Transfigured Night

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

15/03/2021 - 15/03/2021

The Piano, 156 Armagh Street, Christchurch

20/03/2021 - 20/03/2021

Glenroy Auditorium, The Dunedin Centre, 1 Harrop Street, Dunedin

22/03/2021 - 22/03/2021

Globe Theatre, 312 Main St, Palmerston North

13/03/2021 - 13/03/2021

Production Details

Choreographer Loughlan Prior

The New Zealand String Quartet with Ballet Collective Aotearoa

Two people walk through a bare, cold grove;
The moon races along with them, they look into it

Award-winning choreographer Loughlan Prior fuses dance with music in his visceral adaption of Schoenberg’s ‘Verklärte Nacht’ – TRANSFIGURED NIGHT. Based on the mystical poem by Richard Dehmel, it is a celebration of new life, the duality of conflict and resolution and, ultimately, the reconciliation of one with the universe.

The moon races over tall oaks,
No cloud obscures the light from the sky,
`Into which the black points of the boughs reach.

Coupled with Dvořák’s gorgeously Slavonic string sextet, this night of intimacy, intensity and spiritual metamorphosis is given life by BalletCollective Aotearoa and New Zealand String Quartet in a moving journey of courage, strength and human warmth.

A woman’s voice speaks…


Laura Saxon Jones
William Fitzgerald
Tabitha Dombroski
with Artistic Direction and Choreography by Loughlan Prior

Helene Pohl violin
Monique Lapins violin
Gillian Ansell viola
Serenity Thurlow viola
Rolf Gjelsten cello
Ken Ichinose cello



Music , Dance ,

100 mins

This, one hopes, is just the beginning.

Review by Dr Ian Lochhead 22nd Mar 2021

From the moment that dancer Laura Saxon Jones stepped onto the stage to quizzically inspect the music stands already positioned there it was clear that this was to be no ordinary chamber music recital.  Only when this inspection was complete and it was clear that everything was in order did the musicians arrive. First to appear is Gillian Ansell playing the opening strains for viola of Tabea Squire’s newly commissioned piece for string quartet, I Danced Unseen. She is followed by the other members of the quartet and, as the musical lines fill out and the work gains momentum, two more dancers arrive.  Squire’s composition draws on her youthful passion for dancing alone to Celtic music. The integration of music and dance in this performance is thus, entirely natural, the dancers weaving between and around the musicians as they perform. The sense that dancers and musicians form part of a single ensemble is enhanced by William Fitzgerald’s costume designs for both dancers and quartet, lose fitting white shirts and pants enlivened with blotches of colour that reflect the abstract patterns on the sail-like back cloth. Alongside this informal attire, Ansell’s long gown provides the sole element of formality.  The fact that the string players, like the dancers, perform in bare feet suggests that roles could be switched at any moment. 


Squire’s piece is fresh and appealing and, in spite of its origins in her passion for Celtic music this is only hinted at in the work itself, which forges its own musical language.  Similarly the choreography evolves as a response to the music without reference to the cultural traditions that inspired it.  I Danced Unseen, with its origin in folk music, provides the ideal introduction to Dvorak’s String Sextet in A major, one of the composer’s most radiant works, imbued with the rhythms and melodies of his native Bohemia. The rearrangement of the stage to accommodate a different musical ensemble usually results in a hiatus in a concert programme as musicians leave the stage and the setting is reconfigured. Prior deftly manages this transition by keeping all the performers on stage; apparent chaos is miraculously resolved into a new arrangement and, with the entry of Christchurch Symphony Orchestra principal violist, Serenity Thurlow and NZSO associate principal cello Ken Ichinose, the quartet has become a sextet.


The Dvorak opens with the three dancers seated on stage facing the musicians but as the music takes hold they are irresistibly drawn into motion.  There is a pastoral, almost Arcadian, quality in Prior’s choreographic response to this music along with humorous touches that evoke the antics of commedia del arte charactersThe string players are also drawn into this bucolic mood, swaying in time with Dvorak’s sweeping rhythms.  With so much happening around them it would be easy for the musicians to lose concentration but the collaborative spirit of the whole enterprise is such that this never occurs.  The New Zealand String Quartet are, in fact, old hands at collaborating with dancers, having toured with the Royal New Zealand Ballet in 2016 and 2017 performing in Alexander Ekman’s ballet, Cacti.  There is more than a hint of Ekman’s zaniness in this performance of the Dvorak Sextet and the success of this new collaboration between the NZSQ and BCA can probably be traced back to their earlier encounter with Ekman’s iconoclastic choreography.

Following the interval the mood changes from the sunlit outdoor world of folk melody to the moody nocturnal environment of fin de siècle Vienna.   The change of mood is also signaled by the switch to black formal dress for the musicians and black costumes for the dancers.   Arnold Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht draws inspiration from Richard Dehmel’s poem of the same name in which, during a night-time walk in the woods, a woman confesses to her partner that she is with child to another man.  The man’s acceptance of this revelation culminates in the transfiguration of the night that envelops woman, man and unborn child.  Schoenberg’s early masterpiece, composed in 1899, hovers on the cusp of two centuries, at the turning point between musical tonality and atonality and between the worlds of late Romanticism and modernism. 


Rather than attempting a literal interpretation of Dehmel’s poem Prior evokes a mood of uncertainty and change in which relationships are unstable and mutable.  Laura Saxon Jones’s stature and stage presence are considerable assets in her portrayal of the central role of the woman, the centre point around whom Tabitha Dombroski and William Fitzgerald weave a web of dance.  The opening of the work, in which Saxon Jones advances across the stage to lift an arc of scarlet silk from the floor, is compelling, the fabric becoming by turns gown, train, halter, shroud and womb.  The visceral effects of these initial moments establish the mood of the performance as a whole.  Although the sextet now takes a fixed position on the left side of the stage the dancers continue to make use of the whole space although they now inhabit a claustrophobic world of their own.   The fluidity of Prior’s choreography mirrors the changing relationships between the performers as they dance alone, in pairs and all three together. As the music reaches its climax in the gentle, rippling motif that signals the moment of transfiguration the scarlet silk is replaced by a white one that envelops the woman in bridal splendor.  As the music subsides she moves offstage, her long white train disappearing as the final notes fall. 


It takes considerable courage for a musical ensemble, already complete in itself, to share their stage with performers in another artistic medium and it says much for the New Zealand String Quartet’s confidence in their own craft that they have enthusiastically embraced the opportunity to work with Prior and the dancers of Ballet Collective Aotearoa.  The rapturous reaction of the capacity audience at The Piano, with whoops of delight and stamping of feet, can only have confirmed them in this course.  While musically this would have been a satisfying concert if presented on its own, the added dimension of theatricality and dance made it unforgettable.  It is worth remembering that over fifty years ago the board of the Royal Opera House in London, vetoed the suggestion by choreographer, Kenneth McMillan that he should create a work using another late romantic masterpiece, Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde.  Such a great work of art, in their view, would be profaned by the addition of dance.  McMillan took the concept to the Stuttgart Ballet and the work was acclaimed as a landmark of twentieth-century choreography.  We must be thankful that such restrictive ideas no longer hold sway.  What Transfigured Night demonstrated is that music and dance are not in competition but are natural and inseparable allies, something that ordinary people have always known.   


It is to be hoped that this will be the first of many more collaborations between the NZSQ and DCA and that the current programme will be toured more widely.  I look forward to seeing Transfigured Night in a theatre rather than a concert hall, where lighting design has the potential to add another dimension to what is already a compelling work of art.  This, one hopes, is just the beginning.


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Unique piece of theatre and a privilege to see.

Review by Greer Robertson 16th Mar 2021

For all of my life when attending orchestral performances, I have wished that music could be visually amplified with movement. Absorbing the sound, I would close my eyes allowing myself to create my own dance imagery.

Now happily, with eyes wide open, I can report that a ‘meeting of many magical minds’ delivers a splendiferous evening appealing to many senses. Definitely, a unique piece of theatre and a privilege to see.

But, upon entering the huge auditorium, I am perplexed at the choice of venue. Is the Michael Fowler Centre too grand to house the intimate connection that I crave from a live performance with such few performing numbers? The sheer venue size coupled with an oddly-shaped tie-dyed large tipi on the naked stage swamps my visuals. I’m confused.

I breathe and allow the artists, one by one to claim their space.

The performers are dancers Laura Saxon Jones, William Fitzgerald and Tabitha Dombrovski from the recently formed new project-based contemporary ballet company BalletCollective Aotearoa. Artistic direction and choreography for Transfigured Night is by Loughlan Prior with Helene Pohl and Monique Lapins on violin, Gillian Ansell and Serenity Thurlow on viola and Rolf Gjelstein, Ken Ichinose on cello as the New Zealand String Quartet.

I’m not disappointed. With each note, each move they exemplify their expertly-honed and adored artform as superbly talented proven professionals.

I Danced, Unseen by composer Tabea Squire has an innocence about it, allowing all the performers to explore with personality, their playful interpretations. Intricate, superbly- timed notes either with musical instruments or with dancers using their bodies as their entire instrument, cohesively marry. Cleverly and expressively the shapes mimic the sounds.

In the second piece, Dvořák’s String Sextet in A major, the artists play vigorously, gliding and sweeping with skips and leaps, with just a hint of Slavonic humour and spice.

Perhaps the overly-complicated, yet too relaxed muslin tie-dyed costuming can be re-invented? These and the tipi I find jarring and distracting.

An Interval follows where a buoyant, bubbly atmosphere of excitedness fills the air from the expressively vocal audience. They are artistically fulfilled and well-pleased. I am too but still wish for a smaller more intimate venue for greater emotional connectivity.

We settle back into the much-awaited Verklärte Nacht by Schoenberg. The dancers are sleek in formal black costumes. The tone is soulful and sober. There is a different richness in this piece. Prior, boldly yet intricately consummately plays with solos, duets and trios. It’s not overworked. With rhythmic repetition the music, the musicians and dancers are one.

It stops. It’s over. Rapturous applause. A world class artistic vignette of the highest order.


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Transfigured Night – beautiful, intimate and uplifting

Review by Tania Kopytko 15th Mar 2021

When an audience leaves with smiles on their faces and chattering about the performance then you know it’s a hit. It is a hit with both the music and the dance aficionados.

The performance is intimate because the works are performed in a small space for the three dancers and six musicians. However rather than feeling cramped, the space is used cleverly, interaction between all the performers is clear and personal, and the choreography feels intimate and delicate.

The evening comprises three works, all choreographed by award-winning Loughlan Prior.

Danced, Unseen the first short work introduces the evening in the manner in which it will develop. With music composed by Tabea Squire, a dancer (Laura Saxton Jones), enters the performance space set up with the music stands, seats and a dance floor square, and plays with the stands. Enter quirkily a violinist and then two more, the third through the audience. Two more dancers enter (William Fitzgerald and Tabitha Dombroski) and there is playful interaction between the dancers and musicians, until the full ensemble is on stage. There is a stillness and breath intake, and then they all launch into the beautiful String Sextet in A Major, op 48 by Antonin Dvořák.

The String Sextet is comprised of five parts, each with recurring and evolving themes. Prior approaches this with satisfyingly musical choreography. Narrative-like phrases, for example with hands and arms, recur in further developed forms, just as the music also explores and develops on its first ideas. It is whimsical, playful, gracious and courtly, naughty and chattery. Each of the dancers shows their unique style, character and beautiful techniques and so do the musicians. The blending together is enhanced by the costuming and set, designed by the dancer William Fitzgerald. The full ensemble wear costumes that are folksy or country style. White dresses, trousers, shorts or shirts, whose painted patterns and colours are also in the sail-like back drop. Its creates a lovely uniting visual theme.

Sometimes the dancers sit out and listen to the music on stage, gently reacting, giving the musicians space. Sometimes their movement is reminiscent of a folk or baroque dance, or little references to grand ballet poses. At other times they are tumbling and unfolding in beautiful trio partner work with impressive extensions and balances. The musicians are also theatrical and interact with the dancers, even playing while their music stands are turned in a circle, so they have had to add another dimension to their beautiful playing. The NZ String Quartet comprised of Helene Pohl, violin1; Monique Lapins, violin2; Gillian Ansell, viola; Rolf Gjelsten, cello, Serenity Thurlow, guest viola 2; Ken Ichinose, guest cello 2; are a tour de force musically and theatrically. Three dancers in a group is always an interesting number, and Prior uses this to advantage, with playful interchange and also very clever sculptural trio and partner work which extends the shapes and emphasis that can be created with three.

The third and major work, Transfigured Night or Verklärte Nacht, is to an evocative work by Arnold Schoenberg, inspired by the poem Verklärte Nacht by German poet Richard Dehmel, which has also inspired the choreographic work. Schoenberg and Dehmel were inspired by the age of Freud, “what lay beneath….dissecting the unconscious, dream analysis” (programme notes). While the poem was about the relationship of a man and a woman and a reconciliation, the choreography evokes a more fluid relationship between the three dancers, two women and a man. The lead role is played strongly by the dramatic Laura Saxon Jones. Conflicted by her actions, gender, relationships or role, she eventually reaches a strong resolution. The work is symbolic and lyrical, musically and choreographically, lending its self to different interpretations. The set and costuming is more stark. Musicians and dancers wear black. The lighting is more subdued. The work opens with Saxon Jones moving with a large red silk square. The shapes she creates are wonderful and evocative of the symbols being explored – female sexuality, menstruation, foetus. As the work progresses and different male/female, female/female relationships are explored, red changes to white, eventually the colour of resolution/peace.  There is a dreamlike quality about this work – musically and in the movement.

Congratulations to the New Zealand String Quartet and the dancers of BalletCollective Aotearoa. Congratulations to Chamber Music New Zealand and Loughlan Prior for creating this beautiful fusing of music and dance, for showing bravery, determination and innovation in our current Covid-difficult environment. We wish you well with this tour.

There are still many performances to come – support them. Wellington 15 March, New Plymouth 17 March, Nelson 19 March, Christchurch 20 March, Dunedin 22 March, Invercargill 23 March 2021.


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