Venus Rising RNZB 2022

James Hay Theatre, Christchurch

01/12/2022 - 03/12/2022

St James Theatre, Courtenay Place, Wellington

24/11/2022 - 26/11/2022

Production Details

Royal New Zealand Ballet

The Royal New Zealand Ballet’s (RNZB) spectacular programme of three ballets, Venus Rising, will finally make its way to Wellington, Christchurch and Auckland after two years and four postponements.

Three extraordinary works choreographed by three formidable women who have blazed a trail on the international stage make up the powerful programme opening 24 November in Te Whanganui-a-Tara Wellington, 1 December in Ōtautahi Christchurch, and Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland on 8 December. It captures the spirit of Venus – the brightest of stars, and herald of the dusk and dawn. A sacred goddess of love, beauty and victory over adversity.

Meditative and moving, Alice Topp’s award-winning Aurum is inspired by the Japanese art of kintsugi, the practice of mending cracks in precious ceramics with gold, creating a new whole which celebrates the beauty of the broken. Bendigo-born and Resident Choreographer at the Australian Ballet, Topp started her career dancing with the RNZB, which holds a special place in her heart along with Aotearoa’s theatres and dance lovers.

The Autumn Ball, created by one of New Zealand’s brightest choreographic stars Sarah Foster-Sproull and commissioned in 2021 by the Wānaka Festival of Colour, dances through the circle of life with tenderness, grace and floor-filling fun. The driving rhythms of Eden Mulholland’s commissioned score will have the audience wishing that they could join in the dance.

Twyla Tharp is one of the world’s greatest living choreographers. In Waterbaby Bagatelles, created in 1994 and never seen in Aotearoa, 27 dancers leap and spin across the stage in an ever-changing ocean of light; the music flowing seamlessly as groups of dancers sparkle and glow.

RNZB Artistic Director Patricia Barker says, “This is a generous, glorious celebration of ballet and the joy of pure dance created by some of the finest choreographers working on the international stage today. We look forward to celebrating Christmas with captivating, charismatic, and uplifting ballet.”

As advised on the RNZB website:
Due to cases of COVID-19 in the company, all Auckland performances of VENUS RISING on December 8 – 10 have been cancelled.

Royal New Zealand Ballet

Waterbaby Bagatelles

Choreography: Twyla Tharp
Staging: Shelley Washington
Music: Anton Webern, Astor Piazzolla, John Adams, Kevin Volans, Mickey Hart, David Lang, John Lurie
Design: Santo Loquasto
Original Lighting Design Jennifer Tipton
Lighting Realisation and Design: Randall G Chiarelli


Choreography: Alice Topp
Music: Ludovico Einaudi
Design: Alice Topp
Set and Lighting Design: Jon Buswell
Lighting Realisation and Design: Randall G Chiarelli

The Autumn Ball

Choreography: Sarah Foster-Sproull
Music: Eden Mulholland
Costume design: Donna Jefferis/Sarah Foster-Sproull
Lighting design: Daniel Wilson

The Royal New Zealand Ballet

The Royal New Zealand Ballet (RNZB) was founded in 1953 by Danish dancer Poul Gnatt, as a touring professional ballet company for all New Zealanders. Based in Wellington, the Royal New Zealand Ballet is an intrinsic part of New Zealand’s national heritage, and has one of the largest followings of all New Zealand performing arts companies. The Royal New Zealand Ballet continues to invest in live music, performing wherever possible with the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra, New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, Orchestra Wellington and the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra. The RNZB enjoys a reputation for strong and unique interpretations of full-length dramatic works. The company has an enviable track record in commissioning new works from New Zealand and international choreographers.

Contemporary dance , Dance ,


The Whole Cast Shines

Review by Dr Ian Lochhead 02nd Dec 2022

The Royal New Zealand Ballet’s Venus Rising programme, scheduled as part of the company’s 2020 season, has finally achieved a series of performances more than two years after its initial run was cancelled following its dress rehearsal as a result of Covid 19 restrictions.  After repeated attempts to perform the programme this end-of-year tour gives audiences a chance to see works that have remained tantalisingly out of sight for too long.  The title, Venus Rising, alludes to the fact that this is a programme of works by women choreographers, originally intended to form part of an entire season made up of works choreographed by women.

The programme opens with Alice Topp’s Aurum, first staged by the Australian Ballet in 2018.  Topp already had links with the RNZB, having been a member of the company for two years before joining the Australian Ballet in 2007.  The underlying theme of her work is the Japanese concept of kintsugi, the practice of artfully mending broken ceramics in ways that celebrate the history of the piece, the title Aurum referring to the use of gold as a binding medium.  Topp sees this as a metaphor for the human condition, where the vicissitudes of life often leave traces on fragile humans. The work celebrates the ways in which individuals overcome these challenges and draw strength from the fractures that have occurred.  Aurum is set on six pairs of dancers, led by Sara Garbowski and Damani Williams.  Connecting and breaking apart, entwined and supporting one another, the dancers pull in opposing directions then seek the solace of coming together again.  In the first two sections of the work the fracture lines of kintsugi are projected onto the floor of the stage, but this was virtually invisible from my seat in the stalls.  Only in the third part, when the golden joints of repaired fractures appear on the backcloth does this connection become visible.  At this point Jon Boswell’s lighting and set design comes into its own, a golden glow suffusing the stage with light reflecting from the fracture lines.  Dramatic use of the dancers’ shadows enhances the effect of having transcended previous states of being. Topp’s costume design, white trousers and bare tops for the men, loose fitting white tops and short socks for the women, is reminiscent of a fencing contest although the sparring in this work is emotional rather than literal.  Topp makes considerable demands on her dancers but Thursday night’s cast met her challenges with assurance.  In the final moments Williams lifts Garbowski above his head and slowly rotates, as if revealing a precious object once again made whole.

Although not part of the original Venus Rising programme, Sarah Foster-Sproull’s The Autumn Ball sits comfortably in this new context.Commissioned for the Wanaka Festival of Colour and performed there in 2021 the work is full of the bustling energy associated with Foster-Sproull’s choreography.  Set to a score by regular collaborator Eden Mulholland, this is an up-beat ensemble piece for ten dancers.  Like Topp, Foster-Sproull underpins her work with a programme. In her case she aims to trace the journey of life from the innocent energy of youth to the serenity of the autumn years although how much difference knowledge of this underlying concept makes to viewers’ enjoyment of the work is questionable.  The bright, autumnal colours of the costume design, by Donna Jefferis in conjunction with the choreographer, reflects the theme of the festival for which it was conceived but is also in keeping with the vividness of the choreography and the propulsive quality of Mulholland’s score.  Apart from a central section when the intensity of the movement momentarily subsides into a more reflective mood, The Autumn Ball has a celebratory quality that is given a distinctive edge through quirky gestures and angular hands.  Throughout the dancers exuded a palpable sense of pleasure as if they had finally been released to do what they most enjoy doing.

The third item on the programme, Twyla Tharp’s Waterbaby Bagatelles, dates from 1994, and continues this celebratory atmosphere.  Once regarded as the enfant terrible of American dance, Tharp is now recognised as one of the world’s leading choreographers whose works are in international demanded. Set to a diverse group of short pieces by composers ranging from Anton Webern to Piazzolla and John Adams, and drawing on an eclectic mix of popular and high culture, Waterbaby Bagatelles both sends up and celebrates the art of ballet.  The light-hearted nature of the work is emphasised by the word bagatelle coupled with the somewhat improbable water-babies, A bagatelle is a short piece of music but it also translates as ‘trifle’, a suitably seasonal dish.

Tharp’s water-babies seem to have strayed from an aquatic sequence from a Busby Berkeley musical and the theme of swimming runs through the whole.  Tharp’s trademark witty and innovative moves often transgress balletic conventions, among them wobbly heads and swinging hips.  A seeming paradox of this evening of works by women choreographers is the abundance of opportunities for the men of the company.  Nowhere is this more in evidence than in ‘The Hunt’ sequence in which the men strut their stuff in front of a group of goggle-eyed water-babies.  In the central role Laurynas Véjalis is given ample opportunities to show off virtuosic moves but the whole cast, expertly coached by Shelley Washington, shines.  In spite of the seemingly casual nature of her choreography Tharp demands absolute precision and the RNZB dancers certainly delivered. John Adams’s ‘On the Dominant Divide’ from his Grand Pianola Music is itself a send-up of the Romantic piano concerto and Tharp uses this to accompany her grand finale.  References to the most famous aqueous ballet of all, as the water-babies briefly become swans, reinforce the impression that this is the grand ballet finale to end all grand finales. Waterbaby Bagatelles concludes with a bang with frozen bodies and a blackout.  This was undoubtedly the evening’s standout piece and more opportunities to see works from Tharp’s diverse output in the future would be welcome.  It was a fitting conclusion to bring one of the most challenging periods in the company’s history to an end.

Venus Rising, performed by the Royal New Zealand Ballet.  Choreography by Alice Topp, Sarah Foster-Sproull and Twyla Tharp. James Hay Theatre, Christchurch, 1 December 2022 at 7.30 pm.  Performances on 2 and 3 December in Christchurch cancelled due to Covid illnesses in the company.



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Venus Rising on stage after four Covid postponements for RNZB triple bill

Review by Brigitte Knight 28th Nov 2022

After an unenviable four postponements due to Covid-19 Royal New Zealand Ballet’s Venus Rising – Three Celestial Ballets finally has its opening night thanks to the company’s determination to bring this triple bill to the stage.

Australian choreographer Alice Topp’s Aurum (gold in Latin) opens the show, with its four movements set to a beautiful selection of music by Ludovico Einaudi. Kintsugi (Japanese golden joinery) inspires the choreography and Jon Buswell’s refined, symbiotic set and lighting design. [More]


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A Winning Programme of Three Female Geniuses

Review by Mona Williams 27th Nov 2022

Three female choreographers invite the audience to envision Life through an array of gendered, artistic lenses.

Australian, Alice Topp’s outstanding ballet, Aurum, which means gold in Latin, is a work that appears to have been refined by the intense fire of searing Life experiences; a fire that smelts the dross away from the ore, leaving behind twenty-four-carat golden insights. These insights produce a powerful work, minimalist in style, eschewing embellishments and artifice. Male dancers, bare to the waist, in white long pants and white dancers’ socks, complement ballerinas in minimal white leotards, white, elbow length transparent, torso-length chemise and socks, foregoing tights and toe-shoes.

Reflecting youth’s confident promise of a golden future, dancers swiftly lift, turn, extend, propel and intertwine with intense physicality; presenting structural shapes with bold, light, spare, angular arms and symmetrical arrangements. Jon Buswell’s bright lighting and Ludovico Einaudi’s seductive musical composition, Underwood, persuade us to hope that their lives might have few imperfections or heartbreak. Visually fresh and psychologically honest the dancers with assured restraint develop the reality of subsequent maturation.

In one pas de deux, the thrill has not gone but competing visions interrupt it. The couple, on-again, off-again, experience estrangement although attracted to each other. Courageously without sentimentality, they say goodbye. Against a backdrop of broken surfaces, six dancers reflect life’s cruel moments of heartbreak. Violin music soars with furious energy, expressing a discordant, violent situation devoid of gentleness. A haze blows over the dancers as if clouding their vision of the requirements for successful relationships. This emotional impairment the dancers portray with exactitude. Such embodiment of turmoil, pain and fracturing approach self-torture. Then….

Against a backdrop mimicking the bare, dark, Australian landscape a seam of molten gold flows in bold relief, mending the broken surface of precious relationships. While some choreographic features of the first movement are repeated here, there is in this third movement a yielding to each other, a softer response in the lifts and arabesques, a reconciliation in the partnering, a mood seeking unison, an emotional repairing of the rift. The end, in spite of Life’s scars, is joyful, authentic and possessed of a spare, clear-eyed beauty. The dancers are excellent and Mayu Tanigaito, superb. Alice Topp’s choreography and costume design are first rate.

The second work, The Autumn Ball is choreographed by Sarah Foster –
Sproull with music by Eden Mulholland. It takes enormous self-confidence or courage or injudicious daring to propose mounting a choreographic work in two weeks, from conception of the work, through to auditions, rehearsals, to amplifying an existing musical score, to designing costumes and lighting, to ending with the stage performance. Creating this ballet during two weeks when the 2021 Covid pandemic was affecting travel and work, Sarah’s adaptation was to use a spread-sheet, sectioning off parts of the dance, fitting 400,000 dance moves into a speedily executed 30 minute programme. The concept? To explore life’s major events; pre-birth, through its multiple dramatic stages, culminating in the Autumn of one’s years which is a time of contemplation, enjoyment and reflection. Ambitious.

A barrage of colours greets the eye throughout the dance; in layers of greens, reds, blues, oranges, purples, creams, in floral tops, in the women’s costumes, the lighting, the changing backdrops, moments in silhouette and the final shower of autumn leaves. The partnering, point work, lifts, walks, turns and ensemble dancing are excellent, yet I feel that the narrative strand is not consistently and clearly delineated. The superabundance of choreographic details obscures some thematic moments of personality and emotional development. Mulholland’s music with its verve and Kiwi familiarity plants the work clearly in Aotearoa. The Autumn Ball gives much to think about, like fire-bursts in the brain although my emotions remain disengaged. Sarah’s creativity is strikingly apparent long before her 400,000 moves are executed speedily in half an hour.

Waterbaby Bagatelles, the third work, is choreographed by Twyla Tharp. A bagatelle is a short composition. Seven bagatelles of different instrumentations are included in this work. Expect wit, zany moments, widely varying dance styles that flow over, through and alongside the music’s phrasing; as well as silence, and sound effects including vocal contributions and percussion. Anticipate choreographic adventures with titles like White Man Sleeps, The Anvil Chorus and The Hunt. Add the hallmark, quirky ensemble set pieces, and you have the template for a Twyla Tharp work.

The backdrop, shimming like a glaring sunlight pattern dancing on the floor of a blue-green swimming pool, sets the scene for bare chested men in black-wraps over swimming togs and women en pointe in modest 50’s bathing costumes, topped with swimming caps, to delight the eye in humorous styles of swimming and flirting. Responding to a variety of musical genres gave the work a vitality that offset the feeling of déjà vu which arises from noting its dated origin. There were males sprinting forward, running backwards underwater, women parodying synchronized swimming and swimmers enjoying a pas de deux danced to tame tango music. With darting jetés and swirling turns, contrasting with luxuriating movements to plucked strings of a base in Bella By Barlight, the swimmers in other dances switched from swift moves like frightened fish, to female floor formations suggesting relaxed beach goers and confident synchronized swimming beauties. All were pure Tharp

Her mixture of technical precision, with quirky moments of trembling, and swirling like water nymphs, her interpreting the resonant tones of glass bottles struck as instruments, the human voice and strings reinforcing the theme of play in Nature’s element, all resonated with the audience, perhaps because we live surrounded by water. The finale, On the Dominant Divide, its leaps like fish jumping out of the water, its corps smoothly navigating the space, against a deep-sea blue background as if water were their home environment, that choreography had a freshness and beauty. The Royal NZ Ballet captured the marine magic of Tharp’s work absolutely. They were absorbing to watch. A winning programme of three female geniuses.

The Royal New Zealand Ballet, St. James Theatre, Wellington, NZ. 24 November 2022.

VENUS RISING. Opening Night.



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