Performance Season 2023
Te Whaea Theatre: National Dance and Drama Centre, Wellington
Reviewed November 28 & 29
New Zealand School of Dance (NZSD) has a deserved reputation as one of Australasia’s leading vocational dance training institutions, producing versatile, employable dancers who are snapped up by both contemporary dance and ballet companies in the region and further afield. Its end-of-year performance seasons are therefore always keenly awaited, and with international travel back post-Covid, reconnection with international choreographers and répétiteurs long associated with the school was again possible, promising a varied and challenging program for the dancers.
Classical and contemporary streams were separated into two distinct programs, mainly featuring 2nd and 3rd year students. The classical program, with all works staged by former Ballet Mistress of San Francisco Ballet, Betsy Erickson, opened with Meistens Mozart, choreographed by Helgi Tomasson and first performed by NZSD in 2016. This is a playfully joyous work set to seven songs, mostly by Mozart, for three couples in white (the girls' ribboned hair flowing).
Loose, rounded movement, closer to the modern than classical, includes parallel skips, hops, and an occasional flexed foot, combining with a free use of the upper body and great coverage of space to create a perfect vehicle for the young dancers. Musically attentive, they all successfully captured the nostalgic tone of the piece.
Aria, to excerpts from Handel’s opera Rinaldo, premiered by NZSD in 2006, was one of two works by Val Caniparoli. Joshua Douglas, bare chested in red tights, and occasionally wearing a white mask, showed a beautifully sinuous line and musicality in this short neo-classical solo. Douglas joins Queensland Ballet as a Jette Parker Young Artist in 2024.
The late Lew Christensen’s Vivaldi Concerto Grosso, originally created for San Francisco Ballet, is a new work for the school. Also neo-classical, for 14 dancers in pale green leotards and short chiffon skirts or tights, it is in three sections. A challenging pas de deux including supported, convoluted promenades and lifts, was well-executed by Gabriella Hawke and Angus O’Connell, bookended by two sections of ensemble grand allegro including tricky combinations of temps de flêche and sissonnes. This was the most technically demanding work of the classical program, but the dancers acquitted themselves well with universally crisp work en pointe and the boys, especially Douglas and Joshua Linkhorn, assuredly together in the grand allegro combinations.
Street Songs, also by Caniparoli, is also a remount and another ensemble work with all dancers in leotards tie-died in shades of green, blue and yellow – bar one, Hawke, in red. Performed to Carl Orff’s pedagogically inspired Orff-Schulwerk, this is a quirky work, with each of its 12 movements, or songs, peppered with gentle humour and telling a different story.
To a light percussive beat, the movement construct varied – sometimes showing shades of the orient, other times including vibrating fingers, wiggling torsos or nodding heads. Hawke stood out for a particularly sassy interlude of spinning, while Hilary An-Roddie also impressed with a technically strong performance. Street Songs made a delightful and engaging end to the classical program.
The following evening’s contemporary program comprised five works by Australasian choreographers – three being new commissions. It opened with Felix Sampson’s short new work, Thank You. Beginning with a series of overly enthusiastic "curtain-calls" by the dancers, in assorted attire of different blues, this was a quaint but joyous piece that perfectly captured the thrills, angst and anticipation of graduation.
Outlier, another world first, choreographed by Kit Reilly, had the dancers in wide-legged, creamy-white fisherman’s pants, singlet tops and socks. A “movement meditation existing in a world of change", according to Reilly, this very grounded work used extensive wide second position lunges, combined with sinuous, fluid movement of the upper body and arms – qualities embraced by soloist Aleeya McFadyen-Rew. Sound (also by Reilly) and movement were in perfect synchronicity including some mesmerising use of repetition, effectively exploring the concept.
An excerpt from Garry Stewart’s 2016 work The Beginning of Nature, with dancers in forest green dresses, is an exploration of the elemental rhythms of nature through movement. Staged for the school by Matte Roffe, qualities of tension and power are evident in the movement construct, with wave-like patterns made by interlinking arms suggesting perhaps the intricate perfection of nature’s design. The dancers all showed clarity and commitment, while the music by Brendon Woithe with Kaurna Voices, punctuated by loud exhalations of breath, helped anchor the work’s theme.
The sound of rain and thunder open Ross McCormack’s Re-Action, devised as a response to material that is in a permanent state of flux. This material, a large black rock-like formation, or "force", sits upstage right. Eight dancers in black A-line tunics transition from constrained movement to a percussive trembling, again with audible breath punctuating the movement. The dancers’ strength was notable in a section of supported duet work, however the connection between the rock, or "force", and the movement seemed arbitrary until the final moments, when with the dancers’ direct interaction the rock expands and collapses.
A restaging of Amber Haines’s Incant – Summoning the lost magic of intuition, celebrates the wisdom of the collective. According to Haines the work relies heavily on the dancers’ intuitive connection to each other, clearly evident here as the 17 dancers, in shimmering grey velvet, long hair visually dominant, create different amorphous shapes – one a seething mass of undulating arms. Incant is quietly mesmerising, and its rich movement vocabulary embracing all levels, along with many pleasing changes in the work’s dynamic, made this my favourite of the contemporary program.
Previously, NZSD performance seasons have combined both the classical and contemporary in the one program. While recognising that separate programming allows more performance opportunity for the dancers, from an audience point of view the one combined program might provide a more curatorially focussed variety. Nevertheless, the talent and commitment of all the graduating dancers was undeniable, demonstrating again NZSD’s formidable reputation for outstanding vocational training.
– DENISE RICHARDSON