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News Article

Reviving the Rotunda
By Jess McAllen
In The Sunday Star Times
Published on: 15 March 2015
Sunday Start Times
Source: The Sunday Star Times, Photo credit: Peter Meecham

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A hundred years ago rotundas were the place to be. People would circle around an intricately carved platform every Sunday, spread blankets and have a picnic. A brass band would play for an hour. Katherine Mansfield devoted a whole passage to them in Miss Brill, talking fondly of bandsmen sitting in the green rotunda blowing their cheeks and glaring at music.

In the 1950s, with the advent of television, families turned their attention inwards to huddle around a box. Rotundas became the home of the homeless – scattered with cigarette butts, empty bottles and KFC wrappers.

For Shona McCullagh, the New Zealand Dance Company’s artistic director and arts laureate, rotundas needed a revival. Her second piece of work with the company, Rotunda, marks the World War I centenary through a narrative of contemporary brass music and dance. Without dialogue, eight dancers – and one drummer boy – tell the story of a community who dream of fighting for their country. At the start they pick up swords and play fight. That soon turns to reality.

‘‘If you read their diaries, they thought it was going to be this incredible adventure,’’ says McCullagh. ‘‘Cut to the next shot and it is lice-ridden foot rot. The images of No Man’s Land with decomposing blown up bodies and heads missing – it was the most horrific thing anyone could experience.’’

She’s been researching such images at the Auckland War Memorial Museum. Add to that her family experience with war and McCullagh’s undeniably passionate when talking about the subject. Her voice quivers when we discuss New Zealand preparing to send soldiers to Iraq.

‘‘I’ve written to John Key. Would you send your son? That’s what I asked him. And if your son died, would you be able to justify his death to your own family and the rest of the country?’’

Rotunda reflects the sense of camaraderie among the men, who, McCullagh says, had a wicked sense of humour and were loyal to the end.

The start of the piece is full of booming excitement, accompanied by a surging, dynamic Gareth Farr score. Near the end, in Home Coming, there’s a scene with a male and female dancer who try to rebuild their relationship after one person has irrevocably changed. ‘‘A lot of men became noisy mental cases: they never recovered from the shellshock. Externally they were in one piece, internally they were not,’’ she says.

Rotunda is accompanied by a contemporary brass score composed by Farr, John Ritchie, John Psathas and Don McGlashan. The music was written as part of a test piece for the national brass championships and, while it’s been heard in brass circles, it will be new material for most New Zealanders.

‘‘Brass bands were the only form of Pakeha musical entertainment for many years from the late 1800s,’’ says McCullagh. ‘‘It was like lifting up a stone and uncovering this whole world I knew nothing about. We all know brass bands turn up on Anzac Day but they actually play a really important role in ritualising modern events. They mark celebration, welcome, farewell, commemoration and burial.

‘‘They give service to our society by being there when we need to feel something in our hearts, whether that’s to feel stirred, inspired, patriotic or grief.’’

What stirred McCullagh to create Rotunda were multiple family ties to World War I. Her great uncle, Ray, died during the Battle of the Somme. He was only 18 – the voluntary age limit was 20 – and begged his parents to let him go. His father signed the papers behind his mother’s back. ‘‘He died, buried or unburied, we don’t know. The rift it created between his mother and father was irrevocable.’’

Her grandfather fought alongside Ray and suffered ‘‘terrible guilt’’ about not bringing him home. ‘‘The fact he couldn’t tell his family where he was was terrible. ‘‘Papa was enormously traumatised by the act of killing people. He had terrible nightmares about the bayonets and had a sad life after that. So many men who came home were instructed by the Government not to talk about it.’’

Gallipoli was a ‘‘mess’’, Britain should have apologised for its leadership, Passchendaele was just as bad – McCullagh has strong opinions: ‘‘They literally sent our men over the trenches to be gunned down. It was a terrible waste of thousands of lives.’’

But she can accept there’s lots of sides to the argument. ‘‘I used to think ‘war is terrible and shouldn’t happen’ but I now understand that as is light and shadow and love and hate, there is war and peace. I would love to think we’d evolve to become a race of people that could live without axing people’s heads off on television.

‘‘I now understand this is life, conflict is part of life and our role is to try and create some balance through creating works of art that allow us to grieve and feel hope. If we don’t believe there’s more good than evil in the world it starts to become a very dark place.’’

Rotunda’s finale is pointedly hopeful and focuses on the power of music, love and kindness to heal and create memorials: ‘‘We can’t say thank you, but in this piece I like to think we give a voice to those men.’’

One way is by incorporating the names of the fallen at each venue in which Rotunda is performed. People can go to the company’s website, enter their ancestor’s details and story, and the words will be projected on to a ‘‘beautiful veil’’.

McCullagh’s not the only one working on Rotunda with connections to the war. Campbell McKeller plays the drummer boy and says his great-grandfather, Alex Adam, served in Gallipoli. ‘‘He was shot in the head but miraculously survived. He was nearly left for dead but, as they were clearing the field, someone saw a movement and took him ‘If you read their diaries, they thought it was going to be this incredible adventure. Cut to the next shot and it is lice-ridden foot rot.’ out.’’ Spared, Adam lived until his 90s and, at one point, was one of the oldest people to have walked the Milford Track.

One of the dancers, Hannah Tasker-Poland, says all four of her great-grandfathers fought. ‘‘Bill Tasker-Poland survived the Battle of Somme and was one of only three from his unit of 260 that survived.’’ Another great-grandfather was also one of only three from his unit of 80 to survive. As the hundred-year anniversary of World War I approaches, more young people are making the exodus to Gallipoli, says McCullagh.

‘‘For Pakeha, we’re beginning to be more interested in our ancestry. Maori have always had that attachment to their lineage and honouring their elders and we’ve awakened to that and actually have a much greater sense of interest, curiosity and gratitude for those ancestors who laid their lives down.’’

As for the rotundas that gathered dust for much of McCullagh’s childhood? ‘‘Bands in parks are happening again and council programmes are encouraging local musicians to play in the rotunda. ‘‘I hope we see a revival,’’ she says. ‘‘The idea of sitting in a circle around something is an innately human ritual.’