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Sarah Barnett



The Royal New Zealand Ballet
The New Zealand International Arts Festival.
Westpac St James Theatre, 20th March
The cover of the Royal New Zealand Ballet’s 2004 Programme has Megan Futcher (Juliet in last year’s production of Romeo and Juliet) striking a pose from Saltarello, legs akimbo, on pointe, severe hair, intense eyes, gorgeous jewellery and outstanding strength all promising superb things to come from the corps this year. And in a year that heralds the likes of Madame Butterfly (July) and Coppelia (October/November) as well as some great overseas companies visiting our shores, the RNZB seems to be absolutely on fire.
Saltarello was a triple bill; the first, titular, piece by Christopher Hampson, who choreographed last year’s powerfully sexy Romeo and Juliet; Abhisheka by Kiwi-born Australian Adrian Burnett, and Venezuelan Javier De Frutos’ The Celebrated Soubrette.
Rather than following a narrative trajectory, Salterello instead is a moment in time, enjoyed by “young nobles who withdraw from plague-ravaged Florence to hideaway outside the city.” It’s set mid-fourteenth century, with music of the same era that ranges from haunting vocals through elegant and then buoyant, exuberant arrangements as the nobles play with and try to attract and court each other. The bulk of the dancing was à deux – starting with a romantic duet with Craig Lord and Pieter Symonds. Lord is phenomenal; an expressive, emotive dancer who broke hearts (one, at least) as Romeo last year and who had an intimacy with Symonds that made the audience feel just a bit pervey. Hampson has a light touch, however; the pas de deux over, Lord and Symonds leave the stage with a bum tap and a careless arm thrown over the shoulder. The other standout performer of this piece was Kate Venables, dancing with Vivencio Samblaceno, Jr, almost entirely on pointe. Her presentation was an effortless exercise in fluid grace, as she demurely brushed off Samblaceno’s advances, before executing a series of 180? extensions that defied belief.
Abhisheka, Sanskrit for ‘initiation’, is a modern, abstract piece inspired by, and created for, music composed by John Psathas, a music lecturer here at Vic. The initiation rites involve anointment, a theme set up in a really cool lighting effect, with Symonds spotlighted in a fine, fine beam with a smoke machine giving the illusion of pouring golden sand. Dance this abstract is normally not to my taste, however the technical skill of the dancers involved was, once again, stunning. My review buddy (let’s call her Mum) said, “you have to use the word ‘sinuous’ somewhere in your write-up”, and she was right, it really is the only word that one could use. Echoing the liquid theme – “sprinkling and pouring” – of the dance, the music shifted from white water discordance to sunlight-sparkling-on-the-river piano. The dancers’ movements were full-bodied, even down to the fingertips. At times sinuous, of course, at others almost mechanical, Abhishka proves that even a classical style tart can enjoy something modern once in a while.
The Celebrated Soubrette was a major change in pace after the last piece: based on a little-known Tennessee Williams play and set to Le Tombeau de Liberace, an ode to the flamboyant Vegas showman composed by Michael Daugherty. While not technically the best piece of the triptych, Soubrette, for me, was the most enjoyable. Clever staging meant that we were backstage – the curtain and footlights downstage – watching the dancers warm up and interact before a show. The ‘story’ is that of Vegas showgirls and guys, but played on stereotypes one hears about all performers; Prima Donna behaviour, rivalries for the limelight, the upstage spot, the guys. The performances, in true Vegas style, weren’t subtle – the male dancers playing the ‘gay’ stereotype, the females the catty backstabbing. Amidst the razzle-dazzle, however, there’s an excess of wasted talent. The dancers execute moves in their warm up routines that will clearly never make it to the stage; instead, as the ‘curtain’ goes up and the ‘footlights’ are lit, there’s only time for another freakin’ Can-Can.
Book now for Madame Butterfly and Coppelia – with a troupe this talented (and with visiting dancers, as if they needed them), you won’t regret it. Check out www.nzballet.org.nz for more details.