Once Upon a Dance - Jan Bolwell & Mona Williams
22 June 2018, Te Whaea National Dance & Drama Centre, Wellington
Reviewed by Brigitte Knight
Once Upon a Dance A dance story by Jan Bolwell and Mona Williams is an hour-long piece of theatre written by Jan Bolwell and directed by Ralph McAllister. As a production under the name of Crows Feet Dance Collective, I expected a dance work; narrative, but movement-based. In fact this is an autobiographical play, as the programme notes reveal. Closest in form to grassroots touring children’s theatre, the work includes some stylised movement, audience interaction and song.
The venue - a Te Whaea drama studio - proved an intimate and unforgiving space. White fabric served as a cyclorama for projection, and a folding screen was used to hold props and mask costume changes. Unfortunately, the projection quality was poor and many of the photos could not be seen clearly. Performers Bolwell and Williams entered the space with wide eyes and fixed smiles, setting the tone for the play.
As a playwright (Bolwell) and a professional storyteller/author (Williams), the two women find common ground in an enduring love of dance and musical theatre. The women narrate their own and one-another’s stories, yet the imbalanced weight of these two very different lives contradicted their egalitarian treatment within the play.
Williams’ experiences growing up in Guyana (then British Guiana) are compelling, and deserving of further consideration. As less than one percent of the New Zealand population, West Indian peoples and their perspectives are rare treasures for Kiwi theatre. Williams travelled to the USA as a Fulbright Scholar, married a Pakeha, and moved to New Zealand to find herself rejected by her husband’s racist family. After ten years her husband came out as a sexually active, closeted gay man. Williams remained in New Zealand; there was much more about this woman’s tenacity and strength that I hoped the play would explore. Williams’ story provided Once Upon a Dance’s most powerful moments. The time for it to resonate with the audience was cut short with a minimising “Chin up, Mona”, and an unappealing transition into a musical theatre sing-along. Further exploration was due a beautiful, fluid section of cultural dance by Williams; an opportunity missed.
Bolwell is a survivor of two bouts of breast cancer, and she has been making works exploring this theme for close to twenty years. Once Upon a Dance was no exception, the penultimate solo a short modern dance with a literal movement vocabulary including chest-beating and silicone bra inserts. Bolwell’s material, particularly, felt nostalgic, although the structure and tone of the play did not necessarily move this work into the realm of appeal to a wider audience. In terms of delivery, Bolwell’s pedagogical tone, authoritative manner with Williams, and breaking the fourth wall, contributed to the play veering unintentionally towards pantomime.
An audience of sympathetic contemporaries found plenty to relate to in this work. Interaction included swaying in time with the performers as they reminisced about their love of The Nutcracker, the performers donning mock practice tutus over their costumes. Aside from some minor issues with sustained accent/narrative voice and the occasional pause in flow, Once Upon a Dance was essentially well-rehearsed, and performed with enthusiasm.