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”.

Patricia Barker to lead RNZB

Royal New Zealand Ballet has appointed American Patricia Barker as its new artistic director. She leaves Michigan’s Grand Rapids Ballet to take up the position and starts in Wellington later this month. Barker succeeds Francesco Ventriglia, who announced his resignation in November, well short of the end of his first contract with the company. Ventriglia will stay on for several months as a guest choreographer to see his new production of Romeo and Juliet on to the stage. It opens on August 16.

Barker will be the second woman and third American to lead the company in its 64-year history. Una Kai, a New Jersey-born dancer with New York City Ballet, was artistic director at RNZB from 1973-1975. American Ballet Theatre star Ethan Stiefel directed the company for three years immediately before Ventriglia’s tenure.

Patricia Barker copy

Patricia Barker, Royal New Zealand Ballet’s new artistic director

Barker enjoyed a celebrated dance career at Seattle’s Pacific Northwest Ballet under the direction of Kent Stowell and Francia Russell and was particularly admired in the Balanchine repertoire. After retiring from the stage in 2007 she worked as co-artistic adviser – with Jiří Kylián – at Slovak National Theatre Ballet, has staged works for the Balanchine Trust and since 2010 has been artistic director of Grand Rapids Ballet – her first such appointment.

In 2015 Pointe magazine credited Barker with turning around the fortunes of that company in her first four years. Grand Rapids previously had 16 dancers but by 2015 the number had increased to 33, a number that included trainees and apprentices. Like many American classical companies of its size, it performs for about seven months of the year. RNZB is a fulltime company with 38 dancers.

RNZB Board chair Steven Fyfe said in a statement: “From a large number of excellent applications from New Zealand and all over the world, the Board was greatly impressed by Patricia’s vision for all aspects of the RNZB’s activities, together with her experience as an artistic leader. Her knowledge of both contemporary and classical repertoire, as a dancer, coach and director also makes her an outstanding fit for the RNZB.”

Barker said: “I am honoured and delighted to provide the artistic leadership to a company full of opportunity, achievement and with a unique creative voice and spirit. I will preserve the rich tradition of the Royal New Zealand Ballet while building on the company’s impressive repertoire by curating works to build on a distinctive New Zealand personality to enrich the lives of New Zealanders and showcase our dancers’ versatility to the world. I look forward to working with the Board of Directors, Frances Turner and the staff to present a broad spectrum of accessible, stimulating, and entertaining programing to a diverse national audience and to present the RNZB as a cultural ambassador of New Zealand.”

RNZB’s Executive Director, Frances Turner, celebrated the fact the company will be led by two women: “I’m looking forward to working with Patricia and enabling her artistic vision,” she said in a statement. “As the RNZB heads towards our 65th season I know that we will continue to inspire New Zealanders with great art. It’s also exciting to be leading the company in partnership with another woman; I suspect there are very few national companies worldwide that can say this!”