Being somewhat of a balletomane, it took me half a nanosecond to book tickets for the whole family to see the Royal New Zealand Ballet (RNZB) at the Festival of Colour. Whilst I am, admittedly, a classical freak, my appreciation for contemporary works has come on in leaps and bounds. But first, a disclaimer on my own bias; my mum danced with Royal New Zealand Ballet back in its nascent years when Poul Gnatt was shaping the company, so I have a vested interest in the ballet being good. With that said, Stand to Reason was seriously good and no bias was required to be completely awed.
The bill was created as a series of female-choreographed works to commemorate the 125th anniversary of women’s suffrage. This is remarkable because ballet, chiefly known as a feminine art, is globally dominated by male choreographers and male artistic directors; so for RNZB to appoint a female artistic director, who then gave space to women to choreograph about the suffrage movement, speaks volumes about New Zealand’s progressive past and our progressive present.
But, I was cynical; how can ballet tell the story of women getting the vote without being utterly boring? Without a prince or a sylph or a swan to carry a plot line, I was nervous that this would just be ‘movement’ and ‘shape’ without emotion or lyricism. I have never been so happy to be wrong. So to Speak, by Penny Saunders, was so powerful in telling the suffrage story that, for the first time, I truly appreciated what women went through in their own homes, to fight against their own husbands, fathers and brothers; the level of domestic strife and conflict would have been huge. They weren’t just fighting for a place at the political table, their own kitchen tables were a bloodied battle ground. It’s a bit like me voting for the Greens, and my Dad supporting Trump. Imagine how not fun it is at our family dinners? But, I digress.
So to Speak was emotional, fraught and tense. I was a tad confused why some dancers were en pointe and some in flats; I couldn’t spot a choreographic reason and it did just look a bit like some dancers forgot to pack their shoes. Once I got over that element, I saw the ballet for what it was, and it was powerful.
Also packing an emotional punch was Stand to Reason, created by Andrea Schermoly. Her work is based on the 1888 pamphlet ‘Ten Reasons Why A Woman Should Vote,’ which detailed how women had to clearly convince, explain and justify their right to political participation. Reasons, reasons, reasons, reasons, reasons... explaining, convincing and justifying their request to be regarded as fully human; so bloody exhausting. The dancers performed with that same level of emotional exhaustion, physically hurling themselves at the choreography in the same way our foresisters hurled themselves at suffrage. I thought I was being over emotional in my response as I fought back the lump in my throat and blinked away the tears at the end. However, I soon overheard another woman declare to her friend, “I just want to cry,” and I knew I wasn’t alone.
All three of the works that were performed were remarkably egalitarian. There were no stars or standouts but a very complementary corps. I spotted principal dancers Madeleine Graham and Maya Tanigaito, not because they dominated the stage with star power, but only because I follow them on Instagram. If it wasn’t for my ballet obsession on social media, I wouldn’t have spotted an etoile from an apprentice.
This was New Zealand art at its best.