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.
So says Kiwi choreographer and former ballet dancer Corey Baker. Luckily, his persistence paid off. On Sunday, April 22 (that's Earth Day, everybody), Baker, who now directs the U.K.–based Corey Baker Dance, is releasing his short film "Antarctica: The First Dance." Commissioned by Random Acts for Channel 4 and The Space (UK), the four-minute film stars Royal New Zealand Ballet dancer Madeleine Graham—who performed in unimaginably frigid conditions to promote Baker's very important message. "I wanted to highlight Antarctica's epic landscape and vast beauty, but at the same time show that it is under threat," he says. "Climate change impact is real and immediate. By showing up-close the beauty of this incredible place, people can feel closer to something that may otherwise seem abstract and unconnected."
The past few months have brought on a media storm surrounding accusations about the culture and employment practices at the Royal New Zealand Ballet. But it turns out, much of the reported information doesn't tell the whole story.
Caught up in the rumors has been newly hired artistic director Patricia Barker. The former Pacific Northwest Ballet star and concurrent director of Grand Rapids Ballet took over RNZB last June, and although the most troubling aspects of what has been reported, such as accusations of abusive behavior and other workplace grievances, pre-date her appointment, some complaints have been directed at her.
Class at RNZB. Photo by Evan Li, via rnzb.org.nz
The board of RNZB said in a press release last month: "Recent speculation about the culture and employment practices of the RNZB are troubling and unfair." To further address such allegations, the board has arranged for an independent review of RNZB's employment processes.
December is here and the holiday season—better known to ballet dancers as Nutcracker season—is in full swing. To celebrate, we're throwing it back to Patricia Barker and Wade Walthall as Clara and the prince in Pacific Northwest Ballet's 1986 Nutcracker: The Motion Picture.
In this reimagining of the ballet by PNB founding artistic director Kent Stowell and famed writer and illustrator Maurice Sendak, young Clara (played by Vanessa Sharp) defeats the multi-headed mouse king all on her own with a well-aimed, enchanted pointe shoe. She then follows her Nutcracker inside the shell of the mouse king's armor and ventures into an icy cavern. There she is transformed into an older version of herself, played by Patricia Barker. Clara emerges from the cavern to find that her Nutcracker has transformed as well, from a toy caricature into a handsome, mustachioed prince.
Former Pacific Northwest Ballet principal Patricia Barker has taken over as artistic director of Royal New Zealand Ballet. Barker, 54, was named to her new role in June, becoming only the second woman director in RNZB's 64-year history and the second high-profile American to take the helm in recent years (the other being former American Ballet Theatre star Ethan Stiefel).
Patricia Barker. Photo Courtesy RNZB.
In the latest round of "artistic director musical chairs," Royal New Zealand Ballet has announced major news: Patricia Barker has been named the company's new artistic director. Later this month, she'll replace Francesco Ventriglia. The company's first production under Barker, however, will be Ventriglia's brand-new Romeo and Juliet in August.
Photography by Joe Toreno.
When I was 19 years old and in the corps de ballet of American Ballet Theatre, a domino effect of casting changes left me with three days to learn and prepare my first dramatic leading role: Myrtha, the Queen of the Wilis. There was not enough time to feel overwhelmed, let alone to delve into the nuances of her character. Although diving right in and winging it on willpower is exhilarating, I have learned in the 15 years since that one of my favorite aspects of dancing is the research and emotional decision-making that go into developing a dramatic interpretation. I recently prepared for the role of Giselle in Ethan Stiefel and Johan Kobborg's new production for the Royal New Zealand Ballet. Although having advance notice gave me the time to feel nervous about tackling such an iconic role, it also allowed me the opportunity to develop my own interpretation through a mixture of research and instinct, which was further refined by coaching, rehearsal and performance.
Murphy in RNZB company class at The Music Center.
Ethan Stiefel's only been in charge of the Royal New Zealand Ballet for a year, but he's already brought his signature pizazz to the company. The former ABT star is currently co-choreographing and producing a new Giselle with The Royal Ballet's Johan Kobburg—and the rehearsals and performances are being recorded for an upcoming feature film. The live ballet premieres Wednesday night, with none other than Gillian Murphy in the title role. Stay tuned for details about the film's release.
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Exciting things are happening down under: To commemorate Royal New Zealand Ballet’s 60th anniversary, the company is teaming up with local fashion designer Tamsin Cooper to create a new ballet-inspired fashion line. Cooper’s collection, based on “Swan Lake” (which the RNZB will perform in July), will feature tutu-like skirts, jackets, coats and bags—in only black and white, of course. The items will be unveiled next month as part of New Zealand’s iD Dunedin Fashion Week. For the big event, RNZB dancers Katherine Grange and Hayley Donnison will dance in the designs on the catwalk. And this isn’t just any catwalk: 120-meters long and remarkably thin, it is a far cry from what these performers are used to! But Ethan Stiefel trusts his dancers and tells stuff.co.nz, “They'll be basically bringing the ballet essence into a runway show. I think these two ladies are going to be absolutely stellar.”
What makes a great ballet partnership? To most of us, it seems to be some mysterious combination of sweat and magic.
Earlier this week, The New Zealand Herald posed the question to Gillian Murphy, who's currently starring as Odette/Odile in the Royal New Zealand Ballet's tour of Swan Lake. She says commincation and diplomacy are essential: "A dance partnership is a lot like marriage." Murphy herself is currently engaged to RNZB's high-profile artistic director Ethan Stiefel. While he mentions instinct and strength as the keys to a successful partnership, Murphy lists musicality, coordination, chemistry, connection and spontaneity. "The dialogue has to be about your body, your energy, the character," she says. "Swan Lake is about the power of love. It is meaningless without that deep connection."
Check out what other stars—including Marcelo Gomes and Paloma Herrera—told Pointe about their must-haves in a partner.
Ethan Stiefel's sojourn abroad will soon come to an end: The former American Ballet Theatre principal has not renewed his artistic director contract with Royal New Zealand Ballet.
Many in the ballet world expressed surprise when Stiefel first joined the RNZB team in 2011. Moving halfway around the world to direct a company unfamiliar to most people outside of New Zealand seemed an unusual move for an American star. But during his tenure as artistic director, Stiefel has revitalized the company, freshening its repertoire with contemporary works and a new production of Giselle (co-staged with his friend Johan Kobborg). During the company's New York visit last month, its first since 1993, the RNZB dancers looked clean, crisp, invigorated—many of the qualities that characterized Stiefel's own dancing.
What's next for Stiefel? Well, choreographing the new Starz ballet drama "Flesh and Bone," for starters. He's also said that being away from family and friends has proved difficult, so odds seem good that he'll end up based in the U.S. once again.
As choreographers like Wayne McGregor push the aesthetic boundaries of ballet, even the most contemporary work still adheres to recognizable elements of the form. There are gradations—and yes, there’s the eventual hair-splitting difference between contemporary ballet and contemporary dance, when too many of those recognizable elements have been stripped away—but when a ballet company performs something “contemporary,” it’s likely that the piece will fit safely within a handful of stylistic guidelines.
Not so at the Royal New Zealand Ballet. For the month of August, the company is touring an eclectic program of contemporary and neoclassical work. Notably, they are the first ballet company to perform Larry Keigwin’s Mattress Suite in its entirety.
Shaun Urton performs a solo from Mattress Suite
Mattress Suite is pure Keigwin: deceptively tricky, gestural, quirky, humorous, athletic and tender. It is balletic only by a significant stretch of the definition, tailor-made for the highly technical modern dancers of Keigwin + Company. RNZB dancers will never look like K+Co when they perform this work, and that’s okay. As ballet dancers, they bring something new and different to a piece that wasn’t necessarily designed for their strengths.
This is the second Keigwin piece RNZB has performed, and in doing so the company proves that ballet dancers can challenge themselves without compromising their foundational aesthetics—that is, without losing themselves. Check out this clip of RNZB dancer Shane Urton performing a solo from Mattress Suite, followed by Larry Keigwin discussing his work.