CHILDREN OF THE MIST
In February of this year, the newly constituted Wellington City Ballet presented in the Opera House Wellington, a full scale ballet in two acts, based on Maori legend. A review of this important event follows.
Children of the mist, a ballet in two acts by Leigh Brewer of Wellington, is based on one of the oldest legends in Maori folklore, the patu-paiarehe. The story of the ballet is briefly as follows: Ihenga, with his brother Tani, sets out to climb the enchanted mountain of Ngongotaha. Tani heeds the warning of the gods not to venture on the mountain and returns to lead their tribe in Ihenga's absence. But Ihenga climbs the mountain and falls in love with Maia, a mist fairy, and receives the gift of eternal youth as long as he stays with the fairy folk. For a time, he is contented and joins happily in the life of the fairy folk, forgetful of his tribe and all earthly interests. But his tribe still calls him and the first act ends on a note which expresses Ihenga's divided nature. In Act II, Ihenga returns to his people, but before he can reach the pa gates, the Green Lizard, harbinger of death, appears to warn Ihenga of approaching disaster. Ihenga does not heed the warning and calls to his people who challenge him as a stranger until, astonished, they recognise him and call him back to be their chief. As he grasps the sacred mere, his symbol of chieftainship, he ages rapidly. The days he has spent on the fairy mountain have been years. Maia, his fairy love, returns to find Ihenga, but their reunion is thwarted by the Green Lizard calling Ihenga to the underworld. Maia realises that Ihenga, a mortal, must die, and mist cloaks the stage, signifying the tears of the mist, Maia mourning Ihenga.
This bare outline of the story, taken from the programme, does no justice to the power of this ancient myth, symbolising as it does, that man is a divided creature, at once flesh and spirit, and that he will always try to burst the bonds that hold him to the earth. Nor does it do justice to the skill and enterprise of the Wellington City Ballet in mounting this ambitious work, surely the boldest ever to be staged by a New Zealand ballet group. As the curtain rose on a drop curtain, vivid with the shapes and colours of the New Zealand bush, the audience broke into spontaneous applause; then the curtain, lights behind it, became transparent; through it could be seen two Maori warriors, Ihenga and Tani, one on a promontory of rock, the other crouching below him, and one could hear the hiss of a steam vent, and see escaping clouds of steam. (I learned later that this was the mist of the ballet's title, but it looked and sounded like a small geyser, and its dramatic effect was considerable.)
The two quite admirable sets were the work of a young Wellington designer, Harry Baker, who showed great technical and imaginative resource throughout the evening. His first act showed us quite tangibly a New Zealand bush scene; the second, on the Marae, was in excellent contrast with its vivid reds and ochres, and he suggested a large fortified pa by a few well-designed pieces of scenery. His costumes were attractive and authentically Maori in style, and created striking colour patterns as the dancers moved through their figures.
A full score was specially composed for the ballet by Christopher Small, a young New Zealand composer who teaches at Waihi College. His music was everywhere appropriate to his subject and often, notably in the recurring theme which calls Ihenga home, strikingly beautiful, recalling and evoking the sharp northern landscapes that one feels in the music of Grieg and Sibelius. When the ballet called for the rhythmic strength and power of the challenge on the marae, Mr Small supplied this with a fine intensity. He was for
Kevin Mansfield as Ihenga and Pauline Noorts as the Green Lizard in “Children of the Mist”. (Mr Mansfield, though not a member of the Maori race, was at one time, secretary of the Ngati-Poneke Social Club, and has since led Maori concert parties.) (PHOTO C. W. PASCOE)
But the full credit for a remarkable achievement must go to Miss Leigh Brewer as choreographer and ballet mistress to the whole ballet, and indeed, to the entire evening. She shows already a professional choreographer's skill in making her patterns of movement meaningful in the context of her theme; there was never the feeling that a dance solo or duet was merely a “turn”, holding up the action until it was over. All flowed, was smooth and sinuous, always expressing and propelling the story. The scene of the challenge on the marae was in my view the highlight of the ballet, because here the Maori theme and tradition seemed perfectly wedded to the technique of the dancers. Of some of the other choreography, the corps de ballet who represented the children of the mist, I remain still somewhat doubtful. Miss Brewer no doubt felt that in dealing with fairy folk she was free to give them the steps, style and attitudes she chose: who was to say that the patu-paiarehe did not dance on the ends of their toes? Nevertheless, for this reviewer, there remained a sense of incongruity The specifically European technique of dancing on the toes did not seem to spring out of the action as, say, the dancing on the marae so splendidly did. This may be merely the prejudice which comes from something unusual or unexpected. These reservations are minor, however. Miss Brewer and her colleagues produced together a ballet of considerable distinction of theme and imaginative power, produced with a professional finish, and it may be only the start of a truly national and indigenous ballet.