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Making moves: Patricia Barker’s history-making turn at the helm of the Royal New Zealand Ballet

Credit: Ross Brown

Making moves: Patricia Barker’s history-making turn at the helm of the Royal New Zealand Ballet

At the helm of the Royal New Zealand Ballet, artistic director Patricia Barker is putting female choreographers in the spotlight.

Making moves: Patricia Barker’s history-making turn at the helm of the Royal New Zealand Ballet

To say that the arts and culture scene in little old New Zealand ‘punches above its weight’ might be a tired cliché, but it’s still gratifying when renowned creatives from abroad see Aotearoa as a place of opportunity. Especially when they’re as accomplished as Patricia Barker. Originally from Washington, USA, Barker joined Seattle’s Pacific Northwest Ballet at age 17 and spent much of her 27-year performance career as the company’s principal dancer. She has performed extensively throughout the world in works by celebrated choreographers, graced the covers of dance magazines, had her performances immortalised in ballet films, staged ballets for several professional companies, and was artistic director at Grand Rapids Ballet and director at Grand Rapids Ballet School in Michigan. Despite her impressive CV, Barker, however, wasn’t ready to hang up her ballet shoes. So when the artistic director position at the Royal New Zealand Ballet came up, she leapt at it. “There are moments in life where you say, ‘I’m going to reach for the stars and I’m going to see if I can touch one,’” she says. “Being chosen to lead this company has given me the opportunity to touch that star I’ve been reaching for.”

Joining the Royal New Zealand Ballet in 2017 at a time of upheaval, uncertainty and unstable leadership, Barker had her work cut out. But, she says, that’s par for the course at a long-running company. “The Royal New Zealand Ballet has a huge history, more than 65 years. Not every single person is the right fit at the right time, even if they’re talented individuals.” With the organisation seeking somebody to bring stability and knowledge to the table and lead the company into the next decade, Barker had all the right credentials for the role — experience leading a large arts organisation, connections throughout the global dance community, and ideas around how to steady the company. “I think we’re experiencing a new time for the Royal New Zealand Ballet,” she says. “A settled time where artists are celebrated, where the spirit of New Zealand is in what we do and how we do it. I think the Royal New Zealand Ballet has a bright, magnificent future.”

Patricia Barker in The Firebird

In her time as artistic director, Barker has already made history. For 2020, she pulled together an entire year’s repertoire choreographed only by women, making the Royal New Zealand Ballet the first classical ballet company in the world to do so. But Barker didn’t devote a full schedule to female choreographers in order to make the news. In fact, when she presented the schedule to the RNZB board, she didn’t emphasise this detail at all. Any buzz around the all-female line-up since announcing it, she says, has been generated by the media and others outside the organisation who’ve picked up on how significant a decision it was. “Which I’m very proud of,” she says. “But I’m more proud of the women behind the work, and that their talents will be celebrated.”

While Barker appreciates that the 2020 season is groundbreaking, she believes it shouldn’t be. “Why is that special? It should be the norm. We shouldn’t be focusing on tall, short, blue eyes, brown eyes, woman, man. We should be focused on the contribution that a talented choreographer or dancer has to bring to our audiences and our community, to our organisation and the future of the art form,” she says. “The women’s year was a way to say, ‘You know what? It’s just as easy to do it this way. It can be done.’” Barker also notes the tokenism of ballet companies that will promote and celebrate a work choreographed by a woman, only to return to the status quo for the rest of the season and beyond. “And as much as I love that there’s an energy for building up female choreographers, we’re forgetting that there already are wonderful female choreographers out in the world today, creating incredible, poignant work. In fact there have been for decades.”

Credit: Jeremy Brick

The 2020 season has, of course, had to be redesigned somewhat due to the social-distancing restrictions that were put in place earlier in the year to stop the spread of COVID-19. However, a silver lining of lockdown was discovering that the company could collaborate with the best of the dance world from a distance. “If anything, the whole experience opened our eyes to the different ways we can work with creatives globally. The rest of the world just doesn’t seem so far away anymore — as long as you’re willing to wake up at 4am!” Barker is proud of the way her dancers adapted while theatres and rehearsal spaces were out of action. “We had to do what everyone else in the entire nation had to do; we had to pull up our bootstraps, focus our energy on the future, and keep remembering that we are creative people that can come up with creative solutions. So that’s exactly what my dancers did,” she says. “They went into their creativity, they weren’t going to let what was going on bring them down.”

Barker’s gratitude and admiration for the people she collaborates with at the RNZB is palpable. “I couldn’t be more proud of each and every one of our artists. It’s humbling enough to lead a national company, but to lead a company that’s so celebrated by the people here in New Zealand is an enormous career highlight,” she says. “And I’m just the tip of the iceberg. There’s a foundation here that supports and pushes me forward and believes in me, and that is an incredible source of drive.” Barker says she likes to take a forward-facing approach at every organisation she is involved with, and she has three simple objectives for the Royal New Zealand Ballet. “My immediate goal is to get these works on stage, to have that curtain open and see an audience filled with patrons ready to embrace and celebrate the talents and the art that everyone in our organisation works so hard to create,” she says. “My long-term goals are to continue to have the RNZB be a premier arts organisation in this country, and to collaborate with other arts organisations here and overseas, bringing the best of dance to our audiences that we can.”

 

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