RNZB at 60

This is a repost from my other site nzjazz.

I’ve been reading the celebratory The Royal New Zealand Ballet at Sixty with great interest these past few days. I’m a huge fan of ballet, and the RNZB in particular, and I’ve been eagerly awaiting this book. However, maybe my expectations don’t match the brief, but I’ve got to say that I’m a little disappointed. Not precisely by the content (the anecdotes, costume/scenery sketches, and photographs are wonderful), but rather the structural decisions and the editing. The book is (unfortunately) something of a narrative hodge-podge. I admit I like the idea of forming a book around the anecdotes of former directors, dancers, choreographers and various backstage crew, but it lacks a narrative stream running through them to connect things together.

The Royal New Zealand Ballet at Sixty begins off with a nice potted biography of founder Poul Gnatt by dance historian and editor Jennifer Shennan, but from there the narrative is interrupted by the choices made to structure this book as a collection of anecdotes in a vaguely chronological fashion (first artistic directors then dancers, choreographers, and in the third section ‘friends and colleagues’ including support staff). Throughout the various essays I would run across very interesting statements about particular incidents and events that occurred, which often weren’t followed up: for example a contributor stated that they didn’t write about particular events because others would be able to discuss it much better, the only problem was that the ‘follow up’ by another contributor came over 50 pages later, and I’d nearly forgotten the particular example…

I can’t help but feel that this book would have been better served by a more traditional narrative structure into which these anecdotes were woven- such a structure worked exceedingly well in Chris Bourke’s Blue Smoke– so that the reader could get a good overview of the history of the company, as well as these tantalising stories. To be honest, this is what I think I was hoping to see- a really nice critical history of the company packed full of anecdotes.

Editorially, most of the qualms I have lie with the VUP editors as some of the sections are extraordinarily clunky (mostly not the anecdotes), and could have easily been tightened up. There were certain sections that were written by the editors that I needed to read multiple times to get the sense of what they were talking about. These sections were incredibly disappointing to me because they could have really made the book! There were several points in the book where I was incredibly disappointed because I simply could not make sense of it- there were jumps in topic mid-stream, statements that were completely unnecessary (and occasionally elitist in places), places where the writer veered way off course and didn’t return to the main point, and frankly, some of the clunkier writing I’ve read.

My issues with the structure and editing aside, this is a lovely book to dip into, read various travels and travails, and to stare at the glorious photographs. If you’re a fan of ballet the book is worth buying simply for that.

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