Royal New Zealand Ballet dancers Kate Kadow, Katherine Minor and Katherine Precourt rehearse Balanchine's Serenade. Photo by Stephen A'Court, Courtesy RNZB.

Dancing Down Under: 6 American Dancers on Life at Royal New Zealand Ballet

Though the Royal New Zealand Ballet has seen a lot of upheaval in recent years, it's now attracting dancers from the U.S. again. Six American women are currently working for the Wellington-based company: Two of them, soloist Katherine Minor and dancer Leonora Voigtlander, joined in 2014, shortly before the end of Ethan Stiefel's tenure as artistic director, while the others were drawn to the vision of current director Patricia Barker. In 2018, the former Pacific Northwest Ballet star and director of Grand Rapids Ballet hired principal Katharine Precourt (previously a first soloist with Houston Ballet), soloist Kate Kadow, and dancers Caroline Wiley and Clare Schellenberg. (Two other American dancers—former Miami City Ballet principal Simone Messmer and 17-year-old Nicole Denney, are currently there through September as guest artists.) We sat down with all six of them to find out what it was like moving across the world and adjusting to life in Kiwi land.


​From left: Katherine Precourt, Caroline Wiley, Clare Schellenberg, RNZB artistic director Patrica Barker, Katherine Minor, Kate Kadow and Leonora Voigtlander​. 

Jeremy Brick, Courtesy RNZB.

What is it that prompted you to join the Royal New Zealand Ballet?

Kate Kadow: I came to work for Patricia. A lot of dancers from my generation grew up idolizing her, so the opportunity to work with her every day was a big draw, and I like the repertoire she's bringing to the company.

Katharine Precourt: I had a really rewarding career at Houston Ballet, but I was also just very excited to come work for Patricia. I think she's an inspiration in her position right now. There was also New Zealand; it's a beautiful place, and one I always wanted to visit.

Clare Schellenberg: I grew up in Grand Rapids Ballet—Patricia and Michael Auer [Barker's husband] taught me almost from when I started. Coming here was a good opportunity to start my career as a professional, and I really wanted an adventure.

Caroline Wiley: I'd worked with Patricia for five years at Grand Rapids Ballet, and I was starting to realize that I wanted to do something different. Patricia offered me the job to come out here before I even realized she was going to be the artistic director. It was a lot of surprises in one meeting! As soon as she said New Zealand, I knew it was the right choice. It was time to get away from home.

Precourt joined RNZB as a principal after dancing with Houston Ballet.

Stephen A'Court, Courtesy RNZB.

For those of you who joined under another director, how have you seen the company evolve?

Katherine Minor: There is definitely a different energy depending on who is leading the company. Right now, it's quite a positive place to be. There's an emphasis on hiring people who are talented, but who also bring a good energy to the workplace.

Leonora Voigtlander: I joined at the same time, but my family had moved here 16 years ago while I stayed in the States to train. There have been quite a few director changes, and change is always a little bit scary, so it's really nice now that things are settling down. We're all like a big family now.

Katherine Minor: In the past, the company also didn't feel like there was someone that was really committed to staying. So we were always anticipating what was next. Now it's stabilized, and it feels like Patricia is committed to building the company, instead of it being another place to put on a resumé.

Minor in Romeo and Juliet.

Stephen A'Court, Courtesy RNZB.

How is the Royal New Zealand Ballet different from the companies you've worked with in the U.S.?

Katherine Minor: We get the opportunity to do more shows here. For a company this size in the States, it might be a third or half the amount of shows. There are a lot of opportunities to get more comfortable with a role, and to get different casts onstage.

Kate Kadow: Because it's a national company, you really get a sense of support and interest from the country as a whole, whereas I feel in the States there are lots of different companies as opposed to one national one.

Leonora Voigtlander: Touring is probably the biggest difference for me. When I was at St. Louis Ballet, we pretty much just had our one theater that we performed at. Here, quite a big part of our lives is touring around New Zealand. We do 3 to 6 weeks in Wellington, and then 3 to 6 weeks on the road. It gets pretty hard and tiring, but it's worth it. We really get to see all of New Zealand.

Wiley, a former Grand Rapids Ballet dancer, was invited by Barker to join her in New Zealand.

Stephen A'Court, Courtesy RNZB.

What is Patricia Barker's approach like in the studio?

Kate Kadow: I like that she's always pushing us to improve, but in a really positive and caring way. She is also personally invested in all of us, which is great to see from a director.

Caroline Wiley: It seems like she's always looking 10 years ahead. All of her corrections are related to ballets that she wants to do, and she makes a point of telling us that, too, so some of the harder work doesn't seem pointless.

Katharine Precourt: Everything is very straightforward with her. There is no hidden agenda. She expects you to work hard, but nothing is ever done in a back-handed way. Everything is honest, and I respect that so much.

Voigtlander in Romeo and Juliet.

Stephen A'Court, Courtesy RNZB.

How are you finding life in New Zealand?

Leonora Voigtlander: It's so different. Your life calms down quite a lot here. I went back to visit my brother in the States last Christmas, and it was a little overwhelming. Even just going to the grocery store—there are so many milks! Here, you go to the store, and you can get cream or milk. There's no in-between.

Clare Schellenberg: I enjoy how conscious people are of the environment, at a different level than Americans, for the most part.

Katherine Minor: You almost feel like you're going back in time a little, to simpler days, but in a good way. There's more of a sense of community and connection to nature. A lot of the Kiwis that you meet are farmers, or their families were farmers, so there is still that rural connection.

Kadow here in rehearsal, joined RNZB to work with Barker.

Stephen A'Court, Courtesy RNZB.

Did you experience any cultural shock when you arrived?

Caroline Wiley: We don't have air conditioning in our studios, which took me maybe three months to get used to. I was horrified when I first got here—I almost had a heat stroke our second week of work! Now, we get sweaty, and it's a little smellier, but also, we're saving the environment as well as money. You realize what matters more.

Kate Kadow: I came from Los Angeles, so the whole experience was a bit of a shock. But it's really grown on me. There's so much beauty around you. There's not a lot of shopping, but you let that go!

Caroline Wiley: It also seems like there is a little less political correctness here than in the States. There's less pressure to be overtly polite and nice, it's more honest and to the point. It's weird at first, because you assume people are being mean to you, but now I've grown to like it a lot.

Schellenberg in rehearsal for Balanchine's Serenade.

Stephen A'Court, Courtesy RNZB.

Do you use your free time differently here?

Katharine Precourt: There are things that we do here that I would never have done back in Houston. I love living close to the water. We can walk to the harbor on our lunch break. That's amazing to me.

Katherine Minor: I discovered camping on weekends, which back home would be a summer activity, or something that you would plan ahead of time. The spontaneity of just camping when you feel like it is very accessible here.

Leonora Voigtlander: New Zealand offers so many trails, hikes, camping and outdoor activities that it becomes just the norm. You end up adventuring a lot more.

What do you miss from the U.S.?

Caroline Wiley: Affordable avocados!

Clare Schellenberg: Friends and family are the biggest, because the time difference can be a bit difficult.

Katherine Minor: And being on opposite seasons. I'm always a little nostalgic when they're going into summer, and we're going into winter. It makes you feel even more removed, because you're not going through the same experiences.

Kadow and Wan Bin Yuan in Balanchine's Divertimento No. 15.

Stephen A'Court, Courtesy RNZB.

If you met a young dancer who was thinking of moving, what advice would you have for them?

Katharine Precourt: I think you have to have that need for some adventure in your life, because you will be far from home. But one of the coolest things was that everybody was super welcoming. When I joined for Nutcracker, I had so many friends within the first few weeks.

Kate Kadow: It's scary, but the nice thing about ballet is that it's so international. You can always count on the fact that no matter where you are in the world, you're going to get up in the morning and do pliés and tendus.

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