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And The band Played On. And On.
Rotunda is choreographer Shona McCullagh’s first evening length work on the New Zealand Dance Company. The work focuses on the historic impact of New Zealand’s participation in World War 1 and is bracketed by both the imagery and music of a brass band, and the structure that a brass band sometimes performs in: a rotunda.
Structured and styled similarly to 20th century narrative ballets, Rotunda successfully appealed to the 55+ demographic that made up the majority of Q Theatre’s audience on opening night. ANZAC and war imagery, a charmingly unpretentious brass band, beautiful young dancers performing repetitive feats of athleticism and mimetic acting, the presence of name brand artists on the leaderboard such as composers Don McGlashan and Gareth Farr, prerecorded film soundtrack style music blended with live music and a song sung beautifully in Maori. But despite a well stocked palette of materials the relationships between many of Rotunda’s elements ultimately fail to communicate successfully with each other. As a result the overall work falls far short of its ambitions.
Taken individually many of the shows elements including the hyper committed performances of the dancers and musicians and the set design all had an appreciable and logical presence in the show. Well perhaps with the exception of the women’s costumes which had the appearance of renovated cast offs from the set of TV series Xena. That said however Rotunda’s choreography ultimately suffers from a crisis of imagery. Simply put the work seemed full of vanilla symbolism.
As far as movement vocabulary goes all things become nails when the only tool you have is a hammer. The dancers run in circles incessantly and jump. A lot. They jump when other characters die, they jump when they flirt, they jump when they’re sad, they jump when they’re grieving, are talking, are confused etc. Endurance athleticism has become more a cliché than a trope in New Zealand’s contemporary dance landscape.
The directing of the performers seemed at times questionable. From the miscasting of Death (that part should have gone to Hannah Tasker Poland, a performer who could’ve easily brought a macabre gravitas to that role) to the overtly rendered sentimentality in Tupua Tigafua’s duet with Justin Haiu, to the overlong durations of many sections devoted to portraying grief and suffering. Don’t get me wrong, I love hard work and I can watch it for hours…usually.
With the lowering of what looked more like a giant crown that a band rotunda roof a falsetto and astoundingly inappropriate ‘triumphant’ note at the end of the show left me baffled to the point of outrage. Did McCullagh actually contemplate how that image might be read? A giant crown hovering over a group of young men and women many of whom have brown skin left an ominous and confusing impression.
Overall Rotunda comes off as disingenuous, even frivolous given its budget. But mainly it doesn’t seem commensurate with contemporary life as a New Zealander and the important issues at hand for us as a nation. I say this because Rotunda’s conceit is that it’s trying to address us as a country from a nationalistic vantage point, all the while pressing the ‘right’ buttons to appear relevant and entertaining. But at this cultural moment venture capitalism is what’s tearing the country apart, not grief over World War 1.