Too good to resist

Photo: Ross Brown
Photo: Ross Brown
Abigail Boyle and Paul Mathews.
Abigail Boyle and Paul Mathews.Photos: Stephen A'Court
Abigail Boyle and Alexandre Ferreira.
Abigail Boyle and Alexandre Ferreira.
Boyle with Paul Mathews and Couper.
Boyle with Paul Mathews and Couper.
Sara Garbowski, who will dance the part of Ada McGrath in Dunedin, with Hazel Couper, who will play her daughter Flora.
Sara Garbowski, who will dance the part of Ada McGrath in Dunedin, with Hazel Couper, who will play her daughter Flora.
Jiri Bubenicek with (from left) Bianca Lungu, Gemma Lew, Hazel Couper and Alyssa Kelty during rehersal.
Jiri Bubenicek with (from left) Bianca Lungu, Gemma Lew, Hazel Couper and Alyssa Kelty during rehersal.

Jiri and Otto Bubenicek have let their baby fly and are now feeling slightly sad and  nostalgic as their production of The Piano: the ballet hits the stage. They tell Rebecca Fox about their New Zealand experience.

Jiri and Otto Bubenicek did not have to run away with the circus - they grew up in it.

The Czechoslovakian award-winning dancer and choreographer and his twin brother, a designer, composer and dancer, were born into the circus.

''Our parents were acrobats,'' Otto says.

Royal New Zealand Ballet dancer Abigail Boyle and Hazel Couper in The Piano: the ballet. Photo:...
Royal New Zealand Ballet dancer Abigail Boyle and Hazel Couper in The Piano: the ballet. Photo: Stephen A'Court

Dancing was not on their radar at all, let alone ballet, but a dance teacher saw them practising at a gym with their father and approached them to give it a try.

The pair were not interested but their mother told them it would be good for their circus work ''that we would learn to control our bodies''.

''We were crazy, energetic.''

After only one week at the dance conservatory in Prague, the pair were sold on ballet.

''We were crazy for it.''

The pair joined the Hamburg Ballet where they became principal dancers in 1997 before Jiri left to become principal dancer with the Semperopre Ballet in Dresden, Germany, about 13 years later.

While they have worked on separate projects over the years, they do a lot of work together.

Otto Bubenicek.
Otto Bubenicek.

''It's sometimes not easy. We are both stubborn,'' Jiri says.

However, they agree that their shared vision for a project always wins out.

''In the end, we are honest about what the piece needs.''

The pair always search for stories that have not been told, ''something unique''.

''It's very complicated art. Everyone sees the universe differently.''

So it's not surprising that Jane Campion's The Piano resonated so strongly with Jiri when he first saw it.

He remembers the shocking tale and the thought that he could make it into a ballet.

Years later, when he was offered a commission for a one-act show from Ballet Dortmund, The Piano: the ballet came to life, premiering in 2014.

For that ballet, the brothers came to New Zealand, travelling around in a camper van, while Otto filmed and sound-recorded the New Zealand countryside to project on to large movable screens that formed the set for the ballet.

The scenes of the crashing surf, vibrant forest and waterfalls show Otto's love for New Zealand as well as echoing the increasingly dark tale.

He also selected the music, mixing Michael Nyman's music from the film with Maori compositions and the classical music of Alfred Schnittke and Johannes Brahms.

Jiri Bubenicek
Jiri Bubenicek

An invitation from New Zealand Ballet to stage a full work based on Jiri's earlier piece and the film was too good to resist.

But it came with challenges: how to tell the story onstage within the conventions of classical ballet and with a company of diverse nationalities and backgrounds.

The film featured many Maori actors, but the RNZB had to grapple with non-Maori performers inhabiting a Maori character on stage.

RNZB hired award-winning contemporary dance choreographer Moss Patterson as a Maori adviser to help incorporate Tikanga Maori practice and protocols.

That meant revisiting the Maori and related components of Jiri's original ballet and required a compete re-write of several sections and a redesign of some props, such as the waka.

''It was a lot of work. Very inspiring.''

It was also challenging for the dancers as it involved a lot of acting to get across the emotion of the role, Jiri says.

''You have to be honest in acting these roles. You have to feel it. I tell them don't act, be the role.''

Now that the production has had its New Zealand premiere in Wellington and is about to go on tour, it is time for the pair to step back.

''We're looking to go home. There will be three to four days of emptiness, a nostalgia and sadness,'' Otto says.

For Jiri, the experience is similar to that of a parent saying goodbye to a child.

''You are so involved in it. There are the ups and downs, you're tired and excited.

''You, as parents, get to the point you have to let it go. I hope they take it and make their last show the best. Every show should get better and better. The premiere is just the beginning.''

The pair are now heading back to Europe with a full schedule of new projects, including an open-air piece in the centre of Prague to celebrate the Czech Republic's 100th anniversary.

To see

Royal New Zealand Ballet’s The Piano: the ballet, Regent Theatre, March 16.

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