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.
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.
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.