Dance Review
OrphEus – a dance opera

You are here:   Home   >   News   >   Article

(Photo credit: John McDermott)

OrphEus – a dance opera
by Michael Parameter with The New Zealand Dance Company
Civic Theatre, Auckland

Reviewed by Liz Gunn, 13th Floor


You can tell when a show is masterful. When it has grabbed the audience and excited them en masse. Michael Parmenter’s OrphEus is one such show. Quite simply, it’s unmissable.

You can tell because at half time, there is a huge buzz in the audience as they file out,  energised, inspired, discussing the beauty and grace and inspiration they have just been soaking up in the cavernous Civic. I heard many comments of praise for one of the taonga, the national treasures, of our New Zealand dance and art world: “ Michael’s a master”, “ Isn’t his composition on stage incredible?”, and the almost universal “ It’s amazing!”. There’s a palpable joy around the crowded Civic bar area. 

This piece marks four decades that Parmenter has held a graceful sway and powerful creative influence over New Zealand’s dance choreography.  I cannot think of one of his offerings since that distant 1982- when he debuted his first finely- honed choreography in On the Move – that has not been received with acclaim by anyone who loves his innate marriage of movement and music and deep sensibility. We are lucky to have him here, creating work in New Zealand. This latest piece would be lauded and celebrated in any of the world’s major cities, such is the quality of his vision and execution. ( I hope someone or some business, will offer up the money to tour to Paris or London or New York with this piece, and this fine cast. The acclaim would be deafening, and the financial success of it would be guaranteed )

Of course, with his distinguished pedigree as a dancer himself, it’s no wonder he could inspire in this group of dancers, such excellence and discipline and beauty of movement. In the  programme notes, Parameter himself emphasises that the work has been ”… a collaboration between the various members of a thrilling and adventurous creative team” as he highlights rehearsal director Clair O’Neill, and especially the dancers : “ The challenge of giving life to this embryo fell to the extraordinarily creative and disciplined corporeal wisdom of the dancers, often working independently or in small cells of creative ferment”.

While mentioning the team around him, I want to give special mention to Tracy Grant Lord for her costumes, and the elegance and flow of her design and material which so enhance the fluidity of the dancers’ moves and seem to add a material depth to the Baroque music. Also Nick Janiurekand John Verryt, for Lighting and Set Design respectively. Verryt’s sky-borne designs move from their beginnings as seascape or clouds, to becoming beds, then walls and finally, actual rafts. He also creates a sense of the vast time and reach of myth through eliminating the back of stage. The large blackscape sits perfectly with the mythic and endlessly mystic tale of Orpheus.

With all these talented people around him, Parmenter has been able to weave and glide his magic into the story of lovers who find each other, combine in body and form and movement, and then suffer layered loss and tragedy.  Orpheus, having descended in to the underworld to find his Eurydice, refuses to trust that she is behind him as he leaves, and instead turns to seek her out, only to see her being taken from him.

The beauty of their love and the eventual tragedy of their loss is played out in all those signature Parmenter moves of swirling turns and swooping arms and hands held aloft for a moment longer than expected . His pas de deux in the first half are exquisite, and when the ensemble come on, their lines flow like water, or bubble in the circles of the unfolding koru of life’s journeying.

When the rafts turn in to beds, there is an exquisite Buddha-like figure who sits and observes, while couples dance as the spotlight falls on them one by one. The surrendered figures supplicate, though there can also be moments of the opposite of that. Repel, come together, fall in, circle again, offer, decline, accept. Parmenter’s beauty of movement is a reflection of Life, and of our own flow and hesitation with all its lessons and challenges. The detail and broad range in the choreography signals what long hours and intense passion must have gone in to its creation and development.

The music enhances the whole effect. Baroque in its energy and tone, yet French in its romantic elegance and ravishing velvety feel. The composers range from David Downes to Marc- Antoine Charpentier, Michel Lambert, and Jean-Philippe Rameau.  The musicians include Latitude 37whose members are passionate about Baroque music and instruments, and whose violin and vila da gamba and harpsichord add so much to the overall richness of the piece .

Hamilton based soprano Jayne Tankersley is one of New Zealand’s most experienced singers of Baroque music with a hauntingly beautiful voice. But all the singers add a deep sensitivity to the visual artistry. I especially loved the contrast of David Downes’ opener in the second half, entitled L’Enfer. Hellish it was indeed. Chaotic movement to match the sounds of helicopters or strident voices. This makes a staggering, moaning backdrop to the score, with crying dogs and yelps to underline the sense of disorientation.

The contrast, as the music melts in to very gentle harpsichord and French vocals is a relief, even though it’s Charpentier’s “Descent of Orpheus Into The Fires”. Perhaps the most exquisite of the pas de deux plays out with Chrissy Kokiri as Eurydice in her white dress and head covered,  and Carl Tolentino’s magnificent Orpheus. Both of them are deeply connected with each other in their performances. Their expression feels real and heartbreaking and powerfully felt.

I spoke with an audience member, Grant, after the lights came up and he summed up for me an aspect of this latest Parameter work. He said it belongs in the ranks of the very best of New Zealand contemporary dance pieces (the others being Jerusalem by Parmenter and Gloria by Douglas Wright). Grant suggested that it marks a shift in our dance language, and I agree. When you go to the Civic tonight you will be immersed in a world of the contemporary, the balletic, the lyrical , the operatic and the mythic.  Above all, you will bask in the creative and artistic vision of a truly gifted artist and choreographer.

If you can possibly get along tonight or Sunday at 7 pm to Auckland’s Civic Theatre for a fleeting two last nights to see this, then I strongly suggest you do.

It is unmissable.

Liz Gunn