Royal New Zealand Ballet


SALUTE – Remembering World War
Choreographers: Jiri Kylian, Johan Kobborg, Andrew Simmons, Neil Ieremia

at St James Theatre, Wellington
From 22 May 2015 to 24 May 2015
[2 hours]

Reviewed by Chris Jannides, 25 May 2015

The Royal New Zealand Ballet tackles WW1 with a mixed bill of four works that, in essence, are not that mixed. In particular, there are noticeable choreographic and thematic overlaps between three of the works – Dear Horizon, Soldier’s Mass and Passchendaele. But the theme is war, so how can there not be repeated images of dying, sorrow, loss, departure, fear, consolation, heroism, comradeship, etc., etc.? All romanticised with gracefully expressive bodies that curve or explode in tragic anguish and emotively charged eloquence and lyricism.

In the logic of programming – which, in tonight’s performance amounts to curtain-raiser (Andrew Simmons), homage to the ancestor (Jiri Kylian), light relief (Johan Kobborg) and climax (Neil Ieremia) – Simmons’ piece, Dear Horizon, is rightly at the start. Its balletic style signals the company’s allegiance and home territory. It introduces the theme of the evening in a respectful and moving tone. The choreography and the music, by Gareth Farr, are beautifully aligned. A woman next to me (I love getting feedback from strangers during a performance), remarks that the music makes her want to burst into tears. ‘It is so mournful’, she tells me, ‘there is so little redemption in it’. The only thing that I and my neighbour query is the set by Tracy Grant Lord. A gigantic tornado of stuff upstage centre looks like a deranged Christmas stocking from hell! My neighbour notices that one of the dancers accidentally bumps into it. If nothing else, it is definitely unmistakeable and appropriate in what it represents and depicts of the fearful chaos of the battlefield.

Simmons’ Dear Horizon – (is the title a tribute to Kylian’s work, which follows, with its bright-red, curved horizon line across the back of the stage?) – is principally lyrical, with mournful walking figures, sweeping extended gestures, lots of swirling and lifting of bodies in elegant shapes, fluid expressions of emotion, rising and falling forms. At times it is processional, delicate, military (as are all the works with their literal depictions of saluting, marching, standing at attention, etc.). There is airborne stuff, big jetes, a lifting of speed and energy at the three-quarter mark, the mandatory carrying of the corpse above heads (also seen in the other works), as well as much gazing into the distance, sometimes standing, sometimes kneeling – the men gazing into their dreadful future, the women gazing after the departed men and awaiting their return, or not. In fact, this dance has a lot of choreography. So much so that its structural logic disappears as it unfurls itself along its distance, while never seeming to lose its way, thankfully.

If Simmons is the curtain-raiser, Ieremia’s Passchendaele is the climax. Primary differences between the two are that the dancers have dispensed with their soft ballet shoes and are now barefoot. There are all the same movement motifs, choreographic devices, literal references and emotional themes as in Simmon’s work (so I won’t list them again), but instead of an overwhelming piece of sculpture as a set, there is a projected image of a river of blood that slowly morphs into a landscape of charred trees and white sky. The movement is also more explosive and angular, and there is a lot more lifting of bodies. The choreographic structure is transparent in its episodic development. The inclusion of some kapa haka gestures gives the soldiers a distinctly kiwi identity. Interesting also that the more virile barefoot movement language of Ieremia’s contemporary dance style makes the dancers look more youthful than they appear in some of the other works. This is clear testimony to their versatility.

Passchendaele is also the crowd favourite. The music, by Dwayne Bloomfield, has risen to the choreographic demands Ieremia requires of it. While the bandwidth of the other works hovers within a dynamic range that is expected of all professional dance and good choreography – a range that embraces gentleness and delicacy at one end and athletic prowess and virtuosity at the other, all safely held within the bounds of great technique – Ieremia pushes these extremes so there is more energy, more attack, more contrast, more impact. Blasted in this way, the audience responds with excitement and with batteries newly charged. Ieremia’s status as one of NZ’s more successful choreographers is amply justified by this addition to the ballet company’s repertoire.

The visual impact of dancers dancing in canon (not to be confused with the weapon) is always striking and it is the earliest of these works, Jiri Kylian’s Soldier’s Mass, created in 1980, that might be said to have set the initial benchmark and standard for this technique. Kylian’s skill at being able to fluidly arrange and rearrange group formations of dancers is legendary. He added new chapters to the choreographer’s handbook with his signature movement aesthetic and style, along with his appealing and masterly exploration of geometrically staggered movement sequences and weaving patterns. This work is one of the stand-out and most popular creations in Kylian’s extensive canon.

I cannot add anything new to the tomes of literature that Soldier’s Mass will have already attracted over the years. This is one of the classics of 20th century dance. All that’s left is to comment on its rendition tonight. The dancers performed it extremely well, although I found that the solos were slightly lacklustre. However, there was one strange feature, that of a woman in the cast. The original was choreographed on 12 men. In its many recreations on different companies around the world, is it now common to include female dancers? I did not know this. My initial reaction was, ‘Oh, the ballet company doesn’t have 12 men’. But a look at the programme showed that this isn’t the case.

The intriguing thing for me is that ballet here is one of the bastions of artistic conservatism. For instance, although audiences in Europe have been hardened to nudity in the works of contemporary ballet over the last few decades, that is not the case in NZ (except of course in contemporary dance). So in the climax of Soldier’s Mass where the men dramatically discard their shirts to reveal well-muscled torsos, why was the sole female dancer, who had been prominently placed at the front of the stage through much of the choreography, discreetly removed to one of the back lines at this moment? And then, having been topless for the conclusion of the dance, why was she the only one to put her shirt back on for the curtain call that immediately followed? Perplexing! It seems that a token gesture towards something that might be slightly radical was handled in a way that also made it prudish. She then gets the biggest applause, which would seem to undermine the choreographer’s statement about solidarity among fighting men. Just get all the men to put their shirts back on too for the bows, would be my suggestion!

In the three works mentioned so far, Kylian’s Soldier’s Mass sits between Andrew Simmons’ and Neil Ieremia’s works as a proud ancestor with some new offspring. Differences between the latter, as has already been noted, come not so much from their content and approach, but more from the fact of their respective backgrounds – Simmons in ballet and Ieremia in contemporary dance. The fourth contributor to tonight’s programme stands in complete contrast to all the rest for its comical and light-hearted take on the subject.

Salute, by Johan Kobborg, matches smartly attired young military men with coyly amorous young women. Its series of short items offer the company an opportunity to get out of the bleak and distressing world of the battlefield and into the flirtatious territory of the ballroom. There is much showing off of skill and technical finesse, featuring the full gamut of well-known classical ballet steps and vocabulary. On top of this there is plenty of tom-foolery involving jealousies, awkwardness between the sexes, confusion about who should be with who, the bonding of star-crossed lovers, punctuated by the exaggerated antics of a buffoonish sergeant major. All gently situated within the melodic tones, world and rhythm of the waltz. In the spirit of overlap between tonight’s works, I am amused to see that amongst the uniformed cast of costumed ‘soldiers’, one of them is a female – but this time she is thematically integral to the storyline. Kobborg’s happy work is infectious and makes the audience very happy too.

The Royal New Zealand Ballet is currently a strong company of highly accomplished and personable dancers. I at no point witness a feeling of uncertainty or shakiness in performance. Their bodies and techniques appear confident, secure and strong. There is consistency of artistry across the board. It is great that a programme such this allows the art form to set aside its hierarchically driven approach and work more tightly as an ensemble.

The live music component from the New Zealand Army Band is an added bonus to tonight’s proceedings. What a privilege to hear such musicianship and to experience this kind of artistic collaboration between dancers, composers and musical practitioners in our community who might not normally associate in this way. The overall production and design elements are also to be commended for their high standards and expert delivery. The Royal NZ Ballet has high demands expected of it every time it steps out on the stage, tonight’s performance more than fulfilled each and every one of them.

Chatting to my neighbour between items, I realise she has become a kind of armchair expert on ballet audiences. For instance, she tells me that the noise people make in the intervals or gaps is a measure of their reaction to what they’re seeing. If the sound goes up, all is good, if people are quiet ‘there is no energy in the performance’. She happily points out that the volume tonight in the audience chat is high. At the same time, I overhear people behind me talking about the price of cod and their disappointment at having bought some fresh fish recently that didn’t last long when they took it home. I amuse myself by trying to connect this conversation to the question of the hopefully longer-lasting impact of theatrical performance and dance.

This evening’s entertainment at the ballet on the theme of war has made me reflect a little on our lives here in New Zealand and on how such events are so distant, both currently and historically, for us. But are they? And for how long? I think also of those few in our armed forces who have fairly quietly been shipped off to the Middle East to face the reality of what we are here tonight safely enjoying and appreciating as art. History goes in cycles, but is at the same time completely unpredictable. Let’s remember, but hopefully not repeat.