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Last Updated: Tuesday, 27 April, 2004, 08:21 GMT 09:21 UK
Kiwi ballet aims at London debut
By Steve Schifferes
BBC News Online

The Royal New Zealand ballet hopes to build on its growing international reputation with a new tour of the UK.

The company, which specialises in major 20th Century ballets and new works, will give the premiere of a new version of Romeo and Juliet on Tuesday.

Photo: Charlotte MacMillan
Artistic director Gary Harris performed with the English National Ballet
It will also be showing a range of new ballets in London, including FrENZy, with music by cult band Split Enz.

The company's artistic director, Gary Harris, has strong roots in the UK.

Mr Harris told BBC News Online he had been captivated with New Zealand when he went there initially to teach the company.

Mr Harris, a former dancer with the English National Ballet, and ballet master with the Royal Ballet,says that the enthusiasm of Kiwis for their own cultural institutions is infectious.

After taking residence in newly built premises at St James Theatre, Wellington, Mr Harris proceeded with commissioning a series of innovative modern ballets (for the company's 50th anniversary last year) to complement the modern classics of Stravinsky and Balanchine that it had become known for.

Avant-garde styling

Now he is hoping to show the rest of the world the fruits of his labour, with a tour of the United States already pencilled in for next year.

In a bold move, he is planning on showing one of the UK's favourite ballets, Romeo and Juliet, in a new version by choreographer Christopher Hampson.

His Romeo, he says, combines elements of Baz Luhrmann's avant-garde styling with the classic love duets and authentically vicious fight scenes reminiscent of the Matrix series of films.

Blood-red lighting adds to the atmospheric effect, allowing his young athletic ballet stars show both physicality and tenderness.

Kiwi Frenzy

There is a strong influence of the UK's Ballet Rambert in the recent repertoire of the NZ Ballet.

Photo: Bill Cooper
The company will be premiering its production of Romeo and Juliet
And the highlight of their Triple Bill, also showing at Sadler's Wells, is Rambert choreographer Mark Baldwin, a native New Zealander who was born in Fiji and danced with the NZ company before moving to the UK.

FrENZy features music by New Zealand's most celebrated rock band, Split Enz, and also uses moves from traditional Maori culture, where dance plays a strong role.

The work was originally performed as a full-length work with a 40-strong group of Maori kapa haka dancers, Te Matarae I Orehu, and their choreographer Wetini Mitai-Ngatai.

It uses elements of humour, with zoot suits, silver tutus and quiffs to contrast with the Maori moves.

Mr Harris believes that European audiences will appreciate the fresh feel and enthusiasm of his young company.

Unlike UK companies, there are no principal dancers, and the 32 members all play many different roles.

Photograph: Bill Cooper
Jane Turner will be dancing the part of Juliet
Mr Harris is also keen to deepen his links with New Zealand's rich cultural heritage - something which the rest of the world is beginning to recognise.

The co-choreographer of FrENZy, Wetini Mitai-Ngatai, went on to work on the film Whale Rider, whose Maori star Keisha Castle-Hughes was the youngest actress ever nominated for an Oscar.

The Royal New Zealand Ballet plays at Sadler's Wells in London until 1 May. It then tours the UK, playing at Glasgow's Theatre Royal (5-8 May); Edinburgh's Festival Theatre (11-15 May); High Wycombe (18-21 May) and Bath's Theatre Royal (25-29 May).

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