18 Apr 2021

Ugly Duckling helps change the NZ male ballet narrative

From Sunday Morning, 3:10 pm on 18 April 2021

The Royal New Zealand Ballet (RNZB) is about to open a free school holiday show at Te Papa of The Ugly Duckling - with an all- male cast.

The show - which plays tomorrow and Tuesday - is in keeping with the RNZB's desire to change the narrative for boys and young men who want to dance, ballet master Nick Schultz tells Sunday Morning.

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Photo: Supplied / Jeremy Brick

"An all-male cast in ballet in general is unusual.  Typically we do productions like we are working on right now as well - Giselle, which is a woman-heavy performance, or things like Swan Lake, which focuses a lot on the female perspective.

"So for taking on The Ugly Duckling, we thought an all male cast would be very powerful and also very beneficial to the audience in general.

The shows include one narrated in Te Reo and one in New Zealand sign language.

"It's a lot of fun, there's whimsy, but it also deals with some heavy issues."

Choosing to learn ballet through school and beyond is a rewarding and exciting pathway, but boys often face particular challenges, Schultz said.

"It is a very difficult world especially for male dancers, because the issues of bullying - which is the big issue in the story itself, is something they deal with and have dealt with on a daily basis since they have chosen to pursue this as their life.

"It helps the dancers to be able to tell this story, to help the next generation cope. It does have a happy ending."

"When [author] Hans Christian Anderson was asked if he'd ever write an autobiography he said 'I have, it's The Ugly Duckling'. In his story it's a lot harsher, and we've brought a bit of that light and joy back into it."

The Royal NZ Ballet are staging The Ugly Duckling.

Photo: Supplied/ RNZBallet/ Macy Cook

Schultz grew up in the US, and said he experienced some of the rough attitudes young dancers are bound to encounter.  

"I was very fortunate to have a lot of family support, which young male dancers don't always have. But in school it was very tough, people bully and make fun of things they don't understand.

"A lot of boys don't understand dance is a physical, hard art form, as well as a demanding athletic activity. The company dances from 9.30 in the morning until 6pm five days a week ... it is all day long in the studio, and we do that for 11 months out of the year.

"And if they have time off they're at the gym working out or doing pilates or getting physio, it is a very difficult strenuous thing. And even though when you see it on stage it looks effortless and easy, it takes a lot of time and effort to get there."

Now, generally speaking, there is a growing acceptance and appreciation of difference, which is helpful, Schultz said.

"Things are better, but we still see intolerance rear its ugly head every so often, and unfortunately that's something that we as a world are trying to change."

The ballet runs Ballet for Boys classes, in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch.

"Now, we're getting about 15 to 20 [dancers] every time we do it. We have wonderful role models in the company, men who are strong and sensitive and wonderful leaders. And those boys are looking up to them. We try to instil that in them, and have fun and realise that as a group they're stronger."

After the Te Papa shows, the dancers will come out to meet and talk with the audience in their costumes.

"The dancers love getting to meet the audience, especially those with special needs, it is a lovely, lovely event."