On the wave of the All Blacks' victory, the Royal New Zealand Ballet is back in the UK after four years with two shows. Beside a ballet classic such as Giselle, with the other programme of their tour, the mixed bill A Passing Cloud presented at the Linbury Studio Theatre, the company wants to introduce British audiences to a touch of exoticism and celebrate New Zealand and Pasifika culture. Still, as its title, the show was really like a wandering lonely cloud that despite the dancers’ efforts left very few impressions. Paradoxically, it was the only European work that produced some.

<i>The Anatomy of a Passing Cloud</i> © Evan Li
The Anatomy of a Passing Cloud
© Evan Li

The evening opener, Javier de Frutos’ The Anatomy of a Passing Cloud, despite its intriguing title, failed to create any poetic image. Commissioned for the 60th anniversary of the company, it plays with a Pasifika soundscape made of ukuleles, traditional Cook Island drumming and chants, and a voice reciting the Book of Genesis in Te Reo Māori. Instead of floating high on a cloud over vales and hills, De Frutos tells tales of seduction and jealousy in round, capoeira style with the fighting in the dance never too far away. In colourful costumes with typical flowers and tropical foliage prints, the dancers follow the up-tempo of the Maori language, moving at an incredible speed that was at times too fast. Luckily, with the exhaustion came more ease in their movements. De Frutos tries to integrate a native touch with more angular movements but the hybrid vocabulary is still too balletic.

This was followed by two dances about war in commemoration of the centenary of the Gallipoli Landings that could have been easily thought one the extension of the other. The first, Dear Horizon by New Zealander Andrew Simmons, deals with conflict in general exploring their affects of loss, fear and hopelessness. A soldier wanders into a battleground when all at once he sees a crowd of zombies waking up. And in fact the women linger on pointes in a twilight zone, as ghosts or memories, hovering behind their men as Giselle’s Act II Willis, the dim lighting helping with the effect. The men, instead, do a lot of walking, up and down the stage, under a Miss Saigon-like backdrop. As an old picture, the whole dance is a declination in tones of brown and grey apart from a little bit of blue tulle peeking from under the uneven dresses.

Shaun James Kelly and Mayu Tanigaito in <i>Dark Horizon</i> © Evan Li
Shaun James Kelly and Mayu Tanigaito in Dark Horizon
© Evan Li

The war theme continued in Passchendaele by New Zealander Neil Ieremia based on a tone poem by Dwayne Bloomfield in homage to New Zealand's military role in WWI. The shortest piece of the evening, it is a commemoration of the Battle of Passchendaele where the greatest number of New Zealanders died. In light grey costumes, simple trousers and shirts for the men and skirt-like aprons for the women, it is a less narrative rendition of similar feelings as the previous dance. It has mostly group sequences with no defined characters and contains some strong sequences performed by the men. Particularly interesting is the lighting design, cold lights in square patterns for the men and warm diffused ones for the women that enhanced the opposition of those who stayed home and the ones at war. But it also enhanced the masculine energy of the jumping sequences that had an intense Haka feeling to them.

<i>Passchendaele</i> © Ellie Richards
© Ellie Richards

Rounding off the evening with beautiful colours is Selon désir by the Greek Andonis Foniadakis. Created for Geneva Ballet in 2004, it is a captivating mélange of Sasha Waltz and Pina Bausch. On a mixed music collage of Bach’s compositions, a solo figure moves fluidly throughout space and is soon rejoined by the whole group. The movements, mostly based on release technique, reminded me of Ditta Miranda Jasjfi’s solo in Bausch’s Vollmond (2006). Like the daffodils tossing their heads in a springhtly dance, every step is done to maximize the swing of the free hair, of the colourful skirts and cowl neck shirts. Performing first as individuals and then in small groups, they form intense images that resemble Hieronymus Bosch paintings: bodies suspended between heaven and hell, as crucifix or ecstatic saints. The colourful heavenly earthy contemporary interpretation of Bach exorcises war horrors.

The promised references in this bill to Pasifika’s culture were dwarfed to sounds, patterned fabrics and only faint references to movement that the persistent war theme obscured. It is true, this is a commemoration year for New Zealand. Even if the programme had its logic, with colourful and gay parts juxtaposed to lesser ones, it still did not work, as the first three works were weak, with only the last to save the evening. Still, it is always interesting to see foreign companies and their aesthetics: one has to start somewhere to produce something new.