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The Heart Dances

"compelling, engaging and often spectacular"

★★★★★ - STUFF

- Jane Campion's 1993 film The Piano is a cultural touchstone in New Zealand and around the world. 

The film briefly made us known as producers of something other than sportspeople and bits of sheep, picking up awards and adulation wherever it played. Until The Return of the King came along in 2003, The Piano was the New Zealand film industry's greatest-ever moment in the sun.

In 2015, Czech duo Jirí and Otto Bubenícek adapted the film into a one-act ballet, which was performed by a German company. Intrigued, and probably sensing a potential hit with local audiences, The Royal New Zealand Ballet invited the twin brothers to Wellington to expand the work and to stage it with the RNZB company. The show was – eventually – a triumph. But the journey there was nettlesome and eventful.  The Heart Dances is the story of that journey.

It very quickly became obvious to the New Zealanders that the ballet's creators had more or less missed the deeper rhythms of the film; that as well as being a love story, it was also a fable of colonisation. Something that had been mostly obvious to local audiences had been lost in the film's journey to northern Europe. It became imperative to teach the duo that the Māori in The Piano are not just there to make the scenery and soundtrack more interesting, but are an integral part of the narrative and must be accurately portrayed.

The choreographers' suggestion that the mostly European troupe could be "given make-up" to portray Māori would be almost funny, if it weren't so bleakly instructive on how far some artists still have to travel towards real recognition of indigenous culture.

Director Rebecca Tansley (Crossing Rachmaninoff) has done a quite brilliant job here, letting the conflict play out, but still corralling the material into a spry, engaging and entertaining film. The intercutting of scenes from rehearsal with actual performance by editor Thomas Gleeson is deftly done.

Cinematographer Simon Raby (full disclosure, he's a friend of mine) shoots the film with a real eye for movement and unexpected new directions. Raby's camera floats through studios and across stages, restless and responsive at all times. It's a style that suits the material perfectly, but technically it must have been an absolute sod to get right, with documentary offering no second chances. Congratulations guys.

The Heart Dances is not the film I was expecting to see. But it is a compelling, engaging and often spectacular look at a real-life drama. Very recommended.

The Heart Dances (E, 99 mins) Directed by Rebecca Tansley

- Graeme Tuckett, STUFF

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