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!”

Swan Lake, Queensland Ballet

Queensland Performing Arts Centre, May 5.

Queensland Ballet’s Swan Lake had a 42nd Street quality on opening night as junior company member Joel Woellner was chosen to dance Prince Siegfried alongside the seasoned Odette-Odile of QB principal artist – and former top-ranked star at the National Ballet of Cuba – Yanela Piñera.

Piñera has presence in spades and technical prowess to burn. She laid out her credentials within seconds of taking to the stage with a pure, extended balance on pointe that was an eloquent expression of the Swan Queen’s sorrow and entrapment. As the imposter Odile she decorated the treacherous (for some; not her) fouette sequence with triple pirouettes and gave a magisterial account of her solo.

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Yanela Piñera and Joel Woellner in Ben Stevenson’s Swan Lake. Photo: David Kelly

Piñera nailed the big effects that seem to be a Cuban birthright, including sky-high extensions and Odile’s don’t-mess-with-me grand pirouettes in Act 3 but it was the delicate detail that lingered. Odette’s tiny flutters of foot against ankle in Act II were exquisite.

Woellner was going out a courageous youngster but had to come back a star, or at least as close to one as possible in a nearly impossible assignment. The desperate, deep-seated passion that should drive Siegfried eluded him, resulting in a muted relationship with Odette. There was, nevertheless, gleaming beauty in almost all his dancing. Double tours were plush and precisely landed and lovely air turns finished in stretched, poised arabesques. It was impressive to see how much value he gave each moment, never smudging or cutting steps short. Woellner is not yet a fully-fledged prince but is a hugely promising princeling.

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Joel Woellner as Prince Siegfried in Swan Lake. Photo: David Kelly

For the first Swan Lake of his tenure as QB artistic director, Li not surprisingly chose Ben Stevenson’s 1985 version made for Houston Ballet. It makes sense for the size of the company – currently at 32 permanent members and 10 Young Artists – and Li knows the production well, having danced in it in those early days. One can also never underestimate the affection and loyalty Li has for Stevenson, now in his early 80s. Stevenson was responsible for Li’s American career and therefore in a sense all that followed.

It’s a conventional production based on the 1895 Petipa-Ivanov version. Stevenson retains some of the best-known choreography, although much is new. The 1985 designs by David Walker placed Stevenson’s ballet in the late 19th century but for this incarnation QB has borrowed Kristian Fredrikson’s luxuriant Renaissance-tinged designs made for Russell Kerr’s Royal New Zealand Ballet version in 1996.

The beating heart of Swan Lake is the first lakeside act in which Siegfried comes across Odette and her retinue of swan maidens, here a corps of 24 that sensibly incorporates the two Big Swans and four Cygnets. It’s a significant number for a company of QB’s size and was augmented by Queensland Ballet Academy pre-professional students. The teaching is clearly excellent. The corps as a whole looked beautifully schooled and had the strength-in-unity power that makes Act 2 so captivating. (And these dancers have to be strong: Lucy Green, newly appointed soloist at QB, on opening night danced in the Act 1 pas de trois, was a Cygnet in Act 2 and the Spanish Princess in Act 3. This was the night before her Odette-Odile.)

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Lucy Green, Neneka Yoshida, Lina Kim and Teri Crilly. Photo: David Kelly

Different details in storytelling mean the fit isn’t always exact between Stephenson’s vision of the ballet and Fredrikson’s designs. The white acts looked wonderful, of course, but in the first and fourth acts it wasn’t always easy to get a grip on all-important distinctions of rank. It was surprising in this respect to see the Queen arrive without a suitable entourage to Siegfried’s coming-of-age celebration, symbolically set in a thick glade through which there’s a glimpse of decaying grandeur.

In Act 3, when foreign princesses are presented to Siegfried so he can choose a bride, the princesses lead the national dance of the country they represent. At RNZB the princesses wore distinctive, decorative tutus; here they are dressed similarly to all the other women in their troupe and dance like entertainers, some friskily showing quite a lot of leg and behaving quite unregally.

Stevenson trims the action significantly, for good and bad. Act 1 is enjoyably fast-paced while shortened Acts 3 and 4 elide with dramatically convincing sleight of hand. I was less convinced by the transition from Acts 1 to 2, in which the Prince dances his yearning solo while his mother (Zenia Tátcheva) pressures – no, harangues – him about the weighty responsibilities of State he must take on. It rather spoils the mood.

With the production coming in at under two hours of dancing, Tchaikovsky’s music at times sounds chopped back to its detriment although at the opening the Queensland Symphony Orchestra under QB music director Nigel Gaynor delivered a sympathetic account of what is there. Concertmaster Warwick Adeney’s violin solos in Act II and III were sublime.

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Lina Kim and Victor Estévez in Act 1 of Swan Lake. Photo: David Kelly

Stevenson’s choice of music for Siegfried and Odette’s final pas de deux in Act 4 comes from left field. Tchaikovsky died in 1893 and Riccardo Drigo had a hand in arranging music for the 1985 Petipa-Ivanov production, orchestrating Tchaikovsky’s piano piece Un poco di Chopin, a mazurka, for this section. Drigo smoothed out the mazurka’s prominent accents and slowed the conventionally bright tempo to achieve a romantic quality, but to these ears the music underplays the depths of Siegfried’s agony and contrition. Stevenson, however, obviously feels it better expresses Siegfried’s remorse for having betrayed Odette. In any event, it is rarely heard these days.

Perhaps transcendence was hard to come by on opening night but there was plenty of fine dancing, particularly from Lucy Green, Lima Kim and Victor Estevez as they whizzed and fizzed through the Act I pas de trois. Vito Bernasconi as Von Rothbart didn’t have a huge amount to do but looked imposing, albeit perhaps rather too emphatic in his directions to Odile in the ballroom scene. It was too much of a giveaway.

As is the case in every production I’ve seen, Von Rothbart and Odile are immediately accepted as having a right to be at the ball with no questions asked. It’s always bemusing. (Kevin McKenzie’s American Ballet Theatre version has a red-hot go at dramatic coherence by making Von Rothbart amazingly sexy and charismatic. He makes every woman in the room, including Siegfried’s mother, bewitched, bothered and bewildered.)

Those lucky enough to have tickets for May 11 will see guest artist Evgenia Obratszova from the Bolshoi as Odette-Odile (she also danced on May 9). And at certain performances there is the interesting – but by no means revolutionary – splitting of those roles as Mia Heathcote dances Odette and Neneka Yoshida tackles Odile.

Swan Lake ends on May 13.

My year in dance

Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker and Pina Bausch made my year. For his final Sydney Festival in January, artistic director Lieven Bertels programmed two bracing De Keersmaeker works, Fase and Vortex Temporum, and the huge thrill was seeing the choreographer herself in Fase (my review is here). Living dance history. Festival clout and money also made the Bausch experience possible. At the Adelaide Festival in March Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch performed Nelken, which was obviously a necessity to see, but just a week later Wellington’s New Zealand International Arts Festival trumped Adelaide. In the repertoire carve-up the Wellington-based festival got the double bill of Café Muller and Rite of Spring. I had always longed to see both live. And now I have.

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Pina Bausch’s The Rite of Spring. Photo: Matt Grace

The Perth International Arts Festival (February) and the Brisbane Festival (September) – there’s a theme here – also provided performances that made it into my best-of list. It was absolutely worth going to Perth for just one night from Sydney (flying time: five hours) to see Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s Apocrifu, which was outstandingly beautiful, in a rough, sweaty kind of way, and accompanied by celestial a capella singing from the all-male group A Filetta. It was a much easier business to pop up to Brisbane for Jonah Bokaer’s Rules of the Game – not really for the much-hyped title work (its score was by Pharrell Williams) but for the chance to see earlier Bokaer pieces and the choreographer himself onstage.

More festival highlights, these from local choreographers: Stephanie Lake’s super-intelligent Double Blind at the Sydney Festival, Kristina Chan’s ravishing A Faint Existence at Performance Space’s Liveworks festival in October and Nicola Gunn and Jo Lloyd’s Mermermer, also at Liveworks.

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Kristina Chan in A Faint Existence. Photo: Ashley de Prazer

The rest of the key works in 2016 come from major companies. The Australian Ballet, which has been looking very, very conventional of late, stretched dancers and audiences with John Neumeier’s Nijinsky (which I reviewed for Limelight magazine); Bangarra Dance Theatre’s triple bill OUR land people stories was a luminous program; and Sydney Dance Company’s double bills Untamed (October) and CounterMove (February) yet again demonstrated the thoroughbred power and impressive individuality of Rafael Bonachela’s dancers.

In the year I saw dance in Sydney, Perth, Brisbane, Adelaide, Melbourne, Auckland and Wellington, but yet again I mourn the fact that I just wasn’t able to visit Melbourne more often to sample its contemporary dance riches. As so often, Samuel Beckett comes to mind: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

On the people front the biggest news of the year was the re-emergence of David Hallberg after a two-and-a-half year absence from the stage. The American superstar, a principal artist at both American Ballet Theatre and the Bolshoi Ballet, spent a year at The Australian Ballet’s headquarters in Melbourne undergoing extensive rehabilitation after having surgery for an ankle problem. His return to the stage was, fittingly, with the AB, and as it happened, the scheduled ballet gave Hallberg a role debut. He danced four performances as Franz in Coppélia. (You can read about the rehabilitation process here and the Coppélia performance here.)

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David Hallberg in Act I of Coppelia. Photo: Kate Longley

Queensland Ballet made a splash when it announced the appointment, from 2017, of Liam Scarlett as artistic associate. Scarlett retains his artist in residence role at the Royal Ballet. At the same time QB announced artistic director Li Cunxin had signed on for four more years. The board must be happy about that.

Less happily, Royal New Zealand Ballet announced that its relatively new artistic director, Francesco Ventriglia, would be relinquishing that role in mid-2017. He will stay on to choreograph the announced new Romeo and Juliet, but then he’s off. What happened? I’ll let you know when I find out, although previously he had spoken to me enthusiastically about being in New Zealand. The RNZ website (Radio New Zealand) wrote in early December that as many as a dozen dancers and staff had left RNZB because of conflicts with Ventriglia, quoting a representative of the union that represents dancers.

I stress I have no information that suggests these departures are connected with Ventriglia’s, but leading Australian-born RNZB dancer Lucy Green has accepted a position with Queensland Ballet for 2017 and RNZB’s former music director Nigel Gaynor, who was hired by Ventriglia’s predecessor Ethan Stiefel, is now QB’s music director. These gains by QB could easily be explained by Li Cunxin’s voracious eye for talent – as in the Liam Scarlett coup (QB and RNZB share Scarlett’s lovely Midsummer Night’s Dream so there’s a close connection).

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Queensland Ballet’s Rian Thompson and Laura Hidalgo in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Photo: David Kelly

The biggest disappointment of the year is the AB’s lack of commitment to developing new choreographers. It’s true that Bodytorque, which started in 2004, needed a fresh look, but it’s become the incredible shrinking show, offering less and less each year. The name is no longer used at all and the amount of new work from developing choreographers is minuscule.

Bodytorque was last seen in its familiar form in 2013 – six new or relatively inexperienced choreographers made works that were seen in a short special season at what is now the Roslyn Packer Theatre in Sydney. In 2014 Bodytorque went to Melbourne and featured five works, including a piece by newly minted resident choreographer Tim Harbour. The other four dance-makers included Alice Topp (her fourth year at Bodytorque) and Richard House (with his second piece).

In 2015 the name still lingered but the program had dwindled to the creation of just one work, House’s From Something, to Nothing, shown once in Sydney and once in Melbourne as a “pop-up” event called Bodytorque Up Late. This took place after performances of mainstage repertoire, once in Sydney and once in Melbourne. The audience could stay to watch for free if it wished. Or not.

In 2016 it was clear favour had fallen on Topp and House, which is fair enough. Both, but particularly Topp, are worth persevering with. This time their new works, each of about 10 minutes in length, were programmed as part of a group of divertissements that acted as a curtain-raiser to Balanchine’s Symphony in C, which gave the whole evening its name.

And for 2017? Those two pieces will be seen again, this time in Melbourne when that city gets Symphony in C. So – let’s add up the minutes. In the three years from 2015-2017, there will have been a bit under 40 minutes in total of new choreography from developing choreographers.

It’s possible AB artistic director David McAllister has big plans for Topp, or House, or both. After all, Harbour was developed via a series of Bodytorque commissions. But Harbour emerged from a quite a large pack. The window of opportunity has now narrowed excessively – and depressingly.

Li Cunxin extends his Queensland Ballet tenure and Liam Scarlett joins as artistic associate

IN October Queensland Ballet announced that artistic director Li Cunxin had signed on for another four years, doubtless much to the relief of the QB board. Li succeeded François Klaus in July 2012 and in his first four years has transformed a lacklustre company into one of significant growth, steadily increasing artistic standards and apparently boundless ambition.

The achievements include introducing a young artist program; securing more State government funding that will, by 2020, boost the size of the company to 36 dancers (not including the eight young artists); performing at least one large-scale work annually in Queensland Performing Arts Centre’s 2000-seat Lyric Theatre; beefing up the senior ranks, including hiring three dancers from National Ballet of Cuba; and selling out just about every performance for every program, every year.

QB has also been successful in attracting significant private donations to the company, a happy state of affairs that tends to be attributed to Li’s networking skills and charisma. Last year the Melbourne-based Ian Potter Foundation announced a gift of $5 million, earmarked for improvements to the company’s facilities at the Thomas Dixon Centre in Brisbane’s West End (Li was a long-time Melbourne resident, working there as a stockbroker after his retirement as a principal dancer with The Australian Ballet) and in its statement regarding Li’s contract extension, QB revealed that an anonymous donor is “committed to supporting Li’s appointment over the next four years”.

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Liam Scarlett rehearsing principal dancer Yanela Pinera in A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Queensland Ballet. Photo: Eduardo Vieira

There was more to come. High-profile young British choreographer Liam Scarlett, who is artist in residence at London’s Royal Ballet and has a busy international career, joins QB next year as artistic associate (he keeps his RB role). A QB representative said Scarlett’s tenure was for four years “initially”, with extension possible, and that the position is being fully funded by one private donor.

In a statement released by QB on November 4, Scarlett said the company had “a commitment to excellence and a desire to push the boundaries and that’s an exciting creative environment to work in”.

The details of the association aren’t yet clear but it is likely QB will perform one Scarlett work each year, either one made on the company or an existing ballet. In 2017 QB will stage No Man’s Land, the one-act work Scarlett made for English National Ballet’s World War I centenary program Lest We Forget in 2014.

Scarlett’s talent was identified when he was a student at the Royal Ballet School. He juggled dance-making and performing with the Royal Ballet until 2012, when he became a fulltime choreographer. He has works in the repertoires of American Ballet Theatre, New York City Ballet, Miami City Ballet and San Francisco Ballet, among other leading companies.

The introduction to QB was made when Royal New Zealand Ballet’s then artistic director, Ethan Stiefel, invited Scarlett to create a full-length Midsummer Night’s Dream for RNZB and asked QB to be a co-producer. Dream premiered in Wellington last year to wide approval – it is captivatingly musical and sensual and has a sweet sense of humour – and sold out its performances in Brisbane earlier this year.

Scarlett’s one-act abstract works have been regarded rather more favourably by leading dance critics than his narrative ballets, although his three-act Carmen, made last year to the music of Bizet for Norwegian National Ballet, must have been received well: the company is reviving it in February and March next year. RNZB took A Midsummer Night’s Dream to Hong Kong in October and gives four more performances of it in Wellington from November 25. This year’s three-act Frankenstein, however, was handed particularly stinging reviews on its London premiere in May this year. (It is a co-production with San Francisco Ballet and opens there in February.)

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Queensland Ballet’s Rian Thompson and Laura Hidalgo in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Photo: David Kelly

When I interviewed Scarlett ahead of the Dream premiere in Wellington last year, at a time he was also deep into planning for Frankenstein, he said he was “very aware I wanted to do narrative – I grew up with all these story ballets and loved them. They were my favourite to do when I was dancing. I soaked them up. But I was very aware you needed tools to do that.”

It’s those tools, or lack of them, that have come under close critical scrutiny. Scarlett’s approach is to work closely with his artistic collaborators, but not with a dramaturg. “I have been criticised for that,” he told me. “But I’ve also worked with people who have worked with a dramaturg and they’ve been criticised equally. No, I run things by people but if I want to do it, I will do it, and if I make a mistake then it’s my mistake that I will learn from eventually.”

His lengthy CV might suggest otherwise but Scarlett is only 30. He doubtless has more mistakes to make along with his successes, but his name will add lustre to QB and Queensland audiences will have the chance to see at close range the further growth of a significant choreographer.

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.)

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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.

About last week … April 30-May 6

A week of contrasts started on Tuesday at the Sydney Opera House with the marvellous Bernadette Robinson in Pennsylvania Avenue, her follow-up to Songs for Nobodies. Both were written by Joanna Murray-Smith to give a narrative framework for Robinson’s rare talent and if Songs for Nobodies strikes one as the much better work, Pennsylvania Avenue still offers many pleasures. Robinson has an extraordinary ability to summon the voices and spirit of famous singers and is a fine actor as well. Her art is much more than mimicry. Pennsylvania Avenue is flashback theatre set in the White House as a woman, Harper Clements, recalls her life of service to a string of presidents, starting with JFK. The conceit is that she works with the entertainments wing and thus comes into contact with many famous singers over a 40 year-span. The single set rather traps Robinson into walking around, picking up and putting down a box of belongings as she prepares to leave her position (Simon Phillips directed), and the troubles in Clements’s life aren’t as fascinating as the evocation of events such as Sarah Vaughn’s performance at the White House. Nevertheless, the wide range of songs and Robinson’s skill keep you with her, even if at 90 minutes the show feels a tad long. Robinson does a killer Tammy Wynette (Stand By Your Man – associated, naturally, with the Clinton era), her Eartha Kitt (If You Go Away, the English version of Brel’s Ne Me Quitte Pas) is spine-tingling and her Bob Dylan (The Eve of Destruction) is pitch-perfect, if such a term can be applied to the Dylan vocal style. An excellent band, too, tucked away behind the curtain.

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Bernadette Robinson in Pennsylvania Avenue

On Wednesday morning it was off to Wellington and Royal New Zealand Ballet’s The Wizard of Oz, which I have reviewed at length in the post below. A lovely work, albeit one that can grow as it gets more performances. As always, dramaturgical input is something very much needed in the making of story ballets and it is often put too far down the list of priorities. I’ve very much enjoyed reading British critics talking about the need for dramaturgical and directorial input into Liam Scarlett’s new three-act ballet for the Royal, Frankenstein. I’ve been banging on about this for decades. But back to RNZB, where choreographer and artistic director Francesco Ventriglia has a very strong base from which to work. And we’re not talking huge changes.

Thursday night brought the Queen/Ben Elton musical We Will Rock You, which I missed when it was staged in Australia in 2003. My review is in The Australian today (May 9) and I’ll put it up on the blog later in the week. Suffice to say that as someone who was young in the 1970s I had a very good time indeed.

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Casey Donovan as the Killer Queen in We Will Rock You. Photo: Jeff Busby

Thank goodness for Australian Theatre for Young People’s Friday matinee of Spring Awakening, a production I would otherwise not have been able to fit into the schedule. And I would have missed a beauty. It’s salutary to note that Frank Wedekind’s 1891 play was banned in England until 1963, a clear affirmation of its revolutionary nature. Well, and of British idiocy in respect to censorship. Wedekind’s theme of burgeoning teenage sexuality and adult fear and hypocrisy was incendiary then, and now. Despite children having almost unfettered access to sexual material, there are powerful people who still refuse to allow those children to have straightforward, realistic, all-embracing information and discussion.

The 2006 musical by Duncan Sheik (music) and Steven Sater (book and lyrics) is set in the time of Wedekind’s play yet feels utterly contemporary, and not only because of the indie-rock score. The young ATYP actors are shiningly unselfconscious and thoroughly absorbed and absorbing. Jessica Rookeward’s Wendla glows in spirit and voice and the two leading men, James Raggett (Melchior) and Josh McElroy (Moritz) could not be bettered, so passionate and so different. Mitchell Butel, on only his second directorial outing, proves that should acting jobs dry up – unlikely; Butel is one of the busiest and most versatile men on the Australian stage – he can segue effortlessly to the other side. He gets superb performances of detail, clarity and conviction from relatively inexperienced performers and creates an utterly believable world. The design from Simon Greer (set), Damien Cooper and Ross Graham (lights) and David Bergman (sound) is simplicity itself and all the better for it. Amy Campbell’s choreography is brilliant, as is Lucy Bermingham’s musical direction. Bravi.

It appears there may still be some seats for the Spring Awakening matinees of May 11 and 13. I’d advise jumping on them immediately.

Jessica Rookeward and James Raggatt in Spring Awakening. Photo: Tracey Schramm

Jessica Rookeward and James Raggatt in Spring Awakening. Photo: Tracey Schramm

On Friday it was off to Carriageworks and a showing of the four finalists in the Keir Choreographic Award, a generous biennial prize (yay!). I’ll write more about it later but wasn’t surprised that Ghenoa Gela carried off both the main award of $30,000 and the people’s vote, which added $10,000 to Gela’s prize. Put simply, Fragments of Malungoka – Women of the Sea was much more emotionally engaging than the other works; it was warmer, more human, more interesting, more inviting. Gela’s dancers were, despite the shielding of their faces, women of flesh and blood and their movement connected one with resonant questions about meaning inherent in or imposed on indigenous dance.

Pennsylvania Avenue, The Playhouse, Sydney Opera House, until May 22.

Spring Awakening, ATYP Studio 1, Wharf 4, Sydney, until May 14.

The Wizard of Oz, various cities in New Zealand until June 12.

We Will Rock You, Lyric Theatre, Sydney, until June 26 and then touring Australia into 2017.

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.