With the politics of everything seemingly so complicated these days, you might think escaping to the ballet to watch lithe dancers with faultless technique move to stirring music would offer a respite from the worries of the world.
Yet it seems the politics of dancing - ballet, at least - are equally fraught. Questions are being asked about whether sexual violence is trivialised, female characters considered too passive or tragic and if the stories themselves remain relevant.
And it's not just ballet. A new Italian version of the opera Carmen now ends with the heroine shooting her jealous ex in self-defence rather than being stabbed by him. Cristiano Chiarot, of the Teatro del Maggio Musicale Foundation, told Reuters, "At a time when our society is having to confront the murder of women, how can we dare to applaud the killing of a woman?"
Contemporary dancer and choreographer Michael Parmenter sums it up when he says we go along and see a dance performance with rousing music; the dancing's brilliant, the music is extraordinary and we give it a standing ovation.
"But might it be about something that - because we got so caught up in the music and the dance - we actually forget it is, say, a piece about rape? So, should the choreography be asking us to examine this theme - this idea - rather than just getting caught up in the emotion and the feel of it?"
For proof of how those issues are playing out for ballet companies, look no further than the three scheduled for the New Zealand Festival in Wellington and the Auckland Arts Festival: The Piano: the ballet by the Royal NZ Ballet and Czech choreographer Jiri Bubenicek; English National Ballet's Giselle, re-imagined by Akram Khan, and Irish choreographer Michael Keegan-Dolan's Swan Lake/Loch na hEala.
The Piano: the ballet is a whole new creation but Giselle and Swan Lake are among the world's most popular ballets. The productions that arrive in NZ - and for Giselle, we're the first country outside of the UK to see it - are markedly different to what's gone before.
Giselle, which debuted in Paris in 1841, tells of a peasant girl who dies of a broken heart after discovering her aristocrat lover, Albrecht, is engaged to another. In death, she is summoned by the Wilis, ghostly spirits of women also jilted by lovers, who seek revenge by dancing faithless men to their deaths. They want to kill Albrecht but, to cut a long story short, Giselle forgives him and her generosity of spirit saves him.
Khan, the English contemporary dancer of Bangladeshi descent who originally trained as an Indian classical (Kathak) dancer, has worked as choreographer-in-residence and associate artist at the Southbank Centre, helped choreograph part of the London Olympic Games opening ceremony, working with everyone from Kylie Minogue to the Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan.
Khan picked English National Ballet, partly because of the philosophy of its artistic director Tamara Rojo. She recently told the BBC's Radio 4 that ballet has to tackle issues such as disability, diversity and violence against women. Which is a great fit with Khan, who has described his Giselle as a real woman in a catastrophic situation rather than a passive or delicate young girl.
"What I was looking for was a Giselle that I would recognise; not someone I would recognise from an older generation male perspective of how they see women - I didn't want Giselle to be like that - I grew up with a very strong mother, a feminist, and my wife is very strong and my daughter, who is just 5, is very strong so I've had very strong women around me," he says from his UK home. "In a sense, it had to reflect women that I recognise and relate to."
It's set in a migrant community where references to being poor and disenfranchised abound. He says he stripped the story back to its essence, which comes down to love, betrayal and forgiveness.
"Those people who created the boundaries in classical dance were visionaries for their time; at that moment, it might not have been classical but it became classical," he says.
Giselle was one of several new ballets written after the French Revolution that told stories a non-aristocratic audience wanted to see: real people, real life.
"For me, I made a decision - a very conscious decision with this particular work - that I wanted to be within the classical form and move forward with it," he says.
By all accounts, audiences love his reboot. Rojo points out that many of those who have seen Khan's Giselle had never been to an ENB production before but came because they wanted to see something different.
Different is what those who see Michael Keegan-Dolan and Sadler's Wells' Swan Lake/Loch na hEala get. The Irish press said it wasn't so much an interpretation of Swan Lake as a complete reimagining.
It certainly is a far cry from Russian composer Tchaikovsky's 1877 story of princes and evil sorcerers. It's set in contemporary rural Ireland, the prince is an unemployed drifter, at war with his ageing mother, and the "swans" are young women abused by a Catholic priest who's cursed them to become birds so they won't reveal his crimes. Tchaikovsky's score is out; Irish folk music, with a Nordic twist, is in.
Keegan-Dolan acknowledges some may think it's a bit disingenuous to call it Swan Lake but points out that the version we know is based on much older stories.
"There are many different stories about swans which have travelled and been changed; I wanted to claim it back for myself because it's a bloody good story," says Keegan-Dolan, at home in rural Ireland.
Like Khan, Keegan-Dolan wanted to reference more contemporary issues and, by and large, that's been well received with audiences and critics as well as a win for best production at last year's Irish Times Theatre Awards.
He says there's no place for art which might suggest violence is "kind of okay".
"It's important to take it on everywhere that we can and maybe that means looking at the foundations of things, where they come from."
THE PIANO: THE BALLET
Choreographer Jiri Bubenicek doesn't want to re-make or re-imagine classical ballet stories hence the reason his CV includes credits for choreographing productions like A Soldier's Tale and Dr Zhivago. Now he's taken on one of our most iconic stories, The Piano.
"I want to be creative and make new stories which can, perhaps, one day become as successful as Giselle or any other ballet," he says. "I want to go to the core of a story."
Bubenicek was intrigued by Jane Campion's Palme d'Or-winning film The Pianowhen he saw it as a young Czech dancer. He was so taken by it - the rawness of the location, the visceral nature of the love story - he vowed to one day make it into a ballet.
During the next few years, he became an acclaimed principal dancer and, when he started to make his own ballets, returned to The Piano. After successfully choreographing A Soldier's Tale, Bubenicek was asked by German Theater Dortmund to create a new work.
So he turned to his dream of bringing The Piano to stage, even though he had never visited New Zealand. In 2014, it was staged as a one-act ballet that went so well Bubenicek spoke with fellow European dancer Francesco Ventriglia, then artistic director at the RNZB, about bringing it home to NZ and making it a full-length production.
Accompanied by his twin brother and fellow dancer-turned-designer, Otto, Bubenicek visited in 2015 spending 10 days here, including visits to Karekare Beach, in West Auckland, where large chunks of the film were shot.
The Piano: The Ballet is technical, with strong sound, lighting and multimedia projection, but for Bubenicek telling the story is pivotal. "It's a love story; it's about Ada who's been educated in a certain way then placed into an arranged marriage and had to travel to a place she could not imagine where she meets people from a completely new and different culture. She's an incredibly strong woman."
The physically demanding role of Ada, played in the film by Holly Hunter, is shared by Abigail Boyle, Sara Garbowski and Nadia Yanowsky. Bubenicek also had to find three equally spirited young ballerinas to play her daughter, Flora. The girls, all 12, are taking on the role that won a young Anna Paquin an Academy Award.
"I want to roles to be as honest as possible; dancers use a movement language and that has to be very clear in terms of what they are saying, what sort of character they're portraying."
But if the fictional Ada was a stranger in a strange land, so, to an extent, is Bubenicek. The RNZB hired former Atamira Dance Company artistic director Moss Patterson to "deepen the RNZB dancers' understanding of the story's Maori themes and characters" and for advice on dance, music, costume and prop design.
Bubenicek says he wanted to be respectful of Maori culture.
Patterson says debate about how Maori were represented in the original film continues but he sees The Piano as an important marker in terms of the success of NZ film-making and its ability to tell original and beautiful stories against the vast and epic backdrop of Aotearoa.
"The most important part of my role as Maori adviser has been to problem-solve the story's portrayal of Maori characters onstage. Campion deliberately juxtaposed Maori and English culture. Building that juxtaposition into a ballet, which has established European traditions and performance techniques, was challenging."
He didn't want non-Maori to portray the role of Maori because it felt tokenistic and ineffective. "The result of our continued dialogue, over many weeks, is that the dancers you see onstage are not portraying Maori, but they are imbued with something of the spirit of the land," says Patterson.
Where and when: Auckland Arts Festival,
ASB Theatre at the Aotea Centre;
What: Swan Lake/Loch Na hEala
Where and when: New Zealand Festival,
Wellington St James Theatre; March 14-17
What: The Piano: the ballet
Where and when: Opens at NZ Festival, Wellington St James Theatre; February 23-25 then travels to Napier (March 2-3) and the Auckland Arts Festival (March 8-10) before performances
in Dunedin, Christchurch, Palmerston North and Rotorua.
• On the eve of the Auckland Arts Festival and New Zealand Festival in Wellington, the Herald speaks to some of our leading choreographers and dancers, theatre-makers, playwrights and poets, musicians and singers about what makes them tick. Why do they make the art they do and what can we expect to see from them at our biggest arts festivals?