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.
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.
Hansel & Gretel is choreographer
Loughlan Prior’s first full-length ballet, though he has a number of
accomplished short works (including a memorable Lark, for Sir Jon Trimmer and William Fitzgerald), as well as
choreographed films (including Memory
House, for Trimmer) already to his credit. Since this premiere, another of his works, The Appearance
of Colour, was
recently performed as part ofQueensland Ballet’s Bespoke program.
The energised success of Hansel & Gretel reveals the close rapport developed between Prior and composer Claire Cowan, who has produced a colourful and affecting score. Right from the first sounds (‘applause’ from orchestral percussion to walk the conductor to his podium), it is clear that the choreographer and composer share a sense of humour and fun. Conductor Hamish McKeich and Orchestra Wellington miss not a beat or a feat throughout.
Design by Kate Hawley, together with Jon Buswell’s lighting, delivers some striking effects. The opening visual, projected onto a gauze front curtain, is the number countdown of a film reel (the grandchildren whisper to ask , ‘Is this a ballet pretending to be a movie?’). A number of references to black and white silent movies of the 1920s are cleverly choreographed into the first scenes, making fitting resonance from the accompanying orchestra in the pit. A prologue of wealthy characters strutting in the street contrast with the poverty of the family of Hansel, Gretel and parents, with the father unable to sell his street brooms to anyone. There is a poignant scene of the hungry family around the table in their cabin, though the following long love duet between the parents seems to stall the choreographic pace somewhat.
Later, black and white scenes turn into the garish colours of cancan Candyland, aided and abetted by the Ice Cream Witch whose hurdy-gurdy bicycle is a creation Heath Robinson would have been proud of. A large cast of Dew Fairies, a Sandman, numerous confectionery and gingerbread assistants, and spooky creatures of the forest all offer a number of divertissements of entertainment and humour. There are echoes of the 1930s now, of Busby Berkeley film scenarios, with deliberate extravagances that send it in the direction of pantomime, leading, by their own admission, to sensory overload of props and costumes.
Spectacle is preferenced
over sustaining the narrative with its dark themes of the original version of
the Grimm brothers’ tale. In that regard, Prior has chosen to follow casting of
Humperdinck’s opera of the late 19th century, as well as the recent
choreographies by Liam Scarlett for the Royal Ballet and by Christopher Hampson
for Scottish Ballet. In those versions, the familiarity of the children’s
father bullied by a scheming cruel stepmother is converted to their simply
being poor but loving parents. This results in a weakening of the dramatic bite
and thematic link of evil between both Stepmother and Witch (read in some
interpretations as alter-egos of each other).
are dramatically involved in the original tale—sitting on the roof of the
family cottage, stealing the trail of breadcrumbs, leading the children to the
Witch’s lair, and finally back home. In this production the only birds are
portrayed in a brief scene by child extras, very fetchingly costumed in
raincoats with beak-shaped hoods, and carrying brooms to sweep up crumbs.
Perhaps more could have been made of the avian potential in the story since
birds are often convincingly stylised into ballet.
Highlight memories are of Hansel and Gretel—or should that be Gretel and Hansel since it’s the girl who always takes the initiative and makes sure little brother is in tow —with Shaun James Kelly as a naïve and playful boy, Kirby Selchow as the feisty older sister. The dazzling Mayu Tanigaito as Queen of the Dew Fairies, delivers radiantly, but also easily shifts into the syncopations of the jazz references that Prior and Cowan have skillfully introduced as cameo sequences.
The Ice Cream Witch is played by Katharine Precourt who, with mobile expressive face, clearly relishes the role. The Transformed Witch, played by Paul Mathews, is in full pantomime mode and takes hilarious advantage of the satirical strokes the choreography offers (including the tossing of a pair of pointe shoes into the cauldron, together with a large manny rat that proves inedible but will doubtless flavour/poison the stew). Mathews always inhabits rather than just portrays his roles and here he exaggerates wonderfully without ever wasting a gesture.
Thank goodness for curtain calls in character. The dancers have clearly had a rollicking good time in this production which will certainly entertain audiences in the forthcoming national tour.
31 May ̶ 2 June 2019, Opera House, Wellington reviewed by Jennifer Shennan
Black Swan, White Swan is a two-act ballet by Mário Radačovský performed to a recorded abridged version of Tchaikovsky’s score. It borrows some themes from the classic Swan Lake but introduces new features and motifs in a re-working of the story that has Siegfried at its centre. The choreography plays out less as dramatic theatre working towards a denouement, or as a poem about love and grief, and instead presents a psychological profile of a man undergoing painful and confusing experiences in his life. In the opening performance in Wellington, the role of Siegfried, on stage throughout, with naturalistic movement, stillness and passages of dancing combined, was performed by Paul Mathews. His presence and thoughtful expression has an actor’s depth, while his intuitively musical dancing and strengths as a partner put him in a class of his own.
It may be worth reproducing here “The Story” from the printed program. Act 1: On his birthday Siegfried receives devastating news. In his anguish, he sees a mysterious stranger, Von Rothbart. Siegfried’s wife has arranged a surprise birthday party, but he is not in the mood to celebrate. He collapses, and Von Rothbart returns. Von Rothbart begins to manipulate Siegfried’s emotions, including his feelings towards his wife, and he becomes confused, no longer able to distinguish between reality and fantasy. Siegfried tries to resist Von Rothbart and looks to his doctor for support. She becomes his White Swan and he becomes obsessed with her as the saviour who can bring him back to health and sanity. But Von Rothbart is not defeated.
Act 2: Siegfried struggles to regain his identity, but Von Rothbart has the upper hand. To further confuse him, Von Rothbart brings out Siegfried’s wife, transformed into the Black Swan, and no longer the woman that Siegfried knows and loves. TheBlack Swan toys with him and once again Siegfried has to fight to keep his grip on reality. As Siegfried fights harder and harder he finally begins to weaken Von Rothbart’s control, only to collapse once again. As Siegfried awakes, back at his birthday party, he has no idea what is real and what is not. But Von Rothbart is still there…
This conveys the situational rather than narrative or dramatic aspect chosen for choreographic treatment, with life for Siegfried much the same at the end as at the beginning. A clue in the program synopsis “As Siegfried awakes…” (I had not picked up that he was asleep) perhaps suggests the whole thing was his nightmare? There are effectively four soloists—Siegfried, von Rothbart (Kihiro Kusukami), White Swan (Sara Garbowski), Black Swan (Kirby Selchow). They all perform strongly but the three characters seem not required to interact with each other but only with Siegfried. Kusukami’s dancing is certainly striking and his evil force is sinister yet expressionless, giving him a two rather than three-dimensional impact, which reinforces his place within Siegfried’s psychological state. Kirby Selchow as Black Swan has a sparkling edge to her taunting of Siegfried. The dance highlight of the evening for me is the pas de deux between Siegfried and White Swan who has by now dropped her doctor’s coat and become his friend, enabling Garbowski and Mathews to dance with real rapport.
The large corps or chorus of dancers, some grinning, some blank-faced, a mix of party goers, nurses maybe, then swans, were given contemporary movement vocabulary, which reflected against the backdrop of shiny metal curtain strips used for entrances and exits. Twists and flexes of foot, turn-in, hooked hands at the end of raised arms to portray swan beaks, paddling legs to suggest swimming were gestures and motifs repeated to good effect. It seemed less convincing, however, when the Cygnets and Lead Swans danced.
My perception was that much of their dancing was shaded behind the beat, which is not musically what one expects with a Tchaikovsky score. (A similar tardiness among the corps was noted in the recent production of The Nutcracker). Musicality in a dancer involves anticipation of the beat and the note, much as a conductor does, so their movement can speak through the music. That work takes place in the studio on a daily basis, the light and lifeblood of ballet. Sometimes choreography allows dancers to create the illusion that their movement produces the music, dancing with rather than to it. To see that art and alchemy at work, watch a dancer like Paul Mathews.
The performance is peppered throughout with
applause and calls that do nothing to sustain dramatic conviction, but it is not
so long ago that the audience was invited ‘if you see us do something you specially like
then clap, call out, stamp and let us know you liked it’. Audiences, mostly, do what
you tell them so interruptions become part of the experience. Opera goers always
applaud an aria, even if the singer’s character has just died, but this doesn’t happen in
music concerts or at plays in the theatre, and it comes at a price, a bit like an ad break.
Diaghilev and Stravinsky, Douglas Wright and Lin Hwai Min knew how to choreograph
for the theatre without inviting, or even allowing, applause in fits and
I was waiting and wondering how the themes
might coalesce by the end, enjoying anticipation of that, but will confess I
found the sudden dumping from a great height of a large bucket of water onto both
Siegfried and von Rothbart, was a surprise ending more suggestive of The Wizard of Oz rather than the coup de theatre it might have been turned into. Further challenge to us
to interpret the work as we will, which is no bad thing.
It is true of many of our experiences that
perception is the filter of facts—nothing altogether black and white but that saying
makes it so. Radačovský has presented that trope in a choreography that sincerely
recreates his personal experiences some decades ago of cancer and associated
trauma. It is good to know from his artist’s profile that he has recovered from the
illness, though he has deliberately chosen to end this ballet at an unresolved point in
The Royal New Zealand Ballet’s Strength & Grace program consists of four choreographies by women invited to mark the 125th anniversary of women achieving suffrage, with Kate Sheppard and her many New Zealand followers having led the world in that. It’s Sheppard’s face on our $10 bill, she is honoured in many parts of the country, particularly Christchurch her home town, and is considered by many to be New Zealand’s second most influential person, so a good choice by RNZB to allow choreographies to grow from her inspiration.
Overall, each of the four works has considerable strengths, but it is the dancers’ outstanding performances of commitment and calibre that made the night. I consider one of the works would be a true standout in any context or themed season, but each of them will have appealed to one section or another of the audience. It was in fact easy to find colleagues and friends, both younger and older, who had chosen a different favourite. Thankfully it is not a competition.
The first piece, So To Speak, by American choreographer Penny Saunders, explored the domestic relationships within a family. Kirby Selchow and Loughlan Prior, as Mother and Father, used striking gestures of clarity and fine timing in a highly effective opening motif, around a table downstage left, though the work became somewhat diffused when a large chorus-like cast entered. The use of pointe shoes for the Mothers but soft shoes for the Daughters, with close to identical dress for both generations of women, were subtle design choices lost on many I suspect. Dramatic opportunity to express the tensions between parents and children was lightly referenced, but the music of four different composers made for a somewhat meandering choreographic structure. Nonetheless the work made its mark and the performances were strong.
The second piece, Despite the Loss of Small Detail, by New Zealander Sarah Foster-Sproull, was sharp and spunky, and held great appeal for younger audience members. Eden Mulholland provided a lively percussive accompaniment, and the strength of movement delivered by the dancers certainly matched it. Abigail Boyle was a compelling central figure, supported by a somewhat enigmatic group of dancers. One memorable sequence had them stabbing the stage using pointe shoes as weapons, in a trope reminiscent of Akram Khan’s recent Giselle. The fashion-led design choice of costuming brought whimsy to what was nonetheless a serious declaration of independence.
The third work, Remember, Mama, by Australian Danielle Rowe, was to my mind the clearest work overall in both structure and theme. Although it also used four different composers, there was a distinct adjustment within the choreography at each section which made for welcome coherence to its unfolding. Nadia Yanowsky gave a strongly felt performance as The Mother, relating to The Son at various ages played by three different dancers. Shaun James Kelly always dances with quality and was a sparkling delight as the young child, using Mozart’s Ah! Vous Dirais-je Maman to great effect. Fabio lo Giudice was a sultry teenager, but Paul Mathews danced the adult son with a deep empathy and tenderness for his mother that will have touched many. He is a dancer with the intuition of an actor for how to portray character, and is one of the company’s real strengths. The group of men seemed like soldiers lost to the call of war, perhaps. The group of women fought as hard as any soldiers.
The fourth work, Stand to Reason, by South African choreographer Andrea Schermoly, took as reference one of the pamphlets Sheppard had produced in her stalwart campaigning years, projected as text behind the dancers. (That raised laughs among the audience but would have seemed anything but comic 125 years ago). Of the three composers used, the richest and most eloquent dance music of the whole evening was the Folie d’Espagne of Marin Marais, in a recording by Jordi Savall (the highlight performer of Wellington’s Arts Festival earlier this year). That drew a strong response from the cast of eight women, with particularly galvanised and striking performances from Mayu Tanigaito, Madeleine Graham and Kirby Selchow. Despite many standout performances of the program, a following solo by Selchow gave her a true claim to being the dancer of the evening. The work was at its strongest at that point and might well have finished there, in orbit.
So overall, this is a program of strong choreographic ventures, a few unusual costume design choices, and effective lighting throughout by Andrew Lees. There’s a mosaic of different music compositions (12 in all across four works) and I know that can pose a distracting challenge for musicians and music-followers who tend to stay away because of that. Most memorably there is stunning dancing from a pedigree company that is half the age of the Suffragettes’ achievements.
Afterthoughts: The sightlines in the Opera House are quite different from those in the St. James Theatre where the company usually performs, and that needs to be borne in mind for choreographic staging and video projections, both of which were compromised on several occasions. (My two immediate neighbours left at half-time since their view was seriously affected, and the seats were not classed as restricted viewing at the box office). The sound system is also perhaps settling in, and music volumes were at times uncomfortably loud.
This Wellington season of only two performances, and no tour to other centres, has left many dance followers further afield hoping for a future opportunity to see this program. The company website lists “Details Soon” for the Harry Haythorne Choreographic Awards towards the end of the year, now in its fourth year, so they may be planning to attend that season instead. New choreography brings fresh blood, and these stalwart dancers always perform, new work and old, as though lives depended on it. JS
Recent worldwide weather events have seen unprecedented extremes in both directions. As we cool down into autumn in New Zealand, we could be mindful of the northern hemisphere’s rite of spring (loads of daffodils apparently, but still cold and wet). We might all be wondering about the proportion of human responsibility for climate change, and what we, each and together, can do about it. So what’s that got to do with dancing? Well, nothing and everything. It’s a global globe that’s turning and we’re all on it.
Recent remarks locally have stated that the New Zealand dance scene is so isolated from the rest of the world. Poppycock, I say, isolation is a state of mind and everywhere is isolated from somewhere. We are entitled to believe that the centre of the world is wherever we are on the day, and that size has nothing to do with it. But it is at the same time true that you sometimes want to see a dance that is not on in your town. What to do about that?
Read this website for a review of the recent retrospective of Graeme Murphy’s works by the Australian Ballet. Think about the issues involved in such retros, and follow the Comments with interest. This triggers memories of Murphy’s works for RNZBallet over the years (too few in my estimation). Thought-provoking.
Read Joan Acocella’s insightful writings on dance in the New Yorker. Her recent pieces on Arthur Mitchell, Twyla Tharp, Alex Ratmansky give rich commentary on dance in America at its best. Acocella is for me the most lucid dance writer in the English language and I hang on her words. You can catch four articles per month in the New Yorker online, or inherit copies from your kind subscribing friends.
Watch Sky Arts television channel’s current broadcast of the 90 minute programme of Patricia Brown’s work. I’d seen photos of her dancers for years but never watched them in motion. Now I have. Intriguing.
Be glad of Arts Festivals. Both Wellington and Auckland have just ended their seasons, plus Fringes, with a remarkable range of dance events on offer that have brought us great works, still warm and wet, from far afield, as well as new local work with much cause to celebrate. RNZBallet’s The Piano:the ballet (see review below); English National Ballet’s Giselle (s.r.b.); Crystal Pite’s and Jonathan Young’s Betroffenheit (s.r.b.); Michael Parmenter’s Orpheus; Malia Johnston’s Rushes; and the all time standout for me in Michael Keegan Dolan’s Swan Lake Loch na hEala (already reviewed on this website at this link)
In recent years Auckland has staged a festival in the alternate years to Wellington’s longer-established biennial, and the airlines were happy as folk winged their way north or south. That worked fine. Now however Auckland has made theirs an annual festival, to run concurrently with Wellington’s, and that does not work fine. I was conscious of a number of friends who watched wistfully as I flew to Auckland for English National Ballet’s Giselle. A number of other friends did go north too but, in doing so, missed out on the remarkable Betroffenheit back here in Wellington. I fear that the two festivals going up against each other across the same three weeks (they claim to co-ordinate and share events, but they do not…) will cause over time a weakening of both programs, and confuse the punters. Australia staggers her cities’ festival seasons better than we do, which makes sense, and also keeps the airlines happy.
I had to fly back to Auckland within the same week for the legendary percussion ensemble, From Scratch, headed by Philip Dadson. (I had danced to their Drumwheel in performances at the National Art Gallery in 1979. Now the striking Carol Brown dances to the same work. Interesting contrasts). My daughter was also involved in a collaboration with From Scratch at the breathtaking Te Uru gallery complex in Titirangi, west Auckland, the great Manukau harbour sprawling below the rooftop venue, in the treetops, at sunset … the first site specific performance of the many I have attended that has ever really thrilled me.
Back in Wellington The Flamenco Project, by Isabel Rivera Cuenca from Barcelona, was the Fringe Festival’s triumph, a strong and spirited yet subtly playful offering of the best of southern Spain—with return visits to New Zealand on offer. The fabulous Cuba Dupa street festival, as fringe to the Fringe, just squeezed in before the end of a golden summer. Included was a riveting Javanese wayang kulit shadow puppet show by dhalang Joko Susilo, effortlessly accompanied by the local Gamelan Padhang Moncar. The astonishingly dance-like arm movements of the puppets was a revelation of this dhalang’s expertise.
Withdrawal from Festival mania? Nah, no time for the blues. Within a day a local cinema was screening Royal Ballet’s The Winter’s Tale by Christopher Wheeldon in live telecast. A knockout. The Bernstein Project and Manon are coming hard on its heels. Isolated in New Zealand? If you say so, but I don’t.
The Royal New Zealand Ballet has just completed the national tour of The Piano: the ballet, which saw seasons in both Wellington and Auckland festivals then to eight? cities nationwide. Following inspiration of Jane Campion’s celebrated film from 1980s, the ballet is choreographed by Jiri Bubenicek, in collaboration with his brother Otto on music and design.
The work was originally commissioned for RNZB by Francesco Ventriglia, and extended into two acts from its beginnings as a one-act for Dortmund Ballet in 2014.
(very interesting to read their online promo of that production. I guess isolation works in a variety of ways)…
Specifically for Ballet Dortmund he [Bubenicek] has arranged his newest creation, inspired by Jane Campion’s Oscar-winning film The Piano. He tells the story of a mute woman living in Australia in the 19th century, at the outpost of civilization. In the midst of brutal plantation owners and disenfranchised aborigines she can only express herself through the piano. Together with the film’s Australian director, Jiří and Otto Bubeníček sought the original setting of the film to find out what art can be for people who find themselves in extreme situations—everything.
RNZB’s was a major project that has attracted nationwide accolades for the production, and rightly praising outstanding performances by Abigail Boyle and Paul Mathews, among others in alternate casts. The role of the child was a fabulous opportunity for a juvenile player, making far more dramatic demands than the usual cute child dancer cast in many a ballet you and I have seen. (see theatreview, for links to a number of reviews of the production).
The mise en scene of New Zealand land and seascapes was impressive, monumental even, yet did not overpower the danced story. The music excerpts were sourced from numerous different works by numerous different composers, and some (well, me anyway) found that problematic, sensing an opportunity missed by the Company not to have commissioned a New Zealand composer to produce a through-composed score (such as Gareth Farr? John Psathas? There are also other composers who could have managed it, and the cost would not be astronomical alongside the rights to composers, recording companies and performers that must have been required). If that were in place (and it still could be) the work could tour Europe and show the world we’re the best little ballet company on Earth. As it stands the music does not cumulatively and fully support the shift between the picaresque Act One and the emotional depths of Act Two. Some colleagues found a familiar music excerpt distracting when they heard it, wondering (‘Oh, I know that piece so well … whatever is it?. Oh whoops, he’s fetched an axe … what’s he going to do with it now?’)
The ballet has raised other interesting issues along the way, prominently the depiction of Maori in the choreography. Even though respected Maori choreographer, Moss Paterson, was brought in to oversee that dimension, a raft of patronising Pakeha nevertheless commented that the performance of haka should not be left to ‘European’ dancers, and that Maori dancers should themselves be included in the cast instead. One could reply that the challenge to professional dancers in the theatre is to portray ‘other’ in almost every role they take. They may not particularly identify with a repressed and violent husband, a reluctant or duplicit lover, or specially feel like a Cupid or Tinkerbell, a sylphide, or Te Rauparaha, but that’s their trade and the best of them do it with aplomb … witness Abigail Boyle, witness Paul Mathews (whose internalised haka of fury upon discovering he had been cuckolded crosses all ethnic divides) and witness Luke Cooper, Maori dancer in RNZB.
Depiction of Maori in RNZB repertoire over the years has not happened often. Ihi Frenzy, with Te Matarae I Orehu, back in Matz Skoog’s day as director, was one.
(The real strength of that project was to take company to the marae in Rotorua for an immersion orientation…then to tour both ensembles nationwide. By the end of that tour, RNZB dancers were indistinguishable from Maori at the haka finale). The indelible memory for me however is from Gray Veredon’s Tell me a Tale, (during Harry Haythorne’s directorate) when Warren Douglas played the Maori brother, who warned the Pakeha settler coming ashore that his sister would not be available as a girlfriend, and confirmed that in haka. End of story. We could well see that work again—Jon Trimmer, Kerry-Anne Gilberd and Kim Broad who played the lead roles are all still around and could help Gray Veredon with re-staging. Design by Kristian Fredrikson was one of his best, and the choreography suited our company extremely well.
The choreography of The Piano follows Campion’s film in great and faithful detail, including the spirited caricature of the preacher and local congregation of early settlers. I found it a good idea to watch the film again, in tandem with this ballet—and you couldn’t help but notice that the choreographed portrayal of Maori was immensely more successful than the film’s very peculiar treatment of ‘the natives’ who lay around mostly swathed in blankets and draped in mangrove trees.
Having said that, I also noted that I very much preferred the film’s shape-shifting epilogue to the ballet’s ambiguous ‘ending’. Plays in the theatre have endings. The ballet would be stronger for having one too. Then it could really take Europe by storm. There’s the wero to you.
If I were to list all the good things about this pedigree production, it would amount to a catalogue of joy. And what would be wrong with that?
Ethan Stiefel, previous artistic director of RNZB, certainly knew what he was about when he invited Liam Scarlett to choreograph this full-length work, and negotiated a co-production with Queensland Ballet. By all accounts that collaboration has worked very well, so might set a happy precedent for future co-productions. All those in favour…? The work only premiered last year yet is already a classic.
Nigel Gaynor, at the time Musical Director at RNZB, found close rapport with Scarlett and made a wondrous extension of Mendelssohn’s one act incidental music into a two acter by drawing on other of his numerous compositions. With motifs for many characters ingeniously set for string, woodwind and brass sections, plus of course the quijada (jawbone of an ass), Gaynor creates a seamless accompaniment. He also returns to conducts the excellent Orchestra Wellington. This is ballet musicianship at its best.
Tracy Grant Lord as set and costume designer has always known how to make this company look good (witness Cinderella and Romeo & Juliet). With Kendall Smith’s inspired lighting, the ballet grows from a swirl of smoke on a front cloth into a midnight blue faerie world of phosphorescent glowworms, moonlight, madness, mayhem and enchantment.
Liam Scarlett has made a brilliant distillation of the play, missing not a trick by slanting all the poetry into different characters’ experiences of love, true, mad and deep. This is a young but obviously hugely talented choreographer. And then, O my, there’s the dancing…
Qi Huan, former leading dancer has returned (again) from ‘retirement’ to play Oberon, bringing a maturity in his interpretation of a complex character, powerful, proud, duplicit, scheming, sometimes roving into the human world, yet ultimately forgiving (maybe). You hear his every thought as it motivates his every gesture, charging the role with real theatrical power that makes Oberon the central role to the entire ballet in a way new since the premiere season last year.
Tonia Looker is a gorgeous, romantic Titania, quick to claim the Changeling child, swift to fall in love. Her adoration of Bottom the Ass is quite something to behold. The band of ten Fairies shimmering and quivering in spiky blue tutus are as mercurial as the creatures they evoke. Harry Skinner gets maximum comic mileage from his doltish Bottom and creates an endearingly entertaining Ass that invites empathy for this ambiguous role. Shaun Kelly as the dazzling irrepressible Puck is stunning in his role of wicked mischief-maker. You wouldn’t trust him with your grandmother’s thimble. The Lovers are played with great spirit—by Kirby Selchow and Joseph Skelton, with some deeply lyrical dancing, and by Abigail Boyle and Paul Mathews, masters of comic timing. The Rustics are a hoot and they know it.
When all the mayhem is at its wildest, with Puck quaking at Oberon’s wrath, the entire cast of mis-matched lovers—jilted, unrequited, confused, and with the mad rustics in tow—charge on a diagonal across the stage in a comic moment of cartoon art that captures the complexities of the entire plot into a 30 seconds drive-by stroke of choreographic genius. The audience erupts in delight, and Shakespeare the librettist would have been well pleased.
The Changeling child in a onesie, with his toy donkey and bedtime storybook, bookends the whole glorious ballet, winching it in quite close to the world where you and I know of parents who quarrel over who ‘owns’ a child, or who ‘loves’ him more, and where he should live. It is ultimately Scarlett’s triumph to delve into the mystery and chemistry of where love comes from, its turns and tricks and travails that never run smooth, and to flow the faerie in and out of the human world. Take care in shady places. Puck is probably lurking.
There are many warps and wefts of New Zealand and Australia that weave the dancers from the two countries together, and the more you look the more you find. Lucy Green, in a few hours time, will dance Titania in her last performance with RNZB, before returning to Australia to join Queensland Ballet. We’ll be so sad to lose this beautiful dancer, but surely glad that we had such memorable performances from her these past years. Perhaps we’ll charge Puck to steal away her passport?
There’s an on-stage class to watch before a performance. Thoroughbreds flexing.
There’s a Q&A session with dancers after a matinee; a pre-performance talk on the music; usually a forum a fortnight before; workshops where children learn the moves for the first 32 bars of Bottom the Ass. There’s a solid printed program, plus complimentary cast sheets. There’s a production team out back, with highest production values that put numerous tired ‘imperial’ visiting ballet companies well into the shade. The indomitable Friends are selling subs and t-shirts in the intervals, since that’s what Poul Gnatt told them to do in 1953. A mix of Oberon and Puck, that man. All this amounts to RNZB being the best little ballet company on Earth. (The best big company, for my money, is Hamburg Ballet. What’s yours?)
Only the St.James theatre wine-bar seems not to know how to uncork bureaucracy and pour a glass of bubbly for the happy punters. Another job for Puck perhaps?
12 & 13 August 2016, St James Theatre, Wellington, New Zealand
There are a number of things to admire in Royal New Zealand Ballet’s current production of Giselle, choreographed and produced for the company by Ethan Stiefel and Johan Kobborg in 2012. As one enters the theatre a front curtain is down and it immediately promises something interesting. We see a finely drawn tree with a brown trunk and spreading brown branches with small, red, heart-shaped leaves attached. The colours set the season (the ballet traditionally takes place at harvest time), as well as giving a clue to the emotional story we will encounter. As the curtain rises, small white shapes, a little like tear drops, appear on the cloth, and dark twisted roots emerge and move mysteriously (lighting by Kendall Smith). It is a wonderful piece of scenic art by American designer Howard C Jones. It has a beautiful simplicity and yet prefigures so many of the ballet’s themes.
As Act I unfolded, I admired the way in which Stiefel and Kobborg had developed the male characters. The peasant men seemed a rough and tumble lot and at one stage engaged in a bout of light-hearted pushing and shoving. They were not the overly genteel peasants we so often see standing in perfect ballet poses. In fact we often saw them slouching around in the background.
The character of Hilarion was also nicely developed. He was given a solo in the first act, which drew more attention to his participation in the life of the village and his place in the story as Giselle’s long-term admirer. The role was strongly danced by Jacob Chown in one cast and Paul Mathews in another. Mathews in particular showed some exceptional elevation and seemed to relish every vigorous moment of the Act I solo. On the other hand, Chown was the one who put up a thrilling fight against the Wilis in Act II and in his dancing seemed to be buffeted back and forth by some supernatural power.
Wilfred, aide to Albrecht (disguised as Lenz—not Loys!), was also encouraged to be a stronger character than usual. It was not that he was given anything extra to do, so bouquets to the dancers and to the coaching staff. I saw Jacob Chown and William Fitzgerald and enjoyed both interpretations, although Chown seemed to add a mature factor to his characterisation, which I thought particularly suitable.
I also was surprised, but pleased, to find, with the arrival of the titled landowners (usually on a hunting excursion, but in this production out riding), that the Duke and and his daughter Bathilde did not enter Giselle’s cottage to rest, as usually happens—I have often pondered why they would take a rest in such a rudimentary structure. Instead, in this production, they headed off to continue their ride. This of course meant that other arrangements had to be made to call them back to the village for the unmasking of Albrecht, of which more later.
I also enjoyed the inclusion of children and older people as extras in the village scenes of Act I. It made for a more natural look than what we are used to.
Choreographically Stiefel and Kobborg have kept some of the well-known sections, especially in Act II where the steps performed by Giselle and Albrecht (pas de deux and solos); some sections by Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis; and some of the corps de ballet work were familiar. But large sections of Act I, especially the dances for the corps de ballet, had been reworked and were more like character dances than the classically-based choreography we usually see. Some of the group dances for the Wilis in Act II had also been reworked and there seemed to be focus on circular patterns and movements.
I saw two casts in the leading roles of Giselle and Albrecht—Mayu Tanigaito partnered by Daniel Gaudiello and Lucy Green partnered by Qi Huan and all danced more than adequately. Gaudiello made something spectacular of Albrecht’s solo dances in Act II. His cabrioles were breathtaking in their precision and he soared into his jumps. A triple attitude turn was a thrill to see, and his set of entrechats was stunning. But he also brought many charming extras to his portrayal—a little brush of his hand along Tanigaito’s arm before taking her hand, a benign glance here and there. Such things have long been a feature of Gaudiello’s acting and it was a treat to see him once again.
But in this production of Giselle, there were also a number of things not to like. Much impact was lost in Act I when Berthe, who needs to recount the story of the Wilis and the effect they have on jilted young girls, had been allocated a much reduced story to tell. Neither of the dancers I saw as Berthe—Alayna Ng and Madeleine Graham—was able to impart a sense of impending doom. And not only that, Giselle’s friends took absolutely no notice of Berthe’s story. They were busy upstage admiring a friend’s wedding outfit. And sadly, nothing in a mime or choreographic sense was made of the musical leitmotif for the Wilis, which we hear during Berthe’s mime scene. It is the musical link between the first and second acts and recurs during the mad scene and then at the beginning of Act II. Berthe needs to be clearly aware of this leitmotif in her mime, or with some kind of reaction, so she can begin a dramaturgical link.
Then there was the issue of the horn, usually hung outside the cottage by a member of the hunting party when the Duke and Bathilde retire to the cottage. Hilarion uses it to call the hunting party back after he has discovered Albrecht’s true identity. But since there was a change to the storyline in the Stiefel/Kobborg production, Albrecht arrives in the village with a sword at his side and the horn around his neck. Now why would he be carrying a horn? It didn’t make sense to me and looked like a clumsy addition and simply (as indeed it was) a way of sneaking the horn in so that Hilarion had something to use when he needs to summon the hunting/riding party.
I also wondered why there was a need to remove the grape harvest part of the original narrative, thus weakening the story. The grape harvest is a rationale for the Duke and his party to stop to quench their thirst at Giselle’s village. They drink the wine of the area, which is served with pride by Giselle and/or Berthe. Removing this aspect of the story also denies Giselle a place as the Harvest Queen and makes her, in many ways, a lesser person in the village. Replacing the Harvest Queen with a Wedding Couple, who also dance the peasant pas de deux, is interesting but to my mind is playing with the story for no apparent purpose.
I was also unimpressed by some of the costumes (designed by Natalia Stewart) especially that for Albrecht in Act II. His jacket had such a high collar that his neck all but disappeared and occasionally reduced the classical look of the choreography. And there were times when Albrecht seemed to have a hunchback due, I can only surmise, to the cut of the jacket. This happened more in the case of Gaudiello as the costume seemed to be a better fit on Qi. I wish too that Myrtha had been given the wreath of flowers she usually wears as a headdress. It would have given Clytie Campbell, whom I saw as Myrtha at both performances, added presence and would have distinguished her somewhat from the band of Wilis she leads. It may not have seemed so annoying had the role of Myrtha been given the same attention as the minor principal roles of Hilarion and Wilfred. As it was parts of the second act seemed a little underwhelming.
Stiefel and Kobborg have added a rather nice framework within which the story unfolds. When the ballet opens we see, through a scrim and seemingly within the swirling roots of the tree of the front curtain, the figure of a man, the Older Albrecht. He appears briefly at the beginning and end of both acts as an observer and relives, as a program note tells us, ‘the story that has possessed his being for nearly a decade.’ But for me this Giselle does not stand up to those productions that have brought tears to my eyes and sent me home from the theatre on a high.
22–24 May 2015, St. James Theatre, Wellington (and following national tour) Reviewed by Jennifer Shennan
Dear Horizon—choreography, Andrew Simmons; music Gareth Farr
Soldiers’ Mass—choreography Jiri Kylian; music B. Martinu
Salute—choreography Johan Kobborg; music H.C. Lumbye
Passchendaele—choreography Neil Ieremia; music Dwayne Bloomfield
New Zealand Army Band
Rolf Gjeltsen, cello
Graham Hickman, conductor
This program is strong, the season short, dance and music groundbreaking, the impact immense. Salute is the Royal New Zealand Ballet’s tribute to the country’s experiences at war, but it has much to offer the conscientious objector as well. There are two major premieres, one searing classic from the 20th century, and a bagatelle of most welcome levity.
The utter futility, red carnage and grey grief of war is unambiguously referenced, yet there is also a dance of first love in peacetime, as poignant as anything all evening. I don’t often tell Australian cousins to cross the Tasman to come to the ballet, but I think I am suggesting just that for Salute—and hey, half the roll call of dancers is Australian.
Andrew Simmons has had a number of commissions to choreograph for this company (outstandingly, Of Days. q.v.) and Dear Horizon is a welcome addition to the list. He responds with empathy to Gareth Farr’s remarkable music, which opens with a high tremolo from the brave solo cello, so quiet, so carrying, before the brass enters the fray. The ballet is dreamlike, dark shadowed, hazy, enigmatic. Time runs both forward and back. War means death, or damaged lives. Dancer Mayu Tanigaito is extraordinary, and designer Tracey Grant Lord’s evocative set of letters and red poppies is suspended on high above this poetic opener.
Next is Soldiers’ Mass, for twelve men, Jiri Kylian’s masterwork made in 1980. This marks a return season from 1998–1999 when Royal New Zealand Ballet first performed the work. Performers from that season have left the company now, but were remarkably evoked again here … Paul Mathews ‘playing’ Ou Lu, Shaun James Kelly ‘playing’ Shannon Dawson. Loughlan Prior and Joseph Skelton are transformed, but a phenomenal performance is given by one woman dancer called in to replace an injured male. Back then it was Pieter Symonds, ‘Joan of Arc comes to town’ I called it—well, Joan of Arc returned to town when Laura Jones, tall, young and spunky, replaced an injured male this weekend, but gave the performances of her life, as good as any man.
Kylian has put a couple of telling movement quotes early in his piece to the ‘great’ (anti) war ballet of all time, Kurt Jooss’ The Green Table, and it’s too sad that politicians and armaments manufacturers don’t know these ballets as well as dancers do. The most remarkable truth about Kylian’s choreographic marathon is that, by the time of the Kyrie in the Martinu Mass, the dancers have actually metamorphosed into real soldiers. The effect is devastating, and makes it one of the finest works this company has ever brought into their repertoire.
An interval is welcome but an ice-cream seems ridiculous, it’s cold here, though I don’t refuse when Jon Trimmer shouts me champagne. Soon we are back in the theatre, and it’s Salute, with Lumbye waltzes and galops from old-world Denmark, and a 19th century romp at the cadets prom, young girls all coy, the lads up for a lark, and a stitch of a sergeant-major. It’s a long way from a battlefield and one resists its charms for a while, till remembering, hang on, I’m still sipping champagne, and everyone around me is wearing sparkly earrings and a bit of dress-up, we are at the ballet after all, so Salute is no sillier than we are. Just because it’s full of biedermeier charm doesn’t mean the dancing’s easy. Lucy Green dances with Damir Emric and her serious first love tugs your heart.
Neil Ieremia has made a colossus of a choreography in Passchendaele. It may be short by number of minutes but it brings that miserable battle home to us like nothing else. Of course all battles are miserable but I’ve always been especially choked by Passchendaele since hearing in a millenium documentary in 2000, where one soldier’s tale was of spending all day every day in a trench of mud up to his neck, close enough to see ‘the enemy’ yet unable to advance. Come nightfall, if you could get back through the mud you could expect some food rations but the only way to cross the sea of mud was to step on your fallen comrades, though only so long as they were lying face down, so their bony spines could offer you footfall. That might be the most disgusting thing I have ever heard in all history—that you went to war so as to die so your spine could be a footprint for your mate to go and get an army biscuit. The disappointment we all share is that war seems genetic in the human condition, and that ‘the Great War to end all wars’ has proved anything but. Historians seem to be still puzzling as to why it even happened at all. One of my great uncles lies buried ‘near the Somme’. Another returned but had been so badly gassed that he coughed and choked for the next 53 years back home. Which would be worse?
Well, Ieremia has put all of this anger into his thundering dance. Abigail Boyle and Jacob Chown are on fire. All the dancers punch out the fight, and phrases from haka were never more tellingly choreographed on a stage. The composition is a tour de force by Dwayne Bloomfield, his own name echoed in the red and black back projections, the work of Geoff Tune. Out of sight but well within earshot are more dancers, not onstage but underneath it, playing snare drums to add to the orchestra pit swelling full of brass. The dancing women have to walk away and leave their men lying there motionless. There’s a knock on the door from the telegram boy, then a tune from a lone whistler in the dark. Curtain.
The first program by new artistic director of Royal New Zealand Ballet, Ethan Stiefel, opened in Wellington on 22 March. After a regional tour that began in Auckland in February the program, NYC: three short works from the Big Apple, had clearly worked itself into a very smooth operation by the time it reached Wellington. We saw a diverse, exuberant and beautifully danced show.
The program opened with 28 variations on a theme by Paganini, a work by Benjamin Millepied made originally in 2005. Danced to a piano score by Brahms, the choreography is as varied as the music. Under a single chandelier, and against a black background, five elegantly dressed couples whirl and swirl across the stage. Sometimes they dance in canon, often they execute fabulous lifts and move with unexpected changes of direction. They engage in a luscious performance of the classical vocabulary and occasionally there are subtle undercurrents that suggest relationships between them. I especially enjoyed the dancing of Bronte Kelly whose pleasure in being in this very dancerly work was patently clear.
There were, however, a few moments when for me the choreography was jarring. At one point Gillian Murphy entered walking on pointe, stiff-legged and looking a little like a dancer-doll who had suddenly stepped off a music box. Not even Murphy’s strong onstage presence and expressive face could save this section from looking out of place.
Taking the middle spot on the program was Larry Keigwin’s Final dress, created especially for the Royal New Zealand Ballet and danced to a fast-paced score for violin, cello, clarinet and electric piano by Adam Crystal. On a stage stripped right back to basics, this work is full-on dancing from beginning to end. Mixing contemporary movement with more classical steps, the dancers explore the adrenalin rush associated with getting a show onstage. They run, throw themselves at each other and exude constant energy. I didn’t read into it what the program note told me it was about, ‘the boundaries between the public and the private, and the territories we guard’, but Final dress deservedly got a loud and enthusiastic reception as it came to an end.
Closing the evening was a performance of the vintage Balanchine work Who cares? set to a Hershey Kay arrangement of songs by George Gershwin. This is sassy Balanchine in his Hollywood/Broadway mode and to a certain extent it is a little outdated in terms of the dance style and era it references: it is four decades old, compared with later works in a similar vein such as Twyla Tharp’s Nine Sinatra Songs (made a mere two decades ago). But that aside, the dancers of the Royal New Zealand Ballet did themselves proud. Gillian Murphy and Paul Mathews danced an as smooth as silk pas de deux and the two other soloists, Abigail Boyle and Lucy Green, shone like Hollywood stars. I also admired the lovely-limbed dancer, Maree White, who took the middle spot in the line-up of the five chorus ladies.
A small grumble about the printed program: why didn’t it contain costume design credits? There wasn’t much to worry about with sets as there weren’t really any to fuss about, other than the New York skyline (minus the Chrysler Building) for Who cares? But the costume designers did deserve a billing, even if some costumes were apparently hired from New York-based ballet companies. Someone must have designed them. And why were there no captions for photos in the program? For those who are not regulars at Royal New Zealand Ballet performances it would have been nice if the dancers in some lovely photographs had been identified. But NYC was a wonderful start for Stiefel’s directorship and the prospect of more is definitely something to anticipate.