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

Reviewed by Sheree Bright, 29 Mar 2015

Rotunda is a creative collaboration by the NZDC’s Artistic Director and Arts Laureate Shona McCullagh
with the accomplished dancers and New Zealand composers Gareth Farr, John Ritchie, John Psathas and Don
McGlashan as Musical Director. The world-renown NZ Army Band, a 24 piece marching brass band,
perform a soundtrack combining contemporary brass music and soundscore with traditional hymns. This
highly entertaining show has seamless transitions through a variety of musical and contemporary dancing
styles.

The Air Force Museum, with its large aircraft installations provides an engaging and interesting venue for
Rotunda. Taking a show like this on the road is not easy. The time to set everything up and get the audience
into their seats presents a different challenge at each subsequent venue. Visibility for this performance is
partially obstructed for most of the audience members, as the seating is all on one level. Many of the
excellent contemporary low level movements are missed. I was fortunate to be in the second row, and I
review the content of the show from that perspective.

As a dancer enters, his focus is on a long gently waving red banner, which hangs from the ceiling to the floor
of the stage. On it are projected the names of the fallen. A circle of fans forms a rotunda-like space. A lone
drummer enters as the names on the banner disappear. The banner is now white and drifts towards the floor,
but the fans come on and they seem to magically float the banner within the circle in an exquisite spiralling
and flowing dance of the material, the ethereal dance of souls. With this mesmerising beginning, we are
immersed in the multi-faceted production that is Rotunda.

With a vibrant sound, the Brass Band enters from behind the audience marching down the centre aisle and
onto the stage. They perform circular and angular formations with crisp precision demonstrating the skills for
which they are internationally renowned. The drum major twirling and tossing the mace (a long and elaborate
baton) conveys marching signals for the bands intricate drill maneuvers. They move to their chairs along the
back of the stage where there is also a full array of percussion instruments.

There is a dazzling duet with percussionist Cameron Lee and dancer Chris Ofanoa. The crisp strokes and rolls
of the drumming techniques are emulated and echoed by the intricate reverberations rolling through the
dancer’s body. This section is one of several that brings a light humour to the piece.

Four young male dancers have a play with the possibilities of the mace, tossing it like a game of ‘hot-potato’
or using it like a controlling magic wand. Shooting-games invariably ensue. These are the young men before
they go to war, excited or infatuated with the prospect of adventure and the new instruments of war. The
scene changes with the haunting sound of breath or wind. The winds of war are stirring.

Female dancers begin a lyrical dance to a brass composition. The pace quickens with all dancers showing
their versatility in a variety of leaps and rolls. An ominous change in the music brings lifts and partnering
with a more vigorous intensity. Running and jumping with beautiful, spiralling air turns demonstrate the
athleticism for which NZ dancers are known.

Dancer Chrissy Kokiri beautifully sings a moving waiata poroporoaki, afarewell to a loved one who has
died, composed by Paraire Tomoana in 1918. As she walks downstage, other dancers and musicians
gradually join in her song. There are brass instruments positioned upright on the floor, which seem
simultaneously to represent the body without breath and the gravestones of the fallen. The vocals turn into
cries and wails of the women.

Several cloth screens lower in various positions. Moving shadowy images of the dancers are alternated with
images projected on the screens. The images, flashes of light and the cacophony of sounds, some
reverberating in my chest, represent the ferocity, chaos and destruction of war.

The screens drop to the floor and two men are left on stage. One has fallen victim. A creative, superbly
executed and deeply moving duet emerges as one soldier, Tipua Tigafua, tries to get his lifeless buddy,
Christopher Ofanoa, back to life, struggling with the reality that his pal is gone. (This segment stands as a
stunning testament to the creative uses of Michael Parmenter’s Piloting technique). Finally, he realises his
efforts can’t bring him back, and he says, broken-hearted, “I’m sorry.” The women wail and perform
movements that sensitively depict the gut wrenching experience this has become. My friend sighs and
whispers, “Very touching.”

As the mood changes, the brass band plays an old contemplative anthem. Gareth Okan goes upside down in a
shoulder stand; it is a backwards and upside down world. He has lost his mind. Hannah Tasker-Poland tries
desperately to bring him back to her. Forsythe’s ‘line extrusion’ technique is used here to enhance the depth
of meaning. When broken-hearted by the trauma of the loss of her beloved, she slowly, movingly draws out
an imaginary line from her heart. Rotunda significantly and beautifully expresses the voices of the women of
war, the uncertainty of separation, the unbearable worry, longing, loss and the optimistic determination of
recovery.

I ponder how powerful the presence of quality musicians on stage is for the dancers, how it helps to drive the
momentum. I’m sure the musicians feel a similar appreciation of the dancers. The brilliance of collaboration
is when the combined effort is more than the sum of its parts. Rotunda is brilliant!

I recently caught a poem written by a soldier on the program Foyles War which poignantly describes some of
the feelings Rotunda expresses. “They’ve sounded the last ‘All Clear’ and told us, those of us who made it
here, that very soon we’ll hold once more those things that we held dear. Yet nothing’s clear to me. I gaze
from darkness to a summer haze and, though they part, the clouds of war lead only to uncertain days.”

After war, men and women had to find the courage to put the pieces of their life together, to rebuild and to
move forward. Sadly, for many, the compassion of others needed to provide fertile ground for this healing
was either not available, or not enough as the wounds went far too deep. For others, the courage needed to
rebuild their lives made them stronger and wiser.

Rotunda highlights how the enormity of war has a profound effect on the people of its time and on future
generations. We all live with the ripples of war. I admire Rotunda’s talented creators and excellent
performers who chose to honour this worthy project. The powerful and engaging performance ends with a
standing ovation. The theme of courage will always be relevant.