The Piano: the ballet

2-3 March 2018, Municipal Theatre, Napier
By Louis Pierard

The Royal New Zealand Ballet’s splendid version of Jane Campion’s 1993 movie of the same name deserves to stand as a permanent of the company’s repertoire as a work truly representative of this country, its provenance notwithstanding.

Choreographed, designed and arranged by Czech brothers Jiří and Otto Bubeníček, who reworked it for the RNZB from their original one-act version for a performance by Ballet Dortmund, the ballet invites comparison with the movie that it closely follows – perhaps too much so.

One signal difference is in the music. That the movie succeeded was despite the trite and derivative original score: it was as if every effort had been made to give the music as little contextual meaning as possible. However, in the ballet, the original pieces are kept to a merciful minimum among the large collection of music that Otto Bubeníček has thoughtfully assembled –  Schnittke, Shostakovich, Brahms, Debussy and Vasks –  intertwined with evocative traditional and contemporary Māori compositions.

While the set is minimalist, accentuating the pivotal role of the piano, large moving screens that feature a series of video projections set the scenes from the heavy seas that open the work with the arrival of Scots mute Ada McGrath – who has been sold into marriage to colonial settler Alistair Stewart – to the colonial living room, church hall and splendid native bush.  Accompanying Ada (Sara Garbowski) are her illegitimate daughter Flora (Bianca Lungu) and the piano, which has been set down on the beach, to be given by Stewart (Nathan Mennis) in exchange for land to illiterate forester George Baines – who is supposed to be a kind of South Seas Oliver Mellors.  William Fitzgerald’s George (who looks more an aesthete than the buff Harvey Keitel of the film) suggests that Ada, who is required to give him piano lessons as part of the deal, could buy back the piano one lesson per key, and she is obliged to do so with increasing intimacies.

Garbowski is first-class in her portrayal of the brittle poke-bonnet ill-used by her acquisitive husband transformed in her passionate response to Baines in the seduction scene to the strains of Brahms’ piano Fantasies, Op. 116. Mennis’ Stewart is a compelling prig, and his cuckold’s fury – accompanied by a rousing haka underpinned by the shrieking agitato from Schnittke’s String Quartet No 2 –  is very convincing.  When in jealous rage he hacks off one of Ada’s fingers with an axe, it’s Schnittke again,  this time the terrifying presto from the cello sonata, yielding to Charles Ives’ cosmic landscape ‘The Unanswered Question’, which starts and ends the ballet.

Although the moral play panto scene is true to the film — organised in the ballet by the oddly spry Victorian parson, the Rev Campbell (Felipe Domingos)  –  it seems to have been necessary only as a vehicle for the corps de ballet and risks making a melodrama of the climax it anticipates. Better the Bubeníčeks strayed from the original, perhaps instead further exploring the Māori perspective or developing Ada’s contrasting relationship with both men at a less frenetic pace.

Where Campion’s justly lauded work deftly explored primal awakenings in the New Zealand bush through the lingering, all seeing camera lens – and which proved immune to the efforts of its composer –  the ability to harness intelligently some very fine compositions that provide actual musical drama and passion has played a huge role in this ballet’s success.

(Image credit: Ross Brown, courtesy of Royal New Zealand Ballet)

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