The New Zealand Festival: The Piano

The Piano
Royal New Zealand Ballet
St James Theatre, Wellington
February 23-25
 then touring to Napier, Auckland, Dunedin, Christchurch, Palmerston North, Rotorua

With the Royal New Zealand Ballet’s newest production of “The Piano” the company has gained a masterpiece, which could become a signature work, taking a New Zealand story to the wider world. It is an intelligent, sensitive work filled with magical choreography and engaging music, along with a powerful and expressive story about cultural clash, fractured romance and domestic violence. 

It is curious though that the production should be the creation of Europeans. Conceived by Jiri and Otto Bubenicek and commissioned by the former Royal New Zealand Ballet artistic director Francesco Ventriglia, they saw a ballet version of the film as a way of exploring aspects of New Zealand history and culture in a way few New Zealand choreographers have managed.

Their work along with the input of New Zealanders, including the Maori adviser Moss Patterson, provides a vision which is both that of the outsider as well that of the local. It is a work about how we see ourselves as well as how we are seen by others and that has resulted in some spectacular parts in the ballet as well as some of the flaws.

The ballet was originally conceived as a short one-act work for Ballet Dortmund in 2014 which, with this version, has been expanded to a two-act work. This has resulted in some weaknesses. Some of the sequences in the work feel overextended, others seem unnecessary and lack dramatic connection with the overall narrative line and emotional story.

But these weaknesses are confined to parts of the first act only, with the second half of the work providing some electrifying and moving dance.

The film was a love story of Ada, the mute, new bride of farmer Alistair and her growing relationship with George, a local bushman. The ballet has much the same narrative line but Ada’s piano provides another symbolic level of her relationships. It becomes an active participant as the three characters interact with the instrument, moving it around the stage, playing it and caressing it as it becomes more than just an inanimate object.

As Ada, Abigail Boyle created a character rich in emotions, her body and gestures expressing real passion. Her dancing combined an effortless classical style with an ingenious simplicity. At times she turned staid movements into elegant and voluptuous movements that seemed to follow the evolving drama of the music.  

George, danced by Alex Ferreira, conveyed the image of the rugged individual, a man of the land who responds to his feelings with an arching and contorted body. His Act II pas de deux with Ada was filled with tension and turmoil.

Paul Mathews as Alistair, the husband, is a much more controlled figure who restrains his emotions until his final eruption of rage. His dancing seems to follow carefully prescribed routines, which had a cultivated delicacy to them.

Apart from the impressive dancing of the three principals there are several highlights in the production – a couple of haka and waiata, a delightful performance by Hazel Couper as Fiona, Ada’s daughter, and some stunning video projections of sea and bush. The opening and closing scenes feature the rolling sea of Auckland’s West Coast beaches along with the sounds of the surf while the bush and waterfall scenes feature bird life, the quivering bush and pulsating light.

The music arrangement, apart from a couple of “traditional” Maori songs, is predominately Michael Nyman’s score for the movie and work by Alfred Schnittke. There are also pieces by a variety of composers including Alban Berg, Claude Debussy and Igor Stravinsky.  It provides a solid base for the ballet, a flowing musical narrative which is integrated with natural sounds and the piano playing.

John Daly-Peoples has a relative on the board of the ballet company