Ahead of its NZ national tour, The New Zealand Dance Company took its Lumina show to Paris. Shona McCullagh charts the tour's triumphs and tribulations .

Saturday, April 8: The Path to Paris

0800: The company and I land at Shanghai airport to discover that our already-cancelled and rescheduled Air France flight has been cancelled again due to strikes. The next flight they have rebooked us on would have us arrive in Paris too late for our technical rehearsals. Not a good start.

The Theatre National de la Dance, the Chaillot, built for the 1936 International Expo. Photo / Caroline Bindon
The Theatre National de la Dance, the Chaillot, built for the 1936 International Expo. Photo / Caroline Bindon

900: We manage to get rebooked on an Aeroflot flight to Paris via Moscow. Not ideal, but a significantly better option than spending 48 hours in Shanghai airport. Even the surly Russian air stewards are no deterrent for our joy at getting on that plane.

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2100: Finally, we arrive in Paris and drive past Le Tour Eiffel, which is all lit up with a thousand sparkles. A collective exhale of relief that we've actually made it can be heard and we all sleep like big dogs.

Sunday, April 9

Day Off. Magnifique!

We walk along the Seine River to marvel in daylight at the Eiffel Tower. And immediately in front, the Chaillot — the breathtaking Theatre National de la Danse — where we will perform. Originally, the Palais de Chaillot was built for the International Expo of 1937 and it was on the front terrace of the palace that Adolf Hitler was pictured during his short tour of the city in 1940, with the Eiffel Tower in the background. The United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on December 10, 1948 in this building. Of the then 58 members of the UN, 48 voted in favour, including New Zealand, none against, eight abstained, and two did not vote.

The Eiffel Tower in Paris, France. Photo / Getty Images
The Eiffel Tower in Paris, France. Photo / Getty Images

We head to the Georges Pompidou Centre, where we are deeply rewarded by the brilliant exhibition on the Suprematist Russian art movement of the early 1900s. It's a fascinating era of revolutionary artistic practice, where a new art school was established in Vitebsk by Chagall, Malevich, Lissitzky and the female artist Vera Ermolaeva.

One of Malevich's works, Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge, is an eerie combination of both the set piece designed by Kasia Pol for Lumina and NZDC's brand created by Designworks.

Ermolaeva created the set designs for a futuristic opera, Victoire sur le Soleil in 1920 (that was performed with no music due to budget limitations), and described as "flashing headlights illuminated the figures in such a way that alternating hands, legs or heads disappeared into the darkness". This description is eerily similar to one of our Lumina works, Geography of an Archipelago, by Stephen Shropshire.

It feels great to be connected to these artists almost exactly 100 years later and demonstrates how ahead of their time they were with their mantra of "art for all people and art everywhere" with their futuristic designs.

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On a lower floor at the Pompidou, dance and the Ballets Russes — a company that has always inspired my work with NZDC — is acknowledged many times through photographs, footage, programmes and more. I'm in history heaven.

The view from the top of the Pompidou is beautiful and we gape at the cafe design which, I discover on our opening night, was designed by one of our guests — a Kiwi named Brendan MacFarlane of "architectes, urbanistes, designers" JAKOB+MACFARLANE.
Five hours later our feet hurt — a regular feature of our time in Paris.

Company members Carl, Katie, Chrissy and Eddie at the Eiffel Tower. Photo / Caroline Bindon
Company members Carl, Katie, Chrissy and Eddie at the Eiffel Tower. Photo / Caroline Bindon

Monday, April 10

Our technical day at the beautiful Chaillot.

There are French crew everywhere — one guy only washes the dance floors, nothing else.

Our crew, Jo and Abby, have had to arrive three days earlier because the French union insists that the theatre must be closed on a Sunday and Monday. Lucky for them, they get two days off to explore Paris.

The dance history of the building is significant. Isadora Duncan, a trailblazer for modern and contemporary dance, performed here in 1913, and in 1947 the Ballets Russes. In 2008, Chaillot became the Theatre National de la Danse — France's only national theatre.

Our technical rehearsal goes well apart from jetlag — meaning we can all barely stay awake and it's time for some rest before our Paris debut the following evening.

Tuesday April 11: Our opening night

1500: We present a studio showing for an incoming artistic director of the Kuopio Festival in Finland. The studio is unbearably hot and we learn that the heating is on an automated seasonal system that can't be altered, despite the changed climate.

1600: We have another dress rehearsal, which goes very well. We are all ready for our Paris premiere.

The Queens Theatre in the Palace of Versailles. Photo / Getty Images
The Queens Theatre in the Palace of Versailles. Photo / Getty Images

1915: I meet Didier Deschamps, the director of Chaillot and have the pleasure of welcoming the New Zealand Ambassador to France, Jane Coombs, who also happens to be my ex-flatmate from 30 years ago. She always wanted to be a diplomat. The embassy has generously hosted the post-show party and has brought many Kiwis living in Paris.

1945: Curtain up on Dancenorth — our colleagues from Townsville, Australia, with whom we are sharing a double bill. Their duet, Syncing Feeling is beautiful. I've seen it in dress rehearsal and about five minutes into the 30-minute work, I know something is wrong.

The lighting cues have frozen, and Amber and Kyle are dancing out of light for much of their duet.

2000: Kyle stops dancing and announces to the audience that there is a problem with "la lumiere". The audience are asked to leave the auditorium while the technicians try to fix the lighting console, which has crashed. Abby has our show backed up on to a computer and after an excruciating 20 minutes confirms we need to run the show off the computer. However, there are now problems getting the computer to talk to the in-house dimmer system.

Dance company members pose outside their theatre in Paris, the Chaillot. Photo / Caroline Bindon
Dance company members pose outside their theatre in Paris, the Chaillot. Photo / Caroline Bindon

Finally, after another painfully long 15 minutes, Chaillot makes the call to cancel the show, before we have even set foot on the stage. We are more than mortified. Devastated. Angry. Disappointed. In shock. Ambassador Jane insists that we will still have the cocktail party and is so gracious and empathetic. The guests cheer the dancers when they arrive, albeit crestfallen. It's honestly one of the worst nights of my career in dance. The critics have all come and have nothing to write about. I remember the famous review of Paul Taylor in the New York Times that was blank, but not because the performance was cancelled.

Wednesday April 12: Premiere take two

We all wake up recalling the night before as the nightmare it really was. Sydney Dance Company, who are also performing at Chaillot, are sympathetic, but everyone is wincing.

"This never happens" is often heard. But it happened to us, on our Parisian premiere.

However this night we really do premiere, and many people come back to see the company, including some of the critics. And the new lighting console works.

Thursday, April 13: Final show

After our last performance the dancers torture the locals at a Korean karaoke bar with loud renditions of Ka piopio e, our company song and our artistic executive Caroline and I have dinner in the Trocadero with Jarmo Penttila, the programme adviser at Chaillot.

Friday, April 14: Last day in Paris … and a day off.

Caroline and I go to Versailles and it's the dreamlike antidote to the nightmare opening night. We get there despite a train strike. It is astonishing and the musical fountains are only topped by Marie-Antoinette's darling wee theatre she had built so she could get away from the intensity of the palace. It's so intimate and in many ways epitomises France's great love of culture.

Caroline Bindon, left, and Shona McCullagh backed by the musical fountains at Versailles. Photo / Caroline Bindon
Caroline Bindon, left, and Shona McCullagh backed by the musical fountains at Versailles. Photo / Caroline Bindon

Checklist

GETTING THERE

Qatar Airways

flies from Auckland to Paris, via Doha, with return Economy Class fares from $1510.

Shona McCullagh is the chief executive and artistic director of The New Zealand Dance Company. Lumina begins its 2018 National Tour on Friday May 4 in Hamilton, and visits Christchurch, Nelson and Auckland. For more information and how to book, go to nzdc.org.nz/node/lumina2018