Fairy dust

MARK BROATCH
Last updated 05:00 20/02/2011
looker
Photos: Kevin Stent
Perfect doll: Tonia Looker plays Columbina in Pinocchio.
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Antonia Hewitt rehearsing Verdi Variations.

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Tutus on Tour is again heading for the heartland. Mark Broatch goes behind the scenes.

POOR NATALIE Portman, trying to fake it as a ballet dancer. Not only does your form have to be flawless, but you have to be the right size and shape to start with. Hence the criticism from professional dancers about her in the film Black Swan: she had a good neck, face and focus – the bits that couldn't be done by a seasoned double – but her upper body movements needed work. And her arms were too short.

It's not surprising, then, that the people around the Royal New Zealand Ballet dancers, rehearsing in Wellington for this year's Tutus on Tour, performing Pinocchio and the Verdi Variations, were particularly keen for our photographer to capture them in perfect form. They're about to hit the road for six weeks, in the theatres and school halls of 40 towns and cities around the country. It's a dedication that keeps audiences coming back year after year.

Portman's film did come closer to portraying how painful dancing is, the striving for perfection, the stress and paranoia. Said Portman: "We always think of ballet dancers as the most beautiful people alive – so slender, elegant and graceful. The feet are a clue to how difficult it is to do what they make look so effortless." Antonia Hewitt, a senior dancer with RNZB who plays the Blue Fairy in Pinocchio, would agree. Hewitt, who's 23 and has been dancing since being taken to class in Canberra aged four, went along partly in an attempt to straighten out her pigeon-toed walk. The ballet did help, to a point. "I still have terribly crooked legs. I'm not tripping over any more, which is good."

Hewitt says dancing allows her to become a completely different person. "I'm actually quite shy in the normal world, and I think that's why I love the stage so much, because I can step out of my shy skin and be myself for once."

But even after five years as a professional she still gets nervous. "But once you are out there the nerves go because you are completely focused on what you are doing."

The dancers typically go through six weeks of preparation. Pinocchio's choreographer, Toby Behan, steadily brings new characters into rehearsals, introducing their personalities and stories and demonstrating their movements. (Greg Horsman choreographs Verdi Variations.)

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Hewitt enjoys the physical challenge of modern works, but she loves the classics – Swan Lake, Giselle, La Sylphide – as that's how ballet started and the music is "amazing". Pinocchio is more classical than, say Carmen, but very theatrical, she says. "We're going to be needed to do a lot of acting in it."

Matz Skoog, who's filling in as artistic director until the well-known American Ethan Stiefel arrives in September, says audiences will be enjoying a brand-new show in Pinocchio. The RNZB is working with an existing score but the choreography, sets and costumes have been made from scratch – a "new creation in every respect".

Skoog, a Swede who first came here in 1996, says taking the two ballets – the brand-new tale of the wooden puppet who wants to be a real boy and Verdi Variations, which pays homage to classical Russian ballet – on tour is hard work but hugely rewarding. "It's quite a challenge to do it on a small scale, but it's also a really positive thing to do because we get in touch with many of the smaller communities which otherwise the company doesn't tour to too frequently."

On a main tour, the company has eight or nine fulltime staff for wardrobe and production, plus the house crew for each theatre. For Tutus on Tour, which happens every two years, the company basically splits in half, one going north and the other south. Production manager Andrew Lees says the tour is a lot easier than it used to be. This year for the first time there is a purpose-built staging system that the fly lines, masking and lighting can all hang off.

It effectively means RNZB can create a stage anywhere. "If we could get a sprung floor into a paddock, we could stick it in a paddock – as long as they have three-phase power."

In the early days, things were much different. Kerikeri has a lovely theatre now, Lees says, but they used to use a fruit-packing shed. Levin had a milk factory converted into community theatre with a corrugated cardboard proscenium. "We found out that because we leant a road case against part of it and the lid went through it."

In places like Putaruru, you'd see farmers dragged in by wives, he says. Years later, they are still coming. "They watch rugby, now they watch ballet as well."

This year RNZB has been invited to perform at the Barbican for the London City Festival, and to keep their world standing it's important to tour, he says. Last time they performed in the UK they were nominated twice for an Olivier award.

The problem is usually cash: "Getting 50 people to London is no mean feat."

Skoog says the ballet is "quite well supported" by the government and the Ministry of Culture, but fundraising remains an issue, along with continuing to convince audiences to come and educating them on the art form's finer points.

Even though it's an expensive exercise that doesn't return a profit, Tutus on Tour is a way to reach more people in their own communities, he says, and it's also a way to pay back the support audiences have given the ballet over the years. Audiences are still energetic, still supportive, he says.

"It is a way for the RNZB to acknowledge its place in NZ's cultural landscape, and to ensure that we are part of the heartland of the nation."

WIN TICKETS: Culture has double tickets in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin to give away. Email culture@star-times.co.nz with Ballet and preferred city in the subject line and your address in the email by 12 noon on Tuesday, February 22. One email per household.

- Sunday Star Times

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