The Heart Dances: Lifting the lid on the culture clash behind ‘The Piano’ ballet

by Russell Baillie / 20 April, 2019
RelatedArticlesModule - The Heart Dannces

Documentary offers an intriguing look at the clash of artistic sensibilities behind adapting The Piano into a ballet.

The Royal New Zealand Ballet likes playing to the camera, as it has demonstrated on the docu-reality series The Secret Lives of Dancers and Toa Fraser’s 2013 feature-length Giselle. Now there’s the intriguing and frequently beautiful documentary The Heart Dances, subtitled The journey of The Piano: the ballet, which follows the RNZB’s 2018 efforts to reinterpret Jane Campion’s classic Gothic melodrama. You might think, “hey, that could work”. After all, the film’s leading female character was mute but expressive, and Michael Nyman’s original music seemed pirouette-friendly.

But the doco, as well as being a making-of about the ballet’s creation, captures an impressive cultural collision. One where modern practitioners of the antique European art form find the locals have a problem with their “vision”.

Māori largely acted as piano movers and a Greek chorus in the film. When it comes to the ballet, initially Czech choreographer Jiří Bubeníček doesn’t see a problem with non-Māori depicting them. That’s what he did at his first attempt at adapting The Piano for the dance stage in Germany, complete with appropriated haka and moko.

Doing it here, though, as cultural adviser and contemporary choreographer Moss Patterson points out, isn’t acceptable. Much of the doco’s dramatic spark is generated by the tension between Bubeníček and Patterson. Though the film’s fly-on-the-wall approach means the question isn’t asked of the RNZB itself: why aren’t Māori depicting Māori in the production? Even if none exist in the company, maybe some outside contemporary Māori dancers might have, well, leapt at the chance.

Ultimately, the production fudges a solution to the problem, and the show goes on. Bubeníček (who is accompanied by his designer brother, Otto), whom we first meet in Prague, strikes a charismatic figure and doesn’t sound unreasonable when, faced by Patterson’s objections, he points out that ballet is an abstract art form.

Watching a graceful Bubeníček patiently teach his ballet, step by step, to the RNZB company is something to see and there are other entrancing moments, especially some pas de deux rehearsal sequences, which are edited to songs by Bic Runga and Aldous Harding. What The Heart Dances doesn’t really answer is whether turning The Piano into a ballet was a good idea. Documenting how it was done, though, seems to have been a smart move.

IN CINEMAS NOW

★★★1/2

Video: Rialto Distribution

This article was first published in the April 20, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

Latest

Why Marlborough, the jewel of NZ's wine industry, is your next destination
My low-rent version of Sisyphus in hell
109522 2019-08-15 00:00:00Z Humour

My low-rent version of Sisyphus in hell

by Michelle Langstone

Michelle Langstone on being injured.

Read more
Requests denied, delayed and redacted
109441 2019-08-14 00:00:00Z Politics

Requests denied, delayed and redacted

by Mike White

Frustrations of the fourth estate.

Read more
Stats NZ could need years to regain public trust
109503 2019-08-14 00:00:00Z Politics

Stats NZ could need years to regain public trust

by Craig McCulloch

The census botch-up has prompted fears the debacle will do long-lasting damage to the public's trust in statistics.

Read more
Gentleman Jack: Suranne Jones on the remarkable Anne Lister
109439 2019-08-14 00:00:00Z Television

Gentleman Jack: Suranne Jones on the remarkable An…

by The Listener

A historical drama about a 19th-century landowner who secretly diarised her relationships with women comes to Neon.

Read more
Hannibal Lecter's creator returns with Cari Mora
108448 2019-08-14 00:00:00Z Books

Hannibal Lecter's creator returns with Cari Mora

by Craig Sisterson

In his first post-Hannibal Lecter book, Thomas Harris heads for Elmore Leonard territory.

Read more
Kiwis in the kitchen: A bite-sized history of NZ cuisine
109468 2019-08-14 00:00:00Z Food

Kiwis in the kitchen: A bite-sized history of NZ c…

by Lauraine Jacobs

Lauraine Jacobs traces the evolution of eating in NZ, from the spartan diet of the war years to the vibrant multi-ethnic melting pot of cuisines...

Read more
The chef bringing the world's cuisine to Kāeo
109526 2019-08-14 00:00:00Z Food

The chef bringing the world's cuisine to Kāeo

by Jenny Ling

Anna Valentine holds cooking workshops in the kitchen of her century-old kauri villa in Kāeo.

Read more