• The Listener
  • North & South
  • Noted
  • RNZ

Why Royal New Zealand Ballet's Choreographic Series is a defining moment

The Royal New Zealand Ballet during a Moss Patterson rehearsal. Photo/Supplied

The Royal New Zealand Ballet is launching its 2019 programme with a four-part series of ambitious local works by our “new-generation dance-makers’’.

Usually, Shaun James Kelly is on stage dancing with the Royal New Zealand Ballet. On a hot weekday in February, though, the Scottish-born dancer is at the front of the company rehearsal studio, directing his first large-scale choreographic work, The Ground Beneath Our Feet.

Principal dancer Mayu Tanigaito is mesmerising to watch as Kelly leads the dozen women learning the piece.

Having joined the RNZB six years ago, after graduating from the English National Ballet school, Kelly has been one of three company choreographers in residence for the past two years. Ground is set to Bach’s Violin Concerto in G minor and has ballerinas en pointe and five couples dancing together.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

“My work is about growth,” says Kelly. “I have this image of a seed growing into a beautiful flower and that’s what is taking me through the work. The idea of time, distance, and working with gravity.’’

Kelly’s piece may have classical touches, but it is part of the four-part Choreographic Series, a contemporary programme of new local works that marks the beginning of the RNZB’s performances for the year.

Along with Kelly, the series will feature the choreography of James O’Hara, Sarah Foster-Sproull and Moss Patterson – all “new-generation dance-makers’’ whom RNZB artistic director Patricia Barker engaged for their unique approaches, hoping they could give the company something that would set it apart.

Barker had a similar vision in her last role as artistic director of the Michigan-based Grand Rapids Ballet. Through her Move Media programme, she commissioned more than 50 contemporary works, more than half by female choreographers, over eight years.

The RNZB’s 2019 programme is Barker’s first since she took the reins of the national ballet company last year.

Sarah Foster-Sproull; Patterson; Shaun James Kelly; James O’Hara; Patricia Barker. Photos/Supplied

“The Royal New Zealand Ballet has been missing a strong and richly defined repertoire that we can call our own,’’ she says.

Patterson was a cultural adviser on the RNZB’s adaptation of The Piano last year. In his as-yet-untitled new piece, dancers will move to an array of indigenous music, ranging from taonga pūoro instruments to the raging guitars and drums of te reo metal band Alien Weaponry.

Barker suggests the piece will “obliterate all preconceptions of what a ballet company is capable of’’. Patterson’s incorporation of Māori movement and traditional ballet, she says, shows the former artistic director of Atamira Dance Company is taking his talents to the next level.

O’Hara, a New Zealand School of Dance tutor, says his work The sky is not so different to us, perhaps aims to “investigate scales of innovation, from the personal shifts we surrender to, and how we wish to effect change in and on the world around us”. Violinist Anita Clark (aka Motte) will play her score live on stage to accompany the work.

After blowing audiences away with her colourful Despite the Loss of Small Detail in last year’s suffrage-themed Strength and Grace production, Foster-Sproull returns with Artemis Rising. It’s been created especially for principal dancer Abigail Boyle, with her in the titular role of the Greek goddess of the hunt and fertility, and with original music by Eden Mulholland. The final Christchurch show will mark Boyle’s last RNZB stage performance (see below).

“I am delighted that we are able to honour her through the creation of a new work,” says Barker.

If the company’s year is starting in contemporary territory, there’s diversity on offer in the coming months. The annual Tutus on Tour jaunt to the regions will please classical ballet lovers. It will feature Black Swan, White Swan, described as “Swan Lake for the 21st century’’, by Slovak choreographer Mário Radačovský, whose works featured regularly at Grand Rapids during Barker’s time there. The August production Bold Moves will feature works by influential American choreographers George Balanchine and William Forsythe.

The Choreographic Series will be an annual fixture, says Barker. “The goal of this body of work is to define who we are – as a company, as a talent, as future-driven as we can be, and also to further the careers of our choreographers today.”

The RNZB Choreographic Series is at the Opera House, Wellington, March 1-2, and the Isaac Theatre Royal, Christchurch, March 8-9.

Abigail Boyle. Photo/Supplied

Last dance

A Royal New Zealand Ballet fan favourite is set to take her final curtain call.

Principal ballerina Abigail Boyle is hanging up her ballet shoes after 13 years at the Royal New Zealand Ballet to become a coach and dance teacher.

She has been the starring face of the company and her role in the TV3 reality series The Secret Lives of Dancers gave her a huge fan following. Accomplished in both classical and contemporary dance, she won the hearts of audiences and inspired choreographers to create works for her, including her final role in Sarah Foster-Sproull’s Artemis Rising.

She will join RNZB Education, teaching open classes for pre-vocational dance students during the RNZB’s forthcoming Black Swan, White Swan tour. She will also continue teaching at the New Zealand School of Dance.

This article was first published in the March 2, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.