New Zealand School of Dance


Director: Victoria Columbus
Jaydyn Burt, Laura Beanland-Stephens, Demi-Jo Manolo, Billy Keohavong, Latisha Sparks, Jacob Edmonds, Amelia McCarthy, Sophie Gargan, Felix Sampson, Georgia Rudd, Tyler Carney Soundscape: Te Aihe Butler
Costumes designed by Donna Jefferis

at Te Whaea National Dance and Drama Centre, 11 Hutchison Rd, Newtown, Wellington
From 15 May 2015 to 23 May 2015
[1 hour]

Reviewed by Chris Jannides, 17 May 2015

We are treated to a reverse scenario in the New Zealand School of Dance’s 2015 Choreographic Season featuring eleven works by its third year contemporary dance students. What we encounter is that the theatre at Te Whaea, which normally houses these productions, has become the foyer, complete with tables and chairs, brochures and a refreshment bar, while the building’s spacious plaza has been cordoned off and transformed into a performance space with an imposing seating block. 

Given the attractiveness of Te Whaea’s architecture, this rearrangement of the conventions of performance is a unique and stylish innovation. Clever also in that it offers the students a different spatial challenge to work with from usual, while allowing the school to display its large number of elite dancers in impressive group formations and configurations that would be impossible in the smaller dimensions of a typically-sized rectangular stage. So we see bodies filling the immense, beautifully varnished floor space, while others appear and/or disappear into the depths of a distant corridor, and yet others gaze down at us from the surrounding metallic balconies, with entrances and exits provided from multiple levels, directions, alcoves and locations.

Instead of being dwarfed by the vast area, in this production the scale of dancer to environment is a perfect fit. The overall statement here is: we have numbers and this is a prestigious school. It is all invitingly sleek, professional, seductive. And proud. What is expected of our national school of dance is delivered with confidence and elegance. The waves of graduating talent that are annually released on the world are visibly at its highest standards. This is the assurance that we are given to appreciate and acknowledge. The machinery of dance education working with great precision, rigour and finesse. The result, as evidenced by this year’s choreographic season, is a pleasing visual sensorium of virtuosity and polish. Technical, expressive, smart, athletic, tight and fresh.

The structural stamp of these productions remains the same as it has in recent years. The eleven works are seamlessly strung together to make one longer work. This device almost borders at times on making the transitions compete choreographically with the individual items. The overlap between pieces, expertly handled by the artistic director Victoria Colombus, who in effect is the hidden twelfth meta-choreographer, can sometimes blur the thread of a student’s particular idea or theme with regards to whether it is finished or not. This is by no means a criticism. The format here is about a journey where landscapes morph, change and merge as they pass us by, or, as happens at the start of this performance, as we pass them by.

It is satisfying to be active as an observer and to be led as we enter the performance space to a high place where we can look down on dancers from a different perspective and see them backdropped by a timber floor as they execute some stylish choreography by Jadyn Burt.  Or then be ordered by the furious gestures and miming of the actorly-able Felix Sampson to come down to ground level where we stand around a white podium, like patrons in a gallery, shuffling to get a better view over shoulders or between people in front. Here we are treated to a podium dance solo choreographed by Laura Beanland-Stephens. Now Jadyn Burt, the dancer, artfully manipulates her body into various poses as she rotates on her display box, gazing lazily and warmly at us throughout, until eventually, over-exposure perhaps taking its toll, she flips the stand over and is swallowed by it, like a tail-less mermaid descending and disappearing into the depths of our memories.

Throughout this solo, I enjoy noticing that the empty seating area behind our backs is quietly filled by dancers who, with one arm stretched casually over a neighbouring seat, look like mildly insolent casting directors perusing us as auditionees. Enjoyable also is the end of the solo when, not noticing that the dancers have left their seats, I feel a bump against my leg and look down to see a rolling body gently nudging and bulldozing me as a signal to now go and sit down. This is fun. But I’m getting sidetracked by one of those competing choreographic transitions!

Reflecting on what stands out for me in this smorgasbord of student choreography, I see that a great deal of the work is front-focussed. We are looked at directly. Bodies face us directly. Images are presented flat onto us directly. Particularly when clusters and groups form and do unison movement, often juxtaposed against other groups doing other phrases that in combination create layered, highly appealing, machine-like choreographic patterns (the production-line motif on the balcony is a memorable moment). Machine-like, that is, mixed with the slithery hunched-over stomp-tribalism that is in the style of the internationally prominent choreographer, Hofesh Shechter (one of the more noticeably important influences on these students’ movement choices and bodies). And this ‘at us, for us’ focus is not merely in our direction, as if gazing into a distance that we happen to be masking, much of the time we are being engaged eyeball-to-eyeball. We see you, you see us and we see you seeing us seeing you (seeing us). A veritable see-saw of seeing, gently imposed on us by lifted chins and open faces on long necks as a soft-fisted but kindly ‘here we are’ challenge. Hmmm… is this relentless front-focalism in dance bordering on overkill?

Two pieces stick in my mind for their elements of distinctness and difference. Contemporary dancers often use the technique of physically manipulating each other’s bodies like puppets. A choreographic device that in this show is the mainstay of much of the partner work and duets. The recipients are always happy to be externally rearranged in this mechanical fashion. It is common and familiar in our art form. But what more can be done with it? Felix Sampson provides a solution in hisUnfortunate Help where bodies are manipulated by long cardboard rods as a unique variation on this theme. Reminding me a bit of Oskar Schlemmer’s famous Stick Dance of 1927 where limb-lines get artificially extended, I enjoy the work-like way the chorus of dancers tear apart an exaggerated connection between two people to take control of them from a distance, resulting in the propped-up demise of one and the loud wailing into a cardboard tube of the other. For me, there is originality here and varied interpretive possibilities on the theme of human attachment.

The second item of interest to me for its central unlikeness to much of the other work is Sophie Gargan’s 79 Bonnie Special. This piece is a kind of choreographed cover-banding of Connan Mockasin’s YouTube video, Do I Make You Feel Shy. The pastiche-like structure and casual physical language is appealing for its anti-display of half-formed awkward movements, nonchalant comings and goings of dancers striking limp voguing poses, backgrounded by projected footage of unglamorous everyday life, selfie-dom and supermarket stardom. I love how the central character – beautifully performed by Georgia Rudd draped in a silk Chinese dressing gown and lip-syncing into a handheld microphone – reflects my mis-hearing of the fading lines of the song. The actual words are ‘My ever lusty world’, but to my ears this sounds more like ‘I am a lost diva’, and she does indeed look like an endearingly charismatic ‘lost diva’.

Actually, more than two pieces stand out. I always enjoy watching structures unfold, so Amelia McCarthy’s You Are My is a special treat with its cleverly and manically loopy deterioration. There is well-integrated use of production elements in this work. Blackouts periodically intercut the action with a projected word-wall that self-deletes some of its content each time we see it. This is an effective device. The dancers, meanwhile, each time the lights come up, descend a bit further from states of bliss and happiness to distorted and maniacal worlds of dementia, hysteria and what might otherwise appear as drug-f*****d confusion. This is a solidly mapped out choreographic journey that is infectiously performed and tight in its cyclical handling of decline, obsession and disarray.

OK, this review is getting long. But how can I not mention the cameo item that is Georgia Rudd’s A rigmarole, in which the verbally dexterous and commanding presence of Felix Sampson amusingly engages in one-sided banter with the compliant, slightly uncertain but permanently silent Rowan Rossi. Felix quizzes and domineers his victim, instructing him to respond to various questions, between which he provides us with a good deal of personal information (‘fun facts’) about Rowan (for instance, he owns ten pairs of tap shoes and comes from Adelaide), as well as getting him to undertake small tasks, such as tidying up his clothing and buttoning his shirt. The highlight of this piece is the sly build-up to Felix’s climactic delivery of a fast-paced rap poem, with both men dancing to it in unison. Rudd’s ‘choreography’ sidesteps movement through the vast majority of this piece and focusses instead on stripping back, through verbal dialogue, the fake theatrical world we’ve been watching up to then, as well as to questions about performance, relationship, identity and the hidden desire we have as artists to make a lasting impression. I value the intelligence and bravery of this choreographer to work outside the framework of choreographic expectation and ‘dance’ by delving instead into the slightly larger territory of ‘performance’.

I do not wish to give the impression through the few pieces I’ve chosen to talk about that the others are any less worthy. The evening is full of choreographic accomplishment and many rich images and ideas. Space just doesn’t permit the detailed acknowledgement that these deserve. I notice also that Felix Sampson has been mentioned three times in this review (and now four!), which might suggest that he stands out as a presence over and above the rest, this is not true. What I enjoy in this programme and its approach is that it successfully showcases and promotes the personalities and individual strengths and talents of all its student dancers.

Special acknowledgement, however, must be made of the involvement of production students and staff from Toi Whakaari. The technical elements are professionally delivered and tantamount to the success and smooth running of the whole venture. It is no small feat to transform a non-theatrical space into a performance-friendly environment in this way. The scale of the contribution of these behind-the-scenes people – costume makers and designers, sound and lighting technicians, stage managers, set construction, etc. – is massive. Hats off to you all!

And finally… music. Te Aihe Butler’s name is to be noted. A recent graduate from Toi Whakaari, Butler is a genius in the way he coordinates the musical content and arc of the show, catering to the needs of each of the students through sampled tracks or adding his own compositions. His musical versatility and talents are extremely well-suited to dance and so I hope this emerging maestro gets rapidly noticed and picked up more widely in the profession.

Of course, ultimately, the NZSD’s annual choreographic season serves two purposes. It’s a double showcase – one being the choreographic works, the other an opportunity to display and celebrate the calibre and abilities of the student dancers themselves as performers. What a beautiful powerhouse of talent there is in this 2015 year group, who are more than ably supported by the equally assured skills of students in other years. Considering they will all be launching themselves into the workforce in the not-too-distant future, I am thinking: how can each and every one of them not make an impact and succeed in some way in this most difficult and competitive of industries? Based on tonight, surely they will.

The saving grace and most valuable asset for these students is that, through the school’s current expertise and emphasis on choreography in its contemporary dance programme, their high physical accomplishments are accompanied by increased levels of artistic creativity and dance-making knowledge. This is a full and attractive package for the market place and its talent hounds. The company dancer these days must have high dance-making skills. But for those who are denied the company option, or who are not attracted to it, the skill set the school seems to be providing its contemporary students will enable them to independently forge other strong pathways in the creative arts industries and community of dance, particularly as artist-practitioners.

Tonight’s performance is clear testimony to the vibrancy and relevance of the curriculum that the NZSD is providing current generations of aspiring contemporary dance professionals. The school comes across as healthy and progressive. The faces, abilities and demeanours of its students radiate a balanced mixture of relaxed enjoyment and discipline. There is an unforced sense of ensemble and mutual respect for each other, aligned with the ability to stand out dynamically, performatively and competently as individuals and soloists.

These words of praise continue the applause that was well-deserved and generously and appreciatively given by the audience at the end of the show. Congratulations to staff, students and production people for a high-standard celebration of crafting, learning and imagination.