Big dancer turnover at RNZB

Royal New Zealand Ballet artistic director Patricia Barker will preside over a significantly different group of dancers next year from those the American inherited when she was appointed to her role in June this year. Of the 36 dancers currently listed on the RNZB website, it appears that, in line with rumours doing the rounds in dance circles yesterday, perhaps half of them will not return in 2018.

Queensland Ballet announced yesterday that three RNZB dancers would join its ranks in 2018. Kohei Iwamoto comes in as a Soloist, Tonia Looker as a Company Artist and Isabella Swietlicki as a Young Artist. (RNZB is an unranked company.)

Tonia Looker and MacLean Hopper 01 photo by Stephen A'Court
Tonia Looker and MacLean Hopper in Liam Scarlett’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a co-production with Queensland Ballet, which Looker joins in 2018. Photo: Stephen A’Court

In response to questions about changes in the company, a spokesman for RNZB replied via email that a further three dancers had chosen to retire at the end of 2017 and another would take parental leave in 2018. “Six dancers with close ties to Europe chose to depart during the year to take up opportunities closer to home,” the spokesman wrote. “As has been the case in previous years, a small number of dancers employed by the company during 2017 have not been offered contracts for 2018.” Dancers are on annual contracts, “like most ballet companies around the world”.

If that “small number” is as many as five, the leavers would constitute half of the current crop of dancers.

In a statement, RNZB executive director Frances Turner said: “The RNZB wishes all dancers who are leaving the company at the end of 2017 every success in their future careers. We look forward to welcoming new members of the RNZB in early 2018 and will make a further announcement then.”

New ballet masters have already been announced. Married couple Nicholas Schultz and Laura McQueen Schultz will take up their roles at the beginning of January, joining Clytie Campbell, a former dancer with RNZB who was appointed ballet master by former artistic director Francesco Ventriglia. The Schultzes are currently with Grand Rapids Ballet in Michigan and will retire from dancing after that company’s upcoming production of A Christmas Carol.

Barker is currently artistic director of Grand Rapids Ballet as well as at RNZB. Grand Rapids is in the process of finding a replacement for her.

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

The large dancer turnover will challenge RNZB’s hopes for stability after a rocky few years. Ethan Stiefel, the artistic director who preceded Ventrigilia, stayed for only three years, choosing not to renew his contract when it came due in 2014. Ventriglia left before the end of his first three-year term and there was a revolving door when it came to ballet masters in both Stiefel and Ventriglia eras.

When I interviewed Barker in August of this year, not long after her June arrival, she said she had been asked by the board to sign a five-year contract. When talking about the qualities she brought to the company, she said: “I bring a sense of settlement. I’m settled, I’m consistent, I’m passionate about this industry, I care about the organisation I work for and the people that are here and I’m experienced in my position.”

It is unclear where Barker will draw her new dancers from, although one thing is apparent. None will come from the New Zealand School of Dance, a widely admired institution which celebrated its 50th anniversary with a gala program presented at the St James Theatre, Wellington, last week.

NZ dance writer Jennifer Shennan reviewed the event on Michelle Potter’s blog … on dancing, and wrote the following: “The moment when fledglings leave the nest is always poignant. Some of these young dancers have taken instant wing and are moving straight into positions with prestigious companies—Queensland Ballet, West Australian Ballet for example. Godspeed to them. Most curiously, not one is joining Royal New Zealand Ballet (RNZB). With numerous dancers departing from RNZB this week, that raises a number of questions.”

And in a comment on Shennan’s review, New Zealand-born dance luminary Patricia Rianne wrote: “After a lifetime of supporting young NZ dancers to secure jobs and succeed in companies overseas because subsequent RNZ Ballet company directors have deemed them not good enough to join their national company, preferring to hire foreign trained dancers, I weep to hear that this practice continues.”

Rianne went on to say there was an erosion of “history, continuity, identity, and soul” in dance in New Zealand. “Shame. Sadness.”

RNZB’s spokesman said the company would make an announcement about leavers and joiners “at the beginning of 2018 when contracts have been signed”.

7 Comments Add yours

  1. Simon Parris says:

    This is a fascinating article, Deborah. I do not have first hand knowledge of RNZB, so your insight into the current situation is much appreciated.
    I feel for the local patrons who have followed and become attached to dancers who are now leaving. The prospects for the young graduating dancers is also distinctly troublesome, given that the local national company should really be their first option.
    It will be interesting to see the full story early next year.

    1. Thanks Simon. There appears to be disquiet, but I will need to know more before I can report on that. But yes, such a big turnover is disconcerting.

  2. Lucy Beauchamp says:

    I am greatly saddened to read and hear of the loss of so many senior dancers at the RNZB. I have followed and watched some of these dancers for many years and marvelled at the wonderful and extraordinary performances they have given. It is an outrage that these dancers have been told that there are no contracts for them in 2018 and for the bolder ones to resign before being told the same by the new artistic director. The responsibility surely lies with management and the RNZB board to have allowed this to happen.

    1. Thank you Lucy. And yes, I completely agree with your comment regarding board and management.

  3. Dianne Smith says:

    It is a huge shame that the new AD appears to be set on gutting the company rather than building on the existing talent and skills. I really feel for those dancers from NZ, and elsewhere, who have established a home here and, with no other opportunities within NZ, are having to up-sticks and head overseas to make way for dancers being brought in from overseas. It is our loss too. Like Lucy Beauchamp, I have enjoyed many captivating performances from many of the departing dancers. We will miss them. A few questions need to be asked of the RNZB board regarding Barker’s appointments to date. Is the board comfortable that Barker has appointed two dancers from her Grand Rapids company to the role of Ballet Master without any open contestable process? I am sure there are many talented and experienced ballet teachers/coaches/masters in NZ, Australia and further afield who should have been given the opportunity to vie for these roles. I note that one of these positions appears to have been newly created and can’t help but wonder if this was done for the couple’s convenience. What is also not clear is the position of Barker’s husband who has also been working with the RNZB lately. Has a position also been created for him? The RNZB is tax payer funded and surely like all tax payer funded bodies it should be operating in an open and fair manner.

    1. Thanks for that detailed comment Dianne. More food for thought re the board I think.

  4. Nicole Sharp says:

    Thanks Deborah for a very interesting article. We nurture such incredibly talented dancers in Australian and NZ and I feel our Companies “down-under” should certainly make it a priority to provide real opportunities for very own our home-grown talent. We currently feed our talented dancers to leading companies all over the world and they go on to amazing careers. There are already not enough real job opportunities for Aussies and New Zealanders downunder, so it truly saddens me to read that the opportunities may even be fewer now. I hope The Board takes note!

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