Hannah Playhouse, Cnr Courtenay Place & Cambridge Terrace, Wellington

22/03/2024 - 24/03/2024

Production Details

Director/choreographer: Jan Bolwell
Composer: Henryk Gorecki 'Symphony of Sorrowful Songs'
Poems: Adrienne Rich, Maya Angelou, Warsan Shire


Crows Feet dance passionately about the plight of women around the world as their rights and freedoms are diminished. Set to Henryk Gorecki’s ‘Symphony of Sorrowful Songs’ and enriched with the words of the great poets – Adrienne Rich, Maya Angelou and Warsan Shire – the Crows dancers throw open a window on the oppression of women in both the East and the West.
With the blessing of Iranian Solidarity Group New Zealand, we call out new work WOMAN, LIFE, FREEDOM – the battle cry of the Kurdish and Iranian women following the death of Mahsa Amini at the hands of the Iranian morality police.

MARCH 22- 24
22nd 8pm
23rd 2pm
24th 4pm
Tickets: $30/$25


Dance ,


Measured yet impassioned meditation

Review by Jennifer Shennan 03rd Apr 2024

This dance work is choreographed by Jan Bolwell and performed by 35  members of Crows Feet Dance Collective, an ensemble of mature dancers, marking 25 years since the formation of the group in 1999.

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Raise their voices in unity

Review by Nancy Catherine Fulford 27th Mar 2024

The final performance, a full house, three generations, the vibe is warm and it’s electric. We all know this is a big show touching on vital issues to our times. The Hannah Playhouse stage is stark, it’s concrete walls exposed under subdued lighting, a fitting set for our subject matter.  Up on the wall stage left and right are the words ‘Woman Life Freedom,’ in Arabic and in English. We are introduced in the first moments to the concept of a partnership.

We have come to see Crows Feet, A women’s Dance Collective with over twenty years history of generating new works that keep us alive to the beauty and struggle of being a woman in this world and now they are hitting hard on a crucial Human Rights issue: the cross cultural capacity of women to be safe and to be heard. This journey looks in particular at the loss of freedoms experienced by women in the Middle East. ‘Woman, Life, Freedom,’ became the battle cry of the Kurdish and Iranian women following the death of Masha Aminin by the Iranian morality police for not wearing her hijab properly. This work takes up that cry. It is an emotional journey and for this audience member it is an education.

Choreographer Jan Bolwell has a long history of working collaboratively to represent different voices in her work. For this project the Collective has joined with the Iranian Solidarity Group New Zealand. “They came along to one of our early rehearsals,’ one of the dancers told me, ‘so we could hear directly from them.’ This kind of a creative work excites me. It’s one of the great strengths of Community Arts. ‘By the people for the people.’ The work is so strong. It is solemn but ultimately uplifting. It is rhythmic and it is expansive. It is driven with a passion for positive change.

I particularly enjoy the strong shaping of the choreography supported by the powerful music of Henryk Gorecki. Symphony No.3  The music has a forward moving cadence despite the sense of solemnity. It’s tone holds us and allows for a weaving of different ideas. Reoccurring motifs link together the distinct scenes and they are performed beautifully by the dancers, a stirring balance of grace and theatrical conviction.

This show has rich theatrical elements delivered through spoken text as well as dance.  The performance features five different literary works by women about women – the struggle they face for basic human rights so many places in the world. Jan Bolwell and Annie Ruth provide excellent theatrical contrast to each other as they deliver the works of Adrienne Rich, Maya Angelou, Warsan Shire, Farnaz Haeri. Particularly impactful for me are the stories of Aida Tavassoli who is a member of the Iranian Solidarity Group Aotearoa and is present for the final performance together with many other members of this group. Her very personal stories of risking so much to make a stand for the rights of women go straight to the heart. The poems and stories of these brave and articulate women give great depth and intelligence to the overall experience, and context to the dance elements so as to draw me inside the choreography, feeling the pain and determination. 

At all times the work on stage is augmented by the lighting score that holds us in a mood fitting for this bold performance piece. I appreciate the atmospheric nature of the choices made by Janis Cheng the lighting designer and an important member of the creative team.

The strong visual use of props works well to give shape to the different chapters of Woman, Life, Freedom.  This has always been strength of Crows Feet. In an early scene the dancers spiral into the space holding aloft stools that begin to define the space in different ways. They later become an anchor for connection, the focal point where women meet, embrace, support and care for each other. The strength that comes out of this dance sequence equips us for the confrontational journey ahead. The energy intensifies, the passion of the dancers rises and the choreography takes us into the outer reaches of the theatre as the mezzanine and upstage sunken space all become part of the performance in turns. In another sequence dancers promenade into the space beneath a long black cloth that lends itself creatively in a moving sequence of symbolic gestures. The struggle of ‘The Mother’ comes sharply into focus through the presence of swaddled infants, faceless, loved and lost through the sequence. When women are oppressed children suffer. And finally the symbolic use of hairpieces to remind us of the oppressive regimes which demand that women make themselves invisible and the courageous people who are defying this edict. 

While much of the dance performance involves small group or ensemble work this final sequence features some of Crow’s especially skilled dancers stepping out to bring us a crescendo level of intensity. It is a fitting conclusion to a very beautiful and moving piece of work.

I realize through this piece that there are very large gaps in my knowledge. Woman, Life Freedom is an eye opener in an era when the temptation to disappear into distractions is bigger than ever. I am grateful for the greater understanding I come away with. I am especially grateful that we also hear stories of hope. Aida takes the risk of not wearing a hijab in Iran and instead of public scrutiny she meets both men and women who encourage her, bless her, recognize the importance and value of the stand she is making. It brings to mind the lyrics from the song Bread and Roses, ‘For the rising of the women is the rising of the race.’ 

In opening discussions on these issues we can be part of the tide changing. ‘When we come to it,’ ring out the words of Maya Angelou, Let’s come to it together. 

I thoroughly enjoy this show and wish I could go again to be steeped once more in the richness it offers. I am grateful for the reminder that many of the freedoms I enjoy were hard fought for by good people, some men, but mostly passionate women who cared enough about the future for their daughters to raise their voices in unity. The only way anything really changes.


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Powerful Political Work Wrapped in Grace

Review by Tania Kopytko 25th Mar 2024

In this current world of war, famine, genocide, terrorism and political oppression it is important and vital that art speaks out strongly. This new work by Jan Bolwell does that. It is a powerful political work, wrapped in grace. The title, Woman Life Freedom is the battle cry of the Kurdish and Iranian women following the 2022 death of Mahsa Amini by the Iranian morality police, for wearing her hijab improperly. This work also speaks more widely about the global oppression of women and people.

Political statements through the medium of dance theatre are not strangers to Bolwell. Her Crows Feet works are sometimes clothed in humour, but there is always an underlying message. Woman Life Freedom steps boldly forward. Her research included interviews with the Wellington Iranian community where women talked of their harrowing experiences. These stories by Aida Tavassoli and Farnaz Haeri are included in the text as are powerful poems by Adrienne Rich, Maya Angelou and Warsan Shire. 

The score is Henryk Gorecki’s “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs” a remembrance of the devastation of Poland during WW2 and its subsequent domination by the Soviet Union until 1989. The brutal grey concrete walls of the Hannah Theatre are a perfect set for this deep, strong work. Graphics light up each side wall with Women Life Freedom, excerpts of prayers and songs used in Gorecki’s work, titles, women’s statements, or lists or women who have all fought strongly, all written in English, Farsi or Polish, visually complementing the work. 

Woman Life Freedom is dance and theatre and they compliment each other in this work. The text is often hard hitting as are all stories of oppression, torture or death. The dance offers the breath of life between the spoken words. The text is masterfully presented by Annie Ruth and Jan Bolwell.

The choreography by Jan Bolwell is slow paced and sadly beautiful, like the music. Bolwell takes advantage of the stage and upper balcony, with dancers above on the balcony counterpointing the movement below. Particularly poignant and memorable are symbolic group formations. They could be a prayer tower, minaret, or church tower. In another powerful image, a dancer reaches upwards, grasping, beseeching, as a group of bent over dancers circle around her at waist height, swirling like the sea or the turmoil of life. In yet another scene the dancers walk on quietly in line with a long black chiffon cloth over their heads. This eventually is wrapped around two dancers and becomes the hijab and then full burqa, or perhaps it is simply grief. The women break free and the ensemble dances with grace, using motifs of prayer and binding. In a later scene women rock babies – life, but the babies are also dead. Finally, they are gently placed in a crypt, a reminder of the thousands of dead that these political tyrants create. 

The final dance scene makes its statement with hair (hair pieces) that is liberated and waved strongly and then discarded as the ensemble moves, strongly focussed and absorbed in the music and movement, with delicate upward reaching hand, arm and head gestures. The work’s artistic content is complemented not only by the artistic wall text videography (Brie Jesson-Vaughn), but also lighting (Janis Cheng) set and props (Trish Stevenson) and complemented by a strong production team. 

Crows Feet Dance Collective in this season consists of the Wellington and Kāpiti dancers. The smaller ensemble of twenty-two dancers is ideal for this tight and focussed work. The stage is not large, but the still sizeable ensemble fills it well and their collective numbers add power to the work. Being an all-female group with a wide age range, is totally appropriate to this work. Oppression knows no age for women or oppressed and it affects thousands. The ensemble dances with delicacy and power. The final work with its gentle and subtle hand movements and gestures which the ensemble delicately perform, speaks of the beauty of human life and life force. Congratulations to all who worked on, contributed to and performed in this work. 

Woman Life Freedom also supports the work of the Iranian Solidarity Group New Zealand and we are given information on the group, who were present to welcome us to the theatre.


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