RNZB’s production of Swan Lake – a Triumph of Balletic Tragedy

Swan Lake – a Ballet in Four Acts
Music – Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Royal New Zealand Ballet with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
Choreography – Russell Kerr, after Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov

Conductor – Hamish McKeich
Staging – Turid Revfeim
Principal Coaching – Amber Scott
Lighting – Jon Buswell
Artistic Director – Ty King-Wall
Executive Director – Tobias Perkins

Odette/Odile – Kate Kadow
Siegfried – Branden Reiners
Rothbart – Joshua Guillemot Rodgerson
Jester – Timothy Ching
Princess Mother – Kirby Selchow
Wolfgang – Paul Matthews
Pas de Trois – Jennifer Ulloa, Dane Head, Cadence Barrack
Cygnets – Tessa Karle, Cadence Barrack, Monet Galea-Hewitt, Catarina Estevez Collins
Big Swans – Gretchen Steimle, Macy Cook
Spanish – Calum Gray, Jemima Scott, Laurynas Vejalis
Hungarian – Zacharie Dun, Hannah Thomson, Luke Cooper
Neapolitan – Levi Teachout, Ema Takahashi, Shaun James Kelly

St.James Theatre, Wellington,

Friday 3rd May 2024

Reviewed by Maya Field

I feel it’s very fitting that my debut onto the Middle-C scene is a review of a ballet, particularly Swan Lake. I’ve been in love with ballet since I was five years old, and I would go to RNZB productions with my mother as often as possible. Most of the classical music I listen to are ballets. It’s no wonder then, that I was so excited for last night’s performance of Swan Lake. I was not disappointed.

Aside from the crinkling of ice cream wrappers, the opening piece was beautiful, and opened to a sumptuous set of mossy trees and classical columns. The dancers were in restored costumes, originally designed by Kristian Fredrikson in 1996. The Corps de Ballet had beautiful unison, in perfect time with the orchestra. All dancers have a vital part, but frequent RNZB attendees will always notice dancers like Shaun James Kelly, who shines just as bright in the Corps as he does in solos. The Princess Mother (Kirby Selchow) was elegant, with even her walk and simple hand gestures displaying grace. The dynamic between the Jester (Timothy Ching) and Wolfgang (Paul Matthews) was very funny. Ching especially had amazing height and lightness to his leaps, and the audience was especially impressed with his turns. The Pas de Trois (Jennifer Ulloa, Dane Head, Cadence Barrack) were lovely, perfectly synchronised with each other. Their solos were lovely as well, with great energy and timing. The prince Siegfried (Branden Reiners) was also excellent. He felt truly alone and despondent to his coming of age, and his long, fluid movements never seemed to be totally still.

The Second Act was met with excitement, as the audience murmured and sat up straighter as the famous melody on the oboe began, and opened to the lake. Rothbert (Joshua Guillemot-Rodgerson) was hawklike, and had excellent musicality. He truly moved with the orchestra. The Corps de Ballet of Swans had beautiful lines and unity, a real flock of swans. Kate Kadow as Odette, however, is nearly impossible to write about. She was so stunning that I forgot to take notes. I was absolutely entranced by her movement and characterisation. You simply cannot write how Kate Kadow dances.

The rest of Act 2 was also excellent. The Dance of the Swans was beautiful and synchronised. Carolyn Mills on the harp sounded beautiful. The Dance of the Cygnets, the iconic dance, was almost entirely synchronised, and was met with loud applause.

Act 3 was rich and ornate, with costumes of red, gold, black and green. Perfectly sumptuous. The Spanish, Hungarian and Neapolitan dances all had excellent energy and charm. Kate Kadow as Odile was just as perfect as her Odette. Before, she was shy, mournful, innocent, and elegant. Now, she is confident, alluring, and far more brazen, while still dancing with the same beautiful fluidity. The Pas de Deux between Odile and Siegfried was seductive – the strings felt sexy! There’s no other way to phrase it, I’m afraid. The Coda was just breathtaking. Kadow and Reiner’s fouettes and turns were incredible. Reiner really seemed to fly in this part, truly soaring as he believed he was in love with the right girl. The reveal that the girl was not Odette, but Odile, was brilliant, and there was a slight undercurrent of dread in the music as Siegfried swore fidelity to Odile. Rothbart’s cloak made amazing use as wings.

If Act 3 was the dramatic act, then Act 4 was the tragic act. The opening music was melancholic as the curtains opened on a distraught Odette in the middle of the lake. I remember the audience gasping at this. The timing with the music in this Act was excellent, with Siegfried and Odette’s embrace being perfectly in time, as well as their various lifts with the swell of music. As for the final Pas de Trois between Odette, Siegfried, and Rothbart – call me melodramatic, but I was happy that all three died! Rothbart was defeated, a moment which had great physicality from Guillemot-Rodgerson as he died, as well as the swans condemning him. Odette and Siegfried had to sacrifice themselves to defeat him, and after seeing a previous version where they appear to live ‘happily ever after,’ I was glad that the traditional ending of them dying was chosen. It’s a tragedy, after all. The final moment of dawn breaking on the swans was breathtaking – the orchestra felt like the sunrise.

The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra and the RNZB worked incredibly well together to bring justice to Tchaikovsky’s ballet. No section in the orchestra overpowered the other, and the orchestra didn’t overpower the dancers, nor did the dancers overtake the orchestra. It was all balanced perfectly.

When I imagined myself writing reviews, I thought I would be an eagle-nosed critic, able to pick apart the performance, finishing with a witty and brilliant line about art and music. Instead, I’m just writing “excellent,” and “lovely,” over and over again. I’m sure I know other words, it’s just that last night’s performance seems to have taken them from me.

Celebrating 70 Years – Royal New Zealand Ballet’s “Lightscapes”

Royal New Zealand Ballet presents
St.James Theatre, Wellington

Thursday, July 27th 2023

Serenade (choreography: George Balanchine / Music: Pyotr Tchaikovsky)
Te Ao Marama (choreography: Moss Te Ururangi Patterson / Music: James Webster – adapted Ariana Tikao / Shayne Carter)
Requiem for a Rose (choreography: Annabelle Lopez Ochoa / Music: Franz Schubert
Logos (choreography: Alice Topp / Music: Ludovico Einaudi)
Set and Lighting Design – Jon Buswell
Costumes – Karinska (Serenade), Moss Te Ururangi Patterson (Te Ao Marama),
Tatyana van Walsu (Serenade for a Rose), Alice Topp (Logos)

Currently in the foyer of the St.James Theatre is an exhibition mounted by the Royal New Zealand Ballet, one which commemorates the company’s 70th year. Beginning in 1953 under the stewardship of Danish Royal Ballet Principal Dancer Poul Gnatt, who had arrived in the country the previous year, the fledgling company travelled the length of New Zealand, visiting and bringing dance to the remotest of rural towns. From those beginnings the company’s history is depicted in a series of historical displays up to the present day, concluding with the stewardship of the current artistic director, Patricia Barker (due shortly to retire after more than five years at the helm, and hand over the job to Australian David McAlister.

Accompanying the exhibition is the RNZ Ballet’s current production, a quartet of shorter works with the collective title Lightscapes, each one representing different and distinctive aspects of the talent and scope of the dancers, choreographers and production staff responsible for what we see and hear on and from the stage throughout the evening, the whole as well representing and celebrating the past 70 years of the company’s achievement.

First of the four ballets to be performed was the aptly-named Serenade, which was the first original ballet created by the renowned choreographer George Balanchine after his arrival in America, in the wake of his earlier years with, firstly, the Russian Imperial Ballet School, and the Mariinsky Ballet, before leaving Russia and joining the Ballet Russes as a choreographer until his relocation to the United States in 1933.

Serenade uses one of the most famous compositions of Pyotr Tchaikovsky, the latter’s Serenade in C Major for String Orchestra Op.48. After reworking the ballet a number of times Balanchine reversed the original order of the last two movements, so that the work ended on an elegiac rather than a vigorous and brilliant note, an order which was maintained this evening. Balanchine developed the idea of incorporating everyday chance rehearsal mishaps into the ballet’s choreography, so that the presentation, though without an actual plot or story, reflected the unexpected vagaries which sometimes beset human activity. Una Kai, the company’s fourth artistic director first presented this work here in 1975. which has been since repeated several times, most recently in 2019 by Patricia Barker, following a staging devised by Rebecca Metzger.

With strikingly sparse backdrops predominating, the dancers garnered our full attention throughout, bringing off exhilaratingly flamboyant configurations as easefully and flowingly as they did the simply-nuanced movements and gestures, the whole while mirroring the music’s many-faceted rhythmic configurations, as did in their turn the solo/partner dancers  Maiyu Tanigaito and Kihiro Kusukami, with beautifully-integrated movements and responses.

Serenade was separated by an interval from the next work, Te Ao Mārama, a work devised by Moss Te Ururangi Patterson, who’s currently the CEO and Artistic Director of the New Zealand Dance Company. His description of a sense of inner consciousness formed by that “buoyant, quiet meditative space” which characterised his childhood in Tokaanu on the shores of Lake Taupo seemed somehow to awaken as  I listened my own childhood memories of spending time in some of those same places, so that the evocations of time and place sounded by the taonga puoro of Ariana Tikao, and the guitar playing of Shayne Carter readily evoked a sense of enabling “near-and-far resonances” across time and distance of the kind that Patterson was intending in accord with his own experiences. For this reason I found the whole experience of the bringing-together of worlds here intensely human in both a turangawaewae and a universal sense – and this before any choreographic stage movement had yet taken place!

I was further captivated with Moss Te Ururangi’s personification in gesture and dance of the Te Ao Maori perspective regarding the coming of light to the world over three periods of time, Te Kore, the nothingness, Te Po, the darkness, and finally, Te Ao Mārama, the world of light created by the separation of Ranginui and Papatuanuku, which I’d long been made familiar with from an early age, thanks to parents who were themselves aware of these intensely spiritual beliefs in their own way, and which thus enabled the kind of “connections” Moss talked about encouraging  to help form between cultures. Here, these were “made flesh” through movement, gesture and speech as the dancers personified the growing energies stimulated first by Te Kore (the nothingness) giving birth to Te Po (a great longing) and then bursting out with full-blooded force as Te Ao Mārama (the well-nigh irresistible life-light!). All overwhelming from this observer’s point of view, and cause for great gladness, thanks to dancers, musicians, choreographers and composers alike!

After these raw and invigorating energies were spent, the focus shifted to different archetypal imagery, that of the essential fragility and non-permanence of a flower used as a symbol of love, with Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s arresting choreography featuring both individual and ensembled personification of the power of such an image. From the beginning, solo dancer Kirby Selchow, dressed in a nude leotard and carrying a single rose in her mouth, enacted a tour de force of expressive movement throughout, establishing for me  an almost frightening, nightmarish vulnerability and desperation right from her heartbeat-driven entrance, which then morphed into Franz Schubert’s fraught, deeply-troubled music – the Adagio Movement from the composer’s String Quintet – when twelve red-skirted dancers  appeared, representing the bouquet of roses.

Upon reading the programme notes afterwards I was surprised at first to read that the solo dancer represented Venus, as her characterisation seemed to me to emphasise the raw angularity of love as something driven by desperation and anxiety rather than affording any kind of lasting fulfilment, the character seeming as much a kind of sacrificial victim as an embodiment of love’s passion and transience. The dancers variously duetted, and formed a quartet of various interactions, a tableau which the Venus goddess/victim rejoined as the heartbeat  rhythm returned.

A second interval later we were back with the final Lightscape, “Logos”, choreographed and costumed by Alice Topp to music by Ludovico Einaudi, and with set and lighting design by Jon Buswell. The work featured four tableaux, each dealing with a different focus on a search for meaning in an individual’s life (the title “Logos” meaning reason or logic). The first dominated by a stunningly voluminous mirror-like backdrop in front of which a couple (Mayu Tanigaito and Levi Teachout) spectacularly, almost combatatively danced, presented a scenario of self-focus and awareness, and the surety which that brings, though the interaction had an insistence that felt like boundaries were constantly being pushed between the two – the ebb and flow of this was, I thought superbly realised! The next tableau suggested containment and boundaries as “necessary securities”, with groups of dancers on stage each dealing with and immersed in their own “pools” of activity, a common and observable everyday human trait…..for some reason the ‘soundtrack’ seemed to stop before the dancers did, so that it wasn’t clear whether the last minute or so of dance interaction was intentionally a silent one, or was a technical glitch!

Nothing could have surpassed the moment of transition between the third and fourth tableaux, when, in what seemed like some kind of moment of transcendental release,  one of the “frames” surrounding the third tableau’s backdrop inwardly collapsed without warning onto the stage floor, accompanied by proliferations of mist and light – perhaps representing a “blowing-out” of constraints and obstacles to freedom, accompanied by an enormous “cosmic sigh” of relief from duress!  But more touching was the final dance between the two figures (Ana Gallardo Lobaina and Matthew Slattery) left on the stage amid the swirling mists, rain (real rain!) and ever-burgeoning light, with choreographer Alice Topp’s idea of an experience involving release from all kinds of pressure manifesting itself in all kinds of ways, in, around and about the dancers, an extremely moving conclusion!

Now on CD! – Claire Cowan’s incandescent score for the RNZB’s recent “Hansel and Gretel”, played by the NZSO with Hamish McKeich

CLAIRE COWAN – Hansel and Gretel; a Ballet in Two Acts

Hamish McKeich (conductor)
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Recording produced by John Neill and Claire Cowan
Assistant Producer: Brent Stewart
Pro-Tools Editor: William Philipson
Illustration and Design: Fuller Studio

Verses: Amy Mansfield
Reader: Jonny Brugh

Recorded 2020 at Stella Maris Chapel, Seatoun, Wellington

After reading various reviews of the Royal New Zealand Ballet’s production of Auckland composer Claire Cowan’s Hansel and Gretel, toured by the company during 2019, I’m left feeling like one of the “gentlemen of England now abed” from Shakespeare’s Henry V play, those whom the monarch prophesised would “think themselves accurs’d” for not being at Agincourt to share in the splendour of the occasion’s success. And now, having listened to the enticingly-presented double CD set of the ballet’s music which the NZSO with conductor Hamish McKeich subsequently recorded, I feel doubly aggrieved at having missed out on seeing what “sounds like” a cornucopian feast of excitement, energy, colour and drama, if the music alone is anything to go by.

Of course, judging by the critical adulation given last year’s aforementioned stage production, this could well be a work that has now begun its journey towards becoming the balletic equivalent of German composer Engelbert Humperdinck’s well-known operatic setting of the Grimm Brothers’ classic fairy-tale, and thus a staple of any self-respecting ballet company’s repertoire. So, there may be hope for me yet!

Cowan’s experience of writing for dancers previous to this production had been in the contemporary field, so writing a ballet score, with the story and music “leading the way” and dictating what the dancers do was a new experience for her. Having met RNZB choreographer Loughlan Prior, who conveyed to her his long-held desire to make a ballet from the classic Brothers Grimm Hansel and Gretel story, Cowan agreed to undertake the project with him,  firstly trying out different “slants” on the original story and characterisations to give the scenario a fresh and more contemporary feeling. Working with Prior highlighted the specific requirements for dance music , such as the care needed when choosing time signatures and tempi, even if Cowan found that her choreographer preferred her music’s symmetrical rhythms to the angularities of 5/4 or 7/4 – but she confesses she simply didn’t want to be confined to 2/4, 3/4 and 4/4 the whole time!

A dancer herself as a child, she had gone back to listen to some of the ballet classics –  Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev, Stravinsky – to “check out” what those composers did, watching a  actual production of “The Nutcracker” and finding herself surprised at how much more music there was besides those well-known “iconic” moments in the score, some of which seemed to her like “filler” – Cowan promised  she would set herself the goal in her own work of giving those continuity moments as “magical” a quality as anything else in the score through constant reiteration of variants of the main themes, so that the music’s special distinction was always present.

Though she’s actually not the first woman to compose a ballet for the New Zealand Ballet Company, as has been claimed in some quarters – Dorothea Franchi’s work Do-Wacka-Do, written in 1956, firstly as a jazz combo, and later as a suite rescored for full orchestra, was (coincidentally, like Cowan’s) a revisiting of 1920s musical styles (Franchi called her work “good old American Jazz”) frequently performed by the Company, and (again, like Hansel and Gretel) one toured throughout the country in 1961 with piano (the composer’s?) accompaniment – Cowan’s “Hansel and Gretel” is, however, definitely the first full-length ballet by a woman to be performed by the RNZB, Franchi’s work having usually been part of a “double bill”, or performed with other smaller separate items.

The 2019 tour of Cowan’s and Prior’s work, having been such a success, it seemed wholly appropriate for the venture to be preserved in one form or another – the composer certainly felt that the work could be “shared” with many more people who didn’t have the opportunity to attend one of the live performances via a recording. Conductor Hamish McKeich encouraged  Cowan to approach the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra with a proposal that reflected both the success of the live performances and the obvious prestige of association with the same for the orchestra, the result being that fifty of the players’ services were donated by the Orchestra to the undertaking, with Hamish McKeich the obvious choice as conductor. The chosen venue was the Stella Maris Chapel at Seatoun in Wellington with John Neill, of Park Road Post producing the recording. Cowan embarked on a crowd-sourced Boosted campaign to make up the remainder of funds needed for the project, and with all the arrangements and the planning in place, its completion seemed certain.

This of course being 2020, nothing was thus assured, with a community outbreak of Covid-19 in Auckland in August bringing plans to a standstill. Undeterred, though at considerably greater expense, Cowan continued the process piecemeal with a series of two-and-fro operations between Auckland and Wellington , the work having to be recorded in sections with different instrumental groups, and painstakingly dovetailed together at the end. It’s a tribute to the determination, expertise and patience of everybody concerned that the end result seems to my ears as magnificent as if there were no disruptions!

From the Overture’s beginning the music is a kaleidoscopic delight of sensation and impulse, the piece illustrating a burgeoning of things to come in the story from what seem like wistful, everyday situations.  It’s beyond the scope of this review to describe the whole ballet, but the opening scene gives the listener more than enough enticement to pursue the wonders that the story in its entirety delivers. The Street with its ceaseless comings-and-goings movement illustrates the world of the children’s family, the piquant detailing of busy-ness and cheerful purpose set against the frequent singing lines which depict care and longing, as well as something of the family’s circumstances in a world of harsh economic realities.

A Mary Poppins-like frisson of premonition introduces The witch’s ice-cream bicycle, the composer cleverly blending wonderment and unease at her antics, then normalising her presence by having her disappear into the falling dusk along with everybody else. Cowan illustrates her mastery of transition here, morphing the crepuscular ambiences into a kind of night-life scenario as both colours and impulses begin to repeople the scene, taking us from this into the children’s family home (no cruel and heartless stepmother, here, but simply loving and caring parents), where Dinner is being served, the parents obviously doing their best to remain cheerful, passages for solo violin and strings expressing the family’s bonds of love and care , while various other passages (wind and brass) suggest the paucity of fare.

The ear is constantly tickled by Cowan’s invention, each impulse pf movement and phrase of melody a suggestive experience for the listener. Particularly touching is the Pas de Deux for the Mother and Father, blending characterful concerted movement with complete freedom, the imagination both shaped but unconstrained by limitations of time and space – it was here I strongly felt Cowan’s experience as a film composer coming through, in her evocation of a “state of things”, one into which we as listeners were readily invited to observe and “feel”.

The rest follows the outlines of the Grimm Brothers’ classic story, though with some particularly “tasty” ingredients added, suggested by sequence-titles like The Witch’s Baking Charleston , Cowan‘s 1920s settings having liberally spiced the music with Broadway and jazz influences. In general, the music for the second part is brighter, brassier and more extrovert, as befits the blandishments of the gingerbread house scenario in which the children find themselves. Across this, recurring themes knit the episodes into a compelling whole, with associated groundswells of emotion bubbling up in places like the reprise of the Pas de Deux for the Mother and Father while looking for their children, a self-confessed favourite moment in the work for the composer!

The CDs contain a “bonus” at the end of the ballet’s action, a retelling of the story in verse, written by Amy Mansfield, here, racily delivered by Jonny Brugh, of 800 Words and What We do in the Shadows fame, to the accompaniment of musical excerpts from Cowan’s soundtrack. Mansfield’s words, saucily mixing finely-tuned imagery with drollery and outrageous doggerel, catch the spirit of Cowan’s music with gusto and relish, a delectable introduction/reminiscence of the complete work, if perhaps not, like gingerbread houses themselves, to be indulged in too freely or frequently!

No, the music itself, its creation and realisation, is the true joy of this delectable offering; and, as with the works of those luminaries previously mentioned, Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev and Stravinsky, on the strength of this recording able to stand alone and bear witness to composer Claire Cowan’s stellar achievement. Whether those words of Shakespeare’s quoted at this review’s beginning resonate with you or not, you are urged to investigate this beautifully-appointed recording of “Hansel and Gretel” without delay!

(I am advised by Claire Cowan herself that the set is available only on bandcamp at this stage. For more information click on the following link –www.clairesmusic.bandcamp.com for both physical CDs and digital copies. The physical copy comes with a digital download too.)



Cataclysmic conclusion to Orchestra Wellington’s Diaghilev season


BEETHOVEN – Symphony No.3 Op.55 “Eroica”
STRAVINSKY – The Rite Of Spring (Ballet – 1913)

Orchestra Wellington
Marc Taddei (conductor)

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Saturday, 2nd December, 2017

This concert began with two of the most famous chords in all nineteenth-century music, those which opened a thrilling performance by Orchestra Wellington of Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony, the work by which the composer allegedly intended to celebrate the achievements of Napoleon Bonaparte, but changed his mind, and, according to an eye-witness account, scratched out the original dedication, and reinscribed it as “composed in memory of a great man”.

Napoleon or no, the work was definitely a revolutionary statement, one which of itself proclaimed a “new era” of musical expression. Beethoven himself was obviously less concerned with the selfconscious idea of being at the forefront of any such new age, than with his own development as a creative artist. He had said to a friend at around this time – “I am by no means satisfied with my work up to now, and I intend to make a fresh start from now on”. That “fresh start” embodied the Third Symphony, the “Eroica”.

What made it revolutionary was its length – the first movement alone was longer than many whole classical symphonies. Other notable aspects were the second movement being styled as a funeral march, and the third movement being a new-ish concept which gradually overtook the idea of the Minuet, replacing it with something called a Scherzo (in Italian, a “joke”). Finally, the symphony’s finale seemed more serious than usual – a theme-and-variations movement based on some music Beethoven had already written.

Again, the composer wanted something different, not being content with the usual “light entertainment” of symphonic finales. To this end, he used music from an earlier work of his own, a ballet about Prometheus, the Titan who breathed life into a pair of statues, making them humans, before being slain for his impudence, and then brought to life again by Apollo. The theme follows the general pattern of the symphony – heroism triumphing over death and returning to life.

The thrust and dynamism of Orchestra Wellington’s playing and Marc Taddei’s conducting made the symphony’s first movement a force to be reckoned with, and the second movement a heartfelt, almost confessional piece of music, laying bare the basic emotions – joy, sorrow, exultation, disappointment, resignation – everything was characterized so strongly and directly in the playing and the overall direction of the piece.

Over the years I’ve collected a number of recordings of the work, my first purchases reflecting what used to be the “norm”when it came to playing Beethoven, very much tending towards a romantic mode of expression, with large orchestral numbers and in some cases monumental tempi – conductors such as Furtwangler, Klemperer and Knappertsbusch seemed to stress the sheer physical amplitude of the music’s range and scope, and developed what seemed like a Beethoven for the ages. Other conductors preferred to bring more dynamism to the music, notably Toscanini, Erich Kleiber (as did his son Carlos), and Karajan, while continuing to use nineteenth-century orchestra numbers. And so interpreters of the music came and went, evoking the composer’s spirit in their different ways, which nevertheless seemed virtually indestructible throughout.

However, of late, there’s been a revolution in the matter of performing music from different historical periods, with musicians wanting to realize a more “authentic” sound by means of examining earlier playing techniques and practices, included among which was a more “purist” approach to the score itself, especially in the matter of metronome markings. Whole articles have been written by different researchers into questions such as the viability of Beethoven’s own markings and tempi directions in general, not to mention the use of “authentic” instruments and playing practices different to those we had become accustomed to.

Even if conductors and orchestras don’t go as far as employing either “genuine” older instruments or copies of the same when they play eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century music, there’s now a far greater awareness in mainstream concert performance of “period” practices, resulting generally in smaller ensembles playing music at faster tempi and with phrasing and tonal production which produce a “purer”, less romantically-laden sound and texture in the music. This was certainly evident in Marc Taddei’s conducting of Orchestra Wellington on this occasion, especially in the symphony’s first two movements, both of which were given urgent, dynamic tempi, and crisply articulate phrasing, with sharply-etched, largely vibrato-less texturings. There’s a roistering spirit of adventure about this combination’s music-making which invariably carries the day, and which on this occasion, for me, resulted in a performance which crackled and sizzled with blood-stirring energies throughout.

The musicians having breasted the epic traversals of the symphony’s opening two movements (the work already lengthier than any other symphony completed up to that time), they then tackled the next “revolutionary” aspect of the work, the substitution by the composer of a “scherzo” movement for the traditional minuet, a more exciting and dynamic development. Particularly striking was the playing by the horns of the “trio” section of the music, given with tremendous panache by the players. Afterwards, one might have expected a finale of more fun and games and relaxation, but the composer had other ideas, infusing the movement with references to an earlier work of his , a ballet about Prometheus, the Titan who breathed life into a pair of statues, making them humans, before being condemned to die for his impudence, and then brought to life again by Apollo.

The theme follows the general pattern of the symphony – heroism triumphing over death and returning to life. The performance here had some lovely aspects including a “solo string” treatment of a variation on the Promethean theme, one which is usually given to a larger complement of strings – here, less was made deliciously more as the solo string textures “personalized” the lines more sharply and characterfully as well as providing a telling contrast with the rest of the movement’s sounds.

A little more than a hundred years later an audience heard another very revolutionary piece of music for the first time, one from a young composer, Igor Stravinsky, the Rite of Spring, whose first performance in Paris in 1913 had occasioned one of the most famous riots in musical history. Though nothing like Stravinsky’s music had been heard before, it seems that the troubles in the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées at that first performance were equally provoked by the choreography devised by the principal dancer, Vaslav Nijinsky, and that certain members of the audience took vociferous and even violent objection to what they saw on the stage. Stravinsky himself later described what he saw on stage as “a group of knock-kneed and long-braided Lolitas jumping up and down”, though later still he pronounced himself satisfied with the outcome of the production as a whole, scandal or no scandal.

Despite being over a hundred years old itself, by now, I think parts of “Le Sacre” still have an incredibly “here-and-now” feel about them, a kind of innate power to sound in places modern, totally unique and original. The introductions to each of the work’s two parts are both remarkably evocative, an aspect of the work which the players brought off here to great effect, right from the plaintive bassoon note which sets the work in motion through to the ever-burgeoning sense of something from long ago coming into being. The second part begins rather more claustrophobically, chord-clusters bringing oppressive weight to the textures and underlining the thrall in which primitive peoples were held by the passage of the seasons. Everywhere, the conductor and players gave these evocations the space and weight needed to underline these powerful resonances and let them do their work.

The other aspect of “Le Sacre” which helps define its unique character is its rhythmic variety and complexity, which seems to my untrained ear to reach some kind of apogee in the final Sacrificial Dance of the Chosen One – the trajectories are so irregular, so angular, so unpredictable! For the uninitiated listener it might seem like complete mayhem, nothing but desperate irruptions of movement by a chosen victim sacrificing herself to the spring. Of course it OUGHT to sound desperate and out of control, and Marc Taddei and the players delivered it all with a remarkable amalgam of assurance and spontaneity, so that the awe of the music was maintained right up to the point of its dissolution. All were heroes, and we in the audience treated the players and their conductor as such, after we’d recovered from the final onslaught of the music’s implaccable energies.

So, from a brilliantly successful season of Diaghilev-inspired works this year we’ll be taken by Marc Taddei and the orchestra through Antonin Dvorak’s mature symphonies in 2018 – a journey which was announced this evening, and whose delights we’ll meantime savour in anticipation and without a doubt relish in their performance next year.








RNZ Ballet’s Coppélia – evening of delight and fantasy

The Royal New Zealand Ballet presents:
Léo Delibes’ COPPÉLIA

Cast:  Lucy Green (Swanhilde) / Kohei Iwamoto (Franz)
Sir Jon Trimmer (Dr. Coppélius) / Katherine Grange (Ima)
Joseph  Skelton (Zoltan) / Jarrah McArthur (Coppélia)
Paul Mathews (Limbless)

Royal New Zealand Ballet
Orchestra Wellington

Choreographer: Martin Vedel
Ballet Mistress: Turid Revfeim
Lighting: Jason Morphett
Conductor: Nigel Gaynor

St.James’ Theatre, Wellington

Thursday 17th April, 2014

Even if one didn’t know anything about the origins of the works involved, it’s a simple matter to figure out links between Delibes’ wonderful ballet Coppélia, and another French work for the stage, Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffman (The Tales of Hoffman) – each work contains references to mechanical dolls made to masquerade as human beings.

In fact both works drew elements of their scenarios from the same source, which was ETA Hoffmann’s sinister story Der Sandmann, written in 1816, which presented a darker side to a well-known benign character called The Sandman, who traditionally throws sand into the eyes of children to help them go to sleep. Hoffmann’s “Sandmann” is Coppélius, who fashions and conducts experiments with automated figures, which are used by the doctor to cause havoc among lovers and undermine various people’s sense of reality and identity.

Coppélia is a much-simplified version of Hoffmann’s convolutions – a village boy, Franz, becomes enamoured of Coppélia, a girl who sits every day at the upstairs window of a house owned by Dr. Coppélius, an eccentric recluse. Franz is actually engaged to Swanhilde, a village girl, but can’t help his fascination with the beautiful Coppélia, who takes no notice of him or of anybody else, whatever.

During an altercation with several of the young men in the town, Dr, Coppélius unwittingly drops his house-key, which Swanhilde then finds and, with several of her friends, sneaks into his house to find out more about the haughty beauty Coppélia. She’s followed, a few moments later, by Franz, who climbs a ladder put up to Coppélia’s window, anxious for a closer look at the girl who has captured his admiration.

The action proceeds from there in somewhat bizarre fashion, involving the doctor’s sudden return, and Swanhilde’s assuming the identity of Coppélia, who is nothing but an automaton created and assembled by Dr.Coppélius. At one point several of the other mechanical dolls created by Coppélius are activated, allowing Swanhilde in the ensuing confusion to rescue Franz, who had been rendered insensible by drinking too freely the “refreshments” offered by one of the automatons.

At the scene’s conclusion Dr, Coppélius, who had thought Swanhilde’s movements while disguised as the beautiful Coppélia were the triumphant result of his efforts to bring his creation truly to life, is left brokenheartedly clutching his lifeless mannequin as the lovers make their escape amid the chaos and mayhem. The remainder of the action is largely devoted to the wedding of Swanhilde and her – somewhat chastened – Franz.

This latest Royal New Zealand Ballet production presented something of a tale of two worlds, the commonplace, everyday village scenario of the first and third acts contrasted with the phantasmagorical world of the second act, inside the house of Dr.Coppélius. Perhaps the intention was to highlight the impact of that latter, nightmarish sequence of happenings by a conventional, almost low-key approach to the outer acts – pitting the Ordinary against the Fabulous, or some similar kind of idea.

Though effective in that respect, it did have the consequence of underplaying the edge of several of the First- and Third-Act movements and sequences, as if anything full-blooded might “upstage” the impact of that Second Act. A pity, because the music gives several wonderful opportunities for dancers to “take us places” even within the confines of ordinary everyday village life, let alone with any exotic arrivals or disruptive elements that add colour and variation.

One noticed this in places during Act One, such as during the Csardas, with the “friss” or fast section for me failing to truly ignite the smoldering embers promisingly piled up by the gypsy dancers in their opening manoeuvres. The Hungarian/gypsy contingent made a wonderful initiaI impact with striking costumes and strong movements during the music’s sultry “lassu” sections – but even so, I was particularly disappointed that little was made of the music’s numerous szforzandi written by Delibes, which surely cried out for some kind of dynamic physical gesture or response from the stage. And while I’m by no means an expert regarding gypsy-dance, I thought some of the jumps in the music’s concluding sequence seemed too buffoon-like, out of keeping with the haughty and imperious manner of the group’s arrival.

But elsewhere, it was the principals, Swanhilda (danced most winningly by Lucy Green) and Franz (ably characterized by Kohei Iwamoto) who made the most of their solo and interactive opportunities. From Swanhilde’s first entrance one noted the “inner life” of her movements, and the naturalness of her acting, with both physical gestures and with the eyes – both her and Kohei Iwamoto seemed to connect with their movements, gesturing and looks, so that their physical contact had a proper “organic” feel to it, an emotional rightness to their partnership.

Their partner-foils, Ima and Zoltan, danced by Katherine Grange and Joseph Skelton respectively, gave us some beautifully-crafted solos and pas de deux during the Slavonic Variations music. Here, the orchestra-playing, so vigorous and sprightly during the opening Mazurka and Waltz, was more variable, with both beautiful violin and wind solos and the occasional patch of scrawny string-phrasing – but the players quickly made amends with the dynamic Csardas, conductor Nigel Gaynor getting a full-blooded and exciting response from the pit.

However, Act Two, within Coppélius’ house, was another world entirely – compelling and hypnotic in its haunted, dream-like ambience and sense of a kind of “separate reality”. In the midst of the stasis was Paul Mathews’ amazingly-realised “Limbless” a writhing, physically osmotic figure whose convolutions at once repelled and compelled our sympathy for the mute, convulsive creature. The other mannequins all exuded a marvellous dual-aspect of lifeless unease, each one with its particular and distinctive potential for as-yet unactivated macabre mischief.

Central to the unreality was the figure of the doll-like Coppélia, and the half-crazed, half-calculating persona of the doctor. As Coppélia, Jarrah McArthur’s precise, automaton-like movements were expertly done, and a marked contrast to those of Sir Jon Trimmer’s Coppélius, all agitation and part-arthritic-part-obsessive impulse, a figure to be pitied as much as censured. No less remarkable was Lucy Green’s impersonation of Coppélia, completing a stunning tableaux of expressionist-like figures.

I thought that Coppélius’s attempts to draw life from the body of Franz – here tricked into a drunken stupor with the help of an amazing “mine host” automaton – and transfer to the figure of Coppélia, were somewhat diffusely rendered by the “dumb-show” transplanting which the Doctor enacted.  I imagined something more “mad-scientist-like” (using something along the lines of, say, Mesmer’s magnet) could have better-conveyed the disturbing nature, even the horror, of the idea. Still, the activation of all the automatons by Swanhilde and the recovered Franz, leaving the distraught Doctor clutching his lifeless doll-figure, produced a real frisson of anarchic activity, with brilliant and incisive orchestral-playing completing the chaotic picture of despair and release at the Act’s conclusion.

After this, Act Three couldn’t help but be somewhat underwhelming, though necessarily functioning as a kind of unravelling of tensions, such as depicting the marriage of Swanhilde and Franz. As a series of divertissements it was, however, entrancing, with exquisite dancing from the principals, and lovely orchestral detail – beautifully rustic oboe-playing at one point, festively resplendent brass at another, and a gorgeous viola solo at La Paix – though the production didn’t underline the music’s depiction of Strife and Discord with any “darker” choreographic elements – an opportunity for some colour and excitement not taken?

Small dreams of what could-have-been, these, compared with the feeling of gratitude and satisfaction at what the RNZ Ballet, together with the Orchestra Wellington, was able to achieve for us. Sterling work from choreographer Martin Vedel, Ballet Mistress Turid Revfeim, lighting designer Jason Morphett and conductor Nigel Gaynor gave us a delightful and wondrous evening’s entertainment.


The Royal NZ Ballet’s Swan Lake – classic and freshly-minted

The Royal New Zealand Ballet presents:

the Vodafone Season of –

TCHAIKOVSKY: Swan Lake – Ballet in Four Acts

Cast: Gillian Murphy as Odette / Karel Cruz as Siegfried

Paul Matthews as Baron von Rothbart / Rory Fairweather-Neylan as The Jester

Laura Jones as The Queen Mother / Sir Jon Trimmer as Wolfgang

Royal New Zealand Ballet Company

New Zealand School of Dance

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra / Conductor: Nigel Gaynor

Choreography: Russell Kerr

Design: Kristian Frederickson

Lighting: John Buswell

St James Theatre, Wellington

Thursday 18th July 2013

This was opening night of the season, and I had not seen a performance of Swan Lake in the theatre for many years – so I was, one might say, on this occasion, energized, expectant and attuned. It was a special occasion in a much wider sense as well – sixty years ago Danish emigre Poul Gnatt, who had been a principal with the Royal Danish Ballet, set up the present New Zealand Company, and actually staged Act Two of Swan Lake in that first season of 1953. So this 2013 Swan Lake was fittingly the Company’s sixtieth anniversary production.

The Company first presented the full ballet in 1985, but in 1996 choreographer Russell Kerr, together with designer Kristian Frederickson, staged a new production, revived for this present season’s celebrations. Happily this “aging, arthritic choreographer” (as Kerr described himself) was able to join the performers on stage for a curtain call at the end, and receive due acclaim from the audience.

The evening’s program as well contained a message dedicating the Wellington performances of this production to the memory of Richard Campion (1923-2013), the founder of the New Zealand Players in the 1950s, and an original trustee of the Ballet Company. All in all, the event carried an impressive assemblage of history and achievement over the Company’s years of existence.

I have to register some surprise and disappointment that more New Zealand-born dancers weren’t used, in both principal and supporting roles, on such an occasion as this. As was also the case with the Opera Company’s recent “Butterfly”, I was left wondering to what extent our own home-based artistic institutions make as a priority the development of our own performers, and, following on from this, our own particular home-grown performance character and standards.

To my mind there’s something lost as well as gained by all too readily “going global” and using off-shore performers as a matter of course (and my concern extends to the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra’s recruitment trends as well) – can we afford long-term to so markedly take the “New Zealand” out of our performance makeup? I don’t mean to sound isolationist, or anything like that – it’s all a matter of degree – but I think it’s important to have some regular access to what our own performers can offer over a range of artistic endeavors, in tandem with rather than supplanted by artists from overseas.

But back to the performance in hand, and to the immediate joy of having the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra in the pit at the St.James. Right at the beginning, I was struck by the wind playing – beginning with the oboe, and continuing with the clarinet, those plaintive instrumental sounds sparked off a welling-up of emotion, one which overwhelms me no matter how often I hear this music – all of it with the curtain still down in the theatre, the raw feeling of the scenario laid bare in pure sound for us to experience for ourselves.

Of course, the “orchestra pit” scale of the band isn’t to be compared with what one hears in the concert-hall or on record, so that the instrumental agitations have rather more of a sharply-focused than an epic quality. But the playing got from the orchestra by Nigel Gaynor made for some sublime sounds.

When the curtain opened on the beginning of Act One, I was transfixed by a feeling of then-and-now, akin to what I felt when watching the Company’s stunning revival of Russell Kerr’s and Raymond Boyce’s production of “Petrushka” a couple of years ago – here, part of me immediately became a small boy once more, taken to a place of youthful enchantment, an exquisitely-detailed and beautifully-lit forest glade.

Siegfried was danced this evening by Karel Cruz, originally from Cuba, and currently a principal dancer with Pacific Northwest Ballet in the USA. Very tall and possessing both incredible grace and astounding cat-like reflexes, he was able to command the stage in the time-honoured manner, though without diminishing the presence or impact of any of the other characters. I thought this “giving to others” quality seemed to come from the complete easefulness and naturalness which he exuded as the Prince.

This allowed the character roles, such as Rory Fairweather-Neylan’s enthusiastic and amusingly gauche Jester, and Sir Jon Trimmer’s affably urbane Wolfgang (the Prince’s tutor) plenty of “leavening-room”, heightening the contrast with the story’s darker, more serious aspect. Yet another dimension, that of the Royal Court, was splendidly highlighted by Laura Jones’s dignified Queen Mother, her character using both the entrance music and regalia in a totally convincing manner. This splendor was thrillingly caught in the mighty Polonaise, whose strains seemed to set the whole theatre dancing – Siegfried and the men matched the music’s energies as characterfully as did the Pas de Trois dancers a sequence or two earlier, expressing the scoring’s exquisite delicacies.

Act Two seemed to be upon us before we knew what was happening, introducing us to the lakeside, the swans and their enchanter, Baron Von Rothbart. But what a wonderfully-contrived entrance of the swans! – perfectly mirroring the composer’s cunningly-written canonical figurations. From their first encounter I thought that Gillian Murphy’s Odette made the perfect foil for Karel Cruz’s Siegfried. Supported by orchestral and solo instrumental playing to die for, both principals seemed to dance right into one another’s characters, registering the tensions and impasses of their situation as much as their yieldings and intertwinings. The cygnets then charmed us with their twinkling synchronizations – I enjoyed the gradual burgeoning of their movements throughout, delicacy eventually becoming overlaid with vigour and “attitude”. And Odette’s final solo of the Act, slow, sensual and tremulous, wrung out oceans of feeling with each movement – a superb performance.

Von Rothbart at the lakeside I confess I couldn’t quite “get”. I thought Paul Matthews danced the role with plenty of energy and focus, though I felt that neither his costume nor the staging throughout this sequence greatly supported what he was trying to convey – especially in a post-Harry Potter world a somewhat drab owl costume isn’t in itself going to help generate any great malevolence or a properly-telling sense of a sinister “creature of the night”. I would have thought something more lurid – either more striking makeup, or a kind of infernal colouring worn underneath the owl’s feathers – would have helped the dancer suggest a force more baleful and dangerous than the “bad-tempered scoutmaster in drag” kind of cameo evoked by the unfortunate bird regalia.

One had, in fact, only to compare, by way of contrast, the same dancer’s properly menacing portrayal of the Baron in Act Three, dressed as a nobleman, and accompanying his daughter to Prince Siegfried’s ball, to get a sense of what could have been suggested at the lakeside as well. Add to this Gillian Murphy’s particularly bright and sharp-edged depiction of the daughter, Odile – made to look like Odette, to deceive Siegfried – and there was evil personified most satisfyingly, by both father and daughter.

Earlier, the third act had burst into life richly and resplendently, the colours of both decor and costumes a burnished gold, befitting the family’s obvious importance. Odile’s and Von Rothbart’s entrance galvanized the party just before the Spanish Dance, throwing the Prince into confusion at the girl’s likeness to Odette. Of the national dances the one I thought came off best was the Neapolitean Dance – we heard some terrific trumpet playing from the pit and enjoyed some spirited dancing from Adrianna Harper and Mehdi Angot.

This, however, was decorative stuff compared with Siegfried’s and Odile’s pas de deux – Gillian Murphy’s freedom and fluidity of movement was incredible, her Odile bringing into bold relief the previous Act’s “imprisoned” state of being suffered by Odette. And all the while Karel Cruz’s Siegfried was captivated, so directly and intensely focused upon his strange new partner. What I thought was the tiniest of forward stumbles right at the end of her concluding solo, from the super-confident Odile, didn’t detract from a fine, tautly-drawn performance. The “real” Odette, on the wrong side of the window and trying to warn Siegfried, was here danced skillfully and plaintively by an unnamed dancer.

Like many symphonic finales, Swan Lake’s final Act goes for broad brush-strokes, with well-worn but effective storybook themes, this one suggesting a kind of “redemption through love” scenario, which in slightly varied forms has served the ballet’s purpose well over the years. Some judiciously-applied mist concealed Odette along with her grief at apparently being betrayed by Siegfried, as the act opened. Again, the beauty of the wind-playing which opened the slow,affecting dance of grief added to the pathos of it all.

As the darkness gathered the lovers decided upon their fate, bringing the vengeful Von Rothbart into the open – back in his owl form he again seemed far less menacing, but the music, via some truly splendid climaxes led the way through the lovers’ sacrificing of their own lives in the waters of the lake and the evil sorcerer’s death – we were left with a striking diagonal array of ex-swans in a “farewell flotilla”, saluting the liberated spirits of the drowned lovers, as the curtain slowly fell.






























Stravinsky from the Royal New Zealand Ballet



MILAGROS (after Stravinsky’s “Le Sacre du Printemps”) Choreography – Javier De Frutos

SATISFIED WITH GREAT SUCCESS (after Stravinsky’s “Scenes de ballet”) Choreography – Cameron McMillan

PETROUSHKA – (music by Stravinsky) Choreographer (after Michel Fokine)  Russell Kerr / Designer (after Alexandre Benois) Raymond Boyce

Royal New Zealand Ballet Company

Vector Wellington Orchestra

Marc Taddei, conductor.

St.James Theatre, Wellington

20-21 May 2011

Opportunities both gloriously taken and frustratingly unrealized – that was my immediate reaction to the Royal New Zealand Ballet’s “Stravinsky traversal” during which we saw and heard settings of the music for two of the composer’s ballets, (including the infamous Le Sacre du Printemps) and a full-scale production of Petroushka, both works among the most famous of their kind of all time. Allowing time for my feelings to settle somewhat before writing this review hasn’t greatly altered my reactions, though I’m wanting to point out that I thought the evening’s successes spectacular ones, and that the rest was never less than interesting and absorbing.

Heretical though it may seem to balletomanes, I tend to sympathize with Stravinsky’s reaction to choreographers and dancers who wanted the composer to write music and conduct his scores to suit their needs. The veteran choreographer Russell Kerr, in part of an interview printed in the program, related an incident involving the composer conducting a production of Petroushka in the United States in which Kerr was dancing. “I do not conduct for the dancers; they dance to my music!” the composer retorted, when asked to delay a section of his score to fit in with some stage business. If that attitude seems like the music is put first and foremost, its principle is a welcome corrective to a lot of choreography I’ve encountered which appears to take little notice of aspects of the music to which the dance steps are allegedly set.

I thought it interesting with this idea in mind to compare the opening item on the program with the full production of Petroushka which concluded the evening. The former was Milagros, a work which had been performed before by the Royal New Zealand ballet, on tour of the UK in 2004. It was impressive to read of Javier De Frutos’s award-winning status as a choreographer – certainly his movement scenario seemed brimful with ideas, and in places resulted in powerful and memorable theatrical imaging. Nevertheless, I thought his over-wrought modulations of the dance’s ebb and flow ran counter in many places to the primitive, rawly-focused nature of Stravinsky’s score (played, incidentally from a pianola roll made in the 1920s, one whose tempi had been supervised directly by the composer, and was here realized in a recording by player/pianist Rex Lawson).

It was as though De Frutos was trying to do too much, blunting his moments of connection with the music’s rhythmic thrust with unfocused superfluous movement that, for me, didn’t match the tones and pulsations of what we were hearing. There were times when the archetypal impulses of the music reflected themselves all too tellingly on the stage (some of the interactions I found quite disturbing, in fact – a friend of mine at the interval used the word “misogynistic”, which feeling in places I agreed with, though the occasional savageries were gradually developed in both gender directions). But whatever rituals were being enacted (and some of the imagery was stunningly presented – the head-stacking, for example) I felt it was as if the choreographer had allowed too many echoes of previous settings (his fourth of this music, if the program note is to be believed) to blur the focus. Whatever the theme, setting or prevailing current, the music unequivocally gives all the clues – and these oft-swirling masses of bodies didn’t consistently and coherently hold my sensibilities in a tightly-concerted enough grip throughout.

There was no doubt as to the commitment of the dancers to the work, particularly in the individual characterizations and teamwork of Abigail Boyle and Brendan Bradshaw, with Lucy Balfour contributing an eye-catching solo, all of whom communicated plenty of energetic conviction, however equivocal the expressive results.I’ve heard and read enough opinions regarding the work and its performance to freely admit my own inadequacy of response. I only wish I could testify to my having more connection-points with what I saw.

After this (leaving aside the second work for the moment), I couldn’t help but feel the difference in both focus and intent coming from the stage with Petroushka, which took up the evening’s final performance segment. Suddenly here were dancers who seemed completely energized and driven by the music, just as if they were stunningly-realised visualizations of what Stravinsky’s themes, rhythms and textures were actually doing. In this case the choreography had been supervised by Russell Kerr, following the original dance-plan of Michel Fokine, but of course with the New Zealander’s “take”  on the proceedings. In fact Kerr had first choreographed and designed Petroushka with his colleague Raymond Boyce as long ago as 1964. What I found remarkable was the ability of each of the dancer to “personalize” his or her character on stage, even when acting in concert with others, so that the crowd scenes had a naturalistic quality in parallel with the stylishness of the dancing and movement. It was mightily impressive to look at, and astonishing to reflect on there being not a single trace of self-consciousness in evidence from any movement, gesture or expression.Normally the “character” parts in ballet steal the theatrical thunder, but Sir Jon Trimmer as the Charlatan was by no means acting and moving in a vacuum, in his engrossing portrayal of cynical enslavement of his performing puppets – his character and aura found ready responses from members of the company, as did the dysfunctional antics of his three marionette charges.

As with Russell Kerr’s performing lineage and its links to both Stravinsky and his inspirational impresario Serge Diaghilev, designer Raymond Boyce’s formative experiences were with comparable traditions. He studied at London’s Slade School of Fine Arts, where one of his tutors, Vladimir Polunin, had been a scenery-painter for Diaghilev’s Company, and from him Boyce learnt the Russian scenery-painting style. From 1959 to 1997 Boyce designed productions for the Royal New Zealand Ballet Company, working with the company’s founder, Poul Gnatt, during those early days. In this latest Petroushka the focus of the setting was very much on unity – while the painted sets projected a kind of artificiality very much of their time, the designs served to focus upon the illusory nature of the story-line, reminding one of Lady Macbeth’s reference to a “painted devil”. In only one place I thought more pro-active lighting might have advanced the story’s cause, which was the hallucinatory effect of the charlatan’s picture in Petroushka’s room – more aggressively-focused spot-lighting on the image and momentarily darkened surroundings would have heightened the nightmarish aspect of the moment and imparted some edge to the somewhat naive-art, two-dimensional comic-book reproduction.

Besides Sir Jon’s wonderfully disturbing Charlatan (some of his expressions the stuff of nightmares for susceptible sensibilities), the three principal dancers gave thoroughly absorbing portrayals of their roles, each straddling the worlds of reality and make-believe with disarming alacrity. Medhi Angot’s Petroushka caught all of the character’s awareness of his plight as a puppet with a human heart, conveying for us his tragic despair at his loss of love and life, before reappearing, ghost-like at the end, to tease our sensibilities. Both Tonia Looker as the Ballerina and Qi Huan as the Moor brought plenty of skilful motoric impulse to each of their characters, contrasting their somewhat cardboard cut-out personas with Petroushka’s more complex and vulnerable consciousness.

I’ve left until now my ruminations regarding the middle ballet Satisfied With Great Success because I found it something of a puzzle, as much for what wasn’t done as for what we saw. Firstly I think the expectation created by the advance descriptions of some kind of interaction between historic footage of the composer in New Zealand and live stage action would have, in the event, left some people nonplussed. Whether previous or subsequent performances of this work used more of this much-touted “50 year-old film footage” I’m not sure, but I thought the juxtapositioning between the film and the live performance lame in effect, to say the least. I’m presuming that the film’s (a) slow-motion quality and (b) reverse continuity and imaging (the composer walking backwards through an orchestra whose members were positioned as if in a mirror-image) was in aid of imparting some kind of dream-dance ritualization to the scenes thus caught – well,maybe.  As it turned out (and contrary to my expectations), the film sequences proved to be mere clip-ons, with little or no interactive relationship between the footage and what the ballet actually did – and so, what was the point of it all?

Here was part of a visual record of the twentieth century’s arguably most important composer conducting some of his music in New Zealand – why couldn’t the ballet sequences have played out their “deconstruction, visual imagery and complex relationships” (the choreographer Cameron McMillan’s own words) as a series of connective impulses acknowledging these visuals? – whether fast, slow, forwards, backwards or still-framed, recording a significant aspect of our musical past? As a tribute to Stravinsky what was shown was somewhat less than token, and as a depiction of the composer’s relevance to “today’s world of creation and performance”, well, the exercise for me was practically a non-starter.

Regarding the ballet itself, there were some lovely moments, both solo and concerted (I liked the diagonal lines of bodies moving in accord, as well as various manifestations of strong duo work) but I thought some of what was presented only intermittently in accord with Stravinsky’s music (Scenes de Ballet). An example was a glorious Copland-like orchestral outburst of intense emotion at one point, superbly delivered by Marc Taddei and the Wellington Orchestra – but for all the reaction on stage, the music may as well have not been there – as was the actual case with another episode, where the dancers stepped intriguingly through uncannily silent vistas. Even more than with Milagros I had difficulty discerning an overall choreographic focus to Satisfied with Great Success, and wondered what the composer might have thought of his title-quote applied to the work in hand.

Back to the evening’s “Great Successes” – the overall conception and realization of Petroushka, the amazing sonic impact of that  pianola recording of Le Sacre du Printemps, the few glimpses we got on film of Stravinsky here in New Zealand, the musical direction of Marc Taddei and the playing of the Wellington Orchestra for the second and third ballets (a few brass “blips” here and there in Petroushka notwithstanding), and the chance to experience at first hand something of the excitement and commitment of those early ventures into ballet production via the presence and efforts of Russell Kerr and Raymond Boyce – for me THIS was the most telling manifestation of (I quote the program notes once again) “the relationship between past and present through 21st century eyes”. For that alone, thank you, Royal New Zealand Ballet.

Royal New Zealand Ballet puts Stravinsky in the limelight

Of the various anniversaries this year (Liszt’s and Ambroise Thomas’s 200th birthdays, Menotti’s centenary, Mahler’s death in 1911, premiere of Der Rosenkavalier, the King James Bible, poet and music critic Théophile Gautier’s bicentenary, and much else*) the premiere of Stravinsky’s Petrushka deserves note. (see performance details in ‘Coming Events’).

It was his second ballet for Diaghilev – the first was The Firebird in 1910 – and the first in which, it is generally accepted, Stravinsky evidenced a real individuality. It was premiered on 13 June 1911 at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris. The Rite of Spring followed in May 1913, at the newly built Théâtre des Champs-Élysées (not on the Champs-Élysées); and it was that of course, via the riot and accompanying scandal, that made Stravinsky the most famous living composer (well, almost).

The Royal New Zealand Ballet is presenting a triple bill of Stravinsky ballets in their May/June season which opens in Wellington on the week-end 20-22 May. It then progresses through Auckland, Napier, finishing in Invercargill on 9 June. The damage to Christchurch’s Theatre Royal means the loss of those earlier-planned performances.

The three ballets:

Satisfied with Great Success – Scènes de ballet

The three ballets include two of the great three. Missing is The Firebird; in its place, as it were, is a little rarity which is disguised behind the title ‘Satisfied with Great Success’. The ballet in question is an abstract work simply entitled Scènes de ballet. It was commissioned by Billy Rose for a Broadway revue called The Seven Lively Arts, premiered at the Ziegfeld Theatre on 7 December 1944. It was choreographed by Anton Dolin who, with Alicia Markova, danced the leading roles. .

Rose used only parts of the score that Stravinsky composed. After the preview in Philadelphia, Rose famously telegraphed Stravinsky as follows:


Of a trumpet tune in the Pas de deux, Lawrence Morton writes: “Remove from it the marks of genius, make it four-square, give it a Cole Porter lyric, and you have a genuine pop-tune.”

Three later choreographers have been involved with the music: Frederick Ashton choreographed it afresh for Sadler’s Wells Ballet, premiered on 11 February 1948 at Covent Garden. It was the first performance of all the music Stravinsky has written. There, it was very much a showcase for Margot Fonteyn and Michael Somes.

The next production was to choreography by John Taras, who was ballet master at New York City Ballet, in the context of a now famous Stravinsky Festival following the composer’s death in 1971, premiered on 22 June 1972 in the New York State Theatre in the Lincoln Centre. , and Christopher Wheeldon provided new choreography for the School of American Ballet by New York City Ballet, premiered on 19 May 1999..

The music is open to limitless interpretations as it was conceived by Stravinsky without plot or any concept apart from ideas about certain dancers representing certain instruments. He wrote: The parts [eleven of them] follow each other as in a sonata or a symphony in contrasts or similarities”. It was conceived for two principals and a corps de ballet of four boys and two girls.

Here we have a (at least) fourth version, by expatriate New Zealander Cameron McMillan (no relation of course to the great choreographer Kenneth MacMillan).

According to the promotion, “the ballet unfolds in a series of electrically-charged scenes played out before 50-year-old film footage of Stravinsky in New Zealand”. But the sound will not be there as the accompanying soundtrack is apparently not good. The Wellington Orchestra will perform.

Stravinsky’s famous tour to New Zealand in 1961, at which he conducted just one concert, in Wellington, is one of the high points in the orchestra’s and New Zealand’s cultural history. With him was his associate/amanuensis/conductor/musicologist, Robert Craft. Craft conducted the first half, comprising the suite, Pulcinella, the Symphony in Three Movements and Apollon Musagète. Stravinsky conducted in the second half, two sections from The Firebird – the Lullaby and Finale (I was there).

Joy Tonks’s history of the NZSO records the remark Stravinsky made later to NZBS (before the name changed from NZ Broadcasting Service to Corporation) Head of Music Malcolm Rickard: ‘Why was I given only one programme to play with this fine orchestra?” “Because, Maestro”, said Rickard, “that was all you were prepared to do”.

“But I didn’t know they are so good”, Stravinksy replied and looked reproachful.

However, The Firebird is not one of the ballets in the RNZB’s current season.


The evening begins however with Petrushka. (The common spelling, Pétrouchka, is the French version. As such it should have an acute accent on the ‘é’). Petrushka is the exact English transliteration of the Russian (Петрушка).

Wikipedia records the following comments about its reception in Paris and elsewhere: “While the production was generally a success, some members of the audience were taken aback by music that was brittle, caustic, and at times even grotesque. One critic approached Diaghilev after a dress rehearsal and said, “And it was to hear this that you invited us?” Diaghilev succinctly replied, “Exactly”. When Diaghilev and his company traveled to Vienna in 1913, the Vienna Philharmonic initially refused to play the score, deriding Petrushka as ‘schmutzige Musik’ (“dirty music”): a foretaste of Hitler’s treatment of much contemporary art and music as ’Entartete Kunst’ – ‘degenerate art’.

Sir Jon Trimmer performs the role of Puppet Master, but, in the words of the publicity, the person pulling the strings behind the scenes in Russell Kerr who has a 52-year relationship with the company – in other words he started during the company’s first decade of existence; and he first prepared Petrushka for the then New Zealand Ballet in 1964, having worked with the London Festival Ballet where he learned the repertoire alongside the masters who created the ballets of Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes. Petrushka was one of them.

Kerr and other dancers from London Festival Ballet were thus able to ensure that the choreography was faithful to the 1911 original. His role now is the same.

Milagros – The Rite of Spring

Le sacre du printemps – The Rite of Spring – was the ballet, and the music itself, that really made Stravinsky the most famous composer of his day, a position he retained throughout his life, though it is fair to say that his place in 20th century music has altered in the last forty years with the emergence of certain younger composers of comparable stature (Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Hindemith, Berg, Messiaen, Britten, Martinů, Lutoslawski…) and the reappraisal of others such as Schoenberg, Rachmaninov, Sibelius and Richard Strauss.

Here the company is reviving its 2003 production of their own commissioning of an account of the ballet by Venezualan dancer and choreographer Javier de Frutos, called Milagros, which employs a rare piano roll version of the score performed by Stravinsky himself.

According to dance commentator Anne-Marie Daly-Peoples writing in 2005, “De Frutos has brought accolades to the Royal New Zealand Ballet. Milagros was first staged by the company in 2003 recently earning itself a Laurence Olivier Award nomination for Best New Dance Production and Best Choreography (Modern) at Britain’s Critic’s Circle Dance Awards.

“Wherever Milagros may be performed, no doubt they will be aware that it was created for the Royal New Zealand Ballet Company. That is its legacy, performed for the first time here in Wellington.”

Versions by other choreographers are to be expected since Nijinsky’s original choreography was not properly preserved and has been reconstructed by various hands since. One of the least happy was that used in Disney’s Fantasia where the music was re-ordered and changed and, according to Stravinsky, execrably played. He felt that the animations, on the other hand, had understood the work.

Wikipedia has a good account of the origins, transformations both musically and choreographically, of the Rite. We quote:

“Stravinsky made two arrangements of The Rite of Spring for player piano. In late 1915, the Aeolian Company in London asked for permission to issue both the Rite and Petrushka on piano roll, and by early 1918 the composer had made several sketches to be used in the more complex passages. Owing to the war, the work of transcribing the rolls dragged on, and only the Rite was ever issued by Aeolian on standard pianola rolls, and this not until late 1921, by which time Stravinsky had completed a far more comprehensive re-composition of the work for the Pleyela, the brand of player piano manufactured by Pleyel in Paris.

“The Pleyela/pianola master rolls were not recorded using a “recording piano” played by a performer in real time, but were instead true “pianola” rolls, cut mechanically/graphically, free from any constraints imposed by the ability of the player. Musicologist William Malloch observed that on these rolls the final section is at a considerably faster tempo, relative to the rest of the composition, than in the generally used orchestral score.

“Malloch opines—based upon this evidence, the composer’s revisions of the orchestral score, and a limited number of very early phonographic recordings of performances—that Stravinsky originally intended the faster tempo, but found that significant numbers of orchestral players at the time were simply unable to manage the rhythmic complexity of the section at that tempo, and accordingly revised the tempo markings. The Benjamin Zander recording [with the Boston Symphony Orchestra] includes both the pianola version, and the orchestral Rite with the faster tempo restored to the final section. A low-fidelity recording is available.”

Even before the orchestral score was finished Stravinsky wrote a four hands version which he and Debussy played. It was in this form that the ballet was first published, the full orchestral score not being published till 1921.

All in all, the Royal New Zealand Ballet looks set to present an extremely interesting programme that both honours the composer and presents imaginative versions of two supreme masterpieces, plus a revival of the less familiar Scènes de Ballet.

*A few other opera centenaries: Saint-Saëns’s Déjanire, Ravel’s L’heure Espagnole, Debussy’s Le martyre de Saint Sébastien, Mascagni’s Isabeau, Zandonai’s Conchita, Wolf-Ferrari’s The Jewels of the Madonna