RNZB's new artistic director Patricia Barker details her plans for the company

by Francesca Horsley / 13 August, 2017
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New RNZB artistic director Patricia Barker. Photo/Stephen A’Court

Ballet’s new artistic director has “one more adventure” in her. 

American dancer Patricia Barker is the new artistic director of the Royal New Zealand Ballet. Barker, who is already at the helm, left her Seattle home with four days’ notice, packing two suitcases for her foreign assignment.

Barker has had an illustrious dancing career, performing many lead roles, both classical and contemporary, around the world. She has worked with contemporary dance choreographer Jí Kylián and became artistic director of Michigan’s Grand Rapids Ballet in 2011. Her husband, Michael Auer, will be arriving (no doubt with a few more suitcases) for the opening night of Romeo and Juliet.

Leaving your secure position with the Grand Rapids Ballet was a big change. What was the attraction?

I think I have one more adventure in me. The Royal New Zealand Ballet is an iconic company and it is an honour to be here. It is a company I looked at way back when I was a dancer, thinking about my own career and where I wanted to be. I always saw RNZB; the company used to tour quite a bit in the 80s and 90s when I was starting my career. When I was dancing in the Melbourne Festival with Pacific Northwest Ballet, my husband and I took three days off and visited New Zealand: Mt Ruapehu – we were skiing when it erupted – Hot Water Beach and Rotorua.

What gives the RNZB iconic status?

There are only four companies that Queen Elizabeth has given the royal title. That is incredible. It is a small gene pool and so it is unique. We are a national ballet company and New Zealanders look to us to serve them dance at the highest quality, to be innovative, then take our spirit and serve it outside as an artistic ambassador.

The previous two artistic directors stayed three years. Do you have a time frame for your tenure?

I don’t know if there is any timeline, but it definitely takes a few years to create a stamp on the company. I am a lifer, in a way. I danced with Pacific Northwest Ballet for 27 years and loved seeing its evolution and how it creates those next generations. It takes time to get to know people, to become a friend. I look forward to diving into the depths of this country, our audiences and the talents we can attract.

Are there any choreographers you would like to introduce to New Zealand audiences?

I want to bring proven works by renowned choreographers. Also, I have an enormous number of favourites I would like to bring to create works – Liam Scarlett, Alexander Ekman, Crystal Pite, the young choreographers from the annual Princess Grace Awards. I consider myself a curator for works.

The Queen, a keen supporter of ballet, after a London performance in 2006. Photo/Getty Images

You have staged many George Balanchine works for the Balanchine Trust. Do you plan to bring any here?

The RNZB has had Balanchine throughout its history. Una Kai [RNZB’s fourth artistic director] started that back in the 70s and it continued to grow with Ethan Stiefel [artistic director, 2011-14]. Balanchine’s spirit is here, so I will continue with that spirit.

What’s special about him?

The blending of music and movement. His work is food for a dancer and a delight for the audience’s senses. I see the music dance. I have danced quite a few Balanchine ballets – more than most. It has a special place in my heart and shaped the dancer I became.

What about New Zealand choreographers?

We have several young choreographers in the company and we are committed to building the next generation of choreographers. RNZB dancer Loughlan Prior is on a sabbatical year exploring his choreographic talents and I look forward to putting time and energy into him and supporting his growth. It’s exciting to build from within, and we will continue to look for talented individuals, along with attracting the brightest talent.

Your work ethic as a dancer has been described as legendary, and you danced until your mid-thirties. Will this work ethic set the tone for the company?

Yes. I love this industry, I love this career and what it has done for me. It has been the centre of my life since I was seven. I love dancers, their spirit and energy. They look for perfection every day, to better themselves in their art form. I hope my attention to detail and dedication to their careers inspires them to work as best they can.

What is the role of the ballet company in the 21st century?

To lead dance into the 22nd century. Yes, to be leaders. Dance is a tribal art form. We still learn our ballet by someone passing down their knowledge to the next person, from generation to generation. You can’t read a book, study on your own, go into a room and create a performance by yourself. You need others – and an audience. It is our obligation to ensure our art form survives into the next century. I need young dancers to do that. I am water onto the roots to make sure they can grow.

You are only the second woman to be appointed AD of the RNZB. What difference will that bring?

As a female director, I am sensitive to the needs of the female choreographer. She is often someone who has already retired, has possibly moved into being a mother, with some of her life outside dance. Do we need to provide an option for her to bring her child with her? With us broadening our minds on what is family, we also see two males or two females who have children; maybe male choreographers who need to bring a child with them. This industry is changing, and with it, what is important to us.

This article was first published in the August 12, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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