A new year dawns at RNZB

Biographies of the new intake at Royal New Zealand Ballet are now on the website after last year’s bruising and very public exodus of a large number of dancers.

There are currently 32 dancers pictured on the site, 22 of whom were still standing at the end of 2017. Now the dust has settled it appears that 16 dancers left during the last three months of 2017 (there was quite a lot of churn during the past two years, somewhat muddying the numbers and increasing the perception of instability).

The reasons for departure are various, as they usually are, but the company’s handling of this significant turnover was poor and contributed to the drubbing it received in the NZ media. It is not true, as a media report wildly claimed on January 28, that “most” of the company’s dancers left or did not have their contracts renewed but the public perception was of a company in crisis. Even the new Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, was drawn into the furore, although in fairness one has to add that she is also arts minister.

Patricia Barker, Artistic Director, The Royal New Zealand Ballet

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

RNZB usually employs about 36 dancers but new artistic director Patricia Barker is keeping a few contracts up her sleeve. Early in January she told American publication Dance Magazine she would continue to hold auditions through the year. This is to take account of the difference in contract periods between the northern and southern hemispheres.

One of the 10 new names at RNZB, Nadia Yanowsky, is an experienced European soloist who is listed as a guest artist for The Piano: the ballet and Dancing with Mozart seasons. The other nine comprise three New Zealanders, three Australians, two from the US and one from China. One of the Americans, Caroline Wiley, was formerly with Barker’s company Grand Rapids Ballet in Michigan. Barker remains artistic director of Grand Rapids until mid-year, when San Francisco Ballet soloist James Sofranko takes over. Wiley’s signing appears to be recent – she was not named in a January 12 announcement by the company about its new team.

About half the dancers are New Zealanders and Australians, with some of the latter having trained at the New Zealand School of Dance; the others come from Europe, Asia, South America and the US. The mix of nationalities is not at all unusual when one looks at RNZB’s history, although in mid-December, during discussions about the company’s make-up, the RNZB Board asserted – clearly in panic mode – that 42% of its dancers were either from NZ or were NZ-trained, and that the goal for 2018 was for that percentage to be higher.

The company as it exists today can boast about one-third of its dancers having that NZ connection, and that seems in line with other years. I suppose it’s possible Barker could hire another four New Zealanders during the year to boost the percentage to about 45% although that doesn’t seem the most obvious way to create the right mix of dancers for a company.

More interesting is the level of experience of the incoming group. The biographies of eight of the 10 new dancers show only a few years of professional performance, recent membership of Young Artist or pre-professional programs or recent graduation from training institutions. One newcomer, Olivia Moore, is only 16.

In other newcomer news, The Australian Ballet is steadily heading towards its goal of having 85 dancers within the next few years. It is taking seven young graduates into the corps this year while four dancers have left. There are now 77 company members. In addition, American Ballet Theatre principal artist David Hallberg is resident guest artist.

Queensland Ballet has significantly boosted its stocks, including three dancers newly arrived from RNZB. This year it has 37 main company members, up from 33 last year, and 12 Young Artists. It will also have two dancers in the new rank of Apprentice. When Li Cunxin became artistic director in 2012 there were 25 main company members.

Footnote: Patricia Barker took a lot of the flak for RNZB’s tumultuous situation. Some of it was unfair, although as I have written before, it would have been humane to let all dancers stay for one full year under her leadership and then make decisions about contract renewal. As it was, Barker let four dancers go and that fuelled much of the outrage, along with her continued association with Grand Rapids Ballet in Michigan.

Never mind that the Board that hired Barker agreed to let her continue as artistic director of Grand Rapids for the rest of that company’s season, which ends in May. That was known before she set foot in Wellington. Obviously the Board didn’t do a very good job of selling the information, but then it needed Barker to come quickly because her predecessor, Francesco Ventriglia, was about to leave.

Ventriglia’s tenure was not without its upheavals and he announced in 2016, only two years after arriving, that he wouldn’t be staying. He remained to choreograph his new Romeo and Juliet last year, thus giving the Board time to conduct a search for his successor. They just didn’t find someone free of all current commitments.

Ventriglia had been preceded by Ethan Stiefel, who declined to renew his contract after his initial three-year term, which he took up in late 2011. And remember, the company had waited close to a year for Stiefel to take up the job after his appointment was announced, necessitating the hiring of an interim director to fill the gap after Stiefel’s predecessor, Gary Harris, left at the end of 2010. Still with me? Former RNZB artistic director Matz Skoog stepped into the breach for eight months. This means there are dancers at RNZB who have had five artistic directors stand in front of them since 2010.

Doubtless with all these comings and goings in mind, the Board asked Barker to sign on for five years rather than the usual three. Time will tell how that works out but you have to admire Barker’s sang froid. She said this to Dance Magazine: “All of the attention towards that gives me a sense the community really cares about the organisation and I hope that we continue to get this much media coverage as we move into the next season and the wonderful ballets are done.”

Meanwhile, the NZ PM has had a chat to the company, reportedly saying the organisation is aware of her concerns. In addition RNZB has commissioned a report into its processes and how it manages complaints, which may be completed by next month. And the Board is seeking someone with experience in classical dance as well as governance to become a Trustee. Yes, detailed art form knowledge seems to have been lacking to date. Makes you think, doesn’t it?

RNZB’s first work for 2018, The Piano: the ballet, opens on February 23.

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.

Independent review of RNZB

Royal New Zealand Ballet today announced it has commissioned an independent review of its employment processes. This follows two weeks of intense scrutiny about dancer turnover, opportunities for New Zealand dancers and working conditions and practices.

A welcome move is the undertaking to give company artists a say in decision-making. At the moment there is no dancer representative on the board.

The review is expected to be finished by February or March next year and make recommendations to the Ministry of Culture and Heritage, from which RNZB receives about $NZ5 million in funding.


15 December 2017

Recent speculation about the culture and employment practices of the RNZB are troubling and unfair.

The RNZB has worked hard over a number of years to ensure it is a good employer and that all its staff have a safe and supportive work environment. The welfare of the company’s artistic and administrative staff is of paramount importance to the Board.

However, in recent days, there has been on-going speculation about historic workplace bullying and other allegations about workplace practices including that the RNZB favours overseas artists over New Zealand dancers.

The Board is deeply concerned at these claims.

In relation to the alleged bullying, it is confident that where any complaint has been made about a company member immediate and proper steps have been taken to investigate and respond to the complaint. The Board has no tolerance for bullying or any other unsafe behaviour in the workplace.

In relation to the Board’s support for New Zealand dancers, 42% of the dancers are either New Zealanders or New Zealand trained. Both management and the Board would like this percentage to be higher and since her arrival in June new Artistic Director Patricia Barker has been in discussions with New Zealand dancers working overseas to encourage them to further their careers at home.

Ballet is a global business and the Board recognizes that many young dancers choose to launch their careers by attending overseas dance schools or joining overseas ballet companies. The RNZB is working hard to keep young dancers in New Zealand, or to entice them back.

What this week has shown, though, is that we must work harder.

The Board has today asked former Deputy State Services Commissioner Doug Craig to conduct an independent review of the RNZB’s employment processes, in particular its processes for responding to and managing complaints by employees. The Board wants to assure itself that the processes at the company are robust and meet the standards of best practice. The review will look at how previous complaints were handled, identify what, if any, further steps could have been taken and recommend what, if any, improvements can be made to ensure that employees can have confidence in the RNZB.

The review is expected to be completed in February-March 2018. The final report and recommendations will be provided to the Ministry of Culture and Heritage.

Secondly, the Board is undertaking to look at new ways for artists in the company to have a say in the strategic decisions involving the RNZB. The Board will be seeking the views of dancers and others in the sector about the best way to achieve this. The way we deliver this is still very much open for discussion, but the commitment to give dancers an on-going opportunity to be heard is serious and will happen.

The Board acknowledges the hard work and dedication of all its dancers, technicians and administrators.

Earlier this week we announced that we intend to host a forum in the New Year, bringing together a range of interested parties to talk about the future of ballet in New Zealand. There is much to discuss. The Board looks forward to hearing a wide range of views about how to further grow and develop ballet in this country.

RNZB Board responds – finally

On Monday Royal New Zealand Ballet’s Board of Trustees chair Steven Fyfe put out a statement addressing concerns raised over the past two weeks about the company. In a lengthy official response (see below), the Board backs new artistic director Patricia Barker, stresses the company’s support for New Zealand talent and says it will seek input from supporters and stakeholders via a forum to be held early next year.

It’s a welcome but somewhat belated response to the serious issues raised about dancer turnover, the number of New Zealanders to be engaged and Barker’s intentions for the company. The delay in detailed public comment from Mr Fyfe allowed many allegations to bloom.

As late as Sunday you could read in Fairfax’s Sunday Star-Times that “up to 20 of the Company’s 36 dancers” would not be returning in 2018. That number seems to be slightly exaggerated but not by much, and by very little if you count murmurs of a couple of contracts that will last only a few months into 2018.  Mr Fyfe’s statement specifically refers to the company’s longest-serving dancer, Abigail Boyle, following Sunday’s Star-Times report of “fears” she is to leave the company after its first production in 2018.

I’ve taken a close look at RNZB programs from the past five years and know there’s been a huge amount of churn for at least five years around a core group of stayers. I can identify only 12 dancers currently on the books – one of them is Boyle, who joined RNZB in 2005 – who were with the company in late 2012.

For that reason I don’t think the crisis is entirely about what’s happening right now but one thing is sure. The RNZB board has plenty of work to do to restore confidence.


Dear Everyone

I wanted to take this opportunity to write to you following recent media articles and statements.

As you may be aware we have a new Artistic Director with proven experience as a prima ballerina and as an Artistic Director.  As the Artistic Director of Grand Rapids Ballet, Patricia Barker strengthened both the artistic output of the company and established the ballet school and apprentice programme.  This enabled Grand Rapids Ballet to nurture and develop talented artists.

It is these strengths which came through when we met Patricia; a balance of artistic excellence, commercial acumen and a focus on developing and nurturing talent. One of Patricia’s first recommendations was that the Royal New Zealand Ballet could do more to create pathways and opportunities to bring New Zealand talent into the Company.

In addition to her artistic abilities and vision, Patricia brings a strong commitment to the RNZB, our national ballet company.

Your ballet company has always been committed to:

  • Bringing world-class ballet performances to audiences throughout New Zealand
  • Providing opportunities for New Zealand dancers and creative artists and nurturing their talent
  • Bringing dance and dance education to communities beyond ballet audiences

We want to hear from you

We recognise that some of our supporters have raised concerns about aspects of the RNZB’s direction. We have also received many messages of support.

We do welcome the feedback.

The RNZB holds fast to our three core purposes and we are committed to improving ways to engage with our community.  As part of this we will be calling for input from our supporters and stakeholders, and we will convene a forum early in 2018 where the Board and the Company will meet with groups from amongst that diverse range of supporters and stakeholders to share ideas. We will provide details shortly.

We are committed to nurturing New Zealand talent

Doubt has been expressed by some about our commitment to providing opportunities for New Zealanders. The RNZB has always been a blend of ballet talent from New Zealand and the rest of the world. This is the model evident throughout all ballet companies.  We are as committed as ever to nurturing New Zealand’s creative talent.

Our 2018 programmes features works by three young New Zealand choreographers. This investment in New Zealand talent has been curated and overseen by Patricia Barker, and is a core focus of her artistic vision for the company. This story in yesterday’s Herald on Sunday tells you more about just one of these exciting works.

Since Patricia Barker joined us as Artistic Director, ten dancers will leave the RNZB. Three are retiring, three are joining Queensland Ballet and four contracts were not renewed.  We are delighted that the dancers joining Queensland Ballet will have the opportunity to share their artistry with a new and wider audience, and we wish all of our departing dancers the very best in the future.  Equally, Patricia is committed to seeking New Zealand talent to join the RNZB.

Abigail Boyle and Sir Jon Trimmer will be with the RNZB in 2018, and we look forward to sharing stories with you about the roles that they will take on in the new year.

The Company offered three 2018 contracts to students from the New Zealand School of Dance (two from 2017 and one from 2016). While two went onto join overseas companies, we are delighted that Luke Cooper will be joining RNZB as the 2018 Todd Scholar.

We are ending 2017 in good heart, looking back on a year in which we have achieved notable artistic milestones, having delivered world-class performances, nurtured New Zealand creative talent and continued to build the strength of our dancers and our artistic team. Participation in the arts changes lives and so we are equally proud of the many ‘firsts’ we have delivered through  our community and education programme, including removing barriers to participation for children in low decile schools and our work at Arohata Women’s Prison.

We are preparing well to meet the challenges of relocation during the St James strengthening project.  And we are looking forward to reaching even more New Zealanders with our exciting, innovative and celebratory artistic programme, which includes six world premieres, an iconic New Zealand story, a ballet classic, new works by New Zealanders and the expanded delivery of our community and education programme. We have an exceptional family of sponsors and supporters and are proud and grateful to be associated with you all.

We thank you for your support. I welcome your feedback and comments.

With warmest good wishes for Christmas and the New Year,

Steven Fyfe
Chair, Royal New Zealand Ballet Board of Trustees

Quakes and tremors at RNZB

The party to mark Royal New Zealand Ballet’s 60th anniversary was in full swing at Wellington’s St James Theatre when the earthquake struck. The special matinee performance of Swan Lake on July 21, 2013, had been attended by many former dancers, staff and friends and now it was time to raise a glass and reminisce. At 5.09pm the building started to shake. To the sound of scores of wine glasses rattling mightily, everyone dropped to the floor. After what seemed like an age but was only 20 seconds, the movement stopped. It had been a big quake, no doubt about it, but no one in the room was injured. People stood and the party continued.

Lucy Green as Odette credit Evan Li

Lucy Green, now with Queensland Ballet, as Odette for RNZB in 2013. Photo: Evan Li

RNZB’s artistic director at the time was Ethan Stiefel, the starry former American Ballet Theatre principal artist whose appointment was seen as a great coup for the company. He took up the role in 2011 on a three-year contract. It was hoped he would stay for at least five years but one never got the impression that he felt entirely comfortable. He left in September 2014 to return to the US.

Stiefel was replaced by the Italian choreographer and former La Scala dancer Francesco Ventriglia, previously director of MaggioDanza in Florence. He started in November 2014 but just two years later, amid reports of some staff and dancer dissatisfaction, RNZB announced Ventriglia had decided to end his contract with them and would finish in mid 2017, some months short of his first three-year term. Ventriglia was recently announced as adjunct artistic director of Ballet Nacional Sodre in Montevideo, Uruguay.

On June 7 this year, the former Pacific Northwest Ballet prima ballerina Patricia Barker was anointed RNZB’s 12th artistic director. Signalling that the Board realised there needed to be rather more stability, Barker was asked to sign for five years, not three. By December there were new reports of dancer unrest and predictions that, for various reasons, perhaps half the company’s complement of 36 dancers would not be returning in 2018. That’s quite an upheaval.

Is RNZB experiencing an earthquake that will leave it seriously damaged? Or is it simply subject to all-too-familiar tremors that rattle the nerves, but only temporarily? The next month or so will give a strong indication of which way things go.

Right now, some dancers – perhaps four, the number is unclear – are reportedly unhappy that their annual contracts haven’t been renewed and have made grievance claims against RNZB. That’s a process to keep an eye on. The new New Zealand Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, is also Minister for Arts, Culture and Heritage and has said she’s concerned about RNZB’s situation. She’s asked the Ministry of Culture and Heritage to do a report for her. That should be interesting.

Adding to the impression of tumoil, half a dozen dancers, mainly Italian, left around the time Ventriglia departed in August. (After Barker’s arrival he stayed on as guest choreographer to stage a sumptuous new version of Romeo and Juliet.) Three other dancers are off to Queensland Ballet and its magnetic artistic director Li Cunxin, yet others are retiring, some possibly reluctantly. Can all these departures be sheeted home to Barker? It doesn’t matter really. It’s happened under her watch. She gets to wear it.

One might suggest it would have been a reasonable, politically astute and – let’s put it out there, humane – move to give 2018 contracts to all current dancers who wanted them. It would give everyone a chance to get to know one another properly and acknowledge the upheaval visited upon the dancers over the past six years. Three artistic directors in that time. It’s brutal.

RNZB dancers begin the 2018 year on January 8. The company will announce their names on that day, a list that will be closely scrutinised. How many New Zealanders? How many people who trained at the New Zealand School of Dance, which is RNZB’s official school? How many names of long-serving company members are missing? How many dancers will come from Grand Rapids Ballet, the US company of which Barker is still artistic director, concurrently with RNZB, as Grand Rapids seeks her successor?

It won’t be unusual, of course, if Barker brings in some Americans. Stiefel hired dancers associated with his former employer, the University of North Carolina School of the Arts; Ventriglia brought in a group of Italians. Many left when or shortly after their AD left, again not unusual. But Barker is reaping that particular whirlwind and it’s been mighty breezy out there. I can identify close to 70 names of people who have danced with RNZB in the past five years and January will bring more. The level of churn is high.

Behind all these questions and anxieties is the one big question: what is the nature and purpose of a national ballet company? There are fundamental concerns, such as how the company’s identity is described and forged; how the relationship with its home audience is cemented; and the degree of responsibility in nurturing, developing, employing and celebrating home-grown artists. New Zealand isn’t short of tremendous talent.

These concerns, by the way, really should be greatly exercising the minds of Board members. Perhaps this is happening as we speak but there’s no way of telling. The current chair, Steven Fyfe, has made no comment so far, not even a word of support for the artistic director so recently appointed.

As I’ve mentioned before, RNZB’s current Strategic Plan ends this year. I assume the Board has a new one ready to go (one more thing to watch out for). Its current Mission, by the way, is: “To become a compelling expression of New Zealand’s creative spirit”. You can read the whole Strategic Plan here.

Meanwhile, the show will go on. It always does. RNZB turns 65 this year, starting the celebrations with a ballet version of the Jane Campion film The Piano (commissioned by Ventriglia). Barker plans to mark the milestone with a series of new commissions from female choreographers that will do double duty as a tribute to the 125th anniversary of women’s suffrage in New Zealand.

The Wellington season of Strength and Grace: Women will be seen not at the company’s usual home, the St James Theatre, but at the Opera House, as will the earlier program Dancing with Mozart. That’s due to strengthening work to be undertaken at the St James, due to start around the middle of 2018. The upgrade will make the theatre less vulnerable to the quakes and tremors so prevalent in this part of the world. If only RNZB itself could be assured of such security.

Tsunami at Royal New Zealand Ballet

It’s always been Royal New Zealand Ballet’s fate to have a certain amount of churn. It’s a small country a long way from the big ballet centres of the world. When dancers leave, artistic directors hire other dancers who suit their tastes. When that artistic director leaves, dancers who came because of that person may decide not to stay, and the movement continues. The greater the number of artistic directors, the greater the churn.

But to see about half of a medium-sized company’s members leave in the space of six months? That’s not churn. It’s a tsunami.

It’s been only a few days since it emerged publicly that perhaps 16, 17 or more of RNZB’s 2017 roster of 36 dancers won’t return in 2018. The disquiet is growing.

Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s Minister for Arts, Culture and Heritage as well as the country’s new Prime Minister, has now weighed in, saying in a statement today:

I am concerned about what I have read in the past couple of days and have asked the Ministry of Culture and Heritage for a report on the situation.

The RNZB is an iconic New Zealand institution. It is renowned on the world stage and a source of pride for me, and many New Zealanders.

The specific employment issues reported in the media are a management and operational issue, however I would generally say that I’d expect to see talented young New Zealanders dancing on the stage for the Royal New Zealand Ballet.

RNZB’s 2016 Annual Report shows that government funding of nearly $NZ5 million represents the largest portion of the company’s income.

The exact make-up of the company in 2018 will be revealed, says RNZB, early next year once contracts have been signed. Whatever the number of newcomers, RNZB artistic director Patricia Barker will preside over a significantly different group of dancers in 2018, not one of whom is a 2017 graduate of the company’s associated school, New Zealand School of Dance.

That inevitably raises many issues. They include the nature and purpose of a national ballet company heavily reliant on government funding; the relationship between a ballet company and a training institution designated as its “official school”; and the position of long-serving company members, among whom are some very fine artists.

Also needing scrutiny is the role of the RNZB Board, given the less-than-stellar way in which it seems to have managed change over the past six years, during which time the company has had three artistic directors. There doesn’t appear to be a designated dancer representative – let alone a current or former dancer – on the Board.

I note that RNZB’s current five-year Strategic Plan ends this year. Does it have a new one ready to go? The current Mission, just so you know, is for the company to “become a compelling expression of New Zealand’s creative spirit”. And under its goal for Artistic Growth is the plan to have 40 dancers and to “identify, develop and showcase New Zealand talent”.

RNZB opens its 2018 season with a ballet version of Jane Campion’s Palme d’Or and Oscar-winning 1993 film The Piano, a local subject if ever there were one. Ventriglia commissioned Czech choreographer Jiří Bubeníček to expand a shorter version he made for Ballet Dortmund in 2014 into a full-length work and Wellington’s New Zealand Festival and the Auckland Arts Festival came on board as co-presenters. It’s a big deal.

I don’t know how much work has been done so far and with which members of the company but clearly there will be many dancers next year starting from scratch. The show always goes on, of course. Dancers are incredibly quick studies, they are stoic, and no matter what turmoil they are going through they present a united front to the outside world. The Piano: the Ballet premieres in Wellington on February 23.


RNZB dancer Abigail Boyle in the promotional image for The Piano. Photo: Ross Brown

Going deeper …

“It is the nature of the profession that, as careers are short, dancers may choose to move from company to company, in order to explore new opportunities or repertoire.” That’s the undeniably true, albeit mealy-mouthed, word from Royal New Zealand Ballet as it sheds dancers more quickly than trees lose their leaves in autumn. Dancers do move around and for all sorts of reasons – including when a new artistic director arrives. Sometimes they move voluntarily; sometimes they are moved on.

Next year will be the first full year under new artistic director Patricia Barker, the company’s 12th AD in its nearly 65-year history. The American former star of Pacific Northwest Ballet took up her post in the New Zealand capital Wellington in June this year. Barker succeeded Francesco Ventriglia, who had previously led MaggioDanza in Florence. Ventriglia in turn took over in 2015 from former American Ballet Theatre luminary Ethan Stiefel, who fulfilled only one three-year contract with RNZB, having taken up the job in late 2011.

To put it into context, RNZB’s 10th, 11th and 12th artistic directors are crammed into the past six years.

It’s worth mentioning, too, that in its latest story on the subject of dancer departures, The New Zealand Herald understands the number of leavers to be “almost 20”. That could be hyperbole but who knows? Never mind. Llike other southern hemisphere companies, RNZB works on a calendar year. The start of 2018 is barrelling towards us. We will soon be able to see precisely what the score is.

If you look at the RNZB website, it shows a company of 36 dancers: “the heart of the ballet”. RNZB acknowledges that six of those dancers left “during the year”, and it is likely that the production of Romeo and Juliet, which premiered in August, was the break point. It was choreographed by Ventriglia, by then bearing the title of guest choreographer, and a bit of sleuthing leads to the conclusion that the group of six comprises dancers he brought to the company.

Strictly speaking, the photos of those dancers shouldn’t still be on the RNZB website. Or, to be frank, loosely speaking. Filippo Valmorbida, a marvellous Benvolio in Romeo and Juliet, might be surprised to see himself still listed as being with RNZB, should he ever be looking back, as he is now a coryphée with Sarasota Ballet in Florida. In October, Linda Messina posted holiday photos on her Facebook page and took the opportunity to say “Ciao Nuova Zelanda”. And so on.

Three dancers have been announced as joining Queensland Ballet next year – Kohei Iwamoto as a Soloist, Tonia Looker as a Company Member and Isabella Swietlicki as a Young Artist. So that’s a definite nine out of 36 not to be seen at RNZB again.

RNZB reported that a further three dancers were “choosing to retire” at the end of 2017, although I understand – and I stress this is hearsay and not directly from anyone involved – that in one or two cases retirement is being entered into with reluctance. We are now up to 12 out of 36 going.

The company also said that “a small number” of dancers had not been offered contract renewal. This is where things get sticky. The New Zealand Herald reported on December 1 that four dancers had filed grievances against the company relating to non-renewal. The story quoted Wellington lawyer David Patten as saying that “at least four” dancers had not had their contracts renewed. Whether the dancers fighting for their contracts include any of the three said to be retiring is unclear.

Whichever way you cut it, at a minimum there are 16 dancers who have left or are to leave, pending the outcome of the grievance process. And one more dancer is to take parental leave in 2018.

I also hear something rather troubling: that a long-serving dancer, and possibly two, will have only a short-term contract in 2018 and will be gone by mid-year.

It is only fair to point out that the six dancers who left earlier in the year might always have left, given Ventriglia’s exit. There can be a kind of ripple effect at work and when it comes to some of the changes, Barker may simply be the one left holding the parcel when the music stopped.

The concentration so far has been on the departing dancers, but what about the incoming ones? Where is Barker to find 17 or more new dancers? Well, we know a 2016 graduate of the New Zealand School of Dance is to join in 2018 (see my update below) and also that two 2017 graduates were offered contracts but declined them. According to The New Zealand Herald, RNZB says its new dancers will include overseas dancers who trained at the New Zealand School of Dance as well as other New Zealanders.

It wouldn’t be surprising to see some dancers come from Grand Rapids Ballet, Michigan, because Barker happens still to be artistic director of that company, running it in tandem with RNZB until Grand Rapids hires her successor. It’s all speculation at this stage, but given some weight by the hiring of two retiring Grand Rapids dancers as RNZB ballet masters.

This is a story with some way yet to go.

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.