The language of dance

By William Dart

English choreographer Royston Maldoom brings his energy to a dance-music project involving the Auckland Philharmonia and 180 Auckland school children

Choreographer Royston Maldoom takes students from Hay Park school through an energetic dance rehearsal. Photo / Supplied
Choreographer Royston Maldoom takes students from Hay Park school through an energetic dance rehearsal. Photo / Supplied

Royston Maldoom takes dance very, very seriously. Braving the wind outside a Shortland St cafe, recovering from an exhaustive day of rehearsals, the English choreographer gives out his creative credo over a cappuccino.

"I'm in dance because it's a language," he points out. "It has the potential to communicate just as much as any other art."

Maldoom is in charge of Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra's Sacre Project, in which 180 youngsters from schools around the city dance to The Rite of Spring, while Eckehard Stier and the APO play Stravinsky's score.

Stier himself, on the line from Germany, admits he has "been practising every day, dancing the rhythms and getting them into my body".

Proudly touted as a gala event of the REAL New Zealand Festival, it all comes with a stupendous support team. Maldoom's assistant, Volker Eisenach, is an ever-present right-hand at all the rehearsals I attend.

Local choreographers include Taiaroa Royal, Ann Dewey and Moss Patterson, who have been taking the youngsters through an unsparing warm-up session at Mt Albert Grammar, to the relentless bop of hip-hop.

Then there is the unflappable producer Sally Markham, who arranges the complex scheduling, takes notes at performances and fills me in on the two or more years it has taken to make this project a reality.

It all started in Berlin eight years ago, when Maldoom set 250 young people dancing to the Stravinsky ballet, with the music supplied by the Berlin Philharmonic.

"When I was first asked to do this I said no because I was involved in smaller projects that were important to me," says Maldoom. "But my German friends said I must. Doing it with this orchestra and conductor at that time would give what we were doing such a tremendous profile."

And so history was made in Berlin's old bus depot in January 2003, powerfully caught on film in Rhythm is It!, an award-winning documentary by Thomas Grube and Enrique Sanchez-Lansch.

The movie's byline, "You can change your life in a dance class", sounds like a sickly amalgam of Fame, Billy Elliot and Glee, but Maldoom's aims are deeper and truer.

It's all in the body, he says, comparing his aims to those of a psychologist, but preferring to "bring about change through the choreographic process. If you change the way the body stands and moves you're inevitably changing the way the mind works".

It is fascinating to watch Maldoom slipping into Moss Patterson's Mt Albert warm-up, clapping and stomping as he joins the circle of dancers. Suddenly Stravinsky bursts from the ghetto-blaster and the master has taken over. The youngsters are portraying the four winds. "Run FASTER, jump HIGHER," is the first directive; later, a smirking student occasions a roar: "Don't smile. That's shit if you smile!"

The young people brought into the project range from first-year university dance students to youngsters from Hay Park and New Lynn Primary Schools, Pakuranga Intermediate, Mt Albert Grammar and a blend of Tangaroa College and Kristin School.

Lack of training and experience doesn't worry Maldoom. "Some people may not have the technique but they have something else. I worry far less about technique than about passion, energy and excitement."

I watch him setting up a more formal pas de deux with Tangaroa's John Vahaakolo and university student Sophie Harvey playing the Sky Father and Earth Mother. Later he muses, "Sometimes I wonder whether I really teach dance or performance."

Friday's Aotea Centre presentation promises a veritable evening of spectacle - the programme opens with kapa haka from Te Pou Whakairo and the orchestra in Gareth Farr's From the Depths Sound the Great Sea Gongs - but no young person who has worked with Maldoom will go away untouched.

Megan Garforth from the Mt Albert contingent says "It's a once-in-a-lifetime experience from a good man who listens to what you say".

Jacqui Cesan, who teaches dance at MAGS, pinpoints Maldoom's "self-discipline, great sense of humour and his ability to articulate things in a way that kids can understand. Later on," she continues, "these youngsters will really realise what a significant event this has been, both for themselves and for New Zealand."

Maldoom has left his mark all over the world. Lithuania had him mount a spectacular Carmina Burana in Vilnius' Independence Square to celebrate the country's freedom from Soviet oppression; more recently his work with Ethiopian streetkids led to the foundation of the Adugna Company in that country.

He reminds me of advice that was given to him early on in his career, "Don't think money, think vision. This is something I've tried to pass on to young people ever since - if you're excited, get other people excited and it will happen."

Certainly the buzz at a Hay Park School rehearsal is contagious. Youngsters dash around to the pounding of Stravinsky. They're the hunters and Maldoom is very taken with one boy's tongue-to-the-chin haka grimace.

"It's been a very easy project here," Maldoom smiles. "You have an indigenous culture that's still very strong and the Maori dancers have such a strength and physicality."

A fortnight before opening night, translating the ballet's primeval ritual into the South Pacific was still very much a work-in-progress.

The relationship of the Earth Mother and Sky Father is "always there, guiding the action, hinted at all the way through," says Maldoom, although the climactic sacrifice scene has changed between two of my visits.

It now bears the more general title of The Oppression and yet it will still catch what, for Maldoom, is the core of the piece, evoking "the sacrifice of children that happens in every society. I hope that people will see the relevance of it all, whatever culture they're in."

What: Sacre: The Auckland Dance Project

Where and when: Aotea Centre, Friday at 7.30pm

- NZ Herald

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