Patricia Barker Responds to All Those Royal New Zealand Ballet Rumors
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.
One of the issues widely reported in the New Zealand media is that half of RNZB's thirty-six dancers have left the company or didn't have their contracts renewed. Barker says in her tenure as director that number is actually ten; three retired, four were not reengaged and three, Tonia Looker, Kohei Iwamoto and Isabella Swietlicki took positions at Australia's Queensland Ballet. Barker also points out Looker (who is Australian) and Iwamoto had auditioned for Queensland Ballet a year ago and were awaiting positions before she even worked with them, and that Swietlicki left to follow boyfriend Iwamoto.
Barker in class with Royal New Zealand Ballet. Photo by Stephen A'Court, Courtesy RNZB
While dancer hirings and departures are a normal part of any professional ballet company, it is perhaps the lack of long-term stability in RNZB's artistic leadership—three directors in the past six years—that has made the number of recent dancer departures into an issue. "As far as dancers coming and going, it's the evolution of any company," says Barker. "All of the attention towards that gives me a sense the community really cares about the organization and I hope that we continue to get this much media coverage as we move into the next season and the wonderful ballets are done."
Another debate directed at Barker centers around a sense that the country's only ballet company should contain a certain percentage of New Zealand-born and trained dancers and be staffed by New Zealanders. But according to RNZB board member Isaac Hikaka, 42% of the company's dancers are New Zealanders or New Zealand-trained (in line with their historical average) and the company is working to improve those numbers.
For Barker's part, she has reached out to New Zealanders dancing abroad to gauge their interest in returning home to dance with RNZB. And contrary to early reports that the company for the first time did not look to RNZB's affiliated New Zealand School of Dance to hire new dancers, Barker did offer two graduate students contracts with the company but they chose to dance elsewhere.
A big stumbling block Barker says she is addressing is the non-industry standard December-to-January contracts which makes it difficult to hire dancers when many become available halfway through that term. Barker says to work around that she is having ongoing auditions throughout the year and keeping a few contracts in reserve to use on new talent.
Another challenge is that unlike many large ballet companies, RNZB has no studio company, second company or apprentice program in place, which limits RNZB's ability to hire qualified young dancers."We're missing that important step for young dancers, and this might also be why some of the talented dancers from New Zealand have gone elsewhere," says Barker. Barker is working on an apprentice program with the support of New Zealand's Ministry of Culture, and has worked with Youth America Grand Prix to create an internship program. "Being as we don't have a summer program this is a great added benefit for young students to get to know the company and for us to attract young talent," says Barker.
Barker has also taken some heat for her artistic staff hires not all being from New Zealand. She says one change she knew she wanted to make was hiring permanent ballet masters instead of short-term ones, as the company had done previously. The first of those she hired was New Zealander Clytie Campbell, who had worked with the company in that position on a yearly contract, and most recently former Grand Rapids Ballet stars, husband and wife Nicholas and Laura McQueen Schultz.
Despite the rumors about the company's troubles, there's plenty to celebrate about Barker's new role. Though the 2018 season had been already programmed by former artistic director Francesco Ventriglia, Barker was able to add a Strength & Grace program of internationally acclaimed women dancemakers in honor of the 125th anniversary of women's suffrage in New Zealand and RNZB's 65th birthday.
It is a great tragedy for dance history that iconic ballet partnerships like Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev or Natalia Makarova and Mikhail Baryshnikov weren't able to document their backstage shenanigans on social media. (Okay, maybe not a great tragedy, but you have to admit that you're curious.)
Lucky for us, that isn't the case with today's star dancers—like American Ballet Theatre principal dancers Isabella Boylston and James Whiteside, aka The Cindies. These two aren't just onstage partners. They're serious #BestieGoals. Our evidence, as documented on Instagram, is as follows:
-Hey. U up?
-Ya. I'm at the ballet.
-Oh ok. Talk later.
-Nah, it's cool, it's a slow part right now.
Nope, it's not cool. Put your phone away. In the hushed darkness of an auditorium, light explodes from that screen like shrapnel, blasting those around you out of their viewing experience.
2017 felt like we were living the Upside Down of the popular Netflix series "Stranger Things." From Donald Trump becoming president, to the sexual harassment scandals that ricocheted into the ballet world, everything we thought we knew was turned on its head.
Yet while the deconstruction of institutional paradigms is frightening, it also presents an unprecedented opportunity for redesign.
Ballet, much like our political parties, seems to be stuck in an antiquated format that's long overdue for a makeover. With the world changing at lightning speed, if ballet wants to survive it will have to undergo a radical reimagining. But what would that look like?
Dear dancers of the New York City Ballet,
I realize that you are scared because the future of the New York City Ballet is uncertain; you don't know who will man the ship, and your career that you've worked your entire life for feels under attack.
On social media some of you alluded to the idea that Peter Martins' downfall is a result of the times; a maelstrom of allegations sweeping the country, bringing down powerful men, for misdeeds proven and unproven. I understand that for many of you this feels unfair: Peter has helped you personally ascend the ranks of the company by believing in you, and mentoring you. For others the described behavior may feel abstract; it isn't something you've witnessed, and many of the accusations occurred long before your time, maybe even before you were born. And above all, how could you possibly betray the man who plucked you from the school and gave you the chance of a lifetime: to dance with one of the most prestigious ballet companies in the world? How could you see this person, who gave you this chance, this gift, as the monster he's being painted as?
Throughout his remarkable career, the fiercely determined, intelligent and energetic Arthur Mitchell has become accustomed to being called a trailblazer. "Being a typical Aries, I like being the first," he says, laughing. "That's what I've been doing all my life."
This is true, especially when it comes to the discussion at the forefront of today's national dialogue about dance: diversity in ballet.
In the dance world, Mandy Moore has long been a go-to name, but in 2017, the success of her choreography for La La Land made the rest of the world stop and take notice. After whirlwind seasons as choreographer and producer on both "Dancing with the Stars" and "So You Think You Can Dance," she capped off the year with two Emmy Award nominations—and her first win.
You've come a long way on "So You Think You Can Dance"—from assistant to the choreographer (Season 1) to creative producer (Season 14). What keeps you returning to the show?
"So You Think You Can Dance" was one of my first jobs, so it feels like home. I love the chaos of live television; as soon as one show is over you're on to the next.
Last Saturday night, Dance/NYC, Gibney Dance and the Actors Fund hosted a conversation on sexual harassment in the dance world. The floor was open for anyone in attendance to share whatever they wanted: personal stories, resources, suggestions.
The event brought to light some of the questions the dance world is facing, and though we don't yet have all the answers, it helped lay out the areas we need to address:
What would dance-specific sexual harassment training and policies look like?
Corporate harassment trainings tend to tell employees to avoid touching coworkers and to not wear revealing clothing in the workplace. Obviously, these rules aren't applicable to the dance world. Many in attendance agreed that everyone in the dance world should undergo training, so what should it include?
The ballet world can't get enough of Arthur Pita. With his maverick, surreal imagination, the self-styled "David Lynch of dance" brings a welcome theatricality to everything he touches, from his version of Kafka's The Metamorphosis to 2017's Salome for San Francisco Ballet.
The South African–born Pita competed in disco dancing and later performed with Matthew Bourne's New Adventures. Today, he is Bourne's offstage partner, and the pair live together in London. His latest work, which premiered in November, is a one-act adaptation of Dorothy Scarborough's 1925 Texan novel, The Wind, for The Royal Ballet.
We've been a fan of the space bun look since our Spice Girls days, which is exactly why we were so excited when hair and makeup artist Angela Huff brought the double-bun style back for our January cover shoot with American Ballet Theatre's Erica Lall. To give the '90s style a modern twist, Huff added a few braided details. Here's how to copy the look for your next class:
Photo by Nathan Sayers
At age 24, dancer and choreographer Caleb Teicher already has accolades beyond his years. But this week, the Bessie Award–winning performer adds another impressive feat to his resumé: His company's Joyce Theater debut. Though tap is Teicher's focus, he masterfully combines everything from jazz to Lindy Hop to hip hop in his fresh, clever choreography.
We caught up with him for our "Spotlight" series: