RNZB and the numbers game

What possessed the Board of Royal New Zealand Ballet to assert in its statement of December 15 that 42% of the dancers are either New Zealanders or trained in New Zealand and that next year the goal is to have an even higher percentage?

The main thrust of the statement is fine – the Board has commissioned an independent review of its processes – but it then travels into an area it obviously thinks is firm ground at the centre of things but is in fact is a boggy path off to one side. Numbers. Percentages. Statistics. Where’s the vision in that?

Hayley Donnison as a fairy credit Stephen A'Court

Hayley Donnison in Liam Scarlett’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which had its Royal New Zealand Ballet premiere in 2015. Photo: Stephen A’Court

The recent conversation about RNZB has been partly about the level of turnover in a six-year period in which the company has had three artistic directors, partly about which dancers haven’t had their contracts renewed for 2018 and partly about the number of New Zealanders at RNZB. Each is a separate issue; for now let’s look at the Kiwi factor, defined as the number of New Zealand-born dancers in the company plus those who trained at the New Zealand School of Dance.

A scan of the make-up of RNZB during the past six years shows the proportion of dancers born in New Zealand or non-New Zealanders who trained at NZSD (mainly Australians) has usually been about a third or a bit more. Maybe as high as 40% in some years.

The Board’s claim of 42% is therefore close to the usual mark, although is self-serving at best and misleading at worst. Its 42% is based on the 31 dancers whose faces you can see right now on the RNZB website. Until recently ago there were 36 dancers pictured, even as the company asserted half a dozen dancers had made the decision to leave before new artistic director Patricia Barker arrived in June.

I noted the oddity in a post on December 9 and the next time I looked at the site it had been amended. Thus, when it came to the Board totting up the number of dancers with strong NZ connections it was able to base its calculation on 31 dancers rather than 36. The dancers who left after Romeo and Juliet ended in September were all non-New Zealanders.

Based on the 36 dancers who started the year with RNZB, the Board’s Kiwi number would have been 36%, not 42%. Am I splitting hairs? You could argue that, but the Board should understand not only that it shouldn’t be selective, but also what its assertions mean. It’s trying to make itself look good on the basis of a dodgy figure and, moreover, apparently trying to make policy on the back of it.

To make things even sillier, the touted 42% contains 10 dancers who will not be with RNZB next year. Quite a few of them – uh-oh – have the New Zealand connection of which the Board boasts.

In just three weeks the 2018 crop of RNZB dancers starts. On today’s reckoning there should be at least 15 new faces, unless 2018 starts with a smaller RNZB than usual. That wouldn’t be helpful in the current situation, would it? Not with four dancers having been told they are no longer required, three of whom have given many years of fine service. I look forward to seeing where the new dancers with NZ connections come from so the Board’s 42%-plus ratio is maintained. Not long to wait now.

You might think this forensic dissection of percentages and numbers is not terribly helpful and I would agree, with one caveat. Because RNZB is a national company, heavily funded by the New Zealand public, there is rightly an expectation that New Zealand talent will find a regular home there, either in management, administration, behind the scenes creative roles or in the ranks of the dancers.

That’s about as specific as it needs to be. Talent isn’t something you can put precise quotas on.

In some years national dance schools produce more fine graduates than there are available places in the national company; other years the quality is less good. Sometimes excellent dancers will be lured elsewhere to fulfil their aspirations, just as seasoned artists may be drawn back to their homeland after a long absence. There are dancers who come to a new country – let’s call it New Zealand – and make it their home for many years.

So we come back to the central question: what defines the nature and character of New Zealand’s national ballet company? That’s not for me to say, except to suggest that it’s not worked out on a calculator. The answer needs to come from within and be the result of knowledgeable, confident, secure, passionate, inspired leadership. Looking at the instability of the past six years at RNZB I couldn’t conclude that its Board, in its various iterations, has covered itself in glory.

NZ Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, also the country’s arts minister, has called for a report on RNZB. One assumes the quality of the Board’s custodianship will feature strongly.

RNZB exodus – an update

On Friday, when I wrote the piece below, it was understood that no 2017 graduates of the New Zealand School of Dance had been offered positions for 2018 with Royal New Zealand Ballet. The school is associated with RNZB and recently celebrated its half century with a gala concert that featured RNZB artists.

As RNZB’s 2015 Annual Report states, “The New Zealand School of Dance this year became the ‘official school’ of the RNZB and we thank trustees and management of the NZSD for their commitment and effort to make this long held relationship an even stronger one.”

Last night (Sunday, December 3) I received an email from an RNZB spokesman clarifying the position. He wrote that “two 2018 contracts were offered to 2017 NZSD graduates and one to a 2016 graduate who is the Todd Scholar for 2018”. The two 2017 graduates did not take up the offer, deciding to take up opportunities overseas. The 2016 graduate is Luke Cooper, who accepted the offer and will become the 2018 Todd Scholar.

The RNZB website describes the Todd Scholarship, which is provided by the Todd Corporation, as being  “awarded annually to an outstanding graduate of the New Zealand School of Dance”.

One of the 2017 graduates, Mali Comlekci, joins Queensland Ballet in 2018 as a Young Artist.

Royal New Zealand Ballet in 2017

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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