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.)

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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.”

Patricia Barker to lead RNZB

Royal New Zealand Ballet has appointed American Patricia Barker as its new artistic director. She leaves Michigan’s Grand Rapids Ballet to take up the position and starts in Wellington later this month. Barker succeeds Francesco Ventriglia, who announced his resignation in November, well short of the end of his first contract with the company. Ventriglia will stay on for several months as a guest choreographer to see his new production of Romeo and Juliet on to the stage. It opens on August 16.

Barker will be the second woman and third American to lead the company in its 64-year history. Una Kai, a New Jersey-born dancer with New York City Ballet, was artistic director at RNZB from 1973-1975. American Ballet Theatre star Ethan Stiefel directed the company for three years immediately before Ventriglia’s tenure.

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Patricia Barker, Royal New Zealand Ballet’s new artistic director

Barker enjoyed a celebrated dance career at Seattle’s Pacific Northwest Ballet under the direction of Kent Stowell and Francia Russell and was particularly admired in the Balanchine repertoire. After retiring from the stage in 2007 she worked as co-artistic adviser – with Jiří Kylián – at Slovak National Theatre Ballet, has staged works for the Balanchine Trust and since 2010 has been artistic director of Grand Rapids Ballet – her first such appointment.

In 2015 Pointe magazine credited Barker with turning around the fortunes of that company in her first four years. Grand Rapids previously had 16 dancers but by 2015 the number had increased to 33, a number that included trainees and apprentices. Like many American classical companies of its size, it performs for about seven months of the year. RNZB is a fulltime company with 38 dancers.

RNZB Board chair Steven Fyfe said in a statement: “From a large number of excellent applications from New Zealand and all over the world, the Board was greatly impressed by Patricia’s vision for all aspects of the RNZB’s activities, together with her experience as an artistic leader. Her knowledge of both contemporary and classical repertoire, as a dancer, coach and director also makes her an outstanding fit for the RNZB.”

Barker said: “I am honoured and delighted to provide the artistic leadership to a company full of opportunity, achievement and with a unique creative voice and spirit. I will preserve the rich tradition of the Royal New Zealand Ballet while building on the company’s impressive repertoire by curating works to build on a distinctive New Zealand personality to enrich the lives of New Zealanders and showcase our dancers’ versatility to the world. I look forward to working with the Board of Directors, Frances Turner and the staff to present a broad spectrum of accessible, stimulating, and entertaining programing to a diverse national audience and to present the RNZB as a cultural ambassador of New Zealand.”

RNZB’s Executive Director, Frances Turner, celebrated the fact the company will be led by two women: “I’m looking forward to working with Patricia and enabling her artistic vision,” she said in a statement. “As the RNZB heads towards our 65th season I know that we will continue to inspire New Zealanders with great art. It’s also exciting to be leading the company in partnership with another woman; I suspect there are very few national companies worldwide that can say this!”