Orpheus – a Dance Drama – beautiful, complex and thought-provoking work from Michael Parmenter

New Zealand Festival 2018 presents:
Conceptualised and choreographed by Michael Parmenter
New Zealand Dance Company
Co-produced by the Auckland Arts Festival, the New Zealand Festival
and the New Zealand Dance Company
The Opera House, Wellington

Friday, 16th March, 2018

The “Orpheus legend” is obviously one of the seminal “stories” which has contributed towards western civilisation’s view of itself and its place in the world down the ages. Orpheus himself is a multi-faceted figure whose qualities and exploits have been variously treated and interpreted at different stages, a process that continues to this day, as witness choreopher Michael Parmenter’s ambitious and wide-ranging “take” on the character’s far-reaching exploits.

Most people who know of the name of Orpheus straightaway associate it with that of his lover Euridice.  Their tragic story has been represented variously in practically all of Western art’s different disciplines, notably that of opera – in fact it figured prominently throughout opera’s very beginnings, with Jacopo Peri’s “Euridice” appearing as early as 1600, and Claudio Monteverdi’s “L’Orfeo” in 1607.  Virgil and Ovid are the two writers from antiquity most readily associated with the early forms of this story, though there are various other Orphic strands which Parmenter’s work alludes to, such as the hero’s exceptional musical skills, his association with the Voyage of the Argonauts,  his rejection of the love of women after the death of Euridice, and his own death at the hands of the Maenads.

Considering this plethora of material it was no wonder Parmenter was drawn to the story and its variants, the scenarios seeming to offer ample scope for elaboration and reinterpretation in the light of more contemporaneous human experience, as with all mythological archetypes. Using a core group of dancers supported by a larger “chorus” whose movement consistently created a kind of cosmic rhythm involving both naturalistic and metaphorical ebb and flow, the production consistently and constantly suggested order coming from and returning towards an unfathomable chaos which frames the human condition as we know it, a beautiful and magical synthesis of both natural patternings and human  ritual.

Lighting, costuming and staging throughout the opening sequences wrought a kind of “dreaming or being dreamt” wonderment, as a bare, workmanlike stage was unobtrusively but inexorably clothed, peopled and activated in masterly fashion. As if summonsed and borne by divination, a platform on which were seated a group of musicians playing the most enchanting music imaginable, literally drifted to and fro, as if in a kind of fixed and preordained fluidity, in accordance with the magical tones produced by these same musicians and their instruments. Not unlike the dancers, the singers grouped and regrouped with the action’s “flow”, effectively choreographing  sounds in accordance with the whole. The music was largely from the baroque era, from the world of Marc-Antoine Charpentier, Jean de Saint-Colombe, Antoine Boesset, Michel Lambert, Etienne Moulinie and Jean-Philippe Rameau, hauntingly sung and played by singers and musicians from both sides of the Tasman. Their efforts were interspersed with the sonicscapes of composer David Downes, whose elemental interpolations at key dramatic points underpinned the powerful fusion of immediacy and other-worldliness of the baroque sounds with something inexplicably primordial in effect, a sense of interplay between order and chaos far beyond human control.

During the work’s course I was stunned by the range and scope of expression wrought by the dancers, their bodies both individually and collectively driven, it seemed, by a compelling energy and physicality whose expression spoke volumes – I felt hampered by not being able to get a reviewer’s programme, for some inexplicable reason (there were still some on sale when I asked but I had insufficient money to actually purchase one), and thus found myself “in the dark” in situ regarding some of the specific intents of the stage action, particularly in the work’s second part – borrowing a copy from a friend afterwards helped to clear up some of the moments where I felt myself not quite in synch with the stage action at the time.

In the light of the comments made by Parmenter and his team in the booklet I would wish, if I could, to go back and explore more deeply the layers of action, thought and suggestion which the show embedded beneath the basic stories. Some people I spoke to afterwards shared my feeling that the production’s content seemed TOO overlaid, and that less would have meant more – I remain equivocal in my reaction to the effect of things such as the “storming of the ramparts” representation, to give but one example, even after considering Parmenter’s idea of a “knocking down” of a bastion of male ego by the female agents of being, in the story.

Still, what endures for me is the memory of the dancers and their skills – approaching transcendence in their fluency and articulation, as well as conveying incredibly layered and interactive meanings both in individual and concerted movement and gesture. Assisted by the flowing effect of Tracy Grant-Lord’s costumes, the characters’ bodies enacted eloquent and atmospheric chiaroscuro play between clarity and concealment, whose visual tensions everywhere enhanced the power of the story-telling. While readily feeling the power of presence of the two principal name-character dancers, Carl Tolentino as Orpheus and Chrissy Kokiri as Euridice, I was equally taken with the individual characterisations of their colleagues (see below), even if, towards the end I thought the distinctiveness of their movements lost a little of their cutting edge through repetition (perhaps I was the one who was tired by this time, trying to make better sense of the cornucopia of stage incident!).

Full credit, then to this company of dancers who supported the efforts of the two leads already mentioned – Katie Rudd, Sean McDonald, Lucy Marinkovich, Eddie Elliott, Bree Timms, Toa Paranihi and Oliver Carruthers – as well as to the dedicated work of the local “movement chorus” (all of whom were volunteers). Enabling Tracy-Lord-Grant’s costumes and John Verryt’s inventive settings to display their full effect was the atmospheric lighting of Nik Janiurek, whose stated purpose was keeping “the flow of light across the stage” in accord with Orpheus’music. Michael Parmenter’s engaging choreography did the rest in tandem with his dancers’ and musicians’ focused efforts.

No one work of art will reveal all of its secrets in one encounter or during one performance – and the subjective nature of any one critical response is a moveable feast when put against others’ reactions. Michael Parmenter’s creation, I freely admit, took me by surprise in its range and scope of expression, by turns striking things truly home and taking me into places where I felt some confusion – all of which leads me towards expressing the hope that it might be re-staged at some time in the near future, and that certain aspects of the presentation might come to seem clearer in their overall purpose. Parmenter himself admitted that not every theatrical image in the work was “a complete success” in response to a more-than-usually dismissive reaction from another review quarter – but so much of “Orpheus” was, I thought, powerful, innovative and challenging theatre, deserving to be thought and rethought about. It’s certainly a theatrical experience to which I doubt whether anybody could remain indifferent.

Artistic Director and Choreographer – Michael Parmenter (and the Company)
Dancers – Carl Tolentino, Chrissy Kokiri, Katie Rudd, Sean McDonald, Lucy Marinkovich, Eddie Elliott,
Bree Timms, Oliver Carruthers, Toa Paranihi
Singers – Aaron Sheehan, Nicholas Tolputt, William King, Jayne Tankersley
Musicians –  Donald Nicolson, Julia Fredersdorff, Laura Vaughan (Latitude 37)
Polly Sussex, Sally Tibbles, Miranda Hutton, Jonathan Le Cocq, David Downes
Sound Score – David Downes
Producer – Behnaz Farzami
Set Designer – John Verryt
Costumes – Tracy Grant Lord
Lighting – Nik Janiurek
Rehearsal Director – Claire O’Neil
Chorus Director – Lyne Pringle




Czech Philharmonic Children’s Choir gives enchanting concert at St Andrew’s

The Czech Philharmonic Children’s Choir conducted by Petr Louženský, piano accompaniment by Jan Kalfus

Music by Novák, Dvořák, Martinů, Mysliveček, Lukáš, and a sung dance piece, Slavnosti jara, by Otmar Mácha

St Andrew’s on The Terrace, Wellington

Monday 2 November, 12:15 pm

We have visits from overseas choirs from time to time, but I don’t think I’ve encountered one like this before. Words like enchanting, artless, exquisite, tender, crystalline, joyful, guileless, come to mind, and it refers to both the singing, and the dancing.

The choir was established in 1932 to meet the needs of Czech Radio; it survived World War II and the years under Communism and became associated with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra in 1952, a relationship that lasted 40 years. The choir is now independent and exists with help from the Czech Government, the City of Prague, the National Theatre, the Prague Philharmonic Choir and a number of other cultural, media and commercial organisations. They have the world record of three wins at the famous choral competition at Tolosa in Spain (in which the Voices New Zealand won gold and silver awards in 1998) and an astonishing range of other international awards.

If I’d had the impression from the word ‘children’ that these were predominantly primary-school-age children, it was clear at once that while some were probably under 13, the great majority were teenagers and so it is to be considered a ‘youth choir’. There were about 40 performers in all, all but five, girls. Two mature, taller boys contributed fine lower voices.

Otherwise, it does have the character of a children’s choir, on account of the freshness, clarity and innocence of the soprano voices. Though only 40 travelled, some 800 are currently participating in the wide range of singing, dancing and musical activities in Prague.

The most striking visual features were the costumes, beautifully harmonised, peasant-derived skirts, bodices, ribbons in the hair, floral and foliage head decorations, and the impression of pastoral innocence expressed by calm yet animated faces, bare feet, modest deportment.

The concert was in two parts. The first half was devoted to religious and secular pieces by familiar Czech, Moravian and Slovak classical composers: Dvořák, Martinů, Novák, and Mysliveček, and a couple of names unfamiliar to me: Zdeněk Lukáš and Otmar Mácha.

There was a quality in their singing that marked them as different from comparable New Zealand voices: an unaffected simplicity and delight in their performances conveyed as much through facial expressions and gestures as their voices. While their dress was harmonious in the use of pastel shades, style and dress length, there was considerable variety in colour and detail within the peasant style.

There was delightful variety in the five straight vocal items that filled the first 20 minutes or so: a spirited though soulful Gloria by Novák; a bright, staccato, dance-like song, ‘Sentencing Death’, by Martinů, with its brief interruption by a triple-time phase in the middle. A song entitled ‘Wreath’ by Lukáš followed, with alto voices more pronounced; there was a fast staccato section followed by several tempo changes all handled with accuracy, fluid dynamics, with the voices indeed wreathing the most charming patterns.

The second part of the concert came with ‘Spring Celebration’ (Slavnosti jara) by Mácha, in effect an extended folk ballet, with choreography by Živana Vajsarová. What turned out to be the ‘singing’ part of the ensemble (some 20) gathered round the piano on the left of the platform in front of the sanctuary, while the rest retreated. And they returned through the doors at the rear of the sanctuary in small groups, running, dancing, in different, more colourful, costumes, to dance, as well as to sing. Among the non-dancing singers there emerged a player of cow or sheep bells and a recorder player, who lent the bucolic tone to the ritual. A rite of spring, no doubt, but not of the violent kind Stravinsky has accustomed us to.

They bore garlands of fir and pine, a May-pole is brought on and the attached ribbons were woven by eight dancers, now in fresh costumes, circling it in complex patterns. The piano led the dancers through slower and faster steps: the footwork might not have been balletic in the classical sense but it was perfect, and utterly diverting, clearly a considerable feat of memory.

Then a flaxen-haired puppet on a long pole appeared – the symbol of Winter; it is subject to increasingly hostile gestures of rejection and finally thrown into the wings. A solo voice emerged at this stage, firm and clear, a symbol of Spring no doubt, and she was encircled by others as the new season finally triumphs.

Throughout, Otmar Mácha’s music was either authentic Czech and Slovak peasant songs and dances, or convincing imitations that were typical of the rich fund of folk music that is familiar to us in the music of Dvořák and Smetana. It became increasingly joyful and exciting, the dancing reflecting the effervescent spirit of the music wonderfully as it accelerated towards a heart-raising conclusion.

Even after the formal ending of the performance, more was at hand, with folk or operetta tunes that were familiar, but names eluded me apart from one that resembled ‘Roll out the barrel’.

Yet that did not satisfy the enraptured audience, and Dvořák’s ‘Songs my mother taught me’ rather changed the atmosphere and allowed them all to retire quietly.

As background, here are some words from the choir’s website (http://www.kuhnata.cz/en/):

“Over the course of its existence it has given thousands of talented children a love of music and art. Its most talented children have grown into distinguished musicians – conductors, directors, composers, singers and instrumentalists. Its tradition and the breadth of its artistic scope makes it a unique artistic institution, not only in the Czech Republic but throughout Europe…. During its existence, the choir has recorded over 50 CDs of both Czech and international music.”

But finally, what a pity word had not been more widely spread about this wonderful ensemble. St Andrew’s had prepared and distributed a small flyer and it was included in Radio NZ Concert’s Live Diary, but I didn’t read about it in print media. As a result, the church was far from full, as it truly deserved to be.



Work of young composers and young choreographers performed by top professionals

Leaps and Sounds: music by composers from the NZSO’s Young Originals Todd Corporation Young Composers Award recordings, and dances by young choreographers

Musicboxgirls: music, Matthew Childs; choreography, Paul Mathews
Evocation: Max Wilkinson, Adriana Harper
No Limits: Christina Reid, Qi Huan
4 + 1: Corwin Newall, Dimitri Kleioris
Between Us: Tabea Squire, Loughlan Prior
Dreams of Power: Umar Zakaria, Sam Shapiro
Feral: Robbie Ellis, Jaered Glavin
[Inner]: Alex Taylor, Brendan Bradshaw
wind from Us: Umar Zakaria, Kohei Iwamoto

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Hamish McKeich; dancers from the Royal New Zealand Ballet

Michael Fowler Centre

Saturday, 16 June 2012, 4.30pm

A free concert always packs ‘em in, and it was gratifying to see large numbers of children (particularly little girls) who had come along to this performance.

For sundry reasons, my notes about this concert are far from complete, therefore I am extremely grateful to Peter Coates for much of what follows.  His words are in quotation marks below.

What particularly struck me was how competently and fully all the composers used the symphony orchestra.  All nine pieces exhibited integrity, skill, and musical imagination.  There was much brilliant use of percussion instruments, and some unusual brass sounds.  The build-up to loud passages was always achieved with sensitivity and diversity.

The large orchestra was seated below the stage, several rows of seating having been removed.  The conductor therefore had an excellent view of both stage and orchestra.  Every piece was superbly played, the orchestra negotiating the variety of styles and instrumental demands with its accustomed professional ease.

We began with a very competent piece, ‘Musicboxgirls’ in quite a conventional, tonal musical style, which was an excellent vehicle for beautiful dancing from an all-female sextet, with a doll-like stiffness of movement to portray the theme of the title.

Other pieces  were more adventurous harmonically and stylistically. ‘Evocation’ lent itself to a classical style of dance, and put the lie, with its two men and one woman, to the still-prevalent idea that ‘real men don’t dance’ – as did other items on the programme.

“I must admit to being one of those people who likes to see a more theatrical approach to orchestral concerts, although it has to be done well to prevent the orchestra being submerged by the visual element.  I enjoyed the experiment very much, as obviously did the large family audience.  Since the dances were quite short, the programme would have been good material for young people experiencing the orchestra for the first time.

“Some of the orchestral backings were very sophisticated for such young composers.  I particularly like ‘No Limits’, which had a strong rhythmic background that the dancers obviously enjoyed.  It was danced to the ‘Tales of Greece Suite III Mighty Odysseus’ composed by Christina Reid and choreographed by Qi Huan; it certainly had my feet tapping.”  It was fast and rhythmic, with a dreamy middle section.

“Another highlight was the last work, ‘wind from Us’, a lively, comic work centred around four young men who enjoyed a very masculine dance, meeting up with a young classical dancer, Yang Liu, who eventually joined in with the male dancers’ boisterous efforts.  This young dancer had a delightful comic touch that really made the simple story very effective.

“In this case the colourful costuming complemented the story, though this was not  always the case with the other dances.  Comedy of this kind is very enjoyable to see, and its choreographer Kohei Iwamoto is to be congratulated for his efforts.  I also enjoyed the swinging coloured wigs in the dance ‘Feral’, a set of primitive movements that thoroughly complemented the story.

“All in all an excellent night’s entertainment thoroughly enjoyed by the large audience.  The young composers and choreographers are to be congratulated for their efforts.  Congratulations to the NZSO for giving them the opportunity to put on such a professional show.”

Such a varied and interesting marriage of sound and movement should have won many converts for ballet, but especially for contemporary orchestral music.  The composers, choreographers, dancers and orchestra received the applause they all richly deserved.