New Zealand dancer Corey Baker likes to set dances in unusual locations.

He's made works in a bank vault, a children's playground, supermarket carparks, in and around a phone box and in a rugby stadium. Most recently, with the Royal New Zealand Ballet and company dancer Madeleine Graham, he made a dance film in the pristine spaces of Antarctica.

Antarctica: The First Dance made the most of wide open vistas of ice and snow and intense blue skies as a backdrop to show the growing impact of climate change on the no-longer-entirely-frozen continent. Graham dances and rolls across the ice but also crawls across bare rock, hangs inside a steadily melting crevasse and eyeballs the jagged edges of a disappearing ice shelf.

Baker, who is based in the UK, is passionate about Antarctica and the need to alert people to the peril it is experiencing.


"Global climate change has brought rising temperatures to Antarctica, reducing the survivability of local birds, plants and animals, and melting the sea ice and ice shelves far more rapidly than previously," he says. "The melting ice is contributing to increasing sea levels worldwide."

Baker's companion piece to the film, The Last Dance, is a stage work and part of the RNZB's touring programme, Dancing with Mozart, which opens in Auckland next month. His dance is set to Mozart's unfinished Requiem — a new version created by British composer Duncan Grimley, with whom Baker has previously worked.

"The dance offers a requiem for Antarctica and my hope is that raising this issue in such a prestigious commission will get audience members talking about Antarctica and what is going on there," Baker says.

"It's a simple dance in many ways because it is presented between a technically super-polished classical work by George Balanchine and is followed by two sophisticated contemporary ballets by Jiri Kylian. My dance is sandwiched between them and that lets me offer something a bit more out of the box, very different from their works."

Wan Bin Yuan and Kate Kadow in Divertimento No 15. Photo/Stephen A'Court
Wan Bin Yuan and Kate Kadow in Divertimento No 15. Photo/Stephen A'Court

Balanchine's canonical Divertimento No 15 opens the Dancing with Mozart programme, set to Mozart's Divertimento No.15 in B-flat, by the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra. The dancers trace a constantly changing array of formations with shifting moods to match the music's seven sections.

Technically exacting, the ballet has been staged in New Zealand by repetiteur Francia Russell, who was in the original cast when Balanchine made the work for New York City Ballet in 1956 and has 60 years' worth of experience performing and staging his works.

She is known for her attention to detail and it's Russell's job is to ensure the work appears the way Balanchine would have wanted it.

"Every step and every count matters," she says. "As do the line, the overall technique, the dancers' enjoyment of what they are dancing. How the steps are performed very much matters as what makes Balanchine works so very beautiful is that essential musicality."


Divertimento No 15 is performed beneath sparkling chandeliers by16 dancers wearing classic costumes; the women in pale blue or yellow puffball tutus adorned with bows and diamantes, with tiaras in their hair, and for the men, elegantly-ribboned silk waistcoats over shirts and white tights.

Two iconic 1980s works from Czech master choreographer Kylian complete the programme; both are famous for their wit and devilishly difficult dancing. La Petite Mort is set to the allegro sections of two Mozart piano concerti while Sechs Tanze is set to Mozart's selection of German Dances.

Wan Bin Yuan and Sara Garbowski in Petite Mort. Photo/Stephen A'Court
Wan Bin Yuan and Sara Garbowski in Petite Mort. Photo/Stephen A'Court

The intricate pieces see dancer in crinolines and corsets, creamy breeches and gowns, powdered wigs and white makeup, fencing foils and apples. Repetiteur Stefan Zeromski danced in Kylian's company for 25 years and has rich insight into the works that he is restaging here.

"It is wonderful to be working with dancers with the maturity to appreciate what these works demand from them," says Zeromski. "Apart from mastering the particular steps and exquisite timing laid down by Kylian, they have to convincingly inhabit their characters to convey the wickedness and wit Kylian intends these works to express.

"It takes a good deal of artistry to achieve what Kylian intends and especially to communicate some of his more subtle references to matters that are awry in the human condition."

What: The Royal New Zealand Ballet, Dancing with Mozart
Where and when: ASB Theatre, Aotea Centre; July 6-8