By Various for New Zealand School of Dance | Te Whaea, Te Whanganui-a-Tara, Nov. 2018

I admit: I never read the programme. Although beautifully bound, and surely designed to serve as any balletomane’s keepsake, I try my best to review dance from a place of ignorance. What is available to me, in the moment, is the moment. The fumbles of opening night nerves. The errant strands of a costume undone. The fatigued. The fabulous. The dead author. The audience.

Of itself, I often find that the moment is enough. This is particularly true of nights like last night.

Tor Columbus’ E Tolu opens this year’s New Zealand School of Dance Innovation season with three wandering figures. Bedecked in colourful tracksuit pants and numbered singlets, these three men calmly make their way into a seated triad reminiscent of a Samoan sasa. Laifa Ta’ala, sitting at the peak of this triangle, blows into a conch shell to herald the beginning of the work and the evening as a whole.

Chris Clegg quietly slips away. His sinuous and silky movement wraps and spirals around the space. Ta’ala and Braedyn Humphries counter this by moving from one side of the stage to the other. They shout “Hey!” and punctuate their traverse with sudden stops, ensnaring Clegg: a gentle spectre, then, between two exclamation points.

The vocabulary soon turns to reflect Clegg’s initial offer. Like a valence shell of electrons, this ionic piece deals in fluid orbits and revolutions. Popping and intricate arm locking offers a suitable contrast to the chemical content whilst grounding the work. A taualuga solo by Ta’ala is beautifully sincere. In fact, the work benefits in full from a candidness that the dancers readily extend. The continued use of text is also embellished by this unaffected air, and the audience easily forgives any discord that prefaces the harmonies heard later in the work.

This is intelligent stuff from Columbus and co. A work like E Tolu could easily chew on urbanist clichés or a “hip hop evolution” structure. Given that Aotearoa’s efforts in Pacific dance are so diverse and compelling I am thrilled to see how these three dancers and Columbus have extended their thematic lens.

With its strong sense of sincerity, E Tolu evokes Alvin Ailey’s Sinner Man trio from his classic, Revelations. It speaks to a soft-shoe sensibility; a music hall camaraderie that facilitates parallels between the movement of the Pacific and the African diaspora that shaped American modernism. Undeniably thoughtful, E Tolu is a strong first stanza in the night’s long moment.

From fluid to fluid, Huang Yi’s Wicked Fish lashes out in a maelstrom of dread. Greyed limbs dissect a band of light as dissonant tones blare and concuss. An ensemble of dancers fly forward with a gaseous timbre. Not liquid like water, but contorted like hydrogen incarnate. 

Back bending and bridges are central motifs of this work, as are peculiar unfinished lines and extensions. Partnering provides the backbone, with the lack thereof a seeming prerequisite for the performers—the pliability of these dancers is extreme. Bodies are picked up, with feet carefully tracing the floor like a calligraphy brush, until backs explode into rapid flexion. A duet between Sebastian Geilings and Franky Drousioti at the half-way mark is, in want of a better word, insane.

This is a consummate “dancer’s dance,” and perhaps the most technically demanding piece that the School’s contemporary programme has performed of late. The dancers make a superhuman effort and I note their constant negotiation of its solemn tone. 

For all its aesthetic brilliance, Wicked Fish inspires some daydreaming: what are the stakes of a work like this? What are we risking as an audience, and what is being revealed? As I was churned to chyme in the intestines of the fish, I was dissatisfied to merely read the anxiety of the score and stress of the movement as a commentary on chaos. Perhaps, therein, lies the strength of this piece: to be troubled, and to be left unanswered.

Huri Koaro (Inside Out), by Gabby Thomas, is a contemplation on subtle strength. An arresting work for an all-female ensemble, Huri Koaro is the necessary complement to Wicked Fish that intuitively examines Te Ao Māori and femininity. 

The darkness of the entr’acte is disturbed by the entry of Thomas’ white ghosts. Eyes remain closed as the lights lift on a graphic scene. The dancers are arranged in a triangular layout, with black stripes bisecting their white shifts from lip to hem. This layout across the stage evokes the niho taniwha pattern found in the tukutuku panels of Te Arawa and Waikato iwi. Ngaere Jenkins adopts the apex of this structure as her own and delivers a completely committed performance. 

Legs lunge forward and lick the air, whilst knees are bought to hands as shins kick out at 90-degree angles. This geometric, highly structured language contributes to an assertive atmosphere, yet resists dragging the work into aggressive territories. Some time is given to tableau, with three turtles—high domes with a lone dancer’s head free from the mound—dissolving into pensive sphinxes. I adore this sequence, and as the dancers look out into the audience I reflect on their calm request for acceptance. Later, as dancers melt down the diagonals wielding twin pūrerehua—fiercely spinning these instruments as if to cast an A.T. Field—this invitation is repeated on stronger terms.

Thomas’ work is less about power, then, as it is about presence. The use of line and placement lends itself to a “matter-of-fact” reading, and palms are raised flat against the fourth wall’s face like a declaration of the self. Here I am, there I go: a bold play on quiet strength.

A preamble to It’s Written in the Walls choreographer Adam Barruch: I could not help but read this work as definitively American. I think that’s a good thing. 

An original piece created on the dancers, we enter on an exacting array. The dancers half-gird the stage in an inverted “L” shape, before executing precise marching steps along its axes. They sweep sideways with military linearity—the addition of a drum machine later in the work bolstering this theme. Though this combination of language and technology teases at a more policed vocabulary to come, this is never fully indulged: whipping the nationalist-critique rug out from under our feet.

Barruch instead plays these cards more tactfully. Rather than polemic, It’s Written in the Walls writes meaning into the detail. Curving arms wind over heads, drawing hemispheres to an invisible point. The dancers play it straight, but keep a tenuous instability bubbling away under the surface.

I was somewhat less convinced by the costumes. I dreamt instead of Raf Simon’s prairie dresses for Calvin Klein—a banal but gorgeous statement on fickle Americana; Dust Bowl chic for men and women alike. Hardly a deal breaker, though, especially with the amount of embellishment to process throughout the work.

Its domestic, but not gendered; regimented, but not overtly disciplined. Summated in the example of a duet under maroon light—index and middles fingers sewn firmly shut—that bypasses sexuality and arrives at a place of unusual tension. American Gothic by way of boy scout by way of David Lynch.

Static, by Lauren Langlois, opens with tears.

Slumped forward with pinched hands resting on her inner thighs, Kia Jewell weeps with a staccato heaving of the body. She appears to be remembering something, and her internal process whispers to us in a Stanislavskian reveal. Humphries, in another nuanced performance, juts his chin forward in awkward anguish beside her. The two are close but not intimate—an unrealised duet.

These two dancers move with skill through rapid and specific vocabulary. The material shifts near the middle of the piece as Humphries and Jewell spin out across the space, liquifying into the floor and splaying their legs like matter flung from a centrifuge. A sense of increasing tension reflects the structure that this section brings to the work, and a sense of polarity underscores their relationship.

Langlois’ work immediately evokes an incomplete circuit. One pictures the electricity between the two being denied by their obtuse placement in the front-right corner of the stage. They plead with one another but cannot develop their connection.

I found myself wanting slightly more from this piece, but in wanting found myself satisfied. Like me, the dancers are locked in a moment of tension that is unresolvable, brimming with the friction that begets static. Intriguing to say the least.

The final piece of the evening is Les Médusés (Volk Version) by Damien Jalet, and this delicious examination of femme delicacy and poise delights the eye.

Clad in buff-tone bodysuits and boy-shorts, each dancer languishes within a white cage of serpentine ropes and gridded fabric—imagine a flapper gown for the statement dresser. As the dancers move, the ropes lash out like Medusa’s own brood, adding a strong textural dimension to the work. Jalet has curated a cacophony of visual information for his audience, and although at times confusing (this work would benefit from having a larger space to play in) it is surely compelling.

The choreography is striking and almost martial in nature. Hands reach out only to stop, and legs split into wide, straight-legged stances. The ensemble link and lock together to form a coronet of snakes, and arms bind and unbind to illustrate an energy unbound. A central dancer takes up the soloist mantle by jumping through a series of Italian changements.

This is a queer work, in every sense of the word. A Garnier commercial for the most discerning of herpetologists, yet simultaneously a robust treatise on the “woman as object” paradigm. Camp, but not stupid.

As the work came to a close, I noticed rope fibres drifting through the air. A fittingly ephemeral end to an electric piece from Jalet, these particles bidding us farewell.

Overall, a night of dance. Further scrutiny of the term “innovation” is desired from future performances in this vein, but the cast, teachers, and choreographers have much to be proud of. It does not just “have its moments,” but it is, indeed, a moment all on its own: a microcosm of intensity, wherein one forgets that the artists at hand are only just beginning their journey.

I hope they continue to step forward in bold colour. ∎


niho taniwha: