A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Royal New Zealand Ballet—another look

Royal New Zealand Ballet is making available a range of videos of productions from the repertoire for free home viewing for a brief period during the covid-19 lockdown. The dress rehearsal of their 2015 production of  A Midsummer Night’s Dream screened last week.

Comment by Jennifer Shennan

This ballet was originally commissioned by director Ethan Stiefel in a promising initiative for Royal New Zealand Ballet and Queensland Ballet to share resources, production and performance rights. The project could have grown to include other productions, teacher and dancer exchanges and residencies, and the concept of trans-Tasman co-productions was heartening. The premiere season of MND was staged here during the term of the next director Francesco Ventriglia.

The shimmering overture of Mendelssohn’s music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream evokes a humming faerie world. The dark blue-black midnight stage flickers alight with fireflies and glow worms. This is a visit to Waitomo Caves, after-dark Zealandia, Otari Bush or Botanical Gardens, the remembered hush of night in those places. You don’t need a grandchild holding your hand, though it helps, to know the feeling that magic could be out there, or look there, or quick another one over there. This entire production delivers on the promise caught in those quivering opening moments—with choreography, design and music inseparably part of what is arguably one of the best works in the company’s repertoire.

Liam Scarlett’s exquisite choreography drew galvanised performances from each of the dancers who were members of RNZB back in 2015. This viewing is a welcome reminder of their verve and style, the stage positively buzzing with the wit of a team of dancers who knew each other well and could together rise to a performance of such assured calibre. It is poignant in the extreme that we have loved and then lost so many of these artists in the swift turnover of dancers during the months that followed. There’s always a mobility of dancers amongst ballet companies but the scale and timing of that particular exodus wrought a major shift in the RNZB’s artistic identity.

Nigel Gaynor, music director back in the day, made an inspired full-length score by extending Mendelssohn’s original incidental music with seamlessly interpolated excerpts from others of his compositions. Gaynor conducted the NZ Symphony Orchestra and the result was a transport of delight.

Tracy Grant Lord produced fabulous designs for a number of major RNZB productions—for Christopher Hampsons’s Cinderella and Romeo & Juliet, as well as this Midsummer Night’s Dream. Lighting design by Kendall Smith positively sparkles with the wit of illuminating fairies and caverns themselves, rather than simply throwing light at them.

My review in 2015 was based on the performance by Lucy Green as Titania, Qi Huan as Oberon, both splendidly cast. This video has Tonia Looker and Maclean Hopper as leads and they do an equally fine job. Harry Skinner plays Bottom with a grounded quality that delights without overplaying the role, revealing an actor’s sensibility. Kohei Iwamoto is the quintessential Puck that Shakespeare must have had in mind when he wrote the character—daredevil, wicked, witty, mercurial rascal. Whatever the role, Kohei has always absorbed his virtuosic technique into characterisation and never used it for display. Even to watch him in a studio class was to see how his strength, precision and swiftness could grow into grace and the sprezzatura that Shakespeare knew all about ‘…that you would e’er do nothing but that.’

You could be moved by every moment of this ballet, beginning with a vulnerable young child caught in the crossfire of his quarrelling parents and their eventual hard-earned reconciliation, but one hilarious mid-moment breaks in to the action narrative as all of the cast dash en diagonale across the stage in pursuit of each other for the wrong and/or the right reasons—it’s a like a side-stage glimpse of the backstage life of all these characters—a cheeky wave and a wink to savour forever.

The fairies are a shimmering line-up—Lucy Green and Mayu Tanigaito among them—and Scarlett’s sense of comic timing draws a host of terrific performances—from Abigail Boyle, Paul Mathews, Laura Saxon Jones, Joseph Skelton, William Fitzgerald, Loughlan Prior, Jacob Chown. These assured performers really did work as a magic team, lucky we were. ‘Hence away. Now all is well. One alone stand sentinel …’

A recent saga has seen Liam Scarlett’s career with the Royal Ballet and elsewhere collapse into apparent ruin. The media fair bristled with leaked early reports (oh how salaciousness boosts ratings) but now the investigation seems to be over and the word is mum with the Royal Ballet declaring  ‘There were no matters to pursue…’ So through that vagueness all we know is the heartbreak of Scarlett’s gifts destroyed, his career for now anyway at a standstill. Let’s meantime be grateful for the wondrous talents and team that made this ballet in the first place, and hope there can be some eventual resolution to the current impasse. Good on RNZB for screening his choreographic masterwork. 

Jennifer Shennan, 20 April 2020

Featured image: Tonia Looker as Titania and Harry Skinner as Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2015. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

New Zealand School of Dance 50th anniversary celebration—with Royal New Zealand Ballet

24, 25 November 2017, St James Theatre, Wellington

Reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

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.

Mali Comlecki in 'Aria'. New Zealand School of Dance, 2017. Photo: © Stephen A'Court

Mali Comlekci in Aria. New Zealand School of Dance, 2017. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

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.

Olivia Moore and Calum Gray in ‘Concerto’. New Zealand School of Dance, 2017. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

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.

Toa Paranihi and Connore Masseurs in 'S.U.B.'. New Zealand School of Dance, 2017. Photo: © Stephen A'Court

Toa Paranihi and Connor Masseurs in S.U.B. New Zealand School of Dance, 2017. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

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.

Jennifer Shennan, 27 November 2017

Featured image: Jill Goh (centre) with dancers from the New Zealand School of Dance in Forgotten Things, 2017. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Royal New Zealand Ballet

27 November 2016, St James Theatre, Wellington

Reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

Truly, madly, deeply

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.

Shaun Kelly as Puck in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Royal New Zealand Ballet. Photo: Evan Li

Shaun Kelly as Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Royal New Zealand Ballet. Photo: © Evan Li

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?

Lucy Green as Titiania in 'A Midsummer Night's Dream'. Royal New Zealand Ballet. Photo Evan Li

Lucy Green as Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Royal New Zealand Ballet. Photo: © Evan Li

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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?

Jennifer Shennan, 28 November 2016

Featured image: Tonia Looker as Titania and Harry Skinner as Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Royal New Zealand Ballet (2015 season). Photo: © Stephen A’Court

Tonia Looker as Titanaia and Harry Skinner as Bottom in 'A Midsummer Night's Dream'. Royal New Zealand Ballet. Photo: ©Stephen A’'Court