Shaping an Australian ballet company

West Australian Ballet's Jiri Jelinek, Brooke Widdison-Jacobs, Fiona Evans and artistic director Aurelien Scannella. Photo: Sergey Pevnev

West Australian Ballet’s Jiri Jelinek, Brooke Widdison-Jacobs, Fiona Evans and artistic director Aurelien Scannella. Photo: Sergey Pevnev

WHEN the ebullient Ivan Cavallari accepted an artistic directorship in France, West Australian Ballet’s board knew exactly what it wanted in his replacement. Starting in 2007, Cavallari and WAB general manager Steven Roth had successfully pushed for more funding, an increase in permanent dancer numbers from 19 to 32 and had secured splendid new headquarters. Some of Cavallari’s programming had been a bit too way-out for the Perth audience but attendance, box-office, sponsorship and philanthropy were on the up. The board saw no reason to make a dramatic change.

In August last year WAB announced Belgian-born Aurelien Scannella would take over from January, and last night he unveiled his first program. In 2014 WAB will present Giselle, La fille mal gardee and Snow White and the 7 Dwarfs – a classic, a light-hearted comedy and one for the family – and the contemporary zing will come, as usual, in the Quarry season as part of the Perth International Arts Festival. When it comes to ballet at WAB’s home, His Majesty’s, audiences want the “straightforward classics”, says Roth.

Like Cavallari before him Scannella is on the warpath about WAB’s size. He’s spoken about getting to 60, an aggressive number that is unlikely, but with five young artists next year there will be 37 dancers and his ambition for a large troupe combined with a safety-first mainstage program seems to be on the money as far as the WAB board is concerned.

That one European has replaced another at the helm is “circumstantial in many ways” says WAB board chair John Langoulant. (Founded in 1952 by former Ballets Russes dancer Kira Bousloff, WAB has more often than not been led by a European director – six out of the total of 11.) There was no discrimination in favour of an overseas candidate:  “We encouraged some Australian directors who were working in Australia and offshore to apply. Some did, some didn’t, I must say,” says Langoulant.

“Aurelien ended up on top and we were more than happy to appoint him, not only because of the skill he brought, but because he readily understood where WAB was trying to go. He wants to take the company to another level, and the board frankly is up for it.”

The board selects the artistic director. That person then shapes programming and maintains or develops company style. “Style” is important. Ballet has an international language, hence the worldwide movement of dancers, but style is company-related. It has local history and is also heavily dependent on the artistic director’s tastes.

Scannella visited Perth briefly when his appointment was made public. He then returned to Europe, where he looked at dancers. He held more auditions when he came to Australia permanently. He needed to select nine dancers to bring WAB up to full strength as company members had retired or departed and some contracts were not renewed.

The jobs went to three Australians and six dancers from Europe, including Scannella’s biggest catch, Jiri Jelinek. A former principal artist with National Ballet of Canada and Stuttgart ballet, Jelinek made his WAB debut in Onegin, a ballet he has danced many times.

There was some criticism about the number of Europeans joining WAB but Scannella is unrepentant. “Eighty to 90 per cent of emails from dancers wanting to join the company are from overseas,” he said in June. “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. I needed to have the company back to 36. lf I can’t find the dancers here, well…”

Langoulant is on side. “We’ve got to put the best possible dancers we can on stage to keep the audiences coming to us. And if it means from time to time we have more European or non-Australian dancers coming into the company, that’s just the way it’s got to be. But the whole picture is one of excellence, and if we can get it through Australian dancers we’ll take them,” he says.

Dancers seek repertoire that suits their gifts and directors with whom they click, and vice versa. One company’s neglected or under-appreciated artist may be another’s star. Many Australian dancers adorn overseas companies, but there can nevertheless be an expectation that local dancers should be preferred in Australian companies. The Australian Ballet has mainly Australian-born dancers, with many coming from the highly renowned Australian Ballet School. Nothing is ever cut and dried, but the ABS tends to snap up the best students and the best graduates tend to want to enter the AB, if there are vacancies, or to go overseas, although in a sign of change in Brisbane this year five accepted contracts with Queensland Ballet under its new artistic director Li Cunxin, who was formerly with the AB.

At present roughly three quarters of the WAB and QB dancers are Australian-born. The count is imprecise, however. When does a foreign-born dancer start being considered a local? Two years? Five years? Ten years? What about New Zealanders, or those from the wider region – China and Japan, for instance? Three of QB’s principal artists are Chinese-born. Li says there have been no complaints.

Significant change is always a strong possibility when a new director arrives and Li chose 10 new faces. Scannella mainly went for dancers with some company experience; virtually all Li’s picks were straight out of a training institution, or close to it. Both say they would give preference to an Australian over a non-Australian – if they believe the standard is equal. The inexperience in QB’s junior ranks will be offset next year when three guest artists from the UK star in Kenneth MacMillan Romeo & Juliet, including Australian Steven McRae, a principal artist with the Royal Ballet.

Despite having his full roster of 28 dancers (he will have an additional five to eight young artists next year) Li recently held auditions, as will Scannella tomorrow. Says Li: “I’m very conscious about giving Queensland and Australian dancers work in this company but for me the bottom line is always about standards. I have to be open-minded enough to see what’s out there.”

As for Scannella: “I’m very happy and very proud to lead an Australian company. In the end it all comes from them.”

This article first appeared in The Australian on October 18.

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