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.

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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!”

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.

Royal New Zealand Ballet in 2017

Royal New Zealand Ballet’s search for a choreographer to make a new Romeo and Juliet for the company in 2017 was a short one. After the sell-out success of artistic director Francesco Ventriglia’s The Wizard of Oz in May this year, the ballet company’s board asked Ventriglia to take the job himself. In a big coup for the company Romeo and Juliet will be designed by James Acheson, a triple Academy Award winner for costume design who happens to live in Wellington. Acheson was responsible for the lavish costumes in The Last Emperor, Dangerous Liaisons and Restoration and is setting Romeo and Juliet conventionally, and no doubt sumptuously, in Verona in the late Renaissance. It is Acheson’s first ballet assignment and Ventriglia says the initial discussions with him have been “extremely interesting, challenging and inspirational”.

Ventriglia promises a big, “really classical” production and will use the Prokofiev score. He knows the MacMillan version intimately from his dancing days – “I was Paris, I was Tybalt; it’s part of my DNA, if you want” – but says the MacMillan and the equally admired Cranko versions were perfect “for their moment”. In other words, those productions, which premiered in 1965 and 1962 respectively, are now more than 50 years old. There’s room for other interpretations.

So Ventriglia is doing what he calls a lot of diving into the text and music to find his own way into the story, and is working with a dramaturg to make sure there is “a reason for everything”. A key issue for him, for instance, is the relationship between Lady Capulet and Tybalt, whose connection he wants to strengthen. Romeo and Juliet opens in Wellington in August 2017.

Two mixed bills in 2017 will buck the usual mix’n’match trend by focusing on a single choreographer. RNZB’s opening season, which runs from February to April, features two works by Roland Petit, a choreographer who featured strongly in Ventriglia’s dance career at La Scala (“I grew up with him”) and whose work is rarely seen in this part of the world. New Zealand audiences will see L’Arlesienne (1974) and Carmen (1949), both to the music of Bizet. (The Australian Ballet performed Carmen in 1973.)

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Abigail Boyle and Massimo Margaria in a promotional image for Carmen. Photo: Ross Brown

Petit died in 2011 after a long and celebrated career. The second featured choreographer, Swedish-born Alexander Ekman, is just 32 and has been choreographing only since 2006. In the middle of the year RNZB will revive Ekman’s wildly popular Cacti (2010) – which it performed earlier this year as part of a triple bill titled Speed of Light – alongside company premieres of Tuplet (2012) and Episode 31 (2011). Ekman’s website describes Tuplet as “a swift, pulsating, eighteen-minute tour-de-force for six dancers which asks the question, what is rhythm?”. Episode 31 was made for Juilliard students in New York and is for a large group of dancers.

Ventrigila plans to organise offstage events to complement both programs. “They will open a new communication with the public,” he says.

RNZB will also help celebrate New Zealand School of Dance’s 50th anniversary at a gala in November. NZSD is the Official School of the Royal New Zealand Ballet and senior students undertake corps de ballet roles in some productions, as they will in next year’s Romeo and Juliet. RNZB’s repertoire is yet to be announced but will include a work to be staged during the 2018 season but unveiled early for the anniversary celebrations.

Next year is a Tutus on Tour year and in 2017 RNZB will take a gala program to regional centres – “a good, proper repertoire gala; even in the small cities they will see the real Royal New Zealand Ballet”. While the program hasn’t yet been finalised, Ventriglia is thinking along the lines of the Le Corsaire pas de deux and Balanchine’s Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux.

There is no international touring locked in at the moment but it’s something Ventriglia always has his eye on. He’d like to take the company back to Italy soon and a return to China is on the cards. “I want to build a bridge between New Zealand and the rest of the world,” he says.

Ventriglia will have a slightly larger company with which to do that. Next year he is able to increase his dancer number to 36 from the current 34.

About last week … April 30-May 6

A week of contrasts started on Tuesday at the Sydney Opera House with the marvellous Bernadette Robinson in Pennsylvania Avenue, her follow-up to Songs for Nobodies. Both were written by Joanna Murray-Smith to give a narrative framework for Robinson’s rare talent and if Songs for Nobodies strikes one as the much better work, Pennsylvania Avenue still offers many pleasures. Robinson has an extraordinary ability to summon the voices and spirit of famous singers and is a fine actor as well. Her art is much more than mimicry. Pennsylvania Avenue is flashback theatre set in the White House as a woman, Harper Clements, recalls her life of service to a string of presidents, starting with JFK. The conceit is that she works with the entertainments wing and thus comes into contact with many famous singers over a 40 year-span. The single set rather traps Robinson into walking around, picking up and putting down a box of belongings as she prepares to leave her position (Simon Phillips directed), and the troubles in Clements’s life aren’t as fascinating as the evocation of events such as Sarah Vaughn’s performance at the White House. Nevertheless, the wide range of songs and Robinson’s skill keep you with her, even if at 90 minutes the show feels a tad long. Robinson does a killer Tammy Wynette (Stand By Your Man – associated, naturally, with the Clinton era), her Eartha Kitt (If You Go Away, the English version of Brel’s Ne Me Quitte Pas) is spine-tingling and her Bob Dylan (The Eve of Destruction) is pitch-perfect, if such a term can be applied to the Dylan vocal style. An excellent band, too, tucked away behind the curtain.

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Bernadette Robinson in Pennsylvania Avenue

On Wednesday morning it was off to Wellington and Royal New Zealand Ballet’s The Wizard of Oz, which I have reviewed at length in the post below. A lovely work, albeit one that can grow as it gets more performances. As always, dramaturgical input is something very much needed in the making of story ballets and it is often put too far down the list of priorities. I’ve very much enjoyed reading British critics talking about the need for dramaturgical and directorial input into Liam Scarlett’s new three-act ballet for the Royal, Frankenstein. I’ve been banging on about this for decades. But back to RNZB, where choreographer and artistic director Francesco Ventriglia has a very strong base from which to work. And we’re not talking huge changes.

Thursday night brought the Queen/Ben Elton musical We Will Rock You, which I missed when it was staged in Australia in 2003. My review is in The Australian today (May 9) and I’ll put it up on the blog later in the week. Suffice to say that as someone who was young in the 1970s I had a very good time indeed.

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Casey Donovan as the Killer Queen in We Will Rock You. Photo: Jeff Busby

Thank goodness for Australian Theatre for Young People’s Friday matinee of Spring Awakening, a production I would otherwise not have been able to fit into the schedule. And I would have missed a beauty. It’s salutary to note that Frank Wedekind’s 1891 play was banned in England until 1963, a clear affirmation of its revolutionary nature. Well, and of British idiocy in respect to censorship. Wedekind’s theme of burgeoning teenage sexuality and adult fear and hypocrisy was incendiary then, and now. Despite children having almost unfettered access to sexual material, there are powerful people who still refuse to allow those children to have straightforward, realistic, all-embracing information and discussion.

The 2006 musical by Duncan Sheik (music) and Steven Sater (book and lyrics) is set in the time of Wedekind’s play yet feels utterly contemporary, and not only because of the indie-rock score. The young ATYP actors are shiningly unselfconscious and thoroughly absorbed and absorbing. Jessica Rookeward’s Wendla glows in spirit and voice and the two leading men, James Raggett (Melchior) and Josh McElroy (Moritz) could not be bettered, so passionate and so different. Mitchell Butel, on only his second directorial outing, proves that should acting jobs dry up – unlikely; Butel is one of the busiest and most versatile men on the Australian stage – he can segue effortlessly to the other side. He gets superb performances of detail, clarity and conviction from relatively inexperienced performers and creates an utterly believable world. The design from Simon Greer (set), Damien Cooper and Ross Graham (lights) and David Bergman (sound) is simplicity itself and all the better for it. Amy Campbell’s choreography is brilliant, as is Lucy Bermingham’s musical direction. Bravi.

It appears there may still be some seats for the Spring Awakening matinees of May 11 and 13. I’d advise jumping on them immediately.

Jessica Rookeward and James Raggatt in Spring Awakening. Photo: Tracey Schramm

Jessica Rookeward and James Raggatt in Spring Awakening. Photo: Tracey Schramm

On Friday it was off to Carriageworks and a showing of the four finalists in the Keir Choreographic Award, a generous biennial prize (yay!). I’ll write more about it later but wasn’t surprised that Ghenoa Gela carried off both the main award of $30,000 and the people’s vote, which added $10,000 to Gela’s prize. Put simply, Fragments of Malungoka – Women of the Sea was much more emotionally engaging than the other works; it was warmer, more human, more interesting, more inviting. Gela’s dancers were, despite the shielding of their faces, women of flesh and blood and their movement connected one with resonant questions about meaning inherent in or imposed on indigenous dance.

Pennsylvania Avenue, The Playhouse, Sydney Opera House, until May 22.

Spring Awakening, ATYP Studio 1, Wharf 4, Sydney, until May 14.

The Wizard of Oz, various cities in New Zealand until June 12.

We Will Rock You, Lyric Theatre, Sydney, until June 26 and then touring Australia into 2017.

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.

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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.

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.