Fjord Review #2 Out Now!
The Piano
Abigail Boyle and Hazel Couper in the Royal New Zealand Ballet's “The Piano.” Photograph by Stephen A'Court

Edge of a Wild Sea

The Heart Dances documents the making of a ballet

Broadcast
The Heart Dances—The Journey of The Piano: the ballet
Words
Madelyn Coupe

The next episode from Royal New Zealand Ballet’s “Live in Your Living Room” series diverges from their previous content. Up until now, the company has broadcast filmed productions such as “Romeo and Juliet,” or dress rehearsal recordings, “Cinderella” from their archives. This time, however, they decided to share something completely different. Instead of presenting a finished product—a performance with everything perfectly rehearsed and every detail finalised—RNZB chose to broadcast a documentary that focuses upon the rehearsal process. This episode shows how complicated and turbulent the creative process can be.

Episode Seven: The Heart Dances—The Journey of The Piano: the ballet

The Heart Dances is a documentary about the balletic adaptation of The Piano. Directed by Rebecca Tansley, it follows choreographer Jiří Bubeníček and designer Otto Bubeníček—twin brothers from the Czech Republic—as they re-imagine Jane Campion’s film of the same name for the stage. The documentary traces their steps from Prague to New Zealand, where they were invited by RNZB to expand upon their adaptation made for Ballet Dortmund in 2015. From the first rehearsal with Bubeníček to the final performance, The Heart Dances shows the creative process candidly.

Set in 19th century New Zealand, “The Piano” tells the story of a young woman called Ada. After being sold into marriage by her father to Alisdair Stewart (a frontiersman), she arrives by boat on the shores of New Zealand with her two most prised possessions: her daughter, Flora, and her piano. The symbol of the piano is essential to Ada’s narrative. Since childhood, Ada has been psychologically mute. To communicate, then, with her daughter and the rest of the world, Ada plays the piano. She expresses her thoughts and emotions through the instrument—it is just as much a part of her as any other organ in her body. Her marriage with Alisdair is turbulent at best. When he finds out she is having an affair with his friend George Baines, he mutilates her by chopping off a finger—depriving her of the ability to play the piano. The ballet ends with Ada, Flora, and Baines leaving the shores of New Zealand after tossing the piano (and any connection they have with Alisdair) overboard.

Beneath the narrative, however, lies something far more complex—a topic that even this review is conscious about discussing. “The Piano” heavily features Māori characters, themes and elements. This is something Bubeníček wanted to keep in his adaptation, so RNZB appointed Moss Te Ururangi Patterson as the Māori Advisor for the production. The relationship between Bubeníček and Patterson is arguably the most crucial part of the documentary as it raises important questions around ballet’s history of cultural appropriation.

Patterson has issues with Bubeníček’s adaptation. He states that no matter what has happened in the past, “you cannot have non-Māori dancers dancing as Māori”—it is not culturally appropriate. If the RNZB dancers already with the company were Māori, it would be a different story, but neither the company nor Bubeníček were going to employ external Māori dancers to fill these roles. Bubeníček wants to stay true to the film’s narrative. Māori people and their culture feature heavily; therefore, these characters need to be in the ballet and will be performed by non-Māori dancers. Patterson, on the other hand, becomes increasingly frustrated, believing RNZB are not taking his views seriously. In the end, a decision is made for the dancers to embody the concepts of Māori culture but are explicitly not Māori. Interestingly, this decision is made by Patterson and Patricia Barker alone (RNZB Artistic Director), then told to Bubeníček.

The documentary also reveals that Bubeníček began, designed (with his brother Otto), and performed the original shorter version for Ballet Dortmund without a Māori advisor present; it was only when he arrived in New Zealand that these conversations began. It seems that the majority of the issues Bubeníček encounters during the creative process could have been avoided if a cultural advisor was appointed from the ballet’s inception. Fortunately for the production, Bubeníček was open to listening and able to understand Patterson’s perspective. What the cameras capture are not confrontational arguments between the two, but honest and important conversations.

As a viewer, it is easy to see where the faults in the process lie, especially from a dramaturgical background. (Somebody should have intervened here. If they staged the conversation this way, it could have been more productive.) But what needs to be commended—of the documentary, the creatives involved, and the company—is that the final product we see does not shy away from the hard topics. The Heart Dances highlights the flaws in the process—a process that is not commonly, or, more importantly, transparently done. Art should be free, yes, but it should also be culturally and morally responsible.

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