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.

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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.

Romeo and Juliet, RNZB

St James Theatre, Wellington, August 16.

Francesco Ventriglia was artistic director of Royal New Zealand Ballet when he proposed making a new Romeo and Juliet to replace Christopher Hampson’s highly regarded version, made in 2003 to mark RNZB’s 50th anniversary and revived for four more seasons. Ventriglia’s tenure didn’t quite work out as planned and in November last year, two years into the job, it was announced he would leave the post in June. He would however stay on as a guest choreographer to complete R&J.

Romeo and Juliet, by the Royal New Zealand Ballet.

Joseph Skelton and Madeleine Graham as Romeo and Juliet. Photo: RNZB/Stephen A’Court

Hampson’s version was set in the 1950s. Ventriglia returns the story to the 15th century and Italian aristocratic life, vividly evoking a society in which excitable young men with not enough to do are constantly on the prowl for mischief while young noblewomen must face the prospect of marrying Prince Wrong to shore up the family’s standing.

Renaissance Verona comes up a treat in British designer James Acheson’s sets and costumes. He was clearly the right man for the job, what with a mantelpiece laden with Oscars including for The Last Emperor and Dangerous Liaisons. This is a man who knows his way around opulence. The elder Capulets gleam in crimson, Juliet shimmers in floaty white and pastels and the inevitable harlots make whoopee in sexy swagged frocks that are a riot of saturated colours, set off by fabulous boots. Business must be excellent.

The only disappointment is that Acheson – one assumes he must take the blame – has apparently agreed to fall obediently in line with classical ballet’s inviolable harlot rule. It states that women in this profession must be identified, without fail, by a desperately unbecoming explosion of frizz on their heads (cf. Manon). Most tiresome.

Romeo and Juliet, by the Royal New Zealand Ballet.

Kirby Selchow, Katie Hurst-Saxon and Veronika Maritati. Photo: RNZB/Stephen A’Court

This irritation aside, Acheson’s design is a powerful character. There are great arches, a wide central staircase and tall columns that deftly redefine spaces. For the balcony scene Juliet at first appears, Rapunzel-like, in an opening carved out of a tall, otherwise faceless tower that speaks of a material world that has stood, and will stand, for generations to defend its inhabitants from envious outsiders (or perhaps a young man who might want to take liberties).

We don’t know why the Capulets and Montagues hate one another but it doesn’t matter. Their enmity is woven into the fabric of their lives, as is religion. It must be observed. In a brilliant touch, Juliet’s bedchamber is dominated by a huge painting of Madonna and Child under which Romeo and Juliet consummate their marriage, mute testimony to the role Friar Laurence plays in the tragedy and the inescapable influence of the Church.

The visual richness is a wonderful match for Prokofiev’s music, which conductor Hamish McKeich and Orchestra Wellington played to the hilt at the opening. They gave urgency and sweep to the big moments that give brass and percussion occasion to let rip and McKeich drew lush playing from the strings. While the sound was more persuasive at full bore than in the score’s more intimate sections (possibly a function of the St James acoustic), McKeich’s reading of this exceptionally familiar music gratifyingly offered new things to hear in it.

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Abigail Boyle as Lady Capulet. Photo: RNZB/Stephen A’Court

Ventriglia responds to the music with choreography that is always fluent and apposite but not greatly revelatory or distinctive. He does, however, give the staging plenty of piquant flavour, a result, no doubt, of his collaboration with dramaturg Mario Mattia Giorgetti. Their work pays handsome dividends. There is no alteration to the broad sweep of the narrative – everything is in its expected place – but close attention is paid to the spaces in between. You see this at the Capulet’s masked ball when Tybalt warns Juliet off Romeo with the smallest shake of his head, a moment that adds texture to their relationship. Don’t do this, he’s telling her. Don’t go there. It’s the tinest thing yet adds to our understanding of the relationship between the cousins. There are a myriad other examples that give characters nuance and actions a reason for being. Of course Tybalt, who sees what’s going on, would let Juliet know he knows.

Most striking is the depiction of Lady Capulet and her relationship with Tybalt. At the masked ball their desire is barely suppressed and when Romeo kills Tybalt, Lady Capulet’s grief and rage explode like napalm. She rips off the mask of propriety and doesn’t care who sees the naked passion beneath. Just in case anyone was under the misapprehension she was mourning a favourite nephew, Lady Capulet marks her territory with a voracious kiss almost as shocking as the one Oscar Wilde’s Salome gives the head of John the Baptist. Abigail Boyle’s ice-and-fire Lady Capulet was a sensation, well matched by Paul Mathews’s deeply attractive Tybalt.

Not surprisingly, the younger lovers came to look a little pallid in the shadow of such drama, or at least did on opening night. Joseph Skelton and Madeleine Graham acted engagingly and danced their series of complicated pas de deux with much skill. Skelton is handsome and an able partner, Graham is adorable and both were very sweet, but neither clawed their way to the peak of great tragedy nor plumbed the depths of exhilaration and desperation.

Romeo and Juliet, by the Royal New Zealand Ballet.

Joseph Skelton and Madeleine Graham. Photo: RNZB/Stephen A’Court

Massimo Margaria was a wild Mercutio, Filippo Valmorbida enchanting as Benvolio (I think he’d be a rather good Romeo) and Laura Saxon Jones all elbows and daffy kindness as the Nurse. Mayu Tanigaito stood out in the quartet of Juliet’s friends and dances Juliet at some performances, partnered by Kohei Iwamoto, who managed to make something of the fairly thankless role of Paris on opening night. Jacob Chown was tremendously good in the tricky part of Lord Capulet, who has to keep up appearances as a man of substance in the face of his wife’s barely veiled contempt.

Romeo and Juliet ends in Wellington on Sunday August 20 then tours to seven cities around the country, ending on September 24.