Jake Gisby as The Pig in Dazzlehands (Image: Tina Tiller)
Jake Gisby as The Pig in Dazzlehands (Image: Tina Tiller)

BooksJuly 11, 2024

Dazzlehands goes ballet: ‘It’s super hard to dance with a pig snout and a mohawk’

Jake Gisby as The Pig in Dazzlehands (Image: Tina Tiller)
Jake Gisby as The Pig in Dazzlehands (Image: Tina Tiller)

The bright and beloved picture book by Sacha Cotter and Josh Morgan has been adapted into a family show by the Royal New Zealand Ballet. We talk to the dancer who plays the starring role: The Pig.

Up in the Royal New Zealand Ballet company’s studios in the St James Theatre in the heart of Wellington’s shabby old Courtenay Place there’s some seriously hard and elegant work going on. The studio reads extremely professional: I pass a gym, and very fit and purposeful people in the hallways, before making my way across the vast, sunlit dance studio with mirrors lining the walls and a row of chairs at one end. This is where the production team is sitting, along with the makers of the book Sacha Cotter (writer) and Josh Morgan (illustrator) waiting for the dress rehearsal of Dazzlehands to begin.

Cotter and Morgan are the duo behind some of New Zealand’s best recent picture books, Dazzlehands being the most recent (released this year, reviewed on The Spinoff here) and an instant classic. I love the buoyancy of the language, the rhyme and rhythm is perfect, and the flair of the illustrations that dance and propel the world into places beyond language. The story itself is a timeless but always timely celebration of the beautiful rebel, who can’t help but be themselves and show everyone else that that’s the only way to move in this life. So I was curious about how such vibrant words and inventive images were going to be translated into ballet language, costume and music.

But how did Cotter and Morgan feel about their book creation being turned into a balletic one? “It was SPECTACULAR! It was fun and funny and fabulous everything we had hoped for! We laughed and smiled and whooped and at one point, even got a little teary eyed. There were so many cool details that were incorporated, straight from the illustrations of the book the farmer’s epic mullet, his meltdown in dance form, the animals’ costumes, the Pig mulling over the word ‘oink’. And there was lots of new stuff to love too. The way the music, the dancers and the choreography have breathed new life into the characters was amazing to see! We both pretty much screamed with delight for Pig’s final outfit reveal. And the dancing swoon the DANCING!!!”

It sounds daft to say when you’re talking about the RNZB but yes, the dancing! It’s so good! So’s the music! And the sequinned bodysuits! The show is charming, funny, moving and beautiful. So what does it take to bring an illustrated Pig to such vivid, energetic life? I talked with dancer Jake Gisby, who plays said Pig, ahead of the RNZB’s Dazzlehands at Te Papa the weekend of 12-13 July.

What was your first thought when you found out you’d be playing the dazzling lead character? 

I am stoked to be working with RNZB principal and Dazzlehands choreographer Joshua Guillemot-Rodgerson. I worked with him, as choreographer, in our Ballet Bites season in 2022 and he allows a lot of room for collaboration, so it makes the creative process very fun and engaging. 

I’m really excited to be bringing my own personality through to the dazzling pig – and intrigued as to how it will pan out! It’s something very different to my normal ballet wheelhouse.

How did you prepare to play The Pig?

I read the book, paying particular attention to the illustrations. I also spoke to Josh about the relationship between the Pig and all the other characters, especially the Farmer, as this dictates a lot of the storytelling for me. I also had a look back to old jazz and lyrical competition dances, and dusted off some old, but inspiring dance movies and music videos.

Jake Gisby; and Jake Gisby as The Pig (Photos: Supplied)

Did you talk with the writer Sacha Cotter and/or illustrator, Josh Morgan about the psychology of Pig? 

There has been ongoing conversation, from the beginning of the project, around the characters in the story, particularly between Josh G, Sacha and Josh M, and our education and community engagement manager Lauren Byrne. Getting the author and illustrator’s approval was essential in this process, and Josh G has been able to take this information into the studio and bring these characters (especially the Pig) to life.

There’s a real Flashdance vibe going on with Pig – the music, and the choreography – did you watch Flashdance in prep for this role?

Not so much Flashdance but there are definite undertones of Fabulous from High School Musical; and major David Bowie and Freddie Mercury inspiration.

What’s the difference between dancing in a ballet for families compared to dancing in a more traditional work? 

This particular role has more room than usual for humour, and characterisation we are all really aware of creating memories for potential future dancers and inspiring a new generation.

It’s also more intimate than usual as the work is being performed in smaller centres than our mainstage works. And while it’s much shorter than a full-length ballet, it is just as intense!

When did you first know you wanted to be a dancer? 

I started dancing at four, but took it more seriously at age 12, once I started performing on stage and finding the joy of performing to an audience. I started dancing at Dance Education Centre in Tauranga – same as our wonderful Artistic Director Ty King-Wall – and graduated from New Zealand School of Dance with a Classical Major in 2019.

Could you give us a taste of your daily life as a ballet dancer? What’s your routine like?

Breakfast on the go in the car and arrive at work at 9am for company class 10am-11.30am. Then rehearsals from 11.45am-6pm with a cheeky sandwich in the middle. Go home for dinner and a bit of Netflix to relax.

Your costumes are incredible – did you have any say in what Pig should wear? 

Our costume designer, Victoria Gridley, has done an incredible job at designing these costumes straight from the illustrations in the book. I had a say on what was comfortable on my body and worked when I was dancing – but it’s super hard to dance with a pig snout and a mohawk, and the dazzling hands were itchy at the beginning! 

There are a lot of costume-related surprises in the show, and we have lots of quick costume changes, which are always fun.

The farmyard Flamingo (with Sheep in the background). And the Dazzling hands. (Photos: Supplied)

What do you want audiences to take away from your version of Pig? 

That it’s important to be yourself, be confident in who you are, and stay true to that. We want people to leave laughing, singing and dancing, and hopefully go on a journey with the Pig as he discovers the value of Dazzlehands and the importance of sparkle.

The Royal New Zealand Ballet’s season of Dazzlehands is on this weekend at Te Papa in Wellington, 12 13 July. For more information and how to book, see the RNZB website

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