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The New Zealand Dance Company

October 9, 2019

The Geography of an Archipelago, In Transit, Sigan

Reviewed October 8, 2019

Babs Asper Theatre, Ottawa

(Repeat performance October 9, 7:30 p.m.)

For the first time ever, Ottawa audiences have the privilege of witnessing a small and spirited emerging 21st century dance company out of New Zealand, featuring Māori dancers and choreographers.

Of particular note is In Transit, a fascinating multi-dimensional work of dance, light, sound and images projected onto the back of the stage as well as on movable screens. Created by Māori multidisciplinary artist Louise Potiki Bryant, In Transit is predominantly dark, with flashes of scarlet and plum lighting, suggesting other worlds. There is a sense of being in a natural world of bird and creature sounds, as well as a sense of the elements of air, earth and wind, implied through the unusual soundscape created by Bryant’s husband musician Paddy Free (who is the audio visual designer for this piece) and the exhalations and staccato movements of the six dancers. The projections of human and natural images add a fourth dimension to the dance.

The hypnotic mix of music includes an extract from the sound score for The Light Dances, featuring Reo, and the reputable Māori singer Moana Maniapoto. A beautiful contrast is set up in a long phrase of deep persistent drumming against a soft lilting voice.

There seems to be a story being told, but it’s very abstract and indeterminate. It may well be mythological, or something being remembered. Throughout, some dancers carry long sticks, that appear to be symbolic or devices of connection, and are sometimes balanced on the head or other parts of the body.

In Transit is assuredly the gem of the program, but the opening work, The Geography of an Archipelago by Stephen Shropshire, is a fitting introduction. From the beginning, we feel privy to a private ritual as a trio of dancers, dressed in black and under dim lighting, perform slow, synchronized movements, while musician Rob Thorne taps out natural sounds on a traditional Māori instrument called a taonga pūoro.

The dance is unique, with an emphasis on patterns created by bare arms, calves and feet, in juxtaposition with grey-toned shapes formed on the floor by sharp floodlights. Sometimes loud percussive rhythm drives the movement, while at other times, a droning sound weighs down the performers as they trudge under the beam of a handheld light.

The work takes a sudden turn when a warbled version of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata (Piano Sonata No. 14 in C# minor) accompanies the dancers, one by one, transforming a ritualistic performance that seems to carry the weight of history into a self-reflective enactment. I can’t say I’ve ever seen a dance performed to the Moonlight Sonata, one of the most powerful, mournful, mysterious compositions – phenomenal really, still 200 years after its creation –best absorbed with one’s eyes closed.

Ending the program is a work for four dancers by Korean choreographer and composer KIM Jae Duk, who is currently a resident choreographer at T.H.E Dance Company in Singapore and artistic director of Modern Table Dance Company. He prefers to call himself an “expresser” rather than a choreographer, interested in the harmony between dance and music.

Sigan, however, does not present as a peaceful marriage between movement and sound, but rather as a combative clash among performers. The dancers, in black, engage on a white floor, under the halo of a large white disc, or in the stark beams of harsh lighting. Sometimes the dancers “fight” in a ring of light or pose motionless in single poses.

The disturbing sound of a horn, growing ever louder like an unheeded car alarm, dominates the environment for a very long time at the beginning, followed by knocking, hammering, long blasts of brass instruments, persistent tapping, scraping metal, banging, loud drumming, a single string note, a high-pitched whine or a series of repetitive gong resonances and even sudden breaks in the accompaniment all together. The severe soundscape, which features traditional Korean instruments, actually interferes with the performance as it is hard not to separate audio from visual.

The New Zealand Dance Company is a young contemporary dance company out of Auckland, only in its eighth year. With artist/dancer/arts business developer Shona McCullagh at its helm, the company has been presenting high calibre programming in the South Pacific and Europe, drawing on choreographers not only from Down Under, but also from South Korea and Holland. This year marks their first foray into North America, performing on the National Arts Centre stage in Ottawa this week.

“Dance,” says McCullagh, chief executive and artistic director of NZDC, “is the beautifully truthful language of living.” Co-founder of the company, McCullagh has worked as a choreographer for some 35 years, including devising dance sequences for the film The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. She is recognized for her services to dance and her films, in which she integrates live performance.

A production still from In Transit showing a dancer interacting with projected images.

From → Contemporary

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