David McAllister in conversation

THE Australian Ballet has designated 2015 its Year of Beauty, driving the point home with sumptuous imagery. Not since 2009 has the AB’s promotional material had such a romantic feel.

The program, announced on September 16, culminates in a new production of Sleeping Beauty, to be staged by AB artistic director David McAllister, and begins with a Sydney-only revival of Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake. In between are Maina Gielgud’s much-admired production of Giselle, a program of Frederick Ashton works and a Melbourne-only revival of Alexei Ratmansky’s Cinderella. There is just one contemporary program, 20:21, and a stripped-back version of the new choreography showcase Bodytorque.

In a particularly busy year the AB will appear in Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide (twice), Perth, Canberra and Brisbane (although the latter gets only a single outdoor concert) and also visits Beijing and Shanghai.

Last week David McAllister spoke in detail about his choices and his plan to increase the size of the company from 72 to 85 dancers.

DJ: The 2015 season could be described as highly traditional. Are audiences becoming more conventional in their tastes?

DMcA: This year the contemporary program actually outsold everything. Everyone loved Chroma [the mixed bill headlined by Wayne McGregor’s Chroma]. In fact, I was thinking of calling everything Chroma! But a couple of years ago, when we were doing a business plan, I sat down with the dancers and said, “In five years’ time what do you want this company to look like?” The feedback I got was really interesting. We have this motto, “Caring for tradition, daring to be different”, and the dancers said to me loud and clear they felt we were too daring and not caring enough with the repertoire. They want to be doing more of that repertoire they feel is important to them as ballet dancers. So I said okay. I took it on board.

If you look at this year’s repertoire as well as next year’s it does have a bit more of a heritage feel. If they want to be doing that work, I want to do it for them. Equally, there have been irons in the fire for a number of years. Originally we were going to do Giselle last year but then Paris Opera Ballet announced they were coming [to Sydney with Giselle]. So that fell into 2015. It’s been way too long out of the repertoire. It’s great to get Maina’s production back.

Juliet Burnett and Adam Bull in a promotional image for Giselle. Photo: Georges Antoni

Juliet Burnett and Adam Bull in a promotional image for Giselle. Photo: Georges Antoni

Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake, which premiered in 2002 and has been rarely out of the repertoire, will be seen in Beijing in October and have a commercial season in Sydney.

That’s exactly what it is [commercial]. That’s something the board has wanted us to do; the board have kept on at us about why haven’t we been more commercial with our seasons. The dates that we [were going to have] in Brisbane were gobbled up by Wicked so we had two weeks available, there were two weeks at the Capitol [in Sydney] and bingo.

Normally in Sydney we have the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra but they are with Opera Australia at that time [February] so we have to factor in the orchestra as a cost. But now that we have an orchestra [the AB recently took over management of Orchestra Victoria] we can bring them up. It’s exciting.

Beijing particularly asked for Swan Lake. It’s opening the dance festival at the National Centre for the Performing Arts [in October 2015]. They wanted our big international success. There will also be a mixed program – Suite en Blanc, [Stephen Baynes’s] Unspoken Dialogues and [Twyla Tharp’s] In the Upper Room.

In Shanghai we’ll do Cinderella and the mixed bill.

Is there a danger of The Australian Ballet appearing to be a one-trick pony with the many repeats of the Murphy Swan Lake?

We’re negotiating to go back to London and they are asking us to bring Swan Lake again. In 2005 it was compromised [the AB season started only days after terrorist bombings in London]. It’s still got currency. I’m cognisant that we shouldn’t do it too often, but it hasn’t been seen in Sydney since 2008. That’s coming on for seven years. The company looks so good in it; it’s in their DNA.

The Ashton program will be seen in Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide. It features The Dream, which gives its name to the program, plus Monotones II and Symphonic Variations.

The Ashton program has been in and out of planning for the last four years. I finally managed to nail it. The Dream is such an amazing, beautiful ballet, and we haven’t done any Ashton now for 10 years. We did La Fille mal gardee in 2004. The last time we did The Dream was 1980. Symphonic’s never been done. Monotones was done in 1991 and we did Birthday Offering in the 90s. Les Patineurs was even earlier – before I joined the company. There’s a real gap in our Ashton repertoire, and because it played such an important part in the formation of the company I felt it was time to get a bit of Ashton happening again.

Chengwu Guo and Madeleine Eastoe in a promotional image for The Dream. Photo: Georges Antoni

Chengwu Guo and Madeleine Eastoe, The Dream. Photo: Georges Antoni

I know Dame Peggy van Praagh wanted the company to do Symphonic but Ashton wouldn’t let anyone much do it except for the Royal Ballet. I really wanted it. [Rights owner] Wendy Somes and I have been having these discussions and I was thrilled she thought it would be good for us to do it.

The Ashton style – lyrical, with luxurious and expressive use of the upper body and filigree footwork – is notoriously difficult.

I saw the Royal do Scènes de ballet and remember watching it and saying, “Now I know what the Ashton style is, and the RB do it like no one else. They were unbelievable. The use of body, that quickness of the footwork. It was so beautiful. I thought, “It’s going to be really good for us to attempt that. It is very different to what we do so it will be interesting to have that challenge. We’re going to send some of the principals over to work with Anthony Dowell [who owns the rights to The Dream and who is unable to travel to Australia to stage the ballet]. We wanted him to come out, but he can’t.

McAllister felt the company needed a new Sleeping Beauty. Stanton Welch’s 2005 production had two sell-out seasons and covered its costs in the first season, but was considered flawed in some respects. It will not be revived.

We needed to do another Sleeping Beauty. I could have brought in a production – Marcia Haydee’s, or Peter Wright’s. Then I thought, maybe I should have a crack at it. Why not? In my career I’ve always thrown myself in at the deep end. I’ve done a lot of thinking about it. I’m seeing my production in the way Maina approached hers and Peggy approached hers. There will be choreography and I will be choreographing, but in the style of Petipa and embroidering what the existing choreography is. That’s why I’m not crediting myself as a choreographer. I’m a curator, I guess, of Petipa’s choreographic input. It’s exciting. It is an apprenticeship, seeing all of those productions I’ve commissioned in my time and being in all those productions in the past. Watching Alexei creating Cinderella last year was just amazing. Being in the studio with Graeme and Janet [Vernon] when they did Swan Lake and Firebird and Nutcracker – you get a sense of what you like, what you don’t like. If I’d commissioned someone to do a Sleeping Beauty I would have annoyed the shit out of them.

Lana Jones, Sleeping Beauty. Photo: Georges Antoni

Lana Jones, Sleeping Beauty. Photo: Georges Antoni

The one contemporary program, 20:21, offers George Balanchine’s Symphony in Three Movements, a revival of Tharp’s In the Upper Room and a new work from resident choreographer Tim Harbour. It will have unbroken seasons in Melbourne and Sydney, despite the success this year in Sydney of what McAllister calls his “zipper”, two programs in repertory sharing the season of 20 performances. Did the zipper not work?

It went off like a frog in a sock. Played to 93 per cent capacity over the whole season. We were desperately trying to do it again this year. When the Brisbane dates fell out [due to Wicked] it all went in a heap. We were going to do 20:21 and Ashton in a zipper but didn’t have time to get it up for Sydney. [The logistics are complicated, but essentially a Brisbane season would have allowed some of the work to be rehearsed and performance-ready earlier in the year.] The zipper’s going to come back in 2016. The thing is having two mixed programs that are quite different. [This year’s] Ballet imperial was so different to Chroma. That’s the plan going forward. But we have to have something in the bag or premiere it somewhere else for it to work. In 2016 we can do it without compromise. It’s a great concept.

Has Bodytorque been pushed aside?

We sandwich Bodytorque in wherever we can. It’s never really had a home. It did [physically] in the Sydney Theatre but sometimes it was in October, sometimes in May, wherever we could shove it. Next year, the Canberra time just ate the Bodytorque opportunity. I didn’t want to lose it completely, so said let’s think creatively about how we can have Bodytorque humming along. I got the idea for the up-late, pop-up Bodytorque. As with the 50th anniversary year [in 2012], I couldn‘t find space for it. It tends to be the first thing that drops off. It was a bit the same this year, but I said, no, we’re not going to give it up. It will be in both the 20:21 and Dream programs as an add-on after performances.

How does it work? It will be on the stage. We’ll invite the audience to stay. We’re still working through the logistics. I think we will be in touch with people who will be in the audience on the nights we’re doing it and ask them to register. Then we’ll know how many people will be there. We will also build a Bodytorque group – groupies – through social media networks. Those people will just turn up for the [Bodytorque] show and then we might have a bit of a drink afterwards. There will be just one 15-minute piece.

The Australian Ballet nominally has 72 dancers, although in practice usually 69 or 70. McAllister wants to increase that to 85 by 2017.

It’s to enable us to do other things – children’s ballet for instance. We’ve been talking about this for two years. Every time we get to the logistics of staging it we can’t do it. In 2016 and 2017 we’re hoping to add eight and then seven into the company. It’s primarily to work on the kids’ ballet, regional touring and the choreographic program. But I don’t want to start AB II. That’s not what we want. It just gives us a bit more flexibility. We’re not going to be staging two seasons at the one time. Well, we’ll be doing a kids’ ballet while we’re doing mainstage, but we’re not trying to double our coverage. This is a way of extending our reach and giving our dancers a little bit of breathing space. We do a lot of shows and the dancers are highly worked. And I want to be able to field 24 swans in Swan Lake and 24 Shades in Bayadere without having to employ [extra] people, which we currently do. We want a company closer in size to the Royal Ballet.

Next year McAllister will overtake Maina Gielgud as The Australian Ballet’s longest-serving artistic director – she reigned for 14 years – and is contracted until 2017.

What happens then? I don’t know. I’ve been very honest with the board. I’ve said I don’t see this job as a right. I’m well aware of the length of my service. They’ve said they are very happy with what I’m doing. We’ll keep the dialogue going.

 

‘I cannot wait to see what we create together’

THEY work quickly at Louisville Ballet. In April Robert Curran applied for the role of artistic director, he was interviewed twice in June and by early July he learned he was the successful candidate. His appointment was announced in Louisville yesterday and he starts in Kentucky possibly as early as next week once his visa has been finalised. He was selected from more than 80 applicants.

Curran, 38, couldn’t be happier. “I am thrilled to be leading a company that has such a rich history and that is so excited and enthusiastic about the future,” he said in Sydney earlier this week, during a whistle-stop trip home.

Louisville Ballet board chairman Joel Stone said via email: “We needed someone who could move the organisation forward over the next 10 years. So much has changed with our patron base and how they interact with dance and art. Robert’s vision for the company meshed perfectly with where we need to go.”

Curran, formerly one of the most loved principal artists at The Australian Ballet and noted as an exceptional partner, has been preparing for this moment since retiring at the top of his game at the end of 2011. He has an Advanced Diploma of Dance from The Australian Ballet School, a Bachelor of Business from Monash University and is undertaking a Master of Applied Theatre Studies from the University of New England. After he left the AB he took a year off to travel and observe the work of other ballet companies and directors.

Lucinda Dunn and Robert Curran in The Nutcracker. Photo: Jim McFarlane

Robert Curran with Lucinda Dunn in The Nutcracker for the AB. Photo: Jim McFarlane

The Louisville board wasn’t deterred by the fact Curran had not previously run a company; in fact they liked it.

“They wanted somebody who was going to bring a level of freshness and innovation. They weren’t afraid of what that might look like,” Curran says. “The company has a really sound structure – sufficiently established so the organisation can run really efficiently but not so rigid that it’s not open for a bit of interpretation and adaptation as each of our initiatives start to take hold.”

The board sought someone who would continue retiring artistic director Bruce Simpson’s commitment to the classical tradition but also “someone who was interested in exploring where that [tradition] might go”. Louisville Ballet’s repertoire includes work by Ashton, Balanchine, Tudor, Cranko, Tharp, Fokine and Bournonville, and its next production is next month’s Giselle, which Curran will stage.

While it may seem a significant alteration in direction to appoint an Australian to the position, the move from Simpson to Curran is perhaps more like a baton change. Simpson’s taste in repertoire is similar to that of The Australian Ballet, says Curran, and indeed “Bruce has an enormous respect for the AB; enormous respect both for the company and the Australian Ballet School”. Ballet can be a very small world. (Australian Stanton Welch, is artistic director of Houston Ballet, a position he has held for 10 years.)

After spending 12 years at the helm Simpson will stay in Louisville, says Curran, who expresses great affection for him. “He has been incredibly respectful of what I need and want. He’s a really great man.”

Louisville Ballet was founded in 1952 as a project-based operation, bringing in artistic directors and dancers. It became a fully professional company in 1975 with eight dancers on contract. Today there are 24 dancers and 15 trainees, making it somewhat similar in size to Queensland Ballet and West Australian Ballet, albeit with much shorter seasons. The dancers are on 30-weeks contracts and the number of performances for each program is short – only three for Giselle, for example, with 11 for the seasonal favourite The Nutcracker.

Louisville has a population of about three-quarters of a million people and is the oldest city in Kentucky. It has a strong arts culture, being home to Kentucky Opera, Actors Theatre of Louisville and the Louisville Orchestra as well as the ballet company. Financial difficulties in the past have curtailed the use of live music but Louisville Orchestra is expected to play for Nutcracker. Curran hopes there will be opportunities for a closer relationship under Louisville Orchestra’s new young music director Teddy Abrams, who is just 27.

“The relationship has ebbed and flowed over the years. One of the things that is definitely in the future for Louisville Ballet is a stronger relationship with the orchestra. There was no discord in the past, just a financial thing. The orchestra has its costs that it needs to meet. The ballet has its budget that it needs to maintain. Hopefully there will be more flexibility and more of a combined fund-raising focus. At least they are interested in exploring that,” says Curran.

He will also be artistic director of Louisville Ballet School. “There is a school director who takes on the majority of the work, but there is definitely a level of commitment that is expected of me,” he says. “And I am very much looking forward to delivering on that expectation. The Vocational Graduate Certificate in Elite Dance Instruction that I studied through the ABS has given me plenty of ideas, and fortuitously, both schools teach the Vaganova training program.”

In a long conversation with me published on this site last year, Curran talked frankly about his ambition to lead a company, one from which he has not wavered since he stopped performing. He said he would go anywhere in the world, and it was not surprising to hear he had found an opportunity in the US, home to so many classical companies.

“I know that working with Louisville Ballet will be a joy and I cannot wait to see what we create together,” he told me. His first ideas will be seen In April when he stages his Director’s Choice program.

Lucinda Dunn – a tribute

IT is not a great surprise that Lucinda Dunn has chosen to retire from The Australian Ballet next month, but it is a great loss. While she has had some recent injuries and has been selecting her repertoire carefully, these are not unusual circumstances when a dancer has had as lengthy a career as Dunn’s. And when she has been on stage she has been peerless. Her brilliant technique makes her a strong artist, but never a cold one. She flows like liquid gold: there is sensual warmth and radiance in her dancing, along with stage-filling grandeur that serves whatever she is dancing and makes it important. It is never self-serving.

Lucinda Dunn and Robert Curran in The Nutcracker. Photo: Jim McFarlane

Lucinda Dunn and Robert Curran in The Nutcracker. Photo: Jim McFarlane

Lucinda Dunn as Kitri in Don Quixote. Photo: Lynette Wills

Lucinda Dunn as Kitri in Don Quixote. Photo: Lynette Wills

But after 23 years with the AB as its longest reigning ballerina, Dunn, 40, has decided it is time to go – the fact that her older daughter, Claudia, is five is surely relevant, and Dunn and her husband Danilo Radojevic also have a two-year-old daughter, Ava.

Dunn opens in Kenneth MacMillan’s Manon in Melbourne tonight and will farewell the stage at the end of the Sydney season of this ballet. She made her debut in the role only last month, in Brisbane, taking on new challenges to the end. (When The Australian Ballet last staged Manon, in 2008, Dunn was on maternity leave.)

Lucinda Dunn and Adam Bull in Manon

Lucinda Dunn and Adam Bull in Manon

Releasing the news of Dunn’s retirement yesterday AB artistic director David McAllister said Dunn had been “a shining beacon of The Australian Ballet – a true ballerina”. She was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia at the beginning of this year for service to the performing arts through ballet.

She will continue this service next year when, on January 1, she becomes artistic director of the highly regarded Tanya Pearson Classical Coaching Academy and Sydney City Youth Ballet. Dunn studied with Mrs Pearson from the age of 13. Mrs Pearson will be known as Founder and continue her presence at the academy.

Dunn said in a statement yesterday she hoped to “enrich and challenge” the academy’s students, which she surely will.

I have watched Dunn for her entire career, seeing her progress from being an exceptionally promising young dancer with killer technical gifts in her earliest days to the great artist she is today. At the risk of sounding like Woody Allan’s Zelig (although I hope not quite as colourless), I have been present at many of her most important performances and milestones, including the lunch in 2001 at which she was promoted to principal, and the glorious Aurora she gave to huge acclaim in Tokyo in 2007 in Stanton Welch’s production of Sleeping Beauty, partnered by Robert Curran.

Curran – how we miss him! – was promoted to principal the same day, and I will never forget Dunn’s happiness at his elevation as well as her own.

How quickly it goes.

Dunn gives her final performance with the AB on April 23 at the Sydney Opera House.

ABT is Brisbane-bound

ONE way of looking at the repertoire for American Ballet Theatre’s Brisbane visit in August and September – its first to Australia – is with absolute pragmatism: there’s Swan Lake, of course, which is for many audience members the ballet gold standard, and there’s a triple bill made up of pieces the company is currently performing.

But the pieces very much describe ABT too – its nature as a company of stars and its history as an organisation that has had extremely close relationships with some of the most admired choreographers in the field. In 2006 Congress recognised ABT as the national ballet company of the United States and it is about to celebrate its 75th anniversary.

Stella Abrera and Calvin Royal III in Bach Partita.

Stella Abrera and Calvin Royal III in Twyla Tharp’s Bach Partita.

On a visit to Sydney last week to promote the tour (Brisbane, Melbourne and Auckland were also on the whirlwind agenda), ABT’s artistic director Kevin McKenzie described a company on a firm footing. ABT recently added more New York performances to its annual schedule, although there will be a loss next year when Nutcracker moves from the Brooklyn Academy of Music (one of three venues for ABT in New York) to Costa Mesa’s Segerstrom Center in California’s Orange County.

“It makes a lot of sense for a lot of reasons. We have a long-term relationship with Segerstrom Center out there and it’s crowded [in NYC]. We found it difficult frankly to market a season in three different venues, sometimes marketing three different venues at the same time. We know we go to Washington every year. This will ensure we go to Orange County every year. Frankly it’s a better venue to see the production [by Alexei Ratmansky].”

While in Sydney McKenzie spoke engagingly for an hour to a Friends of the Australian Ballet gathering. He said that while George Balanchine was carrying out his unique vision for what would become New York City Ballet, early ABT patron and director Lucia Chase “collected the best of the best” for Ballet Theatre (ABT’s name until 1957). On the choreographic front there were Agnes de Mille and Anthony Tudor, and “getting Tudor was the defining moment. Energy begot energy. ABT became a company of dancers who could do it all. ABT didn’t have a school for decades so talent came from around the world. Everyone fits into ABT. They all took from each other. There was individualism.’’

While there is now a school to feed ABT, the company didn’t want to lose the international influences that built it. “Style is a thing we take on and off like our clothes,” McKenzie said. “There are fundamentals we all agree on.” (Even now the ABT corps is only 30 per cent a product of the school.)

Sitting at the apex of the company is a roster of 16 principal artists, some with dual associations that must make scheduling a nightmare for McKenzie. David Hallberg is also a principal at the Bolshoi Ballet, Roberto Bolle is resident guest artist at La Scala and Polina Semionova is a guest artist at St Petersburg’s Mikhailovsky Ballet, where Ivan Vasiliev is a principal dancer. Diana Vishneva regularly appears in her Russian homeland, and Gillian Murphy has been principal guest artist with Royal New Zealand Ballet for the past three years, although that position is unlikely to continue when Ethan Stiefel, her fiancé, relinquishes his post as RNZB artistic director on September 1.

Vasiliev will not be coming to Brisbane, says McKenzie, but he hopes Bolle’s schedule will permit his presence. “He’s got a tight schedule, but it could work. The objective is to get him here.” Hallberg is on board for the tour, as is Murphy and, it is anticipated, most or all of the other ABT principals.

McKenzie, artistic director of ABT for 22 years (and still happy in the service, he says) told the Friends in Sydney that nothing about the way the company operates had changed from the first performance. “There’s a chaotic scrappiness. A tale of too much with too little time and too little resources and coming out looking good. There’s a passion to do it; everything else needs to be gotten around.”

The version of Swan Lake to be performed in Brisbane is McKenzie’s, which premiered in 2000. It is staged annually. “It’s mainly for marketing reasons,” McKenzie said frankly. They know they can sell it every single year so they want to do it. To quote George Balanchine, I wish everything was called Swan Lake.”

Gillian Murphy in Swan Lake. Photo: Gene Schiavone

Gillian Murphy in Swan Lake. Photo: Gene Schiavone

For the Brisbane mixed bill, called Three Masterpieces, McKenzie chose the three choreographers who he said have had or will have the greatest impact on the company: Jerome Robbins, Twyla Tharp and Alexei Ratmansky, who is ABT’s artist in residence with a contract stretching to 2023. (That contract allows Ratmansky to work with other companies for half the year; he recently made a new Cinderella for The Australian Ballet.)

Robbins’s Fancy Free (1944) follows the fortunes of three high-spirited sailors on leave and is a happy showcase for exuberant male dancing. Tharp’s Bach Partita (1983) is fascinating because 28 years passed between its premiere and its revival last year, and Ratmansky’s Seven Sonatas (2009) is the work of the busiest and most feted exponent of classical ballet working today. I spoke to McKenzie about the two newer works.

“This is the finest classical ballet since Balanchine’s death, which also took place in 1983.”

– Robert Gottleib, New York Observer, 2013, on Tharp’s Bach Partita

“Bach Partita celebrates the grand architecture of ballet and also each disappearing moment, each inimitable person … Tharp has built a wondrously strange thing: a monument to evanescence.”

– Apollinaire Scherr, Financial Times, 2013

Kevin McKenzie:  A 28-year gap [he laughs]. I think it was largely because of the violinist issue [the work was made to Bach’s Partita in D minor]. For a period of time it had to do with our venue issues, but I think it was really more about the violinist. Twyla created this work to a recording of Jascha Heifetz and he had a particular rendition of particular parts of it that were really fast, and it was a choice. It was an interpretation of it that is incredibly difficult to replicate.

When we first did it we didn’t really have the proper sort of representation, that kind of speed. Twyla wanted us to do it to tape. We can’t do that. By mandate, by union rules, if it can be played it must be played. And I agree with it. That’s part of the magic of live theatre. Then it became apparent that it was hard to find a violinist worth their salt who was going to deliver Heifetz’s performance. They wanted to deliver their own performance. It was either put on the back shelf or it was a stand-off: ‘do it to tape or don’t do it at all’. Suddenly a fair amount of time went by.

When I became director I asked about it, doing it at City Center, and Twyla said, ‘It’s not big enough [the theatre]; you just can’t do it. The stage won’t support the patterns.’ I commissioned from her Brahms-Haydn [The Brahms-Haydn Variations, 2000] and it just brought [Bach Partita] to mind. I thought it’s getting to be 20 years, it’s time we did it.

And then the violinist issue came up again. I think really through time it was about breaking down the barriers about who had the chops to do it; should it be a big-name person or should it be a discovery, whose choice should it be? Ultimately we found this wonderful violinist, Charles Yang, who is a product of his age. He can play those Bach partitas with a real personality of his own but deliver the tempos that Twyla wanted. He’ll do that for us one night and then he’s off doing some new-wave project the next night. It’s remarkable. [Yang will come to Brisbane with ABT.]

In the end, that’s it. One can always look for a juicy story but sometimes it really is a matter of waiting for all the stars to align.

It was astounding to see it come to life, a 28-year memory. And what is memory, how accurate is it? It’s really made up of impressions. When I saw it come to life whole swaths of it that looked familiar and I could see the dancers that it was created on behind the choreography. Other parts I had no memory of. Ultimately what was really astounding to me, and riveting, was how exactly like the music the structure of the ballet is – intensely intricate and fierce.

The music is layered with information, and the structure of it, the designs, the floor plans, if you will, the patterns, are just ingenious and they have the intensity of the music and it takes 36 dancers to execute. The one thing I had never considered was that – I walked away and thought I’d seen a visual version of the music.

 “Three gentle-mannered couples in simple, fluid white clothing by Holly Hynes treat the music as if it were a glade in which to dance together, alone, and in couples. One of Ratmansky’s great gifts is stitching together classical steps in ways that are full of trickery. Yet the unexpected twists or changes of directions or choice of movements never look plotted. His choreography breathes, sighs, pauses, plays a joke, and runs off laughing, as if complex, difficult dancing were a simple, easy-to deliver utterance.”

– Deborah Jowitt, Village Voice, 2009, on Seven Sonatas

McK: Seven Sonatas is like putting your head into a very private dinner party. I wanted [Ratmansky] represented, and this was the work that was going to be in repertory this year. He’s doing a new Sleeping Beauty for us in our 75th anniversary so there’s no time for him to create a new smaller work, so we’re beginning to curate the smaller works that we have already.

The thing that is representative of Ratmansky in Seven Sonatas is it is incredibly personable. One feels as if they are making it up as they go along. It seems to be a signature of his – it’s like you’re listening in on a conversation between the artists. It’s a very intimate piece. That notion of a conversation between artists was something that the music really drove.

[DJ: Is there a link with Robbins’s Dances at a Gathering?] To some degree. Yes, if you were to say that Dances at a Gathering is a genre, yes, to that degree. That’s where the likeness begins and ends. It’s so definitely Ratmansky in the way that Robbins is so definitely Robbins. Tudor’s Leaves are Fading – that is very Dances at a Gathering genre too, but they have no resemblance to one another.  One is absolutely Tudor, the other absolutely Robbins.

Visiting Australia with McKenzie were principals Gillian Murphy and James Whiteside, who described their experience of dancing Swan Lake together.

James Whiteside: When I joined ABT that was my first Swan Lake. First of all I needed to learn the steps. That’s where we started. Obviously we had met before. Kevin [McKenzie] would get us into the studio and say, okay, you start over there, and go step, step, kick, step. Not really.

Gillian Murphy: No, that’s not the choreography!

JW: We took it from there, one step at the time.

GM: I was excited to dance with James for his very first performance of Swan Lake and I’d say I am spoiled from dancing with Ethan [Stiefel], Angel [Corella], Marcelo [Gomes], David [Hallberg] – pretty much everyone. I’d never danced with James before, so before we even did anything I said, James, I need to tell you I’m spoiled, I’ve done this ballet with so many amazing men and it’s one of my favourite ballets, love it so much, and so I’m not usually difficult at all but I may have some things I’ve learned over the years so …

When we had our first rehearsal I wasn’t worried at all but didn’t know what to expect exactly, and from the first moment James partnered me I was like, oh, ok. I’m in really good hands here, so this is going to be really fun. And from the first rehearsal we were getting really excited about it. For me, just to dance it with James in his first performance is a special thing because I wanted to be there for him and to make it a special debut.

In terms of talking about the characters and whatnot, once James had learned the choreography it was a matter of we would do parts of the pas de deux and Kevin would say, this is looking good, but what are you saying there? This is where the conversation starts.

JW: If there’s a moment where I am unsure of what something means, I’ll speak up and say, I don’t understand why I’m doing this. Please enlighten me. I think it’s important to infuse your dancing with meaning instead of mindless steps. That’s why I felt so confident dancing with Gillian because I could read her movements so easily and see it in her eyes exactly what she was thinking and it made the conversation very simple in a way, and I think that’s the best policy when it comes to acting.

GM: James and I respond to each other’s body language very innately which is good. This is not a verbal art form. So we could talk about it ad nauseum and we could both talk about our characters and what we’re feeling here and what we’re feeling there, and sometimes we would do that, but for the most part there are a lot of things that are best said through your body, and that’s what we’re responding to. So that conversation happens in the moment, and it’s different every moment. The premiere that we did together was a very special performance I thought. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

JW: When you’re premiering a role and especially a ballet as iconic as Swan Lake, there’s a certain expectation and pressure. I have to say I was incredibly surprised that I enjoyed every moment of it. It was such a comfortable performance. I couldn’t have been happier to dance with Gil and having literally such a great time on stage, feeding off of each other’s energy and the energy of the audience and our peers and making art.

American Ballet Theatre’s Swan Lake (nine performances), August 28-September 4; Three Masterpieces (four performances), September 5-7, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane.

Footnote: I read that former ABT principal Cynthia Harvey was in the first cast of Bach Partita so, having interviewed her before, I got in touch to ask what she remembered of the piece. Harvey described her thoughts as only “my vague recollection over a great many years”, but despite the passing of so many years her description is useful and interesting.

Cynthia Harvey: I was not a principal dancer in the original cast, I was one of the soloists but later I did dance, I believe it was the part originally done on Magali Messac. All I can recall is that the choreography was intricate – Twyla used a lot of phrases that were repeated either in retrograde (like movie film going backwards) or we did phrases that were in canon – perhaps facing another direction. I recall a certain formality but simplicity. I don’t know if it was intentional to NOT “go for Baroque” in terms of gesture, but the intricacy might have been the tribute. I think the formality and sweep of the movement reflected the music. I remember there were issues regarding using our ABT musicians to perform the partita as Twyla had the tempi and especially the emphasis of dynamics based on one recording. That she choreographed those emphases, or at the very least, we couldn’t avoid placing musical emphasis in parts she choreographed, was part and parcel of the recording she had been inspired by.

Cojocaru and Kobborg

WHEN Alina Cojocaru and Johan Kobborg join The Australian Ballet in Sydney for two performances of Manon in April it will be their first appearance with an Australian company, but their second time in Australia together and Cojocaru’s third visit. She danced in A Midsummer Night’s Dream with Hamburg Ballet in Brisbane in 2012.

Cojocaru and Kobborg in Manon during the RB's Tokyo tour last year. Photo: Kiyonori Hasegawa

Cojocaru and Kobborg in Manon during the RB’s Tokyo tour last year. Photo: Kiyonori Hasegawa

In 2002 the Royal Ballet visited Sydney under the directorship of Ross Stretton – he was David McAllister’s predecessor in the equivalent role at the AB – when the dancers were relatively new members of the company. Cojocaru had just turned 21 but was already a principal dancer and considered one of the most wondrous artists to grace the international stage. Because of her youth she still had important roles to add to her repertoire, and it was in Sydney that she danced her first Odette-Odile.

Her partner in this Swan Lake, as it was in Giselle that season, was the Danish-born Johan Kobborg, himself a dancer of rare grace and artistry. They were not at that early stage the partners in private life they would become, but their chemistry was palpable. In my review of Swan Lake for The Australian, published on June 14, 2002, I wrote: “[Cojocaru’s] Prince Siegfried, the warm and sympathetic Johan Kobborg, looked as if he couldn’t believe how precious a creature had flown into his arms …

“The tiny Cojocaru is an Odette made of spun glass, one who might break if Siegfried were to hold her too tightly, but in need of his protection. She created an unforgettable image of sweet and sad fragility, expressed via a sweeping back, exquisite placement, mime delivered with a touching sense of being new-minted and a melting quality that saw her float rather than fall into Kobborg’s embrace.”

In the following 12 years reviews for the pair have only got better. Kobborg, now 41, is still dancing at the highest level with the best companies – he guested with San Francisco Ballet in January, partnering Maria Kochetkova – but is diversifying his talents widely. He also stages ballets, choreographs (including a captivating Giselle co-choreographed with Ethan Stiefel last year for Royal New Zealand Ballet) and a month ago took up the post of artistic director of Romanian National Ballet. At 32, Cojocaru is in her prime. The current standing of both is testament to their ferocious commitment to the art of ballet. They do not submit to the status quo.

Ballet knows no borders these days. There have, of course, always been artists who have accepted guest roles around the world, but activity in this area has become a whirlwind – at a certain level. The starriest names in ballet are pursuing fresh inspiration and experiences around the globe. If one company can’t provide everything these superlative dancers need, they’ll find others that can.

Last year the AB hosted American David Hallberg, widely considered the world’s reigning male classicist, and stratospheric Russian pair Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev. This year those fortunate enough to be in Sydney at the evening performance of Manon on April 19 and on Tuesday April 22 will see Cojocaru and Kobborg. Riches indeed.

Cojocaru and Kobborg caused a huge stir in the UK last year when they abruptly left the Royal Ballet after more than a decade. Their departure was announced just two days before their final London performance (a Tokyo tour shortly afterwards marked the absolute end), causing consternation among fans and ballet critics. The dancers are deeply loved and their longstanding stage partnership – an increasingly rare phenomenon – is hailed as one of the art form’s greatest.

Cojocaru was swiftly snapped up by English National Ballet, a company that appears to allow the flexibility she desires. Writing via email, she says she has just been working in London on new pieces by the young turk Liam Scarlett and contemporary great Russell Maliphant, which she will perform just before coming to Sydney, and is about to dance Onegin with Hamburg Ballet, with which she has a strong association. In addition, Kobborg, speaking by phone from Bucharest about the AB visit, said he considers Cojocaru part of his Romanian company. “I consider this one of her homes. Of course I want to involve Alina as much as possible.” (She was born in Romania.)

Cojocaru’s craving for such variety and for new work impelled her to leave the RB. “The artist in me became starved for inspiration and challenges,” she wrote in her email. “I have so much more to learn and experience in this amazing art form!”

‘The artist in me became starved for inspiration and challenges’

Kobborg says the RB could offer security and that he could potentially have stayed another five years, “but it just didn’t really do much for me any more. And if Alina wasn’t going to be there … She wanted to do something different and I support her. You have to put yourself in situations where you don’t feel too secure. To experiment, if that’s the right word. It’s about art, not about recreating the past.”

Despite her eye being equally focused on the future, Cojocaru’s Sydney debut in Swan Lake remains a treasured experience. “I was very lucky and happy that Ross Stretton had asked Natasha Makarova to work with me on this role. And for me it is [the] most special memory of this ballet ever.

“After that tour, we had a few attempts to come back dancing in Australia … but I guess things do happen when they are meant to and it looks like now is [the] right time for it. I am really very excited about coming back to a place where I have such wonderful memories of our shows there with Johan!

“And Manon is of course such a masterpiece that we are very much looking forward to work on this ballet with The Australian Ballet. Especially as each person in the ballet brings their energy and way of performing that I am sure it will be very inspiring journey of discovering and developing a connection with everybody.”

While his artistic directorship is his priority, Kobborg said he is able to plan around the job to continue his onstage career. “I started a month ago and had known about it for about two months before that,” he says. “It was not something I applied for, it was not something that was planned.” For that reason he still had – and has – dancing commitments in the diary for up to 18 months. He may withdraw from a few things, but says of the AB visit: “Manon is a ballet very close to me and Alina. There was no question about it,” says Kobborg.

“I’m not saying goodbye to dancing; [but] I only have to say yes to the things I really want to do. I want to be realistic. I’m getting old” – Kobborg gives a little laugh at this point – “but there are still definitely some things I find interesting and I can bring something to.” He doesn’t necessarily plan to dance with his Romanian company but doesn’t close the door either. “If there is a need, of course … if I can help by being on stage then I will do it.”

This year the AB doesn’t have the superstar power all to itself. Performances of Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet by the resurgent Queensland Ballet in June and July will feature RB principals Carlos Acosta and Sydney-born Steven McRae as well as Tamara Rojo, who also happens to be Cojocaru’s boss at ENB. Like Kobborg she is an artistic director who continues to perform. Further proving ballet’s current fluidity, Brisbane-born AB principal artist Daniel Gaudiello also guests with QB.

“We not trying to out-guest the guests,” McAllister says about the conjunction of stars. “More ballet and better ballet from everyone makes everyone better. It’s certainly great to see QB developing and growing, as it is with West Australian Ballet. It builds an excitement around ballet.”

The Sydney season of Manon runs from April 3-23. Cojocaru and Kobborg appear on April 19 and 22. The Melbourne season of Manon runs from March 14-24.

A version of this article ran in The Australian on March 3.

The urge to perform

I AM not a great fan of audience participation – certainly not for myself, and rarely when I see others roped in. Frequently it involves people making spectacles of themselves or being put in an awkward position they can’t wriggle out of. It almost invariably feels like a power trip on the part of the performers. Alternatively, getting up on stage can go to the non-professional’s head and embarrassment ensues. So no, not a great fan. In fact, I loathe it.

True, I managed to survive a spot of participatory action at The Rabble’s 2013 Melbourne Festival show, Room of Regret, but happily it was in an extremely benign form – the actor, me, and an otherwise empty space in which we gazed wordlessly at each other. I could manage that.

Full marks, then, to Sydney company My Darling Patricia and its latest theatre work, The Piper, which premiered at the Sydney Festival last week. The involvement of a section of the audience is a crucial part of the performance. In fact, The Piper couldn’t take place without these people, who play townsfolk and their children in a version of the Pied Piper story.

And get this. Not only does My Darling Patricia get a substantial workforce for free, the participating audience members pay just as much for their tickets as do those who sit back, relax and enjoy the performance. Respect.

I really do mean that. My Darling Patricia has found a way of involving even very young children in a non-threatening, creative way. The participants do nothing that would require expertise and are guided at all times via headsets. Their freshness and wonder are a delightful part of the experience for those who are only watching.

The Piper is a fun version of the old German legend, filtered through stories by poet Ted Hughes. There’s an over-developed city, countryside despoiled, a shonky mayor whose pronouncements could come straight from today’s media and, of course, a plague of rats that needs to be dealt with. Narration, puppetry, projection and live action combine to make a strong, clear, memorable story. I would have liked to take part and should have commandeered a child to make that possible.

A more recognisable take on audience participation was seen at Empire, the circus production that’s back in Sydney after a very successful outing at the beginning of last year. Empire positions itself at the raunchy end of the spectrum and to this end treats the audience a bit roughly, although why telling audience members to “sit the fuck down” might be considered witty escaped me.

But on to the participation bit. It’s common in shows such as Empire – the family includes La Clique, which morphed into La Soiree – for performers to interact with audience members in a way that might be considered, ahem, rather familiar. Drinks are stolen, laps sat on, heads fondled and so on. On the night I saw Empire a man was brought to the stage and touched up pretty comprehensively. True, he was laughing, as was everyone else (although not old sourpuss me). But what if he’d felt the performers were going beyond what he felt comfortable with? My first thought was that he had to be a plant for the performers to be sure the situation was containable and the act wouldn’t fall in a heap, but my date, highly experienced in this form of theatre, reckoned not.

Which brings us to control. Just as in stand-up comedy, the atmosphere in contemporary circus shows can be a little volatile. People are drinking and they are revved up. Shows such as Empire and La Soiree give people licence to drop their inhibitions; they encourage it. It’s a huge part of the allure. Most audience members know the game and how to play it. The boundaries may be a bit more flexible than those outside the tent, but people tend to be able to judge quite finely what level of abandon is acceptable.

But if they do overstep that invisible line the performers have to tidy things up, just as stand-up comedians have to deal with hecklers in a way that asserts their primacy over the heckler without losing the rest of the room. Indeed, in a way that wins over the room. It’s a quite delicate balance, even if it may not appear to be at the time. It requires a great deal of skill.

At Empire one of the comperes, Anne Goldmann, dealt abruptly with a young man who was making too insistent a noise and she came off as petulant and graceless. Those of us who were near him could see his companion trying to quieten him, and it looked very much as if he had some mild form of impairment. Goldmann, trying to perform, wouldn’t have been able to catch that, but when the two young men left and she shouted “Good riddance” at them, she was the one who came across badly. The put-down was schoolyard quality.

As I say, this is tricky territory. These shows invite raucous interaction with patrons and then have to deal with the consequences in a way that doesn’t rip the fabric of the show’s tone and fits in with the temperature and mood of the audience. Cabaret artist Meow Meow is extraordinarily adept at controlling her audience while acting in an extremely passive-aggressive manner, but then she is a goddess.

There is extensive audience participation in magic show The Illusionists 2.0, playing at the Sydney Opera House – all of it done extremely well and entered into most eagerly by patrons. I was impressed by the skilful handling of volunteers for the hypnotism section, a section of the show that is now, of course, absent due to the death on Saturday of hypnotist Scott Lewis.

I haven’t yet seen Oedipus Schmoedipus, the new show by small company Post in association with Belvoir and the Sydney Festival, but will mid-week and will be watching the non-professionals closely. Like The Piper, Oedipus is highly dependent on volunteers, a crew that changes with each performance. Unlike with The Piper, I gather the Oedipus volunteers don’t have to pay anything, but then they do have to turn up to a rehearsal. And there are 24 needed for each show. Phew!

Tim Crouch’s I, Malvolio, part of the About an Hour mini-fest within the Sydney Festival, is another theatre work that enlists audience members during the course of the show, but it needs only a few. Given that he’s performed the piece several hundred times it’s reasonable to assume Crouch doesn’t have much trouble getting the help he needs. But then none of the shows seem to have the slightest problem getting people up on stage. Everyone may be critic. Just about everyone also seems to harbour a hankering to be a performer.

La Soiree, Sydney Opera House, January 15-March 16

The Illusionists 2.0, Sydney Opera House, ends January 16

I, Malvolio, Sydney Festival, Carriageworks, January 16-19.

The Piper, Sydney Festival, Carriageworks, ends January 19

Oedipus Schmoedipus, Belvoir St Theatre, ends February 2

Empire, the Showring, Entertainment Quarter, Sydney, ends February 16

The Pilates phenomenon

THERE’S more to getting ready for a ballet performance than donning a stunning costume, doing a stage-worthy make-up and rubbing a rabbit’s foot for luck. Before the curtain goes up there will have been countless hours of rehearsal over weeks and months (not to mention the decade or so of training to get to that point). Before rehearsal comes class, every day. And for a great many professional dancers, before class comes Pilates.

Far from being just another fitness fad whose popularity waxes and wanes with public taste, Pilates has long been a favourite with dancers. It helps keep them in peak form but has a further benefit. From its earliest days Pilates has also been associated with rehabilitation, and because of the physically arduous nature of the business, dancing and rehab go together like Nureyev and Fonteyn.

Juliet Burnett in Paquita. Photo: Jeff Busby

Juliet Burnett in Paquita. Photo: Jeff Busby

Juliet Burnett knows this well. The Australian Ballet senior artist, 30, was back onstage for the Sydney season of La Sylphide after a two-month hiatus caused by a foot injury. “It was a stress reaction in my second metatarsal. Luckily it was caught at an early stage so it didn’t progress to a stress fracture, which would have seen me off for quite a bit more time.” Part of her rehab program was Pilates, of which Burnett was a particularly early adopter. “I started on the recommendation of my ballet teacher when I was 12, so probably I was younger than many younger students would have followed it back then. It was still relatively new – it used to be ballet dancers and athletes who had cottoned on to it, and gymnasts.”

Burnett, who started dancing at about the age of five and joined the AB in 2003, always does Pilates daily but it was more intense during her time offstage, making up for the physical work she was missing in class and rehearsals. “You can still work the muscles in a horizontal plane,” says Burnett. “For the first couple of weeks I was not allowed to bear weight. I wasn’t to walk around too much, wasn’t allowed to stand around and cook. People waited on me. I relished that.”

Pilates is named after its German founder, Joseph Pilates, who made a study of practices such as yoga, martial arts, bodybuilding, gymnastics and boxing to improve his fitness – he was apparently a weedy youth. During his internment in the UK during World War I Pilates helped care for injured servicemen, a circumstance that inspired his trademark resistance exercises, which he developed using springs taken from beds. The exercises could be done while the men were lying down with their heads, shoulders and backs supported. “That’s basically the crux of what we have now,” says Pilates teacher-trainer Penelope Hoess.

Pilates ultimately made his home in New York in the mid-1920s and his evolving method was taken up by some of the biggest names in dance, including the fledgling New York City Ballet.

“Before Pilates I had no concept of how vital core stability was for a dancer when performing,” says Annabel Knight, formerly with Sydney Dance Company and now in the ensemble of the musical Dirty Rotten Scoundrels in Sydney. “A strong core is the foundation to your movement.”

Annabel Knight demonstrates Darren Spowart's ConsciousControl Pilates program

Annabel Knight demonstrates Darren Spowart’s ConsciousControl Pilates program

Ah yes, the core. Core strength is a term much bandied about these days but what exactly is it? Not just the abs, that’s for sure. “It’s a great question,” says Hoess, who describes the core as the area from the base of the pelvis to the lower ribcage, from front to back. Within this area is a set of deep abdominals (such as the transversus abdominus),  the multifidi (which connect the vertebrae), and a collection of pelvic floor muscles – essentially the group of muscles that support the spine and upper and lower torso.

“Physiologically, our centre of gravity lies in our pelvis,” says Hoess, a council member of the Australian Pilates Method Association (she was also a dancer who trained at London Contemporary Dance School). “It’s a really important area to base your strength and range from. Pilates balances muscles around a joint and that increases the range of movement. Because of the systematic approach, you’re also gaining strength and flexibility to support that increased range.”

Naturally this is of keen interest to dancers. AB artistic director David McAllister says Pilates enables targeting of the muscle groups that support ballet technique. Learning about the importance of the small and linking muscles and not just the prime movers such as quads, glutes and hamstrings helps dancers prevent injury, improve technically and perform their heavy workload consistently (the AB has about 170 main stage performances a year). On a personal note, he says: “I think danced for as long as I did 100 per cent because of Pilates. I had so many shocking injuries but I could continue because I worked those small muscles.”

Burnett says that many dancers who come to Pilates later in their career “do comment they wished they’d started it earlier because it would have helped them ground the right technique much earlier. When you’re preparing for a role, you can cater your Pilates program to help you out with those technical aspects.” For the title role in La Sylphide, for instance, Burnett does lots of targeted upper leg and calf exercises.

Knight, 30, calls Pilates “such a vital tool for me. You’ve got so much more extreme movement when you’re stable within your core and centred. It’s a larger range of movement, but also I’m stronger, I’m fitter.”

Rohan Furnell Photo: James Braund

The AB’s Rohan Furnell Photo: James Braund

Darren Spowart, a former dancer with the AB and Sydney Dance Company, takes AB dancers for Pilates when the company is in Sydney. It is vital preparation says Rohan Furnell, 26, who “simply wouldn’t be able to perform at the required level if not for Pilates”.  As a member of the corps, the largest and busiest rank in a ballet company, he is likely to be dancing in every show. Like Burnett and Knight, Furnell does Pilates daily.

“It gives me a confidence in my ability. I never feel as secure in what I’m trying to achieve on stage and in class and in rehearsals when I haven’t done Pilates,” he says. There are further benefits too. “Our repertoire and rehearsal schedule is so varied throughout the year that you can be so busy one week and then not so busy the next week.

“The Pilates is a constant that’s really important for me. It allows a consistency in my workload that really helps for maintenance and injury prevention.”

Spowart, 49, was regularly asked by members of the AB if he could record some of his classes for them so has produced a series of DVDs. They are based on his AB work and have found acceptance within the wider dance world. Additionally, he has been asked by the Skating Coaches Federation of Switzerland to speak and present videos at a seminar in May in Zurich.

But the programs can also be used by non-dancers (this writer is a devotee). “Elite dancer work can translate to non-elite people. I have delved deeply into each exercise, to what they are achieving and why they are achieving,” Spowart says of his ConsciousControl Pilates series, which has five levels through which practitioners can progress. Burnett, Knight, Furnell, AB senior artist Rudy Hawkes and soloist Robyn Hendricks are among dancers who demonstrate the programs, which are also available online.

Rudy Hawkes demonstrates ConsciousControl Pilates

AB senior artist Rudy Hawkes demonstrates ConsciousControl Pilates

Pilates is not for the flighty. It is technically challenging and requires patience and perseverance. “It’s definitely no quick-fix process,” says Hoess. “It’s part of the methodology to commit. We’re teaching your nervous system a particular language. Like learning anything, regular practice gets you to where you want to go.” Spowart says it takes a 10 to 12-month commitment for someone to get his program into their body. Essentially it’s a mind-driven process, with the Pilates principles of concentration, centering and control leading to the desired precision and flow.

“Pilates definitely has its role in creating the ideal classical ballet dancer with a good and sound technique,” says Burnett, but she is also convinced of its wider application.  “My husband is a musician and he spends a lot of his days in front of a computer. Pilates is such a great way to get realigned and grounded,” she says. “Now it is very much a ubiquitous thing and that’s fantastic because it should be an essential practice for everyone.”

Knight agrees. “No matter who you are or what you do, you’ll always find benefits in every way,” she says.

Not everyone will end up looking like Burnett, Knight or Furnell, but if they put the work in they will look and feel stronger, more flexible and more aware. That much is guaranteed.

The Australian Ballet’s La Sylphide, Sydney, until November 25. Juliet Burnett dances the title role on November 18 and at the November 23 matinee. She appears in the La Sylphide curtain-raiser Paquita on November 20, 21, 22 and 25.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Theatre Royal, Sydney. Ends December 8.

Darren Spowart’s program: www.consciouscontrolpilates.com

This is an extended version of an article that appeared in The Australian, November 15.

Criticism in the digital age

Having been asked to take part in a forum on criticism in the digital age for the Melbourne Festival – it was held at the Wheeler Centre for books, writing and ideas – I wrote an opinion piece for The Australian on the subject. It happens to be exactly a year since I retired after 25 years at the paper. A lot has changed.

WHAT did you think? Did you like it? If you are at all interested in the arts you will have asked those questions and had them asked of you. Assessments are made and views expressed. Acts of criticism are entered into, whether formal or informal, closely argued or briefly encapsulated, backed by deep knowledge or impelled by an emotional reaction (or a combination of the two). The spectrum of response has always been broad but in the past only a small group of people had a wide public platform for their thoughts. Now everyone has a keyboard in their pocket and, it would appear, something to say.

Tonight I take part in a forum for the Melbourne Festival at Melbourne’s Wheeler Centre called Criticism Now: Criticism in the Digital Age. It comes off the back of an outpouring of anguish – online of course – about the future of professional criticism in the age of the amateur whose enthusiasm knows no bounds.

With print under pressure there’s concern that the established media outlets will no longer be able to afford to pay critics, or in other words sustain the old model. I suspect there’s also an underlying anxiety is that when push comes to shove, those outlets may not rate reviewing highly enough to fund. That’s a reasonable enough fear. In the past few years professional reviewers have seen their patch increasingly overrun by citizen critics. The quality of criticism and its very nature are up for grabs.

Until recently there were no such clouds in the sky. I became a journalist because that was how my father made his living. My first memories of the business are of linotype operators at Dad’s paper, the Ballarat Courier, working at their huge, clanking machines to produce metal slugs bearing the words that would appear in the next day’s edition. Reporters pecked out their stories on typewriters, copy paper shot around the building via chutes and proof readers exercised stern quality control.

By the time I retired from The Australian, a year ago this month, I had seen the business up close for more than half a century. After the demise hot metal typesetting, other traditional jobs became vulnerable. Computerisation made linotype operators, proof readers and compositors redundant and journalists absorbed the old trades into their new multi-skilled lives.

And then … well, you know what happened next.

The jocular phrase “everyone’s a critic” has never been more potent. Word of mouth, always incredibly important to the arts, has migrated from small social circles to the broad reaches of Twitter and the comments section of online ticketing sites. Ideas that may have been discussed between friends have morphed into countless theatre, opera and dance blogs.

Digital publications with few resources but wide readership run crits from tyros who don’t expect to be paid. Old-media critics, often with many decades of experience, start blogs when they retire (guilty as charged!) and also don’t expect to make any money out of it, although they may also continue to write for their former employer (guilty again) and will submit an invoice. Younger critics bob up everywhere, promiscuous, if you like, in dispensing their favours in this free-for-all world.

The old ways are restricted but reassuring. Reviews are written by someone with the clout of the masthead behind them. Expertise is a given and there is always an editor handling the copy, acting as a sounding board and catching solecisms. There was, and is, a process that implies experience, knowledge, sound judgment and quality control. There will be cynics who say such things are rapidly diminishing in lockstep with newspaper staff cuts, but all I’ll say is that The Australian still has in-house sub-editors dedicated to working on the arts pages.

The mainstream media continues to have importance in the cultural discussion but has lost its singularity. As traditional media moves more extensively into the digital area and new digital-only mastheads establish themselves, the number of regular, known, serious voices in this realm increases rather than decreases. Whether these people are paid or not they constitute a group whose work is filtered and curated. That fact alone doesn’t necessarily guarantee the highest quality, but it gives guidance. In addition, there are unaligned bloggers of exceptional interest.

The avid consumer of arts writing has never had it better and it’s not just a matter of volume. Access and interactivity has empowered readers, albeit at a cost. The reader needs to be more alert, engaged and discriminating than ever, particularly as digital publishing alters the way people write, think and act. I’m fascinated by the ways in which experienced critics and those aspiring to be recognised critics have reacted to the freedoms and pressures of the digital space.

The most obvious freedom is that of space. It’s actually not a bad discipline to have to tailor a piece carefully to an unyielding requirement, but also a great joy not to have to rein in a thought or make blunt some nuanced argument for the want of a few more words. The astute online critic will write only so much and no more. Mostly, though, the critics I admire greatly are writing at great length, which leads me to a second freedom: release from the yoke of generalist language.

In newspapers there’s an expectation that anyone can light upon a piece and understand it; that it shouldn’t be so technical or academic as to exclude that shadowy character, the intelligent but general reader. Specialist online sites exult in detail and depth, the more the better. There’s freedom of style and tone, too, with no need to keep in touch with a newspaper’s house style.

Even if attached to a masthead, critics may be found directly via search engine so distinctive voices do best. The quiet, protective silo of the newsroom is gone. It’s a jungle of individuals out there and the meek are at a great disadvantage. We see writers becoming their own publicists, tweeting that a review has been posted (guilty again!). It’s best if there is a zinging phrase that can fit into 140 characters. There’s also much personal material sitting alongside the business tweets and sometimes the two can’t be separated. A corollary is that some critical writing may be passionate and partisan to the point where it can be difficult to separate criticism from advocacy. This is seductive, intimate territory.

These are, of course, generalisations because there are as many approaches as people writing. But whatever the approach, readers will decide from the multiplicity of sources which they value and prefer rather than passively accepting what’s put in front of them.

Print media is working hard to find a viable bridge between the old ways and the new. Online publications, if not supported by a trust or a philanthropist, also need to develop a workable business model. Not everything will survive the transition – remember the compositors – and I make no predictions. I do, however, have the deepest faith in the arts as a subject of study from a glorious multitude of perspectives.

A version of this article appeared in The Australian on October 24.

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.

Lucy Green, RNZB, in profile

WHEN Lucy Green stepped on to the stage at Wellington’s St James Theatre on July 21 it was in front of the toughest crowd imaginable. Dancers from every era of Royal New Zealand Ballet’s history were in town for the company’s 60th anniversary celebrations and they’d come en masse to a special matinee performance of Swan Lake. They would see a 22-year-old Australian who had made her debut in the double role of Odette-Odile only two days before. Many pairs of expert eyes would be assessing her every move.

Lucy Green as Odette. Photo: Evan Li

Lucy Green as Odette. Photo: Evan Li

That’s not all. There were also television cameras in the wings, filming for the third series of the reality show about RNZB, The Secret Lives of Dancers, and those cameras weren’t around just to capture what used to be called Kodak moments. Green has been prominent in the first two series and knows only too well that drama and conflict are considered more entertaining, and that filming is stressful. It’s also relevant that last week Green was alternating with RNZB’s stellar principal guest artist Gillian Murphy, she of American Ballet Theatre fame and one of Swan Lake’s great exponents.

These are circumstances to test any performer’s mettle but brutal as they may be, they sort out the women from the girls; the winners from the losers. By ballet’s end Green had won through. She had shown what RNZB’s artistic director, former American Ballet Theatre principal dancer Ethan Stiefel, calls her ability to “continually rise to the occasion”.

Clutching flowers, she beamed as cheers rang around the theatre and Stiefel said from the stage: “I couldn’t have picked a better group of people to put before six decades of alumni. I’m proud to work with all of you.”

Green is a quietly poised, thoughtful and modest young woman, aware of her good fortune and grateful for it. “I never, ever thought that I would ever get the opportunity and especially not at this age. It’s a role I never dared to think I would do,” she says. She has form, however. Also on her CV after just three years with RNZB is Giselle, which she danced on the company’s recent tour to China, and last year’s Cinderella.

She is talented, a rising star, no doubt about it. But the thing everyone mentions about Green – the unromantic but necessary part of the equation – is that she has worked indefatigably for her success. This is the less thrilling but more truthful secret life of the dancer.

The story started at Australia Street Infants School, in Sydney’s Newtown. “It was quite a radical school at the time,” says Green’s mother, Bridget. “The parents got together and decided contact sport was a no-no. They employed a dance teacher.” Lucy was entranced from the start. “She was with Miss Jenny, who she adored and who imbued a passion for dance. Lucy asked me if she could go to after-school classes in the school hall. She never looked back. She decided that was it. She was a dancer.”

Jenny Eldridge (“Miss Jenny”) says Lucy “focused, listened and concentrated from the word go. She was a beautiful child to teach.” Many years later Eldridge saw Green compete at the City of Sydney Eisteddford, in a solo from Giselle, and “the thing that captured me about her was that she was dancing from her heart”.

After the Green family moved to Melbourne Lucy studied at the National Theatre Ballet School under Beverly Jane Fry’s directorship. There she came to understand what aiming for a life in ballet demands: not just liking it or wanting it, but the effort it takes. After that epiphany she took every class possible, says her mother. “That’s the key to Lucy. She’s serious and she works hard.” Green successfully auditioned for the Australian Ballet School but chose the Victorian College of the Arts Secondary School. “She saw Maggie Lorraine as a mentor and she knew that she’d made the right decision,” says her mother. Lorraine was Green’s teacher at VCASS for four years and also mentions the hard graft: Green “didn’t have an easy body to work with. She virtually resculpted her body.”

At one point Green would have liked to join the Australian Ballet. The offer, however, came from across the Tasman. “From day one when she auditioned, straight away … we had to have her. She shone,” says Greg Horsman, formerly ballet master with RNZB and now with Queensland Ballet. “She’s very musical, she’s very co-ordinated and she has amazing turns. And she’s intelligent. You can give her a correction and she takes it on board right away. I loved working with her.”

Green found out she was being considered for Odette only eight weeks before her Swan Lake debut, having just returned from a three-week European holiday with her boyfriend, Rory Fairweather-Neylan, also a dancer with RNZB. It wasn’t the best preparation, she acknowledges, having not been able to take regular classes, but at least there was an eight-week rehearsal period ahead. The production being revived was that created by former RNZB artistic Russell Kerr, with designs by Kristian Fredrikson.

Lucy Green as Odile with Kohei Iwamoto. Photo: Evan Li

Lucy Green as Odile with Kohei Iwamoto. Photo: Evan Li

As is the way with dance companies, the news was relayed via a list on the company noticeboard that had names, in alphabetical order, alongside various roles. Green was down to learn Odette-Odile as were three other company members. “We had no warning. It just went up one day, this is what you’re learning.” The fifth name on the list was Murphy’s. Engaged to Stiefel, Murphy spends a significant amount of time at RNZB. She is also one of Green’s great inspirations.

“She is the perfect embodiment of the white and the black,” Green says. “She really makes you believe she is a swan in the white acts … the delicacy of her arms and her hands. It’s like they are actually wings. Everything she does comes from the heart. As Odile she’s completely the opposite. The eyes are so powerful, she commands everyone to look at her and she owns the stage. I’ve loved watching her and studying her. But you have to be careful – you don’t want to be a cheap copy of something someone’s already been.”

Obviously Murphy would be getting performances. As for the rest of them, “you could be an understudy or you could be doing it. You don’t know.”

Throughout the rehearsal period Green was getting a lot of coaching – unusually not from a former Odette but from Stiefel and ballet master Martin Vedel. “But we didn’t learn who was doing what when” until about two and a half weeks before opening. “There was always the hope, I guess. It’s a small company [34 dancers], so it was more likely than being in a big company of course. I had had a lot of encouragement about the roles I’d done previously so I was quite hopeful, but you never want to get your hopes up too much.

“People know any roles can be up for grabs by anyone. There’s a lot of disappointment sometimes when someone doesn’t get something they want, but I do find here people are so supportive that they tend to put aside their disappointments. That’s something that I really felt [at the first performance], the energy I got from everyone, even those who might want to be doing the role I’m doing.”

Being far from the major ballet centres meant Green had to go to YouTube to see how others approach the role. “I remember watching these long, beautiful dancers with long classical lines, their legs go on forever, their arms are just like wings. I never thought I’d have those qualities. But yeah, here I am, and I’ve done it. I can’t believe it.” And while she was able to have only one orchestral rehearsal, she found Tchaikovsky’s music inspiring. “It’s got all the emotion and all the qualities you need,” she says.

Then there’s all that work. “You’ve got to put in a lot yourself. You’ve got to make the corrections sit with your body and feel right. One of the main concerns with me dancing the role was everything was quite small to begin with. I didn’t have the expansiveness, the full breadth of movement. I could feel it, but when you see yourself [some rehearsals were filmed] you can see what [coaches are] talking about and better apply what they are saying.’’

Another help was dancing with Japanese-born, Australian Ballet School-trained Kohei Iwamoto, 23, as Siegfried. (“He’s another nice dancer with huge potential,” says Horsman.) Iwamoto has partnered Green before, notably in Giselle, and it’s “a really good partnership. When I go out there and I see him I feel really comfortable and I trust him. It’s really nice.’’

In a company of this size it’s not all Odette and Giselle, however: Green dances secondary roles too and gets few performances off. She dreams in the future of Juliet and Kenneth MacMillan’s Manon and of perhaps dancing in Europe, but in the immediate future, after Swan Lake, lies the biennial Tutus on Tour program that splits the company and takes ballet to small NZ centres where “you have one dressing room for 16 dancers, and you’re sharing a bathroom with the audience”.

It’s a blast, she says. “It’s kind of crazy but you get this close group of dancers and everyone supports each other. It’s an intense workload but somehow we manage to pull it off.”

Swan Lake continues at various NZ centres until September 1.

This is a slightly extended version of a profile that first appeared in The Australian on July 25.