New Zealand School of Dance 40th Anniversary

Opera House, Wellington

09/11/2007 - 10/11/2007

Production Details

This November, the New Zealand School of Dance celebrates its 40th Anniversary with three performances of classical ballet and cutting-edge contemporary choreography, featuring renowned guest artists.

Students of the New Zealand School of Dance (NZSD) will be joined onstage at The Opera House by artists from leading contemporary dance companies Black Grace and Footnote Dance, and NZSD alumni Jane Casson (The Australian Ballet), and Craig Davidson (Royal Ballet of Flanders).

“The 40th Anniversary of our national dance school will be a fantastic opportunity to reflect upon our rich history as well as celebrating our vision for the future.” says Garry Trinder, director of New Zealand School of Dance. “The performance programme is an eclectic mix of audience favourites and fresh new works.”

Some of the world’s best-loved ballets will feature in the 40th Anniversary Graduation Season. Excerpts from August Bournonville’s La Sylphide and the Balcony Pas de Deux from Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet will be performed alongside the First Pas de Trois from Agon – the famous collaboration between choreographer George Balanchine and the composer Igor Stravinsky. The inclusion of Agon coincides with Stravinsky’s 125th birthday and the golden jubilee of the ballet’s world premiere. The Final Movement from another Balanchine ballet, Theme and Variations, choreographed to a grand score by Tchaikovsky, provides another opportunity to demonstrate the talent of NZSD students.  

The Graduation Season also showcases the work of Australasia’s finest contemporary choreographers in a selection of dramatic, powerful works. Audiences will be uplifted by the pure humanity of The Bach, choreographed by acclaimed New Zealander Michael Parmenter to an Easter cantata by Johann Sebastian Bach. An upbeat, energetic contemporary piece by Garry Stewart (Director of Australian Dance Theatre), entitled Currently Under Investigation utilizes “a classical technique within a charged, contemporary context”. Fellow Australian Leigh Warren’s Never Mind the Bindies aims to draw the audience into a hypnotic web of ritual, and pushes the dancers to the parameters of physicality.

These special performances sit within an entire weekend (Friday 9 – Sunday 11 November) designed to mark the School’s anniversary in style. The events include film screenings at the New Zealand Film Archive, tours of Te Whaea: National Dance & Drama Centre, forums, luncheons, displays of historic NZSD photographs in the Wellington Public Library and a reunion afternoon.

The New Zealand School of Dance was established in 1967 in an old cinema on Marion Street, Wellington, primarily to provide dancers for the Royal New Zealand Ballet.  Originally called the National School of Ballet, the School changed its name to the New Zealand School of Dance in 1982 to reflect on the wider training programme, which includes both classical ballet and contemporary dance.

New Zealand School of Dance 40th Anniversary

Graduation Season – the Opera House, Wellington

Friday 9 & Saturday 10 November 2007

Tickets available from Ticketek.

Dance ,

High standard fitting tribute

Review by Jennifer Shennan 16th Nov 2007

NZ School of Dance celebrated its 40th anniversary in a gala performance at the Opera House. The contrast between many short works on a full programme emphasized stylistic variety rather than unity, but there was an impressively high standard of technical performance overall.

The choreographic masterwork of the programme was Evening Songs, by Dutch dance-maker Jiri Kylian, to music by Dvorak.  Uniquely on the programme, this cast was drawn from both classical and contemporary streams of the School, reminding us that "dance" is both noun and verb ( whereas "classical" and "contemporary" are only adjectives).  The calm clarity of movement, with elements of sequencing, layering, phrasing and grouping all impeccably proportioned and judged, make this a dance, poem and prayer in one. An audience feels cleansed by such an experience.

Birthday Offering, a grand procession of classical students, including youngsters  from the junior associates programme, made a pleasing opener.  Two star graduates – Craig Davidson now with Royal Ballet of Flanders, and Jane Casson with Australian Ballet – performed sparkling solos, but each was too teasingly short. The full pas-de-deux and codas from le Corsaire, both of them together, would have been an outstanding performance.  

Davidson partnered second-year student Sharni Spencer in a moving Balcony scene from MacMillan’s Romeo & Juliet, showing that Spencer clearly has prospects for a fine career in dance. Danish ballet style was caught in an excerpt from La Sylphide, with another talented young dancer, Ginny Gan, in the lead role, and Rory Fairweather-Neylan displaying  an impressive technical ability.

Further contrast was evident in the extrovert style and extreme technique of Balanchine’s Agon. This was one of the hallmark works performed by Ou Lu, who was leading soloist with the RNZ Ballet for many years. It is an irony that the very Company which initiated the founding of this National School of Ballet back in 1967, was due to depart for China only hours after curtain fall, so that many of its luminaries, including graduates, former staff and musicians, were hovering near the theatre but sadly were not involved in this evening’s celebration.

Items were contributed from Footnote Dance and Black Grace dancers. Currently Under Investigation, choreographed by Garry Stewart of Australian Dance Theatre, made a strong impression with striking all-white costume design adding atmosphere to the dramatic build of its political theme. Michael Parmenter’s large group work, to a Bach cantata, was intricately patterned and made a fitting finale to a varied programme that showed dancers full of commitment and enthusiasm for their chosen careers. Let’s hope at least some of them make it into RNZBallet so we have the pleasure of following their unfolding careers here.


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Excellence in every genre – but what defines it as the New Zealand School of Dance?

Review by Lyne Pringle 16th Nov 2007

This was an impressive show.

The very long evening kicks off with an address by the chair of the Board followed by Michael Cullen who lets us know that this school has been part of the development of New Zealand culture since 1967, when its focus was entirely on training ballet dancers. (In 1982 the school replaced the title The National Ballet School with its current title, embraced a contemporary dance curriculum and began to set its sights on grooming dancers for the international stage.) Cullen makes the often stated observation that for a small country we produce a lot of great dancers and this is validated when one looks at the alumni of this school. But the current direction of the school has led to a flood of overseas students and the sights of the school are firmly focussed on the international market. [See the final two pars.]

A tiny girl flanked by slightly larger girls and one boy are representatives of the Regional Associates for the school and they are given the honour of beginning the performance with great dignity and concentration before the entire classical school of up to 30 students takes the stage with breathtaking effect.

Balanchine is always a treat and this version of the Final Movement from Theme and Variations is no exception with Sharni Spencer and Kyle Wood giving a really stylish performance of the central duet in this Final Movement. The corp de ballet work is meticulous and it is pleasing to view Balanchine’s mastery of group structures.

Hair flung free tumbling rough bodies snap us into another reality as Footnote Dance Company – the first of the guest artists (all graduates of the New Zealand School of Dance) – takes the stage in Broken By Design by Malia Johnson. Moving in lines across the stage in and out of the floor with great rapidity all torrid energy and intention – turn and turn again fall into lunge, knee spin, drop through forced arch then pause counter balance for the briefest of time before the dervishes are off again. Side lights catch figures and there is a dancer and movement that reminds of Stephen Petronio just for a glimpse and then it is gone. This is New Zealand choreography and New Zealand music – Yes!

The rhythm is relentless. A sequence of inventive partnering escalates to a climax before figures are left panting, broken on the floor. As the piece ends someone says ‘Yeah’ behind me; they are satisfied but for me this work is still finding its way, as if the central rationale has yet to arrive. Great movement phrases, though, and the company is stunning, dancing with passion and utter commitment.

Jetes that suspend – the way the next guest artist Craig Davidson manages to – burn an indelible image onto the retina along with his beautifully controlled pirouettes. This was a fantastic rendition of this famous variation from La Corsaire; almost unbelievable that the human form can do such things.

Never Mind the Bindies by Australian choreographer Leigh Warren serves as an excellent work for drilling dancers into absolute uniformity but I am not sure if this is dancing or callisthenics. It begins impressively with all the curtains removed from the stage and the novelty of 14 dancers on stage moving as one, but eventually it overstays its welcome. Despite the precision of the dancers it becomes monotonous and undynamic with no final pay off for sitting through all the repetition.

La Sylphide – the first romantic ballet – has been restaged by Garry Trinder with coaching from Matz Skoog. This version of Bournonville’s choreography for the Pas de Deux and Grand Divertissement from Act II gives the classical students another opportunity to shine. It is charmingly sweet with classic ballet mime and very polished corps work once again. Rory Fairweather-Neylan swirls his kilt fantastically as James the single male amongst the sylphs chasing the love of The Sylphide, danced by Ginny Gan.  The choreography for the male is dynamic with deep pliés and grand elevation whilst the female part is more restrained with Gan suitably delicate but a little stilted.

Juxtaposed against the classical items the contemporary pieces show a great freedom. The extract of Human Language from the next guests artists, Neil Ireremia’s Black Grace, features school graduates and gives us exuberant dancing as the feisty women in gorgeous frocks are hurled around by the men: then move into running patterns reminiscent of Paul Taylor and even for a moment West Side Story. The interweaving ending is clever and a real crowd pleaser.

Jane Casson has gone on from the school to become a star in Australia and it was wonderful to see her back on the Opera House stage dancing a stylish version of the 4th Variation from Paquita. 

Agon (first Pas de Trois) by George Balanchine has always been one of my favourite contemporary ballets. Once again Ginny Gan, Sharni Spencer and Rory Fairweather-Neylan are featured and they do a good job of navigating the complexities of this demanding and intriguing choreography. Balanchine along with Stravinsky was really pushing the envelope of possibility for the balletic form 50 years ago: the humour, syncopation and counterpoint along with the unique lines still resonate today. Peter Boyes has done a great job as the rehearsal director.

Another Australian choreographer Garry Stewart’s Currently Under Surveillance bursts onto the stage with break-dancing moves and an in your face brashness. This work has been well rehearsed by Paula Steeds-Huston. All in white the contemporary students really rip into the challenges of the work with great dancing. Balletic lines are transformed into contemporary movements and we are given the chance to relish the extension of some of these dancers. Men manipulate a passive woman yet again, there are strong trios and duets and a tussle between physical athleticism and ‘dancing’. Words flash on the cyclorama like ‘this is not a drill’, ‘subterfuge’ … which adds another dimension to the work, making us question what we are observing and the role of the dancer.

After the second interval the real gem of the evening is presented: Evening Songs by Jiri Kylian to Dvorak. This work is 20 years old yet it has a timeless classic feel about it. Nicole Chadderton, Fiona Hulands, Nicole Ward, Kase Craig, Alexander Koszarycz and Michael Lee from the classical and contemporary streams dance it with great dignity and care. There is a tenderness between the men and the women in this work that is too often missing in other dance partnering. Instead of the women being man-handled or passively manipulated they are treated with respect. This work is a beautiful interpretation of the music with a community of people moving through a ritual together using folk inspired movements, delicate repeating gestures and understatement. There is an intention in the work that the choreographer has clearly fulfilled – something that is missing in other contemporary works in the programme. There is stillness, space and elegance.

One Trick Pony is a quirky tight and clever rendition of a piece of music by Csokolom from choreographer Sarah Foster for 7 first year contemporary students, who perform it well and with gusto using mostly facial expressions and uniform twitches – amusing.

Kenneth McMillan incorporates some incredible soaring lifts in his choreography for Romeo and Juliet. Garry Trinder has lovingly staged the Balcony Pas de Deux from Act 1 and the dancers Sharni Spencer and Craig Davidson perform it with great technique and feeling. Whoever wrote the programme notes considers this ballet one of the greatest examples of 20th century choreography and this excerpt, which finishes with a kiss, is indeed unique.

In the concluding work for the evening Michael Parmenter gives us a loyal and meticulous rendering of the music in The Bach. With simple Pavan like walking structures interspersed with sweeping movement phrases that swirl in the space – portraying the ecstasy of a belief in resurrection, new life, new beginnings – this is uplifting dancing and choreography. The costumes help to transport us to the opulence of the Elizabethan court.

Garry Trinder’s assured, rigorous and determined direction, I presume with the support of the board, has completely reshaped the school. There is no doubt that the standard of dancing is superb but I wonder what now defines it as the New Zealand School of Dance, other than funding from New Zealand tax payers money.  An opportunity has been missed to mark this event in our ‘cultural’ diary by commissioning a major work from a New Zealand choreographer.

With the catchment strategically focussed globally, in terms of students, staff and repertoire, the opportunities/places are more limited for Kiwis. Both the Prime Minister and the Governor General in their remarks in the programme, from my reading, are under the impression that this school is still training predominately New Zealanders. Perhaps somebody should fill them in. Is it time for a name change and a requirement for the funding to be validated? One could argue the same point for the Royal New Zealand Ballet and the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra – sometimes we still seem very colonial; looking to mother Europe for our artistic benchmarks.

[To discuss these issues, go to the Forum topic: But is it the NZ School of Dance?


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