Dance review: Rotunda

by Francesca Horsley / 05 September, 2013
Rotunda tells the Anzac story through turbulent choreography and music of the era.
Sculptured rotundas, artefacts from the Victorian era, often sit unacknowledged in parks and town centres around New Zealand. They once showcased brass bands that served institutional militarism, the noble cause of monarch and country – and war.

New Zealand Dance Company artistic director Shona McCullagh’s new Rotunda celebrates these edifices, inhabiting their hidden past in a work drawn from her great-uncle’s diaries of World War I.

The work also pays homage to the brass band music of the era, expertly performed on stage by North Shore Brass, Auckland’s premier band. Songwriter Don McGlashan, a devotee of the genre, is guest conductor and contributes a number of arrangements. With bravado and finesse, the band inspire the soldiers to enlist, march them to war, and lament their deaths or celebrate their victorious homecoming.

Rotunda: the choreography is vigorous, with moments of humour and tender intimacy. Photo/John McDermott


The occasion of Rotunda’s premiere is timely, as events in the Middle East raise the spectre of another international war – its origins again deriving from 19th-century imperial “adventures”. Yet Rotunda is a traditional retelling of the Anzac story, with imagery and sentiment drawn from iconography of the era, rather than any interrogation of ideology.

In a series of well-crafted vignettes, the story begins in a jingoist mood and inexorably ends in tragedy. Pre-war arcadian playfulness, light-hearted war games, the nightmare of conflict and the struggle to re-engage are skilfully portrayed through mime and dance interludes.

The work follows the fate of four young men who enlist and four women who respond to their absence and the enfolding horror in a range of roles – anxious mothers and wives, an angel of death; all their worlds are distorted by pain or incomprehension.

The turbulent, vigorous choreography – a co-creation by McCullagh and the dancers – has moments of humour and tender intimacy. Highlights include the dexterous use of the bandmaster’s ceremonial baton, which gradually takes on a darker meaning; a poignant post-battle sequence between Justin Haiu and Tupua Tigafua; and a desperate duet between Hannah Tasker-Poland and Gareth Okan as a young wife tries to understand her damaged veteran.

Timed to coincide with next year’s commemoration of the centenary of the outbreak of World War I, Rotunda is vivid dance theatre that marks this significant event in New Zealand’s history – one that still captures our collective imagination. Rousing brass band music is also dear to the nation’s heart and this combination is a sure winner for the New Zealand Dance Company.

Rotunda, New Zealand Dance Company, Q Theatre, Auckland, August 30-September 1.

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