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.

Piano-Main-v2-RNZB-dancer-Abigail-Boyle.-Photo-by-Ross-Brown-867x1024

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.

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”.

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.

RNZB-R&J2

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 tiniest 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.

Lucy Green, RNZB, in profile

WHEN Lucy Green stepped on to the stage at Wellington’s St James Theatre on July 21 it was in front of the toughest crowd imaginable. Dancers from every era of Royal New Zealand Ballet’s history were in town for the company’s 60th anniversary celebrations and they’d come en masse to a special matinee performance of Swan Lake. They would see a 22-year-old Australian who had made her debut in the double role of Odette-Odile only two days before. Many pairs of expert eyes would be assessing her every move.

Lucy Green as Odette. Photo: Evan Li

Lucy Green as Odette. Photo: Evan Li

That’s not all. There were also television cameras in the wings, filming for the third series of the reality show about RNZB, The Secret Lives of Dancers, and those cameras weren’t around just to capture what used to be called Kodak moments. Green has been prominent in the first two series and knows only too well that drama and conflict are considered more entertaining, and that filming is stressful. It’s also relevant that last week Green was alternating with RNZB’s stellar principal guest artist Gillian Murphy, she of American Ballet Theatre fame and one of Swan Lake’s great exponents.

These are circumstances to test any performer’s mettle but brutal as they may be, they sort out the women from the girls; the winners from the losers. By ballet’s end Green had won through. She had shown what RNZB’s artistic director, former American Ballet Theatre principal dancer Ethan Stiefel, calls her ability to “continually rise to the occasion”.

Clutching flowers, she beamed as cheers rang around the theatre and Stiefel said from the stage: “I couldn’t have picked a better group of people to put before six decades of alumni. I’m proud to work with all of you.”

Green is a quietly poised, thoughtful and modest young woman, aware of her good fortune and grateful for it. “I never, ever thought that I would ever get the opportunity and especially not at this age. It’s a role I never dared to think I would do,” she says. She has form, however. Also on her CV after just three years with RNZB is Giselle, which she danced on the company’s recent tour to China, and last year’s Cinderella.

She is talented, a rising star, no doubt about it. But the thing everyone mentions about Green – the unromantic but necessary part of the equation – is that she has worked indefatigably for her success. This is the less thrilling but more truthful secret life of the dancer.

The story started at Australia Street Infants School, in Sydney’s Newtown. “It was quite a radical school at the time,” says Green’s mother, Bridget. “The parents got together and decided contact sport was a no-no. They employed a dance teacher.” Lucy was entranced from the start. “She was with Miss Jenny, who she adored and who imbued a passion for dance. Lucy asked me if she could go to after-school classes in the school hall. She never looked back. She decided that was it. She was a dancer.”

Jenny Eldridge (“Miss Jenny”) says Lucy “focused, listened and concentrated from the word go. She was a beautiful child to teach.” Many years later Eldridge saw Green compete at the City of Sydney Eisteddford, in a solo from Giselle, and “the thing that captured me about her was that she was dancing from her heart”.

After the Green family moved to Melbourne Lucy studied at the National Theatre Ballet School under Beverly Jane Fry’s directorship. There she came to understand what aiming for a life in ballet demands: not just liking it or wanting it, but the effort it takes. After that epiphany she took every class possible, says her mother. “That’s the key to Lucy. She’s serious and she works hard.” Green successfully auditioned for the Australian Ballet School but chose the Victorian College of the Arts Secondary School. “She saw Maggie Lorraine as a mentor and she knew that she’d made the right decision,” says her mother. Lorraine was Green’s teacher at VCASS for four years and also mentions the hard graft: Green “didn’t have an easy body to work with. She virtually resculpted her body.”

At one point Green would have liked to join the Australian Ballet. The offer, however, came from across the Tasman. “From day one when she auditioned, straight away … we had to have her. She shone,” says Greg Horsman, formerly ballet master with RNZB and now with Queensland Ballet. “She’s very musical, she’s very co-ordinated and she has amazing turns. And she’s intelligent. You can give her a correction and she takes it on board right away. I loved working with her.”

Green found out she was being considered for Odette only eight weeks before her Swan Lake debut, having just returned from a three-week European holiday with her boyfriend, Rory Fairweather-Neylan, also a dancer with RNZB. It wasn’t the best preparation, she acknowledges, having not been able to take regular classes, but at least there was an eight-week rehearsal period ahead. The production being revived was that created by former RNZB artistic Russell Kerr, with designs by Kristian Fredrikson.

Lucy Green as Odile with Kohei Iwamoto. Photo: Evan Li

Lucy Green as Odile with Kohei Iwamoto. Photo: Evan Li

As is the way with dance companies, the news was relayed via a list on the company noticeboard that had names, in alphabetical order, alongside various roles. Green was down to learn Odette-Odile as were three other company members. “We had no warning. It just went up one day, this is what you’re learning.” The fifth name on the list was Murphy’s. Engaged to Stiefel, Murphy spends a significant amount of time at RNZB. She is also one of Green’s great inspirations.

“She is the perfect embodiment of the white and the black,” Green says. “She really makes you believe she is a swan in the white acts … the delicacy of her arms and her hands. It’s like they are actually wings. Everything she does comes from the heart. As Odile she’s completely the opposite. The eyes are so powerful, she commands everyone to look at her and she owns the stage. I’ve loved watching her and studying her. But you have to be careful – you don’t want to be a cheap copy of something someone’s already been.”

Obviously Murphy would be getting performances. As for the rest of them, “you could be an understudy or you could be doing it. You don’t know.”

Throughout the rehearsal period Green was getting a lot of coaching – unusually not from a former Odette but from Stiefel and ballet master Martin Vedel. “But we didn’t learn who was doing what when” until about two and a half weeks before opening. “There was always the hope, I guess. It’s a small company [34 dancers], so it was more likely than being in a big company of course. I had had a lot of encouragement about the roles I’d done previously so I was quite hopeful, but you never want to get your hopes up too much.

“People know any roles can be up for grabs by anyone. There’s a lot of disappointment sometimes when someone doesn’t get something they want, but I do find here people are so supportive that they tend to put aside their disappointments. That’s something that I really felt [at the first performance], the energy I got from everyone, even those who might want to be doing the role I’m doing.”

Being far from the major ballet centres meant Green had to go to YouTube to see how others approach the role. “I remember watching these long, beautiful dancers with long classical lines, their legs go on forever, their arms are just like wings. I never thought I’d have those qualities. But yeah, here I am, and I’ve done it. I can’t believe it.” And while she was able to have only one orchestral rehearsal, she found Tchaikovsky’s music inspiring. “It’s got all the emotion and all the qualities you need,” she says.

Then there’s all that work. “You’ve got to put in a lot yourself. You’ve got to make the corrections sit with your body and feel right. One of the main concerns with me dancing the role was everything was quite small to begin with. I didn’t have the expansiveness, the full breadth of movement. I could feel it, but when you see yourself [some rehearsals were filmed] you can see what [coaches are] talking about and better apply what they are saying.’’

Another help was dancing with Japanese-born, Australian Ballet School-trained Kohei Iwamoto, 23, as Siegfried. (“He’s another nice dancer with huge potential,” says Horsman.) Iwamoto has partnered Green before, notably in Giselle, and it’s “a really good partnership. When I go out there and I see him I feel really comfortable and I trust him. It’s really nice.’’

In a company of this size it’s not all Odette and Giselle, however: Green dances secondary roles too and gets few performances off. She dreams in the future of Juliet and Kenneth MacMillan’s Manon and of perhaps dancing in Europe, but in the immediate future, after Swan Lake, lies the biennial Tutus on Tour program that splits the company and takes ballet to small NZ centres where “you have one dressing room for 16 dancers, and you’re sharing a bathroom with the audience”.

It’s a blast, she says. “It’s kind of crazy but you get this close group of dancers and everyone supports each other. It’s an intense workload but somehow we manage to pull it off.”

Swan Lake continues at various NZ centres until September 1.

This is a slightly extended version of a profile that first appeared in The Australian on July 25.

Swan Lake, RNZB, change of cast

St James Theatre, Wellington, July 19

A SECOND viewing of Russell Kerr’s Swan Lake for Royal New Zealand Ballet introduced two new young leads and further illuminated its strengths and a few weaknesses.

Last night the mature, high-octane opening night pairing of Gillian Murphy and Pacific Northwest Ballet guest Karel Cruz gave way to the sweet anguish of youth with Lucy Green and Kohei Iwamoto, both members of RNZB since joining in 2010. Both were trained in Melbourne, Green at the Victorian College of the Arts and Iwamoto at the Australian Ballet School.

In the short time they have been at RNZB Green and Iwamoto have formed a fruitful partnership, dancing together in the lead roles in Giselle (by RNZB artistic director Ethan Stiefel and Johan Kobborg) and in Stiefel’s Bier Halle, and they are a good match. Their ease together shows up in many little details of timing that add so much to add texture and meaning to a moment. Take, for instance, the Act II mime in which Siegfried precipitately wants to tell Odette he will save her. Iwamoto has started to stretch his hand high above his head with fingers pointed, ballet speak for “I promise you”, but it’s too soon for Green’s fearful Odette, who understands the dangers much better than Siegfried does. Just at the right moment she pulls his arm back. It’s these split-second moments that make a gesture seem naturally impelled by the drama rather than dutifully learned.

Green is only 22 and her art is not one of grandeur but of touching emotional openness. There was anxiety and uncertainty at her first meeting with Siegfried, and deep anguish near the end when Siegfried returns to the lake after his betrayal of Odette. Green’s gestures and expression of forgiveness had a most affecting tenderness.

As Odile Green doesn’t have, or at least not yet, a way of being entirely convincing as a heartless and duplicitous siren although she handled the choreography with aplomb. And it was lovely to see her reaction when Rothbart gives her some whispered tips about how to reel Siegfried in. Odile starts to mimic some of Odette’s signature movements and Green’s face lit up. It was probably too big a gear shift, but also a reminder of just how many tiny choices, adjustments and decisions go in to making a seamless performance.

Iwamoto has a lovely clean line, impressive elevation and he partners nobly, although he can sometimes let the tension of performance show too clearly in his expression. His Siegfried is particularly young, the kind of man who really is extremely happy with his birthday gift of a crossbow and who is pretty easy game for Rothbart. One of the weaknesses of Kerr’s production, one I referred to in yesterday’s report, makes Siegfried look pretty hapless, and Iwamoto wasn’t able to overcome the inherent problems. The opening of Act III, in which various princesses present themselves as prospective brides, lacks a strong sense of shape and purpose. Who is presenting these women? Have they just turned up with their girlfriends? Do their predominantly black tutus mean they are somehow aligned with Odile and therefore Rothbart, who enters a little bit later? There are possibilities there simply not addressed.

The other problem is with the ending. If you miss the all too brief moment in which Odette indicates to Siegfried that they must kill themselves you might think the power of love had vanquished Rothbart and we were in for a Soviet-style happy ending. In the tussles with Rothbart there’s plenty of time for a more detailed and therefore affecting journey towards the lovers’ fate.

Elsewhere, the second cast pas de trois cast of Mayu Tanigaito, Ginny Gan and Jacob Chown was extremely attractive, with Tanigaito’s buoyancy and elevation a particular delight. Dimitri Kleioris made an impact as Rothbart, and again the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Nigel Gaynor added immeasurably to the occasion.

Next week RNZB adds another cast to the mix, with Abigail Boyle and Qi Huan. I regret I won’t be able to stay to see them.