Tsunami at Royal New Zealand Ballet

It’s always been Royal New Zealand Ballet’s fate to have a certain amount of churn. It’s a small country a long way from the big ballet centres of the world. When dancers leave, artistic directors hire other dancers who suit their tastes. When that artistic director leaves, dancers who came because of that person may decide not to stay, and the movement continues. The greater the number of artistic directors, the greater the churn.

But to see about half of a medium-sized company’s members leave in the space of six months? That’s not churn. It’s a tsunami.

It’s been only a few days since it emerged publicly that perhaps 16, 17 or more of RNZB’s 2017 roster of 36 dancers won’t return in 2018. The disquiet is growing.

Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s Minister for Arts, Culture and Heritage as well as the country’s new Prime Minister, has now weighed in, saying in a statement today:

I am concerned about what I have read in the past couple of days and have asked the Ministry of Culture and Heritage for a report on the situation.

The RNZB is an iconic New Zealand institution. It is renowned on the world stage and a source of pride for me, and many New Zealanders.

The specific employment issues reported in the media are a management and operational issue, however I would generally say that I’d expect to see talented young New Zealanders dancing on the stage for the Royal New Zealand Ballet.

RNZB’s 2016 Annual Report shows that government funding of nearly $NZ5 million represents the largest portion of the company’s income.

The exact make-up of the company in 2018 will be revealed, says RNZB, early next year once contracts have been signed. Whatever the number of newcomers, RNZB artistic director Patricia Barker will preside over a significantly different group of dancers in 2018, not one of whom is a 2017 graduate of the company’s associated school, New Zealand School of Dance.

That inevitably raises many issues. They include the nature and purpose of a national ballet company heavily reliant on government funding; the relationship between a ballet company and a training institution designated as its “official school”; and the position of long-serving company members, among whom are some very fine artists.

Also needing scrutiny is the role of the RNZB Board, given the less-than-stellar way in which it seems to have managed change over the past six years, during which time the company has had three artistic directors. There doesn’t appear to be a designated dancer representative – let alone a current or former dancer – on the Board.

I note that RNZB’s current five-year Strategic Plan ends this year. Does it have a new one ready to go? The current Mission, just so you know, is for the company to “become a compelling expression of New Zealand’s creative spirit”. And under its goal for Artistic Growth is the plan to have 40 dancers and to “identify, develop and showcase New Zealand talent”.

RNZB opens its 2018 season with a ballet version of Jane Campion’s Palme d’Or and Oscar-winning 1993 film The Piano, a local subject if ever there were one. Ventriglia commissioned Czech choreographer Jiří Bubeníček to expand a shorter version he made for Ballet Dortmund in 2014 into a full-length work and Wellington’s New Zealand Festival and the Auckland Arts Festival came on board as co-presenters. It’s a big deal.

I don’t know how much work has been done so far and with which members of the company but clearly there will be many dancers next year starting from scratch. The show always goes on, of course. Dancers are incredibly quick studies, they are stoic, and no matter what turmoil they are going through they present a united front to the outside world. The Piano: the Ballet premieres in Wellington on February 23.

Piano-Main-v2-RNZB-dancer-Abigail-Boyle.-Photo-by-Ross-Brown-867x1024

RNZB dancer Abigail Boyle in the promotional image for The Piano. Photo: Ross Brown

Going deeper …

“It is the nature of the profession that, as careers are short, dancers may choose to move from company to company, in order to explore new opportunities or repertoire.” That’s the undeniably true, albeit mealy-mouthed, word from Royal New Zealand Ballet as it sheds dancers more quickly than trees lose their leaves in autumn. Dancers do move around and for all sorts of reasons – including when a new artistic director arrives. Sometimes they move voluntarily; sometimes they are moved on.

Next year will be the first full year under new artistic director Patricia Barker, the company’s 12th AD in its nearly 65-year history. The American former star of Pacific Northwest Ballet took up her post in the New Zealand capital Wellington in June this year. Barker succeeded Francesco Ventriglia, who had previously led MaggioDanza in Florence. Ventriglia in turn took over in 2015 from former American Ballet Theatre luminary Ethan Stiefel, who fulfilled only one three-year contract with RNZB, having taken up the job in late 2011.

To put it into context, RNZB’s 10th, 11th and 12th artistic directors are crammed into the past six years.

It’s worth mentioning, too, that in its latest story on the subject of dancer departures, The New Zealand Herald understands the number of leavers to be “almost 20”. That could be hyperbole but who knows? Never mind. Llike other southern hemisphere companies, RNZB works on a calendar year. The start of 2018 is barrelling towards us. We will soon be able to see precisely what the score is.

If you look at the RNZB website, it shows a company of 36 dancers: “the heart of the ballet”. RNZB acknowledges that six of those dancers left “during the year”, and it is likely that the production of Romeo and Juliet, which premiered in August, was the break point. It was choreographed by Ventriglia, by then bearing the title of guest choreographer, and a bit of sleuthing leads to the conclusion that the group of six comprises dancers he brought to the company.

Strictly speaking, the photos of those dancers shouldn’t still be on the RNZB website. Or, to be frank, loosely speaking. Filippo Valmorbida, a marvellous Benvolio in Romeo and Juliet, might be surprised to see himself still listed as being with RNZB, should he ever be looking back, as he is now a coryphée with Sarasota Ballet in Florida. In October, Linda Messina posted holiday photos on her Facebook page and took the opportunity to say “Ciao Nuova Zelanda”. And so on.

Three dancers have been announced as joining Queensland Ballet next year – Kohei Iwamoto as a Soloist, Tonia Looker as a Company Member and Isabella Swietlicki as a Young Artist. So that’s a definite nine out of 36 not to be seen at RNZB again.

RNZB reported that a further three dancers were “choosing to retire” at the end of 2017, although I understand – and I stress this is hearsay and not directly from anyone involved – that in one or two cases retirement is being entered into with reluctance. We are now up to 12 out of 36 going.

The company also said that “a small number” of dancers had not been offered contract renewal. This is where things get sticky. The New Zealand Herald reported on December 1 that four dancers had filed grievances against the company relating to non-renewal. The story quoted Wellington lawyer David Patten as saying that “at least four” dancers had not had their contracts renewed. Whether the dancers fighting for their contracts include any of the three said to be retiring is unclear.

Whichever way you cut it, at a minimum there are 16 dancers who have left or are to leave, pending the outcome of the grievance process. And one more dancer is to take parental leave in 2018.

I also hear something rather troubling: that a long-serving dancer, and possibly two, will have only a short-term contract in 2018 and will be gone by mid-year.

It is only fair to point out that the six dancers who left earlier in the year might always have left, given Ventriglia’s exit. There can be a kind of ripple effect at work and when it comes to some of the changes, Barker may simply be the one left holding the parcel when the music stopped.

The concentration so far has been on the departing dancers, but what about the incoming ones? Where is Barker to find 17 or more new dancers? Well, we know a 2016 graduate of the New Zealand School of Dance is to join in 2018 (see my update below) and also that two 2017 graduates were offered contracts but declined them. According to The New Zealand Herald, RNZB says its new dancers will include overseas dancers who trained at the New Zealand School of Dance as well as other New Zealanders.

It wouldn’t be surprising to see some dancers come from Grand Rapids Ballet, Michigan, because Barker happens still to be artistic director of that company, running it in tandem with RNZB until Grand Rapids hires her successor. It’s all speculation at this stage, but given some weight by the hiring of two retiring Grand Rapids dancers as RNZB ballet masters.

This is a story with some way yet to go.

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.