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Lumina National Tour
by The New Zealand Dance Company
Isaac Theatre Royal, Christchurch
11 May 2018

Reviewed by Dr Ian Lockheed, Theatreview

It is perhaps a symptom of both the increasingly international world of contemporary dance as well as of the vagaries of arts funding that the New Zealand dance company’s 2015 production, Lumina, is being performed in Christchurch and other New Zealand venues after already being shown in Holland and Germany and, most recently, Liverpool and Paris.  It is to the company’s credit that its international touring has not undermined its commitment to local audiences and it is to be hoped that its most recent production, Michael Parmenter’s OrphEus – a dance opera, will reach the South Island before long.

Although consisting of three distinct works by three different choreographers, Lumina is given unity by the overarching themes implied by its title across the fields of optics, anatomy and botany and through the unified design of set and costumes by Kasia Pol and the lighting design of Jo Kilgour. Lumina also marks a new departure for the company as it works with the Netherlands-based American choreographer, Stephen Shropshire, the first time an international choreographer had created a work on its dancers.

The Geography of an Archipelago is Shropshire’s response to the theories of London-based Swiss art curator, Hans Ulrich Obrist, especially his idea of “archipelagic thought”.  While Obrist’s theories might have provided an initial stimulus for the piece Shropshire’s choreography is inevitably more allusive.  A trio of journeying dancers is placed under surveillance by a figure external to the group, the isolation of the individual is explored in a powerful solo by Xin Ji, and the pressure to conform within groups is also revealed.  Chris O’Connor’s powerful score, incorporating percussion, taonga puoro and a reworking of Beethoven’s Moonlight sonata, both supports and amplifies these themes.

Louise Potiki Bryant’s In Transit, as the title suggests, is a meditation on continuously evolving states of being and of the role of ritual in demarking the stages of life.  Developed in close collaboration with composer and video designer Paddy Free, the work draws on the ritual challenge presented to visitors approaching a marae, a ritualised transition both in space and social relations.  A series of moveable screens reflect projected images that reflect the actions of the dancers as well as taking on identities of their own in a manner that echoes the British choreographer, Wayne McGregor’s combinations of dancers and virtual movement.  The long staffs wielded by individual dancers reference the taiaha used in conflict as well as in ritual challenges; these are finally gathered together and balanced across the body of the single remaining dancer, who collapses under their metaphorical weight in the ultimate transition from life to death.

The final piece, Malia Johnston’s Brouhaha, as its name suggests,is a more light-hearted work that celebrates light, movement and sound.  The wedge-shaped form that had hung threateningly over the stage in Geography of an Archipelago now returns as a screening element on the stage floor, from behind which the dancers make their entrances.  Eden Mulholland’s music and Rowan Pierce’s video projections combine with Johnston’s choreography in continuously evolving patterns of light, movement and sound, the wave-like effects of the dancers’ movements reminding us that light and sound also travel in waves.  The work possesses something of the exuberance and energy of Len Lye’s film Free Radicals; if Lye were still working today it would surely be in the realm of contemporary dance.  Brouhaha ends with bands of light precisely aligned across the back and arms of a single dancer standing centre stage, reminding us of the energy contained even in a body at rest and a metaphor for the energy of life itself.

Throughout Lumina, the company’s dancers respond tirelessly to the challenges of the choreography with precision, passion and athleticism.  The professionalism of the New Zealand Dance Company and the fact that it is increasingly able to offer dancers full-time contracts bodes well for its future and its next tour will be eagerly awaited by its enthusiastic Christchurch audience.