Subtle Dances. BalletCollective Aotearoa with New Zealand Trio

8 & 9 April 2021. Bruce Mason Theatre, Takapuna, Auckland
Auckland Arts Festival
reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

This long-awaited premiere season of a new contemporary ballet company, BalletCollective Aotearoa, was nothing short of a triumph. Come the curtain-call, many in the sizeable audience were on their feet to salute the choreographers and composers, the dancers, musicians and designers, the courage and commitment—the whole fresh resilient New Zealand-ness of it all. Many are in the team but artistic director and producer, Turid Revfeim, is responsible, and deserves acclaim.

Revfeim has led her stalwart little troupe of dancers in and out, around and back through the Covid-induced challenges and shadows of these past many months. They must have walked close to the edge more than once, as funding began then disappeared (the Minister of Arts might ask questions about that), lockdowns descended (‘Just do the right thing and stay home’), schedules postponed (‘Well, let’s just re-schedule then’), flights and accommodation booked then cancelled (‘OK, let’s just re-book then’), ‘Let’s just abandon the project since there’s no budget and it’s so hard to keep going?’ (‘Never, never, never. We will dance’). ‘Intrepid’ and ‘indomitable’ are the adjectives they have earned.

There were shades of 1953 and the pioneering endeavours of Edmund Hillary, or perhaps I mean Poul Gnatt, as the performance got under way. The intensely passionate and utterly stunning musicians of New Zealand Trio were right there, just off-centre, upstage left, for the whole performance. By that staging, the three separate choreographies on the program merged as a trefoil of faith, a shamrock of hope, a clover of charity. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. J. S. Bach walked 400 miles to hear a concert. I only had to sit on a plane for one hour.

There is an impressive interview with Turid Revfeim on RNZ Nine to Noon, 9 April, (the podcast on RNZ website is well worth listening to), which sets the background and context of this courageous ballet initiative. If you think this is a rave review of the performance and of the entire enterprise, you are right.  

Scene from Sarah Knox’s Last Time We Spoke. BalletCollective Aoteraoa, 2021. Photo: © John McDermott

The opening work—Last Time We Spoke—by Sarah Knox, to composition by Rhian Sheehan, was an abstract yet poetic treatment of themes of how to be alone together. The cast of six dancers in fluid pairings across several sections of the work found connection in the lyrical music to make friends with consolation and memory. Tabitha Dombroski and William Fitzgerald were striking among the cast of six dancers.

Helix, the second work by Cameron Macmillan, one of New Zealand’s ex-pat choreographers whose work we all want to see more of, borrowed its title from the music, Helix, composed by John Psathas, leading New Zealand composer. It was preceded by an excerpt from Island Songs, a different composition by Psathas, a staggeringly virtuosic challenge to musicians who rose to every thrilling, throbbing quaver of its melodic percussion.

Scene from Cameron Macmillan’s Helix. BalletCollective Aoteraoa, 2021. Photo: © John McDermott

In Helix, the drama continued as Macmillan traced a journey, not exactly narrative but with suggestions of story nonetheless—a woman, a man, and shades of relationships between them. Some woman. This was the phenomenal Abigail Boyle who is quite simply the leading ballet dancer in the country, no contest. Just standing still she is dancing, such is her sense of line and presence, but when she moves, o my. Her investment in the role as she journeyed round the corners of the stage carrying her chair, and through the centre of the stage as she contained emotion in her every movement, was a deeply anchored yet airborne performance. Boyle is a national treasure of dance in New Zealand and we are overjoyed to see her performing still at the peak of her powers. William Fitzgerald partnered her with a strong and sensitive quality that reminded us of his dancing which has also been much missed here of late. Tabitha Dombrowski and Medhi Angot were powerful among the committed cast of eight performers.

Scene from Loughlan Prior’s Subtle Dances. BalletCollective Aoteraoa, 2021. Photo: © John McDermott

The third work, Subtle Dances, choreographed by Loughlan Prior, composed by Claire Cowan, takes its title from the music, which in turn becomes the title for the triple-bill as well. Prior and Cowan are a pairing of major talents. The work explores and explodes with themes of gender blurring—swirls of hot tango as the boys and girls and boys come out to play. It is saucy, spicy, dark and compelling. Complex courtships, allusion alternating with illusion, remind us of nature’s best dancers. It invites searing performances from all the cast, and confirms this BalletCollective Aotearea as a troupe of striking dance talent, in fabulous collaboration with the phenomenal musicians of the New Zealand Trio.

As soon as the box office opens for their next season we will be in the queue, however many hundred miles of travel that might mean. Here is a link to the RNZ podcast featuring Turid Revfeim.

Jennifer Shennan, 10 April 2021

Featured image: Scene from Loughlan Prior’s Subtle Dances. BalletCollective Aoteraoa, 2021. Photo: © John McDermott

Transfigured Night. Ballet Collective Aotearoa & Chamber Music New Zealand

15 March 2021, Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington
reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

This was an evening of triumph on several levels. Transfigured Night is the first of six concerts in Chamber Music New Zealand’s nationally touring programme for 2021. Audiences in ten cities will have the chance to witness a performance of light and colour, wit and freedom, deep beauty and poignant poetry, of music and dance making love. We don’t often get to watch that, and we won’t forget it. 

The New Zealand String Quartet have earlier worked with choreographer Loughlan Prior in various projects, and their mutual trust and shared excitement is apparent in every quaver and quiver. That is what will have given lift-off to this project. 

The Ides of March was the day Team Emirates New Zealand won two spectacular races in the America’s Cup series, in boats that fly above the water and turn slow pirouettes in high attitude—even those who know nothing about yachting can see that. The Fowler Centre is not a proscenium theatre space and it’s a challenge to stage dance there (it’s where in 1988 Nureyev performed, which proved a mistake). Here though a great triangular sail, white silk with patterns of colour, designed by dancer William Fitzgerald, is back lit and suspended high above the stage—an inspiration to preface the performance and shape the space.

The opening work was the premiere of a composition, I Danced, Unseen, by Tabea Squire. Laura Saxon Jones enters first, to silence—a curious creature, a lithe and hungry fox perhaps, who sniffs out and inspects the music stands and scores, what is all this about? what are these music scores? can you eat them? Hilarious. The whimsy and teasing continue as the musicians enter, wearing similar costumes as the three dancers, all of them echoing the patterns on the sailcloth overhead. There are naughty interferences from the dancers to the players and their instruments, but these musos are staunch, could play blind, and it would take a lot more than choreographed mosquitoes to throw them. It’s a darling and fun-filled opener.

The Dvorak String Sextet in A major, op.48, was superbly played, and the dancers continued in similar vein to find places in the music where they could actively, passively, openly or surreptitiously involve themselves. The three dancers had a million moves, yet the choreographic vocabulary and style were refreshingly free from clichés of ballet so often seen displayed elsewhere ‘just because we can’. They danced as individuals with personality and spirit, and the freedom that conveyed to the audience seemed liberating.  Hardened chamber music followers with little prior exposure to dance may possibly have found it distracting from the music they have long known and loved well, but not those around me who giggled and applauded and loved it, as indeed did I.  It was a commedia dell’arte romp, full of cheer and light, with inspired little fragments of Hungarian folk dance, dumka and czardas, caught in the many nimble rhythm and tempo changes. Two of those repeated movement motifs carried me back decades to pas and port de bras of the little Russian dance in RAD’s Grade 5 ballet syllabus I have loved ever since 1957, happy and grateful for the reminder. 

(l-R) Laura Saxon Jones, William Fitzgerald and Tabitha Dombrowski in rehearsal for Transfigured Night, 2021. Photo: © Sarah Davies

But peel back now for the major work of the second half, Transfigured Night, early Schoenberg. It proved a choreographic masterwork, and will position Loughlan Prior firmly on the international choreographic scene. It’s a safe bet that there will be future seasons of this work, both here and, when it becomes possible, abroad as well. There wouldn’t be another choreographed work anywhere that so centrally positions the intercourse between music and dance. In that sense it harks back to the masques of 17th century Europe, with costumed musicians traversing the stage, playing from memory, mingling with dancers and actors. At the same time Prior is in full control of a contemporary ballet vocabulary that moves like a fresh nor-easterly wind across our harbour. This skipper knows the local conditions.

The skilful absorption of two massive silk cloths, one red and one white, mirrored the theme of human physical interactions, a couple, a trio, a new couple, moving through their dreams and hopes and fears, their longing and love and loss. It moved the audience, aficionados or not, to responses—‘stunning … sublime … superb … breathtaking. When can we see it again?’  The central role played by Laura Saxon Jones was calm yet nuanced, poetic and powerful. It is good to see her dancing here again after several years absence.

Laura Saxon Jones with musicians of New Zealand String Quartet in rehearsal for Transfigured Night, 2021. Photo: © Sarah Davies

The choreographer and the three dancers are all graduates of New Zealand School of Dance, credit to all concerned, and are now members of Ballet Collective Aotearoa. This new and courageous initiative, directed by Turid Revfeim, is a free-lance ensemble, to date only minimally funded [how courageous is that?], yet poised to offer the country a new and fresh approach to streamlined, clean, clear ballet for our time. The premiere season of BCA, in the Auckland Arts Festival [postponed a fortnight ago due to Covid lockdown] will now instead take place on 8 and 9 April, then in Dunedin Arts Festival on 16 April. We are holding our breath and we won’t be disappointed. The calibre of choreography, dance and music is already assured, with Poul Gnatt’s pioneering spirit in spades. Split Enz have a song—History never repeats. I wager they are wrong.           

Hamish Robb’s superb program notes on music and dance interactions will help keep alive the memory   

Composition: Tabea Squire, Antonin Dvorak, Arnold Schoenberg
Musicians: New Zealand String Quartet and colleagues
Choreography: Loughlan Prior
Dancers: Laura Saxon Jones, William Fitzgerald, Tabitha Dombrowski of Ballet Collective Aotearoa
Presenters: Chamber Music New Zealand

Jennifer Shennan, 16 March 2021

Featured image: Scene from Transfigured Night, Ballet Collective
Aoteraoa and New Zealand String Quartet and colleagues, 2021. Photo: © Jack Hobbs

Dance diary. November 2020

This month’s dance diary has an eclectic mix of news about dance from across the globe. I am beginning with a cry for help from a New Zealand initiative, Ballet Collective Aotearoa, led by Turid Revfeim, dancer, teacher, coach, mentor, director across many dance organisations. I am moved to do this as a result of two crowd funding projects I initiated when I was in a similar position and needed an injection of funds to help with the production of my recent Kristian Fredrikson book. I was overwhelmed by the generosity of the arts community. It made such a difference to what my book looked like and I will forever be grateful.

  • Ballet Collective Aotearoa

Ballet Collective Aotearoa was unsuccessful in its application to Creative New Zealand for funding to take its project, Subtle Dances, to Auckland and Dunedin in early 2021. The group has secured performances at the arts festivals at those two New Zealand cities. BCA’s line-up for Subtle Dances brings together a great mix of experienced professional dancers and recent graduates from the New Zealand School of Dance. They will perform new works by Cameron McMillan, Loughlan Prior and Sarah Knox.

For my Australia readers, Prior has strong Australian connections, having been born in Melbourne and educated at the Victorian College of the Arts Secondary School. Then, Cameron McMillan, a New Zealander by birth, trained at the Australian Ballet School and has danced with Australian Dance Theatre and Sydney Dance Company. And, dancing in the program will be William Fitzgerald who was brought up in Canberra, attended Radford College and has been a guest dance teacher there, and studied dance in Canberra with Kim Harvey.

The campaign to raise money for Turid Revfeim’s exceptional venture is via the New Zealand organisation, Boosted. See this link to contribute. See more on the BCA website.

  • Interconnect. Liz Lea Productions

Liz Lea’s Interconnect was presented as part of the annual DESIGN Canberra Festival and focused on connections between India and Canberra. The idea took inspiration from the designers of the city of Canberra, Walter Burley and Marion Mahoney Griffin, and from the fact that Walter Burley Griffin spent his last years in India where he died in Lucknow in 1937. As a result, the program featured a cross section of dance styles from Apsaras Arts Canberra, the Sadhanalaya School of Arts and several exponents of Western contemporary styles.

Promotional image for Interconnect. Photo: © Kevin Thornhill and Andrew Sikorski. Design by Andrea McCuaig

Interconnect was shown at Gorman Arts Centre in a space that was previously an art gallery. Physical distancing was observed, as we have come to expect. I enjoyed the through-line of humour that Lea is able to inject into all her works, including Interconnect. I was also taken by a short interlude called Connect in which Lea danced to live music played on electric guitar by Shane Hogan, and which featured on film in the background a line drawing of changing patterns created by Andrea McCuaig. Multiple connections there!

  • Gray Veredon

Choreographer Gray Veredon has put together a new website set out in several parts under the headings ‘The Challenge’, ‘New Ways in Set Design’, and ‘Influences and Masters’. His themes are developed using as background his recent work in Poland, A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Gray Veredon’s website can be viewed at this link.

  • Jean Stewart

Jean Stewart, whose dance photographs I have used many times on this website, is the subject of a short video put together by the State Library of Victoria. Jean died in 2017 and donated her archive to the SLV. Here is the link to video. And below are two of my favourite photographs from other sources. I can’t get over the costumes in the background of the Coppélia shot! Is that Act II?

Other Stewart favourites appear in the brief tribute I wrote back in 2017.

  • Jacob’s Pillow fire

Devastating and heartbreaking news came from Jacob’s Pillow during November. Its Doris Duke Theatre was burnt to the ground.

Here is a link to the report from the Pillow.

  • Nina Popova (1922-2020)

Nina Popova, Russian born dancer who danced in Australia during the third Ballets Russes tour in 1939-1940, died in Florida in August 2020. I was especially saddened to learn that her death was a result of COVID-19.

  • Kristian Fredrikson. Designer. More comments and reviews

Kristian Fredrikson. Designer was ‘Highly Recommended’ on the Summer Reading Guide in its ‘Biography’ category.

Mention of it also appeared on the Australian Ballet’s site, Behind Ballet, Issue # 252 of 18 November 2020 with the following text:

KRISTIAN FREDRIKSON, DESIGNER A lavish new book by historian and curator Michelle Potter takes us inside the fascinating world of Fredrikson, whose rich and inventive designs grace so many of our productions.    MORE INFO

I was also thrilled to receive just recently a message from Amitava Sarkar, whose photographs from Stanton Welch’s Pecos and Swan Lake for Houston Ballet are a magnificent addition to the book. He wrote: ‘Congratulations.  What a worthwhile project in this area of minimal research.‘ He is absolutely right that design for the stage is an area of minimal research! Let’s hope it doesn’t always remain that way.

Michelle Potter, 30 November 2020

Featured image: Abigail Boyle and William Fitzgerald in a promotional image for Subtle Dances, Ballet Collective Aoteaora, 2020. Photo: © Celia Walmsley, Stagebox Photography

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

The Russell Kerr Lecture, February 2020

by Jennifer Shennan

In 2018, in Wellington, an annual series named the Russell Kerr Lecture in Ballet & Related Arts was established to honour the celebrated and loved father figure of ballet in New Zealand. [The series’ title was borrowed from the Lincoln Kirstein lecture in Ballet & Related Arts annually offered at New York University. We were particularly inspired by their 2016 presentation by Ian Bostridge on Song & Dance ... it’s online, and well worth listening to].

Russell Kerr rehearsing 'Swan Lake'. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 1997. Photo: © Maarten Holl
Russell Kerr rehearsing Swan Lake. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 1997. Photo: © Maarten Holl

In 2018 our inaugural lecture was delivered by Dr Michelle Potter, dance historian and writer from Canberra, who gave an insightful profile of the life and work of costume and set-designer Kristian Fredrikson, local Wellington boy made good, with a prolific career both in New Zealand and Australia. (The book resulting from Michelle’s many years of research is to be published by Melbourne Books, in July/August 2020).

Each of our sessions opens with a cameo dance performance which in 2018 was Loughlan Prior’s Lark, a tightly-stitched witty duet, a bespoke choreography for Jon Trimmer (longstanding colleague of Fredrikson) and William Fitzgerald—the older dancer savouring decades of memories and moves, the younger dancer questing to catch them. Piano accompaniment (Glinka, Rachmaninoff, Borodin ) was by Dr Hamish Robb, and Beth Chen, members of staff at Te Koki/New Zealand School of Music, which is the venue  for the event. 

In 2019, Dr Ian Lochhead’s account of the Ballets Russes visits to Australia and New Zealand in 1937 and 1939, opened with the poignant Prelude from Les Sylphides danced by Taylor-Rose Frisby from New Zealand School of Dance—and The Swan by Abigail Boyle, until recently leading artist with Royal New Zealand Ballet. Accompaniment was by Hamish Robb, piano, and Inbal Megiddo, cellist. Ian is planning to publish a longer article to be developed from his script. 

On 9 February 2020, I delivered the third lecture: Douglas Wright—dance-maker, time-keeper, meteor. Tracing metaphors in the work of dancer, choreographer, writer Douglas Wright, 1956–2018.

The opening dance performed was a menuet danced by Anne Rowse and Keith McEwing, to menuets 1 & 2 from the Partita no.1, J. S. Bach, played by Hamish Robb. The lecture began with my story of an encounter with Wright:

Douglas Wright pressed me to show him how the technique and music of baroque dance worked, sensing it as a seeding ground for much of ballet’s vocabulary. His dance intelligence and curiosity were like nothing I’ve ever encountered, so we explored the different accents and interactions that give character to a beguiling menuet, cheerful bourrée, courageous chaconne, flirtatious gavotte, madcap passepied, saucy gigue, majestic courante, tender sarabande.

Douglas liked their effects of distilled emotion, so to remember that, and him, the session opened with a menuet. Typically composed in pairs, the first, major, the second, minor, then back to the major, menuets are in triple-time, stepped in counter-rhythm to the music (2 + 4 against 3 + 3), with further asymmetry between phrase lengths. A subtle pull between movement and music—we want to see resolved, to see how two things can become one.

The handhold central to its ‘narrative’—right, then left, then both—signals a greeting, a conversation, a friendship. We know how to dance a menuet thanks to notation by English dancing master Kellom Tomlinson. The earliest European dance resource in New Zealand is a 300 year old ms. workbook by the same Tomlinson, gifted to the Alexander Turnbull Library through the generosity of the Trimmer family.

Our plan was that Jon Trimmer would dance with Anne Rowse, but once rehearsing, it became clear that Jon’s long-standing ankle injury would prevent him from enjoying the experience. The initial injury from years back didn’t stop him dancing then but he has carried it ever since, a price that dancers often pay. Keith McEwing stepped up to take Anne’s hand on the upbeat, because passing the baton is what dancers do.   

In the following lecture I read a number of excerpts from Douglas’ writings, what he called ‘autobiographical fiction’, Ghost Dance (Penguin 2004) and Terra Incognito (Penguin 2006), and from his two volumes of poems, published by Steele Roberts, Laughing Mirror and Cactusfear. Video illustrations were sourced from the documentary Haunting Douglas, made by Leanne Pooley in 2003. The film is an award-winning profile of the work and life of arguably New Zealand’s leading performer and dance-maker, a legend in his lifetime whose astonishingly prolific output will be remembered for decades to come. Haunting Douglas is available on Vimeo, or for purchase from Spasifik Films, and is highly recommended viewing.

Planning is already under way for the next lecture in the series which will be held on Sunday 10 February 2021, with details of topic and presenter to be confirmed.

Jennifer Shennan, 19 February 2020

Featured image: Portrait of Russell Kerr, 2007

 Leeshma Srirankanathan during her arangetram, Wellington 2018. Image supplied (no photographer named)

2018—New Zealand Dance Year in Retrospect

by Jennifer Shennan

As New Year approaches I like to think back over Old Year and, without consulting notes, check what dance highlights remember themselves.

During 2018 we have lost four treasured and hugely important people from our dance / arts community.

Nigel Boyes, dearest friend and colleague to so many dancers, particularly members of Royal New Zealand Ballet where he was office manager and archivist for many years, and was also a member of prominent Wellington choirs, died in July. (His obituary is on this website).

Sue Paterson, legendary force in the arts, held a sequence of important positions in dance management over decades—at Limbs Dance Company, at Creative New Zealand, at RNZB, as director of the International Arts Festival—and was a generous member of many governing boards. (Her obituary is online at stuff.co.nz).

June Greenhalgh, wife of Russell Kerr who was a stalwart pillar of ballet history in New Zealand, was a foundation member of England’s Festival Ballet. She performed here in the 1959 – 60 season of New Zealand Ballet, but her abiding contribution was as the lifetime companion to Russell. (Her obituary is on this website).

Douglas Wright, giant of New Zealand dance makers, hugely prolific choreographer and indelibly memorable dancer, was rehearsing his last choreography, M-Nod, from the hospice. He was an artist without peer in this country—working also in literature and in visual arts. (A review of M_Nod, and an obituary, are on this website).

To all four of these dear friends and colleagues – Valete. Requiescant in pace,

Haere, haere atu.

———-

In February we were delighted by the spirited response to the inaugural session in the series of the Russell Kerr Lecture in Ballet & Related Arts, held at Victoria University. The lecture, on Kristian Fredrikson’s life and work in theatre design, was delivered by Dr. Michelle Potter who has since continued work on her biography of Kristian which is now heading towards publication. The occasion also included the performance of Loughlan Prior’s choreography, Lark, with Jon Trimmer and William Fitzgerald in the cast, and Hamish Robb accompanying on piano.

A trip to Auckland’s Arts Festival was warranted to see Akram Khan’s dramatic and atmospheric production Giselle performed by English National Ballet. Tamara Rojo, the young artistic director and manager of this company, is clearly a leader of intelligent and visionary force. It’s always edifying to check the New Zealand involvement in the history of any dance company and there are several prominent soloist careers to note of New Zealand dancers who performed with English National Ballet, formerly Festival Ballet—Russell Kerr, Anne Rowse, Loma Rogers, Donald McAlpine, Martin James, Adrienne Matheson, Cameron McMillan among them.

In Wellington’s International Arts Festival, the hugely memorable Loch na hEala/Swan Lake by Michael Keegan-Dolan (of Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre fame) had the stellar Alex Leonhartsberger in the lead male role. Alex has previously danced in Douglas Wright productions and it was a renewed thrill to see him in this season. Keegan-Dolan’s work has interested me intensely for some years and I rate him, with Lin Hwai Min and Douglas Wright, as the three choreographers who have kept my world turning for decades. An intriguing new project, under the auspices of this Festival, will next year have Keegan-Dolan in residence here, developing a new work and offering a public involvement for those interested to trace that process.

Betroffenheit, by luminary Canadian choreographer Crystal Pite, in collaboration with Jonathan Young, was another highlight of this Festival season. Its theme explored the reactions and after-effects of an unspecified catastrophic event, and suited well the mood of disastrous developments we see in current world affairs, as well as referencing tragedy at a personal level. It proved a remarkable and mature work of theatre.

Closer to home we saw the remarkable season of Meremere by Rodney Bell. This has rightly proved an award winning choreography and performance, produced under the auspices of Malia Johnston’s MOTH (Movement of the Human). Rodney lives and works in a wheelchair, but his mana and charisma in both his life and his dance are the operatives. It takes about five minutes to forget the fact that he’s using a wheelchair. His stories are what matter. Sarah Foster Sproull also made Drift, for Rodney and a female dancer, resulting in a miraculous menuet for our time.

The second half of RNZB’s Dancing to Mozart—in two works by Jiří Kylián—revealed the calibre of both choreography and performance we have been accustomed to from our national ballet company. At New Zealand School of Dance graduation season, two works After the Rain by Christopher Wheeldon, and Wicked Fish by Cloud Gate choreographer, Huang Yi, proved outstanding. The time-honoured question from Irish poet W B Yeats, ‘O body swayed to music, o brightening glance, how can we know the dancer from the dance?’ always comes to mind when choreography and performance are equally inspirational. There’s a causal connection of course, but it’s a symbiotic and reflexive one between dancer and dance.

Tempo Dance Festival billed Between Two—with works by Kelly Nash and by Douglas Wright. That season, reviewed on this website, is remembered as a most poignantly crafted, perfectly balanced program with birth and death book-ending the life between. No more fitting tribute to Douglas Wright’s astonishing body of work could be imagined. I do not expect to see again anything like this multi-talented artist who was so resolute in communicating his vision. There was a heartfelt memorial service held in his favourite Cornwall Park in Auckland, and then gatherings at both Nga Taonga Film Archive and City Art Gallery in Wellington, to hear tributes and watch fine films of Wright’s work, including the stunning documentary, Haunting Douglas, made by Leanne Pooley.

Many were very sorry that Anton Carter’s contract as director of DANZ, the national networking agency, was ended, since he had been a stalwart and popular supporter of dance events and individuals across many different forms and communities. Although now working at Museums Wellington, he continues to attend performances and that is the kind of loyal support, outside the call of duty, that is so appreciated by dance practitioners.

The news is recently announced that Lucy Marinkovich, outstanding dancer/choreographer working independently on projects with her partner and colleague musician, Lucien Johnson, are the joint winners of the Harriet Friedlander award which gives them $100,000 to reside in New York. When asked ‘How long will you stay there?’ they answer ‘Till the money runs out’. I personally and rather selfishly hope they do not get offered something they can’t refuse since I want to continue seeing their fresh and invigorating dance work here. They have wit and style and ideas, together with all the skills needed to bring dance and music alongside each other where they belong. More of that is needed for all our sakes.

In the books department, Marianne Schultz’ history of Limbs Dance Company—Dance for the People— was welcome (see my review in New Zealand Books, December 2018), as also was the memoir of Sir Jon Trimmer—Why Dance ? by Jon with Roger Booth (my review of that is on DANZ website).

As I write this retrospective I am still happily high from last night’s astonishing Indian dance event—the arangetram, or graduation recital, of Leeshma Srirankanathan, student of Sri Vivek Kinra, of Mudra dance school and academy. This was a two hour wonder of solo performing by an extremely talented 18 year old dancer, and the 42nd arangetram directed by Kinra in his 30 years as a master teacher here in Wellington. Leeshma’s Hindu father and Catholic mother were each honoured in the opening prayers and puja of this event. A lesson of peace and tolerance to the world I reckon, if only the world would listen.

We are anticipating the second Russell Kerr lecture in Ballet & Related Arts which will be delivered on Sunday 10 February, on the topic of Russian Ballet companies that visited Australia and New Zealand in 1937 and 1939. It will be delivered at Victoria University of Wellington by Dr. Ian Lochhead, dance critic for The Press, Christchurch. All are welcome, rsvp for further details to jennifershennan@xtra.co.nz

Happy New Year to all readers, and my thanks to Michelle Potter for hosting this website so generously.

Jennifer Shennan, 30 December 2018

Featured image: Leeshma Srirankanathan during her arangetram, Wellington 2018. Photo: © Buskar

Dance diary. Feburary 2018

  • Russell Kerr Lecture

In February I had the pleasure, and honour of presenting the inaugural Russell Kerr Lecture in Ballet and the Related Arts in Wellington, New Zealand. I spoke about the life and career of Wellington-born designer Kristian Fredrikson, of whom New Zealanders are rightly proud (as indeed are we Australians).

The lecture was made possible by a fund, recently established by a group of New Zealanders, to honour Russell Kerr, artistic director of the New Zealand Ballet (as it was initially called before receiving its Royal Charter) from 1962 to 1968. Kerr went on to hold many significant positions in the dance world and to choreograph many works for Royal New Zealand Ballet, including acclaimed productions with designs by Fredrikson of Swan Lake (1996), Peter Pan (1999) and A Christmas Carol (2001). The Russell Kerr Lecture will be offered annually for five years and plans are moving ahead for the 2019 lecture, which will be delivered by Dr Ian Lochhead.

The 2018 lecture was preceded by a performance (courtesy of Royal New Zealand Ballet) of Lark, a short but moving work by Loughlan Prior featuring Sir Jon Trimmer and William Fitzgerald. Both dancers gave an exceptional performance. Live music was provided by Hamish Robb and Beth Chen from the New Zealand School of Music. Here is what Jennifer Shennan wrote about Lark last year on this website:

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.’ (Jennifer Shennan)

See this link for a podcast from Radio New Zealand in which presenter Lynn Freeman and I talked about Fredrikson’s career. Unfortunately I have not yet been able to have the spelling of Fredrikson’s name corrected on the RNZ web page.

  • The Piano, Royal New Zealand Ballet

Royal New Zealand Ballet’s production of The Piano, with choreography by Jiri Bubenicek, opened late in February in Wellington. Stay tuned for Jennifer Shennan’s review.

(l-r) Hazel Couper, Abigail Boyle and Paul Mathews in 'The Piano', Royal New Zealand Ballet 2018. Photo: © Stephen A'Court
(l-r) Hazel Couper, Abigail Boyle and Paul Mathews in The Piano, Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2018. Photo: © Stephen A’Court. Courtesy Royal New Zealand Ballet
  • Press for February 2018

Critics survey 2017. Dance Australia, February/March 2018, pp. 31–32. See this link for a PDF version of my selections.

Featured image: Follow this link for a PDF copy of the lecture handout.

Michelle Potter, 28 February 2018

Bronte Kelly and Joseph Skelton as the Wedding Couple, 'Giselle', Royal New Zealand Ballet. Photo: Bill Cooper

Giselle. Royal New Zealand Ballet

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.

Jacob chown as Hilarion in 'Giselle'. Royal New Zealand Ballet. Photo: Bill Cooper
Jacob Chown as Hilarion in Giselle. Royal New Zealand Ballet. Photo: © Bill Cooper

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.

Daniel Gaudiello and Mayu Tanigaito in rehearsal for 'Giselle', Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2016
Daniel Gaudiello and Mayu Tanigaito in rehearsal for Giselle. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2016. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

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.

Michelle Potter, 15 August 2016

Featured image: Bronte Kelly and Joseph Skelton as the Wedding Couple, Giselle. Royal New Zealand Ballet. Photo: © Bill Cooper

Bronte Kelly and Joseph Skelton as the Wedding Couple, 'Giselle', Royal New Zealand Ballet. Photo: Bill Cooper