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Throaty brass bands and lithe modern dancers don’t normally syncronise their talents on stage, but they do for Rotunda.
The show brings the New Zealand Army Band and The New Zealand Dance Company together for what artistic director Shona McCullagh intended as a celebration “of the Anzac spirit and the themes of courage, community and loss, and ultimately a desire for peace”.
“I wanted to build a show to create a living memorial for those lost in the war, not necessarily only World War I. As we send our troops to Iraq, war is still a reality. We feel removed.
“In this work we’re giving a voice to those who came back from World War I, called the silent war. They did not speak about it but the impact on families and their psyches was significant.”
Arts Laureate McCullagh has personal war stories, including that of an 18-year-old forebear who pleaded with his father to be allowed to go to war. At 19, he was killed in France “and his mother never forgave her husband”. Another early relative returned physically intact from the horrors of Gallipoli, “then went to France and survived that, and at 54 walked into Auckland Harbour and ended his life. That’s in my family”.
McCullagh says a “magical” part of the show relates to personal stories from other New Zealanders.
Rotunda was developed in Auckland in 2013 with the North Shore Brass Band and staged early last year at the Holland Dance Festival with the Dutch Brass Rijnmond. “Stunning musicians,” says McCullagh, “and completely astonished working with contemporary dancers.”
The fit with the New Zealand Army band “feels right” to McCullagh, “mixing this military band with contemporary dance in this centenary year”.
The band will play contemporary brass music from New Zealand composers Gareth Farr, John Ritchie, John Psathas and Don McGlashan.
The collaboration with dancers is “quite extraordinary. It ends up a conversation with people from completely different walks of life, but who, at the end of the day, have the same sense of emotional landscape”. “We experience it through movement and they through playing brass music. New Zealand composers have written some very poetic and inspiring music, heart wrenching and difficult to play.”
Rotundas – the inspiration and symbol for the show – impacted on McCullagh early in life.
“As a kid we would go to visit my grandmother in Whanganui through Foxton, Bulls and Levin and see these empty, neglected rotundas. I had a whimsical fascination with them. I discovered many were built as World War I memorials and some World War II. It seemed a perfect inspiration for the design.
“Originally the show was fully in the round with the audience on three sides and the band on the fourth. At any one time people were looking through the dancers, a powerful thing. As we developed the show we had to look at each venue and are back into the proscenium arch presentation with the audience on one side.”
The design, she says, remains circular. “It’s a 9.6 meter diameter circle the dancers move in, a small, powerful thing, the dancers working intricately in a small space. It’s a circle of conversation that feels right for this piece, a time in history when having a conversation is important. “
McCullagh says she was “a complete neanderthal about brass music” before she created Rotunda and had no idea of brass band history and impact in New Zealand. “Really, it was the first form of public entertainment. When Maori heard the first bugle call they were astonished at it and how it travelled.
“Brass was first heard in New Zealand when Tasman landed at Golden Bay and responded to a conch call with a trumpet. There were a plethora of brass bands early.”
Discovering the story of brass bands “felt like lifting a stone and uncovering a dynamic mass of history and music, some in existence for 100 years. We don’t imagine an anniversary day without a brass band. Brass bands have played an incredible part in the formation of New Zealand society.”
Rotunda heads for Australia in May and will perform there with local brass bands. “The subject matter is extremely relevant,” says McCullagh.
She is also aware that “a lot of people have a sense of reticence about contemporary dance.
“I absolutely guarantee you can bring the whole family to this and they will get it.”