Skip to content

Speed of Light

February 28, 2016

Royal New Zealand Ballet
St James Theatre, February 26th 2016

Andonis Foniadakis: Selon désir (2004).
William Forsythe: In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated (1987).
Alexander Ekman: Cacti (2010).

Seeing three NZ premiere works in great performances is what the Festival should be all about. So the Royal New Zealand Ballet’s contribution to the festival delivered stunningly! I’m a ballet newbie really and this programme seemed like an ideal demonstration of what modern dance could be and the effects it could have on the audience.

The Monteverdi Vespers I saw on Saturday was very much about how to present an old text with new (for the time) music. The first work, Andonis Foniadakis’s Selon désir, is from 2004 and used the music of Bach as the ‘text’ which the dance interprets. There was some edits and effect on the music, as well as considerable editing and more noise music style interludes but generally the action was all centred about the complex polyphonic music. It began with a single dancer in a improvisatory, whirling, sometimes jerky and aggressive, unrestrained and unhinged dance. During this some overhead speaker cabinets were gently moving up and down, I’m not sure exactly why, but together this made a very modern impression.

Once the Bach started in earnest and the other dancers joined, it seemed more like this wild dance was the grit around which the pearl of the more organised group dancing accreted. The arrangement of various groups, pairs, solo dancers, all interweaving and shifting on and off stage was a perfect visual counterpoint to the listening experience of a multi-part musical work. A dancer would begin a new sequence and others would gradually join in, or a whole group would be moving together more to the corner while a solo or duet took over.

The various action going on somehow worked all together as a whole, but constantly drew the eyes to different parts of the stage. I constantly felt overwhelmed by the amount going on and that I couldn’t take it all in. There were many returning movement themes though, and the general atmosphere remained pretty constant throughout the piece.

The dancers were all dressed in colourful tops and skirts (even the guys got to twirl) which added a bright and cheerful vibe. The dance moves themselves were impressive but didn’t seem intended to stand out on their own: it was all about the overall effect. The first whirling dancer periodically went back to her disruptive ways and managed to drag some others into it too, but there was never the theatrical or dramatic development out of this that I initially thought there might be, like her taking over the whole scene and the music changing drastically or something.

Throughout the work I was captivated by the beauty of the motion on stage. The dancers made me feel wonder like I was at the top of a mountain admiring and amazing view, or seeing a gorgeous sunset. I loved that this work was able to use abstract dance to create this sensation, in the same way that a beautiful Mozart piece might.

The second work is older, but historically important and apparently very influential. In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated was created in 1987 by William Forsythe and (as you can read in that article) is in some ways traditional but seems very modern. The music is a relentless minimalist 80s percussion/synth march, and the general posture and flow of the dancers when they aren’t doing the more amazing things really made me think of a hyper-stylish advertisement, or American Psycho surface style with ice cold emotional detachment. The dancers at times seem to be competing or warring against each other but it never appears to have an effect on them. After each bout or duet or sequence they simply stroll off stage like runway models.

Again this work didn’t appear to have anything in the way of overall drama or story. It is said to be a ‘theme and variations’ which to me came across as cycles of similar but gradually evolving movements and patterns (duets, solos, groups, repeat, etc.). At time the movements were synchronised very closely to the music, with snaps of arms lining up with odd pulsations or accents, but not consistently. As far as sheer impressive physical dance this was definitely the highlight of the night. Although they managed to make most of the dancing look easy, there were moments where the strain was visible in the wildly off-balance holds, and some of the things the women are asked to do in the duets looked nearly impossible.


In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated. Image source:

Despite the modern feeling, there was still a lot of seemingly classical vocabulary to the dancing, though, more so than in the first work. It was kind of a twisted, abstracted version of what you expect from a classical ballet. I didn’t find this as emotionally directly wondrous as the first work, but as it went on I felt I started to understand a little the logic of it and by the end I was definitely convinced that this was a masterpiece. Just a masterpiece of harsh technical intensity rather than warmth and delight.

The final work was very theatrical, and also featured the NZ String Quartet on stage. Alexander Ekman’s Cacti is from 2010, and provided the humour for the night. In addition to having the dancers perform on square wooden platforms, it also had hilarious voiceovers, a couple of which were satirically serious criticism pondering the symbolism of the work as we watched it, and the other which was a conversation overlaid on the movements of a duo (“Put your head here. OK, catch me! What do we do next?” etc.). Like the second work this one reminded me of a glossy magazine in its imagery, but this time something like a flash interior design publication.

Because of the very in-your-face theatricality and irony this one seemed less about the dance itself, and while it was also beautifully danced it wasn’t quite as impressive as the first two works from that point of view. The ironic humour was really good, but as with a lot of parodic works the fact that it’s all a bit of a joke robs it of the chance to have more inexpressible meanings portrayed. It felt more familiar in its emotional effect I suppose. So it came across as all just a big funny show, whereas the other two works gave me something that I don’t think I could have got from any other form than dance. It did what it was supposed to though, and the use of lighting in particular added an extra dimension to the dancing that hadn’t really been a part of the first two works. Particularly in one part where lights from one side of the stage alternated with lights on the other, so that as the dancer’s postures changed the lights also shifted the perception of those postures.

All in all, an absolutely spectacular evening of new works (for New Zealand) and new sensations (for me). I’m really looking forward to the next time I can see these guys perform, but I also assume it will be quite a while before such a non-traditional programme is done!

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: