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Review: Rotunda
Shona McCullagh (Artistic Director)
Don McGlashan (Musical Director)
at Air Force Museum, Christchurch
27 Mar 2015

Reviewed by Ian Lochhead, 29 Mar 2015

Band rotundas are a feature of many of our cities and small towns, ghostly shrines to lost music that hangs in
the air. They provide the metaphoric frame for Shona McCullagh’s work, an improbable and unprecedented
collaboration between the New Zealand Dance Company and New Zealand Army Band. The band’s military
precision and musicianship finds a perfect foil in the dancers’ passionate physicality and immaculate
technique. The production opens as a lone dancer enters the darkened stage and a banner, inscribed with the
names of the fallen, dissolves into a wraith of fabric that dances in the air with a life of its own, the fragility
of memory, the evanescence of life, and an expiring breath captured in a moment of magic. The band
marches into the auditorium and we thrill to the sight and sound, understanding in a moment why young men
are drawn to war. Four male dancers appropriate the drum major’s mace and it becomes the spear, sword,
rifle and taiaha of boyhood games, passed from hand to hand, spinning through the air in a heart-stopping,
high-risk display. Preening and competitive; war as an extension of play.

The mood darkens as real conflict looms; the women of the company are mothers, wives, sweethearts, left
behind. Wearing simple red dresses with broad black belts, they become grief stricken mourners but also
poppies in the battlefield, waving in the wind. The horror of battle is conveyed with visceral intensity
through projected images and tortured, silhouetted bodies, set against a soundscape of deafening intensity. A
moving duo between a living and a dead soldier follows this mayhem, the peace and serenity of the victim
contrasting with the anguish and guilt of the survivor.

The final tableau, danced to Elgar’s ‘Nimrod’ variation, is of almost unbearable poignancy, but as the dancers
take their bows the band strikes up jazzy ‘twenties rhythms, relieving the tension but also reminding us that
the lessons of war are soon forgotten.

Rotunda is a remarkable feat of artistic collaboration to which the music of John Ritchie, Gareth Farr, and
Don McGlashan adds depth and resonance. In this Gallipoli centennial year we are unlikely to experience a
more profound or deeply moving meditation on the capacity of war to shape and shatter lives across
generations. Friday night’s enthusiastic audience were privileged to share in a defining moment in the history
of New Zealand dance.