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Review - Performance Season 2023 - New Zealand School of Dance



Te Whaea: National Dance & Drama Centre


28 & 29 November 2023


Choreography (Classical): Helgi Tomasson, Val Caniparoli, Lew Christensen

Choreography (Contemporary): Felix Sampson, Kit Reilly, Garry Stewart, Ross McCormack, Amber Haines

Reviewed by Brigitte Knight


NZSD Contemporary Dance Students. Hannah Scholten (Right). 'Incant'. Choreography by Amber Haines. 
Photograph: Stephen A’Court 

The New Zealand School of Dance Performance Season 2023 is divided into alternating classical and contemporary dance programmes, featuring students from all year groups to reflect recent changes to the NZSD curriculum and qualifications. Formatting the season in two parts gives time for the dancers to showcase their skills through the presentation of works by a variety of choreographers, and whānau and supporters can select either or both programmes to attend. Opening night of the Te Whaea season coincided with the Royal New Zealand Ballet being in the capital between touring stops, and it was heart-warming to see so many company dancers in the audience supporting the NZSD students. Fittingly, Performance Season 2023 is dedicated to the memory of the late Sir Jon Trimmer KNZM MBE.

Tessa Cockerton-Holmes & Angus O'Connell. 'Meistens Mozart'. Choreography by Helgi Tomasson. 
Joshua Douglas. 'Aria'. Choreography by Val Caniparoli. 

The Ballet Programme’s four works have been staged by Betsy Erickson, the highly-skilled former ballet master and dancer from San Francisco Ballet who has a long-standing association with NZSD. As each premiered in the 1980s or 1990s, the classical season’s pieces create somewhat of a retrospective of the neoclassical American style; youthful, vivacious, carefully exploratory. Opening the show is Meistens Mozart (1991, NZSD premiere 2016) choreographed by Helgi Tomasson on San Francisco Ballet for their His Time Bicentennial Celebration. Tomasson’s work for six dancers offers plenty of opportunity for each student to be showcased as the choreography moves through the seven (mostly) Mozart songs in recordings featuring the Tölzer Boys Choir. Emotionally Meistens Mozart is a one-note work, joyful and young, but without scope for the dancers to evoke depth and connection with the audience. Costumed in white lycra and tan jazz shoes, Tomasson’s aesthetic and movement choices capture the neoclassical era, and third year student Tessa Cockerton-Holmes delivers an especially energised performance, working tirelessly to find opportunities for nuance and projection. 

Aria (1997, NZ premiere 2006) choreographed by Val Caniparoli is danced by second year student Joshua Douglas, who also performed the piece at the Royal New Zealand Ballet’s Platinum gala in October. One of just two solo works in Platinum, Douglas held his own amongst the company’s artists with his careful, fluid execution of Aria’s precise movement vocabulary. His performance in NZSD Ballet Programme is stronger still;  a cool, elegant evocation of Caniparoli’s stylised and clean neoclassical voice. Douglas will leave Aotearoa in 2024 to join Queensland Ballet as a Jette Parker Young Artist, and I appreciate this extra opportunity to enjoy his dance quality before he heads overseas.

Gabriella Hawke & Angus O'Connell. 'Vivaldi Concerto Grosso'. Choreography by Lew Christensen. 
NZSD Classical Ballet Students - 'Street Songs'. Choreography by Val Caniparoli. 

Choreographed in three movements, with ensemble sections bookending pas de deux, Lew Christensen’s Vivaldi Concerto Grosso (1981, NZSD premiere 2023) provides a welcome return to pointe work for the women, and a mature neoclassical aesthetic. One of a small number of unfortunate technical issues on opening night of the Ballet Programme interrupts the beginning of the work, which although disappointing for cast and crew, serves to illustrate the professionalism of the student dancers. The expansive, fast ensemble sections are approached with vibrancy by a cast comprised of students from each year level, with assuredness of rhythm and unison of delivery especially strong from Joshua Linkhorn and Joshua Douglas. Creative, challenging and rewarding pas de deux work by second year students Gabriella Hawke and Angus O’Connell demonstrates not only technical strength and care for Christensen’s choreographic detail, but also unmistakeable and deep respect between the partners – a highlight of the work.

Following a brief interval, the Ballet Programme concludes with Street Songs (1980, NZ Premiere 2004) choreographed by Val Caniparoli to a vibrant and percussive score composed by Carl Orff. The work is abstract yet nuanced; the interpretation of meaning open for the dancers and audience alike. Crafted in twelve movements, Street Songs is beautifully-paced with a sculpted energetic arc, and each of the ensemble of dancers give thoughtful, personalised performances under the umbrella of a technically detailed and engaging movement vocabulary. Gabriella Hawke and Hilary An-Roddie give outstanding performances both emotionally and technically, and Miguel Herrera is perfectly cast for his rhythmic emphasis and style. Costumes by Max Deroy are sophisticated in their simplicity, a collage of tie-dyed leotards in a palette that complements the dancers and the movement equally.

The second night of Performance Season 2023 premieres the NZSD Contemporary Dance Programme, comprised of five works by Australasian choreographers, three of which are new commissions. Opening the evening is Felix Sampson’s Thank You, which he describes as a “…surreal celebration of the experience of graduating, the journey to get there, and what lies beyond…”. NZSD Head of Contemporary Dance Paula Steeds-Huston’s sensitive, considered ordering of the programmed works is a consistent feature of the school’s productions, and as Thank You skilfully transitions us into the performance with three increasingly vainglorious curtain calls, the reason for its selection as the opening work is clear. Sampson’s inclusive ensemble approach to choreography weaves blurred pathways engaging a vocabulary of loose canons, flocking, and an exploration of directional changes. Costumed in a selection of vibrant blues, designed by Anee De Geus, the dancers are energised and assured, creating an instant connection with their audience.

NZSD Contemporary Dance Students - 'Thank You'. Choreography by Felix Sampson. 
NZSD Contemporary Dance Students - 'Outlier'. Choreography by Kit Reilly. 

Outlier, choreographed, composed, and costumed by the multitalented Kit Reilly is a richly creative exploration of movement (seeded by distraction during a mediation class), that evolves into a work of collision and unity within a global environment of distraction and change. Reilly manipulates space and formation with an expert hand, building darkly to an abstract crescendo, and producing a work that is well-rounded and engaging. He lays signposts for the dancers in his bespoke music, which are generally interpreted accurately, and his snap to blackout lighting motif is, in its second instance, magnificent.

Garry Stewart’s The Beginning of Nature (excerpts, 2016, NZ premiere 2023) was originally created for WOMADelaide (Australia) and delivers a plethora of imagery and ideas, many of which cannot be fully explored within the parameters of this excerpted staging. Senescent themes invoke witchcraft, animals, and the natural world, and the dancers costumed in forest green master Stewart’s relatable movement vocabulary with precision and control. Kaleidoscopic formations and ensemble-extended limbs are familiar on this side of the Tasman from the works of Sarah Foster-Sproull, a feature of The Beginning of Nature that renders it highly accessible even on the first viewing. A section with long branches/poles reminiscent of those in Akram Khan’s Giselle (2016) is one of several intriguing images that would be captivating with further exploration. Amongst a thoroughly refined and skilled ensemble, visceral solos by second year students Aleeya McFadyen-Rew and Mārie Jones are delivered with resounding attack and panache.

NZSD Contemporary Dance Students, Elliot Gordon (Front). 'The Beginning of Nature'. Choreography by Garry Stewart. 
Sofija Milic & Deija Vukona. 'RE:ACTION'. Choreography by Ross McCormack.

After the interval, Ross McCormack’s Re:Action feels like the programme’s most exploratory and autoschediastic work; a collaboration with designer Max Deroy who presented the choreographer and dancers with a structure both shifting and solid. Characteristically, McCormack’s movement vocabulary is gestural and unrestrained, and his experienced choreographic approach is confident with the manipulation of space, time, and motif. At times bombastic, Re:Action’s eclectic electronic soundtrack could be challenging for some audience members, however, I appreciate McCormack’s deliberate juxtaposition of visuals and sound.

Finally, a restaging of Incant (2016) choreographed for NZSD by Amber Haines is described as “…an experiential work for the performers, relying heavily on their intuitive connection to one another…”. This intention, and Incant’s quiet, collective wisdom gently seep out into the audience, mesmeric and wonderful. With sophisticated and refined lighting in shades of moonlight, Haines’ choreography is fully-realised and intelligently presented. An unhurried structure with a rich movement vocabulary, Incant is a poignant, engaging, rewarding, and expertly sculpted contemporary dance work. Amongst the flawlessly unified and talented cast, third year dancer Hannah Scholten emerges with a rhythmic mastery and interpretation of the choreography’s intention, a subtle magic all of her own.

The New Zealand School of Dance Performance Season 2023 is a gift to the graduating class, and to the school’s students and supporters – a celebration of the achievements of the classical and contemporary programmes, and the best possible start as these new artists step out into the dance industry.

NZSD Contemporary Dance Students. 'Incant'. Choreography by Amber Haines. 

All photographs by Stephen A’Court 

Review - Performance Season 2023 - New Zealand School of Dance

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