SHINE IN ABUNDANCE, BUT WE WANT MORE
Choreographers: Marius Petipa, Thomas Bradley, Sarah Foster-Sproull, George Balanchine, Kuik Swee Boon, Sir Kenneth MacMillan
Costumier: Donna Jefferis
at Te Whaea National Dance and Drama Centre, 11 Hutchison Rd, Newtown, Wellington
Until 28 Nov 2015
Reviewed by Chris Jannides, 23 Nov 2015
The NZ School of Dance (NZSD) is two schools in one. There is the classical stream and the contemporary one. Both stand out as being very different, naturally, in terms of their respective dance forms, but crucially for me in their approaches to teaching performance.
Technical standards are so high across both branches of the school, yet to my mind, performance conviction and expressive nuance and confidence need to be equally as high. Particularly as this is a pre-professional level of training.
All dancers know that classical and contemporary offer much to each other that is of value to both. Contemporary dancers aspire to the heights of excellence that elite classical dancers embrace so well. Alongside their contemporary training, ballet is a mandatory part of practically any contemporary dance curriculum that’s of any worth.
Perhaps the training of ballet dancers, who can survive so well without needing to put one step into a contemporary dance class, could take a page from the performance skills of their contemporary colleagues. For a classical tutor, I would be thinking about what might be added to ballet students’ training and experience that would significantly and uniformly increase their expressive subtleties and abilities, not simply their technical ones, onstage.
The differences in performance qualities between the two student groups in the NZSD’s Graduation Season are too noticeable to remain unmentioned. The contemporary students are confident, connected and consistent. The ballet students, surprisingly, are not.
The programme consists of six items whose three classical and three contemporary works alternate. The classical contributions comprise two group works – Paquita (1847), adapted by Anna-Marie Holmes after Marius Petipa, and Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s Concerto (1996), re-staged on the students by Lynn Wallis. The third classical piece is a George Balanchine duet, Tarantella (1964), taught by Diana White.
Concerto stands out over and above Paquita for its far more nuanced and sophisticated choreography, which should be no surprise given the time difference between when they were first created. If Paquita seems restrained and unembellished, Concerto compensates by adding more length of line and finesse. Plus some jazziness in its fun hip-slinking finale.
Tarantella is performed energetically and confidently by Megan Wright and Jeremie Gan. Not only technically demanding, the piece is pacey and requires a hearty, robust delivery. Both dancers rise to the occasion. However, Tarantella is fundamentally a duet. Despite the technical expertise on display, I see no believable connection or empathy between the two dancers.
In my fixation on performance qualities, Jeremie Gan is engaging and consistent in his facial expression and comfort with the audience. In fact, in all the classical works, the men stand out for me as being more secure and relaxed as performers.
Overall, there are numerous moments to appreciate in the classical numbers. Superbly sustained arabesques in the first work. Competent partnering and secure lifts throughout all the pieces. Excellent unison work in the last item, along with razor sharp group patterns. MacMillan’s choreography, in particular, superbly exemplifies the purity of the classical form with its finely calibrated balance between heightened technical athleticism and tastefully stylish elegance and restraint. All of which the dancers master nicely.
Minor points (and these really are minor) where I might nitpick, include beats where the feet are not joining, occasional turnout issues, particularly in jetés involving the back leg in attitude, and imprecision coming out of multiple pirouettes, tours en l’air and turns generally. Actually, I am left wondering if this is a new trend? Not to spot on final turns, but to simply sail out of them.
I am also concerned to see too much physical concentration in the classical students that is being unsuccessfully masked by painted on grins and smiles. What this produces is a cautionary quality whereby nervousness about technique overrides and inhibits the fluidity and vibrancy of the ‘dancing’. There are only brief moments from one or two individuals, and I’m targeting mostly the women here, where I see attack, artistry and flair. For the rest, I seem to be looking mostly at the overly careful execution of steps.
When it comes to performance qualities, the contemporary stream is setting the bar at the level we should expect from pre-professional tertiary dance students.
The three contemporary works in the programme – Sarah Foster-Sproull’s Forgotten Things; Cnoditions of Entry, choreographed by Thomas Bradley and the dancers; As It Fades (Excerpts) by Kuik Swee Boon – are incredible. Each piece showcases and challenges the students at a choreographic standard seen in professional companies.
Forgotten Things, premiered here, is to music by Andrew Foster (Sarah’s partner and collaborator). The only homegrown choreographer of the three, Sarah Foster-Sproull shows that she is a major dance-making force in our community. Beyond making well-crafted work, Sarah is establishing her choreographic signature. Powerful, poetic and highly distinctive. She is also a graduate from the NZSD, which must make them proud. Despite reservations I have about the costumes and lighting, this work features an extremely inventive and highly visual use of choreographic motifs involving a chain-like linking together of hands, and in one extraordinary moment, also of legs and feet, to make images that unmistakably recreate the human spine, the wings, feathers and flight motion of birds, an umbilical cord passing through a dancer’s mid-region… The images are sculptural, kinetic and surreal. They etch themselves like branding irons into the brain! It is rare to find such striking clarity in contemporary dance that sticks in memory.
The second contemporary contribution – Cnoditions of Entry,(yes, for some weird reason this is how it is spelt!), is put together by Australian choreographer, Thomas Bradley (he did the music too). Another exquisite piece that is also distinctive in its own way, made more so by the beautifully effective use of Donna Jefferis’ orange-hooded costumes. Electronic dystopian music and aesthetically integrated, carefully designed lighting states blend with the choreography to produce a strangely rich atmosphere peopled by a community of lost individuals moving in hyper-fast or super slow motion. The work and its eerie world allows imaginations to read multiple interpretive layers and meanings into it. Powerfully performed, the crafting and structure of this dance is masterful.
The last of the contemporary items, As It Fades (Excerpts), by the renowned overseas guest choreographer, Kuik Swee Boon, which he originally created in 2011 on his Singaporean dance company, is as impressive as the previous two. Not choreographed on them or with their assistance, as was the case with the other contemporary works, the students perform material previously made on a professional company. Their superb ability to do this is testimony to the skills and industry-ready standards of the NZSD’s contemporary dance graduates.
Over and above their ability to switch easily from virtuosic solo or partnering modes to being able to hold collective power as an ensemble, what impressed me in Kuik Swee Boon’s work was the focus that all the dancers were required to sustain on a fixed point in space slightly over the heads of the audience. Sometimes individually, and in the end as a whole group, this allowed us to closely scan and notice how, in each and every face without exception, there was depth of presence. It is a privilege to see work of this calibre, and to experience a dance-maker who choreographs the eyes of the audience as clearly and delicately as he does the dancers. Bravo!
I could not expect to see more from both groups of students when it comes to appraising and appreciating their technical skills. They are clearly at the top of their game on both sides of the classical/contemporary divide. I just wish they were on more of an equal footing when it comes to performance maturity and skill.