Ballet Review: Royal New Zealand Ballet – Dancing with Mozart

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By Amber Kelly

Date / Venue: Thursday 31 May 2018, The Opera House, Wellington

From the classically inspired to the strikingly contemporary, the Royal New Zealand Ballet’s latest season draws together four diverse works, by three leading choreographers presenting an evening of elegance, challenge and emotion as the Company pays homage to Mozart with vitality and surprise.

With the spectacular bill, ‘Dancing with Mozart’, the opening night audience was treated to a musically and theatrically engrossing evening that felt more like watching an astral conversation between dancer and genius composer.  Under the artistic direction of Patricia Barker, Wellington’s Opera House was the stage for the world premier of Corey Baker’s The Last Dance, the New Zealand premier of George Balanchine’s Divertimento No. 15, and two works by Czech choreographer Jiři Kylián.

As a first act, we are captured immediately by the wonderfully paired showmanship of Balanchine’s Divertimento.  It’s a beautifully minimal and unassuming chamber sized rendering, that speaks truly to the musical genre popular amid 18th-century parties and informal entertainment.  For a piece created 60 years ago, it has lost nothing of its freshness , and remains a perfect example of beautiful, classical ballet choreography. Nothing on stage looked formulaic, from the asymmetry of the dance form, to the juxtaposed gender imbalance of the dancers who seamlessly flowed from ensembles, to duets and solos.

The curtain closed to a well-deserved and prolonged round of applause for both dancers and Orchestra Wellington -back in the pit under music director Marc Taddei - providing an excellent live performance. It was clear one’s hands were in for an evening of rough treatment.

The second half began with wonderful contrast as Corey Baker’s The Last Dance had its first public outing.  With the help of Mozart’s unfinished Requiem, Baker has created a darkly evocative and pulsing work.  I wondered how those of a more traditional bent in the audience would respond to this sharp contrast in choreography, set, costume, and the reworking of Mozart’s masterpiece into an explosive, electronic, and rebelliously contemporary soundscape.  It was clear the dancers held no apprehensions as their bodies responded, bringing a frisson of liberation to their performances  

After a pause to reset the stage, the final section was given over to the similarly matched ensemble pieces by Jiři Kylián, Petite Mort, and Sechs Tanze with their shared disenchanted look at love. Petite Mort starts in silence with six men and six fencing foils.  With the slow movements from two Mozart piano concerti: A (KV 488) and C (KV 467) come six women for an assertively choreographed battle-of-the-sexes duel.  Sechs Tanze, set to Mozart’s Six German Dances (KV571), dancers with chalked-white faces, powdered wigs , peasant dress, or bedazzled underwear perform an energetic romantic comedy.  My only puzzlement – why the orchestra pit was left empty for Kylián’s two pieces, the music coming to us from a recording by the English Chamber Orchestra. 

Kylián was an inspired bookending to Balanchine’s opening, and my visual hunger was sated as I reflected on the four dance courses we had sat down to.  

It’s a tall order to pull this programme off.  The company of dancers delivered mesmorising performances; charming, commanding, technically polished and disturbingly beautiful.  

RNZB’s Dancing with Mozart tours New Zealand until July.