Review: Transfigured Night – a bold collaborative programme that doesn’t always cohere

Naomi van den Broek reviews Chamber Music New Zealand‘s production Transfigured Night, a collaboration between BalletCollective Aotearoa and the New Zealand String Quartet. The performance was presented on Saturday 20 March in The Piano: Centre for Music and the Arts Pīpīwharauroa: Kui-kui whitiwhiti ora, Ōtautahi Christchurch.

For this programme, presented by Chamber Music New Zealand, the New Zealand String Quartet (Helene Pohl, Monique Lapins, Gillian Ansell, Rolf Gjelsten) were joined by three dancers from BalletCollective Aotearoa (Laura Saxon Jones, William Fitzgerald and Tabitha Dombroski) who were featured for the entirety of the programme. All three works were choreographed by Loughlan Prior, Artistic Director of the company. For the second and third works of the evening, the quartet were augmented to a sextet with the addition of Serenity Thurlow (viola) and Ken Ichinose (cello). 

The stage at The Piano was dressed with an elegantly draped backdrop, painted in bright watercolours featuring a large cruciform as its centrepiece. This backdrop was echoed in the costumes worn by the musicians and dancers, individually painted pieces which were – mostly – beautifully made and visually striking. I greatly enjoyed this injection of colour and brightness into what can often be an extremely formal and monochromatic setting, although without any production design notes I was left wondering about the significance of the choices made by designer William Fitzgerald – especially that of the cruciform. Half of the stage had also been covered with a large sheet of paper. The purpose of this was unclear – I assume it had something to do with certain moments in the choreography? – but it was a bit of an eyesore, and threw the visual balance of the stage off.

The programme opened with a new commission by composer Tabea Squire, I Danced, Unseen. The genesis of this work was Squire’s memories from childhood of dancing unseen to music in her living room. The opening of the piece was the most effective part of the work, with dancers entering in duet or trio with musicians, slowly layering both sound and gestures into the space. Particularly effective was the whimsical entrance of cellist, Rolf Gjelsten. I really enjoy works that collaborate across art forms, and I appreciate the genuine intention made by the creative staff and the performers to commit to working together. The work itself was tonally accessible, light, and mostly homogeneous in texture. Perhaps this was intended to echo the childlike feelings of abandon the composer used as inspiration.

The choreography mirrored this with lively and at times nonsensical sequences, liberally breaking the fourth wall, and inviting response from the audience. A mostly senior audience laughed, at times genuinely, but sometimes uncomfortably – perhaps finding themselves in unfamiliar territory, or perhaps because (like with the production design) sometimes the point of the collaboration was unclear. While there was a real sense of intention in the collaboration, and the musical work benefited from its addition, sometimes its potential wasn’t fully realised due to the lack of clarity about how the two artforms were connecting with each other, responding to the other form, and creating a whole that was greater than the sum of these two parts. 

This sense of disconnection followed on into the second piece of the programme, Dvořák’s String Sextet in A major, op 48. The interlude and entrance of the additional musicians was again evidence of a commitment to making this a genuine programme long collaboration, but unfortunately felt a bit awkward and forced. Some of the choreographic material from the first work was included again with development and additions of new gestures and phrases, and some further attempts at interaction between the musicians and dancers. The piece began with the dancers sitting like children on the mat at primary school before breaking out into mischievous, playful and quirky interplay with the space, the musicians, and the music.

However, despite clear intentions to the contrary I felt the connection between the dancers and the music got lost in this work. The opening of the programme notes ends with the following statement: “When music and dance co-exist, the commonalities and divergences between the two mediums… enrich audiences’ experiences.” In this instance, it was difficult to see and hear a synchronicity of experience between the two, and therefore the desired enrichment of both forms fell flat. Mostly, the combination felt distracting and at times uncomfortable. 

The final work on the programme was Arnold Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night). This piece was presented after an interval, and when the sextet appeared back on the stage they were now in their traditional concert blacks. Immediately the implication was that we were back in “serious music” territory, and while that was paired with the dancers also changing into black costumes, it was hard not to feel that a commentary was being made about the works. The backdrop from the first half remained in place, leaving the stage in a sort of halfway place between the first and second half of the programme. 

This programmatic work lent itself far more easily to the collaboration with choreography providing the audience an opportunity to relax into a holistic realisation of the partnership between music and dance. The contrasting textures of Schoenberg’s work allowed for beautiful explorations of interplay between the dancers, with Prior disrupting the heteronormative source work for the piece, a poem of the same name by Richard Demel. The poem describes a man and a woman walking through a forest at night, as the woman tells the man she is carrying another man’s child. His acceptance of her and her unborn child transfigure the night, the people, and their relationship. 

Prior’s choreography, and use of tissue like pieces of fabric in red and white, created a breath-taking visual world that both informed and was informed by the ethereal and dramatic music of this work. The solo, duo and trio work of the dancers mirrors or contrasts the musical textures, both lush and stark. The use of the fabric pieces spoke to both being hidden and revealed, expressing how we choose to show ourselves to the world, and offering a sense of how we might reimagine ourselves and our relationships with those around us – given the chance. Although the choreography did not take the programmatic journey of the music, by the end of this piece I felt that the musical and choreographic languages were in genuine conversation, enriching my experience of both the visual and the sound worlds. 

The work of dancers was fantastic, with some very beautiful and arresting images remaining with me well after the evening was over. The sextet of musicians were in fine form realising the different styles and demands of the music and staging well. Apart from the odd tuning issue and a couple of moments (especially in the Schoenberg) where I would have liked to hear them dig into the music a little more deeply, their playing was beautiful. 

While there were moments of this programme that didn’t quite land, I applaud Chamber Music New Zealand for this bold and creative programming and collaboration. It was a fantastic evening of both music and dance, and I’d like to see where this partnership goes if it’s allowed the time and resources to develop further and more fully. 

Transfigured Night tours venues across Aotearoa New Zealand from 9-23 March 2021. This review was unsolicited.

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