17 Apr 2024

Embrace the music and dance

From Three to Seven, 4:00 pm on 17 April 2024
Tobias Perkins for the Royal New Zealand Ballet, February 2024. Photo credit: Stephen A’Court.

Executive Director of the Royal New Zealand Ballet, Tobias Perkins Photo: Stephen A'Court

With the Royal New Zealand Ballet about to embark on a month-long tour of the ballet with the music that changed the world of dance forever, it seemed like the right time to invite the company's Executive Director in to discuss his musical side.

The ballet will spend the month of May touring Swan Lake to six venues around Aotearoa, and in three of them there will be a live orchestra in the pit playing Tchaikovsky's ground breaking score.

Speaking with RNZ Concert's Bryan Crump, Executive Director Tobias Perkins agreed the score to Swan Lake revolutionised the role of music in classical ballet.

Here was music which not only accompanied the dancing, but drove the narrative, says Perkins.

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After Tchaikovsky, ballet was never the same. Photo: Public Domain

It also helps, Perkins adds, that even in the less dramatic moments of this good-versus-evil story, Tchaikovsky provides the performers with an endless selection of great tunes to dance to.

Radio New Zealand Ballet - Swan Lake 2013 Gillian Murphy as Odette. Photo: Ross Brown. Photo:

English-raised Perkins came to ballet himself through music. He completed an academic music degree before getting work in music administration in London, working for the Royal Opera House and the Barbican Centre, home of the London Symphony Orchestra.

That in turn led to a job with the Royal Northern Ballet, based in Leeds, as Director of Planning.

Perkins sat down with Crump to share four of his favourite pieces of classical music.

The first was the big tenor aria, "Vesti la giubba", from Leoncavallo's I Pagliacci.

Turns out Perkins had a role in a Royal Opera House production (singing as a treble) with none other than Placido Domingo, although for our interview he chooses a Pavarotti recording.

"On stage with Placido Domingo?" exclaims Crump. "Your musical career got off to a rip-roaring start!"

"It pays to peak early," Perkins replies.

The next choice was a piece Perkins and his wife had played at their wedding: the Andante from Felix Mendelssohn's "String Quartet Opus 44/2".

Perkins plays the cello - at an amateur level - and has boxes full of chamber music scores in storage at his home in Wellington.

One day, he dreams of getting around to playing them.

The third choice is part of the reworking of Vivaldi's "Four Seasons" by the 21st century composer, Max Richter. Perkins asks for a little bit of Spring.

He was in the hall at London's Barbican Centre when the Richter's version had its premier.

Crump notes how balletic the music sounds, and Perkins confirms it's been choreographed several times. The Royal NZ Ballet will be dancing to another piece by Richter later this season, when it presents the Aotearoa premiere of a new production from the UK: "Infra".

And Perkins' final choice? Well, it had to be something from Swan Lake itself. We went for the opening of the suite Tchaikovsky took from score, but you can listen to the whole suite below.

"The thing I love about the ballet (Swan Lake) is that it's such a synthesis of the arts. We have so many talented people on the stage, off the stage creating the costumes, in the pit...and live music is absolutely central to that".

If you're lucky enough to be in Wellington, Auckland or Christchurch you'll be able to hear a live orchestra conducted by Hamish McKeich, first with NZSO, and then with the Auckland Philharmonia and Christchurch Symphony Orchestra.

Conductor Hamish McKeich, Sinfonietta Concert, NZSO's Shed Series

Hamish McKeich, in charge of the orchestra below deck. Photo: Hadyn Green

The Swan Lake tour will also travel to Napier, Dunedin and Invercargill, where a recorded sound track will be used. It's the balance, Perkins says, of wanting to have the best production versus the cost of taking an orchestra to the smaller centres.

As for Perkins, once the tour is on the road, does an Executive Director get time to relax a bit?

Not at all. If something goes wrong logistically, he's the one who'll have to fix it.

Let's hope the Cook Strait ferries are running to time this May.