Te Whaea: National Dance and Drama Centre, Wellington, 20 and 21 November
Graduate seasons are such a great opportunity to see emerging dance talent and they also give a wonderful insight into the priorities, pedagogies and approaches of the institution that is showcasing its training. It has been my good fortune to be invited to review New Zealand School of Dance twice where alongside its exemplary training, there is a consistent sense of careful pastoral care of students.
This year’s graduate season comprises nine works across classical and contemporary disciplines in a nicely balanced program. Students have the chance to perform over 10 days across two casts, giving them the opportunity to dance different roles and test their stamina.
There is no messing around when you start with Balanchine. Here the students took on the challenging Concerto Barocco, and showed great presence with crisp, well-defined work that will be further strengthened with experience. The dancers conveyed Balanchine’s poetic symmetry with poise and restraint. Lead dancers across both casts were fearless in attacking the choreography and showed themselves not only equal to the technical difficulties, but able to convey an assured artistry.
Completely switching gears, came one of the great highlights of the night, Velociraptor, choreographed by Scott Ewen. This is a world premiere and what thrilling choreography to give young dancers. With its slow start and rumbling score, it portrays the acts of unity and civil inattention that can embrace or lock humans out from one another. This is terrifically relatable content for young performers and the 11 dancers brought power and drive to the work as they seemed to be acting against invisible forces within and outside of themselves.
The next piece - excerpts from Not Odd Human by Sam Coren focuses on identity and the quirks of human-ness with a comic twist. This gave contemporary students a chance to reach out, create characters and really connect with the audience in a performative way. Along with its humour there are resonances of folk dance and repetitive phases folded in to its texture.
Young dancer Rench Soriano wowed with Five Variations on a Theme by David Fernandez. It is a solo work created in 2008 but performed for the first time by NZSD in this season. What a wonderful choice of choreography to showcase Soriano’s strengths. He is a lovely, compactly elegant classical dancer with great presence and gorgeous artistry. His clarity of movement is exemplary, showing razor-sharp positions, clean and clear batterie and wonderful ballon and turns. A very poised performance.
Re:Structure offers the provocation of a substantial prop – a five meter long pole – that defines, divides and dictates the limits and extent of the movement. Dancers already have their own and others’ bodies to contend with and here they are further challenged to dance with an object that is integral and commanding. Dancers vie for control of the pole, use it to distance or dominate and above all integrate it into the mechanics of their movement. The result is a hybrid of human fluidity and mechanised apparatus and there are some extremely striking individual images as well as truly dynamic dance phrases. This world premiere by Ross McCormack with vibrating score by Jason Wright allowed its seven dancers to collaborate to see where the provocation would take them. They showed maturity and polish.
Gerald Arpino’s Round of Angels is an extraordinarily beautiful work that requires exquisite technique and control along with a dignified and poised artistry. The dancers rose to this, creating a lovely, dreamlike and fragile quality. The opening of the work establishes a sense eroticism conveyed through the sensual slumbering of the six male angels and the almost translucent, pale and ethereal look of their costumes as they embrace. The male dancers work beautifully to facilitate the sole ballerina who swoops and glides effortlessly. Excellent partnering was shown with the lead couple exhibiting some breath-taking pas de deux work. Brittany-Jayde Duwner and Riley-Jane Dickie displayed great command of their technique and quiet delicacy in the female role in different casts while Jordan Lennon and Callum Phipps were strong yet sensitive partners.
The final section of the performance was given over to another two ambitious works for young dancers to tackle. For the classical students, there was spirited excerpts from Handel - A Celebration. These variations gave the cast of 25 dancers a lot to rejoice in and showcased multiple couples and a strong corps who also had plentiful opportunity to shine. The quality of dancing was truly first class from all. I found Sumika Ikemoto and Timothy Ching especially delightful as the red couple for their youthful vibrancy. The choreography is sophisticated and requires precision and it was clear in this culmination of the evening as in all pieces, that the dancers onstage are career-ready professionals.
The ensemble piece for the contemporary majors, Carnivale.4 is a swarming tsunami of ordered frenzy. It gave dancers a chance to collaborate with Raewyn Hill and allows expression of the individual and the group. The work builds from a seething, pulsing whole into clusters and break-outs. The costuming of long red robe-style dresses is effective as they obscure the individual, swirl out with turning jumps and give depth and richness to the design of the work. They also created a mesmerising one-ness. I loved the vocalisation throughout; from audible breathing to calls to chants and shouts, and the sheer dynamism of the whole. At the end, there was a seething mass of 23 panting dancers showing their fabulous energy and stamina.
I have had the opportunity to get to know some of the past graduates and see them develop their careers and they always recollect their time at NZSD with warmth and love. Such a nurturing training environment is especially important since the world of professional dance is not always kind to those who serve it.
- Susan Bendall
Pictured top: Riley-Jane Dickie and Jordan Lennon in Helgi Tomasson's 'Handel-A Celebration - Excerpts'. Photo: Stephen A'Court.