Dancing with Mozart: A Review (of sorts)

In something a little different from my regular schedule, here are my thoughts (such as they are) on the Royal New Zealand Ballet's latest production, Dancing with Mozart.

Season Poster, RNZB

As soon as RNZB released their 2018 season, I knew I simply had to get to Dancing with Mozart. Why? Because my ballet-loving self saw the magic words: George Balanchine. I've been waiting with baited breath for the moment one of Balanchine's works would finally make its way to our shores, and I predicted that with the appointment of RNZB's new artistic director (Patricia Barker, an American who has danced many Balanchine works in her time), the time might finally be upon us - and I was right! Other than my knowledge of Balanchine, I went in to this production relatively blind. Of course, I'd seen Corey Baker's achievement in Antarctica and I knew, in a vague way, about Jiri Kylian, the talented Czech choreographer, but I had few expectations. It was the first theatre production I've been too properly alone (I was in the audience by myself for Palmerston North Operatic Society's 2015 Mamma Mia!, but as my uncle was conducting, that doesn't really count), and I took my seat one row from the stage, bang in the middle, ready to be blown away. And I really was. If you have an opportunity to see this production, please go see it! You won't regret it.

Dancing with Mozart promotional image, 'Sechs Tanze'

Let's recap in order:

First up was what I'd been waiting for: Balanchine's Divertimento No. 15. If you're unfamiliar with George Balanchine, the famous choreographer, I'll direct you to my blog post on him a year or so ago (search under the Spotlight tag), and simply say here: Mr. B, you've done it again. It was all I expected a Balanchine performance to be and more. The signature quick, light rhythm and sharp choreography had been melded seamlessly onto classical technique and a traditional corps de ballet staging. Mayu Tanigaito shone (as always) as the leading ballerina, and the dancers tackled Balanchine's notoriously difficult choreography with ease. The performance was enhanced by a live rendition of Mozart's music provided by Orchestra Wellington and their spirited conductor, Marc Taddei. You have to have a sharp eye to fully appreciate Mr. B's choreographic talents; one move flows into another so fast that if you blink you've missed half the variation, so I watched the succession of female variations in particular with wide eyes, determined not to miss a moment. The technicality required is staggering, but the style is beautiful, and the costumes - oh, the costumes! Excuse me as I have a costume nerd moment, but the costumes were absolutely stunning. On loan from Pacific Northwest Ballet, each tutu is a confection all its own, a little cake made of tulle and satin, decorated with ribbons. If you designed a tutu with a cupcake in mind, this would be the result. It was beautifully executed classical ballet with a twist, and I hope we'll get to see more of Balanchine's works in the near future (dare I hope for Jewels?).

Mayu Tanigaito and Joseph Skelton, 'Divertimento No. 15', RNZB

After a brief intermission, we moved to a very different piece: the world premiere of Corey Baker's The Last Dance. Created to a modern score mixed with pieces of Mozart's Requiem (his last, unfinished work), this work was quite simply genius. I was shaking as the curtain went down, an effect I haven't experienced since RNZB's 2012 Giselle. Based on the choreographer's love of Antarctica, the work draws attention to the effects of climate change; it is a 'Requiem for Antarctica', almost a funeral lament. The staging was spectacularly simple: beginning with a bright white light, harsh but pure - so much so that it was hard to look at, mimicking the landscape of the Antarctic - it moved gradually to darkness, as the dancers removed through the performance the white floor to reveal the black underneath. Their costumes too gradually moved from white to black, a very effective decision. The dancing itself was contemporary, innovative and eye-catching; Mayu Tanigaito and Joseph Skelton spent the entire performance inside a see-through box representing the world, which gradually filled with water (some real, some special effects) as the Antarctic went through the process of melting, their movements often mirrored by the dancers outside. The use of silhouette was ingenious, and the symbolism obvious and rather heartbreaking, especially when paired with Mozart's beautifully written Requiem. A truly spectacular piece; it certainly bodes well for Baker's future as a choreographer.

Above: Madeleine Graham dances in Antarctica; Below: RNZB company members perform 'The Last Dance'

Following the second intermission were the two pieces by Jiri Kylian, beginning with Petite Mort. Literally meaning 'little death', Kylian created Petite Mort for the Salzburg Festival on the bicentenary of Mozart's death. The work begins without music, the beat provided by the movement of the dancers and the swords they wield. Once the music begins, the piece is sensual and riveting, every movement emphasised by monotone costuming, the stage bathed in golden light. The contemporary movement flows but the work itself ranges between poetical and tense. Originally choreographed in 1991, it could be called a 'traditional' kind of contemporary (if such a thing exists; the trouble being I can think of no other word which describes it), which makes it a stunning contrast to The Last Dance. The piece emphasises not only the technical ability of the dancers but also their strength and artistic capability to hold an audience captive to a plotless story.

Wan Bin Yuan and Sara Garbowski, RNZB, 'Petite Mort'

The final work was Sechs Tanze (Six Dances). This was set to a suite of six dances Mozart created to be performed at balls. The work was light-hearted, comical, and seemingly nonsensical. It required a great deal of acting from the dancers, who gave a very enjoyable performance. I greatly enjoyed the costumes: monotone but Baroque in style, with wigs and stays (a pre-cursor to the corset). Once again, beautifully staged and executed with an incredible display of technique. The dancers are isolated on the stage, and the overall mood I can only compare to the play fights and petty squabbles of children. The props used in Petite Mort made another appearance as comedic devices, particularly the computerised dresses which got a great deal of laughter from the audience. An excellent piece to end on.

Tristan Gross and Massimo Margaria, 'Sechs Tanze', RNZB

Overall, a brilliant performance. As I generally veer towards classical ballet, I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed the contemporary pieces. The company performed extremely well, and it was nice to see a few familiar faces on stage (I haven't been to an RNZB performance since Wizard of Oz in 2016, and the company has changed dramatically since). The new company members performed exceedingly well, meeting the company's high standards. My only cons would be the obligatory sick child coughing, and the guy a few rows behind me mansplaining contemporary to his long-suffering wife during interval - neither of which puts the company at any fault. In all seriousness, after the harrowing few months the company has been experiencing, to see such an excellent performance staged under the leadership of Patricia Barker gives me great hope for the future. I'm now eagerly looking forward to The Nutcracker in November (and some more Balanchine in the next few years? Please?). A huge thank-you to my wonderful uncle for shouting me the ticket.

Thanks for reading!

- Selene

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