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

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”.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

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.