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.

Piano-Main-v2-RNZB-dancer-Abigail-Boyle.-Photo-by-Ross-Brown-867x1024

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.

Big dancer turnover at RNZB

Royal New Zealand Ballet artistic director Patricia Barker will preside over a significantly different group of dancers next year from those the American inherited when she was appointed to her role in June this year. Of the 36 dancers currently listed on the RNZB website, it appears that, in line with rumours doing the rounds in dance circles yesterday, perhaps half of them will not return in 2018.

Queensland Ballet announced yesterday that three RNZB dancers would join its ranks in 2018. Kohei Iwamoto comes in as a Soloist, Tonia Looker as a Company Artist and Isabella Swietlicki as a Young Artist. (RNZB is an unranked company.)

Tonia Looker and MacLean Hopper 01 photo by Stephen A'Court

Tonia Looker and MacLean Hopper in Liam Scarlett’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a co-production with Queensland Ballet, which Looker joins in 2018. Photo: Stephen A’Court

In response to questions about changes in the company, a spokesman for RNZB replied via email that a further three dancers had chosen to retire at the end of 2017 and another would take parental leave in 2018. “Six dancers with close ties to Europe chose to depart during the year to take up opportunities closer to home,” the spokesman wrote. “As has been the case in previous years, a small number of dancers employed by the company during 2017 have not been offered contracts for 2018.” Dancers are on annual contracts, “like most ballet companies around the world”.

If that “small number” is as many as five, the leavers would constitute half of the current crop of dancers.

In a statement, RNZB executive director Frances Turner said: “The RNZB wishes all dancers who are leaving the company at the end of 2017 every success in their future careers. We look forward to welcoming new members of the RNZB in early 2018 and will make a further announcement then.”

New ballet masters have already been announced. Married couple Nicholas Schultz and Laura McQueen Schultz will take up their roles at the beginning of January, joining Clytie Campbell, a former dancer with RNZB who was appointed ballet master by former artistic director Francesco Ventriglia. The Schultzes are currently with Grand Rapids Ballet in Michigan and will retire from dancing after that company’s upcoming production of A Christmas Carol.

Barker is currently artistic director of Grand Rapids Ballet as well as at RNZB. Grand Rapids is in the process of finding a replacement for her.

Patricia Barker, Artistic Director, The Royal New Zealand Ballet

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

The large dancer turnover will challenge RNZB’s hopes for stability after a rocky few years. Ethan Stiefel, the artistic director who preceded Ventrigilia, stayed for only three years, choosing not to renew his contract when it came due in 2014. Ventriglia left before the end of his first three-year term and there was a revolving door when it came to ballet masters in both Stiefel and Ventriglia eras.

When I interviewed Barker in August of this year, not long after her June arrival, she said she had been asked by the board to sign a five-year contract. When talking about the qualities she brought to the company, she said: “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.”

It is unclear where Barker will draw her new dancers from, although one thing is apparent. None will come from the New Zealand School of Dance, a widely admired institution which celebrated its 50th anniversary with a gala program presented at the St James Theatre, Wellington, last week.

NZ dance writer Jennifer Shennan reviewed the event on Michelle Potter’s blog … on dancing, and wrote the following: “The moment when fledglings leave the nest is always poignant. Some of these young dancers have taken instant wing and are moving straight into positions with prestigious companies—Queensland Ballet, West Australian Ballet for example. Godspeed to them. Most curiously, not one is joining Royal New Zealand Ballet (RNZB). With numerous dancers departing from RNZB this week, that raises a number of questions.”

And in a comment on Shennan’s review, New Zealand-born dance luminary Patricia Rianne wrote: “After a lifetime of supporting young NZ dancers to secure jobs and succeed in companies overseas because subsequent RNZ Ballet company directors have deemed them not good enough to join their national company, preferring to hire foreign trained dancers, I weep to hear that this practice continues.”

Rianne went on to say there was an erosion of “history, continuity, identity, and soul” in dance in New Zealand. “Shame. Sadness.”

RNZB’s spokesman said the company would make an announcement about leavers and joiners “at the beginning of 2018 when contracts have been signed”.

About last week … March 26-April 1

A CLASH of ballet opening nights saw Queensland Ballet’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Australian Ballet’s Swan Lake go head to head – well, from my perspective. They were in different cities at the time. For reasons both artistic and logistical, I went to the first performance of Dream in Brisbane on April 1 and the second Swan Lake performance at the April 2 matinee. I reviewed both for The Australian and both will be up separately on the blog in the next few days.

The artistic reason for putting Dream first? It was the premiere in Australia of a Liam Scarlett work – a notable event in the ballet business – whereas Swan Lake, a traditional version choreographed by Stephen Baynes, is a revival. (I’ll have more to say about Swan Lake later after I get a few more performances under my belt.)

Queensland Ballets Midsummer Nights Dream -  Laura Hidalgo and Victor Estevez. Photo David Kelly HR

Victor Estevez, Laura Hidalgo and members of Queensland Ballet in Liam Scarlett’s new A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Photo: David Kelly

The Scarlett is a co-production between QB and Royal New Zealand Ballet, which premiered the work last year. I saw it in Auckland and loved its sensuousness. (Tracy Grant Lord’s designs are a wonderful part of the equation.) Scarlett came through the Royal Ballet School and danced with the Royal Ballet until his choreographic career really started taking off (he was identified and encouraged while still at the school). The post of artist in residence was created at the Royal for him although it doesn’t tie him exclusively to the company. (If you’re interested I wrote about him at length here.)

He’s acutely aware of his dance heritage, and that of course includes a thorough knowledge of Frederick Ashton, founder choreographer of the Royal. I’ve seen earlier Scarlett works – the narrative Sweet Violets with the RB in London and the abstract Acheron performed by New York City Ballet – and wasn’t entirely bowled over by either. With Dream, however, you can see the Ashtonian influence and also that Scarlett isn’t merely copying but has his own voice. The intricate, detailed upper-body work and sharp, fast footwork is incredibly complicated yet looks unrushed, harmonious and gorgeously musical. In Dream Scarlett keeps most of the dancing quite close to the ground, which allows the dancers the trick of appearing feather-light but also more natural and characterful.

QB is a company of about the same size as RNZB and has plenty of zesty dancers, some of whom are quite new. QB artistic director Li Cunxin has hired three dancers from National Ballet of Cuba – principals Yanela Piñera and Victor Estévez and soloist Camilo Ramos – and principal Laura Hidalgo, an Argentinian-born dancer who was lately with National Ballet of Flanders. All danced at the Dream opening performance. (At only 22 Estévez is young to be a principal artist but he has handsome stage presence.)

Interestingly, after the performance I was asked not once or twice but three times who I thought had danced Dream better: QB or RNZB. It’s a tough one. Both companies clearly relished the style, humour and emotion and transmitted it joyously. But QB had only a few days with Scarlett, who made it on the RNZB dancers over some weeks. And, I will note, I saw the RNZB performance a few shows in, after the short Wellington season had been completed. The connection was deep. An example is Tonia Looker’s rapturous Titania in the big Act II pas de deux – I can still see the luscious abandon of her curved back. Hidalgo is a poetic dancer who I am keen to see in more key roles but she wasn’t quite as inside the role as Looker.

I’m talking cigarette papers here, as in minute differences, but that’s how it goes in ballet. I wonder too if there’s something about the feel of a ranked company (QB) versus an unranked (RNZB). We’re talking something quite elusive here and possibly there’s not a lot in it. But the idea did pop into my head. I might come back to this later.

Fiddler-on-the-Roof-Aust-Production-03-PIC-CREDIT-JEFF-BUSBY

Tevye (Anthony Warlow) and daughters in Fiddler on the Roof. Photo: Jeff Busby

Earlier in the week (March 29) Fiddler on the Roof arrived in Sydney after its Melbourne opening season. Director Roger Hodgman plays a very straight bat with it but it’s a production that works where it matters. Which starts, not surprisingly, with Tevye, the impoverished milkman living in early 20th century Russia with three daughters who are starting to think for themselves. Anthony Warlow inhabits this funny, dogmatic, sometimes infuriating man with salt-of-the-earth ease. Whether Tevye is having one of his many man-to-man chats with God or roaring at his daughters, there’s a great, enveloping feeling of warmth. This is a Tevye you can admire even when you don’t agree with him and love for his steadfast commitment to beliefs and family. Warlow’s burnished baritone is still a glorious instrument (now in his mid-50s, Warlow is in the sweet spot for the role in terms of age) and it adds incomparable lustre to songs we know so well but rarely experience sung with such glow. To hear If I Were a Rich Man as if new is a true gift. And is there a musical that begins with a more thrilling, information-rich number than Tradition? (Well, some friends immediately cited The Lion King’s admittedly roof-raising opening, but I think they’re talking about staging.)

Warlow has a mostly strong cast around him: Tegan Wouters, Monica Swayne and Jessica Vickers as the loving, clever daughers; Mark Mitchell as rejected suitor Lazar Wolf; and Blake Bowden as the passionate student Perchik are all spot-on. Pop singer Lior, making his music-theatre debut as Motel, had a rocky start to Miracle of Miracles on opening night but rallied nicely to give a nuanced performance. Much has been said about Sigrid Thornton’s too-fragile voice for Tevye’s wife, Golde, and there is indeed a huge mismatch between her and Warlow; and Nicki Wendt’s turn as matchmaker Yente felt too hungry for laughs.

Dana Jolly’s reproduction of Jerome Robbins’s choreography is most welcome and musical director Kellie Dickerson is in charge of a small but very effective orchestra. I found Richard Roberts’s design somewhat uninspiring but the musical’s themes are undimmed and they resonate strongly under Hodgman’s expert direction. When, in 1964, Joseph Stein (book), Sheldon Harnick (lyrics) and Jerry Bock (music) looked back to the early 20th century for a story about family disintegration, religious persecution and widespread displacement, they could well have been looking forward to today. Fiddler on the Roof is at the Capitol in Sydney until early May.

A quick word about the Le Corbusier tapestry Les Dés Sont Jetés (The Dice Are Cast) unveiled Tapestryat the Sydney Opera House on March 29 in the Western Foyers. It was commissioned by Jörn Utzon in 1958 when the Danish architect was already thinking about what might be possible in the interior of his magical building (he wanted vibrant colours inside), and delivered to him two years later. Then came his dismissal and the tapestry from the great Swiss-French architect took up residence in the Utzon home. A group of benefactors and SOH staff members helped fund its acquisition at auction last year, it has been restored, and now hangs in the Opera House as a tribute to Utzon – not to mention its value as a work from the imagination of one of the key architects of the 20th century. If you’re in Sydney don’t fail to pop down to the Western Foyers to take a look.

Royal New Zealand Ballet: Speed of Light

Auckland Arts Festival, March 2.

Francesco Ventriglia was named artistic director of Royal New Zealand Ballet back in September 2014 but hasn’t been able to put his stamp on programming until now. Of necessity his predecessor, former American Ballet Theatre star Ethan Stiefel, was responsible for what was seen on stage in 2015. These things aren’t done in the blink of an eye. From here on, though, it’s all Ventriglia’s taste and direction.

He’s bolted out of the gate with a triple bill that certainly earns its name. Speed of Light doesn’t bother much with the concept of balance in that all three works go like a rocket. There’s no quiet, reflective piece to give contrast to the more forceful works although there are substantial differences in style and mood. The opener, Andonis Foniadakis’s Selon Désir is anguished; William Forsythe’s In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated is still the epitome of glamour and cool despite being nearly 30 years old; and Alexander Ekman’s Cacti is exuberant and original and a happy final piece.

Cacti was made in 2010 and the dance has proved as tenacious as the succulents that give it its name. Sydney Dance Company is dancing it at the moment in Sydney alongside artistic director Rafael Bonachela’s Lux Tenebris (I’ll put that review up in a day or so), having first performed it in 2013. National Ballet of Canada opens in it on March 9 and the number of companies who have it in their repertoire is now at least 20.

Speed of Light  dancers Georgia Powley and Leonora Voigtlander credt Maarten Holl sml

Georgia Powley and Leonora Voigtlander in Cacti. Photo: Maarten Holl

Cacti was born of Ekman’s dismay at dance criticism. He felt those commenting on his work didn’t understand what he was doing and this pained him. If being successful is the best revenge, Ekman nailed it, and fortunately he does it with good humour and a pleasing degree of sweetness. He even has a dig or two at contemporary choreographic processes.

Ekman has pulled off one of the most difficult challenges in dance, which is to be genuinely funny. (I’m shamelessly lifting now from my 2013 review for The Australian.) The dancers, identically dressed in roomy dark trousers over flesh-coloured bodysuits and wearing hair-covering caps (of Ekman’s design), at first kneel on low platforms and whack the platforms and themselves in an exhilarating display of energy, rhythm and co-ordination. It’s a bit music hall, a bit commedia dell’arte and all fabulous. (I think there’s also a little tribute to Jiří Kylián tucked in there as dancers fall comically to the floor and puffs of powder rise into the air, and why not?)

Later the dancers strip down to basics and pose with cacti as if it were the most natural thing in the world and there is a very funny pas de deux during which one hears in voiceover the thoughts of a man and a woman as they rehearse a tricky bit. There’s also a wandering a string quartet that plays some of the score live, and there’s a dead cat. What’s not to like?

On seeing it again – twice – this week I loved Cacti’s goofiness and playfulness. The RNZB dancers weren’t quite as tongue in cheek as Sydney Dance Company, seeming in the unison drumming and comic striding just that little bit more mystified about why they were doing this stuff. (It’s a perfectly valid interpretation on their part.) A brief way to describe the difference between the performances would be to say SDC foregrounds the satire, RNZB the sweetness. SDC Is more knowing, RNZB more innocent. In the rehearsal duo, RNZB’s Veronika Maritati (dancing with Shane Urton) put into my mind a fleeting image of Giulietta Masina as the tragic Gelsomina in Fellini’s La Strada. It was just a stray thought, but it pleased me. Although perhaps I shouldn’t have voiced that. I suspect Ekman would find the idea outstandingly pretentious.

Of course he probably won’t read this. Ekman says – at least he does in the SDC program – that he doesn’t really care about the reviews or the critics any more. That said, the marketing still needs to get done. Fascinatingly, despite all the companies doing Cacti and all the reviews that must have appeared, RNZB and National Ballet of Canada are using exactly the same sentence from a review of Cacti that appeared in The Australian in 2013 (yes, mine). It says: “Cacti is a delight: witty, effervescent, playful, surreal and joyously physical.” Which is true.

Royal New Zealand Ballet in Selon Desir. Photo: Bill Cooper

Royal New Zealand Ballet in Selon Desir. Photo: Bill Cooper

Speed of Light kicks off with Selon Désir, which offers a great deal of colour and movement but not much in the way of subtlety. It operates at a relentless level with very few changes of rhythm. People rush off and on, throw each other about (the women are too often treated like rag dolls) and there is no repose. Bach’s St Matthew Passion and St John Passion provide the score (with some electronic interventions), used to create a generalised atmosphere of angst. It was danced at the 2009 Perth Festival by the company for which it was made in 2004, Ballet du Grand Théâtre de Genève. I found it unvarying and tedious then and a second viewing hasn’t changed my mind. The RNZB dancers, bless them, gave it their all.

Many congratulations must go to four company members in particular – Abigail Boyle, William Fitzgerald, Shaun James Kelly and Massimo Margaria who, after this high-octane workout, also appeared in Cacti and in the hugely demanding In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated.

In the Middle is a work all ballet companies want to do. It truly was a game-changer, pushing classical technique in a way that honoured the tradition but stretched it dramatically and threw it off-kilter. The thrilling, rock-hard electronic score by Thom Willems in collaboration with Les Stuck drives a theme-and-variations construction for six women and three men who, when they are not centre stage, prowl around in the shadows waiting for their moment to pounce.

In The Middle Somewhat Elevated, RNZB_Linbury Studio,Mayau Tanigaiti,

Mayu Tanigaito in In The Middle Somewhat Elevated. Photo: Bill Cooper

Everything is more in In the Middle, except that it needs to look almost casually achieved. When, for instance, a dancer stops on a dime, on pointe with a leg raised high, there must be a meeting of sophisticated poise and total command of perilous off-centre balance. Nothing less will do: the exposure is total.

At the opening night performance I attended in Auckland, the RNZB dancers dealt with the intoxicating technical complexities with much confidence. Mayu Tanigaito stood out for her extraordinary pliancy and attack and Boyle made a fierce impression in the role indelibly associated with Sylvie Guillem, who was a member of the original Paris Opera Ballet cast. Fitzgerald is something of a boy wonder, given that he started fulltime dance training in only 2012 and has been with RNZB for just two years. He danced the central male role elegantly and partnered with only one or two hesitations. Magaria (especially), Kelly, Tonia Looker, Yang Liu, Alayna Ng and Clytie Campbell completed the impressive first cast.

Perhaps the most exciting aspect of In the Middle is the way dancers control the dynamics of immense force, implacable resistance and unexpected emphases. The RNZB dancers had the necessary clarity and sang froid; perhaps the only thing missing was a finishing touch of hauteur.

Ventriglia knows In the Middle through and through, having been chosen by Forsythe to do it when he was a young dancer, and indeed having danced the three male roles. This is therefore quite personal for him and the stakes were high. He should be very happy.

Next week I get to see The Australian Ballet do In the Middle in its Vitesse program. That makes me very happy.

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.