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Rotunda: Flashes of colour and joy amid shadows of war

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The New Zealand Dance Company’s Rotunda is structured as a series of vignettes, at first lighthearted but gradually the mood darkens.

Teaming New Zealand’s young contemporary dance group with a brass band in an Anzac tribute was the brilliant idea of Shona McCullagh, the company’s artistic director and choreographer.

The eight dancers — four women in simple red dresses with wide black waistbands reminiscent of remembrance poppies and four men initially in khaki trousers and buff tops — have a relaxed style and are especially fluent in the arms and upper body. They have plenty of tensile strength, too, for the jumps, turns and lifts demanded of them.

At the beginning, a long red banner with a list of names hangs centre front on the darkened stage. A lone, melancholy figure emerges from the gloom; the banner, now white, drops to the floor and becomes a floating, whirling wraith as electric fans around the stage lift it into the air. A drummer appears, the lights rise, and in a spine-tingling moment a band marches down the theatre aisles, forming up with their drum major twirling his silver-topped baton, then taking their seats onstage.

The work is structured as a series of vignettes, at first lighthearted. The men horse about, throwing each other around, turning their hands into pistols and shooting at one another. One steals the baton and they throw it between them, catching it, using it as a spear, a gun and a bayonet. War at this point is just a game.

The women dance, free and delighted, but gradually the mood darkens. One dresses her man in a military jacket, two of the men enter shirtless, with bandoliers across their chests. Another woman sings a movingly plaintive Maori song. White curtains drop, and the dancers’ shadows, looming and receding, graphically present wartime struggle.

Shadow play over, in a poignant sequence a man tries to revive his dead mate, sitting him up, putting him on his back, supporting him to stand but failing; the body slips down. The return of a traumatised soldier, unable to connect with the wife who had dressed him in uniform, is equally effective, gently but strongly dramatic.

The work ends hopefully, however. Although some sections are slightly too long, with a diverse score including music by New Zealand’s John Ritchie, the Coventry Carol and Edward Elgar’s Nimrod, Rotunda is a major Australian debut by this excellent company. Don’t miss it.

Rotunda. New Zealand Dance Company, Kensington and Norwood Brass. Her Majesty’s Theatre, Adelaide, May 2. Arts Centre Melbourne, Thursday to Saturday; Riverside Theatre, Parramatta, May 13 to 16; Geelong Performing Arts Centre, May 21 to 23.

By Alan Brissenden