When the Royal New Zealand Ballet opened its New York debut season at the Joyce Theater on Wednesday night, it felt a little bit like we were catching up with old friends. When last we saw these dancers, they were in the midst of celebrations after having enjoyed a major success with their magnificent new production of Sleeping Beauty. Dancer Lucy Green, whose prior first year with the company had seen its ups and downs, was blissfully beaming after winning the audience’s and artistic team’s respect for her outstanding performances as one of the soloist fairies. Abigail Boyle had conquered her nerves to pull off good performances of Aurora. Tonia Looker, another Aurora, was the unflappable pro who possessed limitless calm and concentration and didn’t mess up a step. We won’t talk about Sergio – now with the Royal Ballet of Flanders – who the cameras of The Secret Lives of Dancers adored from the front and especially from the back, except to say that he was a handsome partner to the gorgeous guest artist, Stella Abrera, in her dozen or so performances as Aurora throughout New Zealand.
The company had just finished its first season under new artistic director Ethan Stiefel, whose entire inaugural year was captured on video by The Secret Lives of Dancers. We were looking forward to future installments when the plug was pulled on our pirated internet access to the program which was only intended to be shown on New Zealand television. Such is the cruel world.
So when Stiefel brought the RNZB to New York, we were already curious about this company but had not formed many expectations. Never did we expect to see the likes of an early Joffrey Ballet that encompassed such variety in its dancers, many with impeccable technique, no distracting mannerisms, and loads of charm. At the first intermission when Haglund was discussing the Joffrey-like qualities with a friend who contributes over on CriticalDance, it turned out that we each thought we had seen someone who danced like the much-loved Joffrey star Tina LeBlanc. But he thought Lucy Green was the LeBlanc ghost while Haglund thought it was Tonia Looker. We’re still arguing over this. The point here is that the RNZB has a wealth of talent of the kind that we in the U.S. have appreciated for many years.
The first ballet on the bill, Benjamin Millepied’s 28 Variations on a Theme of Paganini, was last seen at the Joyce Theater five years ago when Millepied presented it as part of his Danses Concertante program. Haglund seems to recall that Millepied enlisted the help of Amanda McKerrow to coach the dancers in the overall program which turned out to be one of his brightest decisions. McKerrow has also been working with the RNZB - most recently coaching dancers in the company’s acclaimed production of Giselle.
Using a recording of the Brahms piano work by Jian Liu, Head of Piano Studies at the New Zealand School of Music, which revealed the potent virtuosity of the music without being needlessly showy, the RNZB dancers turned Millepied’s steppy, academic choreography into a real ballet of joyous and romantic interludes.
Ms. Green tossed off some exceptionally lovely attitude turns complete with twinkling eyes and a smile. Ms. Looker appeared to have emerged from Robert Joffrey's dream: so perfectly tidy, no excesses in movement that might mar lines, and a dreamy quality in her upper body – such an absolute joy to watch throughout the evening. Antonia Hewitt was eye-catching for her mature elegance and long limbs. Bronte Kelly’s every step was filled with fresh exuberance. These dancers, along with their fine partners, brought new respect to Millepied’s choreography.
Gillian Murphy, who has been with the RNZB as a guest principal since Stiefel became its artistic director, danced the lead PdD opposite Qi Huan, her most frequent partner at RNZB. It seems that going to the other side of the planet to get quality coaching was a good strategy on her part. Over the past three years, she has beautifully blended the sharp articulation of her feet and legs with a romantic softness in the upper body – all of which was displayed stunningly in Millepied’s ballet. Qi Huan, a product of the Beijing Dance Academy and a nine year veteran of RNZB, has the chiseled good looks of a GQ cover model. Wednesday night he was a powerfully coordinated partner to Gillian and an exceptional soloist.
The other two pieces on the program, Of Days, choreographed by Andrew Simmons, and Banderillero by Javier De Frutos underutilized this talented group of dancers. It is understandable how the company would want to differentiate itself by presenting original works made for it by Simmons, a New Zealander, and De Frutos, a Venezuelan. But in bringing these particular works, the company may have achieved just the opposite. Of Days relied much on lighting effects that accentuated the musculature of the dancers while revealing little of what they were capable of doing – a characteristic we see all too often here. There was the suggestion of importance without anything having been said.
Banderillero, set to or set against a riveting collection of Chinese gong and drum music, relied heavily on the motif of women bending over and violently sweeping their hair across the ground. There was an abundance of hostile posturing and glowering to help convey the fierce moments of contest (and horror) associated with the banderillero’s job while drawing parallels to the relationships between men and women. But the choreography per se was repetitious and not very interesting.
Both Of Days and Banderillero would be great pieces for use in attracting a crossover audience that leans toward less balletic, more modern work – which describes a good part of the general Joyce Theater audience – but they’re probably not the best choices as calling cards for New Zealand’s national ballet company. Thank goodness we got to see the company's exquisite film of Giselle at the Dance on Camera Festival a couple of weeks ago. They really used their classical chops in that production. Qi Huan's entrechats six and his overhead lifts of Gillian Murphy were mindblowing.
The Valentines Day Pump Bump Award is bestowed upon Tonia Looker who was a most happy discovery on Wednesday night.