Two weeks into rehearsals for the Royal New Zealand Ballet's triple bill Speed of Light, both studios in the company's St James Theatre home, in Wellington, are buzzing; a tangible intensity in the air.
There are not just new steps to imprint on muscle memory; cutting edge dance requires bodies to move in new ways, minds to expand beyond traditional dance codes and techniques.
In one studio, ballerinas practise a controlled skidding manoeuvre on full pointe. It looks ankle-threatening, even dangerous. Later the same group of dancers work on a sequence of high insouciance, with quirky little skips and percussive hips.
There are multiple collapses into fits of giggles, frowns and frustration as bodies fail to capture the movement in split-second time, but it is a process in which the beauty of supremely honed bodies and incredible skill still pervades.
This season is the first for new artistic director Francesco Ventriglia. A seven-week European tour at the end of last year was a major success with a week of sell-out performances at the Royal Opera House in London, two sell-out performances in Italy, and a finale in Rome where spirits - and the New Zealand flag - flew sky high.
"Now we are highlighting a world-class product for New Zealanders to see without having to get on a plane," Ventriglia says. "This triple bill will also let everyone know what kind of mixed bill and contemporary work I like: energetic, elegant, with a classic attitude, crazy talent - and big goals to achieve. I like this kind of speed - the Speed of Light. This is who I am!"
Most famously on the bill is William Forsythe's ground-breaking and code-shaking In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated. Commissioned by Rudolph Nureyev for the Paris Opera Ballet in 1987, it was created on an exceptionally gifted group of young dancers - Forsythe's "wunderkinder" - including the inimitable Sylvie Guillam.
This is the first time the RNZB has performed Forsythe and In the Middle is arguably the iconic choreographer's best-known offering, frequently touted as "the work that changed ballet for ever".
It is an incredible occasion for the dancers, for the New Zealand public and it is a work with a special place in Ventriglia's heart. "The first time I put my feet on La Scala's stage, right after my graduation, was in In the Middle," he says, "and Forsythe put me in two roles! It was an incredible start ... "
Thierry Guiderdoni is in New Zealand to stage the work. He worked as a dancer for Forsythe from 1991 to 2004, dancing in In the Middle "a zillion times".
In 2005, he became Forsythe's assistant and when the master finally closed the Forsythe Company 10 years later, Guiderdoni became a freelance stager/rehearsal director for Forsythe Productions, travelling the world to share his wealth of experience and skills.
Ask him why In the Middle was such a game-changer and he quotes Forsthye, who described it as extending and accelerating the traditional figures of ballet.
In the studio, two casts of six women and three men sweat their way through a challenging duet.
Even in these early days of learning, Forsythe's vision is manifesting in the extension of familiar ballet positions; of shoulders, hips, spines stretching out, but it is not entirely a one-way conversation.
"All professional companies have very good dancers," says Guiderdoni. "It is just a matter of showing them how to go beyond what they already know, to gain trust in their skill, their partner, their own self to go to that new place." The process is very personal, he says, and begins with him addressing his cast as human beings, not just as dancers.
"I get them to try something and then adapt the step to them as well," he says, "so shades of their individual qualities are blended in.
"The work might look the same on different companies, but it is always fresh."
Costumes are similarly adapted to individual dancers, so while the black tights and jade green of the original is de rigueur, dancers can change a neckline from round to v- shaped, or a waistline might sit higher or lower by choice "so every dancer feels at their best".
Company senior dancer Abigail Boyle has roles in all three works in the Speed of Light, and while it is a heavy load and she acknowledges the risk of injury is high, she loves the physical challenge, particularly of the Forsythe piece.
Speed of Light
from leading Greek choreographer Andonis Foniadakis, set to Bach. Boyle performed in the work, which was included in and learned for the recent tour, and describes it as inspired by the palette and passion of a religious Renaissance painting with its portrait of heaven and hell.
The London Evening Standard described Selon Desir in a very favourable review as "16 dancers riding a gale of movement ... an almost biblical throng of bodies like a gang of feral angels".
"It is very rich and full of constant movement," says Boyle. "It is lovely to dance, exhausting, but every time it makes my skin feel ... kind of electric."
The third item on the triple bill is Cacti, by Alexander Ekman, a young Swiss choreographer (he prefers the term "dance maker" as he also composes and designs his costumes and sets) and fast-rising talent internationally.
Ekman created Cacti in 2010 as a response to dance critics seeing one performance and then spreading their opinion as a God-given truth. He is now over that particular irritation, he says, but still considers questioning "the phenomenon of the arts critic and its functioning" as worthy of a response and comment as "what the arts are supposed to do".
The very successful Cacti, full of innovative and interesting choreography, is accompanied by "an inane voice-over deciding what it all should mean," he says. "People can relate to that, to the artsy-fartsy nonsense of the cultural elite."
The popularity of Cacti, world famous and performed by 18 highly regarded companies globally, led Ekman to closely consider just what made a work successful.
"Why Cacti and not any of my other 40 pieces?" he still asks.
Cacti is often described as "hilarious" but Ekman does not consider it funny. He is equally suspicious of the label "entertaining" for its association with "light entertainment" so he settles on his success as "the ability to hold attention, to capture you".
That, he proclaims, is not easy. "It is so hard to find a good dance piece. Only about one in 50 or 100 pieces is really good - that rare jewel!"
Ventriglia describes Cacti as a masterpiece. "It is clever," he says. "It has a string quartet playing on stage, dancers use their voices and body percussion, a cat falls from the sky, hats explode in clouds of dust ... it is a crazy, contemporary and valid investigation."
Ekman was the first person Ventriglia called from New Zealand. "He is a leader of the new generation. I really love him as a choreographer, artist, as a person. And I really wanted him here, in this first programme putting the RNZB up with the best in the world."
Speed of Light, Royal New Zealand Ballet, New Zealand Festival and Auckland Arts Festival
Where and when:
St James Theatre, Wellington, February 26-28; SkyCity Theatre, Auckland, March 2-6.