Royal New Zealand Ballet / 15 September 2019 / By Rosheen FitzGerald
Such is the traditional appeal of ballet that it is tempting for companies to churn out the classics. Swan Lake and the Nutcracker guarantee pink-tulled toddler bums on seats, at a premium. But in an eponymous bold move, the Royal New Zealand Ballet has chosen something different — to educate as well as to entertain. This ensemble piece, in three major parts and a minor interlude, presents a microcosm of modern choreography.
We are eased in to the programme with Tchaikovsky’s Serenade. Choreographed in the thirties by legend, George Balanchine, it was the debut new work for what would become the New York City Ballet. At a glance the elements of traditional ballet are present. A female heavy corps, en pointe clad in ankle-length tulle pirouette, arabesque and glissé to classical string movements.
But several elements set it apart from the Tchaikovsky giants whose steps were set down in the nineteenth century. Lush sets are eschewed in favour of a signature blue light wash. All dancers, corps and principals, are dressed alike, women in simple pastel green tutus whose romantic-style soft-tulle skirts flow to mid-calf stirring up a flowing sea foam around the dancers to mass effect. Male dancers are clad in simple black body stocking, almost like stage hands. With the exception of the male lead, whose bold gestures direct the stunning pas de trois, their work is functional, facilitating lifts, showcasing the female talent.
These are all hallmarks of the neoclassical movement Balanchine pioneered, paring back design elements to let the dance take centre stage. What it lacks in elaborate sets and costumes it more than makes up in form, the corps coming together like a single living, breathing entity, creating and erasing complex patterns. There is a wonderful pathos to the lead dancers’ pieces, a palpable, aching sadness. Though, to modern eyes, the choreography appears classical, it is characterised by a number of dramatic falls. Legend has it these were rehearsal blunders Balanchine incorporated into his final piece.
Next, we are treated to a pas de deux from Russian propaganda piece, Flames of Paris. Of an age with Serenade but from the opposite side of the Iron Curtain, this is a breadcrumb of traditional ballet that serves as an anchor point for what has come before and is yet to come. The male lead springs straight from the Nureyev playbook, all pomp and grand gestures and impressive tours en l’air. His impish female counterpart, in sparkling platter tutu, rejects Fonteyn in favour of a lively character style, her personality bursting from every flick of the wrist and coquettish glance.
Our grounding in early twentieth century choreography complete, the curtain rises on something completely different. Stand to Reason, Andrea Schermoly’s 2018 commission to commemorate womens’ suffrage takes its inspiration from Kate Sheppard’s 1888 pamphlet, Ten Reasons Why the Women of New Zealand Should Vote. The reasons themselves, many lip-bitingly outdated by today’s standards, are projected in typeface above the dancers, the arrhythmic clatter of the typewriter providing the only aural accompaniment to the opening movement.
The eight strong, all female corps, clad in simple black shifts and mid-calf length black stockings are starkly lit from above, their milk white hands and legs providing dramatic contrast. Here the smoke and mirrors of traditional ballet are stripped away. While there is space for grace, it is no longer used as a mantle for strength. Instead we are left with a raw, punchy athleticism, awe-inspiring and utterly suited to the subject matter. The principal dancers distinguish themselves by their actions, not their looks, but this is a truly egalitarian ensemble piece in which every dancer plays her part in the whole, and each has a moment in the sun. The choreographer messes with pacing and gesture, incorporating slaps and stamps, frantic elbow rolls and measured, arm-linked marching.
There is a sense of caged desperation, an almost incredulity that equality needs justification at all. The piece concludes with a stark reminder of all the countries that, 126 years after New Zealand women pioneered voting rights, still deny women’s suffrage. The dancers, bold, unsmiling, break the fourth wall to challenge the audience with their eyes. It is a powerful evocation of the lengths the female body, the female mind, the female spirit can achieve when given rein.
The final act, William Forsythe’s Artifact II, builds on the mind opening work that has come before. Utterly American in style, though it was created for a German company, it uses a number of overtly subversive techniques to sow discomfort and confusion and shake the audience free of their jaded expectations. Floor mounted lighting rigs, clearly visible in the wings, bathe the stage in an urbane sulphuric glow that just screams 1980’s New York loft.
The corps, male and female alike dressed in identical functional body stocking, flank the stage performing coordinated stiff mechanical gestures, directed by an imperious metallic clad principal puppeteer. A pair of pas de deux occur simultaneously, the female leads distinguished by their sheer black tights, the male not at all. In contrast to the machine-like gestures of the corps, the principals’ movements evoke a frantic humanity as they attempt to writhe and whorl their way free of their industrial prison. Mid-dance the weighted curtain drops with a resounding thump, eliciting gasps from the audience, only to rise again, the dancers reset.
Though the piece exudes edginess it is unmistakably ballet over contemporary dance. It is a triumph of choreography that something so consciously boundary pushing can be created from an art form so steeped in tradition.
Taken as a whole, Bold Moves is so much more than the sum of its parts. It feels like a showcase, expertly and thoughtfully curated, of where modern ballet can go when pushed to its limits. Uplifting and inspirational, programming of this calibre and this style can only serve to ignite and grow a passion for cutting edge dance in all those it touches.
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