A new year dawns at RNZB

Biographies of the new intake at Royal New Zealand Ballet are now on the website after last year’s bruising and very public exodus of a large number of dancers.

There are currently 32 dancers pictured on the site, 22 of whom were still standing at the end of 2017. Now the dust has settled it appears that 16 dancers left during the last three months of 2017 (there was quite a lot of churn during the past two years, somewhat muddying the numbers and increasing the perception of instability).

The reasons for departure are various, as they usually are, but the company’s handling of this significant turnover was poor and contributed to the drubbing it received in the NZ media. It is not true, as a media report wildly claimed on January 28, that “most” of the company’s dancers left or did not have their contracts renewed but the public perception was of a company in crisis. Even the new Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, was drawn into the furore, although in fairness one has to add that she is also arts minister.

Patricia Barker, Artistic Director, The Royal New Zealand Ballet

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

RNZB usually employs about 36 dancers but new artistic director Patricia Barker is keeping a few contracts up her sleeve. Early in January she told American publication Dance Magazine she would continue to hold auditions through the year. This is to take account of the difference in contract periods between the northern and southern hemispheres.

One of the 10 new names at RNZB, Nadia Yanowsky, is an experienced European soloist who is listed as a guest artist for The Piano: the ballet and Dancing with Mozart seasons. The other nine comprise three New Zealanders, three Australians, two from the US and one from China. One of the Americans, Caroline Wiley, was formerly with Barker’s company Grand Rapids Ballet in Michigan. Barker remains artistic director of Grand Rapids until mid-year, when San Francisco Ballet soloist James Sofranko takes over. Wiley’s signing appears to be recent – she was not named in a January 12 announcement by the company about its new team.

About half the dancers are New Zealanders and Australians, with some of the latter having trained at the New Zealand School of Dance; the others come from Europe, Asia, South America and the US. The mix of nationalities is not at all unusual when one looks at RNZB’s history, although in mid-December, during discussions about the company’s make-up, the RNZB Board asserted – clearly in panic mode – that 42% of its dancers were either from NZ or were NZ-trained, and that the goal for 2018 was for that percentage to be higher.

The company as it exists today can boast about one-third of its dancers having that NZ connection, and that seems in line with other years. I suppose it’s possible Barker could hire another four New Zealanders during the year to boost the percentage to about 45% although that doesn’t seem the most obvious way to create the right mix of dancers for a company.

More interesting is the level of experience of the incoming group. The biographies of eight of the 10 new dancers show only a few years of professional performance, recent membership of Young Artist or pre-professional programs or recent graduation from training institutions. One newcomer, Olivia Moore, is only 16.

In other newcomer news, The Australian Ballet is steadily heading towards its goal of having 85 dancers within the next few years. It is taking seven young graduates into the corps this year while four dancers have left. There are now 77 company members. In addition, American Ballet Theatre principal artist David Hallberg is resident guest artist.

Queensland Ballet has significantly boosted its stocks, including three dancers newly arrived from RNZB. This year it has 37 main company members, up from 33 last year, and 12 Young Artists. It will also have two dancers in the new rank of Apprentice. When Li Cunxin became artistic director in 2012 there were 25 main company members.

Footnote: Patricia Barker took a lot of the flak for RNZB’s tumultuous situation. Some of it was unfair, although as I have written before, it would have been humane to let all dancers stay for one full year under her leadership and then make decisions about contract renewal. As it was, Barker let four dancers go and that fuelled much of the outrage, along with her continued association with Grand Rapids Ballet in Michigan.

Never mind that the Board that hired Barker agreed to let her continue as artistic director of Grand Rapids for the rest of that company’s season, which ends in May. That was known before she set foot in Wellington. Obviously the Board didn’t do a very good job of selling the information, but then it needed Barker to come quickly because her predecessor, Francesco Ventriglia, was about to leave.

Ventriglia’s tenure was not without its upheavals and he announced in 2016, only two years after arriving, that he wouldn’t be staying. He remained to choreograph his new Romeo and Juliet last year, thus giving the Board time to conduct a search for his successor. They just didn’t find someone free of all current commitments.

Ventriglia had been preceded by Ethan Stiefel, who declined to renew his contract after his initial three-year term, which he took up in late 2011. And remember, the company had waited close to a year for Stiefel to take up the job after his appointment was announced, necessitating the hiring of an interim director to fill the gap after Stiefel’s predecessor, Gary Harris, left at the end of 2010. Still with me? Former RNZB artistic director Matz Skoog stepped into the breach for eight months. This means there are dancers at RNZB who have had five artistic directors stand in front of them since 2010.

Doubtless with all these comings and goings in mind, the Board asked Barker to sign on for five years rather than the usual three. Time will tell how that works out but you have to admire Barker’s sang froid. She said this to Dance Magazine: “All of the attention towards that gives me a sense the community really cares about the organisation and I hope that we continue to get this much media coverage as we move into the next season and the wonderful ballets are done.”

Meanwhile, the NZ PM has had a chat to the company, reportedly saying the organisation is aware of her concerns. In addition RNZB has commissioned a report into its processes and how it manages complaints, which may be completed by next month. And the Board is seeking someone with experience in classical dance as well as governance to become a Trustee. Yes, detailed art form knowledge seems to have been lacking to date. Makes you think, doesn’t it?

RNZB’s first work for 2018, The Piano: the ballet, opens on February 23.

Queensland Ballet’s The Sleeping Beauty

Lyric Theatre, Brisbane, October 23 and October 24

It is something of an understatement to say Greg Horsman knows The Sleeping Beauty well. Not only was it the first ballet he saw, the one that made him want to be a dancer, it was a key role for him. Among the stages on which he performed as Prince Désiré are the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden and St Petersburg’s Mariinsky, where The Sleeping Beauty was brought to life in 1888.

Now ballet master at Queensland Ballet, Horsman has revived the production he created in 2011 for Royal New Zealand Ballet, a company of similar size to QB (he was ballet master there before coming to QB). This Sleeping Beauty isn’t one for the purists given the changes Horsman has made to what is considered the usual text, but it is a highly attractive and satisfying one. The production has an appealing human scale without sacrificing any of its fairy tale magic. The broad strokes of the familiar legend are there, shaped into a narrative that Horsman fills out with many original, felicitous details. It’s not a hugely grand Sleeping Beauty but one that beguiles with its unfailingly clear storytelling – there is quite a lot of mime, all of it instantly legible – and wonderful concentration on character rather than effects.

Alina Cojocaru and Chi Cao in The Sleeping Beauty. Photo: David Kelly

Alina Cojocaru and Chi Cao in The Sleeping Beauty. Photo: David Kelly

Horsman makes a virtue of transforming the ballet for medium-sized forces (QB has 31 dancers at present and eight young artists). The ballet has only one interval and a very brief pause between acts II and III, Horsman excises and conflates characters stylishly, gracefully interweaves the fairies from the Prologue throughout the action, builds up the wicked fairy Carabosse’s role enjoyably and keeps pomp to a minimum. It might seem odd to describe The Sleeping Beauty – the ultimate achievement in Russian Imperial-era ballet – as an intimate experience, but that’s how it felt.

Horsman’s first surprise comes early. The curtain rises on Catalabutte fussing around with the invitations to Aurora’s christening and, guess what? He’s a cat. You shake your head for a moment and then think, well, why not? This isn’t a palace unacquainted with non-humans, as the influx of fairies, sparkling emissaries from the supernatural realm, indicates. It’s lovely how the latter keep turning up, all bright and full of good cheer, to keep an eye on things. Their recurring presence gives the ballet a strong spine.

In a lively piece of characterisation Carabosse is presented as an impossibly glamorous contemporary of the good fairies, the kind of young woman who would have led the pack of mean girls at high school and graduated from university with a higher degree in viciousness. Clare Morehen at the first performance and Eleanor Freeman at the second invested Carabosse with super-model confidence and glossiness with their high-flying jetés and insolent stares. I particularly liked the link-up with the good fairies, all of them holding hands and dancing in unison, as perhaps they once all did in happier days. Carabosse also has quite a trick up her sleeve for later, when the prince fights his way to the sleeping Aurora.

Clare Morehen (centre) as Carabosse. Photo: David Kelly

Clare Morehen (centre) as Carabosse. Photo: David Kelly

I was constantly taken with how carefully Horsman makes sure the world he creates is consistent in tone throughout. The garland dance, for example, is a relaxed affair for a group of young palace gardeners and their girls rather than the entire village putting on a formal show for Aurora’s 16th birthday. The hunt scene is for Prince Désiré, two friends and his tutor only. The Act III wedding dispenses with all the usual fairy tale characters except the cats – yes, that would be Catalabutte and his wife, Lady Florine – and Bluebirds, who arrive in a cage as a wedding gift and are, of course, catnip to Catalabutte, much to the audience’s delight.

It was striking how fresh, individual and lively everyone was, in particular the zesty women. New QB principal, Argentinian-born Laura Hidalgo, was a luscious Bluebird and I would very much like to see her Aurora. At the second performance junior soloist Teri Crilly enchanted with her sparky, darting Bluebird (she was, not surprisingly, in the first cast as the fairy who bestows the gift of Song on Aurora). All the fairies distinguished themselves but special mention goes to soloist Lisa Edwards, the fairy of Beauty in the first cast and fairy of Grace in the second. She has a very appealing aura of calm and mystery.

All Horsman’s inventions sit easily around the traditional set pieces for Aurora, danced on opening night by guest artist Alina Cojocaru. Formerly with The Royal Ballet and now with English National Ballet, Cojocaru is widely considered to be the Aurora of her generation. She radiates light and joy from a tiny body that gives the impression not only of being buoyed by the music but indivisible from it. Her dancing is brilliant, each moment etched with great precision, yet everything feels as if it is the inspiration of that moment. Most potent of all is her warm generosity, seen in abundant, open-hearted gestures and an intense gaze that encompasses the entire theatre. She is an extraordinary artist.

Chi Cao and Alina Cojocaru. Photo: David Kelly

Chi Cao and Alina Cojocaru. Photo: David Kelly

At the second performance QB’s glamorous principal artist Yanela Piñera, formerly with the National Ballet of Cuba, danced Aurora with a similarly bounteous engagement with the audience. I would venture she isn’t perhaps entirely a natural Aurora temperamentally speaking – Piñera has a very sophisticated quality – so Act III was a better fit for her than Act I, although her dancing is very fine indeed. She can achieve a triple pirouette with the lightest of touches, unrushed and unshowy, as a demonstration of delight and wonder rather than display of technique.

Queensland Ballet principal Yanela Pinera as Aurora. Photo: David Kelly

Queensland Ballet principal Yanela Pinera as Aurora. Photo: David Kelly

Guest artist Chi Cao, from Birmingham Royal Ballet, partnered Cojocaru elegantly, although at the second performance I found QB principal Hao Bin a more ardent prince who made more of the awakening kiss, which is given pride of place – far from always being the case – in Gary Harris’s extremely effective set. There are intimations of soaring Gothic arches, a storybook forest for the vision scene and a moveable gazebo that enables the kiss to have the dramatic impact it often lacks. A pity, though, about the very loud clunking when it’s moved about.

QB’s music director-designate Nigel Gaynor conducted the Queensland Symphony Orchestra in a sumptuous performance of Tchaikovsky’s greatest ballet score. The QSO’s playing made one wish we were hearing the whole score, but of course we weren’t. It was cut – but then it always is. Companies always want to bring the ballet in at three hours or less and Horsman, by having only one interval instead of two, manages a brisk two and a half hours.

So Horsman makes the usual nips and tucks (the hunt scene, entr’actes, Act III jewel variations), which isn’t much of a surprise. But his most surprising cut isn’t really to do with length; it’s about that coherent world view for the ballet. Except for a tantalising bar or two, the blazing, magisterial, hymn-like processional on which the ballet usually ends is gone, replaced by music associated with the Lilac Fairy. The usual salute to the splendour of the monarchy – and its continuation through the union of Aurora and Désiré – gives way to a couple in love being blessed by the Lilac Fairy, also called the fairy of Wisdom.

As I say, human scale.

Queensland Ballet’s The Sleeping Beauty ends on October 31.