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STRONG, FIERCE, COMPETENT DANCING

Print Version
Credit: John McDermott
Credit: John McDermott
Language of Living - North Island tour
Sarah Foster-Sproull, Michael Parmenter, Justin Haiu, Shona McCullagh, Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker

at Opera House, Wellington
From 12 Jun 2013 to 12 May 2013
[2 hours]

Reviewed by Jillian Davey, 13 Jun 2013


“What did they do with that money?” A common question among the Wellington contemporary dance community, asked of The New Zealand Dance Company's CNZ funding; a huge amount for a single arts organisation, let alone contemporary dance. ($500,000 per annum for two years.)  Whether we're irked the money wasn't more evenly distributed, or that it all went up to Auckland (sniff), most of us were curious to find out how that cool million was put to use.

While I can't claim to know where the funding is allocated behind the scenes or what politics it may, or may not be, wrapped in, I can tell you where some of it went from an audience perspective.

It went towards eight very strong Kiwi dancers, some unique Kiwi choreography and some imported from overseas, live musicians, performance-specific composed music, a simple yet fresh set design, engaging lighting, and probably a few techies.

The set, designed by Sue Gallagher, was effective in its simplicity.  Loops of metallic-coloured fabric hung side by side to create a backdrop, a musician's reveal (as portions were raised and lowered), and a screen for projected introductions to each of the evening's five pieces; a short graphic display in bright white lettering and the name of the next piece in the line-up.  A nice touch visually, especially for those who didn't have programmes.

I was slightly concerned as Michael Parmenter's ‘Tenerezza (…from time to time…)' opened the show.  A strong display of finesse and impeccable partnering by dancers Craig Bary and Justin Haiu, but certainly nothing ground breaking.  The partnership seemed to be one of the-blind-leading-the-blind, with the dancers looking, but not seeing each other.  The movement, set to a vaguely familiar classical score (Bach's Sonata in A Minor), was interrupted by sudden stops and starts, but without a pause long enough for the audience to linger on or register it.  There was one great moment of pause while Haiu and Bary breathed in unison after a particularly soft, yet strong, partnering phrase, but all was lost when the piece ended abruptly, as if the lights had been turned off by accident.

Director Shona MCCullagh's ‘Trees, Birds Then People” offered an impassioned avian mating dance.  Again, strong dancing by the cast, Gareth Okan, Lucy Lynch, Hannah Tasker-Poland, and Tupua Tigafua, with displays of fast movement, quick changes of direction and intricate arm and hand choreography… bird-like in every aspect.  Lighting was subdued in the colours of New Zealand bush, music played live by NZTrio and composed by Gareth Farr was suitable for the piece, and tone was comical and quirky.  A cute quartet.

‘Release Your Robot', was where the show broke free of its typical contemporary clutch.  Justin Haiu shone as choreographer and performer, fusing his street dance and contemporary dance backgrounds.  He offered a simple story in a slick white suit and matching kicks (shoes) in a new style that seemed so right for a Kiwi dance company.  His presentation of a human robot showing his moves during a night out and tragically being felled by a hit-and-run was an engaging and truly unique. I hope the audience was taking note, as hopefully they'll be seeing more of this contemporary fusion.

Another NZDC choice I grudgingly admired (I am a Wellingtonian after all) was their extended scope to a piece of European choreography. ‘Prelude a L'apres midi D'un Faune' (‘Prelude to an Afternoon of a Faun'), is a solo for Ursula Robb gifted by Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker of Belgian company Rosas.  It shows the company is looking further afield than its own back yards for inspiration, but whether it was the subdued (perhaps drab) costume or the changes to the choreography to ‘suit a female body' (it's usually performed by a male)something was lost in translation.  ‘Afternoon of a Faun' has been rehashed many times by various ballet and contemporary choreographers; the original was performed by Nijinksy in 1912, and Debussy's iconic score never fails to impress.  Unfortunately, although Robb encapsulates the awkwardness and vulnerability of the Faun, the piece as a whole was not the most successful adaptation.

And finally the closing: ‘Human Human God'.  If this piece were a news story it would be a human interest bit produced by the young intern with their finger on the pulse and an ear for music -- the problem, the plight, the desperation, anger, and the action.

It takes on the insular characteristics (failures?) of Generation Y; their upbringing in a P.C. world (P.C. in this case could stand for both ‘politically correct' and ‘personal computer'), their self-focus, and some would say, their demands to be treated both as equals and as unique individuals.  It encapsulates all the clichés this generation has to offer, and there-in lies the dark humour.  Choreographer Sarah Foster-Sproull (she notes contributions from the dancers as well) knows what she's working with and has moulded it into both a laughable piss-take and a serious look at this most modern of generations.

The cast (all company members except Robb) take this human interest story on with a bold, urban warrior style as they oppress, manipulate and prove their uniqueness to each other in some fierce choreography.  Not a weak dancer among them, they worked well in the unison sections, but with enough personal style (especially among the men) to make it interesting and varied.  Adding to the story is a score by Eden Mulholland, a favourite composer among contemporary dancers.  The grandly operatic, pop-alt score kept pace with the dancers.  (Or was it the other way around?)

Normally I wouldn't recommend dancers to act… ever.  But both the recorded and live dialogue were enjoyable, effective, and dare I say, believable?  (Perhaps I shouldn't go that far.)  Gareth Okan broods masterfully as one of the main narrators on their standings as unique, yet equal human beings.  Individual gods, in fact.  “Everyone is a god”, he says, entitled to all the good things the world has to offer.  How will they get it?  By being mean, or being nice?  Both, as only Gen Y can do. 

The New Zealand Dance Company impresses in their ability to retain the ‘contemporary' in contemporary dance, as with Justin Haiu's and Sarah Foster-Sproull's choreographies, the show's professional presentation, as made evident in their lighting, music, and stage design, and in spotlighting what New Zealand dancers are known for; strong, fierce, competent dancing.  Pity they're based in Auckland.


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See also reviews by:
 Ann Hunt (The Dominion Post);
 Jenny Stevenson
 Bernadette Rae (NZ Herald);