THE HEART DANCES is an intimate look at behind the scenes of the Royal New Zealand Ballet’s production of The Piano –inspired by Jane Campion’s 1993 film . Originally a one act ballet, (performed by a German company in 2015 ) in 2018 the Royal New Zealand Ballet commissioned Czech choreographer Jirí and his twin brother production designer Otto Bubenicek and invited them to Wellington in order to extend the work to be full length with just one month to prepare .

Directed by Rebecca Tansley the film looks at the lead up to the work , all the intensive production and rehearsals, auditions and casting selection as well as wardrobe and sound etc all documented from audition to opening night.  A dominant visual theme at the beginning is hanging pointe shoes with dangling ribbons.

What we see is a clash of cultures and misunderstandings -it soon becomes clear to the New Zealanders that the Bubeniceks had more or less not really grasped the deeper layers of the film; that as well as being a love story, it was also a fable of colonisation. It became imperative to teach the twin brothers that the Māori in The Piano are not just there to add colour to the scenery and soundtrack, but are an integral part of the narrative and must be accurately portrayed.

An interesting point is raised by Maori advisor Moss Te Ururangi Patterson a Māori choreographer, who would serve as the cultural advisor throughout the weeks-long process. Why are there no Maori in the RNZB?!  Moss is also particularly concerned about the improper use of Ka Mate ( a particular haka ) and other specific choreography as well as the incorrect use of whakairo ( sculptural carving ) on the side of a prop waka (canoe) .For the latter, Patterson enlists the help of Māori arts practitioner James Webster, to help with the specifics of the Māori set design.

Jiri Bubenicek’s possible suggestion that the mostly European company could be “given make-up” to portray Māori would be darkly ironic, but it also shows how far some people still have to go to learn about real recognition and consideration of indigenous culture. (Think of similar situations here in Australia with Indigenous performers, although yes there has been the very rare exception with the Australian Ballet and yes there is the fabulous Bangarra.)
The film documents the tense discussions and collisions and the steep learning process on both sides. Sometimes it is as if we are voyeurs or a fly on the wall. We also see class, rehearsals ( some incredible dancing ) and hear comments by the various dancers on their roles.

Rehearsal footage is magnificently interwoven in parts with footage of performance – the production looks dramatic and brilliant, the choreography at times extremely demanding and you want to see a lot more.

In the documentary, RNZB creative director Patricia Barker says the outcome of Patterson’s work was not only a sensitive and beautiful piece of art, but one that, for both the cast and the crew, “pushed the frontiers of the relationship of the culture here in New Zealand and of dance.”

An intriguing, striking film , very thought provoking .

Running time just over 90 minutes no interval

THE HEART DANCES is screening as part of the Sydney Film Festival. There are two screenings still to run-  Friday 14th June at 11am and Sunday 16th June at the Hayden Orpheum., Cremorne at 11am.