Suppose somebody took a stem of orchids, choreographed them into women and tossed their experiences, emotions and memories deep into a seamlessly danced stream of consciousness that we might peer into and look for reflections from the depths. Somebody did.
Orchids, choreographed by Sarah Foster-Sproull, is a continuously flowing
hour-long dance performed by a cast of seven—six
adult women (Katie Burton, Joanne Hobern, Tori Manley-Tapu, Rose Philpott,
Marianne Schultz and Jahra Wasasala) of contrasting age and physique, representing
us all in the complexity of light and shade in our experiences. In a choreographic
masterstroke, a young girl (Ivy Foster, the choreographer’s daughter), serenely evoked
our past as a child, and our hope for a future.
The work, ‘an allegory for the dark and light masks of the female psyche’, presents emotions and states of being, rather than storylines with cadence. That openness of texture invites the audience to recognise, interpret, contemplate, empathise, sympathise with and wonder at the undercurrents of meaning in the imaginative movement imagery.
There’s a sculptural quality to the torsos, and much use is made of Sproull’s hallmark hand gestures that seem like a celestial signing of some unspoken speech, a pointing finger that suggests a location or an event, but also asks a question, leaving it unanswered. These motifs always remind me of the account I once read of a 116 year old Japanese woman lying in her bed, patiently awaiting her moment of departure, and performing for her family gathered around ‘her second-to-favourite hand dance.’ (One can only wonder how many hand dances she knew, and what she was saving her favourite one for…perhaps
for the afterlife?)
The sequence in Orchids has episodes of solo, duo and larger groupings that suggest woman alone, mother and daughter, sister, friend, rival, confidant, devotee. Much of the movement reflects individuals’ personal experiences with strong emotional force and sometimes surprising dynamic attack, but there are also hints of wider cultural resonance in reference to various female
deities or spiritual forces. I believe I recognised one of those to come from Indian
Hindu mythology—with Shakti, the goddess of many aspects including the
strength of a male capable of stamping out underfoot the demon devil of ignorance.
Music composed by Eden Mulholland had percussive clarity that helped shape the work, and was at one point used as accompaniment, a pluck and two strums, for what suggested a Portuguese fado song about to be danced, but then morphed into more sensuous strings for an all-female Zorba’s dance. A most striking image was the ray of the performers’ fingers shaped like a halo round the face of young Ivy Foster which resonated as the Virgin Mary of Guadalupe, a beacon of hope so desperately believed in by millions of Mexican pilgrims.
The dance follows you home to study the orchids flowering in a pot on your window ledge, to read their folds of petals, their crevices of secrets, their shadows that hide hurt on the underside, beneath the hope that shines light on the upside.
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
This program was a dazzling line-up of works that showcased and celebrated the strengths and talent of young dancers and graduands of New Zealand School of Dance (NZSD). The moment when fledglings leave the nest is always poignant. Some of these young dancers have taken instant wing and are moving straight into positions with prestigious companies—Queensland Ballet, West Australian Ballet for example. Godspeed to them. Most curiously, not one is joining Royal New Zealand Ballet (RNZB).
With numerous dancers departing from RNZB this week, that raises a number of questions, which this review is not placed to answer, but should none-the-less be somewhere, somehow addressed. Eva Radich in her Radio New Zealand Concert Upbeat program recently asked the question in interview with the company’s artistic director—’Royal New Zealand Ballet. What’s the New Zealand moniker mean?’ We all need to think about the answer. A major part of New Zealand’s dance identity is at stake. That belongs within, not apart from, international dance identity.
In years back, NZSD graduation was always staged in the Opera House, a similar proscenium theatre to the St.James. Some years ago the School moved into newly refurbished premises, Te Whaea, which includes an in-house theatre, which naturally became the venue for dance performances. While that suited some of the contemporary repertoire and choreographic experimentation programs, it is a truth that ballet repertoire had to become differently scaled and proportioned to fit the much smaller venue. Here, back in a proscenium arch theatre with scope and size on their side, all the students were launched into orbit and became dancers. They’ll have now become infected with what Lincoln Kirstein called ‘the red and gold disease’.
It is pleasing to note that of the 11 works on the program, 5 are choreographed by NZSD alumni.
The opening, Beginners, Please! offers a glimpse of two small children at the barre, in a simple sequence of plié to rond-de-jambe; then light moved to another young pair; then to two current NZSD students. Staged by Sue Nicholls, this was a beguiling cameo that evoked the celebrated ballet Etudes, by Harald Lander, 1948. It is poignant to think that Poul Gnatt would have danced in that work in Royal Danish Ballet, and Anne Rowse, director emeritus of NZSD, sitting to my left, danced it many times in Festival Ballet, as also did Russell Kerr. Martin James, single most illustrious graduate in NZSD’s history, no contest, is sitting to my right. He trained at the School, danced most wonderfully in RNZB, then performed in English National Ballet and elsewhere in Europe, eventually to Royal Danish Ballet where he became leading solo dancer, was knighted for his services to ballet, and eventually became the company’s ballet master. These are the seeding sources that cast prismatic variations across professional dance in New Zealand that students need to know about. We can give more than lip service to that. Given the Danish heritage of RNZB, Etudes is a work many of us have waited years to see here, and why wouldn’t Martin James stage it? This echoes the Maori whakatauki proverb, ‘walking backwards into the future’. We can only see what has already happened. Look at that as you go. All these thoughts were caught in the little opening miniature. Well done, Sue.
Tempo di Valse, arranged by Nadine Tyson, to Tchaikovsky’s Waltz of the Flowers, was ‘an exuberant work for a large ensemble, festive in mood’. Program notes are not always accurate but this one certainly was.
Aria, solo for a masked male, choreographed by Val Caniparoli, to Handel/Rinaldo overture and aria, is a remarkable dance, performed to breathtaking perfection by Mali Comlekci. Small wonder he flies straight into a contract at Queensland Ballet where an outstanding career awaits him. What a shame we won’t be able to see that develop, but we wish him airborne joy.
Curious Alchemy by Loughlan Prior, to Beethoven and Saint-Saens, is a fresh lively lovely dance in which youth is celebrated, and hints of the ties of friendship and the possibilities of relationship are subtly subtexted to the movement which suits the young dancers extremely well. The cast—Clementine Benson, Saul Newport, Jaidyn Cumming and Song Teng —are thrilled to be dancing, and that excitement shines through. Loughlan, himself a spirited dancer with RNZB, and a former graduate of NZSD, is loaded with choreographic energy and ideas, so that is fortunately one continuing career we will be able to follow.
Forgotten Things, by Sarah Foster-Sproull, is a very special choreography, initially developed on students at NZSD in 2015, and here brought to a stunning re-staging with a cast of 23 contemporary dance students. The music composed by Andrew Foster, begins full of life-affirming rhythms that evoke the best Renaissance dance music, then moves to percussive richness that support this mysterious procession—Sarah’s best work to date in my opinion. It is a stunning achievement to use parts of the dancers’ bodies, beautifully lit, as nano units of life force, and then thread these as metaphor into life at the level of society and community. This is a work that could be performed by any school or company, classical or contemporary dancers. Now there’s something for every choreographer to aspire to, since that’s nearer the reality of the dance profession today.
The wedding pas de deux from Don Quixote was danced, by Mayu Tanigaito and Joseph Skelton, as a gift from RNZB—and what a gift. That pas de deux would have been danced in New Zealand several hundred times over the decades, but never has it steamed and sizzled like this. Skelton dances with calm control of his prodigious technique and has a most interesting career we are always keen to follow. The transition from class-in-the-studio to role-on-stage that Tanigaito always brings to her performances is rare, and something to study, if only you can. She reveals the nature of dance.
Kenneth MacMillan’s Concerto pas de deux, dates from 1966 but carries its vintage timelessly. With two grand pianos soixante-neuf on stage, the Shostakovich beautifully played by the School’s pianists, Craig Newsome and Phillip O’Malley, the stage was set for Olivia Moore and Calum Gray to give the performance of their young lives to date.
S.U.B. (Salubrious Unified Brotherhood) was a duo by Victoria Columbus working with performers Connor Masseurs and Toa Paranihi. The ‘Nesian identity with rap and break dance, its isolations, its nonchalance, its cut & thrust, its mock battling, was brilliantly timed and caught in this sassy little number.
Allegro Brillante, by George Balanchine, dates from 1956 and is more of a period piece. It was performed with great verve and aplomb by the cast of eight dancers.
The Bach, by Michael Parmenter, to a Bach cantata, Erfreut euch, had a cast of 15 dancers who revelled in the exuberant dance sequences and sets of striking ensemble patterns. These were interspersed with walking sequences that stood rhythmically quite apart from the baroque energy and motivation of the danced sections.
The final work, William Forsythe’s In the middle somewhat elevated, was first performed in this theatre by Frankfurt Ballet during the international arts festival 1990. The choreography is as challenging and confrontational now as it was then, as is also the score by Thom Willems. The intensely asymmetrical and aggressive aesthetic comes across as thrilling, or scary, depending on the viewer. I am in the former camp, but can hear what others say—it is either loved or hated. Passionate opinions about dance in a theatre in New Zealand are no bad thing, but it’s for sure that the asymmetries that pull within the classical technique represent a post-modern departure from the canon that Forsythe represents. It’s a pity that the two gilded cherries hanging from on high, giving title to the choreography, are set so high they are noticed by no-one.
The RNZB dancers in the cast who stood out most memorably include Abigail Boyle, Tonia Looker, Alayna Ng, Shaun James Kelly, Kirby Selchow, Mayu Tanigaito, Kohei Iwamoto, Paul Mathews, Felipe Domingos. We wish all the Company dancers and all the School’s students well.
The New Zealand School of Dance (NZSD) graduation program opened with Paquita, staged by Anna-Marie Holmes, after Petipa’s vintage choreography from 1846, offering as many challenges today as it no doubt did back then. In another layer of heritage Nadine Tyson, the tutor who rehearsed the work, danced in it at her own NZSD graduation back in 1988. The luxuriant music by Minkus demands a festive commitment, and the students aspired to this with flair. Soloist Lola Howard in one of the variations caught our eye with her sense of line, and technical command.
Sarah Foster-Sproull, also a former NZSD graduate, created Forgotten Things, to music by Andrew Foster, in a premiere work for this season. A series of highly effective images, with light shining on skin of limbs in a kinetic sculptural effect, cohered the piece throughout. The mediaeval dance-like rhythms supported well the work’s theme of community undergoing change.
Cnoditions [not a typo] of Entry, an enigmatic and somewhat troubling work choreographed by Thomas Bradley, (no program profile so perhaps he prefers the anonymity?) had a line of robed and hooded figures in very low light levels that suggested sinister or secret machinations of covert behaviour among the members of a small and closed group. The program notes also appear to be in code (and a pity that the printed program is overall an uneven affair).
Tarantella, Balanchine’s quirky number from 1964, to Gottschalk’s jaunty music, was danced with effervescent style and vivacity by Mayuri Hashimoto and Felipe Domingos (the latter a promising young dancer from Brazil who has been confirmed in a contract to join Royal New Zealand Ballet). Diana White staged the piece which was rehearsed by Qi Huan, until recently a fine lead dancer with RNZB. His artistic conviction shone through the students’ performance (though Poul Gnatt would have required their somewhat quiet tambourines to be shredded by the end of the performance).
As It Fades, choreographed by Kuik Swee Boon of Singapore, to an atmospheric score, was performed here in excerpts, so it’s hard to gauge the work’s context. There was noticeable contrast within its structure—speed and flight, moving through to a calm and quietly iexplored place, performed with strong focus—as if above ground, but then under water.
The final and major work on the program was Concerto, choreographed by Kenneth MacMillan, premiered in Berlin in 1966. The rapport between MacMillan and dancer Lynn Seymour, whose distinctive qualities as a richly poetic and dramatic dancer inspired the making of the main duet, survives to again inspire the very fine and fresh performance it received here from Lola Howard and Jerry Wan Jiajing. Lynn Wallis staged the work, with Stephen Beagley and Turid Revfeim also involved. The Shostakovich piano concerto #2 was beautifully performed by Ludwig Treviranus and Craig O’Malley on two pianos sidestage. The colour gradations of costumes made attractive foil to each other and were the most successful of the evening.
Ballet is nothing if not faithful to its repertoire, but new choreographies in that idiom are very rarely commissioned or forthcoming—yet its movement vocabulary is able to speak to us of our lives and loves and concerns—witness that serene and timeless Concerto pas de deux. Contemporary dance, by contrast, is rarely studied or staged here through the classics of its own heritage repertoire and too often it has only a single season life. These are not parallel streams in choreography since they are one and the same art. Only through studying and seeing both repertoires do we know and understand that, and ourselves, as performers and as audiences. No doubt the School’s upcoming 50th anniversary will draw attention to the legacy of those decades.
This program offers challenges to the students, and opportunities to be savoured by the audience. The fact that your favourites will be different from mine is the rich treasure that the musical and non-verbal nature of dancing invites. It matters not whether old or new, borrowed or blue, ballet or contemporary dance. What matters is that it be good, and that choreographers and dancers know what to do with their music. All encouragement to the students as they make their way into careers in dance.