The year in dance: Sparkle and shine

By Raewyn Whyte, Bernadette Rae

It's been a year of energy and evolution in the dance scene. Reviewers Bernadette Rae and Raewyn Whyte cast their eyes over a diverse range of contemporary dance and ballet.

Lucy Green in Cinderella.
Lucy Green in Cinderella.

It has been a year of change and stunningly positive evolution for the Royal New Zealand Ballet, with the highly esteemed Ethan Stiefel getting into his stride as artistic director, with fiancee Gillian Murphy, principal ballerina with the American Ballet Theatre, at his side, adding another decisive fillip of inspiration.

In March Stiefel presented the company's triple bill titled NYC - Three Short Ballets from the Big Apple. It was a sparkling opening statement from the American superstar with works by George Balanchine, Benjamin Millepied and Larry Keigwin all giving a clear indication of his direction for the company.

It was a popular delight and the dancers performed with a new energy and noticeably crisper technique. Though the classic Balanchine, a choreographer new to most of the cast, was a definite period piece, it provided us with a first experience of Murphy's definitive prowess.

It was also an opportunity for young company dancer Lucy Green to prove she could step up to the mark, a mark she has maintained ever since.

Green is a definite star on the rise and also shone in the Millepied piece 28 Variations on a Theme by Paganini.

But it was Keigwin's commissioned Final Dress that was the season's and possibly the whole year's greatest triumph.

With a stripped back stage and a rip-snorting score from Adam McCrystal, Stiefel showed just what he could get this company to do.

It was an almost dangerous display, a devastatingly danced exposition of the chase in performance and relationship.

We were wowed.

April saw the RNZB back with the charming Angelina Ballerina's Big Audition, a perfect introduction to ballet for the littlies, and a new business project for the company.

In September it was another welcome season of the gorgeous Cinderella, with choreography by Christopher Hampson, design by Tracy Grant-Lord, with Lucy Green again perfect in the principal role.

The RNZB's year concluded in November with a taut and terrific Giselle. In an odd departure from the norm it opened in Auckland with its second cast. The following night Murphy, in the lead role, partnered by Qi Huan, showed just how it could be done.

And the whole company put on show just what they could do too, with highly polished technique, perfection of line in the corps de ballet, and dramatic flair.

The Stiefel effect is brilliantly clear.

In August the New Zealand Dance Company burst into life on the grand stage of the Aotea Centre with a five-part "creative alchemy" danced by the country's contemporary elite and under the watchful eye of Shona McCullagh, who heads the new enterprise as both creative and executive director.

If anyone can achieve a full-scale, first-rate national contemporary dance company, the inimitable McCullagh can.

She has a zany instinct and flair for her art, now backed with a solid set of business skills and understanding.

Auckland boasts five other robust contemporary dance companies. Erudite Lemi Ponifasio's Mau boosted its New Zealand profile this year with a planetary plea, Birds With Skymirrors, performed at Wellington's International Festival of the Arts. Maori co-operative Atamira, having taken permanent residence at the Corban Estate Arts Centre, presented a new season of Hou there, in March. Mixed ability company Touch Compass was all grown-up with a sophisticated, even avant-garde, triple bill in its 15th anniversary year performance in June. Black Grace presented Waka, a visionary exploration of the raft as metaphor for hope, in August.

- Bernadette Rae


The period September to December completes a productively rich year of dance in the Auckland region. Ann Dewey and Spinning Sun set audiences alight in community halls throughout Rodney with Lazy Suzy Boy, an immersive, magical and mystical exploration of our animal natures. Liana Yew, Liz Kirk, Julie Van Renen and Marianne Schultz became co-existing entities - tiger, deer, bear, humanity - in a world where deep respect for all living things is an abiding principle.

The annual Tempo Dance Festival presented 24 different events in just two weeks, an eclectic sampling of what's happening in dance in New Zealand right now. The standout event for many was Daniel Belton's brand new film Time Dance. This primarily black, white and grey film held the audience enthralled with its ever-changing imagery ranging from real dancers performing in real time in the studio or among the strange rock formations at Castle Hill, their movement sequences treated via 3D animation, edited, abstracted, layered, intercut into impossible formations, and overlaid with fine lines similar to spider webs and drawings of the heavenly constellations. The beautiful imagery was accompanied by live music - a score by Michael Norris sensitively played by the Stroma ensemble, conducted by Hamish McKeich.

Okareka Dance Company's second major work, Nga Hau e Wha, came to Tempo in the midst of a national tour. A richly evocative visual and aural environment created by a dream team (John Verryt and Paul O'Brien, Mike Hodgson, Elizabeth Whiting and Eden Mulholland with Alastair Fraser and Tweedie Waititi) set the scene for their revisiting of Maori creation myths and human interrelationships. The Papa Nuku section choreographed by Ross McCormack was fierce and very disturbing to watch, yet he made it hard to look away.

Also of note: Maria Dabrowska's remarkable Rabbit Brain Terrain duet for Footnote's Manu Reynaud and Levi Cameron, with characters built from the most astonishing array of bodily expressions; a beautifully danced duet of shifting relationships from Moana Nepia's multimedia work Whero, rivetingly presented by himself and Carol Brown; Jared Hemopo's Taonga, danced by himself and three fellow second-year students from Unitec; and from the hundreds of up-and-coming youth dancers, Last Man, poignantly choreographed and danced by 16-year-old Joel White, and 16-year old Riley Bourne's hip-hop trio Back to Bach.

Emerging Tongan contemporary choreographer Sesilia Pusiaki Tatuila had two major successes this year. Her vibrant and engaging Sei 'o Fafine was commissioned by Lima Dance Productions for a cast of 10 performers and examined the everyday realities for young Tongan women growing up in South Auckland. Despite grappling with themes such as death and loss and the challenges youth bring to traditional lifestyles, this was full of music and humour. Her second major work, Pukepuke o' Tonga, was a suite of 10 ceremonial dances dating from 1200AD, reconstructed and presented in intimate village style in Q's Loft during Tempo. Glowing with joy, grace, charm and delight, surrounded by singers and elders, the ensemble of 32 beautifully dressed dancers aged from 5 to 20-something delivered a rich performance.

Atamira bravely pursued a continuous development path with two new works this year - Jack Gray's Mitimiti and Moss Patterson's Moko. By year's end, Moko's relatively pristine blocks of flowing dance have been mashed up and intercut with projections of urban imagery, while Mitimiti has continued developing characters torn between ancestral roots/rural landscapes and urban allegiances/familiar negotiations, each seeking an individual resolution.

Both works will be seen again at the Auckland Arts Festival.

- Raewyn Whyte

- NZ Herald

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