Choreographers: Marius Petipa, Thomas Bradley, Sarah Foster-Sproull, George Balanchine, Kuik Swee Boon, Sir Kenneth MacMillan
Costumier: Donna Jefferis

at Te Whaea National Dance and Drama Centre, 11 Hutchison Rd, Newtown, Wellington
Until 28 Nov 2015
[2 hours]

Reviewed by Chris Jannides, 23 Nov 2015

The NZ School of Dance (NZSD) is two schools in one. There is the classical stream and the contemporary one. Both stand out as being very different, naturally, in terms of their respective dance forms, but crucially for me in their approaches to teaching performance.

Technical standards are so high across both branches of the school, yet to my mind, performance conviction and expressive nuance and confidence need to be equally as high. Particularly as this is a pre-professional level of training.

All dancers know that classical and contemporary offer much to each other that is of value to both. Contemporary dancers aspire to the heights of excellence that elite classical dancers embrace so well. Alongside their contemporary training, ballet is a mandatory part of practically any contemporary dance curriculum that’s of any worth.

Perhaps the training of ballet dancers, who can survive so well without needing to put one step into a contemporary dance class, could take a page from the performance skills of their contemporary colleagues. For a classical tutor, I would be thinking about what might be added to ballet students’ training and experience that would significantly and uniformly increase their expressive subtleties and abilities, not simply their technical ones, onstage.

The differences in performance qualities between the two student groups in the NZSD’s Graduation Season are too noticeable to remain unmentioned. The contemporary students are confident, connected and consistent. The ballet students, surprisingly, are not.


The programme consists of six items whose three classical and three contemporary works alternate. The classical contributions comprise two group works – Paquita (1847), adapted by Anna-Marie Holmes after Marius Petipa, and Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s Concerto (1996), re-staged on the students by Lynn Wallis. The third classical piece is a George Balanchine duet, Tarantella (1964), taught by Diana White.

Concerto stands out over and above Paquita for its far more nuanced and sophisticated choreography, which should be no surprise given the time difference between when they were first created. If Paquita seems restrained and unembellished, Concerto compensates by adding more length of line and finesse. Plus some jazziness in its fun hip-slinking finale.

Tarantella is performed energetically and confidently by Megan Wright and Jeremie Gan. Not only technically demanding, the piece is pacey and requires a hearty, robust delivery. Both dancers rise to the occasion. However, Tarantella is fundamentally a duet. Despite the technical expertise on display, I see no believable connection or empathy between the two dancers.

In my fixation on performance qualities, Jeremie Gan is engaging and consistent in his facial expression and comfort with the audience. In fact, in all the classical works, the men stand out for me as being more secure and relaxed as performers.

Overall, there are numerous moments to appreciate in the classical numbers. Superbly sustained arabesques in the first work. Competent partnering and secure lifts throughout all the pieces. Excellent unison work in the last item, along with razor sharp group patterns. MacMillan’s choreography, in particular, superbly exemplifies the purity  of the classical form with its finely calibrated balance between heightened technical athleticism and tastefully stylish elegance and restraint. All of which the dancers master nicely.

Minor points (and these really are minor) where I might nitpick, include beats where the feet are not joining, occasional turnout issues, particularly in jetés involving the back leg in attitude, and imprecision coming out of multiple pirouettes, tours en l’air and turns generally. Actually, I am left wondering if this is a new trend? Not to spot on final turns, but to simply sail out of them.

I am also concerned to see too much physical concentration in the classical students that is being unsuccessfully masked by painted on grins and smiles. What this produces is a cautionary quality whereby nervousness about technique overrides and inhibits the fluidity and vibrancy of the ‘dancing’. There are only brief moments from one or two individuals, and I’m targeting mostly the women here, where I see attack, artistry and flair. For the rest, I seem to be looking mostly at the overly careful execution of steps.


When it comes to performance qualities, the contemporary stream is setting the bar at the level we should expect from pre-professional tertiary dance students.

The three contemporary works in the programme – Sarah Foster-Sproull’s Forgotten Things; Cnoditions of Entry, choreographed by Thomas Bradley and the dancers; As It Fades (Excerpts) by Kuik Swee Boon – are incredible. Each piece showcases and challenges the students at a choreographic standard seen in professional companies.

Forgotten Things, premiered here, is to music by Andrew Foster (Sarah’s partner and collaborator). The only homegrown choreographer of the three, Sarah Foster-Sproull shows that she is a major dance-making force in our community. Beyond making well-crafted work, Sarah is establishing her choreographic signature. Powerful, poetic and highly distinctive. She is also a graduate from the NZSD, which must make them proud. Despite reservations I have about the costumes and lighting, this work features an extremely inventive and highly visual use of choreographic motifs involving a chain-like linking together of hands, and in one extraordinary moment, also of legs and feet, to make images that unmistakably recreate the human spine, the wings, feathers and flight motion of birds, an umbilical cord passing through a dancer’s mid-region… The images are sculptural, kinetic and surreal. They etch themselves like branding irons into the brain! It is rare to find such striking clarity in contemporary dance that sticks in memory.

The second contemporary contribution – Cnoditions of Entry,(yes, for some weird reason this is how it is spelt!), is put together by Australian choreographer, Thomas Bradley (he did the music too). Another exquisite piece that is also distinctive in its own way, made more so by the beautifully effective use of Donna Jefferis’ orange-hooded costumes. Electronic dystopian music and aesthetically integrated, carefully designed lighting states blend with the choreography to produce a strangely rich atmosphere peopled by a community of lost individuals moving in hyper-fast or super slow motion. The work and its eerie world allows imaginations to read multiple interpretive layers and meanings into it. Powerfully performed, the crafting and structure of this dance is masterful.

The last of the contemporary items, As It Fades (Excerpts), by the renowned overseas guest choreographer, Kuik Swee Boon, which he originally created in 2011 on his Singaporean dance company, is as impressive as the previous two. Not choreographed on them or with their assistance, as was the case with the other contemporary works, the students perform material previously made on a professional company. Their superb ability to do this is testimony to the skills and industry-ready standards of the NZSD’s contemporary dance graduates.

Over and above their ability to switch easily from virtuosic solo or partnering modes to being able to hold collective power as an ensemble, what impressed me in Kuik Swee Boon’s work was the focus that all the dancers were required to sustain on a fixed point in space slightly over the heads of the audience. Sometimes individually, and in the end as a whole group, this allowed us to closely scan and notice how, in each and every face without exception, there was depth of presence. It is a privilege to see work of this calibre, and to experience a dance-maker who choreographs the eyes of the audience as clearly and delicately as he does the dancers. Bravo!


I could not expect to see more from both groups of students when it comes to appraising and appreciating their technical skills. They are clearly at the top of their game on both sides of the classical/contemporary divide. I just wish they were on more of an equal footing when it comes to performance maturity and skill.



Kereama Te Ua, Tupe Lualua, Tuaine Robati, Paora Taurima

at Whitireia Performance Centre, 25-27 Vivian Street, Wellington

From 10 Nov 2015 to 13 Nov 2015
[1 hour]

Reviewed by Chris Jannides, 11 Nov 2015

“Mmmm… that was slick” whispered a man behind me in the dark at the conclusion of one of the items in Whitireia’s Graduation show. And slick it was! The Whitireia performance, featuring exquisitely costumed dance items from three different cultures – Maori, Samoan and Cook Island, plus a contemporary dance section – is a stunner.

The programme notes are sparse on details. Next to nothing about the meanings, themes or cultural references behind the various items. Interesting to reflect on why this is. An assumption might be that we don’t need it. Just focus on the dancing and the performance and leave it to people within those cultures to appreciate the material more knowledgeably. So, along with all the others in the audience like myself who are visibly from diverse racial backgrounds, I sit back and focus on what provides immediate engagement.

Before discussing standout features, acknowledgement must be made of the tutors listed in the programme who are responsible for the teaching, choreography and production aspects. Kereama Te Ua for the Maori component. Tupe Lualua for the Samoan. Tuaine Robati for the Cook Island section. And Paora Taurima for Contemporary Dance. The students are fortunate to have tutors of this calibre with the skills to lift them to such high standards of professionalism.

I was slightly concerned after the opening Maori segment that the bar had been set too high. I knew that I would be comparing everything else that followed against it. Had they made the mistake of starting with their best shot? Would the slope go downhill from here? I had nothing to worry about. It was clear to me as we passed through each of the different dance territories, that this is a team of tutors who are all working with the same levels of confidence and competency as each other in their respective areas. In spite of the obvious stylistic and aesthetic distinctions that separate the different cultures represented in this graduation show, what is consistent is the assured choreographic complexity and interest of the outcomes.

It is as a choreographer that I mainly view and critique this performance. So the opening Maori section surprises me for its ever-shifting group patterns. The dancing seamlessly shifts and morphs from one geometrical arrangement to another while at the same time leading us on a journey through different shades and qualities of mood, rhythm and intensity. I honestly wasn’t expecting this degree of choreographic crafting and finesse.

The constantly changing formations at no point lose their visual appeal or harmony. And it’s all performed as though it’s been put together in a deceptively effortless way. My experience knows otherwise. This kind of intricacy takes work and depth of ability. All praise and appreciation to you, Kereama Te Ua.

What is firmly established almost immediately at the start are the performance strengths of the student dancers. The words I find myself scribbling in the dark while I am watching are: spirited, strong, poise, power, presence. I note the beauty and clarity of their singing. Their focus and how light they are on their feet, which makes moments where they deliberately stamp the ground for percussive effect stand out even more. The weapon and poi work are precise. I am impressed at how well they’ve been rehearsed and how fully invested and committed the students are to their task and to the material. This is exquisitely tight ensemble work that is projected with great pride, group cohesion and attention to detail.

The comfort and ease with which these dancers perform the opening section makes me think, ‘Oh, they must all be Maori’. But then the Samoan segment that follows makes me go, ‘Ah, perhaps not’. This is performed with the same degree of ownership, confidence and familiarity. Again, the lines and formations are tight and impressive. The gestures are expressive and beautifully articulate. There is a lot of genuine warmth coming off the stage. The dancing is fast, happy, exciting. The professionalism of pace, crafting and delivery continues. (I wonder to myself if these dance items have been performed a lot prior to this evening. They don’t have any of the shakiness of material that has just been learnt.) A new choreographic element that didn’t exist in the predominantly front-focussed Maori section is a pronounced shift to a lovely diagonal configuration for a taste of slap-dance. And it is slap-dance again that uplifts us to a rousing conclusion. I extend my praise and appreciation to you also, Tupe Lualua.

Next on the programme is contemporary dance. This is my area of expertise. Compared to the standards of the cultural sections where the dancing is faultless, this is where the students’ depth of technical ownership noticeably slips away. It is clear that their tutor, Paora Taurima – and I send you my acknowledgement and admiration also – is masterful at providing them with a vocabulary and choreographic understanding to work confidently in this style. But there are no short-cuts to contemporary dance. It is impossible to match the standards that are visible in the cultural dance sections without investing in the time and teaching necessary.

To my eyes and mind, if Whitireia wants consistent professionalism and high outcomes across all the dance forms it wishes to display in its graduates, then it must re-think its approach to contemporary dance. My comments are not a criticism of the students, who perform with the same attack and clarity as they do throughout the whole show. My thoughts are directed at the school, who I wish to encourage if it truly wishes to honour the art form to which I am devoted.

The evening’s conclusion is a medley of songs and dances from the Cook Islands. Long fringed leggings on the men accentuate their recurring shake-a-leg motif, while grass skirts on the women do the same for their rapid hip movements. After the Maori and Samoan segments, I am left wondering whether there can be anymore choreographic surprises. Obviously, the movement language is different – along with the knees and hula hips mentioned above, there is a greater story-telling emphasis in the hand movements. The dancers also travel through space differently – the women with little shuffling runs and the men are more airborne. A seductive Hawaian rhythm echoes the ebb and flow of the ocean and the lifestyles associated with it.

Humour is also a standout feature that isn’t in any of the earlier segments. I really enjoy seeing the men, whose demeanour is more warrior-like or ‘man’-like in their roles and personas up to now, suddenly take on a camp ‘voguing’ quality with lots of sexual teasing and flirting with the audience. We all laugh and are seduced by the fun. The versatility of the students is terrific.

But what I value in the Cook Island portion of the show is yet another choreographic shift. Maori – front-focussed. Samoan – added a diagonal sweep. Cook Island – introduces a circle. I loved this. Instead of the expected assault at the end of the show directed towards the audience, the dancers spend much of the time facing in towards each other, without ever making us feel left out. The effect is ritualistic and communal. Appreciation for the evening is deepened. So my final acknowledgement goes to you, Tuaine Robati. Wonderful!

To all the team, not forgetting the beautiful live music throughout, thank you. Great work.

30Forward – Footnote New Zealand Dance 
28 August 2015, The Opera House – Wellington

Reviewed by Chris Jannides

Footnote’s tribute to its 30 year history begins as we enter the theatre with projections of video footage from its past. Surrounded in my seat by ex-company members, the air is filled with ‘there I am, hanging from the monkey bars’, ‘the one in the green lycra is me’, ‘Oh, there I am again’, etc., etc. There’s a contagious buzz coming from these recognitions and spontaneous exclamations. But how might the current dancers waiting in the wings be feeling knowing that elder generations of their forbears are sitting in the audience? How well do they live up to the inherited legacy and tradition that precedes them?

The evening starts with a ‘curated’ smorgasbord of items by the company’s founder and iconic stalwart of NZ dance, Deirdre Tarrant. She has taken selected excerpts from the frozen depths of Footnote’s repertoire, and then thawed, re-animated and strung them together for new consumption. Confined to the last decade, her emphasis is on eclectic diversity. This poses a potential challenge for the present company as it is generally unusual for Footnote dancers to perform work that was not made on them.Nevertheless, they cope admirably. The performance demands are extreme. Technical precision, spoken dialogue, conflict, absurdity, ritual, anarchy – they sail through it all with ease.

After interval there is the evening’s showpiece, Malia Johnston’s new work, Flip Pivot Boom, with dynamically integrated video projections by Rowan Pierce and music to match by Bevan Smith. Undisputedly one of NZ’s most prolific and reliable choreographers, Malia is virtuosic in her seemingly effortless ability to make exciting dance. Her forte is being able to inspire genius levels of creativity in performers and collaborators. In this instance, the dancers supply her with remarkable material that is both visually and structurally appealing, and itself virtuosic in its inventiveness. While Flip Pivot Boommay have one section in it too many, I don’t know anyone here who currently does it better or so often. Malia’s choreographic images are never less than crystal clear. She is a movement maestro who is in heavy demand. As I watch, I scribble these words: clever, complex, fast, thrashy, pulsy, tight, angular, twisty, hoppy, runny, frenetic, spastic, show-offy, airborne. I try to label it: pop-art dance set to a modernist videographic aesthetic of cool monochrome and pastel. There’s a bit of overload, and an effort towards making


an impact, yet it’s all sophisticated and mature in its highly accessible artistry and design. Ironically, for me it is a non-dance image that tops the bill in terms of a stand-out moment: large face screens made from pulled-up t-shirts on immobile statuesque bodies.

In the blackout, screams and stamps of approval from the auditorium. Lights up for well-earned bows from the dancers who know they more than satisfy the discerning eyes of their predecessors as well as the audience at large. The legacy is secure. There are bouquets for Footnote’s smiling founder and for her crowd-pleasing guest choreographer.


SAMARPANA – An offering through dance

MUSIC COMPOSITION by Kadayanallur Shri Venkataraman & Shri T K Padmanabhan

at Whitireia Performance Centre, 25-27 Vivian Street, Wellington
From 31 Jul 2015 to 2 Aug 2015
[2 hours]

Reviewed by Chris Jannides, 2 Aug 2015

Vivek Kinra’s production of Samarpana is a series of six dance items in the classical Indian style of Bharata-Natyam. His dance company, Mudra, features graduates and advanced students from his academy in central Wellington. This is not a professional company of dancers in the sense of a full-time occupation. The great majority of its members are students at university finishing degrees in a wide variety of areas such as Psychology, Early Childhood Education, Commerce and Law. All of which are heading them away from the insecurities of a life in performance dance (if such a thing were even possible here in NZ when it comes to classical Indian dance), towards potentially secure careers of significant worth in other disciplines. Nevertheless, the technical skills and performance expertise of Mudra’s core company are of an extremely high standard, verging on fully professional.

As a European with no in-depth knowledge of either Bharata-Natyam or Hindu culture, how am I to review such a performance? The uninitiated are helped in a number of ways. The programme contains descriptions for each of the dance items of the stories and entities from the pantheon of Hindu gods, demons and others of which they’re about. There are references, for instance, to ‘six faced Lord Subrahmanya who rides a peacock’; Balarama the plowman who ‘brings the river Yamuna close to the village with the power of his plow’; and to Lord Krishna/Mahavishnu who, in one of his many incarnations as a ‘Boar’, ‘lifts the whole earth on the tip of his tusk, like a speck of dust caught on the crescent moon’.

Further assistance comes from the artistic director Vivek Kinra himself, who, in spite of the fact that he has now retired from dancing, graces us between each item with a short display – almost in the form of a small lecture demonstration to a voice over – where he performs key gestural motifs from the choreography we are about to see. These are mini-versions of the longer works. This guides our attention to the way the movement communicates the characters, plots and actions that are being depicted, as well as sung about in the accompanying music.

At the interval, I realise I need more help. The storylines are fantastical and highly bizarre. Outside the religious circle and faith of Hindu practitioners, how might others engage with these ancient scriptural narratives? An Indian gentleman kindly explains some of the symbolism of the Hindu myths to me. Going back 5000 years, he says they are ‘pre-scientific’ ways of describing and predicting the evolutionary genesis of humankind using the only means at their disposal – imaginative imagery and personification. In the dance dramas we are watching, for instance, there is a chronology at play, spanning aeons, with references to such things as primeval oceans, hunter-gathering, agriculture and the advancement of civilisation.

My eyes are slightly altered in the second half. Bharata-Natyam’s roots are in the Hindu temples of Southern India. Although I am sitting in a theatre with my usual superficial expectations of entertainment and displays of highly skilled performing, I experience a deepening of appreciation. Assisted by burning incense in the make-shift shrine at the side of the stage, temple and theatre combine as I become more mindful of other more traditional uses of dance to safe-guard, illustrate and pass-on elaborate forms of understanding and knowledge. Suddenly, this small, gorgeously costumed troupe of dancing women are empowered as the latest incarnations of generations. There is much more than just dance knowledge being kept alive here in the ‘software’ of these young-looking, earth-stomping, gestural guardians with ankle-bells.

As to the performers themselves, my critical eye as a contemporary dance practitioner takes in a lot of information. I look for the dancer that pulls my eye, either for their performance skill and presence, or, conversely, because they’re perhaps out of time. I make comparisons between their different faces and expressions, gauging what I sense might be going on internally. I look for precision and imprecision of movement. I ask myself: who am I to look at and why?

As a group, this troupe is well-drilled and each person at some point has a moment where they stand out and shine as an individual artist. There are hours and hours of learning and training on display. They all have good levels of authority and confidence on stage, some a little bit more than others. Those with more are able to conceal technique behind expression, which is particularly noticeable with the speedier movements of the eyes. The stand-out performers go even further. For instance, I am particularly drawn to Kaajal Patel in her solo work who finds the right balance between expressive energy and restraint. This is a mark of maturity in a performer. It’s great to feel that a dancer has even more to give, that there’s more in reserve.

A distinct feature of Bharata-Natyam is that it mixes highly stylised movement with equal amounts of emotional expression and role-playing. The performers act as much as they dance. Extreme changes of mood and character in any one dancer can be very swift. In terms of a stand-out person in this regard, Varshini Suresh has to be mentioned. Her extremely expressive eyes and face and virtuosic dancing is both impressive and compelling. In contrast to her colleague, Kaajal, Varshini leaves nothing in reserve, yet is able to produce unexpected surprises and subtleties of emotion.

A balance that is interesting for me to observe is that between solo and ensemble work. These performers are required to do both, yet the demands of each are very different. In spite of faultless timing and spatial skills, there are moments when individuals, as performers, forget they are in ensemble, and stand out too much. Alternatively, there are others who, when they are in ensemble, forget that they must still have a mature individuality of presence. These last reflections lead me to comment on the balance that a performance such as this strikes when hovering between the worlds of professional and recreational dance. At the core of Mudra are standards equal to the highest in the profession. At the other end, there is the requirement to satisfy the concert demands of a teaching academy.

I can’t help but speculate on what the outcomes might be like if the more professionally-ready members of the group had a separate opportunity for even more progressive and refined levels of performance growth and experience.

Vivek Kinra has received copious amounts of praise and recognition for his choreography, his teaching and his contribution as a dance artist to the cultural diversity and makeup of our community. I must now humbly add my own to his extensive list of admirers. Here is a master-craftsman in the fields of performance and teaching who, through the passionate discipline and superb example of his students, is nurturing and ensuring the ongoing health and exquisite flowering of his chosen dance form, Bharata-Natyam.



SALUTE – Remembering World War
Choreographers: Jiri Kylian, Johan Kobborg, Andrew Simmons, Neil Ieremia

at St James Theatre, Wellington
From 22 May 2015 to 24 May 2015
[2 hours]

Reviewed by Chris Jannides, 25 May 2015

The Royal New Zealand Ballet tackles WW1 with a mixed bill of four works that, in essence, are not that mixed. In particular, there are noticeable choreographic and thematic overlaps between three of the works – Dear Horizon, Soldier’s Mass and Passchendaele. But the theme is war, so how can there not be repeated images of dying, sorrow, loss, departure, fear, consolation, heroism, comradeship, etc., etc.? All romanticised with gracefully expressive bodies that curve or explode in tragic anguish and emotively charged eloquence and lyricism.

In the logic of programming – which, in tonight’s performance amounts to curtain-raiser (Andrew Simmons), homage to the ancestor (Jiri Kylian), light relief (Johan Kobborg) and climax (Neil Ieremia) – Simmons’ piece, Dear Horizon, is rightly at the start. Its balletic style signals the company’s allegiance and home territory. It introduces the theme of the evening in a respectful and moving tone. The choreography and the music, by Gareth Farr, are beautifully aligned. A woman next to me (I love getting feedback from strangers during a performance), remarks that the music makes her want to burst into tears. ‘It is so mournful’, she tells me, ‘there is so little redemption in it’. The only thing that I and my neighbour query is the set by Tracy Grant Lord. A gigantic tornado of stuff upstage centre looks like a deranged Christmas stocking from hell! My neighbour notices that one of the dancers accidentally bumps into it. If nothing else, it is definitely unmistakeable and appropriate in what it represents and depicts of the fearful chaos of the battlefield.

Simmons’ Dear Horizon – (is the title a tribute to Kylian’s work, which follows, with its bright-red, curved horizon line across the back of the stage?) – is principally lyrical, with mournful walking figures, sweeping extended gestures, lots of swirling and lifting of bodies in elegant shapes, fluid expressions of emotion, rising and falling forms. At times it is processional, delicate, military (as are all the works with their literal depictions of saluting, marching, standing at attention, etc.). There is airborne stuff, big jetes, a lifting of speed and energy at the three-quarter mark, the mandatory carrying of the corpse above heads (also seen in the other works), as well as much gazing into the distance, sometimes standing, sometimes kneeling – the men gazing into their dreadful future, the women gazing after the departed men and awaiting their return, or not. In fact, this dance has a lot of choreography. So much so that its structural logic disappears as it unfurls itself along its distance, while never seeming to lose its way, thankfully.

If Simmons is the curtain-raiser, Ieremia’s Passchendaele is the climax. Primary differences between the two are that the dancers have dispensed with their soft ballet shoes and are now barefoot. There are all the same movement motifs, choreographic devices, literal references and emotional themes as in Simmon’s work (so I won’t list them again), but instead of an overwhelming piece of sculpture as a set, there is a projected image of a river of blood that slowly morphs into a landscape of charred trees and white sky. The movement is also more explosive and angular, and there is a lot more lifting of bodies. The choreographic structure is transparent in its episodic development. The inclusion of some kapa haka gestures gives the soldiers a distinctly kiwi identity. Interesting also that the more virile barefoot movement language of Ieremia’s contemporary dance style makes the dancers look more youthful than they appear in some of the other works. This is clear testimony to their versatility.

Passchendaele is also the crowd favourite. The music, by Dwayne Bloomfield, has risen to the choreographic demands Ieremia requires of it. While the bandwidth of the other works hovers within a dynamic range that is expected of all professional dance and good choreography – a range that embraces gentleness and delicacy at one end and athletic prowess and virtuosity at the other, all safely held within the bounds of great technique – Ieremia pushes these extremes so there is more energy, more attack, more contrast, more impact. Blasted in this way, the audience responds with excitement and with batteries newly charged. Ieremia’s status as one of NZ’s more successful choreographers is amply justified by this addition to the ballet company’s repertoire.

The visual impact of dancers dancing in canon (not to be confused with the weapon) is always striking and it is the earliest of these works, Jiri Kylian’s Soldier’s Mass, created in 1980, that might be said to have set the initial benchmark and standard for this technique. Kylian’s skill at being able to fluidly arrange and rearrange group formations of dancers is legendary. He added new chapters to the choreographer’s handbook with his signature movement aesthetic and style, along with his appealing and masterly exploration of geometrically staggered movement sequences and weaving patterns. This work is one of the stand-out and most popular creations in Kylian’s extensive canon.

I cannot add anything new to the tomes of literature that Soldier’s Mass will have already attracted over the years. This is one of the classics of 20th century dance. All that’s left is to comment on its rendition tonight. The dancers performed it extremely well, although I found that the solos were slightly lacklustre. However, there was one strange feature, that of a woman in the cast. The original was choreographed on 12 men. In its many recreations on different companies around the world, is it now common to include female dancers? I did not know this. My initial reaction was, ‘Oh, the ballet company doesn’t have 12 men’. But a look at the programme showed that this isn’t the case.

The intriguing thing for me is that ballet here is one of the bastions of artistic conservatism. For instance, although audiences in Europe have been hardened to nudity in the works of contemporary ballet over the last few decades, that is not the case in NZ (except of course in contemporary dance). So in the climax of Soldier’s Mass where the men dramatically discard their shirts to reveal well-muscled torsos, why was the sole female dancer, who had been prominently placed at the front of the stage through much of the choreography, discreetly removed to one of the back lines at this moment? And then, having been topless for the conclusion of the dance, why was she the only one to put her shirt back on for the curtain call that immediately followed? Perplexing! It seems that a token gesture towards something that might be slightly radical was handled in a way that also made it prudish. She then gets the biggest applause, which would seem to undermine the choreographer’s statement about solidarity among fighting men. Just get all the men to put their shirts back on too for the bows, would be my suggestion!

In the three works mentioned so far, Kylian’s Soldier’s Mass sits between Andrew Simmons’ and Neil Ieremia’s works as a proud ancestor with some new offspring. Differences between the latter, as has already been noted, come not so much from their content and approach, but more from the fact of their respective backgrounds – Simmons in ballet and Ieremia in contemporary dance. The fourth contributor to tonight’s programme stands in complete contrast to all the rest for its comical and light-hearted take on the subject.

Salute, by Johan Kobborg, matches smartly attired young military men with coyly amorous young women. Its series of short items offer the company an opportunity to get out of the bleak and distressing world of the battlefield and into the flirtatious territory of the ballroom. There is much showing off of skill and technical finesse, featuring the full gamut of well-known classical ballet steps and vocabulary. On top of this there is plenty of tom-foolery involving jealousies, awkwardness between the sexes, confusion about who should be with who, the bonding of star-crossed lovers, punctuated by the exaggerated antics of a buffoonish sergeant major. All gently situated within the melodic tones, world and rhythm of the waltz. In the spirit of overlap between tonight’s works, I am amused to see that amongst the uniformed cast of costumed ‘soldiers’, one of them is a female – but this time she is thematically integral to the storyline. Kobborg’s happy work is infectious and makes the audience very happy too.

The Royal New Zealand Ballet is currently a strong company of highly accomplished and personable dancers. I at no point witness a feeling of uncertainty or shakiness in performance. Their bodies and techniques appear confident, secure and strong. There is consistency of artistry across the board. It is great that a programme such this allows the art form to set aside its hierarchically driven approach and work more tightly as an ensemble.

The live music component from the New Zealand Army Band is an added bonus to tonight’s proceedings. What a privilege to hear such musicianship and to experience this kind of artistic collaboration between dancers, composers and musical practitioners in our community who might not normally associate in this way. The overall production and design elements are also to be commended for their high standards and expert delivery. The Royal NZ Ballet has high demands expected of it every time it steps out on the stage, tonight’s performance more than fulfilled each and every one of them.

Chatting to my neighbour between items, I realise she has become a kind of armchair expert on ballet audiences. For instance, she tells me that the noise people make in the intervals or gaps is a measure of their reaction to what they’re seeing. If the sound goes up, all is good, if people are quiet ‘there is no energy in the performance’. She happily points out that the volume tonight in the audience chat is high. At the same time, I overhear people behind me talking about the price of cod and their disappointment at having bought some fresh fish recently that didn’t last long when they took it home. I amuse myself by trying to connect this conversation to the question of the hopefully longer-lasting impact of theatrical performance and dance.

This evening’s entertainment at the ballet on the theme of war has made me reflect a little on our lives here in New Zealand and on how such events are so distant, both currently and historically, for us. But are they? And for how long? I think also of those few in our armed forces who have fairly quietly been shipped off to the Middle East to face the reality of what we are here tonight safely enjoying and appreciating as art. History goes in cycles, but is at the same time completely unpredictable. Let’s remember, but hopefully not repeat.


Director: Victoria Columbus
Jaydyn Burt, Laura Beanland-Stephens, Demi-Jo Manolo, Billy Keohavong, Latisha Sparks, Jacob Edmonds, Amelia McCarthy, Sophie Gargan, Felix Sampson, Georgia Rudd, Tyler Carney Soundscape: Te Aihe Butler
Costumes designed by Donna Jefferis

at Te Whaea National Dance and Drama Centre, 11 Hutchison Rd, Newtown, Wellington
From 15 May 2015 to 23 May 2015
[1 hour]

Reviewed by Chris Jannides, 17 May 2015

We are treated to a reverse scenario in the New Zealand School of Dance’s 2015 Choreographic Season featuring eleven works by its third year contemporary dance students. What we encounter is that the theatre at Te Whaea, which normally houses these productions, has become the foyer, complete with tables and chairs, brochures and a refreshment bar, while the building’s spacious plaza has been cordoned off and transformed into a performance space with an imposing seating block. 

Given the attractiveness of Te Whaea’s architecture, this rearrangement of the conventions of performance is a unique and stylish innovation. Clever also in that it offers the students a different spatial challenge to work with from usual, while allowing the school to display its large number of elite dancers in impressive group formations and configurations that would be impossible in the smaller dimensions of a typically-sized rectangular stage. So we see bodies filling the immense, beautifully varnished floor space, while others appear and/or disappear into the depths of a distant corridor, and yet others gaze down at us from the surrounding metallic balconies, with entrances and exits provided from multiple levels, directions, alcoves and locations.

Instead of being dwarfed by the vast area, in this production the scale of dancer to environment is a perfect fit. The overall statement here is: we have numbers and this is a prestigious school. It is all invitingly sleek, professional, seductive. And proud. What is expected of our national school of dance is delivered with confidence and elegance. The waves of graduating talent that are annually released on the world are visibly at its highest standards. This is the assurance that we are given to appreciate and acknowledge. The machinery of dance education working with great precision, rigour and finesse. The result, as evidenced by this year’s choreographic season, is a pleasing visual sensorium of virtuosity and polish. Technical, expressive, smart, athletic, tight and fresh.

The structural stamp of these productions remains the same as it has in recent years. The eleven works are seamlessly strung together to make one longer work. This device almost borders at times on making the transitions compete choreographically with the individual items. The overlap between pieces, expertly handled by the artistic director Victoria Colombus, who in effect is the hidden twelfth meta-choreographer, can sometimes blur the thread of a student’s particular idea or theme with regards to whether it is finished or not. This is by no means a criticism. The format here is about a journey where landscapes morph, change and merge as they pass us by, or, as happens at the start of this performance, as we pass them by.

It is satisfying to be active as an observer and to be led as we enter the performance space to a high place where we can look down on dancers from a different perspective and see them backdropped by a timber floor as they execute some stylish choreography by Jadyn Burt.  Or then be ordered by the furious gestures and miming of the actorly-able Felix Sampson to come down to ground level where we stand around a white podium, like patrons in a gallery, shuffling to get a better view over shoulders or between people in front. Here we are treated to a podium dance solo choreographed by Laura Beanland-Stephens. Now Jadyn Burt, the dancer, artfully manipulates her body into various poses as she rotates on her display box, gazing lazily and warmly at us throughout, until eventually, over-exposure perhaps taking its toll, she flips the stand over and is swallowed by it, like a tail-less mermaid descending and disappearing into the depths of our memories.

Throughout this solo, I enjoy noticing that the empty seating area behind our backs is quietly filled by dancers who, with one arm stretched casually over a neighbouring seat, look like mildly insolent casting directors perusing us as auditionees. Enjoyable also is the end of the solo when, not noticing that the dancers have left their seats, I feel a bump against my leg and look down to see a rolling body gently nudging and bulldozing me as a signal to now go and sit down. This is fun. But I’m getting sidetracked by one of those competing choreographic transitions!

Reflecting on what stands out for me in this smorgasbord of student choreography, I see that a great deal of the work is front-focussed. We are looked at directly. Bodies face us directly. Images are presented flat onto us directly. Particularly when clusters and groups form and do unison movement, often juxtaposed against other groups doing other phrases that in combination create layered, highly appealing, machine-like choreographic patterns (the production-line motif on the balcony is a memorable moment). Machine-like, that is, mixed with the slithery hunched-over stomp-tribalism that is in the style of the internationally prominent choreographer, Hofesh Shechter (one of the more noticeably important influences on these students’ movement choices and bodies). And this ‘at us, for us’ focus is not merely in our direction, as if gazing into a distance that we happen to be masking, much of the time we are being engaged eyeball-to-eyeball. We see you, you see us and we see you seeing us seeing you (seeing us). A veritable see-saw of seeing, gently imposed on us by lifted chins and open faces on long necks as a soft-fisted but kindly ‘here we are’ challenge. Hmmm… is this relentless front-focalism in dance bordering on overkill?

Two pieces stick in my mind for their elements of distinctness and difference. Contemporary dancers often use the technique of physically manipulating each other’s bodies like puppets. A choreographic device that in this show is the mainstay of much of the partner work and duets. The recipients are always happy to be externally rearranged in this mechanical fashion. It is common and familiar in our art form. But what more can be done with it? Felix Sampson provides a solution in hisUnfortunate Help where bodies are manipulated by long cardboard rods as a unique variation on this theme. Reminding me a bit of Oskar Schlemmer’s famous Stick Dance of 1927 where limb-lines get artificially extended, I enjoy the work-like way the chorus of dancers tear apart an exaggerated connection between two people to take control of them from a distance, resulting in the propped-up demise of one and the loud wailing into a cardboard tube of the other. For me, there is originality here and varied interpretive possibilities on the theme of human attachment.

The second item of interest to me for its central unlikeness to much of the other work is Sophie Gargan’s 79 Bonnie Special. This piece is a kind of choreographed cover-banding of Connan Mockasin’s YouTube video, Do I Make You Feel Shy. The pastiche-like structure and casual physical language is appealing for its anti-display of half-formed awkward movements, nonchalant comings and goings of dancers striking limp voguing poses, backgrounded by projected footage of unglamorous everyday life, selfie-dom and supermarket stardom. I love how the central character – beautifully performed by Georgia Rudd draped in a silk Chinese dressing gown and lip-syncing into a handheld microphone – reflects my mis-hearing of the fading lines of the song. The actual words are ‘My ever lusty world’, but to my ears this sounds more like ‘I am a lost diva’, and she does indeed look like an endearingly charismatic ‘lost diva’.

Actually, more than two pieces stand out. I always enjoy watching structures unfold, so Amelia McCarthy’s You Are My is a special treat with its cleverly and manically loopy deterioration. There is well-integrated use of production elements in this work. Blackouts periodically intercut the action with a projected word-wall that self-deletes some of its content each time we see it. This is an effective device. The dancers, meanwhile, each time the lights come up, descend a bit further from states of bliss and happiness to distorted and maniacal worlds of dementia, hysteria and what might otherwise appear as drug-f*****d confusion. This is a solidly mapped out choreographic journey that is infectiously performed and tight in its cyclical handling of decline, obsession and disarray.

OK, this review is getting long. But how can I not mention the cameo item that is Georgia Rudd’s A rigmarole, in which the verbally dexterous and commanding presence of Felix Sampson amusingly engages in one-sided banter with the compliant, slightly uncertain but permanently silent Rowan Rossi. Felix quizzes and domineers his victim, instructing him to respond to various questions, between which he provides us with a good deal of personal information (‘fun facts’) about Rowan (for instance, he owns ten pairs of tap shoes and comes from Adelaide), as well as getting him to undertake small tasks, such as tidying up his clothing and buttoning his shirt. The highlight of this piece is the sly build-up to Felix’s climactic delivery of a fast-paced rap poem, with both men dancing to it in unison. Rudd’s ‘choreography’ sidesteps movement through the vast majority of this piece and focusses instead on stripping back, through verbal dialogue, the fake theatrical world we’ve been watching up to then, as well as to questions about performance, relationship, identity and the hidden desire we have as artists to make a lasting impression. I value the intelligence and bravery of this choreographer to work outside the framework of choreographic expectation and ‘dance’ by delving instead into the slightly larger territory of ‘performance’.

I do not wish to give the impression through the few pieces I’ve chosen to talk about that the others are any less worthy. The evening is full of choreographic accomplishment and many rich images and ideas. Space just doesn’t permit the detailed acknowledgement that these deserve. I notice also that Felix Sampson has been mentioned three times in this review (and now four!), which might suggest that he stands out as a presence over and above the rest, this is not true. What I enjoy in this programme and its approach is that it successfully showcases and promotes the personalities and individual strengths and talents of all its student dancers.

Special acknowledgement, however, must be made of the involvement of production students and staff from Toi Whakaari. The technical elements are professionally delivered and tantamount to the success and smooth running of the whole venture. It is no small feat to transform a non-theatrical space into a performance-friendly environment in this way. The scale of the contribution of these behind-the-scenes people – costume makers and designers, sound and lighting technicians, stage managers, set construction, etc. – is massive. Hats off to you all!

And finally… music. Te Aihe Butler’s name is to be noted. A recent graduate from Toi Whakaari, Butler is a genius in the way he coordinates the musical content and arc of the show, catering to the needs of each of the students through sampled tracks or adding his own compositions. His musical versatility and talents are extremely well-suited to dance and so I hope this emerging maestro gets rapidly noticed and picked up more widely in the profession.

Of course, ultimately, the NZSD’s annual choreographic season serves two purposes. It’s a double showcase – one being the choreographic works, the other an opportunity to display and celebrate the calibre and abilities of the student dancers themselves as performers. What a beautiful powerhouse of talent there is in this 2015 year group, who are more than ably supported by the equally assured skills of students in other years. Considering they will all be launching themselves into the workforce in the not-too-distant future, I am thinking: how can each and every one of them not make an impact and succeed in some way in this most difficult and competitive of industries? Based on tonight, surely they will.

The saving grace and most valuable asset for these students is that, through the school’s current expertise and emphasis on choreography in its contemporary dance programme, their high physical accomplishments are accompanied by increased levels of artistic creativity and dance-making knowledge. This is a full and attractive package for the market place and its talent hounds. The company dancer these days must have high dance-making skills. But for those who are denied the company option, or who are not attracted to it, the skill set the school seems to be providing its contemporary students will enable them to independently forge other strong pathways in the creative arts industries and community of dance, particularly as artist-practitioners.

Tonight’s performance is clear testimony to the vibrancy and relevance of the curriculum that the NZSD is providing current generations of aspiring contemporary dance professionals. The school comes across as healthy and progressive. The faces, abilities and demeanours of its students radiate a balanced mixture of relaxed enjoyment and discipline. There is an unforced sense of ensemble and mutual respect for each other, aligned with the ability to stand out dynamically, performatively and competently as individuals and soloists.

These words of praise continue the applause that was well-deserved and generously and appreciatively given by the audience at the end of the show. Congratulations to staff, students and production people for a high-standard celebration of crafting, learning and imagination.


Triumphs and Other Alternatives – Ross McCormack
23 April 2015, Hannah Playhouse, Wellington

Reviewed by Chris Jannides

The choreographer ‘Maker/God’ slumps over his workbench as a protective cover of plastic sheeting, doubling as an amniotic curtain, rises to unveil to the world of an audience the creation of a new born theatre-dance. The use of plastic promises us transparency and insight into the processes of the artistic craft. The Maker (as he is called in the programme) in this instance is the choreographer himself, Ross McCormack. Through the deaf and dumb language of contemporary dance, he exposes the struggle of putting life into bodies and performance via the setting of a ramshackle artist’s studio inhabited by a dithering sculptor and his ‘clay’, expertly danced by the frequently entwined and malleable figures of his Adam/Eve innocents, James Vu Ahn Pham and Emily Adams.

Mastery and craftsmanship combine to confirm McCormack’s on-stage labelling as an aspiring master craftsman. Although he ridicules the role through parody and the obsessive antics of an imbecile, McCormack cannot hide the high level of artistic skill and maturity that he himself possesses. An ecstatic audience makes this recognition abundantly clear in their enthusiastic response to tonight’s premiere performance. Like the title, the outcome is itself triumphant. Design, dynamic music, calibre dancing and dramaturgical precision orbit each other in a cohesively tight, un-superfluous fashion.

McCormack equally masters tradition and established contemporary practices. He is an originator who expertly vibes up an old world. The founding myths of Western culture, mostly biblical, liberally and literally saturate this production. This is a complex work. It is narrative driven, but readable on many levels. Outsider Art, German Expressionist tanztheatre, butoh and contemporary European conceptual art-dance are what I am reminded of. Powdered near-naked bodies, jerkily distended physicalities, unglamourous post-apocalyptic settings, socially-damaged geniuses. These influences portray the human condition and its rituals and concerns using a physical and frequently humorous language of exaggerated intensity that is paramount in McCormack’s work.

A stack of books on stage invites us to symbolically read the goings on. A brief cross-section of examples provides a glimpse of the way this production references our mythico-cultural heritage. White paint smearing the set, signatures the handiwork of a messy light-bringer. We see humans being formed from dust. Life and language force-fed into pulled-open gaping mouths. Flesh squeezed together at the back of a head to imitate the tubing and crevices of the brain. The Maker as Atlas shouldering his prized human creations. Eve rebelliously separating Adam from their Creator. Adam gawking at her self-animated propulsions and independence. The Creator strenuously squeezing himself between them. There is a see-saw of immanence and transcendence. God sky-high, suspended, distracted. God in creation. God in flesh. God wanting human attention. Story and symbolism everywhere!

Getting down and funky at the end in hyper-intense unison with his creations, McCormack, the Maker, demonstrates: ‘I and what I have made are one’. After firmly bolting on their own heads, the synchronised Frankensteins entertain us in a patterned celebration of in-our-face bio-pulsating automatism. But I am left wondering: is an artist simply a craftsman and a giver of life into existing traditions and forms, or something more? I sense that Triumphs and Other Alternatives sits at an autobiographical cross-roads for this overseas’d local. Where might the progress of this highly talented choreographer, beyond the theatrically triumphal and self-satisfied ‘ta-da’ moment that climaxes the intelligent crafting of this well-received offering, go to next? Less sporadic opportunities for originality (for want of a better word) might be what NZ may next uniquely provide him and invite.

Thank you, Ross, and your excellent team. Bravo. Your superb parable of the artistic struggles of creation and exhibition was both well told, and a rich and stimulating read.



Jeremy Haxton
Juliet Shelley
Keely Turuwhenua
Thomas Murphy
Lighting design and operation by Tony Black

at BATS Theatre, The Dome, 1 Kent Tce, Wellington
From 23 Apr 2015 to 25 Apr 2015
[90 mins]

Reviewed by Chris Jannides, 25 Apr 2015

The two dance contributors to this programme – Juliet Shelley and Jeremy Haxton –  work in very different ways. Yet both create choreographic scores that have a reflective narrative element – Shelley’s internal and personal, Haxton’s external and impersonal.

Shelley in her two items is languid in her physical language and draws on an ingrained post-modern dance vocabulary that she tries to keep on the surface. This creates a tension between a submerged training system in her body and the desire to use it as a fresh interface with the surrounding moment. To my mind, however, this struggle does not seem to be an intended one. All the elements of her work look to be about an holistically casual approach to the art of dance. Ponytail flying, she drifts, twirls, floats, swishes and glides in softly extended flows of movement that are designed to announce pleasure and the kinaesthetic joy of sensation. But still there is tension. What is its cause I wonder, as I watch? There is a sense of sliding in and out of connections.

On his part, Haxton has given himself a choreographic agenda that is offered as a kind of personal manifesto. Ignoring for now what he writes about this, and drawing on what I perceive in performance, the manifesto is patchworked and 2-dimensional in its linear simplicity. Compartments of ideas are stacked side-on to each other. Fixed lengths of musical time determine how long each segment lasts. So the short pop songs he uses (Destiny’s Child, James Brown, Talking Heads, etc.) dictate the duration of each choreographic unit, while their lyrics are indirectly lip-synched by the movement. Separated by these self-contained dance-mime episodes, Haxton uses a linking motif of a walking step (a nod here to the Japanese robotic maestros, World Order), sometimes resorting to a little leap to bridge and hop over his narrative gaps and fences.

To Shelley again, and to disconnecting and connecting connections. The solo artist is a fragile one. He or she must either be a charismatic out-there performer, which is often expected, or be skilled at using the vulnerability of their isolated exposure to reveal gentler aspects of themselves and/or existence. This latter, up to a point, is Shelley’s terrain. There is vulnerability and exposure – she pours the personal contents of her backpack onto the floor to reveal credit cards, fruit, a toilet roll, out of which she makes a shrine – and expressions on her face when looking directly at us contain filtering shades of warmth and awkwardness. Connection and disconnection, with us, hover back and forth between these comfort/discomfort conditions. So when it comes to her introspective tendencies in performance, the blur between actual and thematic fragility might need better clarification and purpose.

Haxton also chooses to look directly at us when he performs. But his expression empties its contents in what might or might not be a practiced manner. Although I guess dancing with a banknote glued over his mouth severely restricts facial mobility. Mentioning now the written part of his manifesto; his neutral delivery and episodic choreography about corporate life would be products of his stated attraction to ‘theatricality, comedy, accessibility, light-heartedness’ and, in an echo of something that might have come from Shelley’s book, ‘riding on the flow of the work and where it goes’. I feel his commitment to these interests needs to be challenged. At the moment these aspects of his work are below par, and coming from an institute like Unitec whose dance graduates have been known to reflect their education’s strong emphasis on choreography, I am genuinely surprised at this.

The clear difference between the two choreographers is reflected to a degree in their age gap. Shelley has the advantage that time has allowed her to hone her compositional skills and structures somewhat. More so in the second piece, however, than in the first. The latter suffers from some clumsy sequencing and misalignments between the dance, video, sound and poetry elements (whose position towards the end of the work means that she is speaking it out-of-breath). However, the conventional ABA structure of the second piece contains some pleasant surprises, thematically and structurally. These include the aforementioned bag spillage and its statement about identity, the danced partial opening of the theatre’s double doors as an elaboration on the themes of reminiscence, journey and distance, the ebb and flow tidal motif of an outstretched body sliding back and forth along the floor, the sounds of gulls, ships, weather, airports to create an interesting soundscape mix…

It’s inevitable that two dance soloists in the same programme are going to produce comparisons. When individuals and their works are associatively lumped together by an exercise such as this, their respective practices will rub off on each other for good or for bad.

So is it of any value to say anything about Embody2 as a shared platform?

It is no secret that Wellington’s independent dance scene is currently in a dismal state, and I mean no disrespect to those dedicated, hard-working few that are based here. Hence, in my opinion it is essential for its contemporary dance artists to start proactively banding together, not only to increase numbers, but to build an undercurrent of mutual support, connectivity, critical interaction and encouragement. Initiatives like Embody2are clearly about attempting an important re-growth of energy and exposure for Wellington’s up-and-coming and under-resourced practitioners. But how to do it right?

Perhaps a curatorially strategic approach might be interesting. Not just anyone with anyone, but selective combinations that rub-off on each other in dynamically fruitful and coordinated ways. And can they have collective rejuvenation as a point of attack, alongside practitioners’ individual goals? At least for an initial period of time, just to get things rolling in this lacklustre capital that was once the undisputed capital of dance, but is no longer. Embody2, by Juliet Shelley, and its earlier manifestation, Embody1, initiated by Lyne Pringle, excite these thoughts.

Finally, I must mention the other two contributors – the musician, Keely Turuwhenua, and the video artist, Thomas Murphy – who I’ve not included in my central focus because they fall outside my mandate as a dance reviewer. I will say, though, that each supplies elements of professional joy and imagination that the dance components lack. Turuwhenua was consistently secure and generous in the solo delivery and beauty of her songs and musical artistry, even if kiwis singing original material in derivative American accents confuse me a bit. And Murphy blows my mind with his distinctive black and white video work. The intricately expanding and contracting geometric patterns framing its flora/fauna content are an hypnotically energising choreography in themselves. I wanted to see this playing throughout Shelley’s dance, not just towards the end. The video complements and backgrounds her dancing figure beautifully, and makes better sense of the choreography in the moments when she turns upstage to look at its kaleidoscopic emanations. I want to know more about this video artist.


Choreographer: Eric Languet
Assistant Choreographer: Mariyya Evrard
Dancers from Footnote New Zealand Dance and Danses en L’R cie Eric Languet
Composer: Yann Costa

at Opera House, Wellington
28 Mar 2015 
[1 hour 10 mins]

Reviewed by Chris Jannides, 30 Mar 2015

The Footnote show this evening, Bbeals takes a thought-provoking path and doesn’t disappoint. The central theme: the Jennifer Beals’ character from the movie Flashdance. The thought-provoking content: well this covers quite a range of things in a dramaturgically disjointed and piece-it-together-yourself fashion.

The work follows two main arcs. The transformation of the cast into multiple Jennifer Beals (Jennies), replete with boofy black curly wigs, white off-the-shoulder knit tops, and black sports bras and underwear. This is the first development, a cloning exercise of 80s star-smitten wannabe lookalikes, and their failings. The second is to create a large scaffold tower on which to suspend a crucified Jenny who laments her situation and chastises the others with the words ‘you guys are shit friends’.

Provocative, abrasive, confessional, self-analytical. You know the kind of contemporary dance show I mean. The big word for this: Deconstruction. Eric Languet’s Bbeals, follows this formula to a T. This is a relatively popular format that our dancers here do very well. There is a lineage of home-grown choreographers well-versed and highly competent in this, I would say, ‘European’ style of performance. Alexa Wilson and Claire O’Neil are two stand-out proponents working in this deliberately anarchic manner, both of whom have made deconstructive work on Footnote in the last few months, featuring disjointed in-your-face mayhem. I feel that we’re all quite well educated in this approach, hence it’s very easy to appreciate.

Yet somehow, knowing that the cutting-edge has been blunted by familiarity, what we seem to get more of in this form of ostensibly risky dance/physical theatre is larger doses of humour, spiced with wit-laden verbosity. Laughter and aggression, they’re both winners when it comes to entertainment and theatrical tension. Generously mixed together, Bbeals gives us a palatable onslaught of no-holds-barred performance, amicably contained, as it is tonight, by the resplendently decorative embrace of our stately, neo-baroque Opera House. Both the venue and the performance stand out for their references to the art practices and star-systems of earlier times. Heaven and Hollywood receive a double homage.

There is much in this show that the audience enjoys immensely. It is clear people want a laugh from the get-go. So these happiness wishes are well catered to. Water splashes on us from some hidden source, titillating us as the house lights dim. Dialogue made up of well-known lines from pop songs receives a joyous response. A cacophony of animal impersonations provokes much merriment. A small female dancer looking helplessly up at the microphone on a stand that is too high for her – more giggles. We all love humour in dance. The audience welcomes the laughs, and laughs as often as it can.

And we also know when not to laugh. The music is mostly the cue for this – delivered by a lean, tightly torsoed musician cum some-time performer in an open red shirt who alternates between keyboard, bass guitar and fellow dancer. Swinging between sensitive pianist and wide-stanced rocker, the musician is adept at dropping the tone and mood sharply and steeply at key points. Also the yelling and abuse spewed by the performers at us and at each other from the stage, often from an ear-splitting microphone, signals our silence, making us attentive and alert to the profundity that is about to be revealed, that we might miss if we are not concentrated enough.

Bbeals, with its fun and semi-structured feeling of improvisation, pulsates under an anarchic blow-torch. Every possible bit of content from the original film has found its way somehow into this performance. Female steelworker with an arc welder, yes (though here we had a grinder for health and safety reasons). Sky-pumping jazz dance steps, yes, plenty of those. Exploited eroticism, naturally. Aspirations to a higher plane of life and dance, the erect symbol of the onstage scaffold is the representative here. Fandom, the spawning of ‘maniacs’, and much else, all have been researched and dissected by Languet’s critical and unflattering ‘blow-torch’, thoroughly and without mercy.

Contemporary dance’s mandate to deliver depth, provocation, challenge and meaning is slotted into very smoothly and deliberately. Irritation and amusement are the primary tools in play. Programme notes attempt to focus our attention on the deeper layers of content in this work, just in case the work doesn’t reveal these for itself. So, for this show, we have statements like: ‘the dancers will question the intimate in order to evoke the universal’. Or: ‘Like the Tower of Babel, the tower being built here is surrounded by strategies, a concentration of humanity, enveloping what is paradoxical…’, and so on. Well, just like the company’s General Manager storming onto the stage in a surprise guest appearance towards the end of the performance to yell at the dancers to get down from the tower, the same sentiment might perhaps be directed at the need choreographers sometimes feel to prop up their work in this pseudo-intellectual way. Surely, I might suggest the work be allowed to do its own propping. Let it sink or swim on the merits of its own capabilities. That’s my humble appeal on this point.

Mention must be made of the ending. The woman next to me starts humming. I am thinking, ‘What the…?’ Then others all around me. Am I missing something? I haven’t read the programme. Is there something I don’t know that the rest of the audience knows? Something about us all singing at this point in the show? Understanding dawns on me when a large group of people who are strategically spread through the auditorium stand up and belt out a religious hymn that emphasises the words ‘Thank you, Lord’. This is an actual choir. Jenny is crucified. The religion of Hollywood is being mocked by a sincere group of local singers. I wonder to myself how much they are aware of the ‘reading’, or are they just happy to sing, irrespective of the context?

The dancers meantime, most of whom are concealed from me by the standing figures of the planted choir, are facing us and twitching, their white tops issuing from their teeth, I think to myself, ‘like vomit’. I question the woman next to me when she sits down. They are the Orpheus Choir. In spite of the beauty, surprise and poignancy of the singing, I curse my memory for having experienced this very same ending recently in Jo Randerson’s White Elephant production. It just goes to show, good ideas are contagious, even when they’re accidental. Divine synchronicity in action.

After the show, I have an interesting conversation with friends. It seems when a performance is full of diverse content built around strategies of disruption and chaos, the best thing to do is to talk to people afterwards. This taps into a delayed reaction effect. By comparison, immediate reactions at the time of viewing haven’t had time to be processed. In the theatre, for instance, a woman sitting close to me remarks, just after we all finish applauding, ‘Oh well, that was contemporary dance. I don’t always get it’. So I am eager to hear what my colleagues make of it. What I notice in our post-show discussion is that there is little mention of content – what the show is about, what it might be trying to communicate. Instead all the observations are about the dancers and how well particular people did certain things. There is no lack of appreciation for the talents, bravery and whatever else is required of the dancers in showcasing their diversity, skill and confidence. This seems to be the first and easiest port of call when trying to prise open work that makes immediate access difficult. There is a hell of a lot to squeeze out of an experience like Bbeals that, at the most, is only seen once. Post-show conversations are a must.

So thank you Eric Languet for your stimulating creativity and for the excellent performers you brought with you. Thank you also to the very fine ensemble that makes up the present Footnote company, you were all given the opportunity to shine as individuals. I am very appreciative of the questions this production has raised in me concerning the artistic complexities and ongoing challenges of contemporary dance as a communicative art form in our community.


Created and Performed by Eliza Sanders

at Te Whaea National Dance and Drama Centre, 11 Hutchison Rd, Newtown, Wellington
From 13 Mar 2015 to 14 Mar 2015 

Reviewed by Chris Jannides, 14 Mar 2015

Eliza Sanders graduated last year from the New Zealand School of Dance’s contemporary dance programme. What a force she is! Compelling. Original. An emerging artist with a mature and distinct creative voice. She sings. She dances. She writes. Delivers poetic dialogue at a pace and level of clarity and confidence equal to any trained actor. Has a pliant body that is technically superb. Choreographs movement that is intricately tied to its narrative without ever seeming superfluous or gratuitous. Switches from insane eccentricity to intense poignancy as quickly as turning a light on and off. And possesses a depth and range of imagination in this hour long solo that is never short of content, variety and surprise. Virtuosic, herculean, mercurial, clever and generous. Well deserving of the standing ovation given her by an audience mostly made up of peers, tutors and other close friends and colleagues watching the debut of a new and important creative talent in our dance and performance landscape.

What Eliza masters and showcases in Pedal.Peddle is an ability to morph words, images, ideas and movement in an accumulating stream of consciousness that winds its way through a journey of displacement, rejection, anxiety and reflection without ever losing its way. This is a superb piece of crafting.

The work is intimate. A person alone. There are common motifs, common that is to theatrical environments I’ve seen before. A suitcase. Clotheslines. The latter are strung up across the space and get strips of multi-coloured material hung on them alongside images and postcards. Are these memories? Snapshots of the past? One line gets an assorted array of brassieres attached to it to the accompaniment of ‘ha ha’s’ and ‘he he’s’. We all laugh with her. Comedy is a strong element throughout. It counterpoints the personal element perfectly. Yet doesn’t in any way undermine or diminish the intensity or sobriety of other moments.

There are highlights galore that attach easily on the clothesline of our own memories. A totally bizarre plucked chicken that she makes by crawling into stretch material that then waddles and rolls in hysterical plump clumsiness while talking to us about… Well I was too distracted by the image to remember what she was talking to us about! It was a cross between the freaky chickens in David Lynch’s Eraserhead and a heavily distorted moa-emu cross from some kind of Pixar animation.

Birds are a recurring motif. As well as butterflies. Flight. Fleet. Aircraft. Leaving. A glorious moment where she flies around the space with her colourful patchwork costume billowing and streaming out behind her. A long bridal train that she is both fleeing and seeking. A butterfly emblazoned.

This is a bits and pieces woman. Spurned by a lover. Falling apart. A lone mirror on the ground doubles as water and a place for self-examination. Narcissus-like, questions are raised about the coldness and cruelty of love. Desire unrequited. We hear: ‘No matter how hot she gets, she has a hard time melting ice’.

The costume, originally wrapped around her like a cocoon out of which she unravels, is in the end discarded leaving her naked – well almost. There is the humorous image here of a topless woman in black underwear beneath a canopy of coloured bras, all of which she ignores. Preferring instead to cut and slash herself with a paintbrush and black paint. Scarring and smearing her body. She puts the paintbrush between her teeth and paints movement on her body with her mouth. A perfect visual metaphor for the poetic speech that has been issuing from it previously.

There is lovely pathos in this work. From the remotest clothesline a small paper butterfly is removed and held above the mirror-lake, now painted black. The butterfly is dropped into the water that is ‘clear’, but not. She exits through the audience singing and battered, but with a resigned sense of triumph.

What I value in this performance is the successful mixing of surreal and absurd images with very literal content about a human situation of loneliness and growth. Art tackles anxiety and confusion in a full-bodied performance onslaught that leaves no element disentangled from the rest. The cleverness here is impressive and stimulating. Songs by Edith Piaf and others – with titles such as: ‘Aching to Pupate’, ‘I Shouldn’t Care’, ‘My Manic and I’ – are sung without musical accompaniment. Eliza’s is a confident plaintive voice that slices though the space with the same clarity as her equally as expressive choreography. Choreography that is spiralling, intricate, reaching, anxious, throbbing, elastic, open, awkward, lyrical, torn, uncoordinated, analytical, dynamic.

This work is about a kinetics and a poetics of performance that should be responded to with other poetry. Here is mine, stripped from the notes I took in the dark:

“coming up next we have…”
Like a smiling pretender
Finding self
Finding face
She sings about ‘him’
Morning is mocking me
Shock of soft female flesh openly lit and exposed downstage
She is stabbed by softness
No need to fear the water is clear here dear.

Don’t be impatient to see Eliza’s work, because I am certain there is a lot more of it to come. I am certainly hoping this.

Actually, change that. Be impatient. I’d love you to check for yourself the richness of this artist’s work.


NZ Fringe 2015 [reviewing supported by WCC]
Presented by Kate Bartlett & Chris Tempest

at Thistle Hall, Wellington
From 5 Mar 2015 to 6 Mar 2015 
[50 mins]

Reviewed by Chris Jannides, 6 Mar 2015

OK. Reviewing? An opportunity for a moment of subjective objectivity where I become an expert eye, or pretend to be. Where I suppress what I don’t know (because I am supposed to be all-knowing), amplify what I think I do know, and question whether other things that I know are relevant to this exercise or not.

I know that when I was in the Northern hemisphere recently I became aware that a genre or category of performance had evolved that was simply being called ‘performance’. I understood that it was a kind of natural development of the collision between performance art and theatre. Instead of a stand-off and criticism of each by the other, the overlap where the two had been increasingly borrowing from the opposition had reached a kind of critical mass that needed a name. What better than to chop the word ‘art’ off one of the protagonists, because after all a lot of performance art was now being done by dancers, actors and other trained performers, and to simply call the outcome ‘performance’. There was no argument that performance was the central component shared between visual artists working with their bodies and the theatre fraternity. It makes very good sense. So that is what is happening, as I understand it, in the Northern hemisphere.

Has this genre – simply called performance – reached NZ yet? I’m not sure. I don’t hear practitioners using the term when asked how they categorise their work. Mostly I get responses such as ‘cross-disciplinary’ (and all the other hyphenated ‘disciplinary’ terms), ‘physical theatre’, ‘hybrid’, ‘fusion’ (these names are starting to become hackneyed or conventionalised), or ‘I don’t know’, ‘it’s not dance’, ‘it’s a kind of mix of different things’, etc.

Kate Bartlett and Chris Tempest are doing performance, in the Northern hemisphere understanding and use of the term (although in talking to Kate, she wasn’t aware of this stand-alone expression). They mix voice, text, song, objects, movement, dance, acting, etc., in a way in which no one performance style or element dominates.

I know Kate because I taught her in dance school many years ago. So I can’t suppress a potential bias here. A bias of respect. I know that she and her performance partner are also partners in real life. Is this relevant? It becomes so when I watched their work. The backyard they’ve sketched out in the Thistle Hall gallery space contains the intimacy of a couple who live together. The comfort of two people who are soft and considerate of each other. Who are in close physical proximity throughout much of the performance and who blend their vocal tones and physicalities in the way that people do who share a lengthy intimate connection. There are instances when I’ve experienced seeing couples perform together where I wonder how much they are aware that their relationship status creates an affect on the work, and whether this is intentionally being incorporated or is simply incidental? The genre they are working in – performance – requires a level of real life authenticity. The performers may digress into characterisation or ‘otherness’ at times – in this work, Chris and Kate have moments where they imitate birds observing and discussing humans – but fundamentally we get Kate and Chris as Kate and Chris. Their ‘Back-Yard Oddity’ has a quality of domesticity that is not being faked.

Back to the subject of reviewing. A summary description of the work is usually required. I am torn between detailing examples of what I saw – a backyard water slide down the length of the room for dive-bombing bodies, a podium on which to twitch and perch and comment on the world, a clothes-line above the audience on which to hang wet clothes, plastic buckets in which to drum up soap bubbles that are then face-dunked to make foam masks, a constellation of fairy lights on the roof that create a gently ethereal and contemplative climax to the proceedings – or reflecting on questions that the performance raises as it hovers between accessibility and enigma.

When a work mixes its various performance elements to such a degree, and intentionally rejects the heightened ‘show off’ or virtuosic achievements that specialisation in one form often aims at producing (although I must admit, Chris’s singing at one point hints at transcendence), what is left to engage with? In this type of work it is the underpinning ideas and the trigger of the underlying investigative question that initiated it. The programme says the central topic is ‘uncertainty’. The spoken dialogue points to uncertainty about big things mostly – death, time, aging, genetics, and other existential themes – in a world populated by small things reduced to the dimensions of a backyard.

Their Programme notes try to throw a bit more light on the thematic territory. We read: ‘This is a performance that explores the nomadic nature of our morality, the sometimes mutable state of our self-identified knowing and our attempt at exposing and hiding the shiftiness of our self-hood’. This explanation is not helpful and seems a bit overblown and pretentious in relation to the performance I witnessed. It highlights the chasm between the depth of understanding and familiarity that the performers have of what they’ve made and aspire to, and a virgin audience grappling to find comprehension and meaning. What we are invited to do is try to make sense of what we see while considering the possibility of symbolic and metaphoric readings of the work. A gymnastics of viewing that is particularly difficult for the untrained, or those who prefer a couch potato approach to spectatorship.

Hence, their’s is a poetics of construction and double-meaning. Image-based, skeletal and skittish. Quirky in tone. A small array of interconnected, quizzical moments loosely strung out along a time-line. Intimate and un-showy. There is a pragmatic changing of clothes at the start – the performers take off their shorts and t-shirts and don ‘costumes’ hanging on the line – which are more shorts and t-shirts. At the end they remove their everyday shorts and t-shirts, which are now drenched from watersliding, and hang them back up to dry. I enjoy the ‘performance’ of the suspended wet clothes and the idea or statement that these are skins drenched by the work. The self-referential inserts where the piece comments on itself exposes a preoccupation with questions of performance and performance-making. Is this the overriding theme? Have these artists shared any profound or interesting insights with me? This review attempts to indicate they have, enough to make me satisfied. I also liked the fairy lights.

So here, for me, we have an example of a style of work simply called performance with its poetic and eclectic mix of styles, a preoccupation with the theatrics of self-examination, a leaning towards understated profundity and an invitation for metaphoric readings and interpretation. Subjective to the extreme, but of interest to and totally appropriate and welcome in a fringe festival where this calibre and nature of experimental work – with its risks and uncertainties – is expected and desired.


NZ Fringe 2015 [reviewing supported by WCC]
Shaanxi Little Plum Blossom
Qinqiang Opera Arts Group

at TSB Bank Arena, Queens Wharf, Wellington
15 Feb 2015 
[3 hours]

Reviewed by Chris Jannides, 16 Feb 2015

What an exquisite treat for a Sunday night. The Shaanxi Little Plum Blossom Qinqiang Opera Arts Group, (now that’s a mouthful of a name) from a north western region of China. These elite performers, cultural ambassadors for both their art form and their country, have travelled here to help us celebrate the Chinese New Year, aptly named, in light of our own identity and tradition as a farming nation, the Year of the Sheep.

What is Chinese New Year? I am provided with a degree of clarity from overhearing the conversation of two young boys at the end of the show. One of these young experts informs the other that ‘Chinese New Year is a bit like Christmas but a bit more out of your home than in your home’. The wisdom of young minds!  I instantly notice the myriad of red Chinese lanterns suspended over our heads in the cavernous heights of the TSB Bank Arena. Like these youthful patrons on their night out with their families, I too am busily throwing light on the cultural experience I have just witnessed by comparing it to my own. I am no expert on traditional Chinese dance or opera, but there are numerous parallels with our own forms of ballet, circus, opera, vaudeville and pantomime. And I know quality performance when I see it. This is populist entertainment and high art all mixed into one.

The TSB Bank Arena, a spacious raised stage, rows of red plastic seating in a sizeable but sectioned-off area, almost filled by a large and diverse audience of mixed ages, with expectations of grandiose performance and jaw-dropping spectacle. Professional photographers hunched and stealthily stalking the front of the stage like circling predators, cameras at the ready, weapon-like. Children, teenagers, families, elderly people and dignitaries, Wellington’s mayoress and the Chinese Ambassador’s wife, no less. This is art in a stadium, art for the people. And we are not short-changed. Spectacle and the spectacular come in large doses.

An organiser informs me that with events like this the audience is usually around 95% Asian. We scan the room. The ratio here is about 50/50. She is pleased.

Lights dim and a friendly MC with a microphone, reading off a sheet of paper, appears between items, giving us useful background information and setting the scene for what we are about to see. A large video screen comes to life on the wall behind him. This provides a live feed that amplifies the action, presumably for people sitting further away from the stage. Slightly out of sync, it is interesting switching one’s vision back and forth between the dwarfed performers and their giant doubles in the video feed. This offers an illuminating study of the comparisons and differences, instantly perceivable, between ‘live’ and ‘film’. Are these giant 2D images really the people I am looking at on stage right now? Bright stage lights bounce off colourfully costumed flesh and blood performers in mirror-sequinned headdresses who compete with their iconic doubles on the projected super-screen. Gloss comes in different shades. In this instance, flesh and blood wins.

What of the performance itself? How can this be described? Firstly, there are two groups of performers, a superb company of musicians playing traditional Chinese instruments, and the dancer-actor-singer-acrobat troupe itself. In a nutshell, this is about tricks embedded in stories. And what tricks! This might also be described as Theatre of the Gasp! Exquisitely performed, this is theatricality at its finest. The calibre of the show is more than worthy of the dignitaries present.

Spectacular costumes, glittery, elaborate, lush, flowing, dramatic, colourful, exotic. Frequent use of hand-held props, swords, staffs, spears, fans, maces. Bodies breathtakingly fly through the air in gravity-defying grace and with the nimble speed and agile pliancy of cats. Martial arts moves galore, now familiar to Western eyes in all their Jackie Chan complexity, inventiveness and speed. Stock Chinese folk opera characters in elaborate white, red and black make-up, allowing for well-projected facial expressions, flared eyes and coquettish interactions. The professionalism and technical finesse and fitness of these versatile, highly trained performers mean that, as with our own classical ballet, the incredible physical effort underlying the numerous feats and gymnastic content is hidden behind a facade of nonchalance and panache. It is as though these performers are saying, ‘OK, yes, I can knock off an endless amount of backflips’, (and I am thinking a la the fouette competitions of ballerinas), ‘but it is no different for me than having a cup of tea!’

The ease with which performers such as these do the incredible is infectious. I watch children in the foyer in the interval, mirror neurons madly firing in their brains, spinning their arms wildly, doing forward rolls across the carpeted floor and eagerly imitating the exuberant martial arts moves they’re witnessing on stage.

We are treated to excerpts, mostly performed by pairs. Large group items are confined to the beginning and the end of the show, and there are some acts involving three performers. The excerpts are from Chinese Folk Operas. The storylines are straightforward. A dispute between a servant and an official. A young woman gets ready to meet her sweetheart. A girl dances in a peach garden and is hopeful of the future. Some are a bit more bizarre – a statue of a rat turns into a beautiful girl and kills seven Shaolin monks before meeting her match.

A crowd-pleaser and highlight of the show (of which there are many) is an item between two men billed as ‘a fight between two heroes’. I hear a representative from the troupe tell one of the dignitaries sitting in front of me that this piece is very popular in China. We are invited to believe that the lit stage is completely dark and that the two performers cannot see each other. Through extremely clever choreography and timing, and the addition of a small red table, the two men expertly and with great comic ability contort through an intricate maze of near-misses and hysterical edge-of-the-seat antics. They really know how to work with dramatic tension and the art of slow-motion suspense. Children, who are not as skilled as adults in repressing their emotions in public, giggle and laugh all around me through the whole of this. As with the rest of the show, whether it is acrobatics, weaponry, adrenalin speed choreography, balancing and juggling skills, mime, extremely stylised characterisation, geometrically patterned and precise dance choreography – these performers are nothing less than virtuosic.

Led by the vigour and enthusiasm of the older Chinese people in the audience, the rest of us are cued when to applaud, which of course is naturally aligned to the most impressive of the acrobatic or skill-laden moments. By structural means involving the clever crafting of our attention and emotions, we are led up the choreographic ladder of carefully placed wonders that, increasing by one degree of difficulty each time, outdo previous feats of amazement.

There are too many wonderful moments to mention that all deserve praise. The extraordinary musicianship involves an eclectic array of percussion and cymbal sounds, a traditional xylophone, bowed string instruments played upright in the lap, a weird assortment of miniature trumpets, and vocal skills that range from powerful heart-felt song to imitating shrill bird calls. Other Chinese Opera techniques in the show give a sense of the value and nature of their enjoyment. I don’t know their official names but  there are ‘face-changing’, involving incredible illusions with masks, ‘fire breathing’ and ‘flag acrobatics’.

The applause at the end is well earned and enthusiastic. A large number of the audience rush like paparazzi to the front of the stage, smart phones at the ready, to take photos of the cast. The dignitaries have joined the performers and they all pose in what looks like a familiar group ritual. I stand on my chair and lift my mobile phone over the heads of the people in front of me to get my share of the photographic action.

My organiser host reflects that in retrospect it might have been useful to have English subtitles on the screen so that we could understand the Chinese dialogue in many of the items. I tend to think this might not be necessary. The clarity of the physical language of these performers is such that it transcends all cultural boundaries. There is something universal here that connects people across all continents and oceans.

Happy Chinese New Year.

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