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New Zealand Ballet

Thanks to The Lord of the Rings trilogy, the natural beauties of New Zealand, where the films were shot, have become a hot destination for intrepid travelers. Will curiosity also send visitors to the country's indoor, movable splendors? The Royal New Zealand Ballet's artistic director Gary Harris, a chipper, 48-year-old transplant from South London, certainly hopes so. He remembers the first time he worked in the Wellington studios.

"The energy was incredible; the dancers were like sponges, soaking everything up. There was a lovely feeling there," said Harris recently in San Francisco, where the 52-year-old company will perform this month as part of the second S.F. International Arts Festival. Harris, who danced at London Festival Ballet (now English National Ballet) between 1977 and 1985, came to teach in New Zealand in 1996 at the invitation of then-director Mats Skoog. Although Harris had moved on to freelance gigs in London West End shows, he still returned to teach annually in Wellington. When Skoog accepted the top post at ENB in 2001, Harris jumped at the chance to succeed the Swede in New Zealand.

"It opened up while I was down there. I had never applied for a job in my life," Harris recalls. "But this opportunity forced me to think about my philosophy of dance and what kind of responsibility it requires to run a national ballet company."

What Harris inherited was an ensemble of 32 dancers with year-round contracts. Half are New Zealanders; the others hail from Australia, China, Japan, and the U.S. Blessed with a royal charter, they rehearse and train in a state-of-the-art facility. However, they're not home much to enjoy it; the company tours the North and South Islands four times a year. Drawing crowds of 100,000 (from a population of four million), Harris reports that interest is high everywhere.

"New Zealand has always had an audience," he says. "You tour to these weenie little communities--the country is a big, old farm, really--and they sit there, rapt. And they're not afraid to tell you what they think."

Although RNZB claims traditional European roots (it was founded by Denmark's Poul Gnatt and has unbreakable ties to English classicism), Harris has staked out his own artistic path. He is building relationships with % stable of five or six choreographers who will work with the company and create a voice for it. Rather than going shopping, I would rather deal with people whose integrity I respect." The group includes David Dawson, Javier de Frutos, and Christopher Hampson, as well as New Zealanders Michael Parmenter and Shona McCullagh.

For the American visit, Harris has programmed A Million Kisses to My Skin, a Bach-inspired opus by English-born Dawson. The remainder of the bill is devoted to Frutos, the Venezuelan-born modernist who achieved notoriety in London in the mid-'90s with his mad solos in the nude. "He's nuts, but heavenly nuts," notes Harris, who fell under Frutos' spell when he saw The Celebrated Soubrette at the Rambert Dance Company. That piece, plus the RNZB commission, Milagros (set to the pianola recording of Stravinsky's Sacre du printemps), should provide a good stateside introduction to this provocative artist.

A well-received United Kingdom tour last year suggested Harris is doing something right. He talks like he's in New Zealand to stay: "With what's been happening in the world, down there you feel safe and out of the way."

The Royal New Zealand Ballet performs June 3-4 at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theater, San Francisco.
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