Patricia Barker is the artistic director of The Royal New Zealand Ballet, the second woman to hold the position in 67 years. Recognised as one of the world's greatest ballerinas, she has danced all the great roles and today is especially committed to providing a platform for female choreographers. The Royal New Zealand Ballet's production of Giselle is touring the country now. www.rnzb.org.nz
My brothers and sisters range so widely in age, I have nieces and nephews the same age as me. But the thing about a large family - I have eight siblings - you have your own community. My parents say they had two families, one when they were young and a second when they were a little older. The older kids took care of the younger kids and we certainly never needed babysitters.
My parents were very musical. We all played piano or clarinet or sang in a choir, but dance was the outlet that brought out my artistic side and my athleticism, also inherited from my parents. I won my first dance scholarship when I was 12, to the School of American Ballet but there was very little teenage rebellion among the dancers because we had to buckle down and train, keeping our eyes on the prize of a professional career. Being intensely athletic every day, we were also releasing all those wonderful endorphins, which meant we'd go home very tired, so there wasn't a lot of extra energy to get into trouble.
I remember my first pair of pointe shoes. I never wanted to take them off. I used to go to sleep in them, and my mom would come in at night and remove them. As a professional, in an average year, I would often go through about 200 pairs - but you try to stay within the restraints of a company's budget, as they cost about $145 a pair. Pointe shoes create a wonderful illusion of flight. It's enchanting to watch a dancer skilled in pointe work.
I was shipped off to Boston Ballet School from our home in Eastern Washington aged 15. One benefit of being a younger kid from a large family, by the time you come along, your parents realise you won't break. It was there I realised, I could make dance my profession and stay in it my whole life, if I worked hard enough. Dance suited my personality. I'd rather be in the studio, or onstage, than any other place, and if I wasn't taking a class, I'd be in the corner of the studio watching, and dreaming of dancing the major roles with a professional company. There is nothing like waiting for the curtain to open. You can hear the audience, the tuning of the orchestra. When that moment comes, when you make your first entrance onstage, it is magical and so exciting.
One of the best pieces of advice I ever heard was early in my career, from a golfer. "No excuse to lose." What it meant to me was - what if somebody calls in sick, but you didn't prepare your pointe shoes that day? Or you turned up for rehearsal not warm? Or not in a great mental state? What if you miss an opportunity for people to see your talent, or how you've progressed? I took "no excuse to lose" to heart and started being permanently prepared, ready for any opportunity, ready for life.
I was a young soloist with the Pacific Northwest Ballet, when I was in the right place at the right time. Another girl was injured just before opening night of George Balanchine's Violin Concerto - because I'd learnt her role and knew it well, they turned to me and said, "you're on". From that moment, I was given greater opportunities and more prominent roles, and I moved quickly up the ranks to principal dancer.
For a long time I was called The One With The Feet. I have arched feet with very articulated toes that I can move like a hand. To achieve that, I did strengthening exercises three times a day - I picked up pencils with my toes, I did a lot of pointe relevé from demi-pointe to pointe - and I got very strong because I knew if I wanted to dance the great roles, I needed strength.
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Every athlete will have injuries, but it's how we recover that counts. I was injured quite often as a younger dancer, but the things I did to get back on my feet really strengthened my dancing. Injuries taught me about preparation. They made me better understand my physical strengths and limitations, and they made me stronger.
I'm told that, as a child, I had a tendency to be a little on the bossy side, that I often took a leadership role and, to a large degree, I still do. When I retired and started working with various ballet companies as a stager, artistic advisor or artistic director, one of my goals was to provide a platform for female choreographers. I didn't work with women very often - directorships have also been male-dominated although that is changing - and I knew our industry needed to create platforms for females to excel, to have a voice and rise through the ranks. We need to get to the point of not asking, are you male or female, but decide who is the best artist for the job.
In dance, you're told all the time what's wrong with you, where your faults are. You stare in the mirror all day trying to be perfect, telling yourself you have to get better, trying to fix your faults. That's probably where my strength is - I look for the positives as opposed to the negatives and, if I don't like a situation, I try to change it, because hard work does make a difference. And maybe being the bossy little one from a big family taught me, when you really want something, you have to figure out the path to get there, and only you can do that.
In 1996 I was dancing in Melbourne, at the festival, and Michael [husband Michael Auer] and I visited New Zealand. We did as much as it was possible to do in three days. We drove to Mt Ruapehu and skied when the mountain started erupting. We went to Hot Water Beach and dug little pools to get warm. Everything was wonderful and we knew we had to come back for longer. We'd seen the role of artistic director with The Royal New Zealand Ballet advertised in the past, but I'd been busy with other companies. Then, in 2017, Michael suggested I put my name in the hat, He is a great champion to have on my side, and here I am, feeling very fortunate to be here, in my adopted country, during the pandemic.
I believe in the positive footprint of arts and culture in New Zealand. When we presented Sleeping Beauty, our first production after lockdown, we were nervous. Would audiences buy tickets again? Would people want to sit next to people they didn't know? But they did. The world will always be changed, but the work we do is so important. I am very excited that my dancers can do what inspires them, and present work that makes a real difference in the lives of the audiences we visit. The tunnel may have had a lot of turns and bends, and sometimes we couldn't see light around the corners but it was always there.