Too concise for posterity (2004)

by Raewyn Whyte

Jennifer Shennan’s slim volume A time to dance: THE ROYAL NEW ZEALAND BALLET AT 50 is a commemorative booklet which marks the company’s first half-century and acts as a souvenir of the 50th anniversary season.  At the same time, it is a companion volume which updates Beatrice Ashton’s similar 1978 publication, The New Zealand Ballet: The First Twenty Five Years. A component of the NZ Ballet’s 50th Anniversary season, Shennan’s booklet was initially launched via direct mail to NZ Ballet subscribers and Friends of the Ballet, and was subsequently sold at New Zealand Post Tutus on Tour performances and promoted at seminars about the Company’s achievements.

Writing in a chatty, easy to read style, salted with photos and peppered with anecdotes, Shennan identifies selected highlights of the Company’s activities over five decades, arranged chronologically, and organised by the reigns of successive artistic directors: Poul Gnatt (1953-62 and 1969); Russell Kerr (1962-68); Bryan Ashbridge (1971), Una Kai (1973-75), Philip Chatfield (1975-78); Harry Haythorne (1981-92); Ashley Killar (1992-95); Matz Skoog (1996-2001) and Gary Harris (2001-09).

Achievements of each director’s period with the company are noted, with reference made to titles of key ballets, names of dancers, choreographers and their artistic collaborators (primarily designers and composers), events and places.  A chronology of company works 1955 – 2003 by year of first production, compiled by Keith McEwan, is included, with listings broken down by year, title, choreographer’s last name, producer’s last name, composer’s last name and designer’s last name.

Shennan’s summary sketches of each director’s era are accompanied by illustrations which range in size from thumbnail-sized programme covers to full page photographs, a mix of black-and-white and colour images. Special tribute is paid to Sir Jon Trimmer – the superb dancer and creative professional who has continued to inspire others to attain the highest possible standards, and the leader whose passionate commitment and unstinting efforts have ensured the Company’s survival.  The New Zealand School of Dance (formerly the National Ballet School) is also acknowledged for its role in training dancers who have entered the Company and continued their development to achieve a successful ballet career.

Though it provides a broad overview of changes in the Company over time, and is a useful souvenir,  the value of this publication as a reference is relatively limited. Unless you were a member of the company or a close follower of performances at a given time, you will find it difficult to identify the salient details of any given ballet (such as the style of the work, how many were in the cast and how they were organised, who danced the leads, what the set and costumes looked like, where the work was presented, what the theme or content of the work was, how it was received) without reference to a performance programme.

Similarly, there is seldom any contextual information which would enable you to cross-reference ballet events to other contemporaneous artistic, political or national events in order to assess a work’s broader significance. In addition, the conciseness of the chronology of works, and the restriction to last names for all artists, makes it difficult to do more than trace a series of works by last name of choreographer or designer. It is not possible, for example, to identify the actual music to which a given ballet was set, who danced lead roles, or in which centres the ballet was presented.  There is no bibliography, and there is no documentation for the sources of the quotations which are sprinkled throughout the booklet.

In the course of summarising the Company’s achievements, Shennan touches on, but does not examine in any detail, a number of momentous developments in the company’s first half century, any or all of which could provide a valuable framework for further consideration of the Company’s activities and achievements over time.  These developments include: a shift from small-scale, project-based operations to full-time contracted dancers and recurrently funded operations; the influx of a number of experienced, senior expatriate dancers at one time; the establishment of the Company’s Trust Board and the creation of an associated formal charter to set goals and guide programming; artistic direction by committee; the regular inclusion of international guest soloists and principals; the commissioning and creation of full-length works on the Company; conjoint touring with another company; radical reductions in dancer numbers at times of serious financial deficit; international tours; televised programmes; becoming “Royal”; seasons which focus on new and/or experimental works by emerging artists; the commissioning of bicultural ballets; changes in aesthetic emphasis and with changing directors; the increasing internationalisation of the company’s members; a change from recurrent funding to direct line government funding; gaining a purpose-built headquarters, the success of blockbuster ballets…..

A souvenir booklet is clearly not the place for in-depth discussion of meaty issues, neither is it a place to reveal the results of extensive research. Yet both in-depth discussion and extensive research into the activities and achievements of the Royal New Zealand Ballet are needed. At the very least, it would seem desirable to delve into the Company’s history in search of insight into what it takes to flourish as a New Zealand professional performing arts organisation, particularly with regard to the Company’s experience over time with the dynamic interplay of economic survival and artistic development.

The Company’s achievement of 50 years continuous operations as a high-profile New Zealand professional performing arts organisation, and its attainment of recognised excellence in artistic production, potentially make its activities a rich field of investigation for researchers and writers in any number of fields – ballet and dance performance, professional development, lifelong learning, choreography, dramaturgy, rehearsal processes, interdisciplinary collaboration, artistic production, costume and dance footwear design, lighting design and production, programme development, recruitment and human resource allocation, employment relations, the ecology of the professional performing arts in New Zealand, touring circuits, management, marketing, audience development, sponsorship and patronage development, transitional planning and change management, studio architecture…

Let us hope that future publications with diverse viewpoints will bring a rich appreciation of the wide-ranging contributions this Company makes in the course of presenting ballet to New Zealand audiences.

[Commissioned and published by Tirairaka, May 2004]

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