AXIS: Choreographic Season 2023
New Zealand School of Dance
Te Whaea: National Dance and Drama Centre,
Wellington, 25 June 2023.
Choreographic Mentor: Holly Newsome
Lighting Design Mentor: Helen Todd
Scenography: Max de Roy
Costume Mentor: Kaarin Slevin
Reviewed by Brigitte Knight
The New Zealand School of Dance centres students in their 2023 choreographic season AXIS; dance and drama students support the third-year contemporary stream dancers throughout the production providing costume design, construction, lighting realisation, and deliberately choreographed stage crew. Eight unique short works (5 – 8 minutes each) choreographed by the eight student choreographers are curated by choreographic mentor Holly Newsome into a thoughtfully-packaged 70-minute performance free from breaks or intervals.
Although each choreographer is given freedom to explore their individual choreographic voice and ideas, Newsome has provided creative parameters of time and set design, with two large suspended and moveable monochrome walls bisecting the performance space. The realisation of this set by Max de Roy provides limitless opportunities for the incorporation of projection, lighting and physical manipulation of the set. NZSD second-year contemporary dance students bring satisfying gravitas to their roles as stage crew, acting as gatekeepers to the works contained within the show, and visually shepherding the audience through the shifting set and choreographic line-up. With the wings of Te Whaea flown out and the walls of the theatre exposed to the audience, the focus and performance skill of the stage crew is pivotal to establishing the fourth wall and defining the parameters and atmosphere of AXIS’ space.
Fibre of Being, choreographed by Hannah Scholten to original music composed by NZSD alumnus Kit Reilly opens AXIS. Scholten’s work for seven dancers is fluid and energised, utilising juxtaposition of lock/catch and release and enhanced by floaty mesh costumes in smudges of blue and white. I appreciate the choreographer’s exploration of the unfamiliar, but equally the subtle glimpses of refined technicality – superbly elevated and consistent relevés, for example, reveal NZSD’s deliberate and rigorous technical training. Thematically similar, Deija Vukona’s Person > Person muses “…perhaps it is not the ‘knowing’ but the ‘not knowing’ that draws us together…”, and explores focus, space, proximity and light. Vukona’s choreography uses four dancers, costumed again in floaty mesh but this time in shades of chocolate with defined trouser silhouettes adding structure to their form. Elliot Gordon’s Totally Devoted is a tonal shift, an abstract work resting on a sense of narrative underneath, a story or a journey of experiences shared between the two dancers who perform it. Choreographed to If You’re Sure You Want To by Alabaster DePlume, Gordon costumes the dancers in vintage-style overcoats, trousers and skin-coloured crops, effortlessly subtracting any gender-identity tension from the equation. The result is a work of humanity and intimacy outside of time (or perhaps moving across it), and reminds me more than once of Gary Henderson’s magnificent New Zealand play Skin Tight.
The Ability to be Vulner by Caterina Moreno is a thorough and inventive exploration of a cleverly simple theme; “…would you talk to a stranger…in this room right now?…I think about how many conversations I’ve missed out on…”. Moreno’s work for seven dancers is engaging and cohesive, integrating symbolism and manipulation of costuming, seeking the perimeters and weight of the performance space, and considering synthesis of production technologies, movement vocabulary and the interplay between aural and visual information. Bold and courageous choices with the animation of de Roy’s twin walls deliver impact and energy, and the work is programmed perfectly by Newsome, leading effortlessly into Cate Leong’s Minus E, a solo choreography performed by Moreno. Sophisticated monochromatic costume design, projection, and lighting complement a minimalist and clean approach to the choreographic task in this work, and although Leong may not have developed depth and breadth of theme, she succeeds in capturing and sustaining the audience’s attention. Boasting one of AXIS’ boldest and most colourful lighting designs, Molly Robinson’s Three’s a Crowd gives the impression of adding production technology as a final step in the process, rather than an intrinsic one utilised throughout its development. Choreographed to Euphrates (part ii – devoto maestoso al fine), Robinson utilises derivative flamenco movement vocabularies whilst rejecting its idiosyncratic posturing, supporting her choices with music and stylised fringed costuming.
AXIS’ most powerful works are programmed last; I’ll Tell by Isabella Jones, and Lick Off My Tears, Death is also Dying by Sofia Milić. The pieces are dramatic in spectacularly different ways - Jones’ in the breadth of her movement vocabulary and the nuances of her evocations of light, shadow, proximities and distorted proportions, and Milić’s in bold theatricality, the shameless manipulation of dramatic conventions, and the delightful and satisfying engineering of the audience’s visual world. I’ll Tell has a strong emotional backbone, a clear choreographic voice and highly effective stage presence, and while the inclusion of the short comic section near the end is understandable, Jones’ work is powerful enough to rest in its own solemnity. Elements of the staging are reminiscent of Pilobolus’ silhouette choreographies, but pleasingly much darker and less literal. In stark contrast, Lick Off My Tears, Death is also Dying is bombastic, avant-garde, wonderfully stylised and manipulates colour, movement and stillness to superb effect. The choreographer leaves room for audience members to experience her work through individual lenses, be that absurdist theatre, vintage sci-fi cinema, or a visual arts exploration of colour and form.
The NZSD creative team involved in the AXIS production have done a wonderful job of showcasing the dancers’ skill, the choreographers’ voices, and the school’s consistent determination to train student artists within authentically professional settings.
Photographs by Stephen A’Court