Behind-the-scenes: On the eve of the Auckland Arts Festival and New Zealand Festival in Wellington, the NZ Herald speaks to some of our leading choreographers and dancers, theatre-makers, playwrights and poets, musicians and singers about what makes them tick. Why do they make the art they do and what can we expect to see from them at our biggest arts festivals?

Orpheus, the legendary Ancient Greek musician doomed to heartbreak and tragic death, supposedly made music so enchanting it could charm the birds from the trees, calm the wildest of beasts and entice rocks to dance.

On a Friday afternoon, when summer's heat bites, a small group gathers at The New Zealand Dance Company's (NZDC) headquarters in central Auckland to be similarly persuaded.

The former warehouse has been converted into a series of dance studios where the stark, yet comforting, décor matches the lightness of the dancers giving a first and early glimpse at work by one of the country's most acclaimed choreographers.

Advertisement
Michael Parmenter: if we can be seduced, surely we can resist? New Zealand Herald Photograph by Dean Purcell.
Michael Parmenter: if we can be seduced, surely we can resist? New Zealand Herald Photograph by Dean Purcell.

Michael Parmenter, who started dancing when he was 22 but was moving long before then, hasn't made a new full-length contemporary dance work for a decade. Now he's back with OrphEus — a dance opera. While he's spent the last 10 years mainly teaching at Unitec and doing his own study, an idea has been forming in his mind and Parmenter has taken his time to carefully consider and bring it to the stage.

Parmenter is conjuring up a performance both personal and political; if he were to sum it up in a soundbite, he'd say, "I'm politicising Orpheus".

"Orpheus is a figure from Greek mythology who, through his music, could change the natural world, make wild animals peaceful and change the feelings and emotional states of human beings so there's this power to move people," says Parmenter.

"So, it seems to me that he's a good figure to address the issue of how we — as people — are moved by music, by other voices, by the emotional atmospheres that we are in and these could be political as well as what we consider to be emotional feelings."

The most famous Orpheus legend recounts how, using his music, he charmed the God of the Underworld, Hades, into allowing him to venture down and take back his wife, Eurydice. Hades told Orpheus he could have Eurydice back only if he did not look at her before coming into the light.

But, mere footsteps away from completing this journey, Orpheus lost faith and turned to look for her so Hades snatched her back. Orpheus tried to return to the underworld; he could never do so again and Eurydice was lost to him forever.

"The feeling that I have is that this isn't a time to be turning around. I think we need to learn from Orpheus' mistake; we need to look into the future which is going to be incredibly complex and messy, but we have to stay with the difficulty."

Parmenter brings a maritime element to his OrphEus, which makes sense given we're on an island at the bottom of the world. He also points out that in the story of Jason and the Argonauts, Orpheus was Jason's first crew member because he could play music more enchanting than the Sirens — the beguiling creatures whose music and song would lure then shipwreck sailors. Thanks to Orpheus, Jason could sail safely past them.

"We are confronted in the media, everywhere at the moment, with these amazing pictures of people on boats, waiting at borders to get into countries and landing on foreign shores and waiting at walls to enter and these seemed to me to be a version of our current infernos," Parmenter says.

"That immediately set me in the direction not so much of the Orpheus and Eurydice part of the story, but Orpheus' inclusion on the voyage of Jason and the Argonauts. I am leaning toward calling some of the political voices around us either Orphic figures or Sirens, the people who want to seduce us away.

"But even with Orpheus, there's this temptation to turn around and look back at the past so some of the voices that are calling us at the moment — let's name them, like Trump voices or new-right voices or whatever — are wanting us to turn back to a time when everything was nice and secure, we knew who we were: we were male, we were white, and we were Christian and we were American."

Because, says Parmenter, if we can be seduced, surely we can resist? Are we, he questions, able to say enough is enough or are we like leaves blown along with the wind?

Auckland Arts Festival 2018: OrphEus - a dance opera by Michael Parmenter with The New Zealand Dance Company. Photo: John McDermott
Auckland Arts Festival 2018: OrphEus - a dance opera by Michael Parmenter with The New Zealand Dance Company. Photo: John McDermott

In his OrphEus, nine NZDC dancers are joined by a chorus of community dancers; Grammy Award-winning American tenor Aaron Sheehan and baroque ensemble Latitude 37 will perform a score which includes music by revered French composers Rameau and Charpentier.

It has a Baroque aspect to it partly because Parmenter is interested in the 17 and 18th centuries, particularly the ways in which music was changing. He believes like now, it was a time of great change when the foundations, especially with developments in science, were laid for individualism.

"… and I think that's where some of our problems have come from because I don't think we have got that blend right and so the music led me to address much more encompassing issues.

"I make dance works because, for me, it's my way of trying to make sense of the world. When I discovered that I was a mover, as an adolescent, it was like suddenly the world — as a moving entity into which I fitted — made sense so when certain things concern me, appeal to me, trouble me, I use art as a way of scratching the itch.

"It's a way of just finding out what's going on there, so I don't adhere to the old sort of romantic idea that I've got these things deep inside me that I need to express; it's actually things outside that I want to explore, that I want to know, that I want to understand and my method of understanding them is not science or philosophy, it's art. I think there are all sorts of different ways of trying to understand the world and I do it by creating imagined societies or 'what if's?' What if we did this? Sort of like philosophy with bodies."

Having said all this, Parmenter doesn't want to make a show better suited to a lecture room. His previous works have been visceral; he's equally fascinated by the relationship between music and dance.

"I am using sound and moving bodies to try and engage people in questions that I think are relevant to our world. It's not something that you need to have a lot of prior knowledge; the only prior knowledge you need is a body with ears and eyes and senses — it's a sensing body — and, I think, if anyone comes along who's open to listening and looking, they will be incredibly engaged by this."

About OrphEus - a dance opera: OrphEus confronts the power of music and voice in both the personal and the political realms, revealing, in this familiar story of love and loss, the tensions between seduction and restraint, harmony and disorder. Music used in this video is not the music to be used in the production.

OrphEus plays at the Auckland Arts Festival, March 9-11 at The Civic before travelling to the New Zealand Festival in Wellington, March 16 and 17 at The Opera House.