New era at RNZB

The question had to be asked. Is Patricia Barker at Royal New Zealand Ballet for the long haul?

Her predecessor but one as artistic director, fellow American Ethan Stiefel, saw out his three-year contract but decided not to renew. Barker’s immediate predecessor, Francesco Ventriglia, announced his resignation last November only two years into his tenure (he stayed in the job until June). A different approach was clearly needed.

Patricia Barker, Artistic Director, The Royal New Zealand Ballet

Royal New Zealand Ballet artistic director Patricia Barker. Photo: RNZB/Stephen A’Court

“The Board asked me to sign on for five years,” Barker says. It’s a wise call in the circumstances and Barker looks to be just what the dance doctor ordered. Beneath her quiet, warm, calm demeanour there would seem to exist super-powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men, or women.

Barker gave nearly three decades of service to Seattle-based Pacific Northwest Ballet, where she long reigned as an internationally renowned prima ballerina before retiring in 2007 in her mid-40s. A few years later she went to Grand Rapids, Michigan, to run a company that was “a week or two from closing its doors”. It had big, big problems but Barker took the job on because she didn’t want to see another company disappear, putting dancers on the street. “When things get hard I don’t give up,” she says. Seven years on, GRB is thriving.

Making deep commitments seems to sit easily with Barker. “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. The company hasn’t had somebody with my skill set in quite a while,” she said, sitting in the RNZB boardroom the morning after the company opened Romeo and Juliet. (Ventriglia stayed on to choreograph it.)

smaller Madeleine Graham, Patricia Barker, Mario Mattia Giorgetti, Joseph Skelton 20170816 copy

Madeleine Graham, Patricia Barker, dramaturg Mario Mattia Giorgetti and Joseph Skelton after the opening of Francesco Ventriglia’s Romeo and Juliet. Photo: RNZB/Jeremy Brick

This doesn’t come across as anything remotely approaching self-promotion, by the way. Barker speaks carefully and plainly. It’s just the way things are.

RNZB was obviously keen for Barker to start more or less instantly after she’d accepted the Board’s invitation. She was announced as artistic director on June 7, within about a week a visa had been secured and less than two weeks later she had arrived. “I grabbed two suitcases and came. I was sitting in my chair on the 18th or 19th. It was a whirlwind,” she says.

On Barker’s second day she attended a full board meeting; on her third she hopped on a plane to Timaru, a city halfway between Christchurch and Dunedin on the east coast of New Zealand’s South Island. That was to catch a performance of Tutus on Tour, a touring program to small centres designed to fulfil RNZB’s brief as the country’s national ballet company.

It was a full-on start for a woman whose life was frankly busy enough already. She is still GRB’s artistic director and thus holds down two jobs, but Barker is unfazed. The timing of seasons is different, there are things that can be done from a distance, she had already planned GRB’s 2017-2018 season and Ventriglia had pretty much locked down RNZB’s 2018 program, although Barker has had room to add a few touches of her own.

And Grand Rapids, one hastens to add, has already made some staff adjustments and its search for a new artistic director is well and truly on. Nevertheless, it’s a measure of how much RNZB needed Barker in New Zealand as soon as possible that it’s prepared to see her juggle responsibilities for both companies for some while.

Patricia Barker, Artistic Director, The Royal New Zealand Ballet

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

Eight weeks in when we speak, Barker is still learning new things about how RNZB operates and “the Kiwi accent throws me a little bit”, but there’s no hesitation when it comes to what she intends for the company. At the repertoire level, given Barker’s Balanchine-rich background at PNB, can we expect to see more of that master’s works? “Yes, in one easy word. They are food for the dancers and delight for the audiences.” Barker knows Jîrí Kylián well, having been a co-artistic adviser with him at Slovak National Ballet, and describes him as someone audiences need to see and whose works dancers desire to dance.

“Works by Balanchine, Kylián, Forsythe – they will attract talented dancers to our shores,” Barker says. She’s also a strong supporter of female choreographers, a group very under-represented in classical dance. And proving the value of doing two jobs at once, she is backing the talents of a company dancer and choreographer, Loughlan Prior, by sending him to Grand Rapids to make a work for her contemporary dance program MOVEMEDIA: Diversity.

Barker is working on 2019 and beyond, as she must. That involves “looking for the big ideas, the big works” and then working out audience appeal, touring logistics, how productions can be built and the many other details that underpin a season.

First though, come the dancers. “One of the reasons why we all agreed for me to come as soon as possible was for me to get a feel for the dancers, for the talent in the room for the works that are being done next year and then building for ‘19, ‘20, ‘21,” Barker says. “I believe in using the talents you have in front of you, but definitely looking towards the future and talents that may turn up on our doorstep. At the moment dancers are making life decisions and we’re making decisions for this organisation. We want the brightest talents in the studio.”

Some dancers will choose to leave, she says – “it’s in dancers’ DNA to move around” – but others may well be encouraged by plans Barker has for a more stable in-house structure.

“There’s been a big change in artistic staff over the past six years and that’s something I’m committed to settling down. We will have a team and will have a permanent team. I feel very confident in the people for 2018. The goal is to have permanence for a length of time.”

Someone it wouldn’t be surprising to see in the RNZB studios is Barker’s husband, Michael Auer, also a former principal artist with PNB. Auer is currently creative director at the school associated with Grand Rapids Ballet but he and Barker don’t propose to have a long-distance relationship. She might have abandoned him (her word) to move to New Zealand as quickly as possible but he will be joining her in Wellington. “As long as we’re together we feel that’s home.”

‘I am in the right place’

Robert Curran was a long-serving principal artist with The Australian Ballet, from which he retired in 2011. He’s now leading a small company in the United States and relishing a role that is both very similar – ballet is ballet, the studio is the studio – and yet very different from his  former life.

LOUISVILLE is a city of about 750,000 people lying west of the Appalachian Mountains on the Ohio River in Kentucky. It was founded in 1778 during the American Revolution, named after Louis XVI (the French were allies against the British), and is situated in the South, although very much in the north of the South – it takes little more than two hours in a not very large aircraft to fly there from New York. But a Southern city it is, proud of its hospitality and its role as a leading bourbon producer.

As everyone knows, Louisville is famous for the annual Kentucky Derby, which is kicked off by Thunder Over Louisville, a fireworks display described as the biggest in North America. The city is also the headquarters for the parent company of Kentucky Fried Chicken and Pizza Hut, the jauntily named Yum! Brands. (The city’s major sports complex, seating 22,000, is called the KFC Yum! Center.)

So – horses, booze and fast food are important in Louisville. And bluegrass music. But they are not what I went for in mid-April. In August last year Louisville Ballet named Robert Curran, former principal artist with The Australian Ballet, as its new artistic director. As I have always been keen to see one of the smaller-scale American companies in action, his appointment offered the perfect excuse to make it happen.

Robert Curran in rehearsal with Louisville Ballet dancers. Photo: Sam English

Robert Curran in rehearsal with Louisville Ballet dancers. Photo: Sam English

First, a bit of background. San Francisco Ballet is regarded as the oldest professional company in the US, founded in 1933 as San Francisco Opera Ballet and becoming a separate body in 1942. Just to muddy the waters a little, Atlanta Ballet was founded in 1929 and describes itself as “the longest continuously performing ballet company in the United States”. Presumably it started as an amateur outfit. Whatever the story, ballet started to take root in the US about 85 years ago. Interest had been stirred by touring European troupes in the 19th century and was cemented by Ballets Russes spin-off companies in the mid 20th century. George Balanchine came to the US in late 1933 and his School of American Ballet opened at the beginning of 1934.

By the beginning of the 21st century there would be 100 or more ballet companies in the US. They include a handful of world-renowned organisations – American Ballet Theatre, New York City Ballet, San Francisco Ballet – and other major-city outfits such as Houston Ballet, Boston Ballet, Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet and Seattle’s Pacific Northwest Ballet that can support 40 or more dancers. Louisville Ballet belongs to a third category: smaller troupes established in sizeable cities with a lively arts scene.

After his appointment was announced Curran made a quick trip back home to sort out his visa and then returned to Louisville to dive in. He didn’t have long to become acquainted with his dancers before getting Giselle onstage by mid-September, and also wanted to immerse himself in Louisville cultural life as soon as possible.

Eight months later, Curran couldn’t look happier. Retiring director Bruce Simpson had programmed the first part of the 2014-2015 season so it wasn’t until April 10 that Curran unveiled his first program for Louisville Ballet: a triple bill of Serge Lifar’s Suite en blanc, George Balanchine’s Square Dance and a new piece by Australian choreographer Lucas Jervies, What Light Is to Our Eyes. It was extremely well received by public and critics, but perhaps more impressive was the demonstration of just how quickly Curran had moved on one of his most passionately desired goals. He wants Louisville Ballet to interact meaningfully and visibly with the local cultural scene and Director’s Choice: A New World was a strong beginning.

“That’s something I’m investing a lot of time in. Getting involved in the music scene, getting involved in the visual arts scene,” he says. Curran was given permission by the Balanchine Trust to commission new designs for Square Dance and asked Louisville artist Letitia Quesenberry to be involved. Her serene stage picture was dominated by a quietly glowing painting bisected by a horizontal stream of light. “Meeting Leticia was a great, great moment for me. Her work is so inspiring. It’s absolutely glorious.” Curran hadn’t expected the Balanchine Trust to give him so much freedom, although perhaps his commitment to offer Balanchine in Louisville every year helped. “I didn’t think that [redesigning the ballet] was a luxury that would be afforded a first-time director of a mid-west company with a small budget. When they offered, I had to jump at it.”

Kateryna Sellers and Brandon Ragland in Square Dance. Photo: Wade Bell

Kateryna Sellers and Brandon Ragland in Square Dance. Photo: Wade Bell

Jervies created What Light Is to Our Eyes to young American composer Sebastian Chang’s first symphony, which was commissioned by and given its world premiere performance in late January by Louisville Orchestra. It was conducted by the orchestra’s new music director Teddy Abrams, a 27-year-old who is creating quite a stir in the city. As an interviewer for Louisville Insider put it to Curran recently just before Director’s Choice opened, “You can’t cross the street without running into Teddy – he’s everywhere.” Curran doesn’t want to make himself quite as visible as Abrams, preferring to put the spotlight on his dancers, but they seem to be on the same wavelength.

The intertwining of ballet and orchestra continues in March next year in a co-production called (R)evolution that will feature a new score from Abrams alongside music by Stravinsky and Philip Glass. Adam Hougland will choreograph. Curran also meets with the leaders of two other leading Louisville companies, Kentucky Opera and the famed Actors Theatre of Louisville, with an eye to co-operative ventures. “We’re all in really open communication. We spend time together, we talk together, we deal with tricky situations, but we deal with them together. It’s a really open dialogue, and that goes with the visual arts organisations as well. We’re all trying to work out how we can maximise our impact and minimise our impact on each other – that’s a really exciting thing.”

Drawing on the wider world of ballet connections, Curran was given permission to stage Suite en blanc himself after Claude Bessy, a former director of the Paris Opera Ballet School who is associated with the Serge Lifar Foundation, was unable to come to the US as planned. Curran got Bessy’s blessing after being introduced long-distance by ballet legend Violette Verdy, whom Curran knows from his AB days. Verdy is now a professor at Indiana University. It’s a small world.

Erica De La O in Suite en blanc. Photo: Renata Pavam

Erica De La O in Suite en blanc. Photo: Renata Pavam

In terms of repertoire Director’s Choice was very familiar territory for Curran. He has been acquainted with the Lifar ballet since his student days with the Australian Ballet School, danced Balanchine with the AB and with Jervies founded a small Melbourne-based contemporary ballet company, JACK.

Far less familiar was his new company’s structure. Louisville Ballet has 24 dancers and 15 apprentices, the latter at the stage of finishing vocational training and preparing to start professional careers. Dancers are contracted for 30 weeks of the year, a number Curran would like to see increase to 40 or 42. Houston Ballet, led by Australian choreographer Stanton Welch, has 44-week contracts but that is uncommon. Even the mighty American Ballet Theatre contracts its dancers for only 36 weeks of the year. For the rest of the year they fend for themselves or go on unemployment benefits.

Perhaps even more surprising to an outsider is the small number of performances in each season given by Louisville Ballet and other companies of its size. Director’s Choice was seen only three times in the space of 28 hours – Friday night, Saturday matinee, Saturday night and it was done. The exception of course is Nutcracker, which is both sacred community tradition and indispensible money-spinner for virtually every American ballet company. That has a much longer run.

Nutcracker is a phenomenon I wasn’t exactly prepared for. It’s the most beautiful score ever written for ballet, it’s a beautiful tradition and I love seeing how many children come. It’s a brilliant production [choreographed by Val Caniparoli]. I’m biased but I would rate it in my top five in the world that I’ve seen. The integrity, the quality of the choreography, the through line are really wonderful. It’s unique and it’s also great to see a Nutcracker, a lot like Graeme’s [Graeme Murphy’s Nutcracker: The Story of Clara], that is so specific to its audience. There are a lot of touches that are Louisville.’’

While the company is much smaller than Curran is used to, it means there’s plenty of room for growth. “There are no performances outside Louisville at the moment. That has to change. We are here to serve the whole state and we don’t. I would love for the company to do more performances, and that’s my ultimate goal.” Nutcracker would be a natural ballet to tour, although in a different, smaller-scale version. The Caniparoli production was designed for the vast – 2400 seats – Whitney Hall in Louisville’s Kentucky Center. (Curran’s Director’s Choice program was at the smaller Brown Theatre. Its 1400 seats make it a suitable size for a great deal of repertoire but backstage restrictions make it not entirely ideal.)

One area set to expand is the number of trainees. Curran says there will be a much bigger group next year than the current 15. “I had a phenomenal number of people applying.” As trainees are unpaid they don’t drain resources. There is a little government funding but Curran describes the company’s $3.5 million budget as primarily made up of “about one third box office, one third development [corporate sponsorship and private support] and one third school revenue”. The latter is something Curran, who is also artistic director of Louisville Ballet School, is looking at. If the school’s income is mainly siphoned off for the company it doesn’t get to invest in itself. There are 600 students, not all of whom want to take a vocational path, and Curran would like to see an organisation that better suits the needs of both recreational and vocational students.

The vocational students are the obvious candidates for apprenticeships and, ultimately, a place in the company. And it’s something Curran has to pay close attention to. Louisville Ballet dancers have a higher average age than in most companies, Curran says, with many in their mid to late 30s. That brings maturity and intelligence to the stage, but the careers can’t last forever.

Kristopher Wojtera and Erica De La O in What Light Is to Our Eyes. Photo: Renata Pavam

Kristopher Wojtera and Erica De La O in What Light Is to Our Eyes, by Lucas Jervies. Photo: Renata Pavam

Curran has no intention of letting people go – “I’ve become very fond of them” – but must keep an eye to the future. That means not only developing the next generation of dancers but also giving current company members challenging repertoire.

Suite en blanc was certainly that. It’s danced by the best companies in the world although has not been frequently staged in the US, which made it a clever choice for Louisville. Lifar’s tutu-laden, highly exposed test of classical prowess was greatly enjoyed by the audience at the two performances I saw and clearly stretched some of the apprentices in the corps. “It’s a really hard ballet,” Curran said when we spoke after the opening. “They’ve had to step up mentally and physically. I can see dramatic changes in the way they work and what they look like.”

Many dancers caught the eye, in particular Natalia Ashikhmina in the Cigarette variation and Erica De La O in the Flute variation in Suite; both leading pairs in Square Dance – Kateryna Sellers and Brandon Ragland, De La O with Kristopher Wojtera; and the full cast of What Light Is to our Eyes, which the dancers invested not only with strong contemporary ballet energy but with mature dramatic qualities.

With the dancers going on leave for their long northern summer layoff, Curran and Louisville Ballet general manager Cara Hicks are turning their minds to a reorganisation of the company, which has a staff of about 15 apart from the dancers. Hicks is relatively new to her position (although not to the company), as previously Bruce Simpson combined the roles of artistic director and chief executive. Curran expresses nothing but great admiration and respect for Simpson, who some years ago guided the company out of extreme financial difficulties, but with both Curran and Hicks under 40 different emphases are inevitable.

Along with the major undertaking that is the company restructure, Curran has a new production to prepare, a version of Coppélia that will open Louisville Ballet’s 2015-2016 season in October. He plans to set it in Louisville’s Germantown area in 1917 as the US enters World War I. He also has “perhaps a foolishly ambitious plan” for the company’s 65th anniversary in 2017 about which he will say nothing at present.

He will say, however, how thrilled he is to be in Louisville. “I enjoy the people. They’re so welcoming. The city is fun; it’s really easy, although the food is a little bit too good. This community, they are brave, willing to look at things in a new light. Seeing that standing ovation after Lucas’s work – they were so willing to embrace it.

“I am in the right place. I didn’t know if I would find something as rewarding as my dancing; I really didn’t. But I wasn’t very long into this when I realised I’d found it. It’s a brilliant, brilliant job.”

Swan Lake, Royal New Zealand Ballet

St James Theatre, Wellington, July 18

TO mark its 60th anniversary – the first public performance was on June 30, 1953 – Royal New Zealand Ballet is offering graceful tribute to its oldest surviving former artistic director, Russell Kerr, by reviving the Swan Lake he made for the company in 1996. (Company founder Poul Gnatt died in 1995; Kerr led the company from 1962 to 1968 and had previously been heavily involved with it.)

Kerr, now 83 and a little frail, was able to oversee the final days of rehearsal and was given a mighty reception when he took the stage at the end of the first performance in Wellington. It was heart-warming to see him acknowledge the dancers rather than soak in the adulation. Sentiment alone, of course, won’t get a work to the stage. Kerr’s is a faithful rendering of the perennial favourite, made to suit small forces without losing the ballet’s essential grandeur. The fact that it was designed by the late, great Kristian Fredrikson is a huge plus, and in this season the contribution of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra is a further bonus. On opening night Tchaikovsky’s score was played with brilliance, passion and unerring feel for the romantic pulse of the work. Nigel Gaynor, RNZB’s newly appointed music director and widely experienced in dance, was at the helm for this stunning performance. A sidelight: that the NZSO sounds in such top form reflects most happily on its music director, Pietari Inkinen, the young Finn who has stepped into the breach and will conduct The Ring for Opera Australia in November and December.

To these blessings it was possible last night to add the ingredient that really rocked the house – the glamour of first night stars Gillian Murphy and Karel Cruz. Being engaged to RNZB artistic director Ethan Stiefel makes Murphy a Wellingtonian by adoption and she spends a significant part of each year with RNZB as principal guest artist when she is not fulfilling her commitments as one of American Ballet Theatre’s starriest ballerinas. So the production had a big head start right there. Murphy’s partner was Karel Cruz, a guest from Pacific Northwest Ballet of great elegance who may not have been given a huge amount to do but did it with impeccable grace, manly charm and exquisite princely bearing. His double tours with impeccable fifths on landing and plush plie were a fine reminder of how they should be done. Not surprisingly, Wellington was quite agog today with his beauty.

In the first act Siegfried is being feted by the local peasantry in a lovely glade in the castle grounds and takes part in a little light dancing with a group of the men. Girls do charming things with garlands of flowers and the pas de trois emerges more organically from the Prince’s birthday activity than it often does. On opening night the trio of Lucy Green, Tonia Looker and Arata Miyagawa – the young Japanese dancer is a real find – did the honours with refreshingly modest manners. Rory Fairweather-Neylan bounced around indefatigably in the thankless (and, I think, regrettable) role of the Jester, all split leaps and mugging in the usual way. But Fairweather-Neylan was less objectionable than many a Jester, so good work there.

I liked the touch of peasant couples greeting the Queen and indicating their love for one another, which reminds one of Siegfried’s need to find a bride. Cruz could have appeared a little more melancholy about the unwanted pressure, given that we need Siegfried’s dissatisfaction to give Act I some dramatic backbone. Once we got lakeside and Cruz was in Murphy’s thrall, however, the necessary tension emerged. Murphy’s Swan Queen is no victim despite her entrapment. She is forceful and regal. When she tells Siegfried that they are at a lake filled with tears of sorrow, her mime is large and emphatic. She needs him to fall in love with her so she can be released, but she needs to explore love too, which she does in the adagio at the centre of the second act. She is far from passive.

The strength of her reading is both in the way the role of Odette is expressed physically and in the way it connects inexorably with the doppleganger Odile: you can see how Siegfried could be tricked. In the triumphant Act III fouette sequence Murphy threw in arms en couronne (held overhead), a glittering trace of the movement of swans’ wings brought into play. It was thrilling and it had the crowd roaring, but it was also dramatically convincing.

While basing his choreography on Petipa and Ivanov, Kerr had to work around a much smaller body of dancers than most companies would use for Swan Lake and has rung many changes. RNZB fields a corps of 16 swans but that cleverly includes the four cygnets and the two big swans, who melt in and out of the group. It is an entirely agreeable solution. I am less certain about the presentation of the princesses vying for Siegfried’s hand. They get rather lost in the whirl of activity, although last night looked absolutely divine in Fredrikson’s ornate tutus. Blingy, but very attractively so.

The ballet’s ending is smudged too. Odette and Siegfried hasten off, one assumes to free themselves via death, but perhaps not. Another viewing tonight will clarify, I trust. Whatever the detail, the moment lacks impact. The offset, though, is a final image of the swans’ corp in a lovely diagonal saluting the coming morning and their freedom.

Murphy and Cruz have further performances together tomorrow (July 20), and July 25 and 27. Tonight young Australian dancer Lucy Green appears as Odette-Odile. More on that tomorrow.