War Dances – a brief history beyond The Green Table

Branco Gaica’s photo of the men in Stephen Baynes’ ballet, 1914, is one of my favourite images on The Australian Ballet Story website, and one with so many memories of dancers past and present.

In the front is Steven Heathcote and company followers will also be able to spot many other dancers from the 1990s and beyond.

I found this photo again when researching dance works made about war or in reaction to war.

Among them are:

1932: The Green Table, by Kurt Jooss
1933: Les Presages, by Leonide Massine
1963: Echoing of Trumpets, by Antony Tudor
1980: Soldier’s Mass, by Jiri Kylian
1980: Gloria, by Kenneth MacMillan
1997: 1914, by Stephen Baynes
2014: Lest We Forget, program of three works by Liam Scarlett, Russell Maliphant, Akram Khan

The impetus for this was the forthcoming tour to Australia next month of the New Zealand Dance Company’s war-inspired work, Rotunda.

After I wrote an article on Rotunda for The Sydney Morning Herald, I remembered that The Royal New Zealand Ballet is also touring a new mixed bill of works referring to World War I.

The tour begins in Wellington in May.

The works include Johan Kobborg’s Salute, Jiri Kylian’s Soldier’s Mass, and two new works by Neil Ieremia and Andrew Simmons.

Here’s the Rotunda article, published in April.

The shops were closed, the pubs were closed. Sunday meant a family outing to the beach in the Morris Minor, an ice cream, even in the depths of winter, mince on toast for tea and The Goon Show, direct from the BBC Home Service, on the wireless.

Vestiges of mother England in Australia were everywhere in the 1950s but very few remain, among them the rotunda, a remnant of the Victorian age, that can still be found throughout the parks of Australia and New Zealand.

The rotunda was an architectural focus, a place to picnic on a Sunday, a stage that doubled as a bandstand for the local brass band and later a memorial for the dead of the Boer War and World War I.

The rotundas at Five Dock, Armidale, St Marys, Port Phillip and Ballarat and many more in New Zealand, are engraved with the names of the fallen.

The links that bind the rotunda with war and with military brass bands were the inspiration for the New Zealand choreographer, Shona McCullough, to create a dance work appealing to a wide audience who can also relate to the familiarity of a brass band.

In Rotunda the dancers share the stage with a brass band with the music including a Maori song, new compositions and hymns, among then Colne, the Coventry Carol and Jerusalem.

McCullough “really wanted to make a piece that anyone could experience and they wouldn’t need to know about dance”.

First staged in 2013 by the New Zealand Dance Company, co-founded by McCullough, it travelled last year to Holland (where no one had ever heard of the word ‘rotunda’) and will tour to four Australian cities next month.

The work is based on two elements of McCullough’s life. The first was the long lasting effect on her family of the death of her great uncle at the Somme. Her grandfather was fighting alongside him.

“He would never talk about the day, he felt enormous guilt that he hadn’t been able to protect him. He couldn’t bring his body home. He had to leave body there. This piece for me is giving a voice to those men who fell and those men who were so traumatised by what they witnessed but could never speak about it”.

The title of the work was the result of a childhood fascination.

“We used to travel from Wellington to Wanganui often to see my grandmother. We passed through several small towns and they all had these empty ghost-like rotundas. I used to wonder what happened there. A hundred years ago and more they were the meeting space for the white European settlers”.

With the elements of the rotunda, the popularity of the brass band, and the role they played in the military, “it all started to fall into place”.

For McCulloch, the involvement of a band on stage is vitally important. The brass band, she said, “played a very important role in society, to create order, to greet or farewell, to herald, commemorate, to bury and most importantly to grieve”.

Rotunda is at the Riverside Theatre, Parramatta, from 13-16 May. Other venues in May include the Adelaide Festival Centre, the Arts Centre, Melbourne and the Geelong Performing Arts Centre.

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Artists of the Australian Ballet in an impromptu photograph taken in 1998 for Stephen Baynes’ 1914, photo © Branco Gaica

Sarasota Ballet in Johan Kobborg’s Salute, photo © Frank Atura

New Zealand Dance Company, Rotunda, photo © John McDermott

Soldier’s Mass, Polish National Ballet, photo © Ewa Krasucka