The Unitec Dance Programme – celebrates its 21st year of existence –tackling this milestone with the all the youthful vigour of downing a yard glass. Yerrr on ya mate!
[First toddler steps were taken as The Auckland Performing Arts School at other venues (Newton then Ponsonby) before shifting to Unitec premises at age 6, and gaining accreditation as New Zealand’s first dance degree 4 years later.]
Alison East who guided the school from its inception through to 1996 – and Mama to many of us – is still an undiminished ethic of a woman (“I’m an old tree” she quipped). Her original vision of providing physical, theoretical and aesthetic foundations towards the development of a sensitive, mature, holistic dance artist in Aotearoa – is still an important ideal today.
Though now at the University of Otago, Ali graced this event with her presence, pleased to see these initial values (or at least the essence of them) still embedded (however imperceptibly) within the school’s overall kaupapa.
[Digress por un momento…what makes a fine wine? Is it the vintage? The oak? The grapes? The vines? The soil?]
Over the past 15 years, the school has lurched through its gangly adolescence – changing course leaders and heads of school like a teenager wearing out its shoes. The most significant of these subsequent ‘post-Ali’ dynasties however, was the influential Chris Jannides period (1998-2005), spawning a whole generation of choreographic-able dance practitioners now in the ‘industry’.
[Foster parents over that time have included (but are not limited to): Raewyn Whyte, Gary Trinder, Felicity Molloy, Ann Dewey, Michael Parmenter, Charles Koroneho, Moana Nepia, Kristian Larsen etc].
As each teacher infused their own brand of knowledge and experience base with the school’s spirit and organization – it has produced diverse types of dance artist. Unitec has held a leading edge, in that their graduates are (arguably) known for their individualist creative spark – compared to say the NZ School of Dancer’s prodigious workhorse ethic.
However, now it seems these lines have begun to blur as current Unitec Dance Curriculum Leader Charene Griggs’s (ex South African Ballet Theatre dancer) tenure has emphasised higher technical proficiency, enforced discipline and a company mentality.
So what actually is A Life Between Us?
Curated by Griggs, the show comprises repertoire ensemble works of five established choreographers with different connections to the school. From senior choreographers to graduate alumni, regardless of the exact combination – the bone of contention of who/what was being represented would inevitably be picked on. Widely debated for various reasons, the show nevertheless delivered its most important element. The Dancing.
Unitec departed from the usual model of dancers performing within their own year group, after a casting process held across all year levels. While you’d think this would allow for the ‘best’ groupings, the connectedness between the dancers missed something of their shared experience of living, eating, breathing (and drinking) dance intensely.
The first piece of the night was from recent Arts Foundation Laureate recipient Michael Parmenter, a remount of Colony (composed for the graduating class of 2009).
A bell is struck, curtains opening to reveal blue light haze. A figure walks solemnly across the stage, long sleeved full-length dress in pilgrim black, hair slicked in a tight bun. Two walkers become three, then another…and so on and so forth. An introduction of angles: walking patterns become forwards and diagonals, someone runs in late for the seminary.
Different body sizes, postures are all squeezed into the same oppressively smothering black outfit. Uncountable numbers of women flock to the stage and form smaller groups, shifting, changing and holds, side slaps, noise of footsteps picking up pace. (Nice swift turn Caroline G!).
Slit of crimson, precise patterns, walking over landscaped gardens, deportment is refined though intensely focused. (Georgia G has a strong face). Shifting between pedestrian and held, the core motif is an over the head, elbows in and open palms. Circular runs are low and grounded; two whirlpools are created in half and half groupings (Harry Potter dance), Continued splitting up – walking patterns reflecting the waves of crescendo in the music.
They start to look, smile, reach down, playing some type of walking through the space game. It seems improvised (fine but quite a different energy). Flapping open their circular split overskirts, to reveal crimson, teal grey, moss green. Odd yet fantastic,
I wonder why they are suddenly happy? Trotting, running, moments of unison with slightly different angles, looking at us, each other. Little tableaux are formed, bulky skirts being negotiated while moving quickly around each other.
I didn’t see the original cast but had heard reports their version was more passionate. This did feel slightly austere and madly counted. Another friend commented the piece could work incredibly well with a performer like Claire O’Neill (a Parmenter muse) and made me consider the subtle qualities of finesse that a calibre dancer brings to the table.
Following this was a male trio, Crash Test Dummies (designed originally for Footnote Dance Company) by Malia Johnston, Unitec graduate and Artistic Director of the WOW.
Fast, quick hops and grabs, the Second Year boys embody an intricate series of movement combinations, intense, muscular, particular and idiosyncratic. (Nice animation Mark B). The soundtrack by Eden Mulholland is musically tricky, somewhat like a drunken horse gallop that the dancers weave in, under and through. (Bang! Bang! You’re dead!) .
Body breaks (great focus by Matt M), hops and jumps (that hover), as well as quick catches in sly partnering combinations (cute little walks, pops and leans, and array of lifts). Though no softening here, the work demonstrated the gritty natural physicality of the male dancer. (Love you long long time).
Though the work exploited their uniqueness well –with the nice fluid musicality of Mark B, the strong whippet-like quality by Joshua G, or Matt M’s boingey explosiveness – more experienced partners could possibly have shaved millimetres and milliseconds off spacing and timing. However, they managed to pull it off well and were evenly matched in terms of cohesiveness of breath and energy.
The piece ended with a topless back Johnston signature motif [I recently read somewhere that fashion designer Adrian Hailwood said blue was his signature colour]. Lean, sweaty half-lit torsos traipsing frieze-like across the space.
Onto the monstrous work Those Left by Shona McCullagh, a remounted dark meditation on European War (exactingly crafted on the graduating class of 2008). I was absolutely blown away when I saw it the first time – leaving little breathing space to impress this time around.
Tackling the lead role of the “girl in purple”, Sierra P was all open backed, mass of curls (more sweet than untamed) and released arches. I yearned for more darkness. The all-female ensemble wear grey hooded (split to navel) dresses, and explode into cannon, releases, head swishes, and hair over their faces. Caroline G. captures my attention with sublime release and animalistic quality during her solo. Angelica O boots through the space with fantastically fast runs! Leg over neck lift sees the dancers whirling in pairs.
In amongst the frenzy of movement I notice other things. They all look different: brown, black, curly, blonde, long, short. The black bike shorts under the dresses are distracting. Low lighting on the side is beautiful. Arm-lines are not quite together tonight.
What made it stronger before I wonder? I see a dancer drop her inner core and leave it behind – and realise it is about that type of absolute fulfilment of the movement that transforms the viewer by making us feel something visceral and real.
Sierra P has a gorgeous fast solo, before being joined by a high voltage Lucy L – who rocks my world during a hard out, head-banging, Led Zeppelin-style hair swishing, full-split moment!! (Apparently she enters halfway through the piece just before that moment – explaining why she looked demonically possessed compared to the others). The rest of the piece had more spins, jumps and (some slightly off) arabesques.
Not quite as tight and polished as the first time I saw the work, I missed the resonance of some of the dancers who were graduating at that time (Destiny S, Pare R, Hannah T.P), yet applaud the epic nature of the work and the complexity and fitness required for its execution.
Next, a change of pace with the comical, theatrical and playful Comp Legs Circa by former Unitec Head, Chris Jannides (completing his practice-based PhD at the University of Chichester, U.K).
“And now”…. announces the voiceover. Wearing shades, waistcoat and sneakers, a dancer gets ready to demonstrate the 31 steps of the original Complicated Legs Dance (a hilarious retro moment back to the days of LIMBS Dance Company).
“Split skipping step”, “Charleston”, “Side together”, “Non stop walking step”, “Pirate”, “Flicking tilt”, “double side” were but a few of the humorous movements, performed by a wonderfully droll Tracey T (an example of inspired casting)!
We are introduced to the rest of the Year 3 class (minus a few in other works) all wearing similar outfits, and told the “Unitec Dance Ensemble” (haha) will be performing “The Complicated Arms Dance”. Yes folks – that joker Jannides is for real. Little fingers and hands, prosthetic arms, a jig dance in the background, I totally dig the grooviness. Theresa M tells me later their mental image is to ‘be as cool as possible’ – I love it.
Suddenly from this jolly beginning – a subtle change happens – like a cloud rolling in…well more, a pinky red cloud with shimmery steel blue lightning. Serious strings stir. “And now” starts to sound more ominous. (Nice duet between Zaveer D and Lydia Z). Two lines are formed [I sentimentally think “how nice to see these people”].
In a central light, a soloist breaks away from the group. Silhouette. I find the dance becoming more intriguing: slow turns down the line, internalness, oneness with the dancers and the movement. Jana W has a beautiful entrance passing through the lines. I admire how Jannides facilitated the work to complement their own way of moving.
The lighting becomes psychedelic, ensemble work is refreshing in its simplicity, the dancers work well together and you can see an organic sense of being attuned and in time. Watching this piece makes me think of Chris’s legacy and connection to the students and their development.
[At the same time, I ponder many other influential teachers who have passed through, such as the likes of: Sue Healey, Warrick Long or Sean Curham who have contributed strongly to the feeling of Unitec.]
And now…. the last piece in this really long review! Black Grace is represented through a work called PatiPati by Neil Ieremia, himself a graduate in 1991. It is worth noting that the students trained during their school term break (“boot camp”) and were rehearsed by members of the company.
[I spotted Zoe Watkins, Thomas Fonua, Tupua Tigafu and Sean MacDonald hanging around the Unitec Dance Studios a few weeks ago, while the sound of twenty hands clapping in absolute unison boomed from within].
Kneeling, sitting, high sternum, the low lighting, percussive music and exquisitely simple yet very flattering skin toned and baring dresses, speak to a soft earthy palette. My favourite movement is a Black Grace – like hop backwards, where the group is drawn upstage.
PatPati immediately has the best unison of energy so far in the show, moving so fast you can barely see who the dancers are. (Nicole R. has the standout moment – commanding the stage with a fantastically magnetic presence). The effect of this dance is mesmerising, energy goes up and down, and I feel the ihi, their staunchness. They look incredibly fit – great pay off for (obviously) such hard work.
Shifting to syncopated claps that get progressively faster, slapping feet, no frills movement, getting on the beat – it was a dance that made you get excited. (Stacey R looked great!). They looked luminous – like moths. At this point, I actually start saying words aloud like “Yees” [having some kind of ‘Can I get an Amen?’ moment].
This dance could be seen anywhere in the world. It looked, felt, tasted like New Zealand. Looking past the electric Brazilian Angelica O, I also notice fire in the eyes and sweat on the chest of Jahra W. (Go brown girls!).
[As the dance teacher, Lydia Grant from the original FAME movie said: “You want fame? Well fame costs. And right here is where you start paying. With sweat.”]
Full actions, comprehensive, unified, fatal, tribal and raw. The timing is gorgeous.
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