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 tinest 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.

Giselle: Royal New Zealand Ballet

Isaac Theatre Royal, Christchurch, August 23

Every traditional Giselle is drawn in the same broad strokes; it’s the myriad finer details that distinguish one production from another, making yet another Giselle not just another Giselle, but a vivid and immediate experience.

At the end of the first act, for instance, Giselle lies dead, literally heartbroken by Albrecht’s betrayal. She is usually seen in her mother Berthe’s arms, although a director might let Albrecht cradle the girl. In anguish and with various degrees of violence, Albrecht and Hilarion, Giselle’s discarded rustic lover, accuse each other of causing Giselle’s death. Albrecht is customarily pulled away from the scene by his attendant Wilfred and may rush off in a panic, or may keep trying to return to Giselle’s body and has to be restrained.

In Maina Gielgud’s greatly admired staging, revived last year by The Australian Ballet, the very last seconds of the first act etch themselves on the memory. Berthe’s attention is not fully on her daughter but drawn somewhere into the beyond. She looks around in terror: the Wilis are coming. The connection has been made back to Berthe’s earlier description of this encroaching supernatural world and a bridge has explicitly been built to the world of the second act.

In Ethan Stiefel and Johan Kobborg’s 2012 production for Royal New Zealand Ballet, the connection made is that of love. The Giselle who saves Albrecht from the wrath of the Wilis is the girl who dies with Albrecht’s kiss on her lips, an intimate touch I don’t recall seeing in other stagings.

Lucy Green as Giselle. Photo: Bill Cooper

Lucy Green as Giselle. Photo: Bill Cooper

At every point in every production choices are made – choices that one hopes accumulate into a coherent, satisfying whole.

The Stiefel-Kobborg staging is astutely tailored for RNZB’s medium-sized forces (there are 34 unranked company members). Act II is essentially as danced by most companies, albeit with a reduced number of Wilis, but Act I is substantially and persuasively altered. We see more clearly how Hilarion fits in to this little community. He isn’t an outsider who skulks in and out and who is unregarded. He is present much of the time, watching from the edges as his love gives all her attention to another man. Giselle’s isn’t the only heart that’s broken.

Stiefel and Kobborg fruitfully abbreviate Bathilde’s visit to this neck of the woods, having the upper-crust party stop only briefly for a drink before going back to their outdoor pleasures. The salient point is made. Bathilde is engaged to be married, as she lets Giselle know; Giselle admits to being in love. We know they are both referring to Albrecht. Then Bathilde is gone. It’s a good call – one always wonders why she would stay inside Giselle’s little cottage as long as she does in most productions. With the haughty Bathilde not settling in, there’s no need to entertain her. The usual peasant pas becomes a dance for a Wedding Couple, their celebrations entered into by Albrecht, Giselle and Hilarion at various points. Hilarion, who usually doesn’t dance in the first act, is given his moment to shine as he tries to win Giselle’s attention. That Giselle caught the wedding bouquet makes him an even more poignant figure.

A downside is that Bathilde no longer gives Giselle the gift of her necklace, thus robbing us of the powerful moment when Albrecht sees it around Giselle’s neck and knows well ahead of time that his game is up. But there are other pleasures. Giselle’s admiration of Bathilde’s gorgeous gown – the style is Victorian – is enriched by our knowledge that she knows a thing or two about dressmaking: the wedding gown worn by the bride has been made in Giselle’s home. The more fluid approach to the peasant pas section (it rarely feels well-enough integrated dramatically) spills over into the group dance conventionally performed by the women. The Wedding Couple dances here too, as do Albrecht and Giselle.

I saw Giselle in Christchurch with the first cast, Lucy Green and Qi Huan. This production suits Green exceptionally well. She has the gift of appearing fresh and natural in a staging that puts a premium on storytelling. Whether it was an astonishingly swift set of backward bourrées in the second act, a beautifully simple floating half-turn in the first, or anything in between, every step added to one’s store of knowledge about Giselle. Qi is an elegant man of deep experience whose retirement from the stage in 2014 – he teaches at the New Zealand School of Dance – has happily proved to be negotiable. (There is Australian interest in this production too, with former Australian Ballet principal Daniel Gaudiello guesting as Albrecht at some performances with Mayu Tanigaito as his Giselle.)

Giselle

Qi Huan and Lucy Green in Giselle. Photo: Stephen A’Court

The experience of visiting Christchurch, the largest city on New Zealand’s South Island, was somewhat more sobering than I had expected on this first visit. The city centre is a forlorn place, with many buildings still needing restoration or complete rebuilding after the 2011 earthquake in which more than 100 people died. Recovery is a long process.

The city, however, was determined to save the Isaac Theatre Royal. Designed by Australian brothers Sydney and AE Luttrell, it opened in 1908 and had the not-uncommon history of being adapted for use as a cinema in the late 1920s and being in danger of demolition in the 1970s. Apparently this fate was fended off with only 48 hours to spare.

Then came the February 2011 quake and significant aftershocks in which the theatre was drastically damaged. The pragmatic – cheaper – choice would have been to build a modern replacement. It has instead been exquisitely restored (and strengthened), retaining its opulently decorated dome, marble staircase and ornate plasterwork. (You can read here about the extraordinary amount of work it took.) Not surprisingly, Giselle looked perfect there.

It was heartening to know that when it was devastated, the city understood the need to revive this beautiful place of art and community.

Giselle continues its national tour in Auckland, August 31-September 3; Rotorua, September 6; and Palmerston North, September 9.

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.

Lucy Green and Jacob Chown

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.

Balloon credit Evan Li

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.

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.