The party to mark Royal New Zealand Ballet’s 60th anniversary was in full swing at Wellington’s St James Theatre when the earthquake struck. The special matinee performance of Swan Lake on July 21, 2013, had been attended by many former dancers, staff and friends and now it was time to raise a glass and reminisce. At 5.09pm the building started to shake. To the sound of scores of wine glasses rattling mightily, everyone dropped to the floor. After what seemed like an age but was only 20 seconds, the movement stopped. It had been a big quake, no doubt about it, but no one in the room was injured. People stood and the party continued.
RNZB’s artistic director at the time was Ethan Stiefel, the starry former American Ballet Theatre principal artist whose appointment was seen as a great coup for the company. He took up the role in 2011 on a three-year contract. It was hoped he would stay for at least five years but one never got the impression that he felt entirely comfortable. He left in September 2014 to return to the US.
Stiefel was replaced by the Italian choreographer and former La Scala dancer Francesco Ventriglia, previously director of MaggioDanza in Florence. He started in November 2014 but just two years later, amid reports of some staff and dancer dissatisfaction, RNZB announced Ventriglia had decided to end his contract with them and would finish in mid 2017, some months short of his first three-year term. Ventriglia was recently announced as adjunct artistic director of Ballet Nacional Sodre in Montevideo, Uruguay.
On June 7 this year, the former Pacific Northwest Ballet prima ballerina Patricia Barker was anointed RNZB’s 12th artistic director. Signalling that the Board realised there needed to be rather more stability, Barker was asked to sign for five years, not three. By December there were new reports of dancer unrest and predictions that, for various reasons, perhaps half the company’s complement of 36 dancers would not be returning in 2018. That’s quite an upheaval.
Is RNZB experiencing an earthquake that will leave it seriously damaged? Or is it simply subject to all-too-familiar tremors that rattle the nerves, but only temporarily? The next month or so will give a strong indication of which way things go.
Right now, some dancers – perhaps four, the number is unclear – are reportedly unhappy that their annual contracts haven’t been renewed and have made grievance claims against RNZB. That’s a process to keep an eye on. The new New Zealand Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, is also Minister for Arts, Culture and Heritage and has said she’s concerned about RNZB’s situation. She’s asked the Ministry of Culture and Heritage to do a report for her. That should be interesting.
Adding to the impression of tumoil, half a dozen dancers, mainly Italian, left around the time Ventriglia departed in August. (After Barker’s arrival he stayed on as guest choreographer to stage a sumptuous new version of Romeo and Juliet.) Three other dancers are off to Queensland Ballet and its magnetic artistic director Li Cunxin, yet others are retiring, some possibly reluctantly. Can all these departures be sheeted home to Barker? It doesn’t matter really. It’s happened under her watch. She gets to wear it.
One might suggest it would have been a reasonable, politically astute and – let’s put it out there, humane – move to give 2018 contracts to all current dancers who wanted them. It would give everyone a chance to get to know one another properly and acknowledge the upheaval visited upon the dancers over the past six years. Three artistic directors in that time. It’s brutal.
RNZB dancers begin the 2018 year on January 8. The company will announce their names on that day, a list that will be closely scrutinised. How many New Zealanders? How many people who trained at the New Zealand School of Dance, which is RNZB’s official school? How many names of long-serving company members are missing? How many dancers will come from Grand Rapids Ballet, the US company of which Barker is still artistic director, concurrently with RNZB, as Grand Rapids seeks her successor?
It won’t be unusual, of course, if Barker brings in some Americans. Stiefel hired dancers associated with his former employer, the University of North Carolina School of the Arts; Ventriglia brought in a group of Italians. Many left when or shortly after their AD left, again not unusual. But Barker is reaping that particular whirlwind and it’s been mighty breezy out there. I can identify close to 70 names of people who have danced with RNZB in the past five years and January will bring more. The level of churn is high.
Behind all these questions and anxieties is the one big question: what is the nature and purpose of a national ballet company? There are fundamental concerns, such as how the company’s identity is described and forged; how the relationship with its home audience is cemented; and the degree of responsibility in nurturing, developing, employing and celebrating home-grown artists. New Zealand isn’t short of tremendous talent.
These concerns, by the way, really should be greatly exercising the minds of Board members. Perhaps this is happening as we speak but there’s no way of telling. The current chair, Steven Fyfe, has made no comment so far, not even a word of support for the artistic director so recently appointed.
As I’ve mentioned before, RNZB’s current Strategic Plan ends this year. I assume the Board has a new one ready to go (one more thing to watch out for). Its current Mission, by the way, is: “To become a compelling expression of New Zealand’s creative spirit”. You can read the whole Strategic Plan here.
Meanwhile, the show will go on. It always does. RNZB turns 65 this year, starting the celebrations with a ballet version of the Jane Campion film The Piano (commissioned by Ventriglia). Barker plans to mark the milestone with a series of new commissions from female choreographers that will do double duty as a tribute to the 125th anniversary of women’s suffrage in New Zealand.
The Wellington season of Strength and Grace: Women will be seen not at the company’s usual home, the St James Theatre, but at the Opera House, as will the earlier program Dancing with Mozart. That’s due to strengthening work to be undertaken at the St James, due to start around the middle of 2018. The upgrade will make the theatre less vulnerable to the quakes and tremors so prevalent in this part of the world. If only RNZB itself could be assured of such security.