NZ Arts Festival 2008, St James Theatre
March 12-15 | Reviewed by Shruti Navathe

TERO SAARINEN’s Borrowed Light opened at the St James Theatre on March 12 as part of this year’s International Arts Festival. The performance began with a sole dancer moving in silence and light as a community of singers, dancers and audience looked on from darkness. This set the mood of stark and eerie contrasts – a mood that underpinned the movements of the dancers, which were either airy and light or heavy and uncomfortable.

The show’s choreography was effective at creating a sense of community and highlighting the drama inherent in daily life. The concept of borrowed light has its origins in Shaker architecture; the idea being that light from one source can be diffused and shared between various spaces and, by extension, people. Saarinen also borrowed from Butoh (a Japanese dance form in which he is trained) to give a sense of the starkness, the solidity and the minimalism that is central to the Shakers. Butoh, with its heavy deliberateness and suppressed energy, was an excellent medium to convey this sense of the mundane, with its many undercurrents. The rapport between the dancers was evident and they worked effectively to convey a sense of a community in cooperation, with all its tensions and contradictions.

The only music came from the singers of the Boston Camerata, who wove between the dancers on the stage as the songs wove into the movement of the dance. For me it was these songs that really stood out as the moving force behind the performance. The total reliance on unaccompanied voice emphasised a stark contrast between silence and sound and expressed the intensities of conflict and desire which established the emotional ground for the dance. The many years of work that the company has put in under the direction of Joel Cohen to research and understand Shaker music really paid off. As well as demonstrating extraordinary range and power, each of the singers performed the songs with immense conviction and integrity.

The lighting, costume and set design echoed the elements of light and dark, air and ground, which found their expression in the performance. Lighting and set design by Mikki Kuntto was stark and effective, creating clearly defined spaces for the movement. And Erika Turunen’s costumes captured a sense of repressed airiness with see-through light materials used in conjunction with heavy boots and felted fabric. The final result was impressive, rich and multi-layered. Borrowed Light operates on an interesting concept, which is effectively conveyed and well worth seeing.