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The New Jerusalem

The Sunday Star Times – March 28, 1999

Dancer Michael Parmenter and his team are on a pilgrimage, touring a work inspired by James K Baxter. Lindsay Rabbitt hits the road to Jerusalem.

It could be a screamer for a Hollywood epic. “From the Bible to Blake to Baxter! From the Middle East to Jerusalem – on the Whanganui River!” 

But it’s not a movie. It’s a word trail for “Jerusalem”, a dance opera created by celebrated dancer/choreographer Michael Parmenter, opening in Dunedin on April 10, then touring the country for the rest of the month. 

Parmenter, based in Paraparaumu on the Kapiti Coast, took some of his cast and crew up the Whanganui River to Jerusalem to witness the place where poet and folk hero James K Baxter wrote and enacted his version of the Jerusalem story. 

“When I conceived the piece,” Parmenter says, “I saw it as trilogy, together with my works ‘Go’ (1988) and ‘The Race’ (1992). ‘Go’ is the evolution from cell to animal forms until human community. How things began. ‘The Race’ is the transition from an idealistic utopian society, almost a sci fi opera, into a totalitarian, manipulative society. ‘Jerusalem’ is our image of the city of the future. How we dream. How we image where the future is going to be.” 

Before we look at the future, let’s go back to the past. Parmenter grew up in Central Otago and Invercargill, where he first read Baxter, who was then the Burns Fellow at Otago University. Brought up in the Plymouth Brethren faith, Parmenter attended Bible College and Otago University and the NZ School of Ballet (choreographing 30 works for them while he was still a student). He travelled to New York to join the dance company of Erick Hawkins, “the father of modern dance”. 

Add to this works he has created for his Commotion Company and, in 1995, a solo dance narrative about his life, “A Long Undressing”, which was to be his “swan song”. In 1989 Parmenter, who is 44, tested positive for HIV and was diagnosed as having cancer. He was given three months to live. In 1999 he is still defying the virus. 
Last year he was made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for his services to the performing arts and received over $200,000 from Creative New Zealand to stage “Jerusalem”. 

“When I was playing with ideas of what to call this piece,” Parmenter says, “the second hot contender was “Resurrection” and that implies Jerusalem, but it also talks about a rebirth in my own physicality. 

“One of the images I’m dealing with when I’m putting these texts together is that the New Jerusalem is also a new body. It’s in Blake a lot. He talks about developing new senses and in some ways I’ve taken the biblical image of the body of Christ as the church of the new city. The body is the city and the resurrection of the body, but it’s also the resurrection of a new city.” 

Baxter’s vision of the body caused Parmenter some disquiet. “I have a few problems with his whole conception of love and the body. In very rare moments you get a vision there is a grace through the body . . . but more often than not the body is a stinking bag of flesh that we have to carry around. My vision of spirituality and the body is a little more optimistic than that. What I’m wanting to do is take the really great things I like about Baxter such as: ‘A man’s body is a meeting house/Ribs, arms, for the tribe to gather under/And the heart must be their spring of water’.” 

Faith is vital to Parmenter. “Christianity has gone through many changes in my life. When I left fundamentalism behind I didn’t forget about Christianity all together. Somehow it’s got into my bones and bloodstream. While most fundamentalist Christians would disavow any knowledge of me, the Christian framework is still like the glasses I see through.” 

“Jerusalem”, set in a disused church, consists of three acts: “Babylon”, “Jerusalem” and “New Jerusalem”. They were fleshed out from a Parmenter sketch with the help of composer David Downes, set designer Andrew Thomas, lighting designer Helen Todd and costume designer Suzanne Sturrock; the visual aspect informed by Colin McCahon’s paintings. 

The work features 13 dancers – including Parmenter who plays King David. “the spirit of the piece”, dancing the Ark of the Covenant into the Holy City, and six singers – all of Polynesian descent: Mere Boynton, Daphne Collins, Zane Te Wiremu Jarvis, Mahinarangi Tocker, Lisa Tomlins and Leon Wharekura. 

The work is about community and reconciliation, an optimistic work for the new millennium. 

* * * 

Driving to Jerusalem to meet Parmenter and his team, I take State Highway 4 on the way to Raetihi, turn off just past Upokongaro, then up the winding Whanganui River road: Parakino, Atene (Athens), Koriniti (Corinth), Matahiwi (named after Governor Grey), Ranana (London). Along the river the poplar trees are starting to turn gold and fall. 

I have a copy of “Autumn Testament”, Baxter’s last book, on the passenger seat. Sheep, he said, are freer than their owners. 

Jerusalem: this is where Mother Aubert founded the Sisters of Compassion and a Maori mission in 1892, placed under the protection of Our Lady of Compassion. Mother Aubert died in 1926, the year Baxter was born. 

Baxter came to Jerusalem in 1969 and a group of young people – and the media – followed him. It is the home of the Ngati Hau people who adopted Hemi Baxter into their tribe. He died in Auckland in 1972 and was brought home to be buried among them. 

Today, Sisters Anna Maria, Laboure and Hulita maintain a presence to acknowledge their order’s roots. They live in a newish Lockwood, close to the church, but we are to stay the night in the old two-storied convent. 

The Catholic complex is elevated above a scattering of dwellings. The newly-painted statue of Our Lady of Compassion stands a time-lapsed vigil. Sister Hulita tells me that the old people who frequented the church are dead and only the young ones are left, some of them gang members, none of whom go to church. Mass is now held once every two months. 

While the dancers are preparing the evening meal Parmenter says they are having trouble with “Babylon” and he hopes a break from Wellington might clarify the opening act. Some of the dancers read newspaper clippings on the wall about Hemi and the young tribe who followed him up the river. They will visit his cottage and his grave the next day. 

Morning, and Sister Sue Cosgrove, of the Sisters of Compassion, is telling a story about how she first met Baxter. “He set me up for life,” she says. “The experience of meeting him was for me life-changing. I wasn’t going to stay with the sisters, because we proclaim poverty, but don’t live poverty. He changed my thinking by saying: ‘It’s not the wealth you have, but rather how you spend it and how you give of your time’.” 

Parmenter cradles Baxter’s collected poems as he listens to Sister Sue: “He Baxter sometimes made the Jerusalem Sisters feel uneasy. He afflicted the comfortable and comforted the afflicted.” She quotes Baxter: “New Zealand’s secular trinity is the dollar note, school cert and respectability”. 

Sister Sue then goes to ask Sandra Bell – whose mother Fannie was Baxter’s landlady – if it is okay for the group to visit Hemi’s grave. The message comes back that yes, the theatrical people from Wellington are welcome. 

Parmenter leads his tribe up the track like some latter day missionary. He and dancer Taane Mete read Baxter poems at the graveside. Then they return to the convent grounds, sing in the church, present the sisters with an olive tree, take a swim in the river – then leave Jerusalem to return to Wellington and work on “Jerusalem”.

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