Aurielen Scannella was announced as West Australian Ballet’s artistic director in August of last year and took up his post in Perth at the beginning of 2013. He succeeded Ivan Cavallari, who is now artistic director of Ballet du Rhin in France.
Born in Belgium, Scannella has been a dancer, ballet master and rehearsal director across the world. WAB gives him his first artistic directorship. He has had six months to assess the company and its circumstances. It seemed like a good time to have a chat, and among many other things Scannella talked about his ambition to greatly increase the size of the company, as he believes WAB is too small to compete with the influx of large-scale touring arts and entertainment companies into Perth.
What follows is an edited transcript of a conversation that took place on Monday, June 24.
I MET Ted Brandsen [WAB artistic director 1998-2001, now artistic director of Dutch National Ballet] many years ago so followed the company from far away. Especially in the last five or six years [during the artistic directorship of Ivan Cavallari, 2007-2012] I really enjoyed the creative evolution of the company. [During that time WAB increased its dancer numbers from 19 to 32, plus four young artists.] One of my goals was to continue that evolution and increase the size of the company. I think that Australia, a huge country, should have more than one big ballet company, especially as Western Australia is so huge and far away from Melbourne [where the Australian Ballet has its headquarters] so we basically are each of us in our own corner.
It would be a fabulous opportunity for the country to have two or even more big companies. I think the country is able to afford that compared with Europe [Scannella gives a rueful laugh]. My goal is to continue that evolution, increase the company in size and get a bit more of an international standard by bringing the company on tour to Europe.
We have a budget for 32 contracts and four young artists. Since the Quarry [WAB’s outdoor program held during the Perth Festival each year] we are a bit shorter. Some dancers left the company before the new year started; after the Quarry one went back to France, then two others on seasonal contracts left. We are now 27 [including the young artists]. Soon hopefully we will get back to 32. For next year I could perhaps manage to have more young artist contracts, two or four more. If so we would be 40 dancers. That would be a very good number. Hopefully we will have the budget.
I am negotiating with six new dancers [all from Europe]. I proposed contracts to Australian dancers who came to audition here, or contacted me via email. At the end, they didn’t want to come. I have to keep the show going on, and the show will go on. With 27 dancers I can’t do much. I need to have the company back to 36. lf I can’t find the dancers here, well…
Scannella believes out-of-date perceptions hamper his company.
I have been here six months only and have the feeling already that in the minds of many people in the ballet world in Australia, in the ballet schools, as soon as the students are finished with school they are [presented with] two opportunities – for the good ones, it’s the AB, or go to Europe.
What is the solution for us? For us to accept all the other dancers because they are Australian? That’s not fair. When you’re young and coming out of school you want to have this classical experience. [In the past] apart from the AB there was nothing else in Australia that could give that opportunity to those dancers. If they couldn’t have the AB they were flying overseas.
If you see all the dance magazines, they talk about the AB; they are now starting to talk more about Queensland Ballet. We are still somewhere in the dark; WAB is not part of the Australian ballet world. I find it very unfair. It makes it hard for me and the company to get good dancers, even though our repertoire is quite good – we have an international repertoire, Australian choreographers, modern, classical, everything.
I’m trying to change that [perception] since the first day I arrived here; to get our name everywhere, in every ballet magazine, in all the newspapers outside Perth. It’s so difficult. You cannot believe how hard it is for me. No one has any interest in us in the rest of Australia. I’ve got much more interest from overseas dancers than from Australian dancers. Eighty to 90 per cent of emails from dancers wanting to join the company are from overseas.
I don’t know what to do apart from having dancers from overseas. [Scannella is referring to new dancers; most of the current dancers are Australian.]
A few years before Ivan arrived the company couldn’t really offer the big classical ballets for those who were looking to do Giselle, Swan Lake. Now we can, but it looks as if Australia doesn’t know it.
Scannella intends to change WAB’s current two-tier ranking system of leading artists and artists as a way of encouraging his dancers.
From January 1 next year we will have principals, soloists, demi-soloists and corps de ballet. For the moment we [essentially] have corps de ballet and principals. I think it’s not fair. Every dancer can’t be a principal dancer, and some dancers have to get out of the group sooner than other dancers. Demi-soloist means there’s a door there to be opened if the dancer is working hard. The opportunity is there. As soon as I got my appointment I immediately wanted to do that.
When I first arrived in August [last year, before arriving permanently this year] on the first day I watched the class with Ivan sitting by my side. I was amazed by the way the dancers were working very hard in class, and also I’d been watching rehearsal afterward for the Quarry [program]. They were really enthusiastic. They were really into it, even if it was not a very easy day for them, I suppose. Change of directorship is never a very pleasant moment for a company, it’s always a moment of insecurities.
I was amazed by the level of maturity of the dancers. I kept the company intact for this year because I wanted to give a chance to everyone to have a year with me, to work together, to have more time to get to know me. All the shows have been high quality and all of the dancers are working hard every day. They really believe in what they are doing and give their best every day in every show.
In Europe that’s not always the case. In some countries and companies you have life contracts. For ballet, that’s not a good position.
The majority of the company is Australian. I’m very happy and very proud to lead an Australian company. In the end it all comes from them. If they work hard and improve, they stay with the company. My vision is to bring the company to a very high level; they know that.
The 2013 program was devised entirely by Scannella’s predecessor, Ivan Cavallari. Although they know each other well, Scannella had no input. The forthcoming Onegin, choreographed by John Cranko, is a great coup for WAB.
With Onegin, when I realised it [was on the 2013 program], I was still in Europe. I thought wow, that’s amazing for the reputation of the company. In Europe, Onegin is a ballet everyone wants to dance and every artistic director want to have in the company. I’ve got a lot of demands from dancers from Europe who want to do Onegin!
In Perth Onegin is unknown. It’s a massive production, a real challenge – not artistically, the quality is there, but it’s the number of dancers [in the company]. I hope, touch wood, that no one will get injured. If so I’ll have to bring in guests. But I want to use my dancers. [To rely on guest artists,] that’s not what I wish for my company. It’s a great opportunity for us.
West Australian Ballet’s 2014 program will be announced in October.
The Quarry season will be very different from what the Perth public is used to. It will be a bit more modern and updated, with choreographers from Europe and Australia. I’ve got a young, very good Australian choreographer who will create a piece for us. I’ve got some other choreographers from Europe who are the ones every company is presenting. It will be a real change for the Quarry. For the rest, I’m bringing a full-length we’ve performed before in Perth and will revisit a classical work, but in a refreshed version. I want to bring choreographers who haven’t been to Australia in the past.
In July/August St Petersburg Ballet Theatre will appear in WAB’s home theatre, His Majesty’s, with 15 performances of Swan Lake.
Perth has become more and more attractive to the world because I see [big arts companies] are all coming to Perth. They all want to come to Perth. We, as the State company, we really need huge support now because we are much smaller than those guys. Just by ourselves we can’t compete. When Russian [ballet] companies are coming, the theatres are advertising five months in advance. They are everywhere. If we ask for a little bit more, posters, here and there, the answer is always no. I think WA should first support us, the local company. It’s really not fair. We have Cirque du Soleil; at the end of July we have a Russian company that no one knows about [St Petersburg Ballet Theatre], but because they are doing Swan Lake, everyone has bought a ticket. It killed our Sylphide [which ran at His Majesty’s in May]. The theatre advertised them months in advance. We asked if they could not put the poster right next to Sylphide. I’m really disappointed about that.
I think the public really likes big productions, to see big performances with nice sets and costumes. We’re trying our best. Our shows are always very high quality. I want to get to 60 dancers, that’s what the public likes. A production with 60 dancers is not like one with 30 dancers. As long as we remain small – it’s like in the ocean, the big fish always eat the small fish.
I’m here just for a few years. I’m going to say what I have to say. I’ve always said what I’m thinking; it’s not always good for me, but it doesn’t matter. That’s the way I am. As a director I’m not going to change. I have had six months of observation time. If nobody talks, then things aren’t changing.
WAB’s tour of Youri Vasmos’s Romeo and Juliet in regional Western Australia ended last weekend. Onegin opens in Perth on September 20. The year will end with Peter Pan from November 22.