New era at RNZB

The question had to be asked. Is Patricia Barker at Royal New Zealand Ballet for the long haul?

Her predecessor but one as artistic director, fellow American Ethan Stiefel, saw out his three-year contract but decided not to renew. Barker’s immediate predecessor, Francesco Ventriglia, announced his resignation last November only two years into his tenure (he stayed in the job until June). A different approach was clearly needed.

Patricia Barker, Artistic Director, The Royal New Zealand Ballet

Royal New Zealand Ballet artistic director Patricia Barker. Photo: RNZB/Stephen A’Court

“The Board asked me to sign on for five years,” Barker says. It’s a wise call in the circumstances and Barker looks to be just what the dance doctor ordered. Beneath her quiet, warm, calm demeanour there would seem to exist super-powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men, or women.

Barker gave nearly three decades of service to Seattle-based Pacific Northwest Ballet, where she long reigned as an internationally renowned prima ballerina before retiring in 2007 in her mid-40s. A few years later she went to Grand Rapids, Michigan, to run a company that was “a week or two from closing its doors”. It had big, big problems but Barker took the job on because she didn’t want to see another company disappear, putting dancers on the street. “When things get hard I don’t give up,” she says. Seven years on, GRB is thriving.

Making deep commitments seems to sit easily with Barker. “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. The company hasn’t had somebody with my skill set in quite a while,” she said, sitting in the RNZB boardroom the morning after the company opened Romeo and Juliet. (Ventriglia stayed on to choreograph it.)

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Madeleine Graham, Patricia Barker, dramaturg Mario Mattia Giorgetti and Joseph Skelton after the opening of Francesco Ventriglia’s Romeo and Juliet. Photo: RNZB/Jeremy Brick

This doesn’t come across as anything remotely approaching self-promotion, by the way. Barker speaks carefully and plainly. It’s just the way things are.

RNZB was obviously keen for Barker to start more or less instantly after she’d accepted the Board’s invitation. She was announced as artistic director on June 7, within about a week a visa had been secured and less than two weeks later she had arrived. “I grabbed two suitcases and came. I was sitting in my chair on the 18th or 19th. It was a whirlwind,” she says.

On Barker’s second day she attended a full board meeting; on her third she hopped on a plane to Timaru, a city halfway between Christchurch and Dunedin on the east coast of New Zealand’s South Island. That was to catch a performance of Tutus on Tour, a touring program to small centres designed to fulfil RNZB’s brief as the country’s national ballet company.

It was a full-on start for a woman whose life was frankly busy enough already. She is still GRB’s artistic director and thus holds down two jobs, but Barker is unfazed. The timing of seasons is different, there are things that can be done from a distance, she had already planned GRB’s 2017-2018 season and Ventriglia had pretty much locked down RNZB’s 2018 program, although Barker has had room to add a few touches of her own.

And Grand Rapids, one hastens to add, has already made some staff adjustments and its search for a new artistic director is well and truly on. Nevertheless, it’s a measure of how much RNZB needed Barker in New Zealand as soon as possible that it’s prepared to see her juggle responsibilities for both companies for some while.

Patricia Barker, Artistic Director, The Royal New Zealand Ballet

Patricia Barker in the studio at Royal New Zealand Ballet. Photo: Stephen A’Court

Eight weeks in when we speak, Barker is still learning new things about how RNZB operates and “the Kiwi accent throws me a little bit”, but there’s no hesitation when it comes to what she intends for the company. At the repertoire level, given Barker’s Balanchine-rich background at PNB, can we expect to see more of that master’s works? “Yes, in one easy word. They are food for the dancers and delight for the audiences.” Barker knows Jîrí Kylián well, having been a co-artistic adviser with him at Slovak National Ballet, and describes him as someone audiences need to see and whose works dancers desire to dance.

“Works by Balanchine, Kylián, Forsythe – they will attract talented dancers to our shores,” Barker says. She’s also a strong supporter of female choreographers, a group very under-represented in classical dance. And proving the value of doing two jobs at once, she is backing the talents of a company dancer and choreographer, Loughlan Prior, by sending him to Grand Rapids to make a work for her contemporary dance program MOVEMEDIA: Diversity.

Barker is working on 2019 and beyond, as she must. That involves “looking for the big ideas, the big works” and then working out audience appeal, touring logistics, how productions can be built and the many other details that underpin a season.

First though, come the dancers. “One of the reasons why we all agreed for me to come as soon as possible was for me to get a feel for the dancers, for the talent in the room for the works that are being done next year and then building for ‘19, ‘20, ‘21,” Barker says. “I believe in using the talents you have in front of you, but definitely looking towards the future and talents that may turn up on our doorstep. At the moment dancers are making life decisions and we’re making decisions for this organisation. We want the brightest talents in the studio.”

Some dancers will choose to leave, she says – “it’s in dancers’ DNA to move around” – but others may well be encouraged by plans Barker has for a more stable in-house structure.

“There’s been a big change in artistic staff over the past six years and that’s something I’m committed to settling down. We will have a team and will have a permanent team. I feel very confident in the people for 2018. The goal is to have permanence for a length of time.”

Someone it wouldn’t be surprising to see in the RNZB studios is Barker’s husband, Michael Auer, also a former principal artist with PNB. Auer is currently creative director at the school associated with Grand Rapids Ballet but he and Barker don’t propose to have a long-distance relationship. She might have abandoned him (her word) to move to New Zealand as quickly as possible but he will be joining her in Wellington. “As long as we’re together we feel that’s home.”

My year in dance

Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker and Pina Bausch made my year. For his final Sydney Festival in January, artistic director Lieven Bertels programmed two bracing De Keersmaeker works, Fase and Vortex Temporum, and the huge thrill was seeing the choreographer herself in Fase (my review is here). Living dance history. Festival clout and money also made the Bausch experience possible. At the Adelaide Festival in March Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch performed Nelken, which was obviously a necessity to see, but just a week later Wellington’s New Zealand International Arts Festival trumped Adelaide. In the repertoire carve-up the Wellington-based festival got the double bill of Café Muller and Rite of Spring. I had always longed to see both live. And now I have.

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Pina Bausch’s The Rite of Spring. Photo: Matt Grace

The Perth International Arts Festival (February) and the Brisbane Festival (September) – there’s a theme here – also provided performances that made it into my best-of list. It was absolutely worth going to Perth for just one night from Sydney (flying time: five hours) to see Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s Apocrifu, which was outstandingly beautiful, in a rough, sweaty kind of way, and accompanied by celestial a capella singing from the all-male group A Filetta. It was a much easier business to pop up to Brisbane for Jonah Bokaer’s Rules of the Game – not really for the much-hyped title work (its score was by Pharrell Williams) but for the chance to see earlier Bokaer pieces and the choreographer himself onstage.

More festival highlights, these from local choreographers: Stephanie Lake’s super-intelligent Double Blind at the Sydney Festival, Kristina Chan’s ravishing A Faint Existence at Performance Space’s Liveworks festival in October and Nicola Gunn and Jo Lloyd’s Mermermer, also at Liveworks.

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Kristina Chan in A Faint Existence. Photo: Ashley de Prazer

The rest of the key works in 2016 come from major companies. The Australian Ballet, which has been looking very, very conventional of late, stretched dancers and audiences with John Neumeier’s Nijinsky (which I reviewed for Limelight magazine); Bangarra Dance Theatre’s triple bill OUR land people stories was a luminous program; and Sydney Dance Company’s double bills Untamed (October) and CounterMove (February) yet again demonstrated the thoroughbred power and impressive individuality of Rafael Bonachela’s dancers.

In the year I saw dance in Sydney, Perth, Brisbane, Adelaide, Melbourne, Auckland and Wellington, but yet again I mourn the fact that I just wasn’t able to visit Melbourne more often to sample its contemporary dance riches. As so often, Samuel Beckett comes to mind: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

On the people front the biggest news of the year was the re-emergence of David Hallberg after a two-and-a-half year absence from the stage. The American superstar, a principal artist at both American Ballet Theatre and the Bolshoi Ballet, spent a year at The Australian Ballet’s headquarters in Melbourne undergoing extensive rehabilitation after having surgery for an ankle problem. His return to the stage was, fittingly, with the AB, and as it happened, the scheduled ballet gave Hallberg a role debut. He danced four performances as Franz in Coppélia. (You can read about the rehabilitation process here and the Coppélia performance here.)

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David Hallberg in Act I of Coppelia. Photo: Kate Longley

Queensland Ballet made a splash when it announced the appointment, from 2017, of Liam Scarlett as artistic associate. Scarlett retains his artist in residence role at the Royal Ballet. At the same time QB announced artistic director Li Cunxin had signed on for four more years. The board must be happy about that.

Less happily, Royal New Zealand Ballet announced that its relatively new artistic director, Francesco Ventriglia, would be relinquishing that role in mid-2017. He will stay on to choreograph the announced new Romeo and Juliet, but then he’s off. What happened? I’ll let you know when I find out, although previously he had spoken to me enthusiastically about being in New Zealand. The RNZ website (Radio New Zealand) wrote in early December that as many as a dozen dancers and staff had left RNZB because of conflicts with Ventriglia, quoting a representative of the union that represents dancers.

I stress I have no information that suggests these departures are connected with Ventriglia’s, but leading Australian-born RNZB dancer Lucy Green has accepted a position with Queensland Ballet for 2017 and RNZB’s former music director Nigel Gaynor, who was hired by Ventriglia’s predecessor Ethan Stiefel, is now QB’s music director. These gains by QB could easily be explained by Li Cunxin’s voracious eye for talent – as in the Liam Scarlett coup (QB and RNZB share Scarlett’s lovely Midsummer Night’s Dream so there’s a close connection).

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Queensland Ballet’s Rian Thompson and Laura Hidalgo in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Photo: David Kelly

The biggest disappointment of the year is the AB’s lack of commitment to developing new choreographers. It’s true that Bodytorque, which started in 2004, needed a fresh look, but it’s become the incredible shrinking show, offering less and less each year. The name is no longer used at all and the amount of new work from developing choreographers is minuscule.

Bodytorque was last seen in its familiar form in 2013 – six new or relatively inexperienced choreographers made works that were seen in a short special season at what is now the Roslyn Packer Theatre in Sydney. In 2014 Bodytorque went to Melbourne and featured five works, including a piece by newly minted resident choreographer Tim Harbour. The other four dance-makers included Alice Topp (her fourth year at Bodytorque) and Richard House (with his second piece).

In 2015 the name still lingered but the program had dwindled to the creation of just one work, House’s From Something, to Nothing, shown once in Sydney and once in Melbourne as a “pop-up” event called Bodytorque Up Late. This took place after performances of mainstage repertoire, once in Sydney and once in Melbourne. The audience could stay to watch for free if it wished. Or not.

In 2016 it was clear favour had fallen on Topp and House, which is fair enough. Both, but particularly Topp, are worth persevering with. This time their new works, each of about 10 minutes in length, were programmed as part of a group of divertissements that acted as a curtain-raiser to Balanchine’s Symphony in C, which gave the whole evening its name.

And for 2017? Those two pieces will be seen again, this time in Melbourne when that city gets Symphony in C. So – let’s add up the minutes. In the three years from 2015-2017, there will have been a bit under 40 minutes in total of new choreography from developing choreographers.

It’s possible AB artistic director David McAllister has big plans for Topp, or House, or both. After all, Harbour was developed via a series of Bodytorque commissions. But Harbour emerged from a quite a large pack. The window of opportunity has now narrowed excessively – and depressingly.

Li Cunxin extends his Queensland Ballet tenure and Liam Scarlett joins as artistic associate

IN October Queensland Ballet announced that artistic director Li Cunxin had signed on for another four years, doubtless much to the relief of the QB board. Li succeeded François Klaus in July 2012 and in his first four years has transformed a lacklustre company into one of significant growth, steadily increasing artistic standards and apparently boundless ambition.

The achievements include introducing a young artist program; securing more State government funding that will, by 2020, boost the size of the company to 36 dancers (not including the eight young artists); performing at least one large-scale work annually in Queensland Performing Arts Centre’s 2000-seat Lyric Theatre; beefing up the senior ranks, including hiring three dancers from National Ballet of Cuba; and selling out just about every performance for every program, every year.

QB has also been successful in attracting significant private donations to the company, a happy state of affairs that tends to be attributed to Li’s networking skills and charisma. Last year the Melbourne-based Ian Potter Foundation announced a gift of $5 million, earmarked for improvements to the company’s facilities at the Thomas Dixon Centre in Brisbane’s West End (Li was a long-time Melbourne resident, working there as a stockbroker after his retirement as a principal dancer with The Australian Ballet) and in its statement regarding Li’s contract extension, QB revealed that an anonymous donor is “committed to supporting Li’s appointment over the next four years”.

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Liam Scarlett rehearsing principal dancer Yanela Pinera in A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Queensland Ballet. Photo: Eduardo Vieira

There was more to come. High-profile young British choreographer Liam Scarlett, who is artist in residence at London’s Royal Ballet and has a busy international career, joins QB next year as artistic associate (he keeps his RB role). A QB representative said Scarlett’s tenure was for four years “initially”, with extension possible, and that the position is being fully funded by one private donor.

In a statement released by QB on November 4, Scarlett said the company had “a commitment to excellence and a desire to push the boundaries and that’s an exciting creative environment to work in”.

The details of the association aren’t yet clear but it is likely QB will perform one Scarlett work each year, either one made on the company or an existing ballet. In 2017 QB will stage No Man’s Land, the one-act work Scarlett made for English National Ballet’s World War I centenary program Lest We Forget in 2014.

Scarlett’s talent was identified when he was a student at the Royal Ballet School. He juggled dance-making and performing with the Royal Ballet until 2012, when he became a fulltime choreographer. He has works in the repertoires of American Ballet Theatre, New York City Ballet, Miami City Ballet and San Francisco Ballet, among other leading companies.

The introduction to QB was made when Royal New Zealand Ballet’s then artistic director, Ethan Stiefel, invited Scarlett to create a full-length Midsummer Night’s Dream for RNZB and asked QB to be a co-producer. Dream premiered in Wellington last year to wide approval – it is captivatingly musical and sensual and has a sweet sense of humour – and sold out its performances in Brisbane earlier this year.

Scarlett’s one-act abstract works have been regarded rather more favourably by leading dance critics than his narrative ballets, although his three-act Carmen, made last year to the music of Bizet for Norwegian National Ballet, must have been received well: the company is reviving it in February and March next year. RNZB took A Midsummer Night’s Dream to Hong Kong in October and gives four more performances of it in Wellington from November 25. This year’s three-act Frankenstein, however, was handed particularly stinging reviews on its London premiere in May this year. (It is a co-production with San Francisco Ballet and opens there in February.)

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Queensland Ballet’s Rian Thompson and Laura Hidalgo in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Photo: David Kelly

When I interviewed Scarlett ahead of the Dream premiere in Wellington last year, at a time he was also deep into planning for Frankenstein, he said he was “very aware I wanted to do narrative – I grew up with all these story ballets and loved them. They were my favourite to do when I was dancing. I soaked them up. But I was very aware you needed tools to do that.”

It’s those tools, or lack of them, that have come under close critical scrutiny. Scarlett’s approach is to work closely with his artistic collaborators, but not with a dramaturg. “I have been criticised for that,” he told me. “But I’ve also worked with people who have worked with a dramaturg and they’ve been criticised equally. No, I run things by people but if I want to do it, I will do it, and if I make a mistake then it’s my mistake that I will learn from eventually.”

His lengthy CV might suggest otherwise but Scarlett is only 30. He doubtless has more mistakes to make along with his successes, but his name will add lustre to QB and Queensland audiences will have the chance to see at close range the further growth of a significant choreographer.

Giselle: Royal New Zealand Ballet

Isaac Theatre Royal, Christchurch, August 23

Every traditional Giselle is drawn in the same broad strokes; it’s the myriad finer details that distinguish one production from another, making yet another Giselle not just another Giselle, but a vivid and immediate experience.

At the end of the first act, for instance, Giselle lies dead, literally heartbroken by Albrecht’s betrayal. She is usually seen in her mother Berthe’s arms, although a director might let Albrecht cradle the girl. In anguish and with various degrees of violence, Albrecht and Hilarion, Giselle’s discarded rustic lover, accuse each other of causing Giselle’s death. Albrecht is customarily pulled away from the scene by his attendant Wilfred and may rush off in a panic, or may keep trying to return to Giselle’s body and has to be restrained.

In Maina Gielgud’s greatly admired staging, revived last year by The Australian Ballet, the very last seconds of the first act etch themselves on the memory. Berthe’s attention is not fully on her daughter but drawn somewhere into the beyond. She looks around in terror: the Wilis are coming. The connection has been made back to Berthe’s earlier description of this encroaching supernatural world and a bridge has explicitly been built to the world of the second act.

In Ethan Stiefel and Johan Kobborg’s 2012 production for Royal New Zealand Ballet, the connection made is that of love. The Giselle who saves Albrecht from the wrath of the Wilis is the girl who dies with Albrecht’s kiss on her lips, an intimate touch I don’t recall seeing in other stagings.

Lucy Green as Giselle. Photo: Bill Cooper

Lucy Green as Giselle. Photo: Bill Cooper

At every point in every production choices are made – choices that one hopes accumulate into a coherent, satisfying whole.

The Stiefel-Kobborg staging is astutely tailored for RNZB’s medium-sized forces (there are 34 unranked company members). Act II is essentially as danced by most companies, albeit with a reduced number of Wilis, but Act I is substantially and persuasively altered. We see more clearly how Hilarion fits in to this little community. He isn’t an outsider who skulks in and out and who is unregarded. He is present much of the time, watching from the edges as his love gives all her attention to another man. Giselle’s isn’t the only heart that’s broken.

Stiefel and Kobborg fruitfully abbreviate Bathilde’s visit to this neck of the woods, having the upper-crust party stop only briefly for a drink before going back to their outdoor pleasures. The salient point is made. Bathilde is engaged to be married, as she lets Giselle know; Giselle admits to being in love. We know they are both referring to Albrecht. Then Bathilde is gone. It’s a good call – one always wonders why she would stay inside Giselle’s little cottage as long as she does in most productions. With the haughty Bathilde not settling in, there’s no need to entertain her. The usual peasant pas becomes a dance for a Wedding Couple, their celebrations entered into by Albrecht, Giselle and Hilarion at various points. Hilarion, who usually doesn’t dance in the first act, is given his moment to shine as he tries to win Giselle’s attention. That Giselle caught the wedding bouquet makes him an even more poignant figure.

A downside is that Bathilde no longer gives Giselle the gift of her necklace, thus robbing us of the powerful moment when Albrecht sees it around Giselle’s neck and knows well ahead of time that his game is up. But there are other pleasures. Giselle’s admiration of Bathilde’s gorgeous gown – the style is Victorian – is enriched by our knowledge that she knows a thing or two about dressmaking: the wedding gown worn by the bride has been made in Giselle’s home. The more fluid approach to the peasant pas section (it rarely feels well-enough integrated dramatically) spills over into the group dance conventionally performed by the women. The Wedding Couple dances here too, as do Albrecht and Giselle.

I saw Giselle in Christchurch with the first cast, Lucy Green and Qi Huan. This production suits Green exceptionally well. She has the gift of appearing fresh and natural in a staging that puts a premium on storytelling. Whether it was an astonishingly swift set of backward bourrées in the second act, a beautifully simple floating half-turn in the first, or anything in between, every step added to one’s store of knowledge about Giselle. Qi is an elegant man of deep experience whose retirement from the stage in 2014 – he teaches at the New Zealand School of Dance – has happily proved to be negotiable. (There is Australian interest in this production too, with former Australian Ballet principal Daniel Gaudiello guesting as Albrecht at some performances with Mayu Tanigaito as his Giselle.)

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Qi Huan and Lucy Green in Giselle. Photo: Stephen A’Court

The experience of visiting Christchurch, the largest city on New Zealand’s South Island, was somewhat more sobering than I had expected on this first visit. The city centre is a forlorn place, with many buildings still needing restoration or complete rebuilding after the 2011 earthquake in which more than 100 people died. Recovery is a long process.

The city, however, was determined to save the Isaac Theatre Royal. Designed by Australian brothers Sydney and AE Luttrell, it opened in 1908 and had the not-uncommon history of being adapted for use as a cinema in the late 1920s and being in danger of demolition in the 1970s. Apparently this fate was fended off with only 48 hours to spare.

Then came the February 2011 quake and significant aftershocks in which the theatre was drastically damaged. The pragmatic – cheaper – choice would have been to build a modern replacement. It has instead been exquisitely restored (and strengthened), retaining its opulently decorated dome, marble staircase and ornate plasterwork. (You can read here about the extraordinary amount of work it took.) Not surprisingly, Giselle looked perfect there.

It was heartening to know that when it was devastated, the city understood the need to revive this beautiful place of art and community.

Giselle continues its national tour in Auckland, August 31-September 3; Rotorua, September 6; and Palmerston North, September 9.

The Wizard of Oz, Royal New Zealand Ballet

St James Theatre, Wellington, May 4.

The Wizard of Oz has had quite a journey on its way to Royal New Zealand Ballet and the St James Theatre in Wellington, New Zealand’s capital. The ballet was originally conceived for Florence’s MaggioDanza and got all the way to the dress rehearsal. Then the ceiling of the theatre fell in and opening night had to be abandoned. The work never made it to the Florence stage. Francesco Ventriglia, who choreographed The Wizard of Oz and was also MaggioDanza’s artistic director at the time, doesn’t mention in his RNZB program note that the bad luck in Florence continued. MaggioDanza operated under the umbrella of Maggio Musicale Fiorentino and when drastic cost-cutting was needed, a decision was taken in 2013 to close the dance company. Finito.

But it’s an ill wind and all that. Ventriglia was unexpectedly at liberty to consider moving to RNZB when it was looking for an artistic director to succeed Ethan Stiefel, the American former dancer and choreographer who opted not to continue in Wellington after his initial three years was up. Ventriglia arrived in late 2014 to run the national ballet company so it was too late for him to have any impact on repertoire for 2015 (Stiefel programmed last year). In one sense, therefore, 2016 is Ventriglia’s debut. He started with a dynamic triple bill, Speed of Light, and has followed up with what he can legitimately call a world premiere. One of his own creations, The Wizard of Oz – now extended from one act to two – finally got that opening night.

Lucy Green and Jacob Chown

Lucy Green and Jacob Chown in The Wizard of Oz. Photo: Evan Li

The Wellington audience liked what it saw, responding with lusty cheers and prolonged foot-stamping on the wooden floors of the St James.

As with many (most?) new story ballets it could do with some tweaking but already it is a delightful piece of fantasy with a warm, inviting young heroine. It’s gorgeous to look at too, in Gianluca Falaschi’s bold, witty design that makes dramatic use of colour. There is a sparkling Art Deco Emerald City awash with sequins, a poppy field embodied by bewitching women in sumptuous red gowns and the dazzling realm of the Princess of Porcelain (what Oz writer L. Frank Baum called the Dainty China Country), with its women in crisp white tutus decorated with delicate china-blue tracery. A lovely touch is that Dorothy’s gingham pinafore changes hue to suit each new setting.

The choreography is vivid, flows swiftly and is well-tailored to each character, from the floppy, boneless undulations of the Scarecrow to the steely, stabbing legwork of the Wicked Witch. There are no fewer than nine meaty roles (one doubled) and seven featured parts for a company of 32: it’s a lot of dance. There’s no Aunt Em but Uncle Henry features at the beginning and end and gracefully provides a role for RNZB’s living treasure Sir Jon Trimmer, who has been associated with the company for nearly 60 years.

Ventriglia frames the story with a hospital scene in which Dorothy is ill. It’s not a new idea to be sure but effective enough as a device to start things moving without getting into cyclone territory. Multiple doors open, familiar characters arrive and Dorothy’s adventures in a dreamworld begin. And what of Toto? We have seen Dorothy in bed clutching a toy dog. Now, sweetly, she has a larger version of the stuffed animal to accompany her.

Dorothy and retinue go to the Emerald City, meet the Wizard (a handsome young man in an eye-boggling green suit), defeat the Wicked Witch, gain possession of the golden hat that gives Dorothy command over the Flying Monkeys and take a detour into the intoxicating poppy fields. All this is in the first half which, more than the second, would benefit from some adjustments to pacing and clearer connective tissue. It’s an episodic story but nevertheless could hang together more cogently. It’s not always entirely clear, for instance, what governs the Good Witch Glinda’s entrances, exits and interventions.

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Lucy Green and William Fitzgerald. Photo: Evan Li

After interval Ventriglia complicates and deepens Dorothy’s quest to find her way home by giving her a taste of grown-up life (thoughts of The Nutcracker are inevitable here). In a lengthy scene in the Kingdom of Porcelain the Prince and Princess display their glamour and sophistication in a formal series of classical variations and in a kind of dream within her dream, Dorothy enjoys a pas de deux with the dashing Prince. Thanks to Gianluca Falaschi she does so in a gingham tutu. Divine. Back in the Emerald City, more experience awaits Dorothy when she dances yearningly with the Wizard, although as we have seen he is a man who doesn’t mind sharing his gifts around. A slightly earlier pas de deux for the Wizard and Glinda shows the two to be quite, ahem, close. A nice touch is to have Prince and Wizard danced by the same man. It’s not exactly textbook L. Frank Baum but it’s enticing ballet.

Ventriglia choreographed to an all-Poulenc score, a piano-heavy patchwork of movements and individual pieces put together with the assistance of RNZB pianist Michael Pansters. It includes parts of the composer’s ballet Les Biches, choreographed by Bronislava Nijinska (1923), and a surprising use of the Organ Concerto (1938). At times the music feels at odds with the movement – the delicately dressed Glinda bourées on to crashing piano chords – and the thickness of some orchestration is too weighty for the purpose to which its put, or at least that’s how it sounded at the opening. Some blame can undoubtedly attach to the use of recordings; unfortunately RNZB doesn’t have the services of a live orchestra for this ballet and it’s a real loss. Many nuances go begging and on opening night the lovely and apposite solo piano work Melancholie (1940) for Dorothy’s pas de deux with the Wizard suffered from being amplified too loudly.

The Ryman Healthcare Season of The Wizard of Oz, by the Royal New Zealand Ballet.

William Fitzgerald as the Prince of Porcelain. Photo: Stephen A’Court

In the opening night cast Lucy Green was a natural for Dorothy. Her unaffected, modest air gives her dancing a very attractive openness. It never, ever looks like hard work even when it is (and she was onstage a lot). Abigail Boyle was the beautifully poised Glinda and Mayu Tanigaito the high-flying Witch of the West. Her elevation is something else. William Fitzgerald (Wizard/Prince of Porcelain) is being given big chances very early in his career and is very much a danseur noble in the making. Laura Jones was an alluring Princess of Porcelain and Loughlan Prior (Scarecrow), Massimo Margaria (Tin Man) and Jacob Chown (Lion) were Dorothy’s invaluable companions on the Yellow Brick Road.

The Wizard of Oz ends in Wellington in May 8 then tours to eight New Zealand cities.

Liam Scarlett’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream arrives in Brisbane

There wouldn’t be too many 29-year-old men who know exactly where they are going to be in five years. Not in a general sense, as in being pretty sure about being promoted, or settling down with a partner and children, but precisely, literally. As in a date, a place, a specific task. Liam Scarlett does.

We talked about this while sitting in a room at Royal New Zealand Ballet headquarters in Wellington, New Zealand, in the middle of last year. He was there to choreograph a new A Midsummer Night’s Dream and he was pondering his diary or, as he described it, “the little squares” that are increasingly mapping out his life way, way into the future. “It terrifies me sometimes. I was planning something for 2019 last night,” he said, sounding a little surprised. “I have no idea what else I’ll be doing in four years but this square says I’ll be doing this. And there’s something in 2020.” But in the ballet business it’s a fact of life that companies plan their programs three, four, even five years ahead “and there are things I don’t want to say no to” says Scarlett. “Opportunities come.”

Indeed they do. His rise has been swift and he’s making the most of it. It’s a good thing he likes travelling – “when you are in a foreign place you often feel the most at home with yourself” – because he is on the road a lot. The truth is that Scarlett feels intensely happy in the studio with dancers, wherever that may be. He’s rather shy and private, he says, but friends tell him he’s a totally different person when he’s working. “Because this is my passion, this is what I love.”

Midsummers Rehearsals. Liam Scarlett and Yanela Pinera. Photo Eduardo Vieira. 2016

Liam Scarlett rehearses Queensland Ballet’s Yanela Pinera. Photo: Eduardo Vieira

Making a ballet might take as little as five or six weeks. Making a career – well, that’s a different matter. With big organisations programming well into the future, he has to look ahead too and juggle an increasingly hectic schedule. The British choreographer is a man wanted simultaneously in two hemispheres. He would have liked to be in Brisbane this week when Queensland Ballet, co-producer with RNZB of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, opens its season of the ballet, but another big commitment called. Scarlett popped into Brisbane for a week at the beginning of March to work with the QB dancers and then it was back to his home company, The Royal Ballet, and the forthcoming Frankenstein. Scarlett’s full-length take on the Mary Shelley story, which will be danced to a newly commissioned score by American composer Lowell Liebermann, opens in London on May 4 and in 2017 at San Francisco Ballet, the co-producer.

It’s been only five or six years since Scarlett’s name started to get some buzz and already he has rocketed to the top of ballet companies’ wish lists. New York City Ballet, Miami City Ballet, San Francisco, Norwegian National Ballet, English National Ballet and of course the Royal all have works from him. (He was to have participated in Paris Opera Ballet’s new Nutcracker, just coming to the end of its run, as one of five choreographers creating a section each. Eventually there were three, not including Scarlett. One imagines he didn’t mind having less on his plate right now.)

Not everything has been greeted with unalloyed joy but the consensus is that he’s a major talent whose musicality and love for ballet’s traditions augur well. As early as 2010, eminent British critic Clement Crisp wrote in The Financial Times: “Scarlett’s dances are a continuing joy, musically apt, fresh, yet firmly placed in a classic tradition. I admire his happy command of this language, and there are moments that tell of already sure resource in making emotional and dynamic points.”

On a personal level, “He’s a complete dream to work with,” says distinguished New Zealand designer Tracy Grant Lord, part of the all-local New Zealand production team for Dream. “Man, he’s so good, he’s so good.”

There’s something sweetly old-fashioned about Scarlett, who readily admits to being “too honest and too vulnerable”. (He’s been smart, then, about steering clear of social media: he has a Twitter account but has sent only four tweets and the last of those was nearly two years ago.) He could well be forgiven for being a tiny bit pleased with himself but that doesn’t seem to be part of his make-up. When talking about the creative team for Frankenstein, made up of people with whom he collaborates frequently, Scarlett said: “Having worked with them so often there’s a responsibility now. I owe them a good piece and I want to make their work sing. They’re my colleagues but also my friends now. So there’s this thing of you want to make someone proud.”

Even if he says “it just happened”, meaning his choreographic career, and even if to the world at large he looks to have rocketed out of nowhere – nowhere being the lowly rank of first artist as a dancer at the Royal – Scarlett has spent almost all his life preparing for exactly this. In the short version, he was picked up by the world’s radar with a well-received mainstage work, the one-act Asphodel Meadows, for the Royal in 2010. That led to a commission from Miami City Ballet for 2012 and the floodgates opened. Ethan Stiefel, then artistic director of RNZB, was one of the smart ones who got in early. In fact, Scarlett says A Midsummer Night’s Dream was one of his earliest commissions. That particular little square in the diary was filled in more than three years ago. Once Scarlett had agreed to make the ballet for RNZB, QB artistic director Li Cunxin quickly came on board to share the production.

Tonia Looker and MacLean Hopper 01 photo by Stephen A'Court

Royal New Zealand Ballet’s Tonia Looker and MacLean Hopper as Titania and Oberon in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Photo: Stephen A’Court

The longer story starts 25 years ago in Ipswich in the south of England when Scarlett was four, an energetic lad sent off to ballet classes. Early on he started “arranging people on stage nicely” for things, as he told a British newspaper several years ago. He was good enough to be accepted into The Royal Ballet School at 11 and that’s where he really started arranging people nicely.

Students were encouraged to choreograph and learn an instrument (piano for Scarlett). It was the best foundation he could have had. Scarlett can read a score fluently, saying it’s not only helpful but a matter of respect to be able to talk to a conductor with that level of understanding. Steven McRae, an Australian-born principal dancer with The Royal Ballet, has had key roles in several new Scarlett works (he is also in the first cast of Frankenstein) and tells Review: “His attention to detail is remarkable. The way he creates movement that reflects the music gives you the sense that the music is in fact coming out of you.”

Scarlett won prizes and got noticed from the off. Successive RB artistic directors gave him opportunities before and after he joined the company in 2005. In 2012 he was named artist in residence at the Royal, a position created for him. Although he was still enjoying being on stage Scarlett decided to concentrate on choreography fully around that time, just after current RB artistic director Kevin O’Hare had commissioned the three-act Frankenstein. “And then I stopped dancing the next day, or something.“

Scarlett doesn’t mind a dark subject. When Stiefel first called him about making a work for RNZB they tossed around ideas for about half an hour before Stiefel brought up Shakespeare’s much-loved play. Scarlett laughed and said Stiefel wanted Dream from the start but worked up to it slowly “maybe because it involves fairies and my usual aesthetic doesn’t veer towards that”. This is true. Scarlett’s CV contains two ballets with titles that refer to the afterlife (Asphodel Meadows, Acheron); a ballet about artist Walter Sickert’s obsession with Jack the Ripper (Sweet Violets); a particularly dark version of Hansel and Gretel; and a take on W.H. Auden’s The Age of Anxiety.

Dark fantasies can come to life in the safety of theatrical performance, he said. “But I do love creating glorious and happy pieces too. I just think the whole spectrum of human emotion should be explored. I love making an audience feel something.”

Scarlett isn’t over-awed by the fact RB founding choreographer Frederick Ashton’s one-act version of Shakespeare’s play, The Dream, is one of the best-known ballets on the subject. He knows it intimately, of course, having danced in it as a lowly Rustic (“I would have loved to have done Bottom”). Scarlett felt there was plenty of room for his own ideas. “Shakespeare gives you this magical world where anything is possible. You have a basis, but you have carte blanche as well. And I am in New Zealand, which helps. I’m far away,” he joked. More seriously, he said that “in terms of Ashton I would never go near Chopin after A Month in the Country. It is a perfect ballet.”

Hayley Donnison as a fairy credit Stephen A'Court

RNZB’s Hayley Donnison in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Photo: Stephen A’Court

When the curtain rises on Scarlett’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream the night air is full of mystery and mischief. A flock of fairies dashes thither and yon, adorable in fluffy, richly coloured tutus and super-sized wings. Now you see them and now you don’t as they dart behind glowing flowers or are glimpsed up in the tree canopy, catching their rulers, Oberon and Titania, having a domestic over ownership of a little changeling boy. The keen-to-please Puck pops out of a hiding place high above the forest floor to start getting everything wrong on Oberon’s behalf and his exertions are complicated by a group of young people blundering about in the dark, intent on romance and excitement. “They’re on a fairy safari,” said Tracy Grant Lord with a huge smile.

Like Ashton, Scarlett uses Mendelssohn’s Incidental Music written for the play but needed to augment it to fill two acts of dance. Other Mendelssohn pieces were arranged and orchestrated by then RNZB music director Nigel Gaynor, who is now with QB, and woven into a score overflowing with luscious melodies. RNZB’s current artistic director Francesco Ventriglia (he inherited the ballet from Stiefel) commented that while Scarlett’s RB training means he has the Ashton in his DNA, “he’s got a strong enough voice to make it his own”.

Scarlett takes seriously the responsibility of following in the footsteps of Ashton and the RB’s other great choreographers, Kenneth MacMillan and Ninette de Valois. “I’m a very lucky boy. I know that and I don’t take that for granted. Whenever I go to new places I take the RB’s name with me.”

A connecting thread between them all is a profound belief in the power of storytelling. Vivid acting and intense musicality are two of the Royal’s defining qualities and they are central to Scarlett’s Dream, which vibrates with vivid characters. “The story is always such a huge part for me. The dancers will hopefully tell you I couldn’t care less whether they fall on their faces or if they don’t do two pirouettes, but if the narrative doesn’t come through, if the intention or the emotion doesn’t apparate somehow, then it’s futile.” Apparate? “I’m in the fairy world at the moment,” Scarlett said with much laughter. “Everything comes with a puff of smoke or a burst of glitter. That’s where my vocabulary’s been going with this. I can’t remember the number of times I’ve said ‘magic’ or ‘glisten for me’, or ‘fly’. Story is a big thing for me and a very personal thing.”

It doesn’t faze Scarlett to walk into a room full of dancers he’s never met, all of them looking at him to make something happen. “The apprehension has gone. When I was younger there was a certain naivety that covered that up. Now I love it. It’s my job in the studio to make sure everyone has a great time, a good creative process, a collaborative process as well. I work with all casts in the studio. I don’t have my first cast out the front. I will create equally on everyone. That’s very important.”

Dancers obviously appreciate his approach. According to Steven McRae, “Liam has the sensitivity to read his dancers, knowing when to push them, take them out of their comfort zones yet generate a level of trust that allows the dancers to put their complete faith in him.” Li described Scarlett as having a curious, open mind. “He’s also very daring. Not willing to be typecast in one style.” Lucy Green, an Australian who was one of RNZB’s Titanias, said she had never worked with anyone who had given so much to dancers in the studio. “When he demonstrates you can see what he wants straight away. I’ve seen him demonstrate pretty much every role in the ballet and he nails it every time. He’s so believable as a fairy, so believable as the heartbroken lover, and then as the donkey, and you go wow, you could do the whole show yourself. Not all choreographers are like that. I can absolutely see why he’s such a star.”

When about to make a work Scarlett relies first on instinct and the subconscious – to let the ideas percolate. “Once that title is circling in my head you leave it for a little bit and every so often something will pop in and you’ll jot it down, and you’ve got a notepad of key components of looks or ideas and little nuances. Then once that happens you really do have to sit down with a blank piece of paper and go, ‘Right! Let’s start’.

“You’re very aware this has to be made for a ballet company. With any full-length you want to include the whole company and make it for them. Being a dancer myself the wonderful thing is that I got to experience having full-lengths made on the company and it was such a great experience to be part of that. If you’re not made to feel part of that it can be a very difficult time.”

He doesn’t work with a dramaturge. “I have been criticised for that. But I’ve also worked with people who have worked with a dramaturge and equally [they’ve been criticised]. No, I run things by people. I always run things by my creative team, and it’s also that thing of when I get into a studio I like being able to explore how you can tell a story, so there has to be a certain kind of flexibility within that narrative. There’s that thing of if I want to do it, I will do it, and if I make a mistake then it’s my mistake that I will learn from eventually.”

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Queensland Ballet, Brisbane, April 1-16.

A version of this story first appeared in The Weekend Australian in October last year.

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