WELLINGTON REVIEW: Choreographic Series (Royal New Zealand Ballet)

Review by Brigitte Knight

[Moving On]

Choreographic Series
Choreography: Sarah Foster-Sproull, Shaun James Kelly, James O’Hara, Moss Patterson
Lighting Design: Andrew Lees
The Opera House, Wellington

Royal New Zealand Ballet’s 2019 season is the first programmed by current Artistic Director Patricia Barker. As such, it is an opportunity for audiences to get a sense of the focus and direction she intends for our national company. Backstage, Barker has removed the company’s non-hierarchical structure, in place since the 1990s, replacing it with a traditional pyramid of principals, soloists, dancers and apprentices. Opening the year with a quadruple bill of new contemporary ballet works is a great place to start; Royal New Zealand Ballet dancers are often at their best in this genre. Billed as “four new generation dance-makers redefining ballet for the 21st century”, the pragmatically-titled Choreographic Series comprises newly commissioned works by Sarah Foster-Sproull, Shaun James Kelly, James O’Hara, and Moss Patterson.

Following an outpouring of dance companies programming seasons that promoted woman choreographers in 2018, it will be interesting to consider whether international discourses around tokenism ring true in 2019 and beyond. Royal New Zealand Ballet will present four more productions this year; a pared-down Tutus on Tour visiting eleven centres, and nationwide tours of Black Swan, White Swan, triple bill Bold Moves and a newly-commissioned Christmas season of Hansel and Gretel. This collection of new and existing works will showcase the choreographic talents of eleven men and two women. Five of the works are new commissions; four of these commissions have been given to men.


Music: Alien Weaponry, A Tikao and L Glen, Paddy Free
Visual Design: Jon Baxter
Costume Design: Moss Patterson and RNZB Costume Department

Moss Te Ururangi Patterson premieres his first work for the Royal New Zealand Ballet with Hine, utilising a tremendous cast of thirty-two dancers. Patterson describes his choreographic intention as “indigenising the art-space”; Hine means daughter, and connects to the name of many Māori goddesses and experiences of his home marae at Tokaanu. The collection of music lacks a sense of cohesion, and the separate sections of the work feel similarly disconnected with transitions consisting of blackouts with dancers hurrying on or offstage. The movement material is largely consistent with Patterson’s previous works for contemporary dancers, although one section is en pointe. Unison in ensemble work proves challenging, and canon sections with the large cast are more successful. Moments of the choreography are reminiscent of Sarah Foster-Sproull’s work, particularly dancers’ hands outlining the periphery of the soloist, and a long line of connecting arms creating exaggerated waving limbs for a soloist. Hine experienced unfortunate technical issues on opening night, necessitating the connected duet danced by Nadia Yanowsky and Alexandre Ferreira be restarted.

The Sky Is Not So Different From Us, Perhaps

Music: Anita Clark (Motte)
Costume Design: MATU

Internationally-recognised dancer and now full time contemporary dance tutor at the New Zealand School of Dance, James O’Hara “…investigates scales of innovation, from the personal shifts we surrender to how we wish to effect change in and on the world around us…” in his work The Sky Is Not So Different From Us, Perhaps. An ambient soundscape is created live onstage by Anita Clark (Motte), using violin, voice and a loop pedal. She is totally focussed on the dancers, at times turning her back on the audience as she integrates her original sound with the unfolding movement. O’Hara’s work is confident and assured; abstract but with a clear choreographic voice and emotional range. It permits the audience to relax a search for meaning, and just enjoy observing the art. It’s delightful to watch the work unfurl before you; everything layered – sound, staging, costumes and movement vocabulary. The Sky Is Not So Different From Us, Perhaps is both simple and sophisticated, and produces masterful performances by Rhiannon Fairless and Shaun James Kelly. The work has a slight loss of momentum during a solo danced by Nathan Mennis, but finishes perfectly with the six dancers falling into repetitive unison, timing driven by audible breath. Nadia Yanowsky’s detail and timing here are spot on – a beautifully deliberate glance at the other dancers before she springs into line.

The Ground Beneath Our Feet

Music: JS Bach with additional composition/performance by Massimo Margaria
Costume Design: Sean James Kelly and RNZB Costume Department

Soloist and Royal New Zealand Ballet Choreographer in Residence Sean James Kelly premieres his first work for the main stage with The Ground Beneath Our Feet. Created on five male/female pairs of dancers, the work overall is light-hearted, lively and fresh. Kelly’s ballet is the most classical of the programme, expanding movements, pas de deux pathways and levels to create a vocabulary of his own. The Ground Beneath Our Feet’s manipulated Bach score and variety of transitions ensure the work is well-paced and entertaining. There are hints of disco-on-ice when graphic lighting intersects with Kelly’s sliding motif and a rainbow of leotards and flared trousers, but the movement material is underpinned by serious technique and snappy performances. Paul Matthew’s assured partnering, Mayu Tanigaito and Kirby Selchow’s speed and attention to detail, and Laurynas Vėjalis’ impressive elevation exemplify Kelly’s ability to maximise the strengths of his colleagues.

Artemis Rising

Music: Eden Mulholland
Costume Design: Donna Jefferis and Esther Lofley

Artemis Rising, by New Zealander Sarah Foster-Sproull marks the welcome return of this preeminent, powerhouse choreographer to the Royal New Zealand Ballet. Following the extremely successful Despite the Loss of Small Detail for the 2018 Strength and Grace season, Foster-Sproull shoulders the bittersweet celebration of retiring principal dancer Abigail Boyle. Created collaboratively with Boyle, Artemis Rising explores connections between the dancer and the iconic feminist Greek goddess of wild animals, young girls, the hunt and the wilderness. Set to an original and uncharacteristically subtle score by Eden Mulholland,  Artemis Rising is a deeply moving and reverential gift to a sublime artist. Supported by ten of the company’s youngest dancers, Boyle is resplendent in sapphire blue, moving with power, sensitivity and effortless grace. The ensemble dancers, appropriately, provide little more than musical staging for what is essentially a solo performance. Shadowy in black, they frame Boyle, lift her, extent her limbs with Foster-Sproull’s unmistakeable ‘peripheral hands’ motifs. The ensemble become Boyle’s crown, her hands, her feet, a wave passing through her and the ground she stands on. As always, Foster-Sproull’s choreography feels generous and current, and cohesively draws together artistry and production technologies. Artemis Rising is Boyle emerging from a remarkable thirteen year career with the Royal New Zealand Ballet, a woman and an artist in ascension.

Choreographic Series plays at the Opera House, Wellington until 2 March, then tours Christchurch 8-9 March. 

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  1. Dance performances Jan – March 2019 and associated reviews – allmyownwords

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