Beneath Sky Snakes. Cameron McMillan—dance on screen

reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

The power and excitement of Len Lye’s kinetic sculpture is clearly etched in the memory from visits I have made to the Govett-Brewster Gallery in Taranaki New Plymouth over the years. (Len Lye, a New Zealander, b.1901, began his arts experiments here but his subsequent career, based in New York through many decades, earned him a huge international reputation. His monumental sculptures with kinetic, aural and cinematic dimensions have been much discussed in publications by Wystan Curnow and by Roger Horrocks, and in a particularly fine documentary, Flip & Two Twisters, directed by Shirley Horrocks).

The Govett-Brewster gallery building is an inspired architectural presence in its own right. In tandem with the Len Lye Foundation, a major collection of Lye’s work is housed there and shown in sequential displays throughout the year. One of my visits I remember particularly well, since my companion and I lingered long in the gallery and then spent the rest of the afternoon in the cafe discussing Lye’s work, as well as the gallery’s achievement which originated with the vision of arts philanthropist Monica Brewster, who established it back in 1960s, independently of local council and other institutional governance.

That in turn led to my comparative thoughts about dance and the structure of performing arts companies versus independent artists—about who ‘owns’, who directs, who funds, who governs, who controls, who survives, who thrives—about how heritage repertoire is guarded, how programming is selected, how the welfare of the artists in companies is maintained, and how free-lance artists develop their work, who of them survive, who thrives, who is the dramaturg?—in a word, how dancers work, how dance works. All of these aspects are apparent to audiences, even if only subliminally, since they are reflected in the morale and calibre of each dancer we see in any given performance. It is said we get the politicians we deserve. Do we get the dances we deserve? Do the dancers get the recognition they deserve? As usual the answer is Yes & No.

Cameron McMillan, New Zealand born and raised, is a thriving surviving dance-maker. His current website is zinging testament to that. Born and raised in New Plymouth, he later trained at the Australian Ballet School and then joined RNZBallet in 1997, under Artistic Director, Matz Skoog. It was in 2000 that Cameron was noticed and singled out in glowing words in a review by Joan Acocella who saw him in Mark Morris’ Drink to me only with thine eyes—with the music most memorably played by pianist David Guerin onstage.(We had brought Acocella from New York to an Arts Festival here, under a Fulbright project on arts writing. The British Council had brought Michael Billington, drama critic, as part of the same program).

Cameron McMillan in Beneath Sky Snakes, 2020. Screenshot

Acocella wrote that McMillan’s talent was striking already but that his potential was huge and that he could expect a major international career. She has proved not wrong. He choreographed Unsuspecting View for the Tutus on Tour of 2001, left RNZB not long after and has developed a stellar international career abroad, unfortunately little reported on back here, among several of our ex-pat choreographers whose work should be shared here but never is. Turid Revfeim’s Ballet Collective enterprise is soon to help redress that regrettable situation.

In 2015, I saw and reviewed a performance of Cameron’s work at the Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts where Ou Lu had appointed him choreographer-in-residence. It’s a poignant work, with a large cast of dancers, string quartet playing on stage. The theme concerns a corps-de-ballet dancer’s experience—a glimpse into something we all see but rarely discuss. The work would thrill audiences here, if only they had the chance to see it.

During the extraordinary times of Covid 2020, dancers and dance companies worldwide have been both staunch and flexible in streaming videoed responses to the wild changes in their lives and work. In some cases that has brought publicity and exposure they could never have dreamed of, and we have been offered access to extraordinary choreographic riches—Saarinen’s Borrowed Light, Lin Hwai Min’s Moonwater, Marston’s The Cellist  would be some of the finest examples—though we have probably all seen enough of the dances videoed on a mat in the living room or on the patio—as a message of dancers’ resilience they’re fine, but as choreography they were mostly short of the mark.

Cameron McMillan in Beneath Sky Snakes, 2020. Screenshot

Cameron McMillan, in collaboration with the Govett-Brewster Gallery, has made a work in response to Len Lye’s Sky Snakes, which had its premiere exhibition in February 2020. Beneath Sky Snakes is an absorbing choreographic response to a sculpture that was moving already. The dance has a man on the ground, beneath a sky with huge forces of stalactite proportions. Tempo Dance Festival, an annual Auckland season, enterprisingly made the video available during this year’s digital season since the live program was cancelled. The choreography is yet in early stages of the film treatment it deserves but the dance shows a performer still moving with the mesmerising fluidity that Acocella described back in 2000. Perhaps a Govett-Brewster commission to Cameron could see a series of dances relating to other of Len Lye’s works. We all benefit from writing, talking, thinking about and remembering good dancing. Malo and Manuia

Jennifer Shennan, 11 September 2020

Featured image: Cameron McMillan in Beneath Sky Snakes, 2020. Screenshot

Douglas Wright—the last dance. Tempo Dance Festival Online video viewing

15–19 July 2020
Reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

Auld Lang Syne

Several repeat viewings of this enigmatic little dance have reminded me of auld acquaintance —never to be forgotten, but still very good to have it brought to mind. I see it as Douglas’s conversation with the Vitruvian Man by Leonardo da Vinci. He moves but does not locomote. He stays within his kinesphere. 

The first minute is a spoken explanation from Douglas of the work’s gestation—’The images came to me. I told them to go away but they wouldn’t go away, they stayed like a cat scratching its paw on the door to be let in. I found a theme—one we all know about—the search for ecstasy—be that chocolate éclair, heroin rush, or orgasm. That quest is part of everyone’s life. The images grew into the work The Kiss Inside.’

Douglas stands his ground and lets his gestures speak. You can ‘hear’ as his hands sign and pray and plea, let him rest his cheek a little then wake him up. His arms spread like a tree branch, fold like a bird wing, or arc up and over like those of an angel. He signs himself with a cross, touches his fingertip to the pulse points in his throat or face, his breast or groin. He reaches down to walk his hands over the floor in front of him, to check the ground, terra firma, terra incognito. There’s driving pulse in the music by Naftuke Brandwein—Escorting the Bride and Groom Home.

The dance is first shown in Douglas’ home, in his jeans and boots, on the living room carpet, in front of his bookshelf, an art piece on the wall, a statue of a female saint adjacent. The year is 2014. The dance ends with the right arm forward, hand upwards, palm facing us, in a gesture that says ‘Wait’ or ‘Stop’. In Part Two of the film, Douglas dances on stage, within the choreography The Kiss Inside.  (Sky City, Auckland, 2015)

Douglas Wright in his solo from The Kiss Inside, 2015. Photo: © Pippa Samaya

A giant tree branch is suspended overhead. Trees exist both above and below ground. Douglas always was a dendrophile, so there are echoes for us of his first choreography for RNZBallet, decades ago, The Decay of Lying—and of the later works, A Far Cry and Forever.

Here Douglas walks on stage, bare foot, dressed in white pyjama. A uniformed nurse, on standby, watches him closely. She’ll be his first responder. His final gesture has re-shaped to become a right arm raised high, with the fist declaring ‘I hereby pledge. This is my truth.’  Douglas then walks to exit stage left.

(Update of 19 July 2020)

*******************************

Douglas Wright, New Zealand’s uniquely meteoric dancer, choreographer, writer, artist, died in late 2018. His last choreography, a short solo, M_Nod, was reviewed in On Dancing. His last full-length work, The Kiss Inside, was also reviewed here.

Douglas’ close colleague, rehearsal director and now choreographic executor, Megan Adams, has produced an unusual and poignant video document which traces the solo Douglas choreographed for himself within The Kiss Inside, but which he was only able to dance at some performances, when his health and stamina permitted.

Tempo Dance Festival, normally an annual live season in Auckland, has become a digital season this year due to Covid restrictions. Megan’s film is being screened this week, until Sunday.

From TDF website: It is an absolute honour to be hosting Douglas Wright’s The Kiss Inside (solo) this week on the Tempo digital stage. Thank you to Megan Adams for bringing this film together and allowing us to share such rare and beautiful footage. 

Here’s what Megan has to say about the work:

The Kiss Inside (2015) was the last time Douglas Wright performed on stage. He made an exquisite solo which sadly, due to sickness, he was unable to perform at every venue, so many people missed the opportunity to see him dance. In fact, Douglas didn’t advertise that he was performing, so many people didn’t even know that he had choreographed a solo for himself in this work. This solo was made over many weeks in his lounge in Mount Albert, Auckland. He would make choreographic material and I would visit him every week and he would show me what he had made, tell me where he thought it would go and we’d listened to music he was considering. We would share choreographic ideas and scrutinise every detail of the movement. Afterwards we would drink tea, talk about life and laugh. I occasionally videoed the sessions and the rehearsal footage in the film is of the first time that Douglas performed the entire dance from start to finish. I love the intimacy of the footage, we can hear him breathe and sigh and feel his vulnerability as he finds his way through such an intricate solo for the first time. What an absolute privilege it is to witness visionary artist Douglas Wright rehearsing at home, in his jeans and boots, in front of his favourite chair and the statue of a saint.

Douglas Wright’s The Kiss Inside (solo) will be up on the Tempo website from the 15–19 of July. 

There are motifs in this dance we recognise and remember from other work by Douglas (especially Elegy)—a kind of urgent semaphore of gesture, a celestial signing, in which we are being told things. This is before or beyond language—dance typically has no script anyway—but Douglas always had an urgent need to communicate—and indeed used dance, also visual art of found sculpture, and drawing—plus a considerable body of writing, to do just that.

Body of work. Work of the body. How he savoured language and its parallel existence alongside movement to say what he thought we should know.

This ascetic dance catches death by the tail and cheats it by 9 minutes. You can say a lot in 9 minutes if that’s all the time you’ve got. It’s how long it took me to write this review.

Don’t miss the dance.

Jennifer Shennan, 16 July 2020

Featured image: Douglas Wright rehearsing his solo from The Kiss Inside, 2014.

Douglas Wright's 'M_Nod'

Between Two. Kelly Nash and Douglas Wright

5–13 October, 2018. The Vault, Q Theatre, Auckland. Tempo Dance Festival

Reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

Between Two is a tandem of two 15 minute choreographies. The first, Tipu, is by Kelly Nash. The second, M₋Nod, is by Douglas Wright. Although not designed as such, the two works act as prologue and epilogue to each other. It is a perfect program.

Less than perfect is the venue, a tiny cramped vault in the Q Theatre complex, with the audience sitting in three rows of chairs on the same level as the performance space, and with an overhead stud the lowest since the New Zealand Ballet performed in A&P sheds around the country in 1953. ‘Don’t jump too high dears or you’ll crack your skulls open on the beam that’s two inches above your heads.’

There’s a noisy fan left on throughout the performance blowing cold air into our faces. Why? It’s not a hot night. ‘Oh because the fan’s droning helps block out the voices and footfalls of people in the foyer upstairs. This is a sustained and demanding 15 min solo so the dancer needs to concentrate.’ Well, I can understand the dancer’s need to concentrate, but Wright has for decades been New Zealand’s premier dance-maker, a force of theatre, the most important artist in my and many people’s life, and this dance will be his last. Was there no better space available in all of enormous Auckland for his swansong?

‘May I have a program or cast sheet please?’ (it’s hard to review without one). ‘Oh there isn’t a printed program,’ the box-office informs. Well I don’t believe that and sure enough, after it’s all over we are indeed handed a program. Hence this review.

Kelly Nash, working with Atamira Dance Company, has choreographed a number of memorable works of clear style and coherent proportions. The most recent I saw made a depth-sounding on Maori mythology and had extremely interesting collaboration with taonga puoro and karakia of Maori music. She’s an interesting choreographer who does not repeat herself. What will Tipu (meaning ‘seed’) offer? In a word, magic.

To Eden Mulholland’s inventive soundscape, two women, Nancy Wijohn and Atayla Loveridge, are encased in strong, transparent light-reflecting tights that seem like an otherworldy membrane of gladwrap. They move in sinewy duet, of sustained thread and thrust, suggesting female fecundity. It makes sense then that the two other members of the cast are Milly Kimberly Grant, a beautiful woman who sits, stands and moves about in the shadows upstage, singing snatches of lullaby, sometimes quiet sometimes strong, to Te-Whakanoa-sage, her five-month-old baby in her arms. He listens to her, looks about at the dancers, snuggles in, suckles a little, traces the other breast while doing so, just to check that there will be more milk for later. He strokes his mother’s cheeks and sucks on her chin, looks at the dancers, looks at us. We can’t see Te Whakanoa altogether clearly because our eyes are brimming at his total absence of guile, at his sweet soft gentle exploration of air, movement for its own sake. Who wouldn’t want to slow down time and embrace a five-month-old baby? The first dance.

All four performers take a simple graceful bow and walk quietly away. M_Nod, which is a nod to Morpheus, the god of dreams, opens with the recorded voice of Douglas Wright instructing us ‘Please close your eyes’ and so we do. After a minute or two ‘Please open your eyes’ and so we do. The scene is now set with a prone figure in a shroud, his head beneath a regular kitchen chair. Three knocks of the baroque conductor’s baton on the floor to warn us that the theatre-piece is about to start, that we should steady ourselves, and so we do.

There is text spoken through the muffle of the shroud. ‘I must get up’. But that only results in the dancer bashing his forehead against the seat of the chair. The shroud is pulled down to expose his face which turns towards us, the head shaking slowly as if to say ‘No’ but at ever increasing speed is soon a frantic blur of features. The body wriggles out, removes and tosses away the shroud. There stands Sean MacDonald, tall, dark and handsome, but no stranger to the dance stage here. Last week he was in Black Grace’s Crying Men. Here is rather more comfortably centre-stage, poised and open, ready to perform a solo masterpiece made for him by Douglas, for his protégé, friend and colleague.

Sean wears a black armband and we all know what that means. What follows is a flawless performance that encompasses the shade and light of all there is. The curiosity, the experimentation, the reaction to folly, the fury at incompetence, the search for explanations, the grace and the gladness expressed in strong clean diagonals, both within the body’s held line and gesture, as well as in the sequences of movement that will find the upstage-right to downstage-left diagonal line as a river of sweet strength to bathe in. James Joyce’s voice is heard reading from his Finnegan’s Wake. There will be an excerpt from Stockhausen’s Stimmung. Tuvan throat singing is heard.

Douglas Wright likes to choreograph for the throat, which always reminds me of Lord Krishna whose throat turned blue after he drank all the poisoned ocean so his people would be safe. There are motifs and echoes throughout the dance that refer to several of Wright’s own earlier works—Elegy for example, in atmosphere and costume (a woman’s negligee top and a man’s brown trousers); A Mystery Play in the head bashing (though here, mercifully, it is against the air rather than the wall); Forever and Black Milk and rapt in the arresting opening images; halo in the search for spiritual expression amid daily distractions; Gloria in the eye’s questing for transcendence. We can’t see Sean altogether clearly because our eyes are brimming at his total absence of guile, at the sweet soft gentle exploration of air, movement for its own sake. The last dance.

Fortunately there are four performances of this perfect program across two days and you can see them all because, incomprehensibly, the season is not sold out. There will be four more performances this weekend. By then the queues should be round the block, but who knows? This is Douglas’s last dance. He is in the hospice now—where the last rehearsals for M_Nod took place, all the above managed by rehearsal director Megan Adams who is working quiet miracles to do so.

The work was commissioned by Michael Lett, a young Auckland art gallery director, and had its premiere in the Grey Lynn Public Library hall back in July. Top marks to him, and to Carrie-Rae Cunningham, director of Tempo, for recognizing its importance and including it in the festival. I am assured there will be future performances, and that a good film has been made of the work.

Five of Douglas’ art works are currently hanging in New Zealand Art, an exhibition at the Auckland Art Gallery, where they sit alongside Colin McCahon, Jim Allen, Gretchen Albrecht (whose work was used as set design for Douglas’ first full length work, Now is the Hour, with Limbs in late 1980s—and we can rejoice that there is excellent film of that in Nga Taonga Film Archive).

… not to mention Douglas’ three published books, Ghost Dance, Terra Incognito (not a typo) and Black Milk, as well as his three volumes of poetry. Michael Lett is agent for the most recent art works. When I visited Douglas in the hospice, he murmured a worry that his work is not ‘out there’. I could assure him that it is.

Jennifer Shennan, 10 October 2018

Featured image: Sean MacDonald in rehearsal for Douglas Wright’s M_Nod.

Douglas Wright's 'M_Nod'
Katie Rudd in 'Lost + Found'. Tempo Dance Festival, 2017. Photo Carol Brown Design Kasia Pol

Lost + Found [dances of exile]. Tempo Dance Festival

6 October 2017. Q Theatre complex, Auckland. Choreography: Carol Brown

Reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

This layered work of a ‘reactivated archival material from former Bodenwieser dancers including Shona Dunlop MacTavish, Hilary Napier and Hilde Holger’ is presented as an itinerant event with audience members following dancers and narrator as they move through the out-back, off-stage spaces of the Q Theatre complex. Spoken introductions are interspersed with fragments of dance by couples and triples in stairwells, corridors and half-way spaces that suggest history is at best caught piecemeal and personally.

Film and sound excerpts are included en route but you receive all these as random mosaic rather than linear sequence. The audience finally assembles in the foyer for the projection onto a split screen of fragments from Bodenwieser dancers, paralleled with new sequences by the present performers, who are members of the New Zealand Dance Company. I personally would have appreciated more sequential use of that historical footage, with identification of who and what we were watching. Bodenwieser unleashed and encouraged such expressionist commitment from her dancers, a quality that today’s performers would do well to be reminded of.

I would have dearly loved to see a performance of a complete short work, say Bodenwieser’s Demon Machine, from 1924, interpolated into Lost + Found. (It’s not impossible. This after all was a highly acclaimed, prize-winning work in the same choreographic competition in Paris that saw Kurt Jooss win first prize for his Der Grüne Tisch/The Green Table. Dunlop is alive and spirited still today, and was in fact present at this season. Brown was herself in an early New Zealand staging of the work in 1970s, as were students at New Zealand School of Dance in 1980s, and reconstruction can be aided by the fact that the choreography also exists in Laban notation score). ‘The machine gains ascendancy over the souls of the people instead of man dominating the machine. The vital problem of our age’ … reads the original 1924 program note. More than 90 years later, there is resonance in our age of digital burn-out that represents so much contemporary communication.

The arresting image on the program cover, of Shona Dunlop in her own solo, Two souls alas, reside within my breast (as I recall, this was the first choreography not by Bodenwieser in that company repertoire), is collaged with the ecstatic backward lean of Dunlop as Cain in Cain and Abel, but both these images remain unidentified and uncaptioned.

Many of those attending will have found the mystery and unpredicability of this work an engaging and refreshing experience. I personally find some degree of distraction in the encounters with other audience members that are inevitable as we move from space to space, and from the curious tone of narration that accompanied the work. That said, I did catch some fragments of exquisite intertwined arm movements by two women in the stairwell, and wouldn’t have missed it for the world. Perhaps history is made up only of such fragments and memories?

Jennifer Shennan, 15 October 2017

Featured image: Katie Rudd in Lost + Found. Tempo Dance Festival, 2017. Photo: Carol Brown. Design: Kasia Pol

Katie Rudd in 'Lost + Found'. Tempo Dance Festival, 2017. Photo Carol Brown Design Kasia Pol
Sir Jon Trimmer and William Fitzgerald in 'Lark' from 'whY Cromozone'. Tempo Dance Festival, 2017. Photo: © Amanda Billing

whY Chromozone. Tempo Dance Festival

7 October 2017, Q Theatre, Auckland.

Reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

Tempo Dance Festival has always had a program slot, Y Chromozone, for an exclusively male line-up of choreographers and dancers to do their thing.

I remember it in previous years being overlong, over compered, and in need of more insightful programme notes—but as one who thinks gender has little to do with choreographic vision anyway, I was always going to be hard to convince of the concept. (I know, I know, I’m in a minority here, but I am a member of many minority groups and that is no bother to me, per se). OK, let’s to the dance…

The first listed item did not happen, but there was no announcement to warn us of that. That’s a serious issue for a reviewer working in the dark through a program of 13 separate items without interval. I don’t usually take notes during a performance but prefer to remember what is memorable, consulting the program before and after. For that to work, you don’t want the second item playing as the first.

That said, the opener was stunning—Not, choreographed and performed by Oliver Carruthers, to music Tourists by Nicolas Jaar. He was carried onstage in a twisted knot which then unfolded, limb by twist, to open finally into the straight line of his body. A secure mover this one, from Unitec.

Asmodeus, choreographed and performed by Jay Clement (to Arsonist’s Lullaby by Hosier), a gymnast harnessing extraordinary strength and balance. He spent most of the dance upside down, on the palm of one hand, legs airborne, slowly rotating on top of three poles, in a delicious slow-motion dance that held tight to its music, thus allowing poetry to emerge from its power.

Enough, choreographed by val smith, was performed by two great wild things swathed in 1000 shaggy sheepskins. They edged on walking sticks hesitantly and painfully from downstage left to upstage right. About mid-stage they rolled over each other, and one great monster pulled apart to become two—so I guess you could say they sprogged. They then continued the pilgrimage across the stage. These were creatures that Maurice Sendak might have designed. Music is identified as ‘anonymous vaporwave track pirated from a gay porn site’. Well, they said it. The whole strange hilarious thing was possibly a metaphor, depending on what you want from your metaphors.

Me, Myself But Why? choreographed by Stephen Hidalgo, performed by Stephen Hidalgo and Stephen Hidalgo. This screen-to-stage conversation between ‘himselves’ as screen figure and on-stage dancer was played with brilliant timing and a sharp dry wit that had us in stitches. Lucky this isn’t a competition as we’ve had four winners already and we’re not even a third of the way through the program.

This is a thing, choreographed and performed by Connor Masseurs, to Freefallin Dreams by Saje, was a contemplative solo at times reminiscent of a breakdancing insect, at other times a beguiling man. No program note to profile the dancer, just an obtuse paragraph that did no justice to the interesting textures of the very well-shaped dance we saw.

Dane Head, a 14 year old pupil of Allan Barry at Mt. Eden Ballet Academy, performed the peasant pas male variation from Giselle. His impressively clean technique and sound musicality, coupled with his obvious delight in dancing, made for a pleasant experience for him and us, both.

Outcast by Fenjay Sapon was a quartet of Unitec dancers often pitching one against three. Confident in their strength and their ability to build atmosphere, their use of rhythms and canon added interesting depth to this piece.

Liberate-He, by Earl de Castro was a thrust of waacking and voguing, tight jeans and high heels, all pitch perfect.

Joe Carvalho performed a mesmerising solo on an acrobatic circus apparatus, the cyr wheel. Harnessed through music, A Little Walk to Nowhere by Brain Damage, this performance brought Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian man, after waiting 530 years in a manuscript, to spend time with us. This was a miracle of true proportion and conversation with gravity. Carvalho’s heroic performance was delivered with a modesty that will not easily be forgotten

Lark, choreographed by Loughlan Prior, of Royal New Zealand Ballet, performed by Jon Trimmer and William Fitzgerald, proved a masterwork. There’s little surprise in that since Prior has already earned considerable choreographic kudos. 78 year-old Trimmer’s presence on stage, before he even moves a muscles, reeks with the authenticity of a performer who deeply knows how dance works. Fitzgerald moves with a calm clarity that makes virtuosity seem effortless, and his elevation is something to savour. Suffice to say this piece portraying an older dancer as he sifts memories of dances past, alongside a younger dancer’s questing after the kinds of things that will bring meaning to his future performances, had a poignancy to treasure.

Blue Bird, by Christopher Olwage, has recently been performed as part of Viennese Pride celebrations in Austria and we can be sure it received the same audience appreciation there as here. To Young and Beautiful by Lana Del Ray, the dancer en pointe and with costume of blue feathers that were shed in stages, suggested a cabaret twilight of happiness tinged with yearning.

The final slot, Idco Next Generation—Swagganauts, is a team of nine young Hip Hop dancers who have all the cut and thrust of seasoned street dance. Precision, speed, agility, cool, and a cap with the peak going down the back are all stitched in place so’s you couldn’t slip a knife between the moves. Josh Cesan should take credit for this spirited finale.

Jennifer Shennan, 15 October 2017

Featured image: Sir Jon Trimmer and William Fitzgerald in Lark from whY Cromozone. Tempo Dance Festival, 2017. Photo: © Amanda Billing

Sir Jon Trimmer and William Fitzgerald in 'Lark' from 'whY Cromozone'. Tempo Dance Festival, 2017. Photo: © Amanda Billing

 

Emily Hancock, Oliver Carruthers and Atalya Loveridge in Douglas Wright's 'Knee Dance'. Photo Amanda Billing

The DANZ season of Limbs @ 40. Tempo Dance Festival

5 & 6 October 2017, Q Theatre, Auckland, Tempo Dance Festival

Reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

Tempo Dance Festival is an energising fortnight every October at the Q Theatre complex and surrounds, when Aucklanders have a sea of performances and workshops to navigate. This year’s theme marked important anniversaries in dance—Limbs Dance Company at 40, New Zealand School of Dance at 50, Northern Dance Network at 20. I’m a starter for that, since everything that happens is caused by what went before.

Limbs was formed in 1977 and directed by Mary Jane O’Reilly from 1978 so good to have her back as Artistic Director of this retrospective program. The first work, her own  Poi, to music commissioned of Jack Body, is sustained and serious and beautiful and evocative and green. No actual poi are used but the curved and circular arm gestures at a range of rhythms and tempi bring them close. There are evocations too of the bird life in shaded fern and dappled bush (I remember a lovely lighting design in the original season). This work from 1983, reworked and extended in 1987, is available on dvd and makes an excellent educational resource. It was here well performed by seven dancers from Unitec Performing and Screen Arts program.

Next, from 1980, Melting Moments by Mark Baldwin, to Dvorak’s American string quartet is a rich and very red dance. Six dancers in three pairings—deep and slow, contained yet erotic, sensual and gorgeous—just as I remember it. It was here well performed by students from New Zealand School of Dance.

Talking Heads, by O’Reilly, to Seen and not seen from 1980, is a goofy hilarious quartet of wobbling robots who nod and jiggle their way around the stage. It needs a tight command of movement isolations, and sense of humour from all of us.

Then came Knee Dance, one of Douglas Wright’s classics, from 1982. To music by Laurie Anderson, this is a compelling work that dances out the magnetism and interdependence among three dancers—the invisible bonds of relationships made visible. In Wright’s choreography, each move grows out of the one that went before, so is both parent and child of itself. A miracle of a dance, here exceptionally well performed by Unitec dancers.

Emily Hancock, Oliver Carruthers and Atalya Loveridge in Douglas Wright's 'Knee Dance'. Photo Amanda Billing

Emily Hancock, Oliver Carruthers and Atalya Loveridge in Douglas Wright’s Knee Dance. Photo: © Amanda Billing

Perhaps Can is a sensuous solo for a skirted woman who does a kind of slow motion flamenco number to Miles Davis’ The Pan Piper. A reverie, made in 1979 by O’Reilly.

There’s a view which might see each of Douglas Wright’s works as talisman. Nonetheless, that would be a fair claim for Quartet, to Vivaldi, first performed in New York and in 1987 set on Limbs. I have colleagues in New York who still remember that early performance, and everything else Wright put on that program on the eve of his departing from the Paul Taylor company. It will always be New Zealand’s arts administrators and funders biggest, saddest mistake that they consistently failed to provide Douglas Wright with the resources to sustain a company and his repertoire produced over the decades. Instead we have provided many more dollars for much less talented choreographers. It is too late now, Wright has turned to literature and visual arts, so although no longer choreographic, his output continues to pour forth. (An interview on www.RadioNewZealand/Saturday with Kim Hill, September 2017, is a remarkable portrait of the artist as a middle-aged man—insightful, compassionate and well worth listening to).

Quartet, here performed by students from New Zealand School of Dance, perhaps needed more rehearsal time? Nonetheless we saw perfectly well what the work is, but it is additionally something to be truly grateful for—that Marianne Schultz, formerly a dancer with Limbs, and in the original cast of this work, has published a book on the history, repertoire and context of the company, in time for this 40th anniversary. It is her considerable achievement to include a close-up, gesture-by-move, limb-by-leap description of Wright’s choreography. That is a demanding and pedestrian task to set oneself and she does it faithfully and with great aplomb.

[Marianne Schultz, 2017. Limbs Dance Company—Dance for All People. 1977–1989]

Let the record stand. Audiences today can see what they missed. A Maori whakatauki or proverb has it that we walk backwards into the future. Despite the ephemerality of dance performance, we can see, to a degree and depending on our vision and our memory, what went before.  We cannot see what hasn’t yet happened. History is not bunk. It’s all there is. It’s now two minutes in the past that I wrote that sentence. Your reading of it lies, one hopes, in the future, except that by the time you’ve read that, it too is past. Well done, all of us.

Jennifer Shennan, 14 October 2017

Featured image: Emily Hancock, Oliver Carruthers and Atalya Loveridge in Douglas Wright’s Knee Dance. Photo: © Amanda Billing

Emily Hancock, Oliver Carruthers and Atalya Loveridge in Douglas Wright's 'Knee Dance'. Photo Amanda Billing

 

Louise Potiki-Bryant in 'Ngaro' Photo Tessa Chrisp

Ngaro. Tempo Dance Festival

4 October 2017. Q Theatre, Auckland. Tempo Dance Festival. Choreography Louise Potiki-Bryant

Reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

Louise Potiki-Bryant gave the premiere and sole performance of Ngaro, the solo work that results from her time on the prestigious Marti Friedlander Residency in New York. (Friedlander, a child orphan refugee to New Zealand from war-torn Europe, became one of the country’s leading photographers, and her portraits of New Zealand artists are the finest we have. Additionally, her bequest of this stimulating residency will ensure that her legacy continues, and how pleased she would be that a choreographer took up the challenge).

The word ‘ngaro’ in Maori means ‘hidden, out of sight, disappeared, absent, missing, lost, destroyed, consumed, passed into, undetected, unnoticed, passed off, passed away, subsided, forgotten, unintelligible, beaten, baffled, at a loss, distressed, oppressed, overcome by emotion, unavenged, unrequited, secretly’. Such are the riches of Maori vocabulary; there are also secondary and tertiary meanings—’fly, blowfly, supposed to represent the life or spirit of a person—or a roller used to drag a canoe—or a piece of wood set up for certain purposes’. It has a further meaning—’to be certain’. So there are all the words one needs to write about this.

This is an important, striking, dark, at times troubling work. Secrets are hinted at, troubles encountered, fears faced and not entirely conquered. There is a yearning … is that for a child? Was there a child not born? The work is enigmatic and its references and symbols tap into the interior of experiences. New York as a busy city full of people seems full of loneliness instead. Video clips are projected onto strip screens that slide across the stage like days and a night across the stage. The creative team—Potiki-Bryant  & Paddy Free (video/sound) and Rona Ngahuia Osborne & Paddy Free (costume/set ) are a strong cohort bringing visual and audio depth and dimension to the production. I wish they too had come to share the curtain call.

There is extraordinary courage involved in mounting a work as personal as this one. I do think it a most inappropriate choice of Festival management to have billed it as the opening event of Tempo’s fortnight program however, and would have preferred it in an early evening slot with a quiet korero session to follow, rather than a reception with wine and cheese and chatter. Come the curtain call we had seen a tired, sad, exhausted slip of a woman talking a bow, a wan smile and then an exit. It just made you want to go after her, hug her, and assure her that everything will be alright. There’s a word for that in the dictionary too. It is ‘aroha’.

Jennifer Shennan, 14 October 2017

Featured image: Louise Potiki-Bryant in Ngaro. Photo: © Tessa Chrisp

Louise Potiki-Bryant in 'Ngaro' Photo Tessa Chrisp