Once Upon A Dance

Globe Theatre, 312 Main St, Palmerston North

04/03/2018 - 04/03/2018

New Athenaeum Theatre, 24 The Octagon, Dunedin

13/03/2018 - 15/03/2018

St Peter's Village Hall, Beach Road, Paekākāriki

15/06/2018 - 16/06/2018

Te Whaea National Dance and Drama Centre, 11 Hutchison Rd, Newtown, Wellington

22/06/2018 - 24/06/2018

Globe 2, Globe Theatre, 312 Main St, Palmerston North

11/10/2018 - 11/10/2018

Palmy Fringe 2018

Dunedin Fringe 2018

Production Details

created and performed by Jan Bolwell and Mona Williams
director/dramaturg, Ralph McAllister


Jan Bolwell and Mona Williams combine forces in Once Upon a Dance, an hour long show which tells the story of their dancing lives.

They are both members of Crows Feet Dance Collective, a contemporary dance company for mature women in Wellington. Jan is also a playwright and actor, and teaches dance exercise classes on the Kapiti Coast. Mona is a well known professional storyteller touring frequently around Australasia. 

Bolwell, who directs Crows Feet says: “Mona and I come from such different cultural and dancing backgrounds. Mona grew up in what was once British Guiana and learned her traditional dances, as well as studying ballet. I grew up in Dunedin and learned Highland dancing and then modern dance with Shona MacTavish. We have found it fascinating to put these different dance traditions beside each other in a theatrical way with the help of our director, Ralph McAllister”.

Bolwell and Williams also have a lot in common. They discovered the first ballet they ever saw was The Nutcracker, albeit on different sides of the globe. They recount in words and movement how it felt to be in the audience.  As young people they adored American musicals and knew all the songs. “We have great fun in this show doing a favourite number from South Pacific”. 

Apart from storytelling, Bolwell and Williams dance and sing, and the work is richly illustrated with projected images from their lives. But it’s not all light and amusing. Says Bolwell: “When you get to our age (Jan is 68 and Mona is 75) you’ve experienced a lot of heartache, and we don’t shy away from telling these stories as well. In my case it is dealing with two bouts of breast cancer and with Mona, it is a broken marriage. Dance helped us overcome these personal traumas.”

Globe Theatre, 312 Main St, Palmerston North 
Sunday, March 4

New Athanaeum Theatre, 24 The Octagon, Dunedin 
13-15 March
Ticket price range $20, concession $15 
Booking details http://www.dunedinfringe.nz/

Once Upon a Dance had its premiere in March in Palmerston North and Dunedin where it received glowing reviews.

“This is the kind of show you should see if you love women, dance, politics, being alive, New Zealand, rebellion, music, strength, history, stories – if you thrive on being part of the world around you and embracing everything it throws at you, you’ll find something that resonates.”  Theatreview 20/3/18

“These are two very strong, brave, life mature women. They come from such very different cultural backgrounds and have both faced fierce adversity. This production tells those stories with depth, humour, generosity, honesty and joy.”  Theatreview 14/3/18 

St Peters Hall, Paekakariki
Sat 16 June 7.30pm
Sun 17 June 3.00pm

Te Whaea: National Dance & Drama Centre, Wellington
Fri 22 June 7.30pm
Sat 23 June 4.00pm
Sun 24 June 4.00pm  

Palmy Fringe 2018

Thursday 11th October 
12:30pm & 6pm 
$20 Full, $15 Concession 
Duration: 60 mins 

Physical , Dance , Music , Spoken word ,

1 hour

A strong, joyous, survivor message

Review by Tania Kopytko 12th Oct 2018

Once Upon a Dance is a hilarious, personal, moving work by two very different women:  Jan Bolwell, a South Islander of Scottish ancestry and Mona Williams of African descent from former British Guiana.  These are such different cultural backgrounds and life experiences but their stories are woven cleverly together through the common bond of dance.

It is so refreshing to see a work which explores dance deeply. Dance is so often used in theatre as the icing on the cake or clearly “glued on” to the narrative for sometimes unclear effect. But here the narrative explores all the facets of dance – as personal liberation and development, as a political act, as a dangerous activity to be suppressed by colonial powers and a passion and joy. Parallels are drawn between the suppression and struggle of Guiana’s African-derived dance forms, surviving despite slavery, and the struggle of Maori dance forms.

But the two women share a love of American musical theatre and of ballet. The Nutcracker was the ballet both first saw and fell in love with.  These dance tales provide great moments of exuberance and magic. The audience is swept along – and gladly join in as the corps de ballet for ‘The Waltz of the Flowers’, waving their arms rhythmically and energetically from their seats.

Bolwell and Williams are very strong, brave, life-mature women who have both faced fierce adversity and won through. Once Upon a Dance has a strong, joyous, survivor message. It is so wonderful to see dance theatre which is an inspiration to mature women and will also open everyone’s minds to the recipes for a full well-lived life.


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Dancing lives brought together

Review by Deirdre Tarrant 24th Jun 2018

Writers and Performers, Jan Bolwell and Mona Williams bring  glimpses of their personal stories to a space defined by hanging sheets as a film screen and a fashion screen that holds hats, cloaks, and tutus among a miscellany of props. Lighting by Neil Barber creates a living stage area appropriately at one end of a drama studio  at Te Whaea.

Memory is a powerful provocation and for Mona Williams and Jan Bolwell, it is the common love of dance that provides a journey from childhood to now and sets a framework for us to share their story-telling. A joyous element of sing-a-long songs starting with the classics ‘Shall We Dance’ from the King and I and including one of my own favourites ’Honey Bun’ from South Pacific provide links to their individual stories.

Mona Williams is a wonderful story teller and here she brings her skills to engage us in her own story. The hope, happiness, realities,anguish, struggles, dreams and disappointments  from starting her childhood in Guyana and helping her mother are contrasted with Jan Bolwell’s childhood in Oamaru and Dunedin, living above her father’s butcher’s shop. Mona’s hip-released, earthed, rhythmic cultural dance as well as her love for classical ballet provides release as well as the beginning of political awareness and this is contrasted with the Highland Dance, high-leaping, scissor-footed competition of the New Zealand Deep South.

The reality of dance as part of Political Protest was true for both girls growing up in very different daily circumstances. Both found themselves with a passion for ballet and a gloriously garlanded Waltz of the Flowers (audience participation enjoyed) brought smiles of remembrance to our faces. The truly wonderful thing is that cut and beflowered hula hoops are still going strong in ballet. So are the pink tutus! Grown up histories brought challenges for both women and we went forward with them with tears in our eyes and joy in our hearts.

This is a very personal and intimately told series of stories, well-crafted and cared for by director/dramaturg, Ralph McAllister. Once Upon a Dance is is a chronological, episodic bringing together of separate lives and threads that started far apart but here find a coming together that reminds us of what real positivity can do and attributes dance at the centre of survival. I can not argue with that and it was a privilege to share a lighthearted hour laced with serious contemplation with these two very special dancing women. Thank you Mona. Thank you Jan.


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The fires of real life and family

Review by Ann Hunt 18th Jun 2018

This delightful two hander by Jan Bolwell and Mona Williams is a thoroughly enjoyable hour of stories and dance that will have you laughing out loud and may move you to tears.  

Director/dramaturg Ralph McAllister skilfully opens the memory box of Bolwell and Williams’ lives. The work segues between the pair’s reminiscences of growing up in Taiere Plain near Dunedin and British Guiana, first ballet performances and first dance classes, love and loss. Never maudlin or unduly sentimental, their stories are interwoven with dance sequences that are charming, dramatic and hilarious.  

Bolwell is a respected playwright, performer, choreographer and the director of Wellington’s Crow’s Feet Dance Collective, the popular dance company for mature women. Her most recent work is the acclaimed Circa production of Taking the High Ground, about two New Zealand women mountaineers.  

Williams is a Fulbright Scholar and Stanford University graduate, who has written about her life in the effervescent Bishops: My Turbulent Colonial Life, as well as numerous books for children.  She is also a consummate professional storyteller, who has delighted audiences throughout New Zealand and overseas for many years.  

Sunday afternoon’s full house laughs, sings along and dances in their seats, as they watch Bolwell and Williams don colourful items of clothing and sashay through excerpts from South Pacific and Salad Days, in cheeky vaudevillian style; not forgetting their early dance classes in ballet, Highland Dancing and the contemporary contortions of Martha Graham.

Two of the show’s highlights are Bolwell’s puppet self-learning Highland dancing and Williams’ stunningly dramatic rendition of a Guyanan ritual.

But their lives, like most people’s, are not all fun and frolic. There is shade as well as light. Both women speak movingly of the sadness each has experienced involving divorce and illness, and it is very apparent that the audience relates strongly to these stories.

It is such a joy to participate – for that is what we do here – in a show that is relevant to, and which touches on, our own lives. Abstraction is all well and good, but sometimes one longs for the fires of real life and family, and this production gives us just that.


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Things that resonate

Review by Hannah Molloy 14th Mar 2018

Watching women tell their stories is always fascinating and when the storytelling entwines with dance and theatre, it becomes compelling. Jan Bolwell devised Once Upon A Dance with director Ralph McAllister to tell the story of the lives of herself and Mona Williams, women who have lived and breathed dance through some notable periods in our recent history as well as the world’s.

Their stories are divergent and completely different – Williams grew up in a small town on the banks of the Demerara River in Guyana while Bolwell moved from Oamaru to Dunedin. There are threads of sameness however throughout their worlds, from the pervasively dominant whiteness of their childhood and early adult communities (from opposite perspectives) to the fulfillment that performing brought and continues to bring them. The Nutcracker was their first experience of classical dance, one in 1959 and the other in 1968, but equally significant for each and their rendition of the Dance of the Flowers is delightful.

Williams discovered ballet and the exquisite Helen Tate and saw “black faces like mine –[seeing]  this art belongs to me”, a story that clearly is still important now – if you can’t see it, you can’t be it.

Bolwell found dance through Shona MacTavish who taught dance at Columba College in Dunedin and appears to have encouraged in her students a spirit of political rebellion and civic engagement that is less obvious these days….!

Their lives weren’t all the gloriousness of immersion in the beauty of dance. They had struggles and they share their experiences generously with the audience, Bolwell’s expression of her victorious battle with breast cancer and William’s of her discovery that her husband was a “promiscuous practising homosexual” both brought me to tears.

I came away with a list of names to research, new perspectives on dance — as home, as a tool of rebellion, change, revolution, political endeavour, diversity and community. I also came away with a series of quotes to think about – not least the one from Marcel Proust: “Griefs, at the moment they become ideas, lose some of their power to injure our hearts.”

This is the kind of show you should see if you love women, dance, politics, being alive, New Zealand, rebellion, music, strength, history, stories – if you thrive on being part of the world around you and embracing everything it throws at you, you’ll find something that resonates. 


Felise du Chateau June 19th, 2018

I can’t wait to see this. Hope it comes to Auckland.

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Depth, humour, generosity, honesty and joy

Review by Tania Kopytko 07th Mar 2018

Once Upon a Dance is an hour long, two-woman show, presented by Jan Bolwell and Mona Williams, in which they explore how dance has been important to them across their very different lives. These are two very strong, brave, life mature women. They come from such very different cultural backgrounds and have both faced fierce adversity. This production tells those stories with depth, humour, generosity, honesty and joy – and of course there is dance too!

Mona Williams is an internationally-renowned storyteller and author. She grew up in what was British Guiana, learning her traditional dances and, as well, later studying ballet in Georgetown with the ground-breaking dancer/ballet teacher Helen Taitt of African descent. Mona is also a descendant of the horrific slave trade to the Caribbean and Latin America and then the subsequent colonialism. With her vibrant, visceral storytelling technique she tells us of, and embodies, the dangerous canoe trips down the Demerara river with her great-grandmother to work on their illegal forest farm in order to survive; she invites us to feel the joyous traditional dances, and she shows her grace and genteel ballet style as she describes her first intoxicating lessons. Mona’s life has not been easy, but dance has always been there to help her through those times. Her portrayal of her most difficult life challenge, through movement, is powerful and poignant.

Jan Bolwell, a [New Zealand] South Islander of Scottish descent, tells a wonderful youthful tale of naughtiness and daring, as she and her siblings impishly test their parents and grandparents. She discovers Highland dance and we are treated to her childish joy in winning medals and cups in a hilarious scene with a life-size, manipulated, Highland-dressed puppet.  Jan has had two hip replacements, “you can’t expect me to dance Highland, do you?” she asks the audience. 

The two find that they both saw the same first ballet, The Nutcracker, and next we have a wonderful Waltz of the fFowers sequence, with the audience fully and delightfully engaged with the music. Jan’s dance story refers to her 1990’s ground-breaking bi-cultural dance work with Keri Kaa and Sunny Amey. Jan takes us to her most difficult life challenge, the battle with breast cancer. Out of this grew an even stronger and more active role in dance as a mature woman – the creation of Crows Feet Dance Collective and beginning of Jan’s successful career as an actor/dancer. She references her 2001 Off My Chest, where she dances the experience of this health battle.

Dance has helped these women find themselves and be themselves. They provide beacons for us all as we face tribulations in life. This is a powerful and liberating life and dance message and a wonderful and enriching hour of performance.


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