The Sleeping Beauty. Royal New Zealand Ballet/Orchestra Wellington

29 October 2020, Opera House, Wellington
reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

This is a long-awaited season since the Company’s program, Venus Rising, had to be cancelled due to the Covid situation earlier this year. That had offered an interesting quartet of works, which we could hope to still see at some future date.

The Sleeping Beauty is a major undertaking for any ballet company, demanding high technical skills from a large cast of soloists. Those we saw perform on opening night were all equal to the challenges and danced with much aplomb, carried by the quality of the Tchaikovsky composition, a masterpiece of instrumental wonder, with Hamish McKeich conducting Orchestra Wellington. My seat allowed a view into the orchestra pit which was an extra thrill since there’s a whole other ‘ballet’ of tension, movement, drama and passion going on there.

2018 was the bicentenary of the birth of Marius Petipa, choreographer of this and other iconic ballets from 19th century Russia. That has occasioned new biographies as well as re-worked productions of his ballets, with the recent version by Alexei Ratmansky for American Ballet Theatre winning widespread acclaim for its historical aesthetic coupled with contemporary sensibility. (It is worth looking into The New Yorkers of 1 & 8 June 2016 for Joan Acocella’s brilliant appraisal of the Ratmansky production and style, illustrating how a ballet classic can combine the best of old, though that takes both research and vision). Disney’s Maleficent from 2014 offers another take on who is in charge of evil in the world, updating his 1959 animation classic.

It is always the choices of style and setting, design and drama that, dancing aside, carries a production’s conviction in the passage of time from a christening to a 16th birthday to a sleeping spell of 100 years, to a dénouement and a wedding. This production, originally planned by Danielle Rowe, was instead here staged by Artistic Director Patricia Barker, with Clytie Campbell, Laura McQueen Schultz and Nicholas Schultz, and Michael Auer as dramaturg. With five different credits for various aspects of design, they took a generalised fairystory line, concentrating on light and bright pastel colours for the good, to contrast with the dark and shadowy world of evil.

It was a nice touch to have a poetic verse of the storyline projected onto the screen at the beginning of each ‘chapter’ but the design of set and costumes for the Court of the Rose seemed lightweight rather than royal. The courtiers were reserved in personality and confidence, yet overdressed in costume detail, rather than majestic as befits the mighty orchestral score. Only Loughlan Prior as the addled nervous M.C., (whose initial mistake was to leave Carabosse off the guest list, thus causing all the mayhem) brought caricature and comedy to the play, though the courtiers seemed unwilling to respond in character.   

Children in Royal New Zealand Ballet’s production of The Sleeping Beauty. Wellington 2020. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

The already-long ballet incorporated several groups of small children—page boys and court attendants. Charming as they were, they seemed more reminiscent of The Nutcracker than this classic which has an important story with a moral thrust in the forces of good versus evil. The King and Queen stood stiff and passionless with gestures portraying this or that but little in the way of emotion at their impending tragedy—and the seating of them and their baby directly upstage of all the court action effectively disappeared them from the scene as they sat behind all the dancing that followed.

Each of the good fairies performed their brief variations with technical flair and aplomb—Generosity by Ana Gallardo Lobaina, Honesty by Lara Flannery, Serenity by Caroline Wiley, Joy by Cadence Barrack, Curiosity by Madeleine Graham and Clarity by Katherine Skelton.  (It is impressive to note that four different castings of Aurora are planned over the season. Skelton will be one of them and her delicate precision should carry the role well). Sara Garbowski as the Lilac Fairy offered particular warmth in the portrayal of her promise to save the day. My young companions were impressed at the Aurora Borealis lighting effects—‘Hey, that’s where the baby’s name comes from.’ they whispered in delighted recognition. 

Kate Kadow as Princess Aurora danced radiantly and with an assured technique. Kirby Selchow as Carabosse took her role with relish, conveying macabre delight in wreaking havoc and trouble. Disguising her sidekick Morfran, Paul Mathews, to attend as one of the four suitors to the Princess Aurora on her 16th birthday was a clever ruse to introduce the dreaded spindle disguised as a black rose.

Kirby Selchow as Carabosse in Royal New Zealand Ballet’s production of The Sleeping Beauty. Wellington 2020. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

[Intermission. Some day a production might use the auditorium and foyer to help convey the passage of 100 years? That always seems too long a time for a production to ignore].

In Chapter Three, ‘The Hunt Picnic’ brought a group from a faraway court in Lithuania with a lonely Prince ready for a challenge, so the Lilac Fairy showed him the way to wake the sleeping kingdom. The Prince’s name is Laurynas Vėjalis—whoops, that’s the dancer’s name but I’ll use it for the character too since he was immediately apparent as one and the same. From his first entrance, there was the lyricism, strength, nobility and grace one always hopes for in a Principal dancer. Even while standing still, he conveyed those—then his dancing combined agility and strength with musical cadencing that flooded me with joy. This ability to merge the preparation for, together with delivery of, bravura steps into nonchalant movement, is the true heritage of baroque noble dancing, whence the original fairytale hails.

Laurynas Vėjalis as the Prince in Royal New Zealand Ballet’s production of The Sleeping Beauty. Wellington 2020. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

Vėjalis’ strength and speed of allegro movements of his legs and feet, with a simultaneous bone-creaming adagio quality of arm, head and épaulement movements, all without the slightest suggestion of effort or concentration, is a rare natural talent, in the line of Poul Gnatt, Jon Trimmer, Martin James, Ou Lu, Qi Huan, Kohei Iwamoto, Abigail Boyle, proud legacy of this company. It is good, as always, to see the printed program full of content (the work of Susannah Lees-Jeffries) acknowledging the Company’s previous productions.

In the variations from the guests at the wedding—The White Cat by Leonora Voigtlander, and Puss in Boots  by Joshua Guillemot-Rodgerson were suitably coquettish, the Bluebirds by Katherine Minor and Kihiro Kusukami in striking flight, Little Red Riding Hood and The Wolf by Georgia Baxter and Jack Lennon bringing character to the scene.

So, all told, a big ballet to big music—though with design of both set and costume in the first two acts less authoritative than might have been. The dancing was stronger and more accomplished than the sense of theatre throughout, where the timing of action needed attention—until along came a Prince who changed all that. I’ll aim to catch the last performance of the tour and see if the production has travelled well, which I’m sure it will.

Jennifer Shennan, 31 October 2020

Featured image: Laurynas Vėjalis as the Prince and Kate Kadow as Princess Aurora in Royal New Zealand Ballet’s production of The Sleeping Beauty. Wellington 2020. Photo: © Stephen A’Court.

Dancers of Royal New Zealand Ballet in George Balanchine's 'Serenade', 2019. Photo: © Stephen A'Court

Bold Moves. Royal New Zealand Ballet

16 August 2019, Opera House, Wellington
reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

Bold Moves is a ‘something for everyone’ mixed bill of four works that include old, older, new and not so new, with the dancers proving more than equal to the demands of stylistic versatility for each of the contrasting choreographies. The program requires a majority of female dancers across all the pieces, and among them are three standout performers.

Serenade (to Tchaikovsky, Serenade for Strings), was choreographed 85 years ago by George Balanchine for students at his company’s ballet school. Among the prolific choreographer’s scores of works, it sits lyrically apart, an abstract style of classical movement with tweaks here and whimsy there, as he built little mistakes made in rehearsal into the choreography, reflecting his sense of fun when working with young dancers. The work was first staged here by Una Kai, renowned former dancer with New York City Ballet, and our company’s artistic director in 1970s. Harry Haythorne, subsequent director, staged it on New Zealand School of Dance in 1980s and found there the perfect setting for it with a student cast. 

This line-up of 17 females in ‘moonlight blue’ danced the long first section with line and ensemble aspects finely wrought, but I missed the lightness of subtleties remembered (and a number of dancers from those earlier productions who were in  the audience later agreed). Some performers had ethereal and distant facial expressions, while others grinned cheerfully at the audience—somewhat distracting since it’s not just the movement we are watching, but also the dancers’ thoughts we are following. What are they thinking? The second section with fewer dancers has a range of sculptured arm shapes and attractive groupings that are satisfying to follow. The woman beside me swooned and gasped with pleasure throughout as she sipped her wine. It’s always good to witness people enjoying themselves, but to my taste this was an oaked chardonnay.

Mayu Tanigaito and Laurynas Vejalis in 'Flames of Paris' pas de deux. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2019. Photo: © Stephen A'Court
Mayu Tanigaito and Laurynas Vėjalis in Flames of Paris pas de deux. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2019. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

The pas de deux that followed, Russian style from 1932 but fashioned as though much earlier, Flames of Paris, is a sizzler for ballet competitions and the virtuoso display of gala nights, so no great poetry here. Wrong. It’s all in the how, not the what—and the quality of dancing by Mayu Tanigaito is a revelation, as always. Her technique is so fabulously assured she can afford to toss it to one side and simply offer us her pure pleasure at delivering a clean line, an effortless turn, a nonchalant pose, all effort masked, a laughing toss of the head, a loving smile, a way to live. She is the company’s longstanding leading dancer in all these respects. Her partner was Laurynas Vejalis, also a dancer of great technical ability, but he did not seem to be offering that as a gift to her, so she instead offered hers to us. Lucky us. This was top-shelf champagne.

Stand to Reason, by South African choreographer, Andrea Schermoly, commissioned by RNZB in 2018, marks 125 years since the beginnings of universal suffrage. Danced by eight women who gave it a wonderfully strong and motivated reading, it encourages everyone to believe in democracy in a wider society, and in all the institutions within it. There are numerous back projections of text from suffragettes’ writings, which were not legible however from many areas of the auditorium, and it could seem wise to reduce this distraction since the text is already reproduced in the printed program, and its message built in to the choreography. Kirby Selchow and Madeleine Graham were truly standout performers among the totally focused cast.  Brandy for courage, methinks.

Mayu Tanigaito and Massimo Margaria in William Forsythe's 'Artifact II'. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2019. Photo: © Stephen A’Court
Mayu Tanigaito and Massimo Margaria in William Forsythe’s Artifact II. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2019. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

William Forsythe’s Artifact II, 1984, perhaps with Orwell in mind, was brought here by his Ballett Frankfurt to an International Arts Festival season in 1994. It employs his hallmark extremism of anatomy +, with over-extensions of limbs creating shapes and thrusts that soon amount to shouting rather than speaking. (‘It’s hard to lip-read a shouting man’—Leonardo da Vinci warned us in the 15th century, and that is still the case). Two couples embark on simultaneous pas de deux, which is like four people speaking at once, impossible to watch or ‘hear’ them all. My eye gratefully went to Mayu Tanigaito and Massimo Margaria who danced with a totally immersed care and attention to each other, making quite the quality highlight of the piece. I know there exist interviews galore with Forsythe that explain the aesthetic and the choreographic intention of this work, but the reality is what comes to us across the footlights.

The Bach Chaconne used here means what we hear is the opposite of what we see. A chaconne is a baroque dance & music form that moves ever forward over a ground bass, without the theme & variations/verse & chorus structure of other baroque dances, and thus represents a through-composed journey. Douglas Lilburn caught well the notion of journeying in his solo piano composition by that title (worth choreographing some time?), but Bach’s chaconne is so wedded now to the talisman choreography by Jose Limon (given stellar performances by Baryshnikov in this same venue back in 1990s) with the solo musician alongside him on the stage. The dance, staged by Louis Solino, was also a number of times nobly performed here by Paul Jenden with Richard Mapp playing the Busoni piano transcription. Those achingly beautiful memories create a challenge to reconcile the use of the same music with a ballet like Artifact.

The curtain is rung down numerous times while the work continues onstage (except in this production we had the impression the dancing stopped then started again each time the curtain rose). It has a point the first time, perhaps, but the numerous repeats of the curtain crashing down become increasingly tiresome. I still find this as cynical and fragmented a work as I did on earlier viewing, and one cannot help but wonder what price the dancers pay for such extreme physical demands made on them in its delivery. We have seen Forsythe’s In the Middle Somewhat Elevated in several seasons by RNZB, also an extreme work, though the aesthetic there draws on its thunderbolt percussive accompaniment. Excitement always won the day when our former company dancers performed that work (most memorably Abigail Boyle, Kohei Iwamotu, Laura Saxon Jones, Jacob Chown) who made it strikingly their own. Artifact though is a cocktail of different ingredients. 

For years our company has had an equal weighting of female and male dancers, without a star ranking system but with recognition of the strengths in individual dancers—as classicists and actors, with character or humour—and with seasons extended over ten days to offer opportunities for us to savour alternate casts in lead roles. There was also a number of stellar visiting ballet masters, among the world’s best, who brought refreshing stimulation to the dancers. The company now has a new line-up and a new look—a system of star ranking introduced, seasons reduced to only a few days, no visiting ballet masters, an increased number of dancers, many more females than males, with a number of young performers and apprentices it is too soon to identify individually, some trained locally but still including many more imported to swell the ranks. That recruiting is difficult to accept, given how many fine young dancers are in training throughout this country, and how many other New Zealand dancers continue to search for work abroad. (Wouldn’t a young dancer/graduate ensemble here offer them and the country something to fill that gap?) And the company without Sir Jon Trimmer retained to assist in the styling and staging of works, and as a quietly masterful mentor to younger dancers, is not the one we have known for decades, and a decision that remains indeed difficult to fathom.

Ballet companies, like families, grow from their whakapapa. Every generation is itself, has parents and grandparents, children and grandchildren. Our company’s early repertoire includes classics of New Zealand vintage that could well be re-staged, (consider if you will—Tell me a Tale, Ragtime Dance Company, A Servant of Two Masters, Bliss, No Exit, Dark Waves, The Decay of Lying, rose and fell, halo, Napoli. Broadcast News, Sweet Sorrow, Mantodea, Charade, Prismatic Variations… none of which is older than Serenade) and many of our choreographers and ballet masters with the required experience are free-lancing here and abroad. If we don’t stage these works, no-one will. Kia mau te wehi, kia kaha. Ka tu ka ora, ka noho ka mate. Mauri, mauri, kam na mauri. Tekeraoi. (Bold Moves. Take courage. Standing up, all is well, lying down, all is not well. Spirit, courage, blessings).

Jennifer Shennan, 19 August 2019

Featured image: Dancers of Royal New Zealand Ballet in George Balanchine’s Serenade, 2019. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

Dancers of Royal New Zealand Ballet in George Balanchine's 'Serenade', 2019. Photo: © Stephen A'Court