A new year dawns at RNZB

Biographies of the new intake at Royal New Zealand Ballet are now on the website after last year’s bruising and very public exodus of a large number of dancers.

There are currently 32 dancers pictured on the site, 22 of whom were still standing at the end of 2017. Now the dust has settled it appears that 16 dancers left during the last three months of 2017 (there was quite a lot of churn during the past two years, somewhat muddying the numbers and increasing the perception of instability).

The reasons for departure are various, as they usually are, but the company’s handling of this significant turnover was poor and contributed to the drubbing it received in the NZ media. It is not true, as a media report wildly claimed on January 28, that “most” of the company’s dancers left or did not have their contracts renewed but the public perception was of a company in crisis. Even the new Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, was drawn into the furore, although in fairness one has to add that she is also arts minister.

Patricia Barker, Artistic Director, The Royal New Zealand Ballet

Patricia Barker in the studio at Royal New Zealand Ballet. Photo: Stephen A’Court

RNZB usually employs about 36 dancers but new artistic director Patricia Barker is keeping a few contracts up her sleeve. Early in January she told American publication Dance Magazine she would continue to hold auditions through the year. This is to take account of the difference in contract periods between the northern and southern hemispheres.

One of the 10 new names at RNZB, Nadia Yanowsky, is an experienced European soloist who is listed as a guest artist for The Piano: the ballet and Dancing with Mozart seasons. The other nine comprise three New Zealanders, three Australians, two from the US and one from China. One of the Americans, Caroline Wiley, was formerly with Barker’s company Grand Rapids Ballet in Michigan. Barker remains artistic director of Grand Rapids until mid-year, when San Francisco Ballet soloist James Sofranko takes over. Wiley’s signing appears to be recent – she was not named in a January 12 announcement by the company about its new team.

About half the dancers are New Zealanders and Australians, with some of the latter having trained at the New Zealand School of Dance; the others come from Europe, Asia, South America and the US. The mix of nationalities is not at all unusual when one looks at RNZB’s history, although in mid-December, during discussions about the company’s make-up, the RNZB Board asserted – clearly in panic mode – that 42% of its dancers were either from NZ or were NZ-trained, and that the goal for 2018 was for that percentage to be higher.

The company as it exists today can boast about one-third of its dancers having that NZ connection, and that seems in line with other years. I suppose it’s possible Barker could hire another four New Zealanders during the year to boost the percentage to about 45% although that doesn’t seem the most obvious way to create the right mix of dancers for a company.

More interesting is the level of experience of the incoming group. The biographies of eight of the 10 new dancers show only a few years of professional performance, recent membership of Young Artist or pre-professional programs or recent graduation from training institutions. One newcomer, Olivia Moore, is only 16.

In other newcomer news, The Australian Ballet is steadily heading towards its goal of having 85 dancers within the next few years. It is taking seven young graduates into the corps this year while four dancers have left. There are now 77 company members. In addition, American Ballet Theatre principal artist David Hallberg is resident guest artist.

Queensland Ballet has significantly boosted its stocks, including three dancers newly arrived from RNZB. This year it has 37 main company members, up from 33 last year, and 12 Young Artists. It will also have two dancers in the new rank of Apprentice. When Li Cunxin became artistic director in 2012 there were 25 main company members.

Footnote: Patricia Barker took a lot of the flak for RNZB’s tumultuous situation. Some of it was unfair, although as I have written before, it would have been humane to let all dancers stay for one full year under her leadership and then make decisions about contract renewal. As it was, Barker let four dancers go and that fuelled much of the outrage, along with her continued association with Grand Rapids Ballet in Michigan.

Never mind that the Board that hired Barker agreed to let her continue as artistic director of Grand Rapids for the rest of that company’s season, which ends in May. That was known before she set foot in Wellington. Obviously the Board didn’t do a very good job of selling the information, but then it needed Barker to come quickly because her predecessor, Francesco Ventriglia, was about to leave.

Ventriglia’s tenure was not without its upheavals and he announced in 2016, only two years after arriving, that he wouldn’t be staying. He remained to choreograph his new Romeo and Juliet last year, thus giving the Board time to conduct a search for his successor. They just didn’t find someone free of all current commitments.

Ventriglia had been preceded by Ethan Stiefel, who declined to renew his contract after his initial three-year term, which he took up in late 2011. And remember, the company had waited close to a year for Stiefel to take up the job after his appointment was announced, necessitating the hiring of an interim director to fill the gap after Stiefel’s predecessor, Gary Harris, left at the end of 2010. Still with me? Former RNZB artistic director Matz Skoog stepped into the breach for eight months. This means there are dancers at RNZB who have had five artistic directors stand in front of them since 2010.

Doubtless with all these comings and goings in mind, the Board asked Barker to sign on for five years rather than the usual three. Time will tell how that works out but you have to admire Barker’s sang froid. She said this to Dance Magazine: “All of the attention towards that gives me a sense the community really cares about the organisation and I hope that we continue to get this much media coverage as we move into the next season and the wonderful ballets are done.”

Meanwhile, the NZ PM has had a chat to the company, reportedly saying the organisation is aware of her concerns. In addition RNZB has commissioned a report into its processes and how it manages complaints, which may be completed by next month. And the Board is seeking someone with experience in classical dance as well as governance to become a Trustee. Yes, detailed art form knowledge seems to have been lacking to date. Makes you think, doesn’t it?

RNZB’s first work for 2018, The Piano: the ballet, opens on February 23.

to a simple, rock’n’roll … song

Michael Clark Company, Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, January 30.

In the first part of Michael Clark’s gorgeous triptych of dances there’s an image of quiet, deep reverence enacted by two men, their hands spread and their heads bowed. It could stand for the whole work really, which pays homage to choreographers, musicians and artists who have inspired Clark.

Every molecule of to a simple, rock’n’roll … song is saturated with the spirit of contemporary dance’s great modernists, particularly Merce Cunnngham, while remaining absolutely rooted in the formal principles of classical dance. The pointe shoe even makes a brief appearance.

MichaelClarkCompany_SOH_creditPrudenceUpton_Sophie Cottrill, Harry Alexander, Rowan Parker, Oxana Panchenko, Kieran Page, Benjamin Warbis, Daniel Corthorn

Michael Clark Company. Photo: Prudence Upton

As the title suggests, music is the wellspring of to a simple, rock’n’roll … song and Clark’s taste is eclectic and impeccable. The title comes from Patti Smith’s three-part song Land, which throws rocket fuel on the witty, sexy, fast-moving middle section. It’s almost over before it starts – the whole evening gives less than an hour of dance – but it’s a blast.

Land is bathed in a version of American artist Charles Atlas’s video installation Painting by Numbers, which adds a trippy dimension to proceedings while also being supremely elegant. Atlas also designed the sumptuous lighting for the other sections, giving stage and dancers a ravishing glow.

Four David Bowie songs, starting with the title song from his final album, Blackstar, provide the soundtrack to the final enigmatic section. The eight dancers wear iridescent bodysuits and swirl like atoms or move robotically. The feel is otherworldly until the cheeky, finger-snapping ending.

Smith and Bowie are both indisputably rock’n’roll. What about Erik Satie (1866-1925)? You bet. He was a trailblazer whose early piano pieces, essentially big bunches of chords, preceded John Cage’s provocations by more than half a century and here accompany Clark’s fiendishly difficult choreography for the first section.

MichaelClarkCompany_SOH_creditPrudenceUpton_Daniel Corthorn

Daniel Corthorn in Land, the middle section of to a simple, rock’n’roll … song, danced against Charles Atlas’s Painting by Numbers. Photo: Prudence Upton

His opening statement is beyond austere, all long-held balances, slow turns and perilous extensions. The echoes of Frederick Ashton’s Monotones I and II, made to Satie’s Gnossiennes and Gymnopedies, are graceful in concept although some of the company struggled somewhat on opening night (jetlag?).

When they were on song they were wonderful and Daniel Corthorn’s solo in the first section and Oxana Panchenko’s in the third were testament to the truth that abstract dance can have powerful emotional force.

“How many times does an angel fall?” Bowie asked in Blackstar. Clark has done his fair share of tripping and getting up again over the years but he has always kept the faith, for which much thanks. I didn’t want the night to end.

The Sydney season ends on Sunday.  Perth Festival, February 14-17.

New short films about dance-makers

Ghenoa Gela won the biennial Keir Choreographic Award in 2016 with a work infused with her Torres Strait Islander heritage while posing resonant questions about meanings inherent in or imposed on Indigenous dance. Fragments of Malungoka – Women of the Sea also won the people’s vote – a result that didn’t surprise at all. Gela’s work was much more emotionally engaging than the others in the race; more human, more interesting, more inviting.

More recently she’s been working with Broome-based company Marrugeku on a new project and this month was involved in two works at the Sydney Festival, a solo show titled My Urrwai at Belvoir and a Force Majeure premiere You Animal, You at Carriageworks, in which she was a warm, engaging figure.

Ghenoa Gela jpeg

The Keir Award commissions dance works specifically for the competition. Among its goals is the challenging of “conventions about what the moving body is or can be in contemporary society”. Which makes Gela (above) a perfect subject for one of a quintet of short portraits of Australian contemporary dance-makers made by the ABC and available now on ABC iview under the collective title The Movement.

The documentaries, from the hands of producer and director Kate Blackmore, are very brief – five minutes or less each – but as a group show that diversity in dance isn’t impossible, even if there is still a long road to travel. Here are trail-blazers consciously seeking to broaden the Australian public’s view of dance subject-matter, dance bodies and dance as a political tool.

Blackmore’s films are crafted as beautiful objects in themselves while giving a clear-eyed picture of each dancer-maker’s perspective. Gela, for instance, grew up in Townsville, Queensland, in a Torres Strait Islander family. She learned her family’s dances when she was young and her “ticket out of Rocky” was a chance to go to NAISDA (The National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Skills Development Association). She knows exactly what she wants: to honour her Torres Strait heritage and show its distinctive qualities, and to be a beacon in independent dance for “more little black faces”. She’s wonderful.

Other dance-makers featured are elegant former Sydney Dance Company member Thomas Bradley; Bhenji Ra, “mother” of a Western Sydney-based vogue house; and Natalie Abbott, a young woman who challenges the exclusion of older bodies in dance.

I was particularly taken with Amrita Hepi, who describes the body as inherently political and is interested in the possibility of dancer as a way of transcending race and class. She also notes that the Antipodes are usually described as being at the end of the world. She sees Australia and the Pacific as the centre of her life and practice. Brava.

Force Majeure: You Animal, You

Sydney Festival, Carriageworks, January 6

Heather Mitchell is one of the great treasures of the Australian stage and any chance to see her must be grabbed eagerly, as proved to be the case even in a work as unsteady as Force Majeure’s You Animal, You. Under its founder and former artistic director Kate Champion, Force Majeure created a body of dance-theatre work that combined movement with text and often included actors alongside dancers. Mitchell has collaborated with Force Majeure before and is a riveting presence in You Animal, You, directed by Champion’s successor Danielle Micich (and including text written by Mitchell).

Heather Mitchell Solo Confetti - credit Brett Boardman

Heather Mitchell in You Animal, You. Photo: Brett Boardman

You Animal, You looked marvellous and was performed with passionate intensity. Its effects, though, came from a scatter of individual moments. A coherent whole failed to emerge.

The work, choreographed by Micich and the performers, put forward the not entirely novel proposition that we hide the primal urges that drive our true selves. Strip away the shield and we will be revealed and possibly freed. To that end Mitchell commanded a rag-tag band of two women and two men who seemed to be her slaves, up to a point. Dressed in a long sequined gown that had seen better days she shouted directives through a megaphone, sometimes sitting in judgment from a vertiginously high seat that could be wheeled about the space.

The audience was seated arena-style in two rows of seats ranged around a long, wide oval. Bay 20 at Carriageworks is large and the spare design made it seem even more so. The top-tier team of Michael Hankin (set and costumes), Damien Cooper (lights) and Kelly Ryall (score) created a chilly dystopian environment that nevertheless had a certain elegance and grandeur.

Lauren Langlois and Ghenoa Gela - credit Brett Boardman

Lauren Langlois and Ghenoa Gela. Photo: Brett Boardman

Mitchell was perhaps a distant cousin of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome’s Aunty Entity, her glamour somewhat faded but her resolve firm. When she told two people to get into the centre ring and fight they did it without hesitation. When she barked the order “let’s dance”, everyone complied. But to what end? The stage picture was always vibrant and visually appealing but its meaning elusive, other than the symbolism of the amphitheatre as a place of conflict and the huge plastic bag used early and late in the piece as an obvious stand-in for the womb.

The vague unanimity of the first part of the piece fractured into fragments of memory and individual dances but nothing really stuck. There were solos for each of the four dancers in the cast – Harrison Elliott, Ghenoa Gela, Raghav Handa and Lauren Langlois – and sections in which language predominated. Langlois had a stream-of-consciousness monologue that drew on synaesthesia; Mitchell told a fable about the food chain and spoke movingly about the intimacy and pain of motherhood; Elliott relived the moment of birth; Handa spoke about breath; Gela sought refuge among audience members and then very sweetly thanked them.

Each performer had distinctive personal and movement qualities that made them eloquently individual and therefore worthy of close attention. You wanted to know more about Gela, who greeted people warmly as they filed into the space, and Elliott, who slowed time with a naked dance of evolution from flailing baby to dignified adult. Touchingly, you could see that Mitchell was a non-dancer among dancers (you could also see her knee and ankle braces; dance is a tough master). She moved expressively though, losing herself in that special place that civilians have when dancing.

You Animal, You had a very brief premiere season at the Sydney Festival and there are no further dates listed for performance at this stage. Despite being devised with the assistance of a dramaturg, director Sarah Goodes, You Animal, You doesn’t feel fully developed, which is possibly why it ran only about 55 minutes rather than the advertised and presumably planned 75 minutes.

Li and QB: my artists of the year

My first Artist of the Year, in 2015, was operatic mezzo, cabaret sensation, music-theatre star and all-round fine human being Jacqueline Dark. Last year I went for a large, disparate group of people and companies – the independent theatre artists who do tremendous work at low prices, making their art accessible to all often at great personal cost.

This year my choice is a company and an individual – Queensland Ballet and its artistic director Li Cunxin.

Jess and Kirby headshots

Queensland Ballet artistic director Li Cunxin takes his curtain call after appearing in a special performance of The Nutcracker. Photo: David Kelly

Li became QB’s artistic director in the second half of 2012 and late last year signed on until 2020. In five years he has utterly transformed Queensland Ballet, turning a frankly provincial company into one of substance and ambition. QB can now perform to capacity houses in Queensland Performing Arts Centre’s largest theatre, the 2000-seat Lyric, for some of its productions. Support has been given for the expansion and renovation of QB’s Thomas Dixon Centre headquarters and a $10 million expansion of Queensland Ballet Academy at Kelvin Grove State College is being funded by the State Government. “This state deserves it and the country deserves it,” says Li.

Brisbane adores Li, as his one-time-only return to the stage on December 10 proved. The special matinee sold out within the hour, raising funds for the company’s work and attracting the kind of publicity for ballet most companies can only dream of. (A Museum of Brisbane exhibition titled Mao’s Last Dancer the Exhibition: A Portrait of Li Cunxin, running until April, refers to “the dramatic influence he has had on the state’s arts scene”.)

Actor David Wenham introduced the performance and presided over a Q&A session afterwards with Li and his wife, Mary, in which Li described himself as an optimistic man. Indeed so. He hopes QB’s success in Queensland will spread interstate and internationally and as part of that goal QB will perform in Melbourne next year, presenting Liam Scarlett’s enchanting A Midsummer Night’s Dream (the 2015 ballet is a co-production with Royal New Zealand Ballet) at Her Majesty’s Theatre.

Jess and Kirby headshots

Lucy Green and Camilo Ramos, both recently appointed principal artists, in QB’s The Nutcracker. Photo: David Kelly

QB’s annual Nutcracker gave Li the perfect role in which to return to the stage after an absence of 18 years, although he went way, way beyond the call of duty.

Li is 56 and could have gone the safe, expected, route of performing the part of Drosselmeyer in Ben Stevenson’s production as written. The mysterious magician bursts dramatically on to the scene, sweeps around the stage, twirls his cape, does a few tricks, hands out gifts to the children, flirts with their mothers and departs with a flourish.

Stage presence is the key requirement, something Li could have offered without breaking a sweat. But he figured his audience would be keen for a bit more than dashing cape-work so after he did the glad-handing and flirting he danced. He really danced.

Stevenson gave his permission for Li to insert himself into the big fight scene between marauding rats and the Nutcracker doll’s soldiers. Li’s opening gambit was a snappy diagonal of chainés. He threw in a couple of air turns and a big circle of jetés but wasn’t finished yet. A series of showy grand pirouettes earned mighty cheers from the capacity house.

The performance is unlikely to lead to a late-flowering revival of Li’s dance career but it served its purpose of highlighting a young dancer competition for regional and rural Queensland called Wish Upon a Ballet Star. This year’s winner, Imogen Hess, was one of the child guests during the Act I Christmas party and took a solo bow at the end. The occasion also drew attention to the gleaming quality of Li’s company, which looks better with each passing year. In 2018 QB increases its number of dancers from 33 to 37. There will also be a bumper crop of 12 Young Artists and two dancers in the new rank of Apprentice.

Speaks for itself really.

RNZB and the numbers game

What possessed the Board of Royal New Zealand Ballet to assert in its statement of December 15 that 42% of the dancers are either New Zealanders or trained in New Zealand and that next year the goal is to have an even higher percentage?

The main thrust of the statement is fine – the Board has commissioned an independent review of its processes – but it then travels into an area it obviously thinks is firm ground at the centre of things but is in fact is a boggy path off to one side. Numbers. Percentages. Statistics. Where’s the vision in that?

Hayley Donnison as a fairy credit Stephen A'Court

Hayley Donnison in Liam Scarlett’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which had its Royal New Zealand Ballet premiere in 2015. Photo: Stephen A’Court

The recent conversation about RNZB has been partly about the level of turnover in a six-year period in which the company has had three artistic directors, partly about which dancers haven’t had their contracts renewed for 2018 and partly about the number of New Zealanders at RNZB. Each is a separate issue; for now let’s look at the Kiwi factor, defined as the number of New Zealand-born dancers in the company plus those who trained at the New Zealand School of Dance.

A scan of the make-up of RNZB during the past six years shows the proportion of dancers born in New Zealand or non-New Zealanders who trained at NZSD (mainly Australians) has usually been about a third or a bit more. Maybe as high as 40% in some years.

The Board’s claim of 42% is therefore close to the usual mark, although is self-serving at best and misleading at worst. Its 42% is based on the 31 dancers whose faces you can see right now on the RNZB website. Until recently ago there were 36 dancers pictured, even as the company asserted half a dozen dancers had made the decision to leave before new artistic director Patricia Barker arrived in June.

I noted the oddity in a post on December 9 and the next time I looked at the site it had been amended. Thus, when it came to the Board totting up the number of dancers with strong NZ connections it was able to base its calculation on 31 dancers rather than 36. The dancers who left after Romeo and Juliet ended in September were all non-New Zealanders.

Based on the 36 dancers who started the year with RNZB, the Board’s Kiwi number would have been 36%, not 42%. Am I splitting hairs? You could argue that, but the Board should understand not only that it shouldn’t be selective, but also what its assertions mean. It’s trying to make itself look good on the basis of a dodgy figure and, moreover, apparently trying to make policy on the back of it.

To make things even sillier, the touted 42% contains 10 dancers who will not be with RNZB next year. Quite a few of them – uh-oh – have the New Zealand connection of which the Board boasts.

In just three weeks the 2018 crop of RNZB dancers starts. On today’s reckoning there should be at least 15 new faces, unless 2018 starts with a smaller RNZB than usual. That wouldn’t be helpful in the current situation, would it? Not with four dancers having been told they are no longer required, three of whom have given many years of fine service. I look forward to seeing where the new dancers with NZ connections come from so the Board’s 42%-plus ratio is maintained. Not long to wait now.

You might think this forensic dissection of percentages and numbers is not terribly helpful and I would agree, with one caveat. Because RNZB is a national company, heavily funded by the New Zealand public, there is rightly an expectation that New Zealand talent will find a regular home there, either in management, administration, behind the scenes creative roles or in the ranks of the dancers.

That’s about as specific as it needs to be. Talent isn’t something you can put precise quotas on.

In some years national dance schools produce more fine graduates than there are available places in the national company; other years the quality is less good. Sometimes excellent dancers will be lured elsewhere to fulfil their aspirations, just as seasoned artists may be drawn back to their homeland after a long absence. There are dancers who come to a new country – let’s call it New Zealand – and make it their home for many years.

So we come back to the central question: what defines the nature and character of New Zealand’s national ballet company? That’s not for me to say, except to suggest that it’s not worked out on a calculator. The answer needs to come from within and be the result of knowledgeable, confident, secure, passionate, inspired leadership. Looking at the instability of the past six years at RNZB I couldn’t conclude that its Board, in its various iterations, has covered itself in glory.

NZ Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, also the country’s arts minister, has called for a report on RNZB. One assumes the quality of the Board’s custodianship will feature strongly.

Independent review of RNZB

Royal New Zealand Ballet today announced it has commissioned an independent review of its employment processes. This follows two weeks of intense scrutiny about dancer turnover, opportunities for New Zealand dancers and working conditions and practices.

A welcome move is the undertaking to give company artists a say in decision-making. At the moment there is no dancer representative on the board.

The review is expected to be finished by February or March next year and make recommendations to the Ministry of Culture and Heritage, from which RNZB receives about $NZ5 million in funding.

 STATEMENT FROM THE BOARD OF THE ROYAL NEW ZEALAND BALLET

15 December 2017

Recent speculation about the culture and employment practices of the RNZB are troubling and unfair.

The RNZB has worked hard over a number of years to ensure it is a good employer and that all its staff have a safe and supportive work environment. The welfare of the company’s artistic and administrative staff is of paramount importance to the Board.

However, in recent days, there has been on-going speculation about historic workplace bullying and other allegations about workplace practices including that the RNZB favours overseas artists over New Zealand dancers.

The Board is deeply concerned at these claims.

In relation to the alleged bullying, it is confident that where any complaint has been made about a company member immediate and proper steps have been taken to investigate and respond to the complaint. The Board has no tolerance for bullying or any other unsafe behaviour in the workplace.

In relation to the Board’s support for New Zealand dancers, 42% of the dancers are either New Zealanders or New Zealand trained. Both management and the Board would like this percentage to be higher and since her arrival in June new Artistic Director Patricia Barker has been in discussions with New Zealand dancers working overseas to encourage them to further their careers at home.

Ballet is a global business and the Board recognizes that many young dancers choose to launch their careers by attending overseas dance schools or joining overseas ballet companies. The RNZB is working hard to keep young dancers in New Zealand, or to entice them back.

What this week has shown, though, is that we must work harder.

The Board has today asked former Deputy State Services Commissioner Doug Craig to conduct an independent review of the RNZB’s employment processes, in particular its processes for responding to and managing complaints by employees. The Board wants to assure itself that the processes at the company are robust and meet the standards of best practice. The review will look at how previous complaints were handled, identify what, if any, further steps could have been taken and recommend what, if any, improvements can be made to ensure that employees can have confidence in the RNZB.

The review is expected to be completed in February-March 2018. The final report and recommendations will be provided to the Ministry of Culture and Heritage.

Secondly, the Board is undertaking to look at new ways for artists in the company to have a say in the strategic decisions involving the RNZB. The Board will be seeking the views of dancers and others in the sector about the best way to achieve this. The way we deliver this is still very much open for discussion, but the commitment to give dancers an on-going opportunity to be heard is serious and will happen.

The Board acknowledges the hard work and dedication of all its dancers, technicians and administrators.

Earlier this week we announced that we intend to host a forum in the New Year, bringing together a range of interested parties to talk about the future of ballet in New Zealand. There is much to discuss. The Board looks forward to hearing a wide range of views about how to further grow and develop ballet in this country.