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”.

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.