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!