REVIEW: OrphEus – a dance opera (Auckland Arts Festival)

Review by Brigitte Knight

[Look Back in Splendour]

OrphEus – a dance opera (Orpheus, Eurydice and Us) is a large and ambitious project for The New Zealand Dance Company, conceived, created and directed by Michael Parmenter. The extensive programme notes and the work itself both indicate the academic depth of research and inspiration that have culminated in this large-scale production. Parmenter draws together past, present and future through an exploration of a plethora of narratives, perspectives and interpretations of the ancient Greek story of Orpheus and Eurydice.

A magnificent and largely classical score is performed live by an ensemble of seven, including baroque trio Latitude 37. Parmenter’s affinity with classical music for contemporary dance provides opportunities for beautiful choreographic subtleties and nuances. The proximity and mobility of the musicians has been thoughtfully arranged, adding original symbolic depth to their presence onstage. Equally wonderful are five classical opera singers, also onstage, and integrated into the staging of the production. Singers of this quality are a gift to experience in person, and create a living, breathing exchange between dancers, movement and sound.

Set design by John Verryt effectively integrates and reuses key pieces; large crash mats, a bathtub, fabric, projections. The minimalist modernism of set design provided great opportunities for Parmenter to create visual links between his interpretation of Orpheus’ stories (including Orpheus as artist, Orpheus and the Argonauts, Orpheus and Eurydice the love story) and global contemporary issues. Dogs barking, trains rushing past, partially-clothed people in lines conjures up contemporary poverty, conflict and displacement as much as it does classical references to Hades and Cerberus. Perhaps they are the same thing, after all.

Carl Tolentino in the title role of Orpheus presents a humbler, more human interpretation of the classical wonder boy. Chrissy Kokiri (as Eurydice) is absolutely show-stopping, dancing with stunning speed, power and control. Parmenter’s contemporary partnering, developed though ongoing research, is at its very best between partners Kokiri and Tolentino. Recent Unitec graduate Oliver Carruthers gives an articulate performance, developing a significant presence onstage, particularly during the opening bird-like ensemble section, and later, as the victim of earthy, writhing Sirens.

The large Movement Chorus are an unusual addition to the production. They work effectively in a musical staging context, creating a variety of visual effects. Dance choreography is less successful here, with a wide range of abilities and skill levels on show. Parmenter’s choreography has many beautiful moments; a vital opening solo, emotionally charged pas de deux and the wonderful, ethereal, physical manipulation of Eurydice as she drifts in and out of control in the underworld. Coupled with darkening layers of costuming, these moments are among the most enduring.

We know, of course, how the story will end, although in The New Zealand Dance Company’s OrphEus the infamous ‘look back’ is presented in a different way. OrphEus finishes as it began; a stripped-back stage laid bare, the fourth wall barely holding on.

OrphEus – a dance opera is presented by The New Zealand Dance Company and plays at The Civic until 11th March as part of the Auckland Arts Festival. 

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  1. 2018 NZ Dance Performances and Reviews – allmyownwords

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