Since New Zealand is so far away from Minnesota we rarely get a chance to see its cultural representatives on Twin Cities stages. That’s our loss based on Saturday night’s local debut of the Royal New Zealand Ballet. Four technically demanding works from this 60-year-old, world-class troupe defined Northrop Dance’s last presentation at the Orpheum Theatre before the re-opening of its newly renovated auditorium in April.

Ethan Stiefel, who retired from the American Ballet Theatre in 2012, is RNZB’s artistic director. He’s building the repertory’s blend of classical and contemporary dance. For example, “28 Variations on a Theme by Paganini” (2005) choreographed by Benjamin Millepied (a former New York City Ballet member who will become director of dance at the Ballet of the Opéra National de Paris later this year) transforms the music of Johannes Brahms into a game of sorts.

The dancers, dressed as if for formal court, take on the movement like it was a sport, whirling and weaving through intricate rhythmic patterns. They seem so comfortable that it’s easy to forget how challenging the work is.

“Through to You,” created by former RNZB member Andrew Simmons in 2009, emerges and dissolves into shadow. This is a lovely piece, crisp and cool, yet its passion — if at first contained — dramatically unspools like a velvet ribbon over the course of the performance. On Saturday Mayu Tanigaito danced with a controlled abandon, infusing her interpretation with haunting beauty.

Excerpts from Stiefel’s “Bier Halle” (2013) draw upon his polka-powered Wisconsin roots. The piece has a sense of humor — let’s just say lederhosen are not the most elegant costume for a ballet — but the virtuosity is extremely high. Gillian Murphy (a principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre who guests with RNZB) and Qi Huan brought down the house with their bravura dancing and showmanship. Murphy’s 32 fouetté turns were simply jaw-dropping.

“Banderillero” (2006) by Venezuela’s Javier De Frutos rounded out the Northrop program. The work takes its name from the bullfighter who prepares a bull for its match with the matador. The twist is that De Frutos sets the work to a Chinese percussion score by Zhen-Gui and Tan Dun. This unexpected pairing is surprisingly fitting for an emotionally dramatic piece that exposes the hidden violence in relationships between humans as well.


Caroline Palmer writes about dance.