Royal New Zealand Ballet: Speed of Light

Auckland Arts Festival, March 2.

Francesco Ventriglia was named artistic director of Royal New Zealand Ballet back in September 2014 but hasn’t been able to put his stamp on programming until now. Of necessity his predecessor, former American Ballet Theatre star Ethan Stiefel, was responsible for what was seen on stage in 2015. These things aren’t done in the blink of an eye. From here on, though, it’s all Ventriglia’s taste and direction.

He’s bolted out of the gate with a triple bill that certainly earns its name. Speed of Light doesn’t bother much with the concept of balance in that all three works go like a rocket. There’s no quiet, reflective piece to give contrast to the more forceful works although there are substantial differences in style and mood. The opener, Andonis Foniadakis’s Selon Désir is anguished; William Forsythe’s In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated is still the epitome of glamour and cool despite being nearly 30 years old; and Alexander Ekman’s Cacti is exuberant and original and a happy final piece.

Cacti was made in 2010 and the dance has proved as tenacious as the succulents that give it its name. Sydney Dance Company is dancing it at the moment in Sydney alongside artistic director Rafael Bonachela’s Lux Tenebris (I’ll put that review up in a day or so), having first performed it in 2013. National Ballet of Canada opens in it on March 9 and the number of companies who have it in their repertoire is now at least 20.

Speed of Light  dancers Georgia Powley and Leonora Voigtlander credt Maarten Holl sml

Georgia Powley and Leonora Voigtlander in Cacti. Photo: Maarten Holl

Cacti was born of Ekman’s dismay at dance criticism. He felt those commenting on his work didn’t understand what he was doing and this pained him. If being successful is the best revenge, Ekman nailed it, and fortunately he does it with good humour and a pleasing degree of sweetness. He even has a dig or two at contemporary choreographic processes.

Ekman has pulled off one of the most difficult challenges in dance, which is to be genuinely funny. (I’m shamelessly lifting now from my 2013 review for The Australian.) The dancers, identically dressed in roomy dark trousers over flesh-coloured bodysuits and wearing hair-covering caps (of Ekman’s design), at first kneel on low platforms and whack the platforms and themselves in an exhilarating display of energy, rhythm and co-ordination. It’s a bit music hall, a bit commedia dell’arte and all fabulous. (I think there’s also a little tribute to Jiří Kylián tucked in there as dancers fall comically to the floor and puffs of powder rise into the air, and why not?)

Later the dancers strip down to basics and pose with cacti as if it were the most natural thing in the world and there is a very funny pas de deux during which one hears in voiceover the thoughts of a man and a woman as they rehearse a tricky bit. There’s also a wandering a string quartet that plays some of the score live, and there’s a dead cat. What’s not to like?

On seeing it again – twice – this week I loved Cacti’s goofiness and playfulness. The RNZB dancers weren’t quite as tongue in cheek as Sydney Dance Company, seeming in the unison drumming and comic striding just that little bit more mystified about why they were doing this stuff. (It’s a perfectly valid interpretation on their part.) A brief way to describe the difference between the performances would be to say SDC foregrounds the satire, RNZB the sweetness. SDC Is more knowing, RNZB more innocent. In the rehearsal duo, RNZB’s Veronika Maritati (dancing with Shane Urton) put into my mind a fleeting image of Giulietta Masina as the tragic Gelsomina in Fellini’s La Strada. It was just a stray thought, but it pleased me. Although perhaps I shouldn’t have voiced that. I suspect Ekman would find the idea outstandingly pretentious.

Of course he probably won’t read this. Ekman says – at least he does in the SDC program – that he doesn’t really care about the reviews or the critics any more. That said, the marketing still needs to get done. Fascinatingly, despite all the companies doing Cacti and all the reviews that must have appeared, RNZB and National Ballet of Canada are using exactly the same sentence from a review of Cacti that appeared in The Australian in 2013 (yes, mine). It says: “Cacti is a delight: witty, effervescent, playful, surreal and joyously physical.” Which is true.

Royal New Zealand Ballet in Selon Desir. Photo: Bill Cooper

Royal New Zealand Ballet in Selon Desir. Photo: Bill Cooper

Speed of Light kicks off with Selon Désir, which offers a great deal of colour and movement but not much in the way of subtlety. It operates at a relentless level with very few changes of rhythm. People rush off and on, throw each other about (the women are too often treated like rag dolls) and there is no repose. Bach’s St Matthew Passion and St John Passion provide the score (with some electronic interventions), used to create a generalised atmosphere of angst. It was danced at the 2009 Perth Festival by the company for which it was made in 2004, Ballet du Grand Théâtre de Genève. I found it unvarying and tedious then and a second viewing hasn’t changed my mind. The RNZB dancers, bless them, gave it their all.

Many congratulations must go to four company members in particular – Abigail Boyle, William Fitzgerald, Shaun James Kelly and Massimo Margaria who, after this high-octane workout, also appeared in Cacti and in the hugely demanding In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated.

In the Middle is a work all ballet companies want to do. It truly was a game-changer, pushing classical technique in a way that honoured the tradition but stretched it dramatically and threw it off-kilter. The thrilling, rock-hard electronic score by Thom Willems in collaboration with Les Stuck drives a theme-and-variations construction for six women and three men who, when they are not centre stage, prowl around in the shadows waiting for their moment to pounce.

In The Middle Somewhat Elevated, RNZB_Linbury Studio,Mayau Tanigaiti,

Mayu Tanigaito in In The Middle Somewhat Elevated. Photo: Bill Cooper

Everything is more in In the Middle, except that it needs to look almost casually achieved. When, for instance, a dancer stops on a dime, on pointe with a leg raised high, there must be a meeting of sophisticated poise and total command of perilous off-centre balance. Nothing less will do: the exposure is total.

At the opening night performance I attended in Auckland, the RNZB dancers dealt with the intoxicating technical complexities with much confidence. Mayu Tanigaito stood out for her extraordinary pliancy and attack and Boyle made a fierce impression in the role indelibly associated with Sylvie Guillem, who was a member of the original Paris Opera Ballet cast. Fitzgerald is something of a boy wonder, given that he started fulltime dance training in only 2012 and has been with RNZB for just two years. He danced the central male role elegantly and partnered with only one or two hesitations. Magaria (especially), Kelly, Tonia Looker, Yang Liu, Alayna Ng and Clytie Campbell completed the impressive first cast.

Perhaps the most exciting aspect of In the Middle is the way dancers control the dynamics of immense force, implacable resistance and unexpected emphases. The RNZB dancers had the necessary clarity and sang froid; perhaps the only thing missing was a finishing touch of hauteur.

Ventriglia knows In the Middle through and through, having been chosen by Forsythe to do it when he was a young dancer, and indeed having danced the three male roles. This is therefore quite personal for him and the stakes were high. He should be very happy.

Next week I get to see The Australian Ballet do In the Middle in its Vitesse program. That makes me very happy.

Francesco Ventriglia and Royal New Zealand Ballet

A year into his artistic directorship, Francesco Ventriglia talks about his goals for Royal New Zealand Ballet and his first program for the company

 “My life is where I can have a theatre, where I can have dancers, where I can have a space to express my creativity. I don’t care if it’s Milan or Florence or Wellington or New York.”

Not everyone would mention Wellington, New Zealand, in the same breath as New York and Milan, but Francesco Ventriglia is more than happy to. And why not? We’re sitting in one of the New Zealand capital’s fine restaurants, drinking excellent local wine and talking, amongst other things, about the impending Royal New Zealand Ballet’s world premiere of Liam Scarlett’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. (It opened in late August.) Life is good.

Francesco Ventriglia, Royal New Zealand Ballet artistic director. Photo: Stephen A’Court

Francesco Ventriglia, RNZB’s artistic director. Photo: Stephen A’Court

Then there are all the things he wants to do as the company’s newest artistic director, a position he took up late last year after former American Ballet Theatre star Ethan Stiefel decided to return to the US after three years at the helm. Even when seated Ventriglia throws out megawatts of energy, face alight with enthusiasm and wreathed in smiles. He talks a million to the dozen in charmingly accented English which he says is improving but is already excellent – not entirely idiomatic, to be sure, but pouring out fluently and vividly. (“I feel more comfortable now, even with the Kiwi accent, which is a little bit different,” he says.)

Essentially it comes down to this. When he arrived in New Zealand he was warmly welcomed. People liked his outgoing nature and his vibrant optimism. “They like me and I really like them. I try to put things on the table in a very honest way, no strategy. I am what I am, I’m here. We can work and make the future. Everyone gives me the space to do that. So I feel free.”

Lucy Green, an Australian dancer with the company, says Ventriglia is very passionate. “You really get that enthusiasm and energy every time he’s in the studio. He loves to push us very, very hard, and that’s exactly what we need. He’s always telling us: ‘more, more; more body, more emotion, more heart’, which is really lovely. ‘More turnout, more quality.’ He loves quality. I love the way he describes things – ‘be royal, be expensive’. From day one he was fully here and fully committed. ‘I’m here for everyone and I’m here for the long haul.’ That’s really nice.”

Ventriglia inherited the 2015 season from Stiefel, including the gift of the full-length Scarlett that proved to be a very big hit and which will feature on RNZB’s 2016 Asian tour (it is a co-production with Queensland Ballet, which will perform it in Brisbane early next year). The 2016 season, his first full program, was announced this week.

Sonia Looker and MacLean Hopper in A Midsummer Night's Dream

Tonia Looker and MacLean Hopper in A Midsummer Night’s Dream

He spent his first year getting know the dancers, bringing in a series of guest ballet masters and mistresses before deciding who he wants to hire permanently, and getting acquainted with other companies and dance directors in the region (The Australian Ballet’s David McAllister, Queensland Ballet’s Li Cunxin, Sydney Dance Company’s Rafael Bonachela). “Very nice and open” is how he describes his early encounters and he is keen for connections, collaborations and exchanges in this part of the world as well as in Europe.

“New Zealand arrived at a moment of my life and career where I was really ready to jump into a new thing, a new energy, even in the dark a little bit,” he says. Ventriglia was working at the Bolshoi last year, staging his Boléro and Carmina Burana, when he got the message that RNZB was trying to get in touch with him. They called and said he was their choice to succeed Stiefel. He’d got the job.

Naturally he’d thought seriously about his application. The life of an artistic director is very different from that of a freelance choreographer who also occasionally likes to design sets and costumes. There’s time in that life for personal study, deep immersion in scores, lots of travel. But RNZB beckoned and he said yes. In Moscow, “at that moment I thought, that’s not my choice; it’s what life chooses for me”.

Ventriglia, who is in his mid-30s, made his dance career at La Scala. It was a good one. When he was just 19 Natalia Makarova came to stage her version of La Bayadère and chose him for the virtuoso Golden Idol solo; when he was even younger and newer to the company, William Forsythe hand-picked him to be in In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated. He danced Hilarion to Sylvie Guillem’s Giselle and appeared in ballets by Neumeier, Bejart, Preljocaj, Kylian, Mats Ek, Nureyev, “always in the lead role”. He retired at the early age of 31, becoming artistic directorship of Florence’s MaggioDanza. The company closed abruptly in 2013, a victim of funding cuts.

RNZB is in a happier situation as the country’s much-admired national ballet company. Ventriglia understands the importance. “What is great from my point of view is that the company can spread ballet culture through the country, from tiny, tiny cities to Auckland. This is a great, great responsibility.” There is also an imperative to tour internationally, “because it’s quite important to spread the New Zealand brand”. This year’s tour, from October 27 to early December, takes the production of Giselle created for the company by Stiefel and Johan Kobborg in 2012 to the UK and (naturally) Italy, along with a mixed bill. “We do one tour a year, and we hope two in the future.”

Ventriglia is also keen for the company, which has 37 dancers (they are unranked), to be seen at festivals. “We could send just a group – 10 to 15 dancers – and the other group can dance here,” he says. “We can be present in the same moment in an international place and national place. That’s what I want to do. It’s great – a national company. National! It’s a big responsibility. It’s for all New Zealand, not just your city.”

The first festival in Ventriglia’s schedule is the 2016 New Zealand Festival, and it will be the first time in a dozen years that RNZB has appeared at the event. The program, called Speed of Light, is an exuberant one: In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated; Alexander Ekman’s Cacti and Andonis Foniadakis’s Selon désir, which is also being seen on this year’s northern hemisphere tour.

The year continues with a world premiere, Ventriglia’s family-friendly The Wizard of Oz, which was to have been seen in Florence but “between the dress rehearsal and the opening night the theatre was closed. So after five years the ballet will be reborn in New Zealand.” Giselle will again be seen on home soil, and the Asian tour of A Midsummer Night’s Dream will follow. Ventriglia also talks obliquely about a further project, something very big, but will give no details at this stage.

The RNZB dancers are an international lot – New Zealanders, of course; a handful of Australians; a group of Americans, part of the Stiefel era (they were all still there a year later despite Stiefel’s departure); and now some Italians. There are dancers from the UK, Japan and China. “Artists don’t have any passports. They don’t have any nationality. They are good artists or bad artists,” Ventriglia says robustly. “Dancers want to dance the right choreographers – Forsythe, Ekman, Naharin. If you have the quality you attract the dancers. If you have the best choreographers in the world the best dancers want to come.”

 Royal New Zealand Ballet’s 2016 program

Speed of Light: Forsythe, Ekman, Foniadakis

The Wizard of Oz, Ventriglia

Giselle, Stiefel/Kobborg

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Scarlett

Let’s get physical

Louder Than Words, Sydney Dance Company. Sydney Theatre, October 8.

IT’S hard to know where to begin with Andonis Foniadakis’s fantastical Parenthesis, a piece that turns the dial up to 11 and then some. Perhaps praise for Sydney Dance Company’s ferociously committed dancers should come first. They are a super-talented and game bunch who can do anything Foniadakis throws at them, which is quite a lot in a fast-flowing 30 minutes. If the choreographer were a five-year-old you’d be inclined to think he’d over-dosed on the red cordial.

The speed and physical virtuosity are undeniably exhilarating and Foniadakis is not without wit as the dancers swagger on and off like self-regarding hip-hop stars, undulate like seaweed or sway in lines like a Busby Berkeley chorus line on the Peruvian marching powder. The images keep piling up. Benjamin Cisterne’s gloomily lit setting is a curtain of floaty fringes that evokes the sea bed, Tassos Sofroniou’s costumes for the women combine cheerleader sass with hints of ancient Rome and the emergence of two dancers in body-hugging skin tones brings to mind Adam and Eve. Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea meets Gladiator meets Gold Diggers of 1933 in a raunchy Garden of Eden – it’s quite a mind trip.

Andonis Foniadakis's Parenthesis. Photo: Wendell Teodoro

Andonis Foniadakis’s Parenthesis. Photo: Wendell Teodoro

Parenthesis has nothing new to offer on the subject of human interaction, which Foniadakis professes to be his subject. Yes, there are groups interacting vigorously and couples intertwining, but one expects that in dance. Something else one sees a lot of these days is the extreme manipulation of women by men and Foniadakis unfortunately doesn’t resist the urge. His image-making in this respect certainly gave me pause for thought amongst all the frantic activity.

It was wonderful, therefore, to see how Sydney Dance Company artistic director Rafael Bonachela negotiates partnering in his new work, Scattered Rhymes, which opens the evening. It’s a classical-looking piece with its alternation of ensemble and pas de deux in six movements, expressed via luscious, expansive movement and a strong sense of the value of the group, even when fractured. There is a particularly lovely duet for Janessa Dufty and Fiona Jopp with strong, close partnering and I was sorry that the intense third duet, for Thomas Bradley and newcomer Petros Treklis, was not longer.

Bonachela’s dancers may be scattered at times and they may be dressed identically, but they are individuals, not molecules to be tossed about in the maelstrom.

Fiona Jopp and Janessa Dufty in Scattered Rhymes. Photo: Wendell Teodoro

Fiona Jopp and Janessa Dufty in Scattered Rhymes. Photo: Wendell Teodoro

Both pieces featured new commissioned scores, Bonachela’s from Nick Wales and Tarik O’Regan and Foniadakis’s from Julien Tarride. The Wales-O’Regan score alternates, as does the dance, between idioms. It uses fragments of 14th century text and 21st-century electronica in rich juxtaposition. There is text in Tarride’s score too, but of a particularly banal kind, presumably intentionally. I do hope so. His punchy soundscape, however, keeps the show racing along until a slow fade at the end, in which Foniadakis indulges himself in an image that may have been meant to look ecstatic but radiated all the charisma of soft porn.

Parenthesis is, obviously, wildly entertaining. It’s also a bit ridiculous. I would have preferred to see Scattered Rhymes follow it as a palate-cleanser, but Bonachela is a gentleman and always cedes pride of place to his guests. He’s also smart. Judging by the audience response at the opening-night performance Parenthesis is a big hit.

I was introduced to Foniadakis’s work at the Perth International Arts Festival in 2009 when his Selon Desir (2004) was danced on a mixed bill by Ballet du Grand Theatre de Geneve. It suffered from being on the same program as Loin, by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui – an infinitely more interesting choreographer in my opinion – but looking back at my review I am also reminded that it wasn’t just that I greatly preferred Loin, but that I really, really disliked Selon Desir, which I thought incoherent and tedious. Parenthesis is a more interesting piece but it is essentially sensationalist; it lives vibrantly and sometimes vulgarly in the moment but leaves little trace.

Louder Than Words ends on October 18.

A version of this review appeared in The Australian on October 10.