Watch from the wings as the Royal New Zealand Ballet tours to China as guests of the Shanghai International Festival of the Arts. Black on Red follows the dancers performing Cinderella and trouble-shooting the travails of travel; language barriers, missing dancers, missing home, and food poisoning. For the ballet’s principal dancer, Qi Huan, the tour has its own set of anxieties.
"This is about advocating for New Zealand. It's about flying the New Zealand flag using arts as the vehicle, which I don't think happens enough," says Amanda Skoog, the Royal New Zealand Ballet's general manager, of the company's 2007 tour to China. But the story of that trip, told through Black on Red, is about more than that.
It's certainly about a small company travelling to the prestigious Shanghai International Arts Festival, following in the footsteps of some of the world's best ballet companies, and offering itself up for inspection by a ballet-savvy audience.
It's also about Sir Jon Trimmer, retracing his footsteps as the only member to have been part of the company's first China tour 23 years ago. It's about goodbyes, as long-time company dancer Craig Lord takes his final curtain call with the company in China. It's about meeting old friends, when the company teams up once again with famed former principal dancer Ou Lu. And it's about current principal dancer Qi Huan dancing professionally for the first time in the country of his birth.
These stories unfold as director Jess Feast follows the company to Shanghai, Suzhou and Beijing. Black on Red picks up with the dancers at their final rehearsal, joins the production crew as they pack up and pack out, and the company's management as they attend to the last minute minutia of taking 30-plus people on tour.
"For me Black on Red is about transitions because Cinderella is a story of transitions - from orphan girl to princess. So I wanted to show the documentary's main characters, like Qi Huan and Craig Lord, at significant transitions in their lives. And of course China is undergoing its own transition," Jess Fest says.
The story is told without voiceover, through the words of the dancers and the company management. The camera captures their experiences and impressions of a westernised China; its wealth, its poverty, its shopping, its Communism, its unfamiliar food, and - thankfully - its French delis.
But always Black on Red is about ballet. With the full co-operation of the company, Black on Red goes into the hotel rooms and the dressing rooms, looking into the dancers' lives and from the wings as they perform Cinderella and their Triple Bill, Trinity. And for Chinese-born principal dancer, Qi Huan, we feel his anxiety and excitement as he prepares to dance for his most exacting critics - his parents.
"I really wanted to show the view of ballet audiences don't see - the view from the wings," says Jess Fest. "I wanted to show the contrast between the effortless beauty on-stage, and then the puffing, exhausted human side as the dancers come off. The dancers were so generous in allowing us to see so much of their lives backstage, and trusting us with that part of their story."
"The Royal New Zealand Ballet is such an institution in New Zealand, and is so beloved by New Zealand audiences, that we feel very privileged to be allowed an opportunity to tell this story," says The Gibson Group producer, Alex Clark. "Black on Red reveals to television audiences the personal sacrifices these dancers make for their art, and the hard work that goes into their productions. It also proves that this small and relatively young company so far from anywhere can foot it on the world stage."
Black on Red – Artsville Episode 2, TV ONE 2008 1 x 1 hour Documentary