The Australian Ballet in 2017

Next year the Sydney Opera House’s Joan Sutherland Theatre, home to both The Australian Ballet and Opera Australia when they are in Sydney, will close for seven months. It’s in a good cause, as theatre machinery that’s done sterling work but is now outdated will be replaced. It’s been there since the Opera House opened in 1973. But the closure also means the companies have had to find alternative performance venues from late May to December in 2017.

The Opera House is deeply important to both companies. Opera and ballet are accessible to tourists who may not speak English and the Opera House itself is a huge drawcard. Can those tourists be lured to other venues? And will locals – particularly those with long-held subscription seats with which they are comfortable – stay loyal or simply decide to sit the second half of the year out?

Opera Australia has already announced a vagabond-style program that sees it performing in the Concert Hall and the Playhouse at the Opera House, Sydney Town Hall and the City Recital Centre. It has also secured the Capitol Theatre for Moffatt Oxenbould’s enduringly popular production of Madama Butterfly, double cast so it can be performed nightly for just under two weeks from October 24, 2017.

The Capitol, not surprisingly, is where the AB will also hang its hat in the latter part of the year. It will stage two full-length ballets there, a return of artistic director David McAllister’s sumptuous 2015 version of The Sleeping Beauty (November 2017) and Christopher Wheeldon’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (December 2017). Both are large productions that will be seen to advantage at the Capitol, which was made for grand gestures. It is almost ridiculously ornate, full of visual surprises that border on kitsch but somehow manage to dodge it. There are alcoves full of statuary, a proscenium groaning with decoration and a light-studded ceiling that mimics the night sky. The 2000-seat Capitol is a show all by itself.

Artists of The Australian Ballet in The Sleeping Beauty. 2015. photo Jef...
Amber Scott, centre, as the Lilac Fairy in The Australian Ballet’s Beauty. Photo: Jeff Busby

Beauty will also be staged in Brisbane and Melbourne in the usual theatres and Alice will premiere in Melbourne.

Just before the Joan Sutherland Theatre closes in May the AB will bring back Graeme Murphy’s Nutcracker – The Story of Clara, which premiered an astonishing 25 years ago. With its distinctively Australian take on the story, its touching references to the history of ballet in this country and Kristian Fredrikson’s gorgeous costumes, this Nutcracker has a special place in the AB’s repertoire. After Sydney it will be seen in Melbourne.

That’s it for full-length works. The annual contemporary program is a triple bill called Faster and will feature new works by Wayne McGregor and AB resident choreographer Tim Harbour alongside David Bintley’s Faster, which was created in 2012 to a score by the Australian composer Matthew Hindson. Bintley, the artistic director of Birmingham Royal Ballet, made Faster in London’s Olympics year with the motto Faster, Higher, Stronger as his inspiration (Bintley originally called the ballet exactly that but the International Olympic Committee made him change the title). It will be fascinating to compare this with AB resident choreographer Stephen Baynes’s Personal Best, made for Sydney’s Olympic Arts Festival of 2000 to Philip Glass’s Violin Concerto. In a program note Baynes wrote of athletes’ “obsessive and isolating struggle” for supremacy and the speed with which disappointment can replace elation.

Hindson has described his score for Faster as “symphonic in scope”. Also of note on the music front is that McGregor’s work will have a new score by the indefatigable Steve Reich, who celebrates his 80th birthday tomorrow, October 3. Faster will open in Melbourne in March and then travel to Sydney in April.

Melbourne gets an extra program, Symphony in C, which was seen in Sydney this year. Balanchine’s one-act ballet is preceded by a group of divertissements which will include two short works – Little Atlas and Scent of Love – made, respectively, by AB company members Alice Topp and Richard House. The pieces premiered alongside Symphony in C in Sydney in April.

Little Atlas - Symphony in C - 1pm Dress Rehearsal
Vivienne Wong, Kevin Jackson and Rudy Hawkes in Little Atlas. Photo: Daniel Boud

Which leads us to the big gap in the AB’s programming. There is, again, no Bodytorque program. Bodytorque started in 2004 as a stand-alone showcase for new and relatively new choreographers, mostly drawn from the ranks of the AB. Bodytorque was distinguished from the main program by being held at the former Sydney Theatre, now the Roslyn Packer Theatre, for five performances. Until 2013 it was held annually in Sydney, except for a year off during the AB’s Ballets Russes centenary project. In one ambitious year all the choreographers were able to work to new commissioned scores.

In 2014 Bodytorque went to Melbourne for the first time, for three performances in the AB’s usual (and big) home of the State Theatre. In 2015 the program dwindled to a couple of “pop-up” performances tacked on to the end of a mainstage show, free for anyone who wanted to stay on. And then Bodytorque essentially disappeared. This year Topp and House, both of whom had been Bodytorque regulars, were given a slot for a new work in the diverts half of the Symphony in C program in Sydney, as they will be again when the program is repeated in Melbourne next year – with the same 10-minute work.

Perhaps McAllister is thinking about a refreshed way of developing new choreographers. Or perhaps attention has been diverted to Storytime Ballet, a new venture directed at very young children. There’s no denying that the AB is a busy company and that 2017 is year in which it has to look closely at where it puts its resources. There’s also no rule that says everything has to stay the same, and it’s true to say that if you’re looking for a success story from Bodytorque, since its inception only Tim Harbour has emerged as a regular dancemaker. But if you don’t keep looking you’re not going to find anyone.

4 Comments Add yours

  1. Lee Christofis says:

    Deborah, it will indeed be interesting to see how things go in 17, with two peripatetic companies finding their legs in different places, although TAB has done the Capitol before. Your final point about Bodytorque and its apparent demise – the question is like an elephant in the room story. Choreography, not just dancing, is a key concern of any ballet company, and TAB has not scored highly in comparison with companies like the Royal Ballet and Birmingham RB, or Dutch National for that matter. Equally telling, is TAB’s unwillingness to re-stage ballets that were moderately to generally successful in the past; I can think of a dozen one-act works which, although they may have made for an anniversary, for instance, of by a guest non-Oz artist, are still worth another look. And I think it’s not good policy to toss works out because they didn’t fire in their first outing. Opera programmers could teach ballet a few tricks about revisiting the past. An unrelated, but good example arose this weekend. Just think how many first-time flops have turned out to be pillars of the lyric repertoire? The point is that if a company does not invest in choreography as a discipline, all year, every year, how can it hope to build new artists to draw upon? A parallel scenario we might consider is how artistic directors of arts festivals have changed their modus operandi in the past twenty+ years. Nowadays, a good arts fest director will commission new work from local artists to present next to imported works and artists; or they might have a concept and co-produce a work with a creative team; or, starting from scratch, build a strand of experimentation and innovation into the festival program in order to give artists opportunities, resources, and the freedom to fail, although many such works can often be terrific and popular. Ballet companies have to get so much smarter in this realm, or start to look timid and old fashioned.

    1. Yes, yes and yes Lee!

  2. Sue Donnelly says:

    I think Deborah means ‘by all the usual places in Brisbane’ either the Lyric or the Playhouse Theatres at QPAC. Although Brisbane is a surprising city and one can never be quite sure.
    It’s a real pity that Bodytorque has been dropped by TAB. It was always an exciting program or new work and made one feel that ballet was In touch with contemporary society.

    1. Sorry Sue – slightly cryptic as I now see (very cryptic??). I was referring only to Sleeping Beauty at that point and that when performed in Melbourne and Brisbane in 2017 Beauty would be in the expected theatres in those cities, which for big works are the State Theatre and the Lyric Theatre. And yes, a big shame about Bodytorque. Not only did it give choreographers a chance to develop, it was, as you say, always interesting for the audience.

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