Graceful Girls

December 31, 2015 at 10:01 pm | Posted in Dance Review, Film Review | Leave a comment
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Having upgraded my O/S and iTunes, I am exploring the films available on the iTunes store. The other day I found, and watched, Graceful Girls. This is a film about an Australian dance discipline of ‘Calisthenics’ – though in Olivia Peniston-Bird’s feature length documentary, it is referred to by one-and-all as a ‘sport’. I see it as a dance discipline because the vast majority of the competitions are based around dance – an endearing mixture of ballet, rhythmic gymnastics (without the ball and skipping rope), and commercial dance.

What I found attractive about calisthenics, was that the senior practitioners had normal bodies – trim and toned, as opposed to hyper thin. The dancers are able to execute all of the classical ballet repertoire – technically and gracefully. There is no pointe work, so more dancers can stay in the sport. Unlike ballet which creates a natural ‘gate’ with its near total emphasis on pointe work.

The film follows the lives of some of the dancers and their mothers though a competition year. It is centred around the Regent Calisthenics calisthenics school – a school run by successive generations of the Synnott family. The school was founded by Enid, then run by her daughter Diane, and currently her daughter Brooke. This school has dominated, and influenced the direction of, the sport.

Calisthenics has a much greater emphasis on teams – to win the division, a team must dance/execute eight different routines. Calisthenics is strongest in the State of Victoria; and each year the ‘nationals’ are held in the Ballarat Theatre.

The film also follows the fortunes of Brianna Lee – who is a three time runner-up to the only solo event, known informally as ‘Most Graceful Girl’. Brianna is a sunny primary school teacher who has done calisthenics (and ballet) from a young age, and she really wants the title. Incidentally, both Diane and Brooke have won the title. Brianna’s routines are a picture of beauty and strength – effortless grande jetes (off a one-step take-off), splits (both vertical and horizontal), and wonderful stability (or should one say poise).

Worth ago.

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The Force Awakens

December 20, 2015 at 12:03 am | Posted in Film Review | Leave a comment
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After re-watching the early episodes, I took myself to the midnight session of Episode VII of the Star Wars saga: The Force Awakens. I count myself lucky to be in the first wave of general release viewers. Yes, it was worth staying till midnight, driving home at 2:20 AM afterwards, and getting only three hours sleep, to watch it.

Warning: plot elements discussed.

The movie opens with a homage to Episode IV and Alien: there are two moons above a desert planet; one of the moons is occluded by a massive space ship. Then we are introduced to two new characters:  Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). Poe is the Resistance’s top pilot. Ren is the new ‘Darth Vader’ – he even has a breathing mask!

Then comes Finn (John Boyega) and Rey (Daisy Ridley). Finn is a storm trooper who has goes AWOL and eventually joins the resistance. Rey is the new ‘Luke’ – she even grew up on a desert planet (Jakku). Then we re-introduced to Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew).

The level of marksmen ship has improved: there is less ‘spray and hope’, and more coolly aimed shots.

There are some amazing flight sequences. Special effects and audience expectations sparked mainly by Episode IV has come a long way from Episode IV.

Final comes Maz (Lupita Nyong’o) and Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), going by her working title of General Organa. Maz is a new character – she runs a bar – whether she makes it into Episode VIII remains to be seen.

There are some great fight sequences: much grittier that in Episode IV, V, and VI.

Along the way there is also two other new characters: General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) and Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis). They represent the latest manifestation of the dark side – the First Order. General Hux represents a new element in the story: he is not (apparently) a practitioner of the dark side, but through sheer competence is in competition with Ren for the Supreme Leader’s favour.

There are the odd surprises and of course there is a final battle.

This is a difficult movie to make. It needs: to grab a new fan base, not disappoint the existing multi-generational fan base, to set things up for Episodes VIII and IX, and remain true to what has gone before. I think J.J Abrams (and Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt) succeed.

Preparing for The Force Awakens

December 13, 2015 at 8:38 am | Posted in Film Review | 1 Comment
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Star Wars Episode 7: The Force Awakens on December the 17th, and to prepare for my midnight screen, I re-watched episodes II through VI.

Warning: plot elements discussed.

I watched them in Machete Order: VI, V, II, III, then VI. Watched in this order, episode II and III are treated as two closely flashbacks in the middle of the mini-series that is episode V and VI.

One of the benefits of this order is that you meet Luke and Leia as adults, prior to watching episodes II and III that reveal the political and personal events that created them. We also see the similar vents that shaped their lives as shaped their parents. Another benefit, is that it preserves the primacy of episode IV, as being the pivotal episode – thereby respecting the fact that it was released first. Yoda’s talk to Luke makes so much more sense in light of episode III (than the first time around).

I was also struck by how rich episode III is. There is romance, angst, action and political intrigue. The politics neatly summaries the transformation of the ancient republic of Rome to an imperium – and sets the stage for episode IV. Episode II also shows how Anakin is seduced by the Chancellor – Anakin wants a galaxy where his loved ones are safe, and by extension everyone’s loved ones. The Chancellor wants the same; their initial disagreement is the methods.

Things that I did not like the first time around were of course still there:

  • Why is the level of marksmanship so poor in the ‘elite’ Imperial Stormtroopers (and before them the Senate Army), and the droid army?
  • Why when the X-wings are making their attack runs down the trench, don’t other X-Wings parallel them above the trench behind them? (Yes, the mosquitos had to fly down the fiord in ‘633 squadron’, but there is no overhand in the Death Star.
  • Why didn’t the X-wings make  vertical dive bombing run?
  • Why did the empire opt for robotic prosthetics over organ/limb regeneration? After all they could speed grow clones.
  • The Ewoks could not have overcome an Imperial Legion – clubs would never prevail over energy weapons.

Things that occurred to me watching this time;

  • Why didn’t the Jedi knights have a shield or buckler? These would have allowed them to deal with adversaries armed with rapid fire distance weapons. Bucklers being small and light would not have significantly impeded their movements.
  • Who designs a military vessel – like the Death Star – and does not distribute the power generators throughout the vessel?

Of course with J. J. Abrams and Disney in charge, will the plot take a very different direction? Will Luke or Leia have children that will become sought after pieces in the ‘great game’? Will Luke even play a significant role? Will they finally pass the Brechdel test? Will we see a third generation confront the ‘Darkside choice’?

Whitireia Polytechnic: Behind Closed Doors

December 3, 2015 at 8:10 am | Posted in Ballet Review, Dance Review, Show Review | Leave a comment
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November and it was Whitireia Polytechnic’s Commercial Dance graduates end-of-year show.

This show goes from strength to strength and this year’s was fantastic. The class of 2015 are a hugely talented and precise group: watching the pieces, I could not see anyone lagging behind or standing out for the wrong reasons. Anne Gare and the other lecturers have done a fantastic job. The show had a very contemporary / lyrical feel to it, even the hi-hop piece – Let’s Get Ruckus – was softer than the hard crumping of other years.

The pieces that stay in my mind are:

  • Welcome to the Asylum
  • Ding Dong – Mormons
  • The Argument
  • The Office
  • Cinderella’s Ballroom
  • 13 Disturbia Lane
  • The Ritz
  • The Club

Welcome to the Asylum and 13 Disturbia Lane were contemporary works that dealt with the subject of mental illness. These were powerful, yet entertaining works, that required the dancers to dance and act.

Ding Dong – Mormons comes from the musical of the same name. It was funny and gave door-to-door missionaries a gentle send-up. It was funny and a little challenging.

The Argument was another contemporary work that revolved around two friends having an argument. It was raw and compelling.

The Office was fun. There is little opportunity to see tap dancing in Wellington, and this little number showed that tap is not just dance, but also something that can be central to a story: Sophia Ristossa’s shoes provided the sounds for the typewriter of her harassed personal assistant character.

Cinderella’s Ballroom showed that most if not all of the graduating class come from classic ballet backgrounds. This was a fun piece – formal ball and crass wicked sisters – with good mixture of pointe work, classical technique, and character work. Michael Sinnung was outstanding as the Prince.

The Ritz  was all energy and theatrical dance at its best.

The show felt more coherent this year, and the standard of student choreography seemed higher; and as I have already mentioned the execution was clean and tidy; with the energy and joy that is commercial dance.

The show ended with The Club – an extended burlesque piece. Clean technique, good characterisation, introduced by Cher’s “Welcome to Burlesque”; another great show.

The evening ended with Leigh Evans – the show director – and Anne Gare – the head of faculty – go  well deserved gifts from their dancers.

I hope the student, in crutches, who joined the curtain call, gets better and that her injury does not prevent her from graduating.

[Dancers listed in the foyer tagged to this article.]

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