30 Jul 2018

NZIFF 2018: The Heart Dances

From Widescreen, 1:44 pm on 30 July 2018

The Heart Dances reveals more of the tribulations involved in putting on a show than anyone involved was expecting, says Dan Slevin.

Abigail Boyle in the role of Ada, in rehearsal for the RNZB ballet The Piano.

Abigail Boyle in the role of Ada, in rehearsal for the RNZB ballet The Piano. Photo: NZIFF ( Ken Downie)

At my day job (Toi Whakaari: NZ Drama School) the other day, we were trying to come up with examples of great behind-the-scenes documentaries about Kiwi performing arts. In 1996, TVNZ broadcast In the Shadow of King Lear about Theatre at Large and Ian Mune climbing the highest mountain in Shakespeare. You can watch that at NZ On Screen along with a few other examples from TV programmes like Kaleidoscope and Artsville.

In 2011, Leonie Reynolds followed Jo Randerson and Barbarian Productions as they developed and rehearsed her full-length play Good Night – The End. That film, Disappear in Light, played at the Doc Edge film festival and got an independent release on DVD so you should find it a good library near you.

But there is very little around that documents the challenges of making which is why we should be very grateful for the arrival of Rebecca Tansley’s cumbersomely titled The Heart Dances – the journey of The Piano: the ballet. Following rehearsals and production of the Royal New Zealand Ballet’s ambitious showpiece for this year NZ Festival, Tansley got excellent access at short notice and, with cinematographer Simon Raby, captured some of the most enlightening sequences of dancers at work we have produced in New Zealand.

But she got more than she bargained for. (Perhaps that would have been be a better title for the film?)

Originally a one-act production for Dortmund Ballet in 2015, creators Jiří and twin brother Otto Bubeníček were encouraged to increase their scope and bring a full-length work to New Zealand. From a marketing standpoint, it’s a great idea – an iconic NZ work (one of not-very-many if we’re honest) reimagined for a new artform.

Otto Bubeníček working with RNZB dancers in rehearsal for The Piano.

Otto Bubeníček working with RNZB dancers in rehearsal for The Piano. Photo: NZIFF/Supplied

But no one seemed to ask some key questions – or even seen the original production. How does a New Zealand dance company with no Māori dancers expect to present Māori characters on stage? How can a New Zealand dance company expect to use elements from the famous Ka Mate haka without asking permission of its owners?

It’s clear in the film that everyone involved has the best intentions but it is also clear that ballet in New Zealand has a long way to go if it’s going to be an art form that speaks to all of us.

At the centre is the amiable young contemporary choreographer and dancer Moss Patterson, brought in by RNZB as “cultural consultant” who finds himself brokering an inadequate compromise that allows the show to go on. Meanwhile, the Czech rockstar creative team feels like it was inadequately prepared for the politics of the situation, even if they obviously did very little to prepare for it themselves.

This idea that ballet is somehow allowed to rise above its contemporary context, and, for example, accept the lack of indigenous dancers in its companies is worth examining but The Heart Dances doesn’t have time to go into it any further.

Tansley’s film should be required viewing for anyone considering collaborating on local work with international partners – in any art form.

The Heart Dances has several more screenings in Wellington and then moves on with the NZIFF to Auckland, Christchurch, Dunedin, Gore and other centres.