Pushing out the boundaries of ballet within the Royal New Zealand Ballet’s Dancing with Mozart, Corey Baker went to Antarctica to see just how far the art form can go. Carly Thomas watches a rehearsal.
Corey Baker is here, but he is also elsewhere. In his head is a wide-open world of white and blue, where his ideas can be as expansive as the sky.
Antarctica is a far-flung place to go for inspiration, but Baker is not your average choreographer. In fact, he flinches at the word.
“I see myself more as a director. There is a narrative attached to my work. It tells something and for me it’s about tones and moods. It’s all a big collaboration between set, movement, costume, lighting, direction.”
Christchurch-born Baker is the Kiwi element in the Royal New Zealand Ballet’s latest production Dancing with Mozart. It’s a mixed bill of four ballets, three choreographers and the music of the classic composer.
Within it, Baker is rubbing shoulders with major ballet works – Petit Mort and Tanze, from legendary Czech choreographer Jiří Kylián, and Divertimento No 15, created in 1956 by the great Russian-American choreographer George Balanchine.
They are two of ballet’s greats – avant garde in their time and both huge influences to Baker, who has forged his own path in dance.
At 27, he’s had a big career already, predominantly overseas, and to do that he started early, leaving high school at 14 to enter the hard slog and discipline of the dance world.
Baker is what Kylián and Balanchine were in their day – a boundary pusher of dance. He is making space for the new and for this commissioned work he has gone where ballet has never been before.
Antarctica blew Baker’s mind. He flew there with fellow Royal New Zealand Ballet dancer Madeleine Graham on a US Airforce Boeing C17, an incredibly exciting time for the ordinarily excitable Baker. He had wanted to go there since he was a child and he will tell you that with wide eyes and far-flung arms.
“I had my fifth birthday at the Antarctic Centre in Christchurch. I have always been a bit of an Antarctic geek. For me it was like a real-life fairytale.”
Baker says he cares deeply for the environment and is increasingly nervous about climate change, so the motivation to do something became intertwined with his fascination for taking dance to unexpected spaces.
His intrepid project to the frozen continent was the ultimate and he and Graham spent 10 days of extreme dancing to make a film that is the first of its kind.
Graham says it was a life-changing experience.
“We flew onto the ice and walked straight onto it. It was pretty incredible – the best thing I have ever done. We stayed at Scott Base and each day we would go out to different locations.
“I was abseiling and going down skifields and climbing mountains. It was such a different situation for me and it gave reason to do what we do.”
Baker says it was an incredibly amplified situation, with environmental conditions, a looming deadline and the enormity of their location pressing in on them.
They worked 12-hour days and behind every three seconds of footage there is a back story of about six hours of set-up time. Baker says he thrives in tough conditions.
“I love the challenge,” he says as he jiggles, bites his fingernails and rocks back on his seat. ”I get bored otherwise.”
“When I can see movement getting uniform and fabricated, I don’t like it. I like it when movement is raw and like a human going through life as though dance is like walking.”
Now, they are back. And what they experienced is a rare thing they both now hold somehow needs to be put on to the stage. Baker has the Roal New Zealand Ballet dancers as his conduits and he works intuitively and with an energy that fills and brims and pours over into movement that is new and experimental.
There is a bit of Kylián and Balanchine spark in what Baker does. Stefan Zeromski is staging the Kylián pieces for the Royal New Zealand Ballet and he says that ballet needs new. It needs people who look up and see that there are no limitations.
“I compare Kylián to Michaelangelo. He had a piece of marble and he stripped out what was unnecessary and what remained was that which was locked in the piece of stone.
“I think the same of Kylián. He doesn’t impose anything on the music. He extracts from it with his choreography. All the steps are there. It’s like breaking a code. You just have to listen and it is there.”
Francia Russell is staging the Balanchine piece. Her knowledge of the works is vast and her muscle memory of his choreography has been consolidated over a 60-year period of performing and staging his precise and particular style.
“Balanchine makes you see the music and hear the choreography. They are a complete unit and in Divertimento, it is crystal clear.”
Divertimento No 15 is a feast of tutus and patterning, angles, near impossible skill and strength. It is ballet at its most beautiful, which makes it tough, like Graham’s Antarctic mountains, Balanchine ballets are a climb.
“Balanchine ballets aren’t just physically challenging,” says Russell, “but they are intellectually challenging, which smart dancers really value. When they get in your body it feels great to dance them.”
It’s what brings this mix of choreographers, with their very different style and interpretations of Mozart’s intricate music together – the joy of movement, the art of expression and the great lengths at which those that dedicate their lives to it will go. For Corey Baker that meant the edge of the world.
Dancing with Mozart will be performed in Palmerston North on June 23.
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