As a teenager, he left his home in Tuaranga on New Zealand’s north island and flew ‘across the ditch’ to attend The Australian Ballet School. Having been home schooled in the relatively insular surrounds of the Bay of Plenty, the jump to the big city and the competitive learning environment of an elite dance academy was both a shock and a motivation.
That Ty King-Wall graduated dux and went on to become a Principal Artist at The Australian Ballet, dancing a slew of iconic roles along the way, is now a matter of public record. (Indeed, he and I first spoke back in 2013, when he was promoted to Principal. Now, in 2024, we resume our chat as he begins his tenure as Artistic Director of the Royal New Zealand Ballet (RNZB). There is something satisfyingly circular about this arrangement.)
“I’m so grateful for everything I learnt at The Australian Ballet, not just as a dancer but as a person,” he acknowledges. “It was an amazing time, but my heart has really always been here with the Royal New Zealand Ballet. You know, they were who I grew up watching and wanting to be a part of, so it’s a real honour to be back.”
Speaking from his new base in Wellington, he admits that his homecoming was not without its challenges: a young family to uproot and relocate. His dream job, he tells me, is not just about him.
That may seem obvious, but as we talk about the new appointment, it becomes clear that a similar ethos is already informing his work. “The AD role encompasses many things; but there’s definitely a dual leadership model here between me and our Executive Director, Tobias Perkins. I deal with the artistic, creative side, and he does the admin and business side of things. But also, leadership is collaborative, so we always seek a buy in from the whole company. It’s a community approach, and that kind of brings it all together.”
In turn, this bleeds into the King-Wall vision for the company. It is, he reveals, a combination of “allowing it to emerge and having a clear direction in mind.”
What’s more, there is a sense of history at play. The company celebrated its 70th anniversary in 2023, and is, as King-Wall says, “a taonga.” A national treasure.
“This company has a history of defying expectation, and I really want to continue that. Not just in terms of a small country punching above its weight, but in terms of ballet itself — defying expectations about what ballet can be.”
Here, we encounter DNA shared with The Australian Ballet. In an artform firmly rooted in the northern hemisphere, King-Wall echoes an antipodean defiance. “We absolutely take ownership of that underdog status. I want us to be a company that New Zealanders can be proud of.”
In the context of the 21st century, however, an important part of that determination is realised outside the theatre. As he explains, “The work we do is not just about our mainstage performance. It’s about reaching out to the broader community, to kids, to people who maybe aren’t familiar with ballet, but also, to other groups in the community, Like in prisons, for example. Really taking the company and the artform out there and, yeah, like I said, maybe defying expectations.”
Yet, for all the outreach effort and fighting talk, King-Wall knows that he and the RNZB will ultimately be judged by the work. Again, he insists that “the key is balance.”
With three resident choreographers at his disposal, he has the artistry and experience to ensure that the company can bring a blend of classic and contemporary, and local and international work to the stages of New Zealand and beyond. (For example, RNZB’s Hansel & Gretel is set to be staged in Alberta, Canada this March.)
However, as Artistic Director, part of King-Wall’s remit is to maintain a recognisable identity for the company. “Actually, we don’t want to pigeonhole it or put limits on it,” he reveals. “Let the identity come to us organically.”
This approach, he adds, migrates seamlessly to the rehearsal space. “Dance is dynamic, so be flexible, keep moving… We never want to be comfortable, but, at the same time, we are at our best when we’re confident. If you’re worried about failing, you’re tentative, and when you’re tentative, you fall.”
It is the classic ‘artist’ way: living on the edge of convention and invention, order and chaos, risk and stability. Noting this, King-Wall recalls former Australian Ballet AD, David McAllister, and how he strived to inhabit this synthesis at all times. Having himself retired from the stage, King-Wall is now determined to “give that same balance to our dancers.”
Then, as we wind up our latest conversation, he catches on an afterthought. “Actually, it’s probably good advice to give myself.”
In dance, as we all know, there is always a next lesson.
By Paul Ransom of Dance Informa.