Image: John McDermott

This last Saturday I had the amazing good fortune to speak to Shona McCullagh for Dance Circle who was in Sydney with New Zealand Dance Company to present Rotunda. A timely piece referring to the war memorials of their country.

This is not a topic to take lightly. It’s literally life and death man-making content made all the more poignant for the 100th Anniversary of the ANZAC battle of Gallipoli.

This reminded me of a tip from Doris Humphrey’s book The Art of Making Dances when she advises the burgeoning choreographer not to make work about life’s grand narratives. It’s fortuitous that Shona is as far from a novice as one could possibly be. Ignorant of the woman beforehand, I quickly became a fan of the artist whose performative breadth is impressive and extensive.

McCullagh has worked predominately in dance, film, theatre and installation. Upon graduating from New Zealand School of Dance she worked with Dark Swan (Australia), Douglas Wright Dance Company, choreographed major commercial films including Peter Jackson’s King Kong, and has been commissioned to choreograph by several dance companies. In 1992 she formed her own company The Human Garden and was named in the top 100 New Zealanders who made a difference in 1999. In 2007 Shona travelled to The Hague as guest speaker at Dancescreen.

For someone who has seemingly done it all, achieved what only few of us imagine within our field, why start from scratch now? She tells me it is symbolic of her current quest to see dance prosper in New Zealand, to forge stronger relationships across the ditch. “Currently we have stronger ties with the United States than we do with our closest neighbours.”

I would agree. Except that in our case it is the overwhelming desire to align ourselves with Western European arts.

There is a small section of information dedicated to the company on the back page of the program. It serves as a mini mission statement aiming to once again create full-time employment for dance artists, to grow an audience and prove to the world that New Zealand doesn’t just produce world renowned rugby players.

Again, I could say ditto. Making the short trek from the station to the theatre I spoke to a man and his daughter, bonding over the impending match between the Eels and the Knights taking place in a little over an hour’s time, at the stadium two blocks away. I was almost going to suggest that instead of a burnt snag, wrapped in a soggy bun slathered in sauce, they nip in for the show. Almost.

Rotunda was a testament to the dancers’ athleticism and virtuosity in a performance that dealt with one of the world’s great game changers with the gravity and respect it deserves. It is this storytelling, the rendering and re-rendering of these events in new formats, that enhances cultural tradition by providing the opportunity for new discourse.

I am of two minds about the benefits of reading the program, loading up on information before witnessing the event. The first time I went in, it was blind. I sat back and let the experience wash over me. I was cajoled by youthful antics, quickened by the beat of the drum, overwhelmed by the cacophony produced by the short parade, from side entrances to the stage, of the Holroyd Marching Band, startled by the flash of strobes emulating artillery, moved to the brink (of tears) for the dead soldier mate and took respite in the fact that the performers and we the audience had made it through the tumult.

Speaking to Shona in the pre-show event I gleaned the physical motifs inspired by Guernica; Picasso’s homage to the Spanish revolution. Shona shared her knowledge of the great changes taking place in the art world, fragmented bodies depicted through simultaneous multi-perspectives, laid out like a jigsaw on the canvass. My eyes were trained on the falling fabric for Eisenstein’s image of the carcass of the soldier’s steed. I listened intently to the band’s rendering of uniquely emblematic melodies chosen for the patriotism for New Zealand it inspired in Shona.

Viewing the work the second time through I was engaged on an intellectual level. I appreciated the references to the development of art expression in that era. I could appreciate the constant juxtaposition of the old and new, the old made new. Through this performance I was able to recognise that the atrocities of the war left more than a physical legacy, and as an artist I benefited from that unanimous change in the world’s psyche.

Seeing this work a second time I realise how much I dismiss as white noise. It is truly a guilty pleasure that enabled me to see this work again.  a bit of info about Eisenstein. link to Picasso’s Guernica

– by Vicki Van Hout