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Royal New Zealand Ballet

From Here to There: ‘Plan to A’, ‘A Song in the Dark’, ‘Banderillero’

by David Mead

July 14, 2011 -- Barbican Theatre, London, UK

With Peter Schaufuss’ Ballet and their guests Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev dancing Ashton’s “Romeo and Juliet” at the Coliseum, and the Bolshoi about to descend on Covent Garden, a trip to the Barbican to see the relatively unknown Royal New Zealand Ballet was probably not high on most London ballet-goers ‘must do’ list. But those who made their way to the City got themselves a real treat. The company, under the interim directorship of Matz Skoog prior to Ethan Stiefel taking over later this year, looked most impressive in a mixed bill of three contrasting works.

The stand out work of the evening was “A Song in the Dark” by upcoming Christchurch-born choreographer and former Royal New Zealand Ballet dancer Andrew Simmons. I’m not sure it really embodied the themes of love and missed opportunities and finding beauty in the ordinary that inspired it, but no matter, because even viewed as simply movement to music, it is a beautifully crafted and totally engaging work.

The ballet starts quite starkly with just a single dancer and her shadow projected on a white wall that sits at an angle stage left. The dance is grounded initially, but soon develops and becomes lively. Simmons’ lyricism and classical approach sits well with the minimalist chords of the three Philip Glass scores that comprise the music. The ballet moves along effortlessly with an easy momentum, steps and phrases flowing smoothly into each other. There is much invention and plenty of unexpected entrances and exits, groupings constantly change. The interest never wavers for a moment. Kate Venables’ costumes, especially the forest green and black tight leotards of the ladies, showed their beautiful lines to great effect. Simmons is presently resident in Germany, and on the basis of this piece one can only hope that more of his work is seen here, and soon.

Opening the programme was Finn Jorma Elo’s “Plan to A”. Although his work is widely acclaimed in Europe and America, he has been Resident Choreographer at Boston Ballet since 2005, this was his first major piece to be seen in Britain. Again, the designs were striking, the dancers’ bright red costumes and Joke Visser’s giant overhead wave-like silver trellis that cast shadows on the stage combining to create a stark scene.

Elo’s choreographic lineage is clear to see. Given that he danced with the Cullberg Ballet and NDT, it’s not too surprising that his work has clear links with that of Mats Ek and especially Jiri Kylian. Like Kylian’s later works in particular, “Plan to A” is very much about movement. There are only glimpses of meaning, and even then it is very much left for the audience to interpret. The ballet is classically-based but also most energetic and packed with quirky twists typical of Elo’s choreography. It is full of fluid movement, effortless lifts, fast spins, sudden changes of direction and rapid swirling arms that eat up the space. The only annoyance was the way the music (Heinrich Biber’s “Sonata No.84 in E Major”) was forever being paused, the dance continuing in silence.

Javier de Frutos is rather better known to British audiences, albeit for his contemporary dance work. Danced to Chinese percussion score of Yim Hok-Man “Banderillero” takes its title from the bullfighter who teases the bull. The action all takes place in a square lit almost entirely from above on an otherwise dark stage. The opening emphasises ritual, although the dance becomes increasingly intense as it reflects the irregular and unpredictable nature of the fight. De Frutos draws on a range of styles as the dancers take turns in the arena, the women in particular being aggressive as they tease and attempt to provoke each other. De Frutos incorporates a range of influences, I’m sure I caught glimpses of Spanish, African and Chinese motifs, while never losing sight of the meaning and theme. The dancers carried it off wonderfully.

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