Salute Remembering WW1

The Royal New Zealand Ballet’s quadruple bill Salute Remembering WW1: Four dance works is an evocative commemoration of war- not just of World War One, but all war. Accompaniment was by the New Zealand Army Band (with guest cellist Rolf Gjelsten) for three of the four works the bill. Led by Captain Graham Hickman, the band made a really interesting sonic change from the Auckland Philharmonic, and I hope we see more collaboration’s with the Army Band (or other brass based bands) in the future.

The first work performed was former RNZB dancer turned choreographer Andrew Simmons’ Dear Horizon. One of two world premieres on the bill (the other being the last work Neil Ieremia’s Passchendaele) this work was the perfect opening act for the evening. With evocative design by Tracy Grant Lord, including an amazing central sculpture representing a trench, Dear Horizon conjured ideas of love, loss and conflict. The score with its beautifully haunting cello solo (performed by Gjelsten) was written by Gareth Farr, and works so wonderfully with the design and choreography. The choreography reflects ideas of early twentieth century modernity (machine modernism), while at the same time being lyrical and almost fragile juxtaposing action jumps with flowing steps. A standout moment design wise was when I noticed that the female dancers dresses had underskirts of blue- one of the very few non-monochromatic touches in the design, which really made them stand out even in the half light of the lighting design, and emphasised the beauty of the steps, and the pain of the theme.

Next up was Jiri Kylián’s The Soldier’s Mass, danced to Bohuslav Martinu’s Polní Mse (1939) for male choir, brass, piano and percussion. The music was written in response to the German annexation of Czechoslovakia’s Sudentenland in 1938. Choreographed for 12 male dancers (though our 12th ‘man’ was actually a woman- but more on that below), The Soldier’s Mass recollects these actions and also highlights the power and beauty of male dance. The choreography evokes sacrifice and loss in a way that is both powerful and emphasizes the fragility of man.

As I noted the 12th man was a woman- the brilliant Laura Saxon Jones. The original man Damir Emric suffered a bad ankle injury on opening night in Wellington and Laura became the replacement dancer for the rest of the tour. This is a problem with having a fairly small company in a programme such as this one. With only 16 male dancers in the company and having a male oriented programme (which is quite unusual), which demands that most of them dance three out of four works in the evening, if one them has an accident that pretty much spells disaster with the understudies and organisation of the programme. However, into this breach strode Saxon Jones! She was a standout in that she didn’t stand out she blended beautifully with the men and the power of the choreography. Interestingly this is not the first time this has happened to the RNZB on this work- when it was premiered here in 1998 one of the men injured himself and was replaced by Pieter Symonds. It would appear that this is becoming a tradition.

After the interval there was a complete change of pace with Johan Kobborg’s Salute. While many reviews have criticized this work as being slight, and out of place on the programme- taking away from the gravitas of the other three works, I, and the audience last night, would have to disagree. It was lighthearted and frothy- recalling Napoleonic war era balls and Jane Austin novels where the soldiers never seem to do any actual soldiering, but it was just the change the audience needed after the emotionally charged first half. It was also meant a break for at least a few of the male dancers! Situated at a dance (with the music a set of dance tunes by Hans Christian Lumbye specially arranged by members of the Army Band- which added another charming aspect to it), it was a typical setting of girls meet boys flirtation, jealousy and pouting. There was some delightfully comic acting by Harry Skinner, and Katherine Grange, creating a fun little subplot to the work. Although some critics might believe that this work was breaking the atmosphere, it was clear that the audience needed something fun and happy to watch as a bit of literal light relief from the somberness of the first half- there is only so much that an audience can take before becoming depressed- even opera’s like Tosca build up to their tragedy.

The final work of the evening was the world premiere of Neil Ieremia’s Passchendaele, set to former Army band member Dwayne Bloomfield’s composition 2009 of the same name. This was the most emotionally powerful (and shortest) ballet of the night. The music did not so much accompany the dance as embody it- with surround sound whistled signals, and the final, painful knocks on doors that signaled the end of the work. Telling the tale of the Passchendaele battle the work reflects on the inner thoughts of soldiers before they had to go over the top: thoughts of home, of their loved ones, and then moves onto the tragedy of the battle and the deaths of the men. The battle and its aftermath of survival and death is interwoven with what might be described as a dream sequence on their loved ones back home, waiting to hear what had become of their boys. The work ends dramatically with those knocks on the door signaling a message that a loved one had been lost in battle. As with Andrew Simmons’ work the choreography melds early twentieth century ideas of cultural modernity with lyricism. Ieremia’s work is far more profoundly contemporary, but it retains the juxtapositions of traditional and modern, action with lyricism and harshness with fragility.

Salute continues in Auckland until the 20th and then moves on to its final stop in Napier on June 24 and 25. This is a programme not to be missed.

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