Salute - The Royal New Zealand Ballet
22 May 2015, St James Theatre, Wellington
Reviewed by Jan Bolwell
Nine years ago I stood on the WW1 battlefields of France and Belgium and visited numerous war cemeteries that are scattered across the landscape.
I said to our Belgium guide ‘how do you live amongst these constant reminders of war and death?’ He smiled and said ‘but they are our friends. We call them our sleeping cities and we like to stroll among them on a Sunday afternoon.’
I recalled that conversation in the opening moments of Andrew Simmons and Gareth Farr’s new work Dear Horizons as a solitary male figure walks around and across figures lying on the ground in a crucifix position, reminiscent of the mass graves in those WW1 cemeteries. There is an ominous rumbling sound from the New Zealand Army Band followed by a small piercing note trying to break through as one by one the dancers, male and female, rise from the ground. So begins this powerful new work that takes us on both a lyrical and starkly painful journey of fear and personal loss, often portrayed through tender duet dancing by six couples. But then they are wrenched away from that as the men pull and push and reach out to each other, as if being tossed in a nightmarish storm that is beyond their control. The women need to gather and to dance together as a group for support too and when they return to the men a new calmer mood is established, but it does not, cannot last and the men are again forced to inhabit this other violent aggressive world. The dancers work together impressively as an ensemble with an expansive style of movement characteristic of Simmons choreography. Gareth Farr’s score is outstanding, full of variety, bold and noisy at times and then quiet and heart wrenching at others. It is a credit to Simmons choreography that the music does not overwhelm the dance. Farr offers many challenges to the New Zealand Army Band with his novel and unfamiliar scoring of band instruments that also have to work in balance with a single cello. It is a beautiful, heady and poignant mix and the Band does Farr’s music justice in its splendid execution. Over the dancers and threatening to overwhelm them, hangs Tracey Grant Lord’s rather oppressive set looking like a camouflage net out of which hang a few limp poppies.
It is a joy to once again experience Jiři Kylián’s masterwork Soldier’s Mass, first performed by the RNZB in 1998. Set to a score by Bohuslav Martinů for a male choir, its context is the Second rather than the First World War. That matters not a jot, for this brilliant piece of choreography makes universal statements about war and ‘the pity of war’. The men dance as a choir, surging through the space in formations that constantly dissolve and then reintegrate. They sink into the ground into prayer positions, rise and lift each other, and then push upstage, often with their backs to the audience, always with a sense of internal and external motion that cannot be stilled. The articulation of the body is at once both lyrical and visceral, coming from somewhere deep inside the individual. The hunched shoulders and stiffened arms speak volumes, and when the men remove their shirts and sink slowly to the floor their agony and vulnerability is palpable and heart wrenching. To be Czech is to carry in your bones the tragedy of many wars over many centuries. Czechoslovakia, because of its geography, has so often been seen as tempting prey by other nations. Kylián and Martinů bring that all deep ancestral knowledge and tragedy to Soldier’s Mass, and we are privileged to witness it.
Dear Horizon and Solder’s Mass comprise an outstanding first half of the RNZB’s programme. Sadly the same cannot be said for the second half. The bizarre choice of Salute by Johan Kobborg serves to completely undercut the superb atmosphere created before the interval. It is a series of short unremarkable dances to the equally unremarkable music of Hans Christian Lumbye about a bunch of soldiers and their girl friends. In 2010 Kobborg created Salute for the young dancers of North Carolina School of the Arts, and there it should have stayed, tucked firmly behind the doors of academe.
Neil Ieremia had the unenviable task of trying to draw the audience back into the kaupapa of the evening with a short ten-minute work. To ‘do’ Passchendaele in ten minutes is a tall order by anyone’s standards but with an interesting and dynamic score by Dwayne Bloomfield, Ieremeia manages to convey something of the horror that was Passchendaele. Men in haka stance showing the preparation for war follow a dynamic opening where bodies fly across the stage. The women are not forgotten in this work and their strong unified presence is a constant reminder of the toll war takes on families.
Ieremia does the war ‘stuff’ well, but in the long attenuated ending which is a salute to the dead, the work loses its initial impact and ends weakly. The compositional decision to conclude with the dreaded knock on the door by the telegraph boy bringing news of death does not work – at least in the St. James Theatre – and it does not help the choreographer to finish the dance on a strong and memorable note.
In the end this was an almost magnificent night at the ballet.
Read about the creative process of Andrew Simmons and Neil Ieremia's works: The Choreography of Remembrance