Robyn Hendricks promoted to principal artist at The Australian Ballet

In what has become a tradition at The Australian Ballet, Robyn Hendricks was promoted on stage on Friday in Melbourne to the highest rank of principal artist. She was elevated by artistic director David McAllister after dancing Odette-Odile in Stephen Baynes’s production of Swan Lake. Hendricks joined the AB in 2005, became a soloist in 2011 and was named a senior artist only last year. She is South African-born and trained at The Australian Ballet School in Melbourne.

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Robyn Hendricks after her promotion to principal artist. Photo: Lynette Wills

Hendricks brings the number of principal artists to 10, five men and five women. The AB currently lists 77 company members. Its goal is to have a complement of 85.

Hendricks danced Gamzatti in Stanton Welch’s La Bayadère in 2014 and Aurora in McAllister’s The Sleeping Beauty last year, the role that won her promotion to senior artist late last year. At the time I wrote that Hendricks’s Aurora “was a slightly mysterious young woman in whom you could see the queen she is destined to be. The watchfulness and engagement with her suitors created a whole, interesting, individual character and the elegance and quiet sophistication of her dancing spoke of great things ahead”.

Another key moment last year was her glowing performance in the company premiere of Ashton’s Symphonic Variations and this year in the Vitesse program Hendricks was superb in the slow movement of Christopher Wheeldon’s DGV: Danse à Grande Vitesse. In Symphony in C, which paired the one-act Balanchine ballet with a group of divertissements, she was transcendent in the pas de deux from Wheeldon’s After the Rain, which she danced with Damien Smith, the Australian-born former principal artist with San Francisco Ballet who was making a nostalgic trip back home.

As I wrote then, “AB senior artist – and surely very soon a principal – Robyn Hendricks and Australian-born guest Damian Smith quietly distilled the complexities of love. Smith, who retired from San Francisco Ballet in 2014 after a long and shining career, brought the gravitas and weight of a long, deep association with the role and Hendricks was outstandingly luxurious, mysterious and unknowable.”

In conversation with Deborah Jowitt

New York-based Deborah Jowitt is one of the world’s most eminent dance critics. She wrote for The Village Voice for 44 years, is a biographer, speaker and lecturer, and has been in Melbourne to conduct a workshop as part of the Keir Choreographic Award. As a performer in the 1950s and 1960s Jowitt worked with some of the art form’s most influential choreographers, starting a study of dance that has lasted more than 60 years. From this unparalleled position she talks about criticism in the digital age, labels (she hates them) and how to look at dance.

Jones: It would be good to talk about the distractions and resources of the internet. Has critical writing changed? Has dance changed?

Jowitt: During the first decades of my writing career I, like many of my colleagues, was influenced by Susan Sontag’s influential book of essays Against Interpretation. I would focus on what I’d seen and felt about a particular dance (unless it was, say, one with an obvious story to tell—such as Swan Lake or Martha Graham’s Clytemnestra). My heroes (and Sontag’s) were Merce Cunningham and George Balanchine. They and more radical choreographers like Trisha Brown said in so many words, “what you see is what you get”. Or “if you want to interpret it, feel free to do so”.

For a critic in the digital world, “interpretation” is no longer a “feel free” matter; it’s often a challenging obligation in relation to the kinds of dances we’re looking at. Adventurous art, as we know, changes with the times. Back in the late 1920s and early 1930s, when Martha Graham was proselytising her early dances, she spoke of a new tempo that been prompted by the development of machines. It was a quicker, harder rhythm, and the city streets of New York intensified it.

Deborah Jowitt, in a still from “Every Day a Little Death,” one of seven short movies from Dancing Sondheim, an App by Richard Daniels. Photo: Richard Daniels / Dances for an iPhone.

Deborah Jowitt, in a still from “Every Day a Little Death,” one of seven short movies from Dancing Sondheim, an App by Richard Daniels. Photo: Richard Daniels / Dances for an iPhone.

The rhythm of today, however, has a flickering energy—suggesting a world of sudden transitions, of disparate elements layered over one another or butted together. We are multi-taskers; we tweet; we comment; we join chat rooms; we seek online for the best or cheapest products or ways of removing callouses. Our computer’s desktop may have enough open windows for a castle, and the sidebar is there to lure us into new territory.

There’s almost no such thing as a sell-by date attached to material posted on the internet. Cyberspace never fills up. I have access to things I couldn’t always find before—or thought I needed to find: relevant sheet music, analysis of the score, YouTube clips or vimeos of past performances, bios, headshots, company history. I can get hooked on this information glut and the speed with which I can, say, virtually enter a museum to check a painting that inspired an image in a dance I’m trying to write about. No editor helps me—only knowledgeable friends who e-mail (sometimes within five minutes) to point out post-publication glitches that I can correct. A writer in total (sometimes terrifying) control.

Oh, and, by the way, for this, I am paid … nothing.

Jones: There used to be well-known gatekeepers. Now the critical field is fragmented. Is there something interesting and useful about the proliferation of voices?

Jowitt: Dance being somewhat the stepchild of the arts, I feel that it’s profitable—if sometimes alarming—that people are weighing in about what they like and dislike. I love the fact that a real dialogue can sometimes get going about a particular work. That doesn’t happen in print journalism, when comments (if any) arrive when everyone has all but forgotten what they pertain to.

Jones: You call dance “the stepchild of the arts”. Why?

Jowitt: Because more people go to galleries and museums and attend performances of opera and classical music than go to dance performances. At least, that’s my impression, and it used to be substantiated by surveys. In terms of funding, dance has been low man on the totem pole, except for the major ballet companies. In the US, it seems to me that independent choreographers spend a lot of time hustling for money. Decades ago, they could live and rehearse in re-purposed former industrial lofts. Now they rush from one rent-by-the-hour studio to another.

Jones: The words modern and contemporary seem to be used interchangeably these days. Do such definitions have much meaning today, particularly with the greater mingling of contemporary dance with ballet?

Jowitt: The confusion may have begun with America coming up in the 1930s with “the modern dance” and Britain using contemporary to mean pretty much the same thing. You know what? I hate terms. That is, I hate spending time trying to figure out how to categorise a dance. And I try to avoid doing it. Nowadays “modern dance” tends to relegate a work to classics of the past. “Contemporary” seems more neutral. Then there’s “postmodern.”  Once I called certain kinds of work “balletomodern” (usually with a pejorative edge). Quite a few choreographers who have had nothing to do with ballet contribute works to ballet companies. I think of Paul Taylor’s Black Tuesday being performed by American Ballet Theatre.

Jones: You have written of choreographers’ “willingness – indeed, their frequent mission – to challenge the expectations and sensibilities of the public or to present unsettling images of contemporary life”. Then shortly after you write about “hybrids” and that some ballet-makers have a more contemporary outlook than some certifiably modern dance choreographers.

Jowitt: Hmmm. Those “hybrids” may be the “balletomodern” works I mentioned. I put Glen Tetley in that category once. I have thought of some of Balanchine’s ballets being bracingly contemporary, in line with the music he used. Say, Stravinsky’s twelve-tone music (I think) for Agon or Xenakis’s for Metastaseis and Pithoprakta. My Tetley example (not entirely fair to him) as “balletomodern” aligns him with works that use modern dance’s penchant for invention to make ballet look sexier and more down to earth, while employing the virtuosity and theatricality that would make a work fit a ballet company’s profile.

Jones: That’s a great term – balletomodern.

Jowitt: Feel free to appropriate it.

Jones: You have called ballet “a powerful monolithic entity”. Have you changed your mind on that score given what seems to be an increased communication between ballet and contemporary dance?

Jowitt: Ballet companies have definitely become more experimental in developing a repertory. And there aren’t that many excellent choreographers using the classical vocabulary beautifully. But I may have been referring to the fact that, in terms of dance, many ballet companies are big, corporate establishments or, in Europe and elsewhere embedded in national theatres. They have budgets and executives and powerful boards and (in America for sure) big donors. Often, depending on the establishment, the company has to worry about what will sell, whom it might offend or shock in a not-good way.

Jones: And an associated question, in my mind at least, relates to Alexei Ratmansky’s work on getting as close to Petipa’s style as possible in The Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake. Is that an academic exercise or something important for audiences right now?

Jowitt: I can’t speak for all audiences, but I love Ratmansky taking that step. Those two ballets in particular have accrued so many changes, deletions, and additions over the centuries—with those in charge shifting the music around, catering to the demands of principal dancers, and going in for trendy updates with bizarre costumes and sets.

Jones: I love the Ratmansky explorations too. And I love that in the contemporary world there are many, many interesting women but in ballet it’s become quite a topic of conversation lately, and it’s news that Canadian choreographer Crystal Pite will make a work for the Royal Ballet next year. Any ideas why women are so under-represented as ballet choreographers? And what effect does that have on the art form itself?

Jowitt: I can only guess that the masculine domination of ballet is in part a hand-me-down from the 19th century and before that. Male choreographers were the leaders of European ballet companies, probably because it was assumed that they knew more about business and authoritarian rule than women had any right to know. Only rarely did a woman run a company.

Isadora Duncan, Loie Fuller, Martha Graham et al could afford to experiment (and live in partial poverty) because they weren’t entrusted to run big companies (meaning ballet ones), and they weren’t interested in choreographing musicals. So, in a way, “modern” dance and all the experimenting that went on was a woman’s game to begin with. Interesting though that, beginning in the late 1950s and early sixties, men ran the largest contemporary companies, e.g. Paul Taylor, Alwin Nikolais, Alvin Ailey, Merce Cunningham … More recently, we’ve had Violette Verdy at the Paris Opera and Suzanne Farrell and Gelsey Kirkland with their own ballet companies.

Don’t you think this is somehow in line with women in the business world making less money than men when holding down the same position?

Jones: It’s been an incredibly persistent hand-me-down. I think perhaps the highly authoritarian nature of the training (dancers have to be very obedient in the classroom) has something to do with it. Perhaps with a few more women running prominent companies – English National Ballet, Miami City Ballet, National Ballet of Canada, Paris Opera Ballet coming up – things may move a bit more quickly.

Which brings me to the ephemerality of dance and the question of legacy. We’ve seen the various ways in which the preservation of the work and ideas of key 20th century choreographers, including Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham and now Tricia Brown and Paul Taylor, is being handled. But is the really important thing the less tangible legacy of the influence great choreographers have on others rather than the ability to reproduce works that will inevitably start to look and feel very different?

Jowitt: Some of those ways of preserving a legacy are better than others, and no one can predict what Paul Taylor’s venture into a diverse repertory will become after his death. However, I’m not about to put one of your definitions above the other. Yes, of course, it’s inevitable and enriching that some great choreographers’ contributions live on—transformed and personalized—in the work of the next generation. But I’m happy to see companies mounting works by Cunningham, for example. Properly overseen, they will be of fine quality, even if a bit different from their original state. So far, Pina Bausch’s company has been looking good.

Change and possible deterioration, by the way, are also inevitable in those legacy companies. The original step may be forgotten or modified in ways that alter its impact. A dancer wants to make her own contribution and tailor a role to fit her.

Jones: You’ve been to Australia several times. Were you able to see much dance here? Or the work of Australian choreographers elsewhere? Which leads to the question of national style, if such a thing exists. People do like to slap labels on things and you’ve already said how much you hate them, but is there a little bit of truth in the idea of national style, impulses, subject matter, whatever you might want to call it?

Jowitt: I’m not sure I can speculate about an Australian style. I’ve seen the Sydney Dance Company and works by Libby Dempster, Rebecca Hilton, Hellen Skye, Meryl Tankard, Helen Herbertson, and others. I’ve also seen and admired Lucy Guerin’s work here and in Australia.

But these people aren’t all alike. It would be inappropriate (not to say dangerous) for me, as an outsider to speculate on what might be “Australian” about those choreographers. Maybe when I see the performances this time around I’ll perceive common themes, but that’s not necessarily so. I should have mentioned, too, Russell Dumas, whose work I know well and admire greatly. He focuses on movement and form in ways that both heat up and relax the dancers’ bodies.

Jones: Finally, one often hears people say they don’t understand dance, that they don’t get it. I suppose that’s why audiences for dance are lower than those for some other performing arts. Do critics have any responsibility to help guide audiences to dance?

Jowitt: I understand the problem. I don’t see myself “guiding” audiences or trying to “educate” them. That would mean writing in a particular, perhaps condescending way.

Jones: On your blog you write: “You can only say what you saw, what it seemed to express, what traditions it connected to or broke away from, and what you thought of it.”

Jowitt: That statement is pretty bare-bones, but I’ll stand by it.

A shorter version of this conversation appeared in The Australian on April 22.

Deborah Jowitt blogs at artsjournal.com

The 2016 Keir Choreographic Award semi-finals continue at Dancehouse in Melbourne until April 30. The final will be held at Carriageworks, Sydney, May 5-7.

Taking the gift of music to Sri Lanka

Serendib, also spelled Serendip, Arabic Sarandīb, name for the island of Sri Lanka (Ceylon). The name, Arabic in origin, was recorded in use at least as early as AD 361 and for a time gained considerable currency in the West. It is best known to speakers of English through the word serendipity, invented in the 18th century by the English man of letters Horace Walpole on the inspiration of a Persian fairy tale, “The Three Princes of Serendip,” whose heroes often made discoveries by chance.

Encyclopaedia Brittanica

On January 12 violinist Ursula Nelius will play with the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra for a performance of Opera Australia’s The Magic Flute at the Sydney Opera House. The next day she flies to Sri Lanka to start the next chapter of her life, one in which serendipity plays quite a role.

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Ursula Nelius, founder and CEO of Serendip String Tuition

About two years ago she went on holiday to Sri Lanka. It was a chance destination – a friend suggested it and she agreed to go. She was there for just two and a half weeks but the effect was profound. “I fell in love with the place. Fell in love with the way I felt. I’d never felt like that in another country. I felt as if I’d come home,” she says. She loved the family-oriented society she saw and the value placed on education. Travelling and looking around, Nelius started to wonder what she might be able to do if she moved there; something that allowed her to give rather than take. The fact that on her last night in Sri Lanka she met the man who would become her partner was “the icing on the cake”.

Nelius was living back home in Sydney after graduate music studies in the US and a long period working in Munich – Nelius has German family connections although she describes her self as “fifth-generation Watsons Bay” – and was working as a freelance musician. She had auditions for more permanent positions “but was always the runner-up”. She wasn’t downcast, however. Everything happens for a reason, she thought.

After the Sri Lankan holiday Nelius went to visit her mother in Macksville where they happened to be watching the ABC’s Foreign Correspondent program. Serendipitously it featured Buskaid, a South African organisation based in Soweto that helps young black musicians in the townships. Bingo! A little over a year ago Nelius returned to Sri Lanka for three weeks to gauge support for the idea of starting something similar in Galle, in the south-west of the country. She met people who knew people and doors started opening. “Every time I talk to somebody about it, whether it’s here or there, it’s ‘how can I help?’,” she says. Just the other day, for example, via others she made a good Sri Lankan contact in the person of the chairwoman of the Symphony Orchestra of Sri Lanka, who invited Nelius to perform with it in February.

Out of all this passion – and networking – came Serendip String Tuition, of which Nelius is founder and CEO. The not-for-profit organisation will offer free tuition and instruments (concentrating on strings only) to underprivileged children, not expecting that they will become professional musicians (although some may) but that music will enrich their lives and the lives of those around them. Nelius says Eastern classical music as well as the Western tradition will be taught.

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Ursula Nelius in Ambalantota, Sri Lanka

The planning doesn’t stop there. An Australian expat with whom Nelius is working in Sri Lanka suggested establishing a community centre with a library and café that could potentially be a source of funds and also a place for visiting teachers to stay; and Nelius envisages the possibility of an annual chamber music festival in Galle that would feature Australian musicians who could mentor the local children.

None of this happens simply by wishing it to be so. Not only does Nelius need to raise significant funds along with in-kind donations, she has had to navigate her way through the thickets of officialdom in two countries to have Serendip String Tuition registered as a charity in Australia and an NGO in Sri Lanka, the latter “an arduous process” in a country torn by war until relatively recently. As those wheels turn, Nelius has been busy with more grassroots work. She put the call out for donations of instruments, bows and teaching materials and so far has “two cellos, I got a second viola last night, there are umpteen million bows and 16 to 18 violins of different sizes”. (A group of “very generous” people has donated time to prepare the instruments and bows.) And on it goes. For instance, a little while ago Nelius contacted a whole raft of private schools in Sydney to see if their annual stocktake of instruments might yield something for Serendip String Tuition. She says the response has been positive. A double bass has eluded her so far and may have to be sourced in Sri Lanka.

On the micro-fundraising level, a friend’s children have pledged to donate their takings from Christmas busking to Serendip. Every bit helps.

Now it’s time to take that big step of moving to Galle. Steadfast, organised, determined and excited, Nelius says that although she knows it will be a struggle in the beginning, she hopes Serendip String Tuition will be doing its job within the year. She had the benefit of discovering music and its transformative powers when she was only four – she is now 45 – and would like to be able to look back “when I’m 80” and think she’s done something important with her life. “It’s never struck me that it’s not going to work,” she says. “How will I ever know if I don’t try?”

Lucinda Dunn: Act II, updated

When I spoke to former Australian Ballet principal artist Lucinda Dunn recently about her new career as artistic director of Tanya Pearson Classical Coaching Academy she was deep in rehearsals for Sydney City Youth Ballet’s The Nutcracker. SCYB is where the academy’s students gain performing experience before – if they are good enough and fortunate enough – they join a professional ballet company.

SCYB’s Nutcracker, which I also saw last year, is now seen in a refreshed version and a new venue, Chatswood’s The Concourse, which has a very good auditorium for dance. The production was originally choreographed by Tanya Pearson and features some traditional elements, in particular in the grand pas de deux for the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Prince. This year Act II features new sections by veteran dancer and choreographer Paul Boyd (he is on the teaching staff at Queensland Ballet), including a sophisticated and challenging Arabian dance.

It’s a fast-paced, entertaining production with plenty of opportunities for young dancers to show their mettle. Standing out at the 5pm performance on December 16 were Katherine Sonnekus (Snow Queen), Lana Tramonte (Sugar Plum) and April Maguire (Arabian). Each looks well prepared for a professional career. Gabe Jahnke partnered both the Snow Queen and Sugar Plum with pleasing care and he managed some difficult lifts admirably for one so young. 

The role of Clara is shared between two young women. Both Janae Kerr (Young Clara) and Stephanie Parthenos (Teenage Clara) were vivid, engaging characters in a production that, while relatively modest in scale, has loads of charm and the thrill that comes from seeing the next generation of dancers making the transition from student to artist.

The original story follows:

THE quiet suburban studio where seven young women are taking class is nothing special; just the usual anonymous space with an array of barres and a piano in the corner. What lifts it out of the ordinary is the teacher demonstrating, guiding and encouraging. More than in any other art, ballet is handed down from person to person, body to body, and these students are getting the benefit of the best. As Lucinda Dunn takes them through increasingly complex combinations of the classroom steps – pliés, fondus, ronds de jambe and so on – that form the basic ballet vocabulary, she is passing on wisdom gained from a career unparalleled in Australia. When she retired from The Australian Ballet in April last year she had been with the company for 23 years, 12 of them as a principal artist. She wasn’t just a dancer; she was the company’s longest-serving woman, a prima ballerina who had all the great roles in her repertoire and a devoted following.

Wearing the typical dancer’s layers of practice gear and her long hair caught in a bun, Dunn still looks as if she could step on stage at a moment’s notice. But when she decided to bring the curtain down she had turned 40 and had two young daughters, one of whom had started school. It was time to move on.

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Lucinda Dunn, artistic director of Tanya Pearson Classical Coaching Academy. Photo: Erik Braun

While it’s usual to say a dancer has retired, the word is misleading. Dancers don’t stop working: they reinvent themselves. Some ballet stars extend their stage careers by moving into the contemporary sphere – Sylvie Guillem and Mikhail Baryshnikov pre-eminently – but many stay close to the profession in other ways. They open studios, teach and coach, or train as Pilates instructors, nutritionists or in a host of related fields.

Dunn’s transition was swift. Shortly before her final performances it was announced she would become artistic director of Tanya Pearson Classical Coaching Academy (TPCCA), a highly regarded private training establishment in Sydney’s St Leonards that offers full-time courses for those hoping to enter the profession as well as part-time training for all ages. Dunn studied there before going to the Royal Ballet School and maintained close ties with it: in announcing her appointment, academy founder Tanya Pearson described Dunn as “a brilliant coach and teacher”.

Within a few months of her emotional Australian Ballet farewell – her last role was Manon – Dunn, who has a Medal of the Order of Australia for her contribution to dance, was working at the academy several days a week before officially starting on January 1 this year. “I went from one massive position to the next,” she says over a cappuccino (double shot), speaking in between taking class for full-timers and overseeing a rehearsal for Sydney City Youth Ballet’s The Nutcracker, which opens on December 15. Tanya Pearson founded the company so she could offer performing experience and Dunn is also its artistic director along with her other duties.

As if that weren’t enough, there’s also talk about regenerating Mrs Pearson’s Sydney City Ballet Company. It would have a core of professional dancers but room for senior students too. “We’re in the initial stages of putting together a board, getting not-for-profit paperwork done, talking about logistics,” says Dunn. “It’s just an exciting prospect at this stage.”

The role, which she acknowledges is rather bigger than she had envisaged, is still evolving and expanding – “minute by minute”. Having stopped dancing only recently, it’s not surprising that she loves the direct, hands-on connection of teaching and feels it is her forte. “It’s why I was brought in.” But it is only one part of the picture. As well as taking classes and the preparation that entails, Dunn has responsibility for strategic planning and oversight of the teaching faculty as well as progress meetings with pupils and parents, among other calls on her time such as the upcoming Senior Summer School in January. There is also strong demand, impossible to be met fully, for individual coaching. She is less involved with the busy part-time academy but gives advice and has final say in its decision-making. (Happily she doesn’t have to wrangle spreadsheets and budgets. Business management is the province of general manager Nicole Sharp, daughter of Mrs Pearson, or Mrs P as she is known to all. Mrs P may have withdrawn from day-to-day operations but is still a much-loved presence at the academy, attending a Nutcracker rehearsal on the day I visited.)

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A scene from The Nutcracker, 2014. Photo: Erik Sawaya

There’s a lot to fit into a working day – a day that inevitably stretches into the evening at home with her girls and her husband, Danilo Radojevic – and Dunn says she may have to retreat somewhat from the studio next year to have more time to observe, plan and set goals. “I have spoken to so many artistic directors in my travels this year and when I ask, ‘how many classes do you teach?’, they say: ‘None.’ They don’t do any. I’m trying to do everything.”

Her goal, however, is simple: “I want to attract the best students so I have the best talent to work with and I want to have the best possible training for these students so they have the best possible careers.” The academy’s full-time program (there are 24 enrolled this year) includes classical, contemporary and character classes. There is also a lecture series encompassing dance psychology, nutrition and ballet-specific anatomy. “I wish I’d had more knowledge of that when I started my career. I sort of worked things out as I went along,” says Dunn. Next year TPCCA will offer choreographic workshops.

Dunn would like to see stronger desire and more opportunity for careers in this country. “I would love to see my students go to places within Australia first,” she says, finding it “incredibly sad” that many young competition winners have their eyes on Europe only. She is delighted that a TPCCA graduate, Vida Polakov, was this year accepted as a Young Artist with West Australian Ballet.

It is, nevertheless, the case that many young dancers want to test themselves against the best in international forums and Dunn is excited that two TPCCA students have made it into the final 74 participants (from nearly 300 aspirants) for the 2016 Prix de Lausanne, being held from January 31 to February 7. Dunn will have an unusually privileged position from which to view their efforts. A former winner in Lausanne, she will serve on the 2016 jury alongside international luminaries including former American Ballet Theatre star and now director of Uruguay’s national ballet company Julio Bocca (the jury president), fellow former prix winners Viviana Durante and Marcelo Gomes, Paris Opera Ballet School director Elisabeth Platel and Vaganova Ballet Academy principal Nikolai Tsiskaridze.

But before that there is the annual Sydney City Youth Ballet production to shepherd to the stage for 10 performances. The Nutcracker is a perennial favourite and offers plenty of roles for senior and junior students: mice, snowflakes, partygoers, dolls and denizens of the Kingdom of Sweets among them. For the most experienced students there’s the chance they might be chosen for the Sugar Plum Fairy or the Prince, roles they will aspire to once they join a professional company – and after they’ve served their apprenticeship in the corps de ballet, a likelihood Dunn prepares them for. “In the repertoire classes students don’t just do solo after solo after solo. They do things that require the dancers to come back into line, because that’s where they’ll be,” Dunn says laughing. She started there herself.

During her long career Dunn was often a guest artist with Sydney City Youth Ballet. It is inspiring for students to be able to dance alongside stars and Dunn is continuing the practice, inviting glamorous on- and off-stage couple Chengwu Guo and Ako Kondo, both principal artists with The Australian Ballet, to dance the lead Nutcracker roles at some performances. “They are among the most exciting principals in the world,” says Dunn, who seems content to be looking forward rather than regretting that the Sugar Plum Fairy is now in her rearview mirror.

Lucinda Dunn and Robert Curran in The Nutcracker Photography Jim McFarlane

Lucinda Dunn and Robert Curran in The Australian Ballet’s The Nutcracker. Photo: Jim McFarlane

“It’s definitely a massive amount I’ve bitten off but I like being with the students. Some of these dancers were at my final performance. I want to give them all I know while it’s still fresh in my mind. I’ve still got my leotard and my shoes on so I’m still dancing in some capacity. I suppose it’s why I don’t miss it so much.”

Sydney City Youth Ballet’s The Nutcracker, December 15-20, matinee and evening performances. The Concourse, Chatswood, Sydney.

Robert Curran attracts $US1 million gift for Louisville Ballet

IN his first year as artistic director of Louisville Ballet, in the US state of Kentucky, former Australian Ballet principal dancer Robert Curran has attracted a donation of $US1 million to the company. It is believed to be the largest gift received from an individual donor in the company’s 63-year history, says Louisville Ballet director of marketing Natalie Harris. The donor, who is based in New York, wishes to remain anonymous.

Robert Curran. Photo: Quentin Jones

Robert Curran. Photo: Quentin Jones

The gift was made public on August 14, just days before the anniversary of Curran’s appointment, announced on August 19 last year. To put the impact of the donation into perspective, the annual budget of Louisville Ballet is $US3.5 million. Curran would say only about the donor that the giver “has a clarity of purpose that is as inspiring as the generosity. Our donor insists on anonymity to ensure that the story is about what Louisville Ballet is doing and achieving and nothing else. I can’t tell you how humbling that is.”

The gift will help support a key aspect of his vision for the company, that of connecting art forms, says Curran. “I, we, believe that when you come to a ballet performance you see dance (of course!) but you can also experience live music, visual art, design, technology, literature, dramatic art, and so on,” he said via email. “No other art form can deliver this multiplicity the way a ballet company can.”

The provision of live music is a priority. It has not been a given that all Louisville Ballet performances are presented with an orchestra but that will now be possible (the gift is intended to support artistic activity for two years) and Curran also wants to commission new music for the company. He says details of collaborations will be released shortly.

When I visited Louisville in April this year (read my report here) Curran was staging his first program for the company’s 24 dancers and 15 trainees. Earlier works in the 2014-2015 season had been programmed by his predecessor, Bruce Simpson. Curran’s Director’s Choice mixed bill contained a classical favourite, Serge Lifar’s Suite en blanc, Balanchine’s Square Dance and a new work from Australian choreographer Lucas Jervies, What Light Is to Our Eyes. It was made to the first symphony of young American composer Sebastian Chang, which had been commissioned and was given its world premiere by Louisville Orchestra earlier in the year. Jervies’s use of it was a demonstration that Curran meant what he said about wanting to connect with other Louisville arts organisations: even in these early days the intent was clear. And more than intent – Curran had also managed to get permission from the Balanchine Trust to use new designs for Square Dance and commissioned Louisville artist Leticia Quesenberry for the scenic element.

The 2015-2016 season, Curran’s first full year of programming, opens in October with a new production of Coppélia, set in Louisville’s Germantown area in 1917. Curran is choreographing the ballet after the original by Arthur Saint-Léon and it is being designed by local artist Jacob Heustis in what Curran calls “a perfect example of what we are trying to achieve”. Louisville Ballet’s costume master Dan Fedie is creating new costume designs and the score will be played by Louisville Orchestra. (R)evolution, a March 2016 co-production with Louisville Orchestra, will feature works by Adam Hougland (the company’s principal choreographer) and include a world premiere score by Louisville Orchestra’s music director Teddy Abrams, a vibrant young conductor who is still in his 20s.

In April Curran told me how happy he was to be in Louisville. He was “in the right place”, he said. That doesn’t mean, however, he has left home and old friends behind. When we exchanged emails about his exciting news he ended on this note: “Australia is so important to me. I hope I’m doing them proud,” he wrote.

‘I am in the right place’

Robert Curran was a long-serving principal artist with The Australian Ballet, from which he retired in 2011. He’s now leading a small company in the United States and relishing a role that is both very similar – ballet is ballet, the studio is the studio – and yet very different from his  former life.

LOUISVILLE is a city of about 750,000 people lying west of the Appalachian Mountains on the Ohio River in Kentucky. It was founded in 1778 during the American Revolution, named after Louis XVI (the French were allies against the British), and is situated in the South, although very much in the north of the South – it takes little more than two hours in a not very large aircraft to fly there from New York. But a Southern city it is, proud of its hospitality and its role as a leading bourbon producer.

As everyone knows, Louisville is famous for the annual Kentucky Derby, which is kicked off by Thunder Over Louisville, a fireworks display described as the biggest in North America. The city is also the headquarters for the parent company of Kentucky Fried Chicken and Pizza Hut, the jauntily named Yum! Brands. (The city’s major sports complex, seating 22,000, is called the KFC Yum! Center.)

So – horses, booze and fast food are important in Louisville. And bluegrass music. But they are not what I went for in mid-April. In August last year Louisville Ballet named Robert Curran, former principal artist with The Australian Ballet, as its new artistic director. As I have always been keen to see one of the smaller-scale American companies in action, his appointment offered the perfect excuse to make it happen.

Robert Curran in rehearsal with Louisville Ballet dancers. Photo: Sam English

Robert Curran in rehearsal with Louisville Ballet dancers. Photo: Sam English

First, a bit of background. San Francisco Ballet is regarded as the oldest professional company in the US, founded in 1933 as San Francisco Opera Ballet and becoming a separate body in 1942. Just to muddy the waters a little, Atlanta Ballet was founded in 1929 and describes itself as “the longest continuously performing ballet company in the United States”. Presumably it started as an amateur outfit. Whatever the story, ballet started to take root in the US about 85 years ago. Interest had been stirred by touring European troupes in the 19th century and was cemented by Ballets Russes spin-off companies in the mid 20th century. George Balanchine came to the US in late 1933 and his School of American Ballet opened at the beginning of 1934.

By the beginning of the 21st century there would be 100 or more ballet companies in the US. They include a handful of world-renowned organisations – American Ballet Theatre, New York City Ballet, San Francisco Ballet – and other major-city outfits such as Houston Ballet, Boston Ballet, Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet and Seattle’s Pacific Northwest Ballet that can support 40 or more dancers. Louisville Ballet belongs to a third category: smaller troupes established in sizeable cities with a lively arts scene.

After his appointment was announced Curran made a quick trip back home to sort out his visa and then returned to Louisville to dive in. He didn’t have long to become acquainted with his dancers before getting Giselle onstage by mid-September, and also wanted to immerse himself in Louisville cultural life as soon as possible.

Eight months later, Curran couldn’t look happier. Retiring director Bruce Simpson had programmed the first part of the 2014-2015 season so it wasn’t until April 10 that Curran unveiled his first program for Louisville Ballet: a triple bill of Serge Lifar’s Suite en blanc, George Balanchine’s Square Dance and a new piece by Australian choreographer Lucas Jervies, What Light Is to Our Eyes. It was extremely well received by public and critics, but perhaps more impressive was the demonstration of just how quickly Curran had moved on one of his most passionately desired goals. He wants Louisville Ballet to interact meaningfully and visibly with the local cultural scene and Director’s Choice: A New World was a strong beginning.

“That’s something I’m investing a lot of time in. Getting involved in the music scene, getting involved in the visual arts scene,” he says. Curran was given permission by the Balanchine Trust to commission new designs for Square Dance and asked Louisville artist Letitia Quesenberry to be involved. Her serene stage picture was dominated by a quietly glowing painting bisected by a horizontal stream of light. “Meeting Leticia was a great, great moment for me. Her work is so inspiring. It’s absolutely glorious.” Curran hadn’t expected the Balanchine Trust to give him so much freedom, although perhaps his commitment to offer Balanchine in Louisville every year helped. “I didn’t think that [redesigning the ballet] was a luxury that would be afforded a first-time director of a mid-west company with a small budget. When they offered, I had to jump at it.”

Kateryna Sellers and Brandon Ragland in Square Dance. Photo: Wade Bell

Kateryna Sellers and Brandon Ragland in Square Dance. Photo: Wade Bell

Jervies created What Light Is to Our Eyes to young American composer Sebastian Chang’s first symphony, which was commissioned by and given its world premiere performance in late January by Louisville Orchestra. It was conducted by the orchestra’s new music director Teddy Abrams, a 27-year-old who is creating quite a stir in the city. As an interviewer for Louisville Insider put it to Curran recently just before Director’s Choice opened, “You can’t cross the street without running into Teddy – he’s everywhere.” Curran doesn’t want to make himself quite as visible as Abrams, preferring to put the spotlight on his dancers, but they seem to be on the same wavelength.

The intertwining of ballet and orchestra continues in March next year in a co-production called (R)evolution that will feature a new score from Abrams alongside music by Stravinsky and Philip Glass. Adam Hougland will choreograph. Curran also meets with the leaders of two other leading Louisville companies, Kentucky Opera and the famed Actors Theatre of Louisville, with an eye to co-operative ventures. “We’re all in really open communication. We spend time together, we talk together, we deal with tricky situations, but we deal with them together. It’s a really open dialogue, and that goes with the visual arts organisations as well. We’re all trying to work out how we can maximise our impact and minimise our impact on each other – that’s a really exciting thing.”

Drawing on the wider world of ballet connections, Curran was given permission to stage Suite en blanc himself after Claude Bessy, a former director of the Paris Opera Ballet School who is associated with the Serge Lifar Foundation, was unable to come to the US as planned. Curran got Bessy’s blessing after being introduced long-distance by ballet legend Violette Verdy, whom Curran knows from his AB days. Verdy is now a professor at Indiana University. It’s a small world.

Erica De La O in Suite en blanc. Photo: Renata Pavam

Erica De La O in Suite en blanc. Photo: Renata Pavam

In terms of repertoire Director’s Choice was very familiar territory for Curran. He has been acquainted with the Lifar ballet since his student days with the Australian Ballet School, danced Balanchine with the AB and with Jervies founded a small Melbourne-based contemporary ballet company, JACK.

Far less familiar was his new company’s structure. Louisville Ballet has 24 dancers and 15 apprentices, the latter at the stage of finishing vocational training and preparing to start professional careers. Dancers are contracted for 30 weeks of the year, a number Curran would like to see increase to 40 or 42. Houston Ballet, led by Australian choreographer Stanton Welch, has 44-week contracts but that is uncommon. Even the mighty American Ballet Theatre contracts its dancers for only 36 weeks of the year. For the rest of the year they fend for themselves or go on unemployment benefits.

Perhaps even more surprising to an outsider is the small number of performances in each season given by Louisville Ballet and other companies of its size. Director’s Choice was seen only three times in the space of 28 hours – Friday night, Saturday matinee, Saturday night and it was done. The exception of course is Nutcracker, which is both sacred community tradition and indispensible money-spinner for virtually every American ballet company. That has a much longer run.

Nutcracker is a phenomenon I wasn’t exactly prepared for. It’s the most beautiful score ever written for ballet, it’s a beautiful tradition and I love seeing how many children come. It’s a brilliant production [choreographed by Val Caniparoli]. I’m biased but I would rate it in my top five in the world that I’ve seen. The integrity, the quality of the choreography, the through line are really wonderful. It’s unique and it’s also great to see a Nutcracker, a lot like Graeme’s [Graeme Murphy’s Nutcracker: The Story of Clara], that is so specific to its audience. There are a lot of touches that are Louisville.’’

While the company is much smaller than Curran is used to, it means there’s plenty of room for growth. “There are no performances outside Louisville at the moment. That has to change. We are here to serve the whole state and we don’t. I would love for the company to do more performances, and that’s my ultimate goal.” Nutcracker would be a natural ballet to tour, although in a different, smaller-scale version. The Caniparoli production was designed for the vast – 2400 seats – Whitney Hall in Louisville’s Kentucky Center. (Curran’s Director’s Choice program was at the smaller Brown Theatre. Its 1400 seats make it a suitable size for a great deal of repertoire but backstage restrictions make it not entirely ideal.)

One area set to expand is the number of trainees. Curran says there will be a much bigger group next year than the current 15. “I had a phenomenal number of people applying.” As trainees are unpaid they don’t drain resources. There is a little government funding but Curran describes the company’s $3.5 million budget as primarily made up of “about one third box office, one third development [corporate sponsorship and private support] and one third school revenue”. The latter is something Curran, who is also artistic director of Louisville Ballet School, is looking at. If the school’s income is mainly siphoned off for the company it doesn’t get to invest in itself. There are 600 students, not all of whom want to take a vocational path, and Curran would like to see an organisation that better suits the needs of both recreational and vocational students.

The vocational students are the obvious candidates for apprenticeships and, ultimately, a place in the company. And it’s something Curran has to pay close attention to. Louisville Ballet dancers have a higher average age than in most companies, Curran says, with many in their mid to late 30s. That brings maturity and intelligence to the stage, but the careers can’t last forever.

Kristopher Wojtera and Erica De La O in What Light Is to Our Eyes. Photo: Renata Pavam

Kristopher Wojtera and Erica De La O in What Light Is to Our Eyes, by Lucas Jervies. Photo: Renata Pavam

Curran has no intention of letting people go – “I’ve become very fond of them” – but must keep an eye to the future. That means not only developing the next generation of dancers but also giving current company members challenging repertoire.

Suite en blanc was certainly that. It’s danced by the best companies in the world although has not been frequently staged in the US, which made it a clever choice for Louisville. Lifar’s tutu-laden, highly exposed test of classical prowess was greatly enjoyed by the audience at the two performances I saw and clearly stretched some of the apprentices in the corps. “It’s a really hard ballet,” Curran said when we spoke after the opening. “They’ve had to step up mentally and physically. I can see dramatic changes in the way they work and what they look like.”

Many dancers caught the eye, in particular Natalia Ashikhmina in the Cigarette variation and Erica De La O in the Flute variation in Suite; both leading pairs in Square Dance – Kateryna Sellers and Brandon Ragland, De La O with Kristopher Wojtera; and the full cast of What Light Is to our Eyes, which the dancers invested not only with strong contemporary ballet energy but with mature dramatic qualities.

With the dancers going on leave for their long northern summer layoff, Curran and Louisville Ballet general manager Cara Hicks are turning their minds to a reorganisation of the company, which has a staff of about 15 apart from the dancers. Hicks is relatively new to her position (although not to the company), as previously Bruce Simpson combined the roles of artistic director and chief executive. Curran expresses nothing but great admiration and respect for Simpson, who some years ago guided the company out of extreme financial difficulties, but with both Curran and Hicks under 40 different emphases are inevitable.

Along with the major undertaking that is the company restructure, Curran has a new production to prepare, a version of Coppélia that will open Louisville Ballet’s 2015-2016 season in October. He plans to set it in Louisville’s Germantown area in 1917 as the US enters World War I. He also has “perhaps a foolishly ambitious plan” for the company’s 65th anniversary in 2017 about which he will say nothing at present.

He will say, however, how thrilled he is to be in Louisville. “I enjoy the people. They’re so welcoming. The city is fun; it’s really easy, although the food is a little bit too good. This community, they are brave, willing to look at things in a new light. Seeing that standing ovation after Lucas’s work – they were so willing to embrace it.

“I am in the right place. I didn’t know if I would find something as rewarding as my dancing; I really didn’t. But I wasn’t very long into this when I realised I’d found it. It’s a brilliant, brilliant job.”

‘My work’s about love, basically’

One of the key works of the 2015 Perth International Arts Festival is Mark Morris’s Mozart Dances from 2006. There will be four performances only, on February 13, 14 and 15.

PIAF artistic director Jonathan Holloway calls Morris “one of the greatest choreographers alive today and he is the great American choreographer. He’s never been to Western Australia. From day one I wanted to start my first festival with Lucinda Childs, who is another of my favourite choreographers, and finish with Mark Morris.” (Childs’s shimmering 1979 work Dance was seen exclusively in Perth in 2012.)

Morris has made more than 140 works for Mark Morris Dance Group, which this year celebrates its 35th anniversary, and is also feted for his work with classical companies. Since 1996 MMDG has undertaken no international tour without live music, which for the three-part Mozart Dances in its entirety means the availability of a symphony orchestra – the West Australian Symphony Orchestra will play for PIAF – and two solo pianists.

This is an expanded version of my interview with Morris written for The Weekend Australian’s Culture 2015 magazine, published on November 15-16, 2014.

EVERYTHING about Mark Morris is big: his exuberant laugh, his passion for music, the uncensored chat and bawdy talk, his endlessly inquiring nature. He’s a stayer, too. The American choreographer started making dances when he was 13 (although says he didn’t make his first good one until he was 15) and founded his own company at 24. He’s now 58 and Mark Morris Dance Group has not only survived, but is one of the world’s finest contemporary companies.

Morris has choreographed more than 150 works, mostly for his group but also for leading ballet companies, and works extensively as an opera director, conductor and music teacher. An indication of his tendency to over-achievement is found in his list of honours: among the many fellowships and awards are 11 honorary doctorates, membership of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the 2010 Leonard Bernstein Lifetime Achievement Award for the Elevation of Music in Society (hotshot conductor Gustavo Dudamel won it last year).

Eleven, from Mozart Dances. Photo: Stephanie Berger

Eleven, from Mozart Dances. Photo: Stephanie Berger

So when Morris says of his Perth International Arts Festival-bound Mozart Dances that it is performed to “more piano than anyone would ever do in an evening of Mozart”, what he means is anyone except himself. And this being Morris, live music is a non-negotiable part of the deal. When we spoke the West Australian Symphony Orchestra was on board and Morris was listening to recordings by Australian pianists to choose a soloist. Amir Farid, the Melbourne-based pianist and member of the Benaud Trio, was selected. MMDG music director Colin Fowler will be the other soloist.

“I will not work with taped music,” Morris says emphatically. “I absolutely will not. If you want my dance company you have live music. People see it as crazy diva, but it’s also my work, and so here’s how it’ll be done. If people don’t want that, that’s ok,” he says comfortably, speaking from his headquarters in Brooklyn.

Not surprisingly, most people find Morris’s terms entirely acceptable because they have resulted in a singular body of work that includes the adored and frequently revived L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato (1988), to the music of Handel; his famed production of the Purcell opera Dido and Aeneas (1989); and Mozart Dances (2006).

Mozart Dances is a triptych for 16 dancers comprising Eleven, Double and Twenty-Seven, named after their music – Mozart’s 11th and 27th piano concertos flank the composer’s Sonata for Two Pianos in D major. Eleven foregrounds the women of the company, Double features the men and in Twenty-Seven “everyone is happily reunited”. After the New York premiere of Mozart Dances in August 2006, John Rockwell of The New York Times wrote he felt “safe in pronouncing it a masterpiece”. Morris had made “something as serious and profound as dance gets”.

While some audience members may be familiar with Piano Concerto No.27, the 11th is likely to surprise. “Eleven is a rare one. It’s a fabulous, very, very delicate, turbulent piece. It’s very emotionally complicated,’’ says Morris, who describes the evening with some understatement as “a good big show” of a scale appropriate for MMDG’s Perth debut. (The company visited Adelaide in 1994 and Sydney in 2003.)

The 11th concerto appealed for another reason. Mozart arranged a chamber version of it, meaning that if there is no symphony orchestra available, Morris can present just the first two sections of Mozart Dances with a smaller number of live musicians and perform something else in place of Twenty-Seven, which needs a full orchestra. Morris may not make any concessions on the subject of live music but he is pragmatic, and Mozart Dances can be adjusted according to circumstances.

“If we’ve just got chamber music then I do another piece in place of Twenty-Seven. Twenty-Seven can’t be done without an orchestra but the others can, which is why I chose them,” he says.

Holloway had considered asking Morris for L’Allegro but Perth has no theatre big enough for it. “It’s enormous. Mozart Dances is only huge. It’s just a full company of dancers, a full orchestra, piano soloists, and two hours of some of the most joyous dancing you’ll ever see in your life.“

Morris’s large, generous spirit is the bedrock of all his dance. “I’m a horrible monster from time to time but my work is all kind,” he says. “My work’s about love, basically, so when you get over the fact that I talk dirty and I’m very loud, I’m also really, really nice.”

He’s also wonderfully frank about the state of dance. “My work isn’t overtly political but of course I have feelings about things and one thing is the infantilisation of dancers in general, and generally the low-level misogyny and racism that’s inherent everywhere I look in the dance world,” he says.

“I have no problem being a middle-aged, white, male – that’s what I am. But I wonder where all the female choreographers are. Everyone who wants to make up a dance should [do so]. I’m not damning, it’s not a competition thing at all, but a lot of it seems if you’re in the corps de ballet of any ballet company and you’re a boy, suddenly you’re a choreographer. I don’t really understand that. You’ve been looking at the back of everyone for your whole career. [Big laugh.] It’s like wait, how do you … oh, fine. It’s crazy. And I wish ‘em all luck. I’m all for dancing. It’s just that I don’t see a lot that I like that much.”

What he does like is sharing his dance with other cultures and learning from theirs. “I go to Asia a lot. People want to see what you do and you get to see what they do. I love that. It’s not like becoming fake Cambodian when I go to their country, but to notice and respect and to adore what they do. I love to see traditional dance and music and whatever crazy new thing they’re doing. I’m not a big tourist; I’m more of a cultural vampire.”

Morris is travelling to Perth with his company. “I know I’m eager to go, and I’m not going to talk about how far away it is, because if you live in Perth it’s everything else that’s far away,” he says with undeniable logic. “You’re right where you belong if you’re in Perth.”