Actors Tia Ormsby and Madeleine Walker stand in the foyer of the ASB Waterfront theatre, trying not to giggle or smile too much about their latest role.

Ormsby and Walker, both 11 and from South Auckland, know fun as it may be, the show they're in is no laughing matter. They'll share the role of "child" in the theatre adaptation of George Orwell's 1984 and that means being sombre and serious.

The character is described as a creepy, suspicious and ill-mannered juvenile who is a member of Big Brother's Junior Spies — part of the world where an intrusive government continually monitors its citizens.

While it's a small part, it's the latest in a long line for both girls who are already planning careers in the performing arts. Ormsby, also a keen sportsperson and dancer, had a leading role as Debbie in Auckland Theatre Company's Billy Elliot. Walker, already an accomplished musician who plays bass guitar in a rock band, starred in writer Emily Perkins' and ATC's adaptation of A Doll's House.

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In 1984, they'll yell a couple of lines, sing a song and blow a whistle. It might not sound like much to learn but the sound and lighting effects will be like no other the girls have encountered. They're taking it in their stride, though, saying it's another chance to work and learn from more experienced actors and do what they love best.

1984 has already had three successful West End seasons, a season on Broadway and an Australian tour. Ormsby and Walker know how famous the book is and, with their families, got together to watch a video of the production. Acknowledging it's a tough watch, their mums, Tawera and Sarah, say it was also a valuable way to start talking to the girls about some of the play's themes: war, power and propaganda.

"It's a big advantage because it's a controlled environment where we can explain things to them rather than them hearing and picking up on random bits of information out in the world," says Sarah McDowall.

But Tawera says there were some scenes, which the girls are not in, that they fast forwarded through because they felt they were unsuitable for the 11 year olds.

Choreographer Jiri Bubenicek with (clockwise from left) Bianca Lungu, Gemma Lew and Hazel Couper who will dance the role of Flora in the RNZB's The Piano: the ballet. Photo / Stephen A'Court
Choreographer Jiri Bubenicek with (clockwise from left) Bianca Lungu, Gemma Lew and Hazel Couper who will dance the role of Flora in the RNZB's The Piano: the ballet. Photo / Stephen A'Court

As Ormsby and Walker get ready for their latest turn in the spotlight, in Wellington three young ballerinas are also preparing for the biggest roles of their lives. Hazel Couper, Gemma Lew and Bianca Lungu, all 12, star in the Royal New Zealand Ballet's The Piano: the ballet, the world premiere of the film reimagined for the stage.

They'll share the role of Flora McGrath, the first role played by now Hollywood star Anna Paquin who, at 11, became the second youngest actor to win an Academy Award for best supporting actor.

Couper and Lungu, from Auckland's Philippa Campbell School of Dance, and Lew, from Fusion Dance Studio in Wellington, were chosen to dance the role from a group of 100 who auditioned. They'll be joined by a supporting cast of children from dance schools in each region on the tour.

Accompanied by their mums, Couper and Lungu have temporarily moved to Wellington and, along with Lew, are spending their days rehearsing and trying to keep on top of their school work.

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But their mothers, Fiona Lindop, Yolanda Morgan and Christina, say for their dance-mad daughters, who have all seen and marvelled at RNZB shows, the opportunity was too good to pass up. And like Tawera Ormsby and Sarah McDowall, they agree The Piano features adult themes but it provides chances to talk about those issues in a more co-ordinated way.

Made by Czech choreographer Jiri Bubenicek, who saw the film as a teenager, film-makers Jane Campion, Jan Chapman and Saddleback Productions gave permission for The Piano: the ballet to go ahead. It was originally performed as a short work for Dortmund Ballet in Germany but a full-scale, world premiere requires extra attention to detail.

Bubenicek's co-creator and brother, Otto, has designed large-scale multimedia projections so audiences can be transported from the theatre to the beach and bush settings so beloved in the 1993 film. That will be boosted by two Panasonic projectors designed for stage work and the most powerful of their kind in New Zealand.

The production blends excerpts from Michael Nyman's film score with music by Debussy, Arensky, Stravinsky, Schnittke, Brahms and Shostakovich.

LOWDOWN:
What: 1984
Where & when: AAF, ASB Waterfront Theatre, March 9 — 25

What: The Piano: the ballet
Where & when: NZ International Festival, Wellington St James Theatre; February 23 — 25; then touring NZ including Auckland Arts Festival, ASB Theatre, Aotea Centre; March 8 — 10

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