Joyce Theater, New York, NY; February 12, 2014

Jerry Hochman

Abigail Boyle and Paul Mathews in 'Banderillero'. Photo © Bill Cooper

Abigail Boyle and Paul Mathews in ‘Banderillero’.
Photo © Bill Cooper

The Royal New Zealand Ballet’s seven performance run at the Joyce Theater in Chelsea marked the final stop on the company’s four-city U.S. tour, and was the first time the company has appeared in New York City in over two decades.

Artistic Director and former American Ballet Theatre Principal dancer Ethan Stiefel, presented a program of well-selected dances intended to provide a broad overview of the company’s present range and capabilities, as well as a sense of the diversity of its dancers. Except for the final piece, the dances were not particularly unusual or memorable, but they weren’t bad for what they were, and the first two, Benjamin Millepied’s “28 Variations on a Theme by Paganini” and “Of Days”, choreographed by Christchurch-born choreographer Andrew Simmons, performed their function well. The one exception was the evening’s concluding work: Javier de Frutos’s “Banderillero”, which has its flaws, but which I found to be both intellectually stimulating and visually riveting, as well as superbly performed.

RNZB has had a long history of success and respect. Formed in 1953 and awarded a Royal Charter in 1984, the company regularly performs in ten New Zealand population centers and in smaller locales across the country, and tours internationally on annual basis (China most recently; the UK and Ireland next year). It has a repertory ranging from “Swan Lake” and “The Sleeping Beauty” to works by Balanchine, Kylián, and Mark Morris. Under Mr. Stiefel’s leadership, it now has added cache, and is ready to parlay that into broader international recognition. It also has added the occasional guest artist. A new “Giselle”, co-produced by Mr. Stiefel and Johan Kobborg, was presented in 2012 and featured ABT Principal dancer Gillian Murphy as Principal Guest Artist in the lead role (Ms. Murphy has not danced that role with ABT). ABT soloist Stella Abrera danced Aurora in the company’s “Sleeping Beauty” in 2011.

But although guest artists may be welcome to raise the company’s level of visibility (and perhaps to mentor its dancers), based on the New York performance I saw, the nucleus of a strong company is already there, with accomplished and engaging dancers well-capable of performing both ballet and more contemporary dance. Not all of RNZB’s 34 dancers danced night, but each of those who did performed commendably. And there were standouts. While some looked more comfortable in the contemporary dances than ballet, Tonia Looker, an Australian by birth who joined the company in 2008, excelled in all three pieces. She’s a vivacious performer with a broad range, and her School of American Ballet roots show. New Zealander Antonia Hewitt, who entered the company in 2007, also danced in all three pieces, exhibiting imposing purity of line, dramatically and perfectly placed extensions, and non-emotive intensity. And whether as a result of Mr. Stiefel’s influence or their training, the company’s male dancers performed at a high level.

The Royal New Zealand Ballet in 'Banderillero'. Photo © Maarten Holl

The Royal New Zealand Ballet in ‘Banderillero’.
Photo © Maarten Holl

Javier De Frutos is a Venezuelan-born, London-based choreographer who is little-known in the U.S., but has achieved considerable acclaim in the U.K. and has created highly regarded dances for companies around the world. I’m not familiar with his work, and don’t know if “Banderillero” is typical. Regardless, I found it both annoying and exhilarating, and definitely a work to explore more deeply if given the opportunity. There’s a lot in the piece to digest, and I suspect that unlike other crowd-pleasing closing pieces in a repertory program, there’s more to this piece than meets the eye.

There were no program notes to relate the choreographer’s intention. But given the title, I anticipated a Latin-based theme: a ‘banderillero’ is a torero (bullfighter) who thrusts ‘banderillas’ (colorful barbed sticks) into a bull during the progression of a bullfight, running as close to the bull as possible in the process.

But this isn’t a Latin dance – at least not on the surface. It sounds, and to a large extent looks, like Beijing (Peking) Opera in frenetic motion, without the ornate costumes and without non-instrumental sounds (except for one annoying collective shout), with dancers in ballet slippers moving to the beat of drums and other Asian instruments that I recall from opera performances I saw years ago. For the record, the dance’s accompanying pre-recorded music consists of “Poems of Chinese Drum,” composed by Li Zhen-Gui and Tan Dun; “Deep Night” performed by the Beijing Opera and arranged by Li Min-Xiong;, and “Triumphal Return of Fishing Boasts – Gong and Drum Music of Zhoushan Islands” performed by Zhejiang Song and Dance Troupe and arranged by Liu Wen-Jin. Although the choreography is not constrained by the music, the music forms its framework, and the dancers respond to the percussive punctuations of the drums and gongs, as well as to the crank-like whir of an Asian string instrument common to Beijing Opera – probably a jinghu.Nevertheless, De Frutos couldn’t have named the dance “Banderillero” by chance. And focusing on individual expressions rather than collective movement shows that the title relates highly stylized but understated belligerence.

To those knowledgeable, bullfighting is neither sport nor violence, but, a performing art where form and style are critical. Dance, of course, is also exactly that. De Frutos merges the two, distilling the aggressiveness of a bullfight and grafting its essence into a stylized dance to Beijing Opera-style background music, where nothing is left that clearly references a bullfight except the dance’s title and the ritualized Asian form and style that keeps the aggression largely, but not completely, under wraps – except for a little ‘bullying’. Echoing this sense of aggressive emotions kept under wraps are the dramatically simple costumes (designed by De Frutos) – thin white dresses with deep plunging necklines and open backs on the women; transparent shirts on the men – exposing bare skin but revealing little.

The Royal New Zealand Ballet in 'Of Days' by Andrew Smmons. Photo © Evan Li

The Royal New Zealand Ballet in ‘Of Days’ by Andrew Simmons.
Photo © Evan Li

“Banderillero” goes on too long, and although the instrumentation and accompanying movement varies, it feels all at one level. I would have preferred a sense of “Crouching Tiger/Hidden Dragon” to make the piece spiritually invigorating as well as physically exhausting. Nevertheless, the staging is such that viewing interest rarely flags, and it is a work of intelligence as well as explosive power. All of the dancers (Ms. Hewitt, Abigail Boyle, Madeleine Graham, Ms. Looker, Clytie Campbell, Paul Matthews, Dimitri Kleioris, Loughland Prior, Brandan Bradshaw, and Rory Fairweather-Neylan) executed superbly.

The middle piece of the program, “Of Days,” is an abstract work with emotional gloss to music curated by Mr. Simmons from a variety of contemporary sources. It is a reflective, dramatically sensitive ballet for four men and four women, neither overly somber nor overly emotive, with a tone of sweet but sad ‘remembrance’. The piece begins with four women emerging from darkness vertically stage right, left hands waving (though not completely in unison) – as if each dancer is waving goodbye, rather than hello, to someone or something. The image is repeated at the end of the piece. In between these images are pas de deux, as well as individual and group dances, which are skillfully interwoven to appear to be a constant flow of memories. And there are segments danced in silence (transitions between pieces of music) that are as fine as any ‘silent’ dances I’ve seen. The overall movement is slow, but not ponderous, and there are difficult positions and poses that the dancers successfully execute. Although Mayu Tanigaito, Brenan Bradshaw, Ms. Looker, and Ms. Hewitt merit special praise, each of the eight dancers (including Ms. Boyle, Paul Matthews, Qi Huan, and Kohei Iwamot) danced earnestly and exquisitely.

Antonia Hewitt & Brendan Bradshaw in '28 Variations on a Theme by Paganini'. Photo © Evan Li

Antonia Hewitt & Brendan Bradshaw in ’28 Variations on a Theme by Paganini’.
Photo © Evan Li

The program opened with “28 Variations on a Theme by Paganini,” a 2005 work by Benjamin Millepied to the Johannes Brahms composition by the same name. It doesn’t look like many Millepied pieces – it’s balletic and lyrical, with the women wearing pastel-colored chiffon-like skirts. The piece looks somewhat like a ballet school graduation exercise.  And although it’s not a ‘competition’ type of exercise, and not particularly memorable, it’s pleasant.

The piece is largely, but not exclusively, danced by couples, and is staged skillfully. The central pas de deux, performed by Ms. Murphy and Mr. Huan, has the most emotional component – their relationship is falling apart. But although beautifully executed, the drama doesn’t fit with the rest of the piece. In addition to Ms. Murphy and Mr. Huan, Lucy Green was a standout, effortlessly tossing off triple attitude turns. To me, Ms. Green bears a resemblance both physically and in ‘spunk’, to Tina LeBlanc, who used to dance with the Joffrey Ballet in New York, and subsequently was a principal dancer with the San Francisco Ballet. That’s a compliment.

The program provided a fine introduction to the company. More importantly, it whetted the appetite for more. Under Mr. Stiefel’s leadership and with his connections, one expects that it will not take another two decades before RNZB returns, perhaps with its new “Giselle”.