Theatre Review: Transfigured Night - This, one hopes, is just the beginning (Christchurch)

This article was original published by Theatre Review on 20 March 2021 by Dr Ian Lochhead. Click here to view the original article.


Dr Ian Lochhead | 20 March 2021


From the moment that dancer Laura Saxon Jones stepped onto the stage to quizzically inspect the music stands already positioned there it was clear that this was to be no ordinary chamber music recital. Only when this inspection was complete and it was clear that everything was in order did the musicians arrive. First to appear is Gillian Ansell playing the opening strains for viola of Tabea Squire’s newly commissioned piece for string quartet, I Danced Unseen. She is followed by the other members of the quartet and, as the musical lines fill out and the work gains momentum, two more dancers arrive. Squire’s composition draws on her youthful passion for dancing alone to Celtic music. The integration of music and dance in this performance is thus, entirely natural, the dancers weaving between and around the musicians as they perform. The sense that dancers and musicians form part of a single ensemble is enhanced by William Fitzgerald’s costume designs for both dancers and quartet, lose fitting white shirts and pants enlivened with blotches of colour that reflect the abstract patterns on the sail-like back cloth. Alongside this informal attire, Ansell’s long gown provides the sole element of formality. The fact that the string players, like the dancers, perform in bare feet suggests that roles could be switched at any moment.

Squire’s piece is fresh and appealing and, in spite of its origins in her passion for Celtic music this is only hinted at in the work itself, which forges its own musical language. Similarly the choreography evolves as a response to the music without reference to the cultural traditions that inspired it. I Danced Unseen, with its origin in folk music, provides the ideal introduction to Dvorak’s String Sextet in A major, one of the composer’s most radiant works, imbued with the rhythms and melodies of his native Bohemia. The rearrangement of the stage to accommodate a different musical ensemble usually results in a hiatus in a concert programme as musicians leave the stage and the setting is reconfigured. Prior deftly manages this transition by keeping all the performers on stage; apparent chaos is miraculously resolved into a new arrangement and, with the entry of Christchurch Symphony Orchestra principal violist, Serenity Thurlow and NZSO associate principal cello Ken Ichinose, the quartet has become a sextet.

The Dvorak opens with the three dancers seated on stage facing the musicians but as the music takes hold they are irresistibly drawn into motion. There is a pastoral, almost Arcadian, quality in Prior’s choreographic response to this music along with humorous touches that evoke the antics of commedia del arte characters. The string players are also drawn into this bucolic mood, swaying in time with Dvorak’s sweeping rhythms. With so much happening around them it would be easy for the musicians to lose concentration but the collaborative spirit of the whole enterprise is such that this never occurs. The New Zealand String Quartet are, in fact, old hands at collaborating with dancers, having toured with the Royal New Zealand Ballet in 2016 and 2017 performing in Alexander Ekman’s ballet, Cacti. There is more than a hint of Ekman’s zaniness in this performance of the Dvorak Sextet and the success of this new collaboration between the NZSQ and BCA can probably be traced back to their earlier encounter with Ekman’s iconoclastic choreography.


Following the interval the mood changes from the sunlit outdoor world of folk melody to the moody nocturnal environment of fin de siècle Vienna. The change of mood is also signaled by the switch to black formal dress for the musicians and black costumes for the dancers. Arnold Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht draws inspiration from Richard Dehmel’s poem of the same name in which, during a night-time walk in the woods, a woman confesses to her partner that she is with child to another man. The man’s acceptance of this revelation culminates in the transfiguration of the night that envelops woman, man and unborn child. Schoenberg’s early masterpiece, composed in 1899, hovers on the cusp of two centuries, at the turning point between musical tonality and atonality and between the worlds of late Romanticism and modernism.

Rather than attempting a literal interpretation of Dehmel’s poem Prior evokes a mood of uncertainty and change in which relationships are unstable and mutable. Laura Saxon Jones’s stature and stage presence are considerable assets in her portrayal of the central role of the woman, the centre point around whom Tabitha Dombroski and William Fitzgerald weave a web of dance. The opening of the work, in which Saxon Jones advances across the stage to lift an arc of scarlet silk from the floor, is compelling, the fabric becoming by turns gown, train, halter, shroud and womb. The visceral effects of these initial moments establish the mood of the performance as a whole. Although the sextet now takes a fixed position on the left side of the stage the dancers continue to make use of the whole space although they now inhabit a claustrophobic world of their own. The fluidity of Prior’s choreography mirrors the changing relationships between the performers as they dance alone, in pairs and all three together. As the music reaches its climax in the gentle, rippling motif that signals the moment of transfiguration the scarlet silk is replaced by a white one that envelops the woman in bridal splendor. As the music subsides she moves offstage, her long white train disappearing as the final notes fall.

It takes considerable courage for a musical ensemble, already complete in itself, to share their stage with performers in another artistic medium and it says much for the New Zealand String Quartet’s confidence in their own craft that they have enthusiastically embraced the opportunity to work with Prior and the dancers of Ballet Collective Aotearoa. The rapturous reaction of the capacity audience at The Piano, with whoops of delight and stamping of feet, can only have confirmed them in this course. While musically this would have been a satisfying concert if presented on its own, the added dimension of theatricality and dance made it unforgettable. It is worth remembering that over fifty years ago the board of the Royal Opera House in London, vetoed the suggestion by choreographer, Kenneth McMillan that he should create a work using another late romantic masterpiece, Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde. Such a great work of art, in their view, would be profaned by the addition of dance. McMillan took the concept to the Stuttgart Ballet and the work was acclaimed as a landmark of twentieth-century choreography. We must be thankful that such restrictive ideas no longer hold sway. What Transfigured Night demonstrated is that music and dance are not in competition but are natural and inseparable allies, something that ordinary people have always known.

It is to be hoped that this will be the first of many more collaborations between the NZSQ and DCA and that the current programme will be toured more widely. I look forward to seeing Transfigured Night in a theatre rather than a concert hall, where lighting design has the potential to add another dimension to what is already a compelling work of art. This, one hopes, is just the beginning.


This article was original published by Theatre Review on 20 March 2021 by Dr Ian Lochhead. Click here to view the original article.