The Royal NZ Ballet’s Salute programme is a powerful commemoration of the tragedy of World War I. Bernadette Rae reports

May 22 this year was a special day for choreographer Andrew Simmons and his family. The premiere performance of his new work, Dear Horizon, would open the Royal New Zealand Ballet's Salute season, in Wellington. An impressive red carpet was laid ready, through the St James Theatre lobby, in honour of that and Neil Ieremia's Passchendaele, also making its premiere that evening.

Simmons, originally from Christchurch, a former RNZB dancer and budding choreographer now based in Dresden and with a growing international reputation, is a gentle chap and rather wistfully describes the day as "bittersweet".

"It is my daughter Indie's second birthday," he says, "and my wife, Chantelle, is dancing in a huge, full-evening premiere work, Impressing the Czar by William Forsythe for her company, the Dresden Semperoper Ballet."

Chantelle Kerr also previously danced with the RNZB.

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"Yep, a big day for the Simmons," he reflects, but all part of life on the world's stage, where his success already includes nomination as Best Classical Choreography in the 2011 British National Dance Awards for A Song in the Dark, performed on the RNZB's tour in Britain and France, and a citation for Best New Choreography of 2014, by Dance Magazine (US) for Of Days, after the New Zealand company's season in New York. His Through to You was also performed by Queensland Ballet at April's Dance Salad Festival in Houston, Texas, this year.

And it was while walking in a Brisbane street during rehearsals for that tour that he found the title for Dear Horizon.

"People read a lot into the name of a work," he says. "Just as people want to be told what a work is about, what they should be seeing. I often have to write programme notes before the work is half made. But people don't seem to want to find their own meanings, their own emotions."

The truth of the Dear Horizon label is that it was the title of a book he saw in a shop window and he liked the sound of the words.

"I wrote it down," he says, "thinking it might suit a work sometime. And the words seemed to perfectly suit this work, with its feeling of reaching and never quite getting there. It is quite despairing, I suppose."

The Salute season is the RNZB's commemoration of the anniversary of World War I and is named for one of the four items on its mixed bill.

The company's former artistic director, Ethan Stieffel, commissioned the work by Simmons back in May 2014 and only later told him it would be to music by Gareth Farr, played by the New Zealand Army Band.

"It was a fantastic opportunity to work with someone at the forefront of classical music in New Zealand," says Simmons, "but the first time I had ever worked to such a specific brief, and where I come from musically seemed so different. Gareth's background is as a percussionist.

"Sections of his music don't shy away from that, whereas my movement vocabulary is quite feminine choreographically, more soft and lyrical. There is an absolute and important place for big jumps and spectacular pirouettes and the like, but all that doesn't interest me, it's not in my palette."

Photo / Evan Li
Photo / Evan Li

It was also a long-distance collaboration, with a choreographer in Dresden and composer in Wellington but, when Farr early on in the process sent some recordings of music for brass, written about the Christchurch earthquakes, Simmons was astonished at how spacious and calm a brass band could sound.

As the collaboration progressed he was also surprised at its lush and soft and wavelike possibilities. "There are moments when it just shimmers."

A section for a solo cello, played by Rolf Gjelsten, evolved.

At times Simmons had simply to trust that his movement and the music would find a synthesis. There was always the need to bring the creative process back to the programme's theme, of commemorating war.

"For me, it became more a reflection on all loss, isolation and sorrow," he says, "with defined moments of stillness but with a frantic undercurrent and the unrelenting quality of the music pushing it all along."

The work features beautiful costumes and staging by Tracy Grant Lord. The six women wear softly folding dresses of super-fine grey wool, cleverly and subtly reminiscent of the dress of the day. The six men sport loose, understated garments that suggest army fatigues. Overhead, a huge open net stretches from the back of the stage, up and over the action, containing an assortment of "debris".

"The dancers don't interact with it at all," says Simmons, "It is just a point of reference."

Following Dear Horizon's opening slot on the programme comes The Soldiers' Mass, Jiri Kylian's iconic work from 1980, first performed by RNZB in 1998, staged then and now by Rosslyn Anderson, Kylian's most trusted rehearsal director.

Anderson was at Kylian's side during the work's creation, and was the first woman to perform in its ranks when one of the men suffered a serious injury and she was the only dancer who knew all the steps.

Kylian was so pleased with the effect of a woman in the ensemble that it has almost become a ritual of the work's presentation.

"One woman - but never more than two," says Anderson.

Johann Kobborg's Salute comes as a welcome respite from the heavy heartache and tragedies of war, with music by Danish composer Hans Christian Lumbye, "the Strauss of the North", and a flirtatious and pretty portrayal of innocent young soldiers and their skittishly feminine admirers.

Ieremia's relatively brief, consummately powerful Passchendaele, with music by Dwayne Blomfield and a stunning backdrop of works by visual artist Geoff Tune, concludes the programme. In its final moments, all music muted, stage still, comes the sound of a knock on a door - the dreaded sound for so many families so long ago, of bad news, the very worst news, from the front.

Performance
What: Salute, with the Royal New Zealand Ballet
Where and when: Founders Theatre, Hamilton, June 10; Bruce Mason Theatre, Takapuna, June 13-14; Aotea Centre, June 17-20; Napier Municipal Theatre, June 24-25