The Royal NZ Ballet transforms The Piano for the stage

by Sharon Stephenson / 23 February, 2018
Jane Campion's iconic film The Piano is given the Royal New Zealand Ballet treatment.

A masterpiece from New Zealand’s “cinema of unease” is making its world premiere as a full-length ballet.

Royal New Zealand Ballet dancer Abigail Boyle, as Ada with the original piano used in The Piano, on Karekare beach where the movie was filmed. Photos/Ross Brown.

Abigail Boyle was eight when Jane Campion’s award-winning film The Piano was released. She saw it as a young teen, and was blown away by Campion’s bleak but extraordinary portrayal of life in New Zealand in the mid-19th century.

Almost 25 years later, the Royal New Zealand Ballet dancer found herself at 5am on a frigid winter day on Auckland’s west coast, readying herself to recreate the iconic scene from the 1993 film – where actor Holly Hunter’s character, Ada McGrath, is draped across a piano on the black sands of Karekare beach – for a photo shoot to publicise the company’s production of The Piano: the ballet.


“I was asked to put on a period dress and bonnet and pretend to play the piano on the beach, which sounded like a fun thing to do,” she laughs. “Except I didn’t think it would be at dawn in freezing conditions!”

Boyle, 32, has been based with the company in Wellington since 2005. And although she was born and raised in Auckland, she’d never been to Karekare before the shoot with photographer Ross Brown. “It’s a magical place, and fits perfectly with the drama and passion of the story. I’m such a fan of the film that I got goosebumps from being in the exact same location where they shot it.”

The authenticity didn’t end there: the company’s marketing team managed to track down the original piano used in the film on Trade Me, where they bought it from a movie-memorabilia collector in Upper Hutt. Then it turned out the same bloke from the Karekare Surf Club who transported the piano to the beach for the RNZB shoot had done the same for the original film crew a quarter of a century before.

Abigail Boyle as Ada.

That same piano will be used onstage for the national tour of The Piano: the ballet, which kicks off in Wellington on February 23, as part of the New Zealand Festival, and finishes in Palmerston North on March 28. The production was originally created by Czech choreographer Jiří Bubeníček as a one-act ballet for Dortmund Ballet in 2014. Bubeníček, who fell in love in with New Zealand after seeing the film of The Piano, expanded the work into a full-length ballet for the RNZB.

Excerpts from the original film score are woven into music by Debussy, Brahms and Shostakovich, while Bubeníček’s twin brother, Otto, has created large-scale multimedia projections to transport audiences into the landscapes of the story of Ada, a mute piano player, who becomes embroiled in an erotic love triangle. There’s also a strong element of traditional Māori dance in the work, with Moss Patterson from Atamira Dance Company brought in as cultural consultant.

Roles hadn’t been officially confirmed when North & South went to press but Boyle, who has headlined in Carmen, Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty, says she’d love to dance Ada.
“I can really relate to the love Ada has for her piano and music because I started playing the piano when I was five,” says the dancer, whose partner Matthew Cave is a musician with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra.

“The piano is Ada’s voice, the way she communicates with the world.”

The Piano by the RNZB tours New Zealand 23 February-28 March.

Joseph Skelton dances for photographer Ross Brown at Auckland’s Karekare beach, where The Piano was filmed.

This article first appeared in the February 2018 issue of North & South.
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