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.



Video: Rialto Distribution

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


When did a damn fine cup of coffee get so complicated?
106251 2019-05-24 00:00:00Z Food

When did a damn fine cup of coffee get so complica…

by Jean Teng

Long-time latte sipper Jean Teng embarks on a journey through the world of soft brews.

Read more
Win a double pass to a special preview of Sometimes Always Never
106301 2019-05-24 00:00:00Z Win

Win a double pass to a special preview of Sometime…

by The Listener

Billy Nighy plays Alan, a stylish tailor with moves as sharp as his suits, who has spent years searching tirelessly for his missing son.

Read more
What we must learn from the Israel Folau controversy
106275 2019-05-23 09:31:01Z Social issues

What we must learn from the Israel Folau controver…

by The Listener

Israel Folau has done us the unintended favour of showing how hard and counterproductive it would be to try to outlaw all comments that ...

Read more
Speaker criticised for chaotic way rape allegations emerged
106266 2019-05-23 08:58:23Z Currently

Speaker criticised for chaotic way rape allegation…

by RNZ

Speaker of the House Trevor Mallard has accepted some responsibility for the way in which rape allegations played out at Parliament yesterday.

Read more
Christchurch mosque attack: Terrorism charge could be risky – but it's important
106286 2019-05-23 00:00:00Z Crime

Christchurch mosque attack: Terrorism charge could…

by Keiran Hardy

Why was the terrorism charge added at this later stage? And why is it significant?

Read more
Why George Soros is a target of the far right
106102 2019-05-23 00:00:00Z World

Why George Soros is a target of the far right

by Stuart McMillan

Philanthropist George Soros, long loathed by the radical right, is spending billions to support liberal democracy and fight hate crimes.

Read more
Ian McEwan confronts the biggest mysteries of life in Machines Like Me
105820 2019-05-23 00:00:00Z Books

Ian McEwan confronts the biggest mysteries of life…

by Charlotte Grimshaw

Ian McEwan’s tale of human-robot love links emotional and artificial intelligence in intriguing ways, writes Charlotte Grimshaw.

Read more
Is chemical residue on fruit and vegetables worth worrying about?
105778 2019-05-23 00:00:00Z Nutrition

Is chemical residue on fruit and vegetables worth…

by Jennifer Bowden

The chemical residues on fruit and vegetables are not dangerous, but rinsing is still advisable.

Read more