Dance of the Instant: the New Dance Group
The Auckland Performing Arts Centre: TAPAC, Auckland
05/10/2008 - 05/10/2008
DANCE LIGHTS UP THE BIG SCREEN
This year’s Tempo Dance Festival will see the premiere screening of Dance of the Instant, a just-completed documentary that re-discovers a forgotten chapter in New Zealand dance history. The film focuses on ‘The New Dance Group’ which pioneered modern dance in New Zealand in the 1940s. It was controversial and many years ahead of its time. The footage from that period, and interviews with some of the dancers, will amaze those who assumed that modern dance first emerged in this country in 1977 when Limbs came on the scene.
The film, directed by Shirley Horrocks, one of New Zealand’s leading documentary-makers, grew out of research by former Limbs dancer and choreographer Marianne Schultz.
One of its discoveries is that the New Dance Group had a direct link with Martha Graham, the famous American choreographer, known as "the Picasso of modern dance." When New Zealander Rona Bailey (then Rona Stephenson) was in New York studying for a degree in Physical Education in the 1930s, she took dance classes from Martha Graham and Doris Humphrey.
Back home in New Zealand she joined forces with Phillip Smithells, who had recently arrived from England to design the country’s new Physical Education school syllabus. Smithells believed passionately in the need for movement such as modern dance to be part of Physical Education, and he persuaded some of his colleagues and students to get involved.
Playwright Bruce Mason was part of the group and Brian Brake did their publicity photographs.
For three years the group’s performances were a magnet for those in Wellington who craved a taste of sophistication and novelty in the provincial, conservative atmosphere of the 1940s. Modern dance, in a group that involved dancing in bare feet and tunics instead of tutus was bound to be controversial. Rona Bailey and some of her friends already had a colourful reputation for their interest in left-wing politics. The group used contemporary situations and themes for their dances – from the factory production line, to the bombing of Hiroshima.
Much of their music was contemporary (such as the Russian composer Shostakovich). The New Dance Group was part of the push by the arts in New Zealand after the war to "make this country modern at last."
Shirley Horrocks has specialized in making documentaries about important artists who deserve to be better known. Her past topics include sculptor Len Lye, photographer Marti Friedlander, and visual artist John Reynolds. She was delighted to find footage in the New Zealand Film Archive of the New Dance Group in action, along with excellent photographs by Brian Brake and Neville Lewers. With the help of Marianne Schultz, Shirley was able to film a recreation of some of the group’s choreography with dancers from Backlit. And most exciting of all was her discovery that there were members of the group who could be interviewed.
Sadly, some principal members such as Bailey have died, but Shirley managed to track down surviving members in Auckland, Dunedin, and Rotorua, as well as Wellington.
Films about dance history are rare in New Zealand, and this one (made with the help of Creative NZ and some private supporters) is a real eye-opener. Modern dance is strong today, but how many of us have been aware that the tradition in this country goes back 60 years?
The New Dance Group will then glide into 2008 with a dance performance by Backlit who will perform a re-creation of New Dance Group directly after the screening.
Dance of the Instant – a film by Shirley Horrocks
Sunday, 5 October 2008, 1PM
TAPAC, Western Springs, Auckland
Duration: 80 minutes
The premiere screening of Dance of the Instant, a just-completed documentary that re-discovers a forgotten chapter in New Zealand dance history. The film focuses on 'The New Dance Group' which pioneered modern dance in New Zealand in the 1940s. It was controversial and many years ahead of its time. The footage from that period, and interviews with some of the dancers, will amaze those who assumed that modern dance first emerged in this country in 1977 when Limbs came on the scene.
1hr 20 mins
High calibre documentary about innovative and controversial 1940s dance group
Review by Sue Cheesman 07th Oct 2008
Auckland’s TAPAC theatre was full on Sunday afternoon as we eagerly awaited the premiere of this documentary film and the reconstruction that accompanied it as part of the Tempo Dance Festival programme.
Directed by Shirley Horrocks, Dance of the Instant captures, through interviews and archival film footage, an important moment in New Zealand’s dance history. The New Dance Group existed in post war Wellington from 1945 to 1947. Wellington at this time had an atmosphere open to change with its first café – The French café – where everyone hung out, so to speak, at their own self designated tables. It was the right place right time to bring these talented and independent thinking individuals together to form The New Dance Group.
Prior to the film screening Marianne Schultz reconstructed two excerpts on today’s contemporary dancers from Backlit. This group of woman were dressed in tunics and bare footed in keeping with dress code of that era. Watching this live performance I got a sense of the use of strong diagonals lines, sharp angular arms shapes, very ordered groupings and a specific range of vocabulary including a scissors jump with a turn. Devices such as canon, unison and action-reaction were prominent ways of structuring these snippets.
This seemed to be in keeping with the modern dance idiom of the time, whether that is German Expressionism in Europe or American Modern Dance. It is always difficult to fully recapture the movement and especially the dynamics on dancers who are very differently trained, so it was special to see the excerpts again in the film, with those very sharp dynamics and the hard intensity piercing the space.
An excerpt called Sabotage in the Factory makes a social/political commentary capturing the mechanical machine like precision of the factory floor.
Interestingly, the film suggests that the four principal members – Phillip Smithells, Rona Bailey, Edith Sipos and Olive Smithells – were far more socially and politically aware while the other members of the group were students in their first and second years at Teachers Training College in Wellington. Rona Bailey had recently returned from study in New York where she took classes with Martha Graham and Doris Humphrey, two famous American modern dance pioneers.
The New Dance group – under the directorship of the non-dancing Philip Smithells, a visionary physical educator with a passionate commitment to dance – practised every Saturday morning and paid a shilling for the class.
Interviews from seven members of the group form the spines of the film and give a real authenticity to the recall of our dance heritage and this group. Unfortunately none of the principal members could be interviewed for this film. However Joy Parkin, one of the group members interviewed, is a particular delight when she starts to dance, recalling her memories through movement.
Commentary by Marianne Schultz throughout the film brings coherence to the other information. She points out that their musical choices were very different and contemporary, including Shostakovich and percussion scores.
This thoroughly modern dance group was innovative and controversial, using contemporary situations and themes to comment on, for example, the bombing of Hiroshima, and they were in direct contrast to the ballet of the time.
I for one will be queuing up to see this film again when it comes out on general release and it will be an asset to any dance department. I hope that others have the foresight to make more dance documentaries of this calibre.
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