I may have mentioned on here before, but for a while when I lived in Copenhagen I wrote an occasional blog about dance. It was often a bit of a struggle, as I found I often lacked the words I wanted to express what I felt about a particular dance performance I had seen. But after seeing last night’s performance by the Royal New Zealand Ballet (RNZB), I really want to write about the evening. Please keep in mind I am no expert, just someone who has been watching ballet and dance since I was a small child.
The latest production from the RNZB is an adaptation of the 1993 film, The Piano. If you have seen the film, then you will know the story is set in New Zealand in the mid-nineteenth century, and tells the tale of a mute woman, Ada, and her daughter Flora, who arrive from Scotland with her piano. Her relationship with her new husband Stewart is not what she had hoped. He sells her piano to a neighbour, George, and Ada learns from George that she may earn back her piano by giving him piano lessons, with conditions. The ending is, of course, tragic.
Originally a one act piece (to which I will return later), choreographed by Jiří Bubeníček, the work has been extended to a two act ballet. Elements of the film score by Michael Nyman were included (though luckily not that, in my opinion, dreadful section that makes me think of Isadora Duncan floating about with a chiffon scarf). Other music was by Debussy, Arensky, Stravinsky, Schnittke, Brahms and Shostakovich, as well as Māori musical elements.
The sets were probably the best bit about the evening, with background projections by designer Otto Bubeníček’s (brother of the choreographer). He apparently filmed the ocean and New Zealand bush for 20 minutes at a time, producing really evocative background elements to the dancing. I loved the wallpaper for the indoor scenes, and the lighting was excellent, adding shadows and creating new spaces on the stage. The costumes were good (though surely they could have used a different fabric for Ada’s blue jacket that showed every sweat stain) and the piano on stage was the actual piano used in the film, found in the collection of a movie memorabilia fan.
I found the ballet as a whole misconceived. It was too long, too much of the same thing – my friend and I were doing Ada’s arm movements in the taxi on the way home. It may have been excellent as a one act piece, but as a two act ballet it failed to excite. I felt myself almost going into a meditative trance, watching the waterfall or ocean images behind the dancers. This of course is not good, and such a pity, as honestly I cannot fault the dancers we saw on Saturday evening (Nadia Yanowsky as Ada, Loughlan Prior as the husband, Alistair and Massimo Margaria as George with a special mention to Bianca Lungu as Flora).
The second act was better than the first in many respects, with a dramatic moment when Stewart the husband realises what is going on and expresses his anger through an excellent piece of emotional dance. On the whole though, it was disappointing, with some elements that should be addressed for future performances. For example, the over-long scene with the play in the church at the end of Act 1, and the moment when George disappears behind a screen and emerges wearing nothing but flesh coloured underpants, which was almost comical.
No doubt many will disagree with me, but the this new work does not hold up. Living in New Zealand, we are not fortunate enough to have regular access to live performances* of some of the great companies and choreographers at work today. Instead we have badly conceived pieces like RNZB’s The Wizard of Oz or endless unimaginative rehashes of classics like Swan Lake by touring Russian companies full of second rate dancers. This is not to say that I haven’t seen some excellent evenings of dance in Wellington, such as the triple bill of works by Alexander Ekman last year and the stunning A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 2015. Of course, companies like RNZB face the dilemma of many companies – do they stick to the old faithful classics, that some in the audience have seen dozens of times, but which can guarantee a full house, or perform more dynamic, contemporary pieces that will challenge audiences? Whatever, part of the potential viewing public may well feel alienated, either through being bored with Giselle or scared of the unusual. Of course, the creation of a new work poses a risk for any dance company (see a good piece by David Bintley here on finance and dance). Dance companies are stuck between a rock and a hard place…between bums on seats and challenging the boundaries of artistic expression.
Pieces like The Piano, never mind how beautiful they look, or how well they are danced, appear to be born out of a belief that something familiar (a film, a book) will bring in audiences more than new, abstract works or works based around new ideas. Audiences, however, need to be challenged, and not fed poorly imagined pieces that look good to the marketing department. Dance is an ephemeral art form, here one minute, gone the next, and must have the ability to develop images that stick in the mind for years (think, for example, of Pina Bausch’s work).
So sorry RNZB I didn’t enjoy your latest work, but it certainly got me thinking, so for that I say thank you, and look forward to the next evening in May.
*Not to say we don’t get visiting companies – every two years as part of the New Zealand Festival or once a year one might go to Auckland such as English National Ballet this year.
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