Royal New Zealand Ballet's offstage stars
Behind the closed doors of the Royal New Zealand Ballet are many hidden gems. Back rooms are full of historical glamour, boxes of tutus and tiaras, and then there are the technicians, the people who put the pieces together to make all of the elements fit. Carly Thomas opened the door and talked to whoever had a moment to spare among the last-minute preparations for the RNZB's tour of Allegro.
He's been told he may as well live there. He has words written on his work table that he can't for the life of him remember what they mean. After 27 years of loyal service to The Royal New Zealand Ballet, Andrew Pfeiffer, better known as Pfieff, is part of the furniture.
He is revered, loved and a teeny bit feared, but he doesn't wear ballet shoes and, God forbid, he doesn't wear tights. Pfeiff is the wardrobe manager and tutu extraordinaire.
When the Manawatu Standard visits, he is stressed. The ballet is shipping out from Wellington in three days' time to begin its latest tour of New Zealand with Allegro, a powerhouse of five short ballets. Palmerston North is among the places on the itinerary.
It's all hands to the pump in the wardrobe department. Five ballets means a lot of costumes and Pfeiff's eyes have rolled to the ceiling more than once in moments of not-enough-minutes-in-the-day despair. If Pfeiff were on stage then this, as the patriarch of lycra and sparkle, would be his perfect role. But the despair doesn't last long and a wry joke is as much in his repertoire as a mumbled "for goodness sake".
Pfeiff started out at the bottom of a heap of material in a South Australian clothing factory, pattern-making and eventually designing. He says he was the dogsbody.
"I learnt pretty quickly to get patterns right. In the beginning I would get told 'that's wrong' and off I would go till I figured it out. I was there for 12 years. It was the best way to learn."
Next stop for Pfeiff was the State Opera of South Australia. He says he absolutely loved doing the ballet jobs that came his way and his next step over the ditch felt natural.
Pfeiff feels at home here. He says working with the other young machinists keeps him young and the drama that comes with the job is just part of it.
The back rooms of the RNZB are his haunt, full of boxes labelled with ridiculously wonderful names: frogging, bubble braid, guipure lace and Guyot Brothers metal stampings. There is a corner dedicated to sequins and sparkle, another to wigs. It is a place where magic and fairytales are made with a needle and thread, sweat and tears, glue guns and a fine eye.
The dancers file in for fittings, lighting the space with their own natural form of sparkle. They are other-worldly creatures who are impossibly beautiful even when just being fitted for a costume. One costume is space-like; it's an orbit of silver and was the cause of Pfeiff's earlier creased-brow moment. Dancer Laura Jones looks in the mirror at herself in it, a professional assessing her costume, how it will work with movement and how it works for her.
Jones brings her sensual, strong style to two of the ballets in Allegro: Megalopolis and Satellites. Both are contemporary in style and Jones says they're really different and she has never had a chance to dance like that before.
"It's good to push the boundaries, it's foreign to the body but I am so into it."
Satellites is a world premiere by Dunedin-based choreographer Daniel Belton. It features electronic music which pulses, created especially for the piece. It is elemental and futuristic and with the inclusion of animation and kinetic sculpture, not to mention the disc-like glimmering costumes that bounce light. It is exciting.
Jones describes the dance as "crazy, awesome and dynamic". "It's very modern and sort of new age and we have had to find the pulse of it in our bodies."
There is definitely a buzz surrounding this cluster of ballets. Class is still intensive but the approach is more relaxed, with interpretation getting more of a look-in than with the preparation of a more traditional RNZB tour. There is even a male dancer in heels, who is unbelievably competent in his stiletto boots, busting out Beyonce-esque moves in Megalopolis.
Megalopolis combines innovative and cool choreography by Larry Keigwin with contagious club tracks from Steve Reich and MIA. It makes you want to dance. In fact, it makes you want to be a dancer in stiletto boots.
Jones says with this one you just sit back, have fun and "jam it up". "We break out of our shells with club moves. It's like a coming out, it's refreshing, inspiring and invigorating."
An overlapping of fashion, burlesque, club culture and Broadway, Megalopolis has a bit of humour and a lot of cheek and it comes with its own teacher. Ashley Browne is a fierce New Yorker who works the dancers hard, but there is an obvious connection and the dancers feed off her style. She runs them through Megalopolis a gruelling three times, saying that three times in rehearsal equals one full-energy performance. "It's the way I was trained."
In a New Zealand premiere, Keigwin also brings Mattress Suite to the stage, giving the Kiwi dancers the prestige of being the first company outside of Keigwin's own to perform his signature work. It's a tale of love affairs mapped out over six scenes and set alight by music by Stevie Wonder, Bill Withers, Guiseppe Verdi and Etta James.
Allegro is a tour packed with premieres and enjoying one of his own is rehearsal pianist Michael Pansters. Pansters is a hidden gem of the RNZB, an integral part of the ballet process - he's played the piano in class and rehearsals for the past 3 1/2 years. This time he is going on tour and taking to the stage with his piano in Les Lutins (The Goblins) along with violinist Benjamin Baker.
Pansters has done the hard yards, he has had to learn the secret language of ballet which consists not only of words but fast and flourishing gestures, musical intuition and a mastering of mind- reading. And this time he doesn't get left behind in the anti-climax of the dancers leaving on tour; he gets to go along.
"It is so exciting, so cool to be involved. It's a virtuosic piece, quite showy. I love that I am going on tour."
Technically, it is not Pansters' stage debut as he was on stage in Swan Lake. He was a courtier and had to stand on a corner of the stage and "not stand out and keep my gut sucked in".
The young pianist just loves the music of the ballet and is strictly classical in his taste. He was sent to music appreciation class when he was 6, having banged pot lids prior to that, and went on to gain an honours degree from Victoria University's New Zealand School of Music. A confirmed perfectionist, Pansters says he often finds the same musical phrase "crocheting in my brain".
Les Lutins is choreographed by Johan Kobborg and has two male dancers doing daredevil moves, vying for the attention of a single female dancer. With, of course, a grand piano, and a great pianist on stage.
People like Pansters and Pfeiff and all the others, the behind-the-scenes people, have their own form of en pointe. They have contributed hours of intricate piano playing and, in the case of Pfeiff, days and weeks and amounted years of dedication, without the applause.
The RNZB has shipped out again - costumes, washing machines (yes, they take their own), an on-tour wardrobe assistant (that's Hank Cubitt, sewing genius and a magician at keeping white costumes white) and this time even a grand piano. Pfeiff may be left behind but that's OK, he will enjoy a moment of quiet after the storm of sequins, a minute of peace and reflection with a cup of tea, before the human machine that is the RNZB starts up once again.
The Royal New Zealand Ballet will be bringing Allegro - Five Short Ballets to Palmerston North's Regent Theatre on August 12.