstanding testament to resilience and determination, qualities that dancers are noted for. Such things can be infectious, all to the good since the world needs more of both. It’s the elevation—the leaping, the jumping, the flying, the jeté, the sauté, the entrechat, the gravity-defying stuff that I’m talking about (—the things dancers in retirement tell you they miss the most. It’s metaphor. Normal humans don’t jump, they just walk and maybe run, as common sense dictates they should, so younger dancers are needed to keep the elevation going. If you agree, read on. If you don’t, I’m not sure I can help].

The opening piece, a perfect curtain-raiser, is the Waltz from Act I of Swan Lake, from Russell Kerr’s renowned production for RNZB some decades back, remembered for the integrity of its staging. Swan Lake is not just about the dancing, it’s a story-ballet about love and loss, and the price to be paid for a mistake. Fundamentally it’s a ballet about grief. Kerr has always known how to fully harness the dramatic power of full-length ballets in the theatre, something many attempt but few achieve. He is the consummate force, call that kaumatua, of ballet in New Zealand, and is only aged 91 so there’s time for us to appreciate him yet. RNZB will next year bring back his production of Swan Lake. I remember the closing cameo of its final scene, the cumulative effect of all four preceding acts, a product of Kerr’s humanity and humility, and I have lived by it ever since. This excerpt was staged by Turid Revfeim, a legendary alumna of NZSD, who brought her typical sensibility and acumen to create the enthusiasm and atmosphere of a 21 year old’s birthday party for us all to share. There’s a lot can go wrong at a 21st birthday of course (and the full-length ballet follows through with that) but here it’s a huge bouquet of fragrant roses as a gift for a birthday celebration. Who’s going to say No Thanks to that on the night? Salute to Tchaikovsky, Russell Kerr and Turid Revfeim, to every dancer, and to everyone in the audience since we’ve all been invited to the party, so to speak.  

Reset Run, by Tabitha Dombrowksi, lists music by Bach, by Kit Reilly, and by Ravel. I am familiar with Dombrowski as a fine and focussed dancer (earlier in the year she was in the cast of Ballet Collective Aotearoa’s memorable season, and also in Loughlan Prior’s stunning Transfigured Night) but I have not hitherto seen her choreography. It proves a revelation. My anticipation is usually on reserve when several musics for a single choreography are involved, since that might mean fragmentation instead of the coherence that a single composition can support. I need not have worried. Lines, patterns, the front view or the back of each dancer, are thoughtfully modulated to balance light and dark. The cast of eight dancers are in black gear, a white stripe down each arm, and a large oval cut out from the back, allowing light from the shadows to shine on skin. The true choreographic strength, maintained throughout, makes each move consequent from the one before it and gives rise to the one that follows. An initial line-up of couples then become a single couple, then become a group. That beautifully built transition transports me back not 24 hours when I’d watched the magnificent and beautiful lunar eclipse in the night sky. No mean feat to evoke that choreography.

Classical Ballet Students in Tabitha Dombroski’s Reset Run. New Zealand School of Dance, 2021. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

The following work could not have made greater contrast. Dust Bunny, a ziggy number choreographed by Matt Roffe, is an excerpt from his full-length work Cotton Tail. In cabaret mode, it urges all rabbits to run from the farmer’s gun. Some escape, but of course some do not. The animal rights issue here is poignant and well played but I did wonder if some kind of mask or head covering would help the animal representation.

Airu Matsuda and Jemima Smith in Matt Roffe’s  Dust Bunny. New Zealand School of Dance, 2021. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

Lucy Marinkovich always develops her work from researched and specific themes.  Lost + Found offers a meditation on time, and the ephemeral life of a dance. The opening section, effective in silence, captures both linear and circular time.  Further sections layer unison and canon in movement, to the piano music of Jonathan Crayford with atmospheric overtones designed by Lucien Johnson. The climax is a wild and wonderful whirling blur after the manner of dervishes, in the timeless invoking for grace to descend from on high. Where does a dance go when it is no longer being performed? That question is echoed in St.Augustine’s words—’What is time then? If nobody asks me, I know; but if I were desirous to explain it to one that should ask me, plainly I do not know.’  A pointed theme for dance… the most ephemeral of performance arts.

Madelet Sanli, Persia Thor-Poet, Stela Albuquerque and Miriam Joyce in Lucy Marinkovich’s – Lost + Found. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

Loughlan Prior, an experienced choreographer with a continually expanding career, made Time Weaver, to music by Philip Glass. A couple dances patterns and lines, holding positions with striking shapes of two bodies, rather than communicating an emotionally engaging pas de deux of the conventional order. The dance comes to seem like the slow-motion capture of an exquisite flower opening—lotus, passionfruit, desert cactus, water lily perhaps—such as David Attenborough would be pleased to have commissioned.

Louise Camelbeke & Zachary Healy in Loughlan Prior's 'Time Weaver'. New Zealand School of Dance, 2021. Photo: © Stephen A'Court
Louise Camelbeke and Zachary Healy in Loughlan Prior’s Time Weaver. New Zealand School of Dance, 2021. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

Somewhat Physical by Jeremy Beck rocks with comic satire, but has a serious underpinning. A rambunctious rendering of Rossini’s The Thieving Magpie is resisted by the large group of eleven dancers who stand folded over with arms hanging down. Imperceptibly slowly they unfold to an upstanding position. End of music, bows and applause, thanks for nothing. Chairs are brought in and the dancers set themselves up as an audience. What does that make us? Further sections contain music (Vivaldi, Purcell, Mozart) and movement jokes that question the conventional relationships between what’s seen and what’s heard. The last section seems like a scene from the classic film Allegro Ma non Troppo, with dancers assembled as an orchestra of musicians, flinging their arms off, dancing their hearts out, striking their strings and pounding their percussion. Rossini, Vivaldi, Purcell and Mozart would have loved it—well, it’s for sure at least Mozart would have.      

The Bach by Michael Parmenter, to the opening chorus of Bach’s Easter Cantata, is here in an excerpt (from the original made for Unitec season in 2002, and also performed by NZSD in 2006—apart from Swan Lake it’s the only work not a premiere on this programme.) Its presence here answers that question about where a dance goes when it’s not being performed. In this case it resides, it hides, within the music, poised and ready to explode as soon as the music begins—’to celebrate the joy of the Resurrection.’ Fifteen dancers fill the stage with that joy, spiritual and/or religious, and deliver all the moves of a masterwork. You’d want to study this dance for the art and craft of choreography at its best.

In complete contrast follows So You’ll Never Have to Wear a Concrete Dressing Gown, by Eliza Sanders. An experimental piece, constructed in motifs from images in poems penned by the participating dancers. There is further self-referencing in that each dancer wears a shirt imprinted with the face of a class-mate, in a potentially interesting theme. The faces are distorted when the hands of the dancers are placed on the shirts which I find a little disconcerting—and I wait for the wearer and the face to connect during the dance, though that does not happen. This is an enigmatic work not wanting to follow obvious conventions.

Nexus, by Shaun James Kelly, to Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, depicts dancers learning and assembling sequences from classical vocabulary, with frequent motifs of sliding and gliding footwork delivered at speed. I see echoes of Lander’s Etudes, which suits the theme of dancers presenting the movement elements of their art form. In that sense it makes a suitable finale to a Graduation program, though it is the vibes of Parmenter’s work that are still hanging in the air as we dash through the rain to the car park. It’s raining—who cares? We’re dancing. 

Jennifer Shennan, 22 November 2021

Featured image: Contemporary Dance Students in Jeremy Beck’s – Somewhat Physical. New Zealand School of Dance, 2021. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

Many Happy (re)Turns

By Jennifer Shennan

Anne Rowse is a well-known and much-loved figure in the New Zealand dance scene. Her 90th birthday was recently celebrated in style at several events in her home town of Wellington, and at a family gathering at Queenstown in the following days. London called in long-distance, as did many colleagues and former students from a global spread of cities. 

Anne had early ballet training in New Zealand, continued that in London, then had a performance career with Festival Ballet between 1952 and 1960, when she danced alongside fellow New Zealander Russell Kerr. She retired from performing and returned home with husband Ken Sudell to start a family. After some years she commenced teaching and in 1979 was appointed Director of the National School of Ballet, in 1982 re-named New Zealand School of Dance to mark the introduction of contemporary dance as well as teacher-training courses.

Everyone invited to the birthday events accepted, since ‘Joyous occasions are few. We will celebrate’ (that’s a quote from composer, the late Douglas Lilburn). Perhaps they were also hoping that Anne’s renowned optimism, elegance and positivity would prove infectious, and that they might catch some of whatever she’s got.

Anne recently performed the central role in Doris Humphrey’s movingly beautiful Air for the G-String, something she has done maybe a dozen times over the years, her serenity and presence more poignant on every occasion. (Air, along with a dozen other Humphrey and Limon repertoire, was first staged by Louis Solino when he was on the faculty at New Zealand School of Dance. Anne rates it as a major coup to have appointed Solino to the staff since none of those fine classic choreographies would otherwise ever have been seen here). A number of other highly successful initiatives date back to her time at the School. It is heartening to learn that Anne is mid-stream writing her Memoirs so there will be a record of important dimensions in New Zealand dance.

Early in the week an open class of Renaissance and Baroque dance included Anne dancing a menuet-à-deux from Kellom Tomlinson’s 18th century treatise. With Robert Oliver on bass viol, and Keith McEwing as partner, she brought a striking grace to the menuet—(I here declare a very happy ‘conflict of interest’ since I set the dance). Matz Skoog (former artistic director of RNZBallet) was in the room and reference to his experience in late Baroque theatre productions at Drottningholm in Sweden gave an extra resonance to the lines and legacy we trace in ballet history—not for old time’s sake, but for future time’s sake.

Anne Rowse and Keith McEwing in Menuet-à-deux. Photo: © Sharon Vanesse

A few days later a large crowd of well-wishers attended an event at New Zealand School of Dance where director Garry Trinder and associate director Christine Gunn, together with present and past staff and students, acknowledged Anne’s contribution and celebrated her milestone. Other speakers included Liz Davey and Deirdre Tarrant, and The Royal Academy of Dance, itself celebrating 100 years of achievement, made a presentation of the President’s Award on behalf of Luke Rittner from London.

The junior scholars performed a piece set by Sue Nicholls, a contemporary work by Holly Newsome was danced by 1st year students, then the pas de deux from the second movement of Concerto by Kenneth MacMillan was given a flawless performance by Louise Camelbeke and Zachary Healy. The luminous choreography, to the Shostakovich Second Piano Concerto, beautifully played by Philip O’Malley, was a blessing without words.

Louise Camelbeke and Zachary Healy in Kenneth MacMillan’s Concerto. New Zealand School of Dance, 2021. Photo:© Stephen A’Court

The school song—E te whaea e—was given a robust rendition by all students and staff, thus ending the presentation in high spirits.

Dance … so intensely in and of the present … can equally invoke other times, places and people, their work then and now, their memories of then, and the books they write now.

Many happy returns, Anne. We celebrate 21sts, why not 91sts? See you next year.

Jennifer Shennan, 19 August 2021   

Featured image: Anne Rowse, 2015. Photo: © Kerry Ferigo

Helen Moulder and Sir Jon Trimmer recreating a moment from 'Petrouchka' in 'Meeting Karpovsky', Willow Productions 2019. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

2019–Dance Highlights from New Zealand

by Jennifer Shennan

Happy New Year to all readers of ‘On Dancing’—even though the weeks are passing, the year still feels new … but in saying that, might I add that we have all been following the numerous stories of courage and heartbreak as the summer fires in Australia have been taking such a terrible toll in the loss of life, and wreaking havoc to homes and livelihoods. Kia kaha. Find and take courage.

In reading Michelle’s highlights of her year, it is clear that Liam Scarlett’s Dangerous Liasons for Queensland Ballet was a standout. How disappointing that the earlier path which was set with his ballet A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in co-production between Royal New Zealand Ballet and Queensland Ballet, was not continued with this project. The team of Scarlett, Tracy Grant Lord in design and Nigel Gaynor’s truly wonderful amalgam of Mendelssohn’s score gave our company one of the very best works ever in its repertoire. That notion of collaboration between the companies had so much promise, both in terms of productions but also the possibilities of dancer exchange. All the ways that New Zealand can exchange and strengthen dance ties with Australia make sound common sense from artistic, economic and pedagogic points of view, and could only enhance international awareness of dance identity in our part of the world.

Outstanding memories of 2019 here in Wellington started with the interesting residency of Michael Keegan-Dolan and his ensemble of dancers, working also with local students or free-lance dancers as he began preparations towards the season of Mam, for the International Arts Festival this March. Alex Leonhartsberger in the cast is as compelling a performer as ever, and we welcomed echoes of Loch na h’Eala, the inspired Gaelic take on Swan Lake from this company back in our 2018 festival.

Other 2019 memories would include Andrea Schermoly’s Stand to Reason in an RNZB season; Victoria Columbus’ Fibonacci Series in NZDance Company season; the fresh setting for Orbiculus—NZSchool of Dance choreographic season; Sarah Foster-Sproull’s Orchids at Circa Theatre. Loughlan Prior’s Hansel & Gretel for RNZB showed him in command of all the forces needed for a full-length work and the choreographer/composer collaboration with Claire Cowan worked particularly well. Images of Paul Mathews in his role as The Witch remain impressive.

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

Another performance that lingers in the memory was that by NZSD student Rench Soriano, in Five Variations on a Theme, in their Graduation program. His career, unfortunately not local, will be one to watch. On that same program Raewyn Hill’s choreography Carnival.4, had a very strong presence. It is heartening to see earlier graduates from the School returning to mount works in the mature stages of their careers.

If I must choose my single personal highlight, it would be the last of the year—Meeting Karpovsky—the play by Helen Moulder and Jon Trimmer. Just the two of them in the cast but between them they offer a poignant and profound depth-sounding of what dance can be and mean to an audience. The work continues to hold its power and will not be forgotten by those who were drawn in to its mystery and alchemy.

The upcoming Festival will have a broad dance program, with high expectations for the Keegan-Dolan work, as well as the visiting Lyon Ballet in Trois Grandes Fugues—(three distinct choreographies to the same music, an intriguing idea) and Lucy Marinkovich’s Strasbourg 1518.

Happy New Year to all.

Jennifer Shennan, 13 January 2020

Featured image: Helen Moulder and Sir Jon Trimmer recreating a moment from Petrouchka in Meeting Karpovsky. Willow Productions, 2019. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

Helen Moulder and Sir Jon Trimmer recreating a moment from 'Petrouchka' in 'Meeting Karpovsky', Willow Productions 2019. Photo: © Stephen A’Court
Marcel Cole in 'Free as a Bird'. On course, 2019. Photo: © Andrew Sikorski/Art Atelier

On Course. QL2 Dance

15 December 2019. QL2 Theatre, Canberra

On course, a program providing opportunities for emerging choreographers currently studying at tertiary institutions, is now in its thirteenth year. The 2019 program consisted of eight live choreographic productions and two short films. Most of the creators and performers had previously danced with QL2 Dance, Canberra’s youth dance organisation, and on this occasion creators came from the Victorian College of the Arts (VCA), Western Australian Academy for the Performing Arts (WAAPA) and the New Zealand School of Dance (NZSD).

The absolute stand out work to my mind was Free as a bird, choreographed and danced as a solo by Marcel Cole, former student of Kim Harvey in Canberra and now a contemporary major at NZSD. Cole walked into the performing space and announced ‘This is not a comment on ballet.’ He then proceeded to dance an excerpt from Solor’s variation in La Bayadère. While somewhat constricted by the small space of the QL2 blackbox theatre, and perhaps by a little lack of attention to some details, we could not help but be swept away by his elevation, those fabulous cabrioles, and a manège of jetés.

But what made Free as a bird an exceptional piece was what came after. Cole is looking towards contemporary dance these days and, after the Bayadère solo, he began to question the direction of his life. He went to an imaginary barre, did a couple of pliés, left the barre, then came back, and left again before suggesting that while studying ballet he had been walking in a straight line—with clear direction—but that now he was moving along a different path. I could have done without the verbal explanation at the end because it was perfectly obvious from the movement, and from Cole’s strong presence, what was happening. The work finished with Cole turning in a small circle with his arms tracing a meandering pattern in the air. The concept behind the work quite clear. No words were necessary.

This brings me to another point. Almost without exception the choreographers chose to use the spoken word in their creations. I’m not sure why this was thought to be necessary. In my experience the most powerful choreography expresses the creator’s ideas through movement, without a verbal explanation. There are some things that dance can’t say well of course, but let’s not dance what we have to say. It was interesting too that the one creator who used quite minimal verbal intervention was Mia Tuco who is currently enrolled at the VCA in a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Acting! Her work, I was the angel in the poem you wrote, was clearly and strongly constructed and again needed no words.

Another strong work on the program was Caspar Ilshner’s Eye to Eye. Its strength lay in the work’s coherence in which the music (composed by Ilshner himself, another NZSD student); the choreographic structure; and the costumes had all been thought through clearly and all contributed well to the whole. I especially admired the way in which Ilshner manipulated groups of dancers to show us various aspects of human interaction.

Scene from Eye to Eye in On Course, QL2 Dance 2019. Photo: © Andrew Sikorski/Art Atelier

Having taken my stand re words and dance, I have to say I enjoyed Ruby Ballantyne’s My roommate is a very heavy sleeper. The often amusing story was narrated as a voice-over, and the choreography really only played a secondary role as far as I am concerned. But then that’s something different from choreography that has to explain itself in words. Ballantyne is studying at WAAPA.

I also especially enjoyed Jason Pearce’s Kafka, which was the first of the two short films presented at the beginning of the evening. Pearce has just recently graduated from the VCA and his film focused largely on a close up of a particular part of the body in movement. We mostly saw the back of the torso and it was mesmerising for the glimpse it gave us of spinal movement.

On Course is a wonderful initiative. I had particular favourites but I was pleased to see such a range of ways in which choreography can be approached and in which ideas can be presented.

Michelle Potter, 17 December 2019

Featured image: Marcel Cole in Free as a Bird from On Course, 2019. Photo: © Andrew Sikorski/Art Atelier

Marcel Cole in 'Free as a Bird'. On course, 2019. Photo: © Andrew Sikorski/Art Atelier

Please consider supporting my Australian Cultural Fund project to help Melbourne Books publish Kristian Fredrikson. Designer in a high quality format. Donations are tax deductible. See this link to the project, which closes on 31 December 2019.

Rench Soriano in 'Five Variations on a Theme'. New Zealand School of Dance, 2019. Photo © Stephen A'Court

New Zealand School of Dance Graduation Season, 2019

20-30 November 2019. Te Whaea Theatre, Wellington
reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

NZSD’s Graduation season always displays the talent and enthusiasm of graduating dancers who, after three years’ training, are poised to venture forth and seek ways to make a professional career. Commitment and courage are needed in equal measure. Selected first and second year students are included in the casting, which is credit to them and their tutors since no dancer is less than fully prepared and present.

This year’s season combines classical ballet and contemporary dance works, eight in all, on the same program. (Last year’s had alternate nights for classical and contemporary works). Either formula offers the chance for us to consider how the two dance lineages as taught in the School, contrast with, or relate to, each other in the professional dance world—in technique, movement vocabulary, choreographic themes, aesthetic choices, relationship to music.

While many aspects of each are distinct, dances labelled ‘classical’ or ‘contemporary’ are not the opposites of each other. My take is that it’s the individual choreographer who places a work where it lies on the spectrum. If it’s good, then dance is the winner on the night. Memories of a masterpiece by Jiří Kylián in a  recent Grad. program combined performers from both streams of training and demonstrated that truth (as also did a recent film viewing of Douglas Wright’s masterpiece from Royal New Zealand Ballet repertoire, rose and fell—truly superb contemporary choreography being performed by ballet dancers. QED.)

O body swayed to music, o brightening glance,
how can we know the dancer from the dance?    
William Butler Yeats

The performance opens with Concerto Barocco by George Balanchine, to the Double Violin concerto by Bach. The clarity of music is matched in dance line, alignment and groupings. It is luminous, timeless, time less, time more.

My verses cannot comment
on your immortal moment or tell you what you mean;
only Balanchine
has the razor edge and knows that art of language         
Robert Lowell

Velociraptor, by Scott Ewen, to music by Kangding Ray, is a premiere. The opening section is swift and driven. Among the cast of nine, we notice a wrist bandage on one dancer. Have the rehearsals come at a cost? We notice another. Soon the bandages unravel and become strings that tie and bind, forming mesmerizing tensions between groupings, and becoming cats’ cradles for bodies lifted horizontally.

Mind is music…
Invisible dancer who dances quicksilver vision
 
James Schevill

Courtney Lim and Tessa Redman in Velociraptor. New Zealand School of Dance, 2019. Photo © Stephen A’Court

Not Odd Human, by Sam Coren, to music by Richard Lester, recently premiered at Tempo Dance Festival. It’s a manic mediaeval mayhem, its sardonic humour propelling characters from long ago and faraway into our midst. Mad Joan and Dull Grethe are there, Joan of Arc, Lady Godiva perhaps? You could credit Breugel with its design. 

Such rollicking measures, prance as they dance
In Breugel’s great picture, the Kermess.
William Carlos Williams

Five Variations on a Theme, by David Fernandez, to a Bach Violin Concerto, is a solo danced by Rench Soriano. Everything about this phenomenally gifted dancer, a second year student, combines precision with poetry, and is a joy to witness. His dancing is redolent of his tutor Qi Huan, who has rehearsed him in this work. For many years Huan was the leading dancer in Royal New Zealand Ballet, where his peerless command of technique gave him the expressive freedom that dance at its soaring best can offer. Before him, Ou Lu, before him Martin James, before him Jon Trimmer, before him Poul Gnatt. Soriano is clearly profiting from his teacher and this pedigree heritage, and will make a fine career for himself.

The dancer dances. The dance does not dance…
The saved world dances, and the dance dances.     
Jacques Audiberti

 Re:Structure, by Ross McCormack, to music by Jason Wright, was another premiere work. A 5 metre long pole is the central prop around which the cast of 8 dancers  manipulate and explore its positioning. One dancer vertically atop the pole makes a striking image to which you could supply your own narrative, but there is deliberately no denouement to the work overall.

Your props had always been important:…
Things without a name you fell upon

Or through …
Richard Howard

Round of Angels, by Gerald Arpino, from 1983, to music of Mahler, has a cast of six males, then joined by a single female. As a couple, Brittany-Jayde Duwner and Jordan Lennon dance with secure command and lyrical expression, becoming the central tender core  of the work.

I said that she had danced heart’s truth 
W.B Yeats

Brittany-Jayde Duwner and Jordan Lennon in Round of Angels. New Zealand School of Dance, 2019. Photo © Stephen A’Court

Handel—A Celebration by Helgi Tomasson, to excerpts by Handel, has a large cast of spirited movers who rise to the spirit of the celebratory music. Rehearsed by Christine Gunn and Nadine Tyson, the staging had enthusiasm and style in equal and full measure.               

Dancer: O you translation
Of all transiency into action, how you made it clear!
And the whirl of the finish, that tree of motion,
Didn’t it wholly take in the hard-won year
Rainer Maria Rilke

Carnival.4, by Raewyn Hill, was anything but carnivalesque in its mood. Its effect was percussive, tight, driven, insistent, urgent, pulsing. It evoked youth in support of each other, demanding to be listened to.

What is the hardest task of Art?
To clear the ground and make a start …
To tell the tale…
That when the millions want the few
Those can make Heaven here and do.
John Masefield

New Zealand School of Dance Contemporary Students in Carnivale.4, 2019. Photo © Stephen A’Court

Nothing about dancing is easy—it’s just meant to look that way, and the quality of sprezzatura, nonchalance, while delivering virtuosic choreography is the one you’d aspire to. The most outstanding dancer of the evening is for me the personification of that gift of grace, and will surely make the world a better place wherever he dances. We all need to consider and study that quality, and pray for a bit of it in our lives, dancing and all the rest.

Come to the edge.
We might fall.
 Come to the edge.
It’s too high!
Come to the edge.
And they came,
and he pushed,
And they flew.
Christopher Logue

Jennifer Shennan, 22 November 2019

Featured image: Rench Soriano in Five Variations on a Theme. New Zealand School of Dance, 2019. Photo © Stephen A’Court

Rench Soriano in 'Five Variations on a Theme'. New Zealand School of Dance, 2019. Photo © Stephen A'Court

The golden ties that bind

by Jennifer Shennan

Memories from across 40 years of life and work and people at New Zealand School of Dance were triggered by a recent gathering. 

Christine Gunn has been on the faculty at New Zealand School of Dance as classical ballet tutor for 40 years. A celebratory gathering took place at Te Whaea, the school’s venue, in early September to mark the occasion but no-one is taking that as a signal of her impending retirement. The opening speech of heartfelt thanks by director Garry Trinder acknowledged that Christine prefers not to play the diva but just to get on with the work. He quipped how pleased he was to have found her the perfect fridge magnet which asks ‘Would you like to speak to the person in charge, or to the person who knows what’s going on?’ Perhaps they’ll let her retire after another 40 years?

Christine masterminded the art of  timetabling the curriculum for both the classical and contemporary dance streams—(this is tantamount to completing Sudoku puzzles while simultaneously playing two Chess games). It was not merely the timetabling skills being remembered and celebrated however, but the dedication to teaching consistent, supportive classical technique and repertoire classes that have guided many a ballet student towards their performance careers. Raising her own family of two daughters must have required further skills of time management on many occasions.

Anne Rowse was director of the then National School of Ballet when Christine joined the staff in 1979. With Anne, plus Dawn Sanders as part-time tutor and secretary, that made a staff of three. How ever did they do it, in those asymmetric studios that you had to traverse to gain access to the dressing rooms? Well, you’d never have guessed from the calibre of the repertoire in annual Graduation seasons in the Opera House that training conditions were anything less than perfect. It takes hindsight to recognise pioneering of course, but the list of graduates from New Zealand School of Dance, then and since, includes major figures in world dance. Piano accompanists were always the best in town and, over time, other teaching staff were appointed, new premises found, and resources grew.

Turid Revfeim (who has recently written the 50 year history of the School, and is now a tutor there) was a student in the year Christine arrived, and she reminisced on what was done despite those meagre resources. Turid later joined Royal New Zealand Ballet as did many other graduates, Dawn had also earlier been a dancer with them, and such links ensured a genuinely close rapport between the School and the Company, at that time directed by Harry Haythorne. Students used to turn up in droves at the theatre each night to meet the stalwart Company Managers, Warren Douglas or Brendan Meek, themselves both NZSD graduates, for passes to every performance of the season which those days spanned a fortnight. Standing room if need be, but students seized every chance to glean inspiration of what their training was all about, in the context of the theatre. The resulting artistic harvest was bountiful, but it only grew from old-fashioned common sense and the best kind of opportunism.

Christine’s choice at her gathering was for students to perform an excerpt from Balanchine’s Concerto Barocco which they did with a commendable clarity of line and musical acuity. Luke Cooper, a recent graduate now dancing with RNZB, had organized video messages to Christine from former students living and working afar. All the students then performed a massed Maori tribute, a waiata with the talisman wiri of quivering arms and hands that breathes life into dance. The male students  delivered a mightily galvanised haka taparahi that could have given the All Blacks the shivers.  

The large gathering was a spirited one and no doubt evoked many and varied memories among former teachers and students of their experiences across those 40 years—of things trained, learned, rehearsed, performed, triumphed, loved, hoped, danced and dreamed. I’ll put the (injuries and heartbreaks) into parentheses. Nothing about dance is easy—it’s only meant to look that way, with the grace of divine nonchalance suggesting that you, the audience, could be dancing too.

    *********

Anne Rowse invited me to join the staff in 1982, to tutor in Dance Studies—Renaissance and Baroque repertoire, Dance notation, History & Library studies, World Dance Traditions including Pacific and Asian cultures—all the interesting things no one else wanted to teach. How lucky was I? I also offered public courses of dance interest through the Centre for Continuing Education of Victoria University of Wellington, so there was some creative accounting as Anne agreed to let the School premises be used in exchange for free places for students. Win-Win. I was also entrusted to build up the School’s library from fairly meagre holdings, so it was surely a stroke of luck that Smith’s Bookshop, the town’s very best second-hand bookshop, run by Dick Reynolds, was in an adjacent building, so I could each week sniff out dance and related arts books for bargain prices. One day, to my astonishment I found David Garnett’s Lady into Fox, a short story that had been famously adapted, by Andrée Howard, into a choreography by the same name, and the one ballet I most wished I could have seen. I consider myself quite old, but not quite old enough to have caught it when Ballet Rambert toured here in 1949. You could search the shelves of bookshops worldwide and not find Garnett’s stories, so this was a glint of gold. I recall cancelling that day’s planned class and telling the students all about Lady into Fox instead. 

How poignant it was some years later at a matinee of the School’s graduation, with the front rows of the stalls at the Opera House filled with audience from an old folks’ home (another of Anne’s initiatives), to sight Dick Reynolds propped up in a wheel chair, nodding and faintly clapping along as the students rollicked through The Lancers’ Quadrille, but I believe he was wiping away tears when Chopin’s music for the Prelude from  Les Sylphides began.

Another standout memory was a visit from the iconoclast dance-maker Mary Fulkerson from Dartington, an important centre for the arts in Devon. Mary brought her eight hour long performance saga, titled Don’t Tell the Prime Minister I’m coming. The first instalments were performed across two evenings in the Blue Room at the National Art Gallery, when director Luit Beiringa opened those doors for us, but the third and fourth evenings were across a weekend, posing a problem of access to the NAG. There was no budget. (How ever did we do these things on zero budgets? Well, we just did. You could say they were free because they were priceless, which is of course the opposite of worthless). Anne with typical generosity handed over the school keys for the weekend. That gesture remains as memorable as the dance itself, which ended with Fulkerson tossing each of the eight dresses she had worn through the evenings high up into the air, all the while still dancing, singing, and smiling. But wait, only seven dresses ever came back down to earth. The eighth one caught on a high ceiling beam and dislodged a decade’s worth of dust, glinting in the light as it sent a shaft of golden stars down onto our heads. That was 1983 but I can see that glinting still. And no, we didn’t tell the Prime Minister Mary was coming since Muldoon wouldn’t have known what to do with the information, though nowadays you could tell PM. Jacinda Adern, since she is also Minister for the Arts.

The School moved to new premises in Cable St., the entrance to which sat between adjacent doorways—one to Cash Convertors, the other to Abundant Life Spiritual Centre, daily reminders of the spectrum of possibilities in life as well as art. We tried to ignore the nine months of deafening pile-driving as Te Papa construction across the road got under way, and just got on with our work.

Patricia Rianne, one of New Zealand’s most celebrated expatriate dancers, had returned home and become Head of Classical Studies at the School, a most valued teacher and mentor to the students. Her Summer’s Day, to music by Jenny McLeod, and Bliss, inspired by Katherine Mansfield’s story, were staged by RNZB and the graduates dancing there found joy in performing them.

George Dorris and Jack Anderson, leading New York dance writers, walked in the door one day as I was teaching Baroque dance. I squealed in delight to recognise them, introduced them to Anne, we both scolded them for not warning us they were coming, so they returned a year later and gave a wonderful seminar which we also opened to the public. We surveyed the many titles of the fabled Dance Perspectives, a series of periodicals edited by our mutual colleague, Selma Jeanne Cohen. No other dance journal can hold a candle to this series so I was emboldened to beg our National Library to lend us their complete run from the Stacks. No-one had ever borrowed them because no-one knew they were there. They do now. What a weekend we were treated to. I can’t remember if we thanked Anne, but she will have known that the real rewards survive in the minds and memories of those who attended. The threads that weave, and the ties that bind.

Ann  Hutchinson, leading authority in dance notation, visited and gave a workshop in which she mounted from her score Nijinsky’s l’Apres Midi d’un Faune, to music by Debussy. Nijinsky was the true pioneer of modern choreography, as well as a legendary dancer. Sad that he is remembered more for his schizophrenia than his art, but such is the ephemeral nature of dance. The cast of Faune calls for seven dancers, one male and six females. As luck would have it, just 14 students turned up, two males and 12 females, so Ann set about teaching the work to two casts and the whole piece was completed by the end of the afternoon, which you would have to rate a small miracle. The mercurial Warren Douglas was there that day and danced the Faune, as well as many roles at RNZB in following years. Years later but still young, he died tragically, of complications from Aids. It was so sad and so wrong to have to write his obituary. We must never forget the dancers whose lives that cursed illness snatched away. Warren might well have become a brilliant director of RNZB, and would have changed the world.

The most treasured heritage for me throughout my 20 years teaching at the School  was undoubtedly the repertoire of choreographies by Doris Humphrey and José Limon, pioneers of the best of American modern dance, taught and staged by Louis Solino who had been a member of their company in  New York for years. It was another of Anne’s courageous moves to appoint Louis to the staff, since there might have been resistance to the distinctive technique and repertoire, but he was an unusual and quiet genius and in fact over the years turned up gold in a repertoire we’d have been lucky to catch in any world capital … Air for the G String,  Day on Earth, The Shakers, Two Ecstatic Themes, There is a Time, La Malinche, The Unsung, Dances for Isadora, Choreographic Offering, The Moor’s Pavane in seminar. Later the mighty Bach Chaconne was performed by Louis’ partner, the multi-talented Paul Jenden. Paul has since died and a broken-hearted Louis returned to the States, but make no mistake, anyone who ever danced in, or saw rehearsals and performances of those Limon and Humphrey masterworks will never have forgotten them. Next month’s story might tell the detail of how that came about.

Everyone present at Christine’s celebration will have had memories like these, all the same, all different. The following weekend, large numbers of us gathered at parties in  Paekakariki to help Sir Jon Trimmer celebrate his 80th birthday, and his 60 years of performing with RNZB. Jon’s sister, Coral, came from Melbourne with her harmonica in her pocket and played jazz numbers from the 1920s like a shimmering hummingbird, cavorting and gliding about, giving total lie to her 89 years. We knew this was her instrument but hadn’t heard her play. Now we have. That will have to be the next next month’s story.

Between those two gatherings, our daughter gave birth to her firstborn, a baby girl. I’ll let her grow a while and then maybe I’ll make for next next next month, a story about the dance-like movements of a wee, serious, busy, tiny one as she explores the world around her, learning to latch on and to change sides, to yawn and to hiccup, to sneeze and to gurgle, to make frog’s leg kicks that Jeremy Fisher might envy, and, when her arms are unswaddled, to conduct and wave at symphony orchestras. The baby as dancer—I’m up to review that.

It was Eugene O’Neill who said, ‘‘There is no present or future—only the past, happening over and over again—now.’  I like that, so think I will help myself to his words.

Jennifer Shennan, 30 September 2019

Featured image: Christine Gunn cutting her anniversary cake. New Zealand School of Dance

NZSD Choreographic Season 2019. NZSD dancers in 'Huddle'. Photo: © Stephen A'Court

Orbiculus. New Zealand School of Dance Choreographic Season

22–28 May 2019, Te Whaea, Wellington
reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

Thirteen short works comprise this program of new choreography by graduating contemporary dance students at NZSD, directed by Victoria Columbus. In past years, such a performance, while always spirited, has proved challenging to review since each piece, albeit of different style and tenor, with many contrasting music sources and costume changes throughout, has seemed disconnected from what followed, yet hard to separate out in the dark. 

This year a most welcome coherence, with light and shade alternating, emerges within the sequence of dances. The same costumes, soft neutral greens, greys, creams and browns, are worn throughout and this helps enormously with focus and cohesion, both for dancers and for audience. A thematic momentum with echoes and resonances from one piece to another builds towards real theatre. Across an 80-minute unbroken run-time of new work, that’s nothing short of remarkable. 

The opener, Huddle, (by Vourneen Canning), takes place in the foyer. Twelve dancers are drawn slowly into a circle that surrounds a central figure, soon replaced, as momentum builds within a calm centrifugal timeless strength. This natural grace gives way to robotic staccato movement as the second piece, 0110100001100001 (by Alec Katsourakis) orders us by beckoning gestures to follow the dancers into the theatre. Two worlds in stark contrast, one green, one bionic, yet we all live in both.  

As we enter the auditorium, bright lime green spotlights are dotted here and there, some shining into our eyes, not sure why, unless it’s to emphasise an atmosphere of alienation. Now seated, in the half round, we watch in comfort the 11 dances that are loosely stitched together by the performers’ subtle entrances and exits from the aisles threading between our seats. That suggests we’re all in this together.  

Silence s’il vous plaît (by Chase Clegg-Robinson) has a sculptural quality and an air of prayer, even lament, from its choral accompaniment. Micro Muse (by Neve Pierce), Hana (by Olivia Castagna), In a Moment of Reckless Freedom (by Alessia Augello), Adrift (by Rachel Trent), Plato’s Atlantis (by Bjorn Aslund), Charged (by Cheyanne Teka), Manuka (by Franky Drousioti), La Luna (by Jasmine Susic), Papa (by Arohanui Watene), The Kids are Alright (by Nadiyah Akbar) share similar features of a large number as chorus, with occasional solo, couple or small group moments, yet each has its singularity. 

(left) Courtney Mae Lim in Papa; (right) Nadiyah Akbar and Amit Noy in Plato’s Atlantis. Photos © Stephen A’Court

There’s irony in the song Mr. Sandman, bring me a dream.  We are surprised by an exquisite duet, one man one woman, dancing love with each other. It lies at the kernel of the suite of dances. There’s a welcome explosion of joy and fun as E Papa Waiare is sung and danced and smiled.

Dancers are not pedestrians, they’re high flyers. But amid the movement vocabulary these days there’s less jumping, leaping, soaring—the things that dance does so well— the airborne stuff. There’s more gesturing, more sculpture, walking, running, falling, rolling, standing—the groundborne stuff. In each case of course, motivation is what matters.

The printed program notes are amorphous at best, incomprehensible at worst. (Why is this such a lost art? There are models to study, some to emulate, some to eschew. Douglas Wright probably produced the best program copy I’ve encountered—pithy, poetic, themed; locally, Lucy Marinkovich and Sasha Copland know how to write about what they’ve choreographed; then there’s Cloud Gate, and Hamburg Ballet, and the weekly listings of events in The New Yorker that capture mercurial dance in wondrously lucid precis. Words about dance matter because, memories aside, they are what remains after curtain-fall).

Whenever I see a sign on the box office counter ‘This show contains strobe’ I ask why, then ready myself to close my eyes whenever it begins. (It always reminds me of the roadside sign ‘Beware Falling Rocks’. Not a lot you can do about that either).

Overall though the lighting was effective and atmospheric.

But the dancing itself, which is primarily what we’re here for, is beautifully modulated and impeccably performed. All these performers can expect to find professional careers and good work somewhere. One is an absolute knockout and would score a job tomorrow in many a company worldwide.

The program’s themes and mood seemed to share something of the concern we are hearing from young protesters, local and world-wide, begging for governments to take urgency over environment and climate-related issues, to examine the quality of life, to think and to listen. I felt echoes of what David Attenborough, and our foremost climate scientist, James Renwick, are speaking. Following their lead, youngsters are saying to oldsters ‘If you won’t behave as adults, we will’.  All power to them, and to these dancers.

There’s a nationwide Teacher Strike planned for next Wednesday, the day after this season ends. That will flood the streets with school students who would thrill to see this program, as many will share its concerns. Challenge to NZSD to add two extra matinee performances on that day. There are ways to spread the word, and the auditorium would overflow. You could invite those students to then write about what they saw.

I am well aware that the young dance-makers may not have consciously intended any of the themes I found arising from their work. That’s the good thing about a dance performance. We make of it what we will. Lucky us.

Jennifer Shennan, 23 May 2019

Featured image: NZSD Choreographic Season 2019. NZSD dancers in Huddle. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

NZSD Choreographic Season 2019. NZSD dancers in 'Huddle'. Photo: © Stephen A'Court
Dancers of New Zealand School of Dance in 'Wicked Fish'. Graduation Season 2018. Photo: © Stephen A' Court

New Zealand School of Dance Graduation Season, 2018 (2)

Innovation—contemporary program

22 November 2018. Te Whaea, Wellington
by Jennifer Shennan

This Graduation season offers two programs, Tradition (Ballet) and Innovation (Contemporary Dance), on alternate nights. Does this suggest that new choreography is expected only in the latter but not in the former? If anything, the opposite swing of the pendulum is needed, with a balance of heritage and newly minted work, across both streams. Students of ballet should be just as actively encouraged to explore choreography as their ‘siblings’ are, and by the same token, classics of New Zealand contemporary work need to be staged more often. There are plenty of choreographers whose works would be eminently suitable—Douglas Wright, Michael Parmenter, Raewyn Hill, Daniel Belton, Mary-Jane O’Reilly, Taiaroa Royal would be among the first to consider.

It is in fact globally recognised that ballet and contemporary dance today exist in a symbiotic relationship, and that a hard-out ballet class (minus the pointe shoes perhaps) is a daily fix for dancers of all textures. The old binary does not hold, and today’s dancers have to be able to do whatever choreographers ask for. Having said that, the Innovation program showed strong, committed performers willing to share a passion that depends less on physique than personality, more on commitment than technique.

E Tolu, the opening trio, had its premiere in Mangere in South Auckland in June, and will have been just as welcome there as it was here. Starting with the summons of putatara, there followed a range of patterns and moods from contemplative to forceful to humorous, suggesting haka, siva, fautapati with a nod to Bob Marley and Nina Simone. It brought centre stage the quick and ready wit of Maori/Pasifika dancing men in a great program opener.

Wicked Fish, by Huang Yi of Cloud Gate Dance II, Taiwan, was an astonishing achievement. A relentless surging of bodies in both vertical and horizontal, linear in both directions, in mysterious shadowed light of silver, grey and white, it was completely mesmerising. Cloud Gate is one of the most interesting dance companies in the world today and it can only do good for young students, and all of us, to be made aware of them and their repertoire. Music by Xenakis was the water they danced in.

Huri Koaro (Inside out), by Gabrielle Thomas, assisted by Megan Adams, is a work from Atamira dance collective’s repertoire. It brought a welcome and convincing Maori female presence to the stage, with patterns suggesting taniko and kowhaiwhai, then moves to a driving pate rhythm. There was an unusual and welcome stillness and silence for some of the groupings, then poi swinging across the stage brought contrast to the solo central dancer.

It’s Written in the Walls by Adam Barruch had an atmosphere of trouble in an unidentified situation…a refugee camp perhaps, or some confined place? The dancers’ focus remained internalised, and a sense of urgency or risk was caught in the striking linear groupings of the performers.

Jareen Wee and Chris Clegg with dancers of NZSD in Adam Barrach's 'It's Written in the Walls. NZSD Graduation 2018. Photo: © Stephen A'Court
Jareen Wee and Chris Clegg with dancers of New Zealand School of Dance in Adam Barrach’s It’s Written in the Walls. NZSD Graduation 2018. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

Static by Lauren Langlois set itself a hard task in portraying the neurotic and obsessive behaviour of two dancers as the starting point, which, true to its title, seemed also to be its endpoint.

Les Méduses, a work by Damien Jalet, involved a large group of dancers in striking formations and curiously stylised costumes which occasionally suggested the weaving of spider webs. By contrast, a sound score of relentless chisel-like strikes evoked the notion of arduous work in progress of carving or sculpting from a large mass of stone or marble. It brought high energy to the closing work on the program.

Dancers of New Zealand School of Dance in Damien Jalet’s Les Méduses. NZSD Graduation 2018. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

All told, a spirited evening. Wicked Fish will stay long in the memory for the images and atmosphere it evoked, of dangerous and mysterious forces, of relentless drive and unstoppable momentum. It uncannily evoked history, presaged the future, and kept reminding me of the three books I am reading – Vincent O’Malley’s New Zealand Wars, Stephen Fry’s Mythos, and Douglas Wright’s Terra Incognito. That’s a big ask of a short dance, but just occasionally that’s what choreographic masterpieces can deliver.

Jennifer Shennan, 23 November 2018

Featured image: Dancers of New Zealand School of Dance in Huang Yi’s Wicked Fish. Graduation Season 2018. Photo: © Stephen A’ Court

Dancers of New Zealand School of Dance in 'Wicked Fish'. Graduation Season 2018. Photo: © Stephen A' Court