Hansel & Gretel, Royal New Zealand Ballet

Kiri Te Kanawa Theatre, Auckland, December 5.

It is no small thing to make a full-length narrative ballet that wins its place in a company’s repertoire. Many are attempted and many end up as red lines on a balance sheet unless sets and costumes can be sold or repurposed. Most happily, Loughlan Prior’s Hansel & Gretel for Royal New Zealand, his first full-length commission, looks like a keeper and justifies artistic director Patricia Barker’s appointment of him last year as RNZB Choreographer in Residence.

Southern hemisphere companies are certainly not averse to a season of Nutcracker at Christmas time but few – Queensland Ballet is an exception – want to fill a precious slot every year with a winter-wonderland ballet in summer. (QB’s artistic director, Li Cunxin, was at the opening night performance in Auckland so don’t be surprised if Hansel & Gretel turns up in Brisbane at some point.) It’s safe to say, though, that companies definitely want a family-friendly production leading into the festive season and Hansel & Gretel fits the bill. Purists may tut-tut that Prior excises the familiar, ultra-dark seam of cruelty embedded in later versions of the Brothers Grimm tale. The decision robs the narrative of the enlivening frisson of fear and there’s no denying it’s a loss. The upside? No nightmares for the little ones.

Hansel & Gretel

Kirby Selchow as Gretel in Loughlan Prior’s Hansel & Gretel. Photo: Stephen A’Court

All would agree that Kate Hawley’s designs look a million dollars under Jon Buswell’s lighting. Life in town is seen in moody monochrome and the enchanted forest where Hansel and Gretel take their rest after running away from home glows gently in gauzy tones. After interval Hawley ups the ante, and how, as Gretel and Hansel (which is what the story really should be called) fall into the clutches of a Witch whose effervescence is boundless. All those luridly coloured cakes and sweets to blame, no doubt.

New Zealand composer Claire Cowan’s new score is scrumptious enough to eat too, with a big, swelling film-score quality that supports the framing of the ballet as a silent movie. Cowan’s writing is as colourful as Hawley’s designs. It features unusual combinations of instruments and flavours drawn from eclectic sources – tango, Weimar cabaret, jazz – and combines them to make music that’s occasionally too rich for the blood but has all the adventurousness, romance, vigour and humour the story demands. Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra sounded wonderful with Hamish McKeich at the helm.

Prior’s choreography is most conventional in the first section, in which the good fortune of elegant townsfolk is contrasted with the poverty of Gretel and Hansel’s family. The parents are deeply loving, as a long – too long – pas de deux shows. It’s attractive but doesn’t fully earn its keep. When the children find their way to the forest things get more interesting choreographically, even if again dramatic balance would be better served by shortening the Dew Fairies’ dances.

Hansel & Gretel

Hansel and Gretel, The Sandman and Dew Fairies. Photo: Stephen A’Court

Once in the Witch’s lair, however, Prior has a firm grip on what is arguably one of dance’s most difficult assignments: to make ballet genuinely funny. It’s beautifully controlled mayhem all the way with the limelight-hogging diva and her entourage of Pink-Iced Gingerbread Men, chorus-line witches and slinky Food People. There are even jazz hands. Bless.

The company looked in tip-top form at the Auckland opening. Mother and Father were in the expert hands of Nadia Yanowsky and Joseph Skelton, Kirby Selchow’s Gretel was an engagingly sparky girl and Shaun James Kelly’s Hansel an inquisitive lad who still needed the comfort of his toy bunny. Katherine Precourt hammed it up hilariously as The Ice Cream Witch (that’s how she gets lures kids)  and Paul Mathews as her gleefully black-hearted true self, The Transformed Witch, could have a glittering career in panto in the future should he wish. In a ballet that offers women the strongest roles, Mayu Tanigaito swept all before her as the virtuosic Queen of the Dew Fairies with Forsythesque attack, drama and danger while Allister Madin, on leave from Paris Opera Ballet this year, endowed King of the Dew Fairies with sleek POB elegance.

And speaking of sweeping, there was a delightful cameo for children as the birds who ruin Gretel’s marking of the way back home. Here the breadcrumbs weren’t eaten. They were cleared away with brooms wielded by youngsters with adorable beaked hoods.

Hansel & Gretel transfers to Bruce Mason Centre, Auckland, on December 13 for three performances, ending December 14.

Queensland and West Australian ballet companies of one mind in 2020

Queensland Ballet announced its 2020 season in mid-September; West Australian Ballet in this past week. The nation’s leading state ballet companies are different in scale and usually in repertoire but their seasons next year have some striking similarities.

Oscar Valdes as Jonathan Harker and Matthew Lehmann as Young Dracula with the dancers of West Australian Ballet. Photo by Jon Green

Oscar Valdés (seated left) as Jonathan Harker and Matthew Lehmann (right) as Young Dracula in WAB’s Dracula, choreographed by Krzysztof Pastor. Photo: Jon Green

West Australian Ballet offers a repeat season of Krzysztof Pastor’s full-length Dracula in September 2020 after its big success with the Perth public last year. Queensland Ballet, a co-producer, will show it to Brisbane audiences for the first time in May. Both companies have programmed The Sleeping Beauty, with QB reprising Greg Horsman’s 2015 production and WAB premiering a version by Mexican choreographer Javier Torres created for Finnish National Ballet in 2012. Perth and Brisbane audiences will also see a traditional Nutcracker at year’s end. QB has established Ben Stevenson’s Nutcracker as an annual event while in Perth audiences see the ballet every other year. WAB’s current production was co-choreographed by former WAB principal artist Jayne Smeulders, WAB artistic director Aurélian Scannella and WAB principal ballet mistress and artistic associate Sandy Delasalle.

The similarities continue with each company staging a gala program for a number of performances. QB’s is to celebrate its 60th anniversary; WAB’s will feature highlights from its repertoire. In Perth the gala performances will be seen in repertory with The Nutcracker.

Queensland Ballet - The Sleeping Beauty - Carabosse with the Fairies. Photo David Kelly

Queensland Ballet in Greg Horsman’s The Sleeping Beauty. Photo: David Kelly

As always QB and WAB will offer choreographic development seasons – titled Synergy and Genesis respectively – and a contemporary program. WAB’s Ballet at the Quarry has been staged for nearly 30 years in the breathtaking open-air City Beach Quarry Amphitheatre while QB’s Bespoke is a relatively new and important addition to its programming, staged at Brisbane’s Powerhouse.

A splendid development for WAB is an extra annual contemporary program to be performed at Perth’s State Theatre Centre. Titled STATE, the inaugural season will feature the return of Garry Stewart’s Reincarnation, which premiered at Ballet at the Quarry this year. The piece sees WAB collaborate with Western Australia’s state contemporary dance company, Co:3.

Also on the program is Graeme Murphy’s beautiful Air and Other Invisible Forces, made for Sydney Dance Company in 1999. Part of the work will be staged during the 2020 Quarry season and it will be seen in full in STATE.

Dangerous Liaisons

Rian Thompson and Yanela Pinera in Liam Scarlett’s Dangerous Liaisons. Photo: David Kelly

In its 60th anniversary year QB, which started life as The Lisner Ballet in 1960, will present Shanghai Ballet in Derek Deane’s The Lady of the Camellias in March before starting its season proper with the gala program. Continuing to expand its footprint in Australia, QB will travel to Melbourne to stage Liam Scarlett’s Dangerous Liaisons, originally seen in Brisbane this year.

Under the artistic direction of Li Cunxin over the past eight years QB has grown remarkably in size. It now has 43 dancers, two apprentices and 12 young artists. The older WAB – founded in 1952 by Kira Bousloff – is significantly smaller with 29 dancers and six young artists.

A notable feature of both companies, however, is the enlivening presence of Cuban-trained dancers, including three of QB’s five principal artists – Victor Estévez, Camilo Ramos and Yanela Piñera. The six Cubans at WAB include Dayana Hardy Acuña, who was promoted to principal artist after dancing Giselle in September. In May this year she was the brightest presence in WAB’s staging of Greg Horsman’s dismal La Bayadère (another co-production with QB), in which she was the temple dancer Nikiya. After the retirement this year of Brooke Widdison-Jacobs the top rank at WAB was looking very slender indeed with only Chihiro Nomura and Matthew Lehmann remaining as principals. Hardy Acuña’s elevation is most welcome.

Dayana Hardy Acuna as Giselle with Guest Artist Kevin Jackson as Albrecht. Photo by Scott Dennis (3)

Dayana Hardy Acuña as Giselle with guest artist Kevin Jackson of The Australian Ballet as Albrecht in WAB’s 2019 production of Giselle. Photo: Scott Dennis

Dangerous Liaisons, Queensland Ballet

Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane, March 23.

Dangerous Liaisons is not suitable for children, advises Queensland Ballet. Too true. Sex is the currency in this world and there’s a lot of it. In the first few minutes of Liam Scarlett’s new ballet a couple copulates on a coffin, setting the tone for what’s to come.

When Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’s 1782 epistolary novel Les Liaisons dangereuses was first translated into English a frothy-mouthed commentator called it diabolical and disgusting. It remains a lust-driven immorality tale but that’s the least of a dance adaptation’s challenges today.

Dangerous Liaisons

Queensland Ballet in Liam Scarlett’s Dangerous Liaisons. Photo: David Kelly

This is a gorgeous-looking production (Tracy Grant Lord designed) and the beautiful bodies at QB are fully up to the task of conveying louche behaviour. Less easy is teasing out the twists and turns of a complicated set of intertwining goals, even in this slightly simplified version of Choderlos de Laclos’s merry-go-round.

Scarlett handles the broad outlines stylishly in the first new ballet he’s made for QB since becoming artistic associate in 2017. Vicomte de Valmont and Marquise de Merteuil, decadent, destructive aristos with far too much time on their hands, put their heads (and other body parts) together to amuse themselves and deliver retribution for perceived slights.

Merteuil wants revenge on the Comte de Gercourt, the man with whom she had eye-popping congress at the funeral which opens the ballet: she has sex over her dead husband’s body, if you will. But Gercourt quickly moves on, soon becoming engaged to sweet young thing Cécile Volanges. Merteuil is not pleased. What would please her is for Valmont to make a fool of Gercourt by bedding Cécile. If he does that, Merteuil has a little something for him.

Dangerous Liaisons

Alexander Idaszak as Valmont and Laura Hidalgo as Merteuil. Photo: David Kelly

The attraction between Cécile and the Chevalier Raphael de Danceny gives Valmont and Merteuil even more opportunity for meddling. At the same time busy Valmont has his eye on Madame de Tourvel, who is staying with his aunt and presents an irresistible opportunity for seduction. Tourvel’s reluctance only makes her more attractive.

For her part, Merteuil has a sheaf of sexual partners or prospects. How she feels about them depends on desire, whim or advantage in the game she and Valmont play so enthusiastically.

Staying true to Laclos’s structure, Scarlett weaves the writing, sending, intercepting and receiving of letters into the fabric of the dance. Whispered confidences and lurking figures in the background add to the texture of a hot-house society that can’t get enough of intrigue and secrets.

Not everything is made clear enough, particularly in the plot-heavy first act. There was more than one confused soul in the audience wondering who was doing what to whom and why. As the synopsis is at pains to point out, Valmont’s prize for deflowering Cécile is one more night with Merteuil, with whom he was once intimate. How does one convey that kind of specificity in dance? And the scene in which Valmont gains entrance to Cécile’s bedroom needs major rethinking. Cécile is required to be surprised, reluctant, ravished swiftly and wanting more within far too few minutes. And was her mother preparing virginal Cécile for pre-nuptial dalliance? Surely not, but it definitely looked like it.

Dangerous Liaisons

Rian Thompson as Danceny and Yanela Piñera as Cécile. Photo: David Kelly

There are, however, juicy parts for a large number of dancers, even though the production itself is relatively small – there are 11 named characters and eight minor, unnamed ones. The thought occurs that Scarlett could have with profit put a few more household servants on stage (the reverse is true for his over-busy Frankenstein). Dangerous Liaisons is a work where watching, overhearing, lurking and gossiping have meaning.

As Dangerous Liaisons is a co-production with Texas Ballet Theater – there are no performance dates announced at this stage – the choreographer will have a chance to take another look.

Scarlett appears to have been much influenced by Kenneth MacMillan’s Manonbut he also creates splendidly individual movement languages for his protagonists. Merteuil and Valmont, who is the very definition of a fox in the hen house, grapple lasciviously, slink and prowl. Tourvel is the picture of radiant openness; Valmont’s valet Azolan a lively accomplice to his master; Cécile shy and innocent; Danceny youthful and ardent.

Valmont is also a generous patron of prostitutes, for whom Scarlett has fashioned a steamy, over-long scene. It gives the women who play servants something else to do in the ballet but the writhing does rather go on at the expense of better story-telling elsewhere. That aside Valmont is a marvellous role. Even more so is that of the ultimately destroyed Merteuil. She gets to wear the most ravishing frocks in jewel tones too (a particularly glamorous gown featured an underlay of acid green – just the right colour for this hardened schemer).

I saw Dangerous Liaisons at its first matinee, which featured principal artists Lucy Green as Merteuil and Victor Estévez as Valmont. There are no images available of them because they were third cast, which gives some idea of the depth in the senior QB ranks. I have no doubt Green and Estévez were the equal of the first two pairings. At the matinee principal Camilo Ramos was the gleeful Azolan and senior soloist Kohei Iwamoto romantic Danceny but they, like other leading dancers, take on more than one role during the run. QB artistic director Li Cunxin requires his dancers to take on big workloads and to be strong and adaptable actors.

The score was arranged by British composer and conductor Martin Yates from a large number of works by Camille Saint-Saëns and does its job splendidly, although “arranged” seems too weak a word for the achievement. As Yates writes in the program, he has created a new symphonic score from this material.

Queensland chamber orchestra Camerata is in the pit with QB’s music director Nigel Gaynor at the helm, although the ensemble could perhaps be better described as a small symphony orchestra for this season given there are more than 40 players. It sounded wonderful.

Dangerous Liaisons ends in Brisbane on April 6. Gold Coast, Cairns, Toowoomba and Mackay, June 14-July 6. The regional tour will be performed to recorded music.

A version of this review first appeared in The Australian on March 25.

Carmen & The Firebird, Queensland Ballet

Queensland Performing Arts Centre, May 26.

You win some and you lose some.

Queensland Ballet is a co-producer of Carlos Acosta’s Carmen with The Royal Ballet and Texas Ballet Theater, which means QB’s name is attached to it forever. I doubt I’ve seen a worse ballet from reputable companies in more than 40 years.

I’m not exaggerating, nor do I say it frivolously. Carmen should never have passed muster at the RB. This is where I should say I can’t understand how it happened, but unfortunately it’s all too common to see serious ballet companies fail to save choreographers from themselves. Mostly the results aren’t quite as bad as Carmen but ballet is littered with the corpses of narrative works whose condition didn’t have to be terminal.

On a brighter note for QB, Liam Scarlett’s Firebird, made for Norwegian National Ballet in 2013, is a brilliant interpretation of Stravinsky’s glittering, gleaming, intoxicating score. Scarlett’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is also in the QB repertory and with the addition of Firebird the company has the choreographer’s two most successful new narrative ballets. (I don’t include Scarlett’s staging of Swan Lake – by all reports a huge success – for the RB this month given its firm foundation in the Petipa-Ivanov 1895 version.)

QB The Firebird 2018. Principal Artist Lucy Green. Photo David Kelly

Lucy Green in the title role of Liam Scarlett’s The Firebird. Photo: David Kelly

Scarlett, who is 32, has a youthful, contemporary sensibility that gives Firebird a modern edge while remaining true to the mythic elements of Mikhail Fokine’s original 1910 work for the Ballets Russes.

It looks wonderful, with a monumental set by Jon Bausor, bathed in James Farncombe’s painterly light. In the shadow of a vast tree with claw-like roots, the magical Firebird (Lucy Green at the performance I attended) and wicked sorcerer Koschei (Jack Lister) battle for supremacy, equal in force of will and with a palpable erotic charge between them. She tempts him with a golden apple and strokes his face; he embraces her with ardour. It may well be a game they’ve played for aeons. Then the wandering Prince Ivan (Camilo Ramos) finds his way into their realm and the Firebird finds him interesting. She dances with him, but not as a frightened captive. She dazzles and teases, whispering in his ear as she lets him have one of her precious feathers.

Scarlett effectively contrasts the Firebird’s strength and exoticism with the innocence and playfulness of the young women enslaved by Koschei. Among them is a Princess (Lina Kim), who is tender, curious and alert. Kim and Ramos glowed in their romantic, silken pas de deux and – how delightful! – the Princess is the one who gets to destroy the egg containing Koschei’s soul.

QB The Firebird 2018. Company Artist Jack Lister and Artists of the Queensland Ballet. Photo David Kelly

Jack Lister (top) as Koschei in The Firebird. Photo: David Kelly

The end of Koschei’s malign rule means the Princess is free to leave with Ivan although Scarlett – unlike Fokine – is less interested in the happy couple than in the representatives of light and darkness. The lovers quietly disappear and the Firebird exults in her power, although not before paying respect to the dead Koschei in one of Scarlett’s many perceptive details.

Scarlett’s success with narrative ballets has been somewhat patchy but Stravinsky’s music and the original libretto give him the best of roadmaps. Scarlett uses the 50-minute version of the score from 1910, played blazingly by the Queensland Symphony Orchestra with Nigel Gaynor at the helm. Jonathan McPhee’s arrangement is for orchestral forces rather smaller than those asked for by Stravinsky – he wrote for quadruple woodwinds and three harps – but it gets the job done impressively.

Other choreographers of this much-visited work have chosen Stravinsky’s shorter 1945 suite (Balanchine in 1949; the 2009 Graeme Murphy recently revived by The Australian Ballet) but the suites were arranged for concert performance and for dramatic impact it’s hard to go past Stravinsky’s first thoughts.

The cast I saw at the first Saturday matinee was testament to the strong ensemble built by Li Cunxin in his six years as artistic director. Performances were vividly realised all round and Green’s mesmerising Firebird was deservedly greeted with a huge ovation. While his dance is made entirely within the classical idiom, Scarlett gives his Firebird – the Princess too – qualities of independence and authority so often missing on the classical stage. This is particularly welcome in light of how women appear in Carmen although, to be fair, Acosta doesn’t do the men any favours either.

QB Carmen 2018. Principal Artist Camilo Ramos and Company Artist Sophie Zoricic 5. Photo David Kelly

Camilo Ramos and Sophie Zoricic in Carlos Acosta’s Carmen. Photo: David Kelly

There are problems with Carmen just about everywhere you look. The storytelling is incoherent, skating over the top of anything that might give insights into Carmen’s character. She’s a sex-mad cipher. Don José (Camilo Ramos, backing up after his Prince Ivan earlier) is similarly superficial, just weaker, and therefore deeply uninteresting. Escamillo is there to toss off a whole lot of ballet tricks. There is no Micaëla, no Frasquita, no Mercedes, no context.

What else? Too frequently there’s no apparent relationship between the music (chiefly an arrangement of bits from Bizet’s opera) and the steps performed to that music. A tavern scene veers off into ersatz flamenco territory, indifferently done. Every now and again a man wearing preposterous bulls’ horns and a bit of bondage appears in the background to represent Fate.

Most problematic is the piece’s depiction of desire. Desire can be many things, not just sexual, and in Bizet’s opera it’s Carmen’s burning need to be free. That desire was dangerous for a woman then and still is. Carmen is murdered for her courage, not that this ballet makes you think about it or care. She’s just someone who dances in her underwear and rolls around the floor locking lips with her lovers.

Carmen is at one point surrounded by men who slap the floor vigorously and proceed to strip. It looked to me like nothing less than preparation for gang rape but also looked so ludicrous (think male strippers at a hens’ night) that the audience roared. Ghastly. I think we can safely say that at this point, as at others, there had been insufficient thought given to meaning and tone.

I felt very sorry for the Carmen I saw, Sophie Zoricic, to whom I send condolences. It was a big chance for her and she gave her all. That said, I suspect Carmen could have only the slightest chance of squeaking past the post if stocked with the biggest stars. Acosta danced both Don José and Escamillo during the London premiere season in 2015 and the RB’s most lustrous female principal, Marianela Nuñez, was the first Carmen.

Acosta is, of course, a relatively inexperienced choreographer while having been one of the RB’s most durable stars. Obviously the company wanted to please him. It should have helped him.

QB is on much safer ground with Scarlett. The young Englishman has a deal with the company to present one of his works annually for four years. The artistic associate arrangement started last year with the one-act No Man’s Land, originally made for English National Ballet. (His delectable Dream, a co-production with Royal New Zealand Ballet, was made in 2015 and isn’t counted.)

That leaves two more works to come. Scarlett’s international demand means it’s too much to hope that both would be new creations but I’m told there will certainly be one ballet made on the QB dancers.

Carmen & The Firebird ends in Brisbane on June 3.

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 about the intense scrutiny: “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.

Li and QB: my artists of the year

My first Artist of the Year, in 2015, was operatic mezzo, cabaret sensation, music-theatre star and all-round fine human being Jacqueline Dark. Last year I went for a large, disparate group of people and companies – the independent theatre artists who do tremendous work at low prices, making their art accessible to all often at great personal cost.

This year my choice is a company and an individual – Queensland Ballet and its artistic director Li Cunxin.

Jess and Kirby headshots

Queensland Ballet artistic director Li Cunxin takes his curtain call after appearing in a special performance of The Nutcracker. Photo: David Kelly

Li became QB’s artistic director in the second half of 2012 and late last year signed on until 2020. In five years he has utterly transformed Queensland Ballet, turning a frankly provincial company into one of substance and ambition. QB can now perform to capacity houses in Queensland Performing Arts Centre’s largest theatre, the 2000-seat Lyric, for some of its productions. Support has been given for the expansion and renovation of QB’s Thomas Dixon Centre headquarters and a $10 million expansion of Queensland Ballet Academy at Kelvin Grove State College is being funded by the State Government. “This state deserves it and the country deserves it,” says Li.

Brisbane adores Li, as his one-time-only return to the stage on December 10 proved. The special matinee sold out within the hour, raising funds for the company’s work and attracting the kind of publicity for ballet most companies can only dream of. (A Museum of Brisbane exhibition titled Mao’s Last Dancer the Exhibition: A Portrait of Li Cunxin, running until April, refers to “the dramatic influence he has had on the state’s arts scene”.)

Actor David Wenham introduced the performance and presided over a Q&A session afterwards with Li and his wife, Mary, in which Li described himself as an optimistic man. Indeed so. He hopes QB’s success in Queensland will spread interstate and internationally and as part of that goal QB will perform in Melbourne next year, presenting Liam Scarlett’s enchanting A Midsummer Night’s Dream (the 2015 ballet is a co-production with Royal New Zealand Ballet) at Her Majesty’s Theatre.

Jess and Kirby headshots

Lucy Green and Camilo Ramos, both recently appointed principal artists, in QB’s The Nutcracker. Photo: David Kelly

QB’s annual Nutcracker gave Li the perfect role in which to return to the stage after an absence of 18 years, although he went way, way beyond the call of duty.

Li is 56 and could have gone the safe, expected, route of performing the part of Drosselmeyer in Ben Stevenson’s production as written. The mysterious magician bursts dramatically on to the scene, sweeps around the stage, twirls his cape, does a few tricks, hands out gifts to the children, flirts with their mothers and departs with a flourish.

Stage presence is the key requirement, something Li could have offered without breaking a sweat. But he figured his audience would be keen for a bit more than dashing cape-work so after he did the glad-handing and flirting he danced. He really danced.

Stevenson gave his permission for Li to insert himself into the big fight scene between marauding rats and the Nutcracker doll’s soldiers. Li’s opening gambit was a snappy diagonal of chainés. He threw in a couple of air turns and a big circle of jetés but wasn’t finished yet. A series of showy grand pirouettes earned mighty cheers from the capacity house.

The performance is unlikely to lead to a late-flowering revival of Li’s dance career but it served its purpose of highlighting a young dancer competition for regional and rural Queensland called Wish Upon a Ballet Star. This year’s winner, Imogen Hess, was one of the child guests during the Act I Christmas party and took a solo bow at the end. The occasion also drew attention to the gleaming quality of Li’s company, which looks better with each passing year. In 2018 QB increases its number of dancers from 33 to 37. There will also be a bumper crop of 12 Young Artists and two dancers in the new rank of Apprentice.

Speaks for itself really.

Quakes and tremors at RNZB

The party to mark Royal New Zealand Ballet’s 60th anniversary was in full swing at Wellington’s St James Theatre when the earthquake struck. The special matinee performance of Swan Lake on July 21, 2013, had been attended by many former dancers, staff and friends and now it was time to raise a glass and reminisce. At 5.09pm the building started to shake. To the sound of scores of wine glasses rattling mightily, everyone dropped to the floor. After what seemed like an age but was only 20 seconds, the movement stopped. It had been a big quake, no doubt about it, but no one in the room was injured. People stood and the party continued.

Lucy Green as Odette credit Evan Li

Lucy Green, now with Queensland Ballet, as Odette for RNZB in 2013. Photo: Evan Li

RNZB’s artistic director at the time was Ethan Stiefel, the starry former American Ballet Theatre principal artist whose appointment was seen as a great coup for the company. He took up the role in 2011 on a three-year contract. It was hoped he would stay for at least five years but one never got the impression that he felt entirely comfortable. He left in September 2014 to return to the US.

Stiefel was replaced by the Italian choreographer and former La Scala dancer Francesco Ventriglia, previously director of MaggioDanza in Florence. He started in November 2014 but just two years later, amid reports of some staff and dancer dissatisfaction, RNZB announced Ventriglia had decided to end his contract with them and would finish in mid 2017, some months short of his first three-year term. Ventriglia was recently announced as adjunct artistic director of Ballet Nacional Sodre in Montevideo, Uruguay.

On June 7 this year, the former Pacific Northwest Ballet prima ballerina Patricia Barker was anointed RNZB’s 12th artistic director. Signalling that the Board realised there needed to be rather more stability, Barker was asked to sign for five years, not three. By December there were new reports of dancer unrest and predictions that, for various reasons, perhaps half the company’s complement of 36 dancers would not be returning in 2018. That’s quite an upheaval.

Is RNZB experiencing an earthquake that will leave it seriously damaged? Or is it simply subject to all-too-familiar tremors that rattle the nerves, but only temporarily? The next month or so will give a strong indication of which way things go.

Right now, some dancers – perhaps four, the number is unclear – are reportedly unhappy that their annual contracts haven’t been renewed and have made grievance claims against RNZB. That’s a process to keep an eye on. The new New Zealand Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, is also Minister for Arts, Culture and Heritage and has said she’s concerned about RNZB’s situation. She’s asked the Ministry of Culture and Heritage to do a report for her. That should be interesting.

Adding to the impression of tumoil, half a dozen dancers, mainly Italian, left around the time Ventriglia departed in August. (After Barker’s arrival he stayed on as guest choreographer to stage a sumptuous new version of Romeo and Juliet.) Three other dancers are off to Queensland Ballet and its magnetic artistic director Li Cunxin, yet others are retiring, some possibly reluctantly. Can all these departures be sheeted home to Barker? It doesn’t matter really. It’s happened under her watch. She gets to wear it.

One might suggest it would have been a reasonable, politically astute and – let’s put it out there, humane – move to give 2018 contracts to all current dancers who wanted them. It would give everyone a chance to get to know one another properly and acknowledge the upheaval visited upon the dancers over the past six years. Three artistic directors in that time. It’s brutal.

RNZB dancers begin the 2018 year on January 8. The company will announce their names on that day, a list that will be closely scrutinised. How many New Zealanders? How many people who trained at the New Zealand School of Dance, which is RNZB’s official school? How many names of long-serving company members are missing? How many dancers will come from Grand Rapids Ballet, the US company of which Barker is still artistic director, concurrently with RNZB, as Grand Rapids seeks her successor?

It won’t be unusual, of course, if Barker brings in some Americans. Stiefel hired dancers associated with his former employer, the University of North Carolina School of the Arts; Ventriglia brought in a group of Italians. Many left when or shortly after their AD left, again not unusual. But Barker is reaping that particular whirlwind and it’s been mighty breezy out there. I can identify close to 70 names of people who have danced with RNZB in the past five years and January will bring more. The level of churn is high.

Behind all these questions and anxieties is the one big question: what is the nature and purpose of a national ballet company? There are fundamental concerns, such as how the company’s identity is described and forged; how the relationship with its home audience is cemented; and the degree of responsibility in nurturing, developing, employing and celebrating home-grown artists. New Zealand isn’t short of tremendous talent.

These concerns, by the way, really should be greatly exercising the minds of Board members. Perhaps this is happening as we speak but there’s no way of telling. The current chair, Steven Fyfe, has made no comment so far, not even a word of support for the artistic director so recently appointed.

As I’ve mentioned before, RNZB’s current Strategic Plan ends this year. I assume the Board has a new one ready to go (one more thing to watch out for). Its current Mission, by the way, is: “To become a compelling expression of New Zealand’s creative spirit”. You can read the whole Strategic Plan here.

Meanwhile, the show will go on. It always does. RNZB turns 65 this year, starting the celebrations with a ballet version of the Jane Campion film The Piano (commissioned by Ventriglia). Barker plans to mark the milestone with a series of new commissions from female choreographers that will do double duty as a tribute to the 125th anniversary of women’s suffrage in New Zealand.

The Wellington season of Strength and Grace: Women will be seen not at the company’s usual home, the St James Theatre, but at the Opera House, as will the earlier program Dancing with Mozart. That’s due to strengthening work to be undertaken at the St James, due to start around the middle of 2018. The upgrade will make the theatre less vulnerable to the quakes and tremors so prevalent in this part of the world. If only RNZB itself could be assured of such security.