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.

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