Royal New Zealand Ballet - Allegro: Five Short Ballets

By Kelly Carmichael

Date / Venue:  Saturday August 16th, St. James Theatre, Wellington

Allegro: Five Short Ballets is a showcase of very different short works, from classically inspired to strikingly contemporary pieces, performed by the Royal New Zealand Ballet. Drawing together works by leading international choreographers, the programme offers a plethora of invigorating approaches to choreography and the premiere of an impressive piece by NZ's own Daniel Belton.

The programme opens with George Balanchine's exuberant Allegro Brillante. Described by Balanchine as "everything I know about classical ballet in thirteen minutes", this lively and vigorous ballet is set toTschaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 3. Fast-moving ensemble passages and contrasting sections where dancers lyrically pause, before shifting into the next movement, mark the piece. Dressed in soft green and dreamy peach pastel tones the five ballerinas are a breath of romantic spring air, but sent through a vigorous and demanding choreography along with their five partners. Attending the matinee, I was sorely disappointed not to see the incredibly talented Gillian Murphy dance the lead role in her last NZ performance. Mayu Tanigaito was a light and lithe alternative, however, and completed the performance carried off the stage in an impressive exit, one leg high in the air.

Les Lutins (the Goblins) was the second piece, a light-hearted dance off also involving two live musicians on stage. Created in 2009 by Johan Kobborg for only three dancers, the quirky piece sees two men compete for the attention of a woman, but ultimately lose her. Danced with a cheeky machismo, Shaun James Kelly andArata Miyagawa duelled with show-off steps, first with each other, and then for the attention of Bronte Kelly - one of the RNZB's most delightful performers - in a rare display of mulit-disciplinary art forms meeting and pulling it off. Interacting with and responding to violinist Benjamin Baker, who set a vibrant and somewhat gypsy vibe, the trio gave us 12 delicious minutes of flirtation and games.

After a pause to reset the stage, Satellites opened to a pulsing, heavy bass electronic soundtrack by Jan-Bas Bollen and starkly evocative set as the curtain came up. This brand new work begins with celestial rings projected on to a backdrop and three dancers, followed closely by many more. In futuristic, simple white costumes the dancers carry, position and reposition circular mirrors. As a Len Lye-esque kinetic sculpture in the form of a suspended disk slowly rotates and the audio dissolves into static, 16 dancers work through the cosmic and silvery universe. Loughlan Prior was a standout here, as in his other roles during the programme, and seems to have really hit his stride. Daniel Belton's signature multi-disciplinary approach has created a contemporary and striking choreography for this piece, let's hope we see far more of his work in New Zealand.

Mattress Suite was a particular favourite, the six short dances sketching out a relationship and its aftermath - the falling in and out of love, the rejection, the sluggish pizza eating phase, the ‘experimentation' phase, followed by the distinctly sexy ‘single ladies' phase, where the fabulous Lucy Green really let rip. The RNZB has the honour of being the first to perform Mattress Suite, after choreographer Larry Keigwin's own company. This is a signature work for the celebrated American dancer and contemporary choreographer, and the first of two within the Allegro programme. Mattress Suite was followed by Keigwin's Megalopolis, a striking piece that lies somewhere between an edgy rave and sci-fi afterparty. With music by Steve Reichand MIA this was a vibrant and contemporary sidestep, something the young RNZB company seemed to really enjoy. Dressed predominantly in fitted black lycra with futuristic fashion-runway touches and a dash of diamante dazzle, the dancers were framed by vertical neon tubes bookending the stage. With clipped and sharply detailed movements the dancers walk, jump, leap and strut across the stage, swapping groupings and reforming as they progress through a range of club dance moves interset with more composed phrasings. This is dance with a distinctly urban edge and big city attitude combined with a complex choreography and relentless pace. The audience was stunned - then burst into loud applause. 

Allegro is the last programme by the ballet's Artistic Director Ethan Stiefel. About to leave the company after three years at its helm, Stiefel has led the RNZB through record-breaking seasons, including well received tours in China and the US. Allegro is a testament to his contemporary eye and ability to bring audacious choreography to NZ, while preserving all that is beautiful about classical ballet.