Otago Daily Times
Good triumphs over evil forces
Heartbreak ruled Royal New Zealand Ballet’s 2020 season until last week when the company hit the stage for the first time this year in Sleeping Beauty. Rebecca Fox talks to artistic director Patricia Barker and head of costume Donna Jefferis.
THE Royal New Zealand Ballet Sleeping Beauty is a fairy tale story, where good triumphs over evil.
When RNZB artistic director Patricia Barker chose the famous classical ballet for 2020, she did not expect the company would be facing its own good versus evil battle.
Covid19, its associated lockdowns and resulting border closures, caused the cancellation of its Venus Rising tour in May and subsequent attempts to stage it in September, as well as its planned Dangerous Liaisons production in August.
‘‘We started hitting road blocks, especially with our borders closed, not knowing if we’d get anyone in. Our last production we were one day away, all that hard work. Motivation is key, it gives us purpose.’’
Even Sleeping Beauty has had its trials and tribulations as border controls meant original choreographer Danielle Rowe and lighting designer Randall Chiarelli could not come to New Zealand.
Although an exemption was obtained for Chiarelli to enter the country, it was granted 24 hours after the RNZB’s cutoff date for including him.
‘‘When we pulled the plug on that it was heartbreaking, there were tears on my part. Throughout my whole career he has helped me many times. Heartbreaking, that Dani Rowe couldn’t create a new wonderful work for the organisation.’’
Lockdown restrictions also meant no touching during rehearsals and dancers restricted to small bubbles.
‘‘Each production has its own challenges. Covid19 just created heartbreaks for the artists.’’
Barker, who sees her role as providing a platform for artists, feels Covid19 has stolen her ability to do so.
‘‘That is not to say we haven’t triumphed on our own.’’
Instead, the company did what Kiwis do best when times get tough, as Barker, who is American, discovered.
It knuckled down, drawing on its own, not insignificant, resources to produce Sleeping Beauty, albeit in a different way to first envisaged.
Barker took over the staging of the ballet with help from dramaturg Michael Auer and ballet masters Clytie Campbell, Laura McQueen Schultz and Nick Schultz while costume designer Donna Jefferis and scenic designer Howard C.
Jones created the fairy tale world.
‘‘They were able to get me on the right path. It was fun to rely on just our organisation and the talents we have gathered over the years. Maybe we do have to reflect inward more rather than outward.’’
Chiarelli worked remotely from Seattle on the lighting with help of locals Jeremy Fern and Daniel Wilson.
‘‘We have incredible talented people already here and now I believe it is their time to shine. There has been this tenacity and imagination. Digging deep within our own talents is the good.
‘‘On opening night to see the audience full, the applause, happy dancers, everyone enjoying the talent, if you think of the virus as evil, I’d say good has triumphed over evil.’’
It meant a lot to Barker who has a soft spot for the ballet as her first solo role in a professional ballet as a student at age 15 was as the White Cat. She then went on to dance the roles of Aurora and the Lilac
The role of Aurora is one of the top roles (Odette, Giselle, Kitri) a dancer wants to achieve in her career. Having danced all of the roles, a dancer joins a small elite group, Barker says.
‘‘That’s what makes the role so special.’’
Sleeping Beauty is not one the RNZB regularly performs, meaning only a handful of dancers in the company today have performed it in New Zealand before. The last time it was performed in full was 2011.
‘‘I’ve reworked my staging so it would be unique for the Royal New Zealand Ballet. We delved into the story quite a bit.’’
For this production, the team led by Barker decided to make the character of Carabosse, who is often played as a man, a woman.
‘‘We wanted the dark fairy to be the most beautiful creature out there, we all want to stay youthful forever — I think Kirby (Selchow) did a fantastic job last night.
‘‘Reflecting back, she’s like Cher in a real cool Bob Mackie outfit coming out [on stage] for the first time. It’s like a rock concert.’’
Jefferis describes her as smokin’, especially given the weight of the costume.
They also disguised the spindle which pricks Aurora’s finger as a black rose, Barker says.
‘‘Why can’t they use their magic? Why do they have to come in disguised as old women as it wouldn’t happen in a court? We were able to discuss the story back and forth and discover the points in it. It’s when we decided we needed one of the suitors to be kidnapped, the clothes stripped from him. All those things, maybe I watch too many period movies, but they don’t just go in as old people dressed in rags, they go in as somebody, there is intrigue.’’
The team also had in the back of their minds the work they had done for Dangerous Liaisons.
‘‘It was one of the tragedies of 2020. We will bring it back, the set’s already built. One story leads to the next. You continue to find the nuances. It’s great to continue to dive into these stories and read them together with more people in the room. It makes our productions richer, we have different angles and we get a richer, deeper experience for our audiences.’’
For Jefferis, the costume design came down to what could be achieved in the time she had, given the restrictions of lockdowns.
‘‘I knew straight period stuff would have been too hard.’’
She decided not to set the costumes in any one period instead pulling on inspiration from many different eras of fashion.
‘‘It’s a fusion of fashion/dance/ period and I mixed it all up.’’
That meant large puff sleeves, along with large puffy tulle skirts and a colour palette ranging from a peach springsummer rose garden to a white winter theme with lots of glitter and sparkle.
The transition of time is marked by the wigs and puff sleeves being replaced by slick hair and bare arms.
‘‘It’s creating our own fantasy land. Initially, people were a bit scared of the colour. I use colour quite strongly but I wanted it to look like a kids’ illustrated story book. It is decorated but we use blocks of colour and the fabrics rather than too much embellishment.’’
Barker wanted the show to reflect Christmas in New Zealand is in summer not winter and wanted to avoid the velvets and heavy winter colours of northern hemisphere productions.
‘‘It’s embracing where we are and the colours in the flowers just starting to come out.’’
Jefferis was surprised and thankful to find they did not have any problems getting her chosen fabrics to New Zealand from her usual suppliers in Germany and America.
She knew if they had to rely on their own fabric supplies they would not have enough for the multiple costumes needed in the production.
‘‘We weren’t held up by anything. We were lucky.’’
One of the challenges was that some of the roles, which traditionally are not dance roles, are for this production such as the court, the Minions and Carabosse.
‘‘She had to be bangin’ and be able to dance and she just needed to look fabulous — she is the Queen fairy of the dark side.’’
They knew they were on to a good thing when Selchow in test makeup and costume scared Barker’s dog Lola and another dancer’s son.
‘‘It was effective. There are a lot of funny wee things that won’t be immediately obvious to the audience — like the details and trims — but they add up the fuller picture.’’
It meant many hours of work for Jefferis, who is often found handsewing costumes at home at night in the runup to shows. She also had help from some Toi Whakaari students.
‘‘You do put your heart and soul into it.’’
Barker also volunteered helping hotfix and attach the trim to the blue suitors’ costumes.
‘‘I’m not great. But it feels good to nourishing to be in a different department and just support. The energy in the costume shop is inspiring.’’
The set was also a challenge given the restraints of the Wellington Opera House stage and the fact the production is touring the country, but nothing they cannot overcome — it is one lesson learnt from 2020.
‘‘We just wanted to create a storybook.’’