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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.
Whether playing a saucy soubrette or an imperious swan, Irina Dvorovenko was always a formidable presence on the American Ballet Theatre stage. Since her 2013 retirement at 39, after 16 seasons, she's been bringing that intensity to an acting career in roles ranging from, well, Russian ballerinas to the Soviet-era newcomer she plays in the FX spy series "The Americans."
We caught up with her after tech rehearsal for the Encores! presentation of the musical Grand Hotel, directed and choreographed by Josh Rhodes and running March 21–25 at New York City Center. It's another tempestuous ballerina role for Dvorovenko—Elizaveta Grushinskaya, on her seventh farewell tour, resentfully checks into the Berlin hostelry of the title with her entourage, only to fall for a handsome young baron and sing "Bonjour, Amour."
When Andrew Montgomery first saw the Las Vegas hit Le Rêve - The Dream 10 years ago, he knew he had to be a part of the show one day. Eight years later, he auditioned, and made it to the last round of cuts. On his way home, still waiting to hear whether he'd been cast, he was in a motorcycle accident that ended up costing him half his leg.
But Montgomery's story doesn't end the way you might think. Today, he's a cast member of Le Rêve, where he does acrobatics and aerial work, swims (yes, the show takes places in and around a large pool) and dances, all with his prosthetic leg.
Last week in a piece I wrote about the drama at English National Ballet, I pointed out that many of the accusations against artistic director Tamara Rojo—screaming at dancers, giving them the silent treatment, taking away roles without explanation—were, unfortunately, pretty standard practice in the ballet world:
If it's a conversation we're going to have, we can't only point the finger at ENB.
The line provoked a pretty strong response. Professional dancers, students and administrators reached out to me, making it clear that it's a conversation they want to have. Several shared their personal stories of experiencing abusive behavior.
Christopher Hampson, artistic director of the Scottish Ballet, wrote his thoughts about the issue on his company's website on Monday:
When you spend as much time on the road as The Royal Ballet's Steven McRae, getting access to a proper gym can be a hassle. To stay fit, the Australian-born principal turns to calisthenics—the old-school art of developing aerobic ability and strength with little to no equipment.
"It's basically just using your own body weight," McRae explains. "In terms of partnering, I'm not going to dance with a ballerina who is bigger than me, so if I can sustain my own body weight, then in my head I should be fine."
Camille A. Brown is on an impressive streak: In October, the Ford Foundation named her an Art of Change fellow. In November, she won an AUDELCO ("Viv") Award for her choreography in the musical Bella: An American Tall Tale. On December 1, her Camille A. Brown & Dancers made its debut at the Kennedy Center, and two days later she was back in New York City to see her choreography in the opening of Broadway's Once on This Island. Weeks later, it was announced that she was choreographing NBC's live television musical Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert, to air on April 1.
An extraordinarily private person, few knew that during this time Brown was in the midst of a health crisis. It started with an upset stomach while performing with her company on tour last summer.
"I was drinking ginger ale, thinking that I would feel better," she says. Finally, the pain became so acute that she went to the emergency room in Mississippi. Her appendix had burst. "Until then, I didn't know it was serious," she says. "I'm a dancer—aches and pains don't keep you from work."
A flock of polyamorous princes, a chorus of queer dying swans, a dominatrix witch: These are a few of the characters that populate the works of Katy Pyle, who, with her Brooklyn-based company Ballez, has been uprooting ballet's gender conventions since 2011.
Historically, ballet has not allowed for the expression of lesbian, transgender or gender-nonconforming identities. With Ballez, Pyle is reinventing the classical canon on more inclusive terms. Her work stems from a deep love of ballet and, at the same time, a frustration with its limits on acceptable body types and on the stories it traditionally tells.
The latest fitness fad has us literally buzzing. Vibrating tools—and exercise classes—promise added benefits to your typical workout and recovery routine, and they're only growing more popular.
Warning: These good vibrations don't come cheap.
My life is in complete chaos since my dance company disbanded. I have a day job, so money isn't the issue. It's the loss of my world that stings the most. What can I do?
—Lost Career, Washington, DC
Dance Theatre of Harlem is busy preparing for the company's Vision Gala on April 4. The works on the program, which takes place on the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., reflect on the legacy of Dr. King and his impact on company founder Arthur Mitchell. Among them is the much-anticipated revival of legendary choreographer Geoffrey Holder's Dougla, which will include live music and dancers from Collage Dance Collective.
We stepped into the studio with Holder's wife Carmen de Lavallade and son Leo Holder to hear what it feels like to keep Holder's legacy alive and what de Lavallade thinks of the recent rise in kids standing up against the government—as she did not too long ago.
The encounter with man-eating female creatures in Jerome Robbins' The Cage never fails to shock audiences. As this tribe of insects initiates the newly-born Novice into their community and prepares her for the attack of the male Intruders, the ballet draws us into a world of survival and instinct.
This year celebrates the 100th anniversary of Jerome Robbins' birth, and a number of Robbins programs are celebrating his timeless repertoire. But it especially feels like a prime moment to experience The Cage again. Several companies are performing it: San Francisco Ballet begins performances on March 20, followed by the English National Ballet in April and New York City Ballet in May.
Why it matters: In this time of female empowerment—as women are supporting one another in vocalizing injustices, demanding fair treatment and pay, and advocating for future generations—The Cage's nest of dominant women have new significance.