Queensland and West Australian ballet companies of one mind in 2020

Queensland Ballet announced its 2020 season in mid-September; West Australian Ballet in this past week. The nation’s leading state ballet companies are different in scale and usually in repertoire but their seasons next year have some striking similarities.

Oscar Valdes as Jonathan Harker and Matthew Lehmann as Young Dracula with the dancers of West Australian Ballet. Photo by Jon Green

Oscar Valdés (seated left) as Jonathan Harker and Matthew Lehmann (right) as Young Dracula in WAB’s Dracula, choreographed by Krzysztof Pastor. Photo: Jon Green

West Australian Ballet offers a repeat season of Krzysztof Pastor’s full-length Dracula in September 2020 after its big success with the Perth public last year. Queensland Ballet, a co-producer, will show it to Brisbane audiences for the first time in May. Both companies have programmed The Sleeping Beauty, with QB reprising Greg Horsman’s 2015 production and WAB premiering a version by Mexican choreographer Javier Torres created for Finnish National Ballet in 2012. Perth and Brisbane audiences will also see a traditional Nutcracker at year’s end. QB has established Ben Stevenson’s Nutcracker as an annual event while in Perth audiences see the ballet every other year. WAB’s current production was co-choreographed by former WAB principal artist Jayne Smeulders, WAB artistic director Aurélian Scannella and WAB principal ballet mistress and artistic associate Sandy Delasalle.

The similarities continue with each company staging a gala program for a number of performances. QB’s is to celebrate its 60th anniversary; WAB’s will feature highlights from its repertoire. In Perth the gala performances will be seen in repertory with The Nutcracker.

Queensland Ballet - The Sleeping Beauty - Carabosse with the Fairies. Photo David Kelly

Queensland Ballet in Greg Horsman’s The Sleeping Beauty. Photo: David Kelly

As always QB and WAB will offer choreographic development seasons – titled Synergy and Genesis respectively – and a contemporary program. WAB’s Ballet at the Quarry has been staged for nearly 30 years in the breathtaking open-air City Beach Quarry Amphitheatre while QB’s Bespoke is a relatively new and important addition to its programming, staged at Brisbane’s Powerhouse.

A splendid development for WAB is an extra annual contemporary program to be performed at Perth’s State Theatre Centre. Titled STATE, the inaugural season will feature the return of Garry Stewart’s Reincarnation, which premiered at Ballet at the Quarry this year. The piece sees WAB collaborate with Western Australia’s state contemporary dance company, Co:3.

Also on the program is Graeme Murphy’s beautiful Air and Other Invisible Forces, made for Sydney Dance Company in 1999. Part of the work will be staged during the 2020 Quarry season and it will be seen in full in STATE.

Dangerous Liaisons

Rian Thompson and Yanela Pinera in Liam Scarlett’s Dangerous Liaisons. Photo: David Kelly

In its 60th anniversary year QB, which started life as The Lisner Ballet in 1960, will present Shanghai Ballet in Derek Deane’s The Lady of the Camellias in March before starting its season proper with the gala program. Continuing to expand its footprint in Australia, QB will travel to Melbourne to stage Liam Scarlett’s Dangerous Liaisons, originally seen in Brisbane this year.

Under the artistic direction of Li Cunxin over the past eight years QB has grown remarkably in size. It now has 43 dancers, two apprentices and 12 young artists. The older WAB – founded in 1952 by Kira Bousloff – is significantly smaller with 29 dancers and six young artists.

A notable feature of both companies, however, is the enlivening presence of Cuban-trained dancers, including three of QB’s five principal artists – Victor Estévez, Camilo Ramos and Yanela Piñera. The six Cubans at WAB include Dayana Hardy Acuña, who was promoted to principal artist after dancing Giselle in September. In May this year she was the brightest presence in WAB’s staging of Greg Horsman’s dismal La Bayadère (another co-production with QB), in which she was the temple dancer Nikiya. After the retirement this year of Brooke Widdison-Jacobs the top rank at WAB was looking very slender indeed with only Chihiro Nomura and Matthew Lehmann remaining as principals. Hardy Acuña’s elevation is most welcome.

Dayana Hardy Acuna as Giselle with Guest Artist Kevin Jackson as Albrecht. Photo by Scott Dennis (3)

Dayana Hardy Acuña as Giselle with guest artist Kevin Jackson of The Australian Ballet as Albrecht in WAB’s 2019 production of Giselle. Photo: Scott Dennis

Giselle, West Australian Ballet

His Majesty’s Theatre, Perth, September 13 and 14.

Was there ever a man who said his life’s ambition was to dance Hilarion? Probably not. He is the spurned lover in Giselle, a gamekeeper who can’t match the allure of his rival, aristo-in-disguise Albrecht. Hilarion offers dead birds to Giselle’s mother to shore up his position; the experienced Albrecht blows sexy kisses and ingratiates himself with Giselle’s friends.

So yes, Albrecht has all the glamour but who Hilarion is, what he does and what he feels is vitally important to the progress and texture of the drama. The same goes for all other secondary figures. The detail is where a company can make this much-performed, much-loved work sing.

Polly Hilton as Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis with the dancers of West Australian Ballet in Giselle (2019) (2). Photo by Sergey Pevnev

Polly Hilton as Myrtha in West Australian Ballet’s Giselle. Photo: Sergey Pevnev

Aurélien Scannella and Sandy Delasalle’s staging for West Australian Ballet retains the usual scenic framework and much of the traditional choreography attributed to Coralli and Perrot, albeit with a few tweaks, while new touches to character and movement make the ballet WAB’s own. The production, first seen in 2014, looks lovely. Peter Cazalet’s design is appealingly modest in scale and Michael Rippon and Jon Buswell’s lighting a thing of beauty, particularly in the second act, which opens with a shaft of moonlight piercing the gloom of the forest where Giselle is buried.

A late injury to principal dancer Matthew Lehmann made changes to casting necessary, which may have accounted for the feeling that not every idea was expressed as convincingly as it could be. Nevertheless, those ideas were persuasive. It’s made abundantly clear, for instance, that Albrecht is deeply committed to Giselle, strengthening the moment when Giselle and Albrecht’s noble fiancée Bathilde realise they are talking about the same man. Hilarion stands by – Jesse Homes in the first cast judged it perfectly – hoping against hope that Giselle will acknowledge him as her betrothed.

Chihiro Nomura as Giselle and Oscar Valdes as Albrecht in Giselle (2019). Photo by Sergey Pevnev

Chihiro Nomura and Oscar Valdés as Giselle and Albrecht. Photo: Sergey Pevnev

In the first act the men of the ensemble are given more to do, including repeated double tours (tidier at the second performance than the first) and exuberant splits in the air that fit well with a day of harvest festival celebrations and it was good to see the Peasant Pas de Deux couple as an integral part of the community. Candice Adea and Julio Blanes did the honours at the first two performances with charm and ease.

In Act II there are interesting choices for Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis, who is less physically explosive than usual but no less in command with her eloquent balances on pointe. At the second performance Glenda Gardia Gomez was a sterner figure than Polly Hilton on opening night (Hilton had earlier appeared as a gracious, amused Bathilde) but with both there was a sense that Myrtha acts more from necessity than vindictiveness. The Leading Wilis at both performances were entrancing, with Mayume Noguromi and Claire Voss outstanding.

The soft, rounded romantic style – embodied marvellously by the WAB corps – is amplified by the first entrance of the Wilis in a swirling, circular group and at the end they shrink from the morning light in chilling fashion as Giselle greets the dawn with exultation. The restoration of a fugue that’s usually cut is intriguing but slightly problematic, delaying Giselle and Albrecht’s glorious pas de deux.

Alexa Tuzil as Giselle and Juan Carlos Osma as Albrecht in Giselle (2019) (2). Photo by Sergey Pevnev

Juan Carlos Osma and Alexa Tuzil in Giselle. Photo: Sergey Pevnev

In the first cast principal artist Chihiro Nomura was a sunny, delighted Giselle until her happiness was shattered. On Saturday corps member Alexa Tuzil’s peasant girl was a highly promising work in progress in the first act. Her second act was absolutely scorching: passionate, fearless and greatly moving in what was her role debut.

The respective Albrechts, Oscar Valdés and Juan Carlos Osma, are perhaps not the most natural actors but each was serviceable in Act I and wonderful in Act II. Both are Cuban and have a gorgeous combination of impeccable line and exciting power. Osma’s elevation is astonishing. (There is quite a Cuban contingent at WAB right now: soloists Valdés, Osma and Dayana Hardy Acuña; demi-soloist Blanes, who was so charming in the Peasant Pas; and corps members Glenda Garcia Gomez and Ana Gallardo Lobaina.)

In the pit the West Australian Symphony Orchestra was under the baton of Jessica Gethin, a rising conductor making her ballet debut. There were ups and downs on both nights. Gethin directed performances that had many pleasures but included a few issues with wayward horns and endings in which dancer and orchestra were not as one. At times in the second act she opted for tempos that were just the tiniest fraction too glacial.

The one true disappointment, though, was Giselle’s mother (Beth James), whose attitudes and motivations remained opaque when they weren’t confused. Not exactly disappointing but a bit puzzling was the inclusion of labradors in the hunting party, adorable though they may be. At the second performance one of them – I believe it was Treacle (there were three named on the cast sheet) – was situated well downstage and wagged his tail enthusiastically through the entire of the Peasant Pas. Well, it was good.

Ends September 28.

About last week … June 20-26

Sydney’s Hayes Theatre Co was the venue for another in the invaluable Neglected Musicals series (June 21). Rehearsal is minimal (a day only), there may be a sketchy set and a few props, and the actors – always very, very good – have books in hand. By some strange alchemy it always feels like a proper show. I’ve seen some beauties. Unfortunately Baby the Musical (1983) can’t be counted among them. We were told it was nominated for seven Tony awards but had the misfortune to be up against Sunday in the Park with George and La Cage aux Folles. Yes, well. I think it was kind of making up the category, as its competition included The Tap Dance Kid (I admit that’s a title entirely new to me) and Kander and Ebb’s The Rink, which did not meet with much critical favour and didn’t last a year (nor did Baby). Baby is little more than an extended skit really about three couples expecting a baby or hoping to. That’s it. Music is by David Shire, lyrics by Richard Maltby Jr and the book by Sybille Pearson. They’re not particularly scintillating except for the big women’s number I Want it All. That still works. The generous actors giving their all at the Hayes included Katrina Retallick, David Whitney (both fabulous) and the incredibly plucky Kate Maree Hoolihan who powered through a respiratory illness to keep the curtain up.

Next in Neglected Musicals (from August 3 for six performances) is Sammy Fain and Paul Francis Webster’s Calamity Jane, starring Virginia Gay. I’m absolutely up for that one.

Nederlands Dans Theater had one thing people could agree on during its brief Melbourne visit: the magnetism, authority and power of its dancers. Responses to the program (June 22) were more mixed. The evening opened and closed with works choreographed by NDT artistic director Paul Lightfoot and his associate Sol León that were long on visual glamour but rather shorter on emotional and visceral satisfaction.

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Crystal Pite’s Solo Echo. Photo: Rahi Rezvani

Sehnsucht (2009) was simultaneously overwrought and underdone. A man and a women played out a domestic drama in a small rotating box slightly elevated and set back – a kind of square tumble-drier with fixed table and chair and a window for escaping through. In front of them a solitary man emoted to Beethoven piano sonatas. In the second half a large ensemble was borne along by the majesty of Beethoven’s fifth symphony, although the connection between dance and music was tenuous. I couldn’t tell why this work in particular and not another one. One couldn’t deny, however, that Beethoven provided a thrillingly strong, familiar beat. The dancers looked marvelous, of course, although I did feel for Prince Credell, the solo man, who was forced to crouch at the front of the stage when Sehnsucht – the word suggests intense yearning – ended. The auditorium lights came up, he stayed, the audience stood about a bit and then he slowly unfurled himself.

Lightfoot/León’s Stop-Motion (2014), to music by Max Richter, had a similarly glossy air without convincing one that it meant anything other than generalised anguish. Too often the dancers stopped and posed either in arabesque or with legs held high to the side, either straight or with a bent knee. One admired the control, but admiring technical skill, particularly when invited to do so again and again, can get rather tiresome. Sehnsucht would have given the program a more striking ending but as Stop-Motion ends with quantities of flour being thrown about the stage, logistics demanded it closed the evening.

Thanks goodness for the central work (in all senses), Crystal Pite’s Solo Echo. There was a backdrop of falling snow, Brahms piano and cello sonatas, and an aching sense of need and loss. In the crepuscular light dancers swirled, slid and connected as if their lives depended on it. Breathtaking is an overused and frequently meaningless word of praise. Here it was entirely apposite. I wasn’t aware of myself, those around me, or of the need to breathe. Those dancers, that dance, that music, that experience filled every moment.

I won’t say too much about West Australian Ballet’s Genesis program (seen June 23) because I serve as a member of the company’s artistic review panel. The program gives WAB dancers a chance to develop their choreographic skills and is a vital part of the operation, as it is with Queensland Ballet’s Dance Dialogues. The Australian Ballet’s Bodytorque program seems to have disappeared, although this year two alumni, Alice Topp and Richard House, had work programmed as part of the AB’s mainstage season. At WAB just-retired principal artist Jayne Smeulders and soloist Andre Santos have made it to the mainstage via earlier workshops.

You will note I name two women, which is cause for rejoicing. One of the hot topics of conversation in classical dance is the scarcity – it’s close to complete absence – of female choreographers, although Crystal Pite is breaking through, as she deserves to. At WAB this year a gratifying number of women were represented: Polly Hilton, Florence Leroux-Coléno and Melissa Boniface stepped up to the plate alongside Santos, Christopher Hill, Adam Alzaim and Alessio Scognamiglio.

At the end of this year WAB stages a new Nutcracker co-choreographed by Smeulders, WAB artistic director Aurélien Scannella and ballet mistress Sandy Delasalle.

 

Dance in 2013

THE Australian dance-lover had plenty to enjoy in 2013, as long as there was a decent travel budget to hand. Paris Opera Ballet returned to Sydney, the Bolshoi had a season in Brisbane, The Australian Ballet premiered a new version of Cinderella by Alexei Ratmansky (Melbourne and Sydney only, although Adelaide sees it in 2014), Queensland Ballet had extended sell-out seasons under new artistic director Li Cunxin, West Australian Ballet brought Onegin into its repertoire and Sydney Dance Company got even more glamorous.

Leanne Stojmenov and Daniel Gaudiello in Cinderella. Photo: Jeff Busby

Leanne Stojmenov and Daniel Gaudiello in Cinderella. Photo: Jeff Busby

Those were the big events of 2013. Unfortunately there were fewer small-scale gems, or at least few I was able to see. In the wide, brown land it’s not always possible to find oneself in the right city at the right time to catch up with the leading contemporary companies and independent artists, particularly when seasons can be cruelly short.

There was also a lot of déjà vu when it came to international visitors. Of course one would never knock back the chance to see Sylvie Guillem, or Akram Khan’s work, or Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre, but the names bob up again and again. I acknowledge, however, that I travel around the country to see dance more than most people do. Perhaps I just get out too much.

What follows, therefore, isn’t necessarily a reflection of what was best (although much was terrific), but what was memorable.

The dancers:

The AB nabbed Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev for performances of Don Quixote in Melbourne. Vasiliev roared on like a comet and didn’t let up from the get-go. He’s no text-book classicist, but gee he’s fun to watch. Dancing the lead gypsy, resident AB firecracker Chengwu Guo threw in a cheeky backwards somersault just to remind the audience there were other men on stage. Later in the year, after dancing Basilio with boyish charm, Guo was promoted to senior artist. By year’s end he was a principal artist, promoted onstage after a high-flying appearance as James in La Sylphide. A very wise call on the part of AB artistic director David McAllister.

Chengwu Guo. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Chengwu Guo. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Also at the AB, Daniel Gaudiello got more opening nights (Basilio, James, the Prince in Ratmansky’s Cinderella), and rightly so. QB’s Li Cunxin likes him too. Gaudiello was a guest artist in Brisbane for Giselle – making his role debut as Albrecht – and will appear in 2014’s Romeo and Juliet as Mercutio when QB stages the MacMillan production from late June.

Still with the AB, Leanne Stojmenov had the role of her career in Cinderella, and in The Four Temperaments and Dyad 1929 (part of the Vanguard program), evergreen principal Lucinda Dunn exuded wisdom and sensuousness in works that can look all too coolly intellectual. Also on that bill was Kylian’s Bella Figura, in which corps de ballet member Ingrid Gow had one of those break-out moments.

In Brisbane, it was adorable to see Alexander Idaszak, in his first year out of the Australian Ballet School, be given the chance to dance Albrecht and to do it with such composure (he’s already moving on, however, to Royal New Zealand Ballet, which also has a starry artistic director in Ethan Stiefel). Li showed faith in another newbie, Emilio Pavan, when he was cast as the Prince in The Nutcracker, an assignment he carried out with much promise. Li added Natasha Kusch to his already lustrous group of female principal artists, and she was astutely paired with former AB dancer and now Dutch National Ballet principal Remi Wortmeyer in Nutcracker. It was a sparkling partnership.

In Perth, new artistic director Aurelien Scannella has restructured the company, creating principal artist, soloist, demi-soloist and corps de ballet ranks. On the opening night of Onegin – secured for WAB by former artistic director Ivan Cavallari – WAB showed off its new principal, Jiri Jelinek, formerly with Stuttgart Ballet and National Ballet of Canada (he is now a guest principal with the latter). Senior women Jayne Smeulders and Fiona Evans, now principals, were completely different and very fine Tatianas, and Matthew Lehmann found himself promoted to the top rank after his Onegins.

POB’s Giselle performances gave us the luminous, diaphanous Dorothee Gilbert and the role debut of Myriam Ould-Braham, a dancer made for this role. Mathieu Ganio, aristocratic to the last molecule, partnered both but Ould-Braham’s sweet simplicity seemed to make him warmer and ever-so-slightly gentler. In the Bolshoi’s The Bright Stream, a delight from beginning to end, Maria Alexandrova was exceptionally vibrant, witty and warm.

The corps of Paris Opera Ballet, Giselle Act II. Photo: Sébastien Mathé

The corps of Paris Opera Ballet, Giselle Act II. Photo: Sébastien Mathé

The AB managed to insinuate itself into David Hallberg’s very full diary for three performances of Cinderella in Sydney. The refinement, grace and noble partnering of the American Ballet Theatre and Bolshoi principal artist were a perfect fit for Ratmansky’s ballet, and Hallberg even managed to make something of the Prince’s travels, one of the slightly less successful parts of Cinderella. Hallberg’s Cinderella was Amber Scott, whose other-worldly delicacy made her a lovely match for this prince among princes.

A special mention goes to Sydney Dance Company as a whole. It’s a spectacularly good-looking ensemble.

The dances:

As you’ll see from the above, there wasn’t a lot of surprising work on offer. From the tourists, the Bolshoi’s The Bright Stream and Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre’s down-and-dirty The Rite of Spring were outstanding. Locally, SDC’s Cacti, the exceptionally amusing work by Alexander Ekman, and the AB’s Surrealist Cinderella made most impact. Well, Cinders looked much better in Melbourne, but what can you do? I also was extremely taken by Dance Clan 3, Bangarra Dance Theatre’s studio showing of new work. This time four of the company’s women – Deborah Brown, Yolande Brown, Tara Gower, Jasmin Sheppard – took up the challenge, and did so most movingly. One of those terrific evenings when you have no idea what’s ahead. I didn’t get a lot of that this year.

The ideas:

I’ve said this quite a lot elsewhere, but I love the way SDC’s Rafael Bonachela is engaged with other artists from other forms. Les Illuminations brought together SDC, string players from the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, conductor Roland Peelman, singer Katie Noonan and fashion designer Toni Maticevski to celebrate the centenary of Benjamin Britten. It was a standout, and a pity there were so few performances.

In Brisbane Queensland Ballet has taken advantage of the state government’s new Superstar Fund to lock in big-name guest artists for its mid-year Romeo and Juliet. Carlos Acosta, Tamara Rojo and Sydney-born Royal Ballet luminary Steven McRae come to town. Gaudiello will be back too – it’s so good to see this wonderful dancer getting more recognition.

Another big idea for QB is the institution of The Nutcracker as an annual Christmas event. Time will tell whether it will catch on indefinitely, but this year’s season did boffo box-office.

The Australian Ballet’s 2014 season announcement showed a small but potentially important programming shift. Instead of the usual and unvarying number of performances given to each program, regardless of audience appeal, the AB will now give shorter seasons of the contemporary rep. This is most noticeable in Sydney, where there will be nine performances of  the Ballet Imperial/Suite en Blanc double bill (May 2-17) and 10 of the Chroma/Sechs Tanze/Petite Mort/ New Baynes work bill (April 29-May 17). Note the overlapping dates – yes, programs in repertory!

As mentioned, WAB has introduced the kind of ranking system most usually seen in larger companies. Aurelien Scannella has forcefully talked about having more dancers (predecessor Cavallari got WAB a huge boost during his time). Can Scannella manage a further upwards trajectory in a city that has a huge appetite for big stuff but not so much for throwing money at the arts? And at a difficult time for the state’s finances? Worth keeping an eye on. As is QB’s obvious ambition to provide not just an alternative, but a competitor, to the AB.

The dance that turned into a play but was still full of dance:

One of the sweetest pleasures of 2013 was Gideon Obarzanek‘s Dance Better at Parties for Sydney Theatre Company, a play based on his dance work for Chunky Move that had its genesis nearly a decade ago when Obarzanek interviewed men about movement. The play, a two-hander for Steve Rodgers and Elizabeth Nabben, was simplicity itself. A bereaved man comes to a dance studio to learn how to dance, which may help him fit in socially, but really he is in desperate need of contact. To be touched. And the audience was touched too, very deeply.

Elizabeth Nabben and Steve Rodgers in Dance Better at Parties. Photo: Brett Boardman

Elizabeth Nabben and Steve Rodgers in Dance Better at Parties. Photo: Brett Boardman

The disappointments:

The big, big loss this year was the cancellation of Spring Dance, the festival inaugurated by the Sydney Opera House and now pulled out of the calendar. Yes, it was costly, but gave contemporary dance a highly visible platform from which to entice audiences. Fragments of it remained – Les Illuminations (see above) and Akram Khan’s iTMOi – “In the Mind of Igor” – which did not entirely convince me.

Freeze Frame, the collaboration between the Brisbane Festival and Debbie Allen, was well-meaning but lacked coherence in just about every department. Allen wrote, choreographed and directed. And appeared in it. There’s a hint right there.

His Majesty’s Theatre, Perth, is entirely inadequate for ballet of any scale. The sets for Onegin had to be cut back and squashed in and the sightlines are terrible from many seats. Tough cheese though. It’s unlikely there will be another new theatre in Perth for a decade or more – the State Theatre Centre of Western Australia, home to Black Swan State Theatre Company and Perth Theatre Company, was opened in 2011. Poor old WAB is not well served at all.

What a shame that Australia’s smaller centres aren’t able to see the AB, QB and WAB regularly. Instead the gap is filled by touring Russian companies of extremely variable quality. This year I saw a Nutcracker from an outfit called Russian National Ballet Theatre, whose provenance is a little difficult to work out, although companies under that name have toured before. I paid nearly 100 bucks (no, let’s be fair, my sister paid) for no orchestra, a severely truncated story, classroom choreography and production values that were modest. I do understand that local companies wouldn’t be seen dead putting on productions of such a low standard and that it costs a great deal to do better, and that they already have full schedules. But if I had a magic wand …

The year’s most graceful tribute:

In July Alastair Macaulay, dance critic for The New York Times, set out to describe the attributes of an American ballerina, and was even prepared to say how many women in US companies currently deserve to bear the title of ballerina. The number is not great: “at least 10” is what Macaulay was prepared to say. In reply, in the December/January edition of Pointe magazine, Gillian Murphy – a principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre and principal guest artist with Royal New Zealand Ballet – gave her perspective. Along the way she had this to say about RNZB’s Lucy Green, a young Australian being given important roles with the company: “I am excited to watch a young dancer with extraordinary promise grow into a star.” Murphy praises Green’s dance attributes, then continues: “However, for me, it is her work ethic, her imagination and her sensitivity to others that really classify her as a ballerina in the making.” Murphy admires dancers who “encourage greatness in everyone around them”. Beautiful.

Lucy Green as Odette. Photo: Evan Li

Lucy Green as Odette. Photo: Evan Li

 The Trans-Tasman Prize for Sang-Froid:

I’m including RNZB here again because I can. The month is July, a performance of Swan Lake, featuring Lucy Green as Odette-Odile, has not long finished, and RNZB staff and dancers past and present have gathered for a late-afternoon party to celebrate the company’s 60th anniversary. Wellington is shaken by an earthquake – a big one. Everyone dives to the floor, which is moving alarmingly. The tremors stop, we all get up and the party continues. Well, that’s one way to cut the speeches short.

Finally…

Many thanks to London-based writer and critic Ismene Brown, who gave unparalleled, necessary insight into the dance world’s biggest story in 2013, the Bolshoi crisis and its fallout. And moving right along, there’s Nikolai Tsiskaridze in St Petersburg. Follow her @ismeneb; ismeneb.com

Next up, what’s of interest in 2014?

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.

Aurelien Scannella, West Australian Ballet

 Aurielen Scannella was announced as West Australian Ballet’s artistic director in August of last year and took up his post in Perth at the beginning of 2013. He succeeded Ivan Cavallari, who is now artistic director of Ballet du Rhin in France.

Born in Belgium, Scannella has been a dancer, ballet master and rehearsal director across the world. WAB gives him his first artistic directorship. He has had six months to assess the company and its circumstances. It seemed like a good time to have a chat, and among many other things Scannella talked about his ambition to greatly increase the size of the company, as he believes WAB is too small to compete with the influx of large-scale touring arts and entertainment companies into Perth.

What follows is an edited transcript of a conversation that took place on Monday, June 24.

I MET Ted Brandsen [WAB artistic director 1998-2001, now artistic director of Dutch National Ballet] many years ago so followed the company from far away. Especially in the last five or six years [during the artistic directorship of Ivan Cavallari, 2007-2012] I really enjoyed the creative evolution of the company. [During that time WAB increased its dancer numbers from 19 to 32, plus four young artists.] One of my goals was to continue that evolution and increase the size of the company. I think that Australia, a huge country, should have more than one big ballet company, especially as Western Australia is so huge and far away from Melbourne [where the Australian Ballet has its headquarters] so we basically are each of us in our own corner.

West Australian Ballet artistic director Aurelien Scannella

West Australian Ballet artistic director Aurelien Scannella

It would be a fabulous opportunity for the country to have two or even more big companies. I think the country is able to afford that compared with Europe [Scannella gives a rueful laugh]. My goal is to continue that evolution, increase the company in size and get a bit more of an international standard by bringing the company on tour to Europe.

We have a budget for 32 contracts and four young artists. Since the Quarry [WAB’s outdoor program held during the Perth Festival each year] we are a bit shorter. Some dancers left the company before the new year started; after the Quarry one went back to France, then two others on seasonal contracts left. We are now 27 [including the young artists]. Soon hopefully we will get back to 32. For next year I could perhaps manage to have more young artist contracts, two or four more. If so we would be 40 dancers. That would be a very good number. Hopefully we will have the budget.

I am negotiating with six new dancers [all from Europe]. I proposed contracts to Australian dancers who came to audition here, or contacted me via email. At the end, they didn’t want to come. I have to keep the show going on, and the show will go on. With 27 dancers I can’t do much. I need to have the company back to 36. lf I can’t find the dancers here, well…

Scannella believes out-of-date perceptions hamper his company.

I have been here six months only and have the feeling already that in the minds of many people in the ballet world in Australia, in the ballet schools, as soon as the students are finished with school they are [presented with] two opportunities – for the good ones, it’s the AB, or go to Europe.

What is the solution for us? For us to accept all the other dancers because they are Australian? That’s not fair. When you’re young and coming out of school you want to have this classical experience. [In the past] apart from the AB there was nothing else in Australia that could give that opportunity to those dancers. If they couldn’t have the AB they were flying overseas.

If you see all the dance magazines, they talk about the AB; they are now starting to talk more about Queensland Ballet. We are still somewhere in the dark; WAB is not part of the Australian ballet world. I find it very unfair. It makes it hard for me and the company to get good dancers, even though our repertoire is quite good – we have an international repertoire, Australian choreographers, modern, classical, everything.

I’m trying to change that [perception] since the first day I arrived here; to get our name everywhere, in every ballet magazine, in all the newspapers outside Perth. It’s so difficult. You cannot believe how hard it is for me. No one has any interest in us in the rest of Australia. I’ve got much more interest from overseas dancers than from Australian dancers. Eighty to 90 per cent of emails from dancers wanting to join the company are from overseas.

Anna Ishii in Daniel Roberts's Jubilate, Quarry season, 2013

Anna Ishii in Daniel Roberts’s Jubilate, Quarry season, 2013

I don’t know what to do apart from having dancers from overseas. [Scannella is referring to new dancers; most of the current dancers are Australian.]

A few years before Ivan arrived the company couldn’t really offer the big classical ballets for those who were looking to do Giselle, Swan Lake. Now we can, but it looks as if Australia doesn’t know it.

Scannella intends to change WAB’s current two-tier ranking system of leading artists and artists as a way of encouraging his dancers.

From January 1 next year we will have principals, soloists, demi-soloists and corps de ballet. For the moment we [essentially] have corps de ballet and principals. I think it’s not fair. Every dancer can’t be a principal dancer, and some dancers have to get out of the group sooner than other dancers. Demi-soloist means there’s a door there to be opened if the dancer is working hard. The opportunity is there. As soon as I got my appointment I immediately wanted to do that.

When I first arrived in August [last year, before arriving permanently this year] on the first day I watched the class with Ivan sitting by my side. I was amazed by the way the dancers were working very hard in class, and also I’d been watching rehearsal afterward for the Quarry [program]. They were really enthusiastic. They were really into it, even if it was not a very easy day for them, I suppose. Change of directorship is never a very pleasant moment for a company, it’s always a moment of insecurities.

I was amazed by the level of maturity of the dancers. I kept the company intact for this year because I wanted to give a chance to everyone to have a year with me, to work together, to have more time to get to know me. All the shows have been high quality and all of the dancers are working hard every day. They really believe in what they are doing and give their best every day in every show.

West Australian Ballet in Glen Tetley's Voluntaries, Quarry Season, 2013

West Australian Ballet in Glen Tetley’s Voluntaries, Quarry Season, 2013

In Europe that’s not always the case. In some countries and companies you have life contracts. For ballet, that’s not a good position.

The majority of the company is Australian. I’m very happy and very proud to lead an Australian company. In the end it all comes from them. If they work hard and improve, they stay with the company. My vision is to bring the company to a very high level; they know that.

The 2013 program was devised entirely by Scannella’s predecessor, Ivan Cavallari. Although they know each other well, Scannella had no input. The forthcoming Onegin, choreographed by John Cranko, is a great coup for WAB. 

With Onegin, when I realised it [was on the 2013 program], I was still in Europe. I thought wow, that’s amazing for the reputation of the company. In Europe, Onegin is a ballet everyone wants to dance and every artistic director want to have in the company. I’ve got a lot of demands from dancers from Europe who want to do Onegin!

In Perth Onegin is unknown. It’s a massive production, a real challenge – not artistically, the quality is there, but it’s the number of dancers [in the company]. I hope, touch wood, that no one will get injured. If so I’ll have to bring in guests. But I want to use my dancers. [To rely on guest artists,] that’s not what I wish for my company. It’s a great opportunity for us.

West Australian Ballet’s 2014 program will be announced in October.

The Quarry season will be very different from what the Perth public is used to. It will be a bit more modern and updated, with choreographers from Europe and Australia. I’ve got a young, very good Australian choreographer who will create a piece for us. I’ve got some other choreographers from Europe who are the ones every company is presenting. It will be a real change for the Quarry. For the rest, I’m bringing a full-length we’ve performed before in Perth and will revisit a classical work, but in a refreshed version. I want to bring choreographers who haven’t been to Australia in the past.

In July/August St Petersburg Ballet Theatre will appear in WAB’s home theatre, His Majesty’s, with 15 performances of Swan Lake.

Perth has become more and more attractive to the world because I see [big arts companies] are all coming to Perth. They all want to come to Perth. We, as the State company, we really need huge support now because we are much smaller than those guys. Just by ourselves we can’t compete. When Russian [ballet] companies are coming, the theatres are advertising five months in advance. They are everywhere. If we ask for a little bit more, posters, here and there, the answer is always no. I think WA should first support us, the local company. It’s really not fair. We have Cirque du Soleil; at the end of July we have a Russian company that no one knows about [St Petersburg Ballet Theatre], but because they are doing Swan Lake, everyone has bought a ticket. It killed our Sylphide [which ran at His Majesty’s in May]. The theatre advertised them months in advance. We asked if they could not put the poster right next to Sylphide. I’m really disappointed about that.

La Sylphide, West Australian Ballet. Photo: Jon Green

La Sylphide, West Australian Ballet. Photo: Jon Green

I think the public really likes big productions, to see big performances with nice sets and costumes. We’re trying our best. Our shows are always very high quality. I want to get to 60 dancers, that’s what the public likes. A production with 60 dancers is not like one with 30 dancers. As long as we remain small – it’s like in the ocean, the big fish always eat the small fish.

I’m here just for a few years. I’m going to say what I have to say. I’ve always said what I’m thinking; it’s not always good for me, but it doesn’t matter. That’s the way I am. As a director I’m not going to change. I have had six months of observation time. If nobody talks, then things aren’t changing.

WAB’s tour of Youri Vasmos’s Romeo and Juliet in regional Western Australia ended last weekend. Onegin opens in Perth on September 20. The year will end with Peter Pan from November 22.

Robert Curran

In the first of an occasional conversation and discussion series, former Australian Ballet principal artist Robert Curran talks about his sometimes frustrating, not yet achieved but deeply considered and tenaciously sought transition from dancing to an artistic directorship

ROBERT Curran gave his last performance with The Australian Ballet on November 26, 2011 – as Danilo in The Merry Widow – and took a year off to prepare for what he hoped would be his second act: running a ballet company. Such a role hasn’t yet come his way so the preparations continue, with Curran determined to prove he has what it takes.

To that end, earlier this year he took the position of rehearsal director for Bangarra Dance Theatre, a company with 13 permanent dancers based in Sydney. He still has a mortgage in Melbourne so doesn’t have a permanent base in the harbour city. He couch-hops, he says. Curran has a long-distance relationship, another sacrifice he’s prepared to make to achieve his goal.

Robert Curran at Bangarra's Sydney headquarters. Photo: Quentin Jones

Robert Curran at Bangarra’s Sydney headquarters. Photo: Quentin Jones

Curran, now 36, spent his entire 16-year career at the AB, where for a decade he held the top rank. He succeeded Steven Heathcote as the AB’s undisputed leading man, a title that is still up for grabs at the national company. He was much missed during last year’s season of Onegin. The title role in John Cranko’s ballet would have been a perfect fit for someone whose partnering gifts were unequalled in his time with the AB and still remain unequalled. But, as Curran says about the timing of his retirement, there’s never a good time to stop, but there is a right one.

He has been setting himself up for the future more than a decade. He has a degree in business studies (including psychology, human resources and marketing) and a certificate of elite dance instruction from the Australian Ballet School. He choreographed four short works for the AB’s experimental Bodytorque program and co-founded a small Melbourne-based, project-based, contemporary ballet company, JACK, which is currently on hiatus.

As well as working with indigenous dance company Bangarra, Curran has been asked to choreograph Nixon in China for Victorian Opera.

Curran and I spoke recently at length about his commitments with Bangarra and how he has gone about making himself an attractive candidate for an artistic directorship. His openness is engaging and his insights enlightening. This is an edited transcript of his views on ballet. – DEBORAH JONES

The ballet of the future:

I DEVOUTLY believe the classic ballets are just as important as a Turner or a Manet. Everyone should see the Coppelias and Giselles. That foundation is very important. For a dancer, the kind of training needed is invaluable. Those ballets need to be ongoing.

But we need new versions of the classics, and at the same time we need to push into collaboration with actors, onstage musicians, circus artists, to create works that will be tomorrow’s classics. Collaborations that come out of a more multi-disciplinary approach might create something that could be considered worthy of joining the canon of Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, Coppelia, Giselle. It might be a version of a story we haven’t heard of yet and [performance artist] Marina Abramovic is involved somehow. It might be that in 100 years dancers are fighting to keep that alive.

“I have this vision of a classical ballet dancer who has full dramatic skills, who can sing, can speak, can project their voice, can be in film, can be up in the air, multi-disciplinary, rich in their art form.”

I love going to the theatre, hearing the rumpty-tumpty music of Don Quixote or La Bayadere, or sitting in the dark hearing the overture to Suite en Blanc. You know you’re in for a pure classical treat. But I also like sitting in a traverse theatre [as he did recently] with 20 other people seeing a show with one actor playing every single role. The weirder, the crazier the better. I have this vision of a classical ballet dancer who has full dramatic skills, who can sing, can speak, can project their voice, can be in film, can be up in the air, multi-disciplinary, rich in their art form.

You need to be talking on stage, singing on stage, miming, putting yourself way outside your comfort zone. What you learn about your art from experimentation you can apply to Swanhilda or Odette. There is a maelstrom of activity [elsewhere] that is sometimes lacking in classical ballet. For many dancers there’s no awareness that you need to extend yourself.

I was reading Jennifer Homans’s Apollo’s Angels and was incensed at her last chapter [in which she expressed the view that ballet was in its death throes] … We could talk about this for hours. People have this expectation that we’re going to have to grow another limb to make dance new and exciting. The beauty of classical ballet is the rigour that results from that training; it’s the collaboration and trying new combinations rather than trying to come up with new movements.

There is no new movement. You go forward and back and sideways and up and down. You have two arms and two legs and one head. That’s kind of it.

Life at Bangarra:

I ARRIVE at around 8 o’clock and try to get as much administration done before class, which is at 10. So I’m doing schedules, co-ordinating a lot of the Safe Dance program for the dancers. I’m in charge of all their physio with the in-house team, organising teachers and pianists. There’s a lot, a lot of admin. I enjoy doing it; it gives me a good insight into management, dealing with a lot of different people, getting things to work for people as much as possible, and then I either teach class or I try to do class with the dancers.

“If you see someone working on their own body with a focus that starts before class and finishes after class it’s an important example.”

They have class every day for an hour and a half – ballet, contemporary, theatre craft, yoga, Pilates. It depends on what they need at the time. There’s a long-term and a short-term strategic thing in my mind about what’s best [to develop the dancers] technically and what’s appropriate for the time of week and year.

Stephen [Page, Bangarra’s artistic director] is very trusting about that – he’s too busy to deal with it. He has his over-arching artistic vision for the company and he would most certainly let me know if that wasn’t being reached or was heading in a different direction. He’s great about giving me the responsibility about doing what’s best for the dancers to facilitate their work.

[After the early administration work] either I teach class or do it. I’m trying to keep in shape. Where possible it’s good to set an example and I like the idea of being fit and healthy and being able to demonstrate without risking life and limb. It’s for my own safety but it’s also important for younger dancers to observe someone who knows what they’re doing for themselves.  If you see someone working on their own body with a focus that starts before class and finishes after class it’s an important example.

Rehearsals start at 12. At the moment Blak is being created – I’m not actively involved in those rehearsals but like to be in the room wherever possible.  Daniel [Riley McKinley, 27] is a dancer and choreographer for Blak, so he’ll need another set of eyes to help him. He’s very open to collaborating with the dancers and with me. He’s very open-minded and intelligent about opening up a dialogue. A very smart man.

Soon after he joined Bangarra Curran went to northeast Arnhem Land with the company on one of its regular trips back to country …

AND what a mind-blowing experience that was! Of course I had my mental model of what it was like and it was a very strange experience to have that mental model blown away. I was really happy to have it blown away.

We went to local sacred sites and held a workshop [in Dhalinybuy]. Bangarra dancers were teaching and being taught by the local children. Then we went to Bremer Island where [Bangarra cultural consultant] Kathy Marika is from. And that was amazing too. It was a tropical holiday but with such intense, wonderful cultural saturation.I found it almost intimidating.

I felt my perception of my responsibility growing exponentially, which was a little bit disturbing but also inspiring. It reaffirmed this opportunity I’d been given, but it’s impossible not to notice that I’m not one of them. Impossible to not notice that and to be aware that this is not my world. My world is traditional ballet and the future of that. It’s challenging.

So how did Curran come to be at Bangarra?

I’M not embarassed to say that I got a little disillusioned with my search for artistic directorships. I do think there is a prevailing conservatism; either that or people are lying to me. Because everyone that gave me feedback on all of my applications said that my vision was exciting and inspiring but my lack of experience was the only thing that meant it couldn’t go forward. I began to get very disillusioned about the whole process, thinking, how am I going to get the experience before I get a job that’s going to give me the experience?

“Robert said to me straight up if a ballet job came up he would go. We’re very open. I just hope that job doesn’t come up just yet. He’s a decent man and he’s passionate, he just hunts quietly.”

– Stephen Page in The Australian, February 14, 2013

I wanted to have 12 months off [after leaving the AB] but I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that about two months in I began to get itchy and not content to have it last that long. By November I was starting to really get my feet back in the water and I heard on the grapevine that my predecessor at Bangarra was leaving. It’s such a small world.

I’ve always had a huge amount of respect for Stephen. I’ve watched all of Bangarra’s shows; I really do respect what this company has done and is doing. So when the job came up I thought, well, I’m back in the studio, out of my comfort zone. I’ve always taken for granted what ballet staff do and artistic administration do, and it’s been great for me to get a deeper understanding of how much is involved. That’s a very valuable lesson for me.

The year off:

[AFTER his last show in Sydney] I had one night in Melbourne then went straight to New York for four or five weeks. I spent almost every day with American Ballet Theatre. They were wonderful. They opened the doors, said go where you want, meet who you want. Do what you want. In reality I didn’t spend that much time hovering behind Kevin McKenzie. It’s a really difficult thing to organise. I spent the time getting to know the company and their operations.

Then I went to [UK dance leaders’ forum] DanceEast. That was an interesting exercise because it really was getting at the crux of leadership. Not concentrating on networking or skills development, but very much more exploring what it means to be a leader in the arts.

A standout experience was the World Theatre Festival in Brisbane [in February 2012]. The potential for collaboration across artistic genres and artistic technologies was something I spent two weeks revelling in. It was such a wonderful two weeks. I went from London to Russia – I spent a lot of time in Russia, then went to Japan and then straight to Brisbane. There were some pretty exciting people – Belarus Free Theatre, Il Pixel Rosso, the Italian-British multimedia arts company, [Italian theatre company] Motus. It was really thrilling and inspiring.

I did a workshop with Il Pixel Rosso and and Motus. Il Pixel Rosso was specifically about multimedia, Motus was about the creative process and their methods of creation. I was really open and ready for it. I wanted to be outside my comfort zone, I wanted to get away from plies and fondus – for a period of time. Not to shun them, but get away from them for a time.

I thought it would be a good idea for me to spend some time exposing myself to other forms of theatre. I went to the Metropolitan Opera in New York, I saw the Bolshoi any number of times, I went to Kabuki theatre in Japan, symphonies, Melbourne Theatre Company, Sydney Theatre Company. Any night I had free I was filling up with being in the theatre. Which is something I never got to do as a dancer. That was also contributing to my desire to experience more and see how it can apply to dance.

Does he feel he is now on his way?

IT depends on the day, to be honest. What I’m desperate for is for some company to take a risk and employ someone who has a really exciting vision, and then trust in the rest of their organisation – that there will be conversation and the existing administration, the existing dancers will safeguard the organisation. It’s a risk; I do get that.

“I should never, ever be artistic director of Bangarra Dance Theatre, ever. I wouldn’t want to be … It’s not the right job for me and I’m not the right person for the job.”

I’m busy, I’m working hard, but Stephen knows that I’m looking for bigger things … I want more responsibility. I love the dancers in Bangarra, I love what this company does, and at the moment that’s fuelling me to go in and do the best I can do, but at the end of the day I have got a vision for ballet that I would like to put on a company.

We’re talking about a classical ballet company. We’re talking between 30 and however many classically trained dancers and what their potential is and fully exploring that potential. As I have respect for the heritage of Aboriginal dance, I have the same respect for the heritage of classical ballet, but I am really, really excited about throwing a bunch of actors and musicians and designers and classical dancers together in a room and seeing what exciting things they can come up with for whatever medium, be it film, stage, site-specific, flash mob-y, whatever.

It sounds trite, and it’s been said before, but they become the classics of tomorrow. That’s in my mind. That’s not being fulfilled at Bangarra. It’s not possible. I should never, ever be artistic director of Bangarra Dance Theatre, ever. I wouldn’t want to be. It’s not the right fit. It’s not the right job for me and I’m not the right person for the job.

What is the involvement with Nixon in China?

THE second half of the second act is a scene where Pat and Richard Nixon go to the National Ballet of China to see The Red Detachment of Women. I’m not going to try to recreate it – the production is contemporary, a little bit sparse, and Victorian Opera doesn’t have the budget for 50 women in military costume.

There are four dancers and there is a lot of interaction with the principals. I’m trying to focus on ideas of liberation and what kind of emotional involvement there is in that, all framed within the American visit. Is America there to liberate China, or is China already liberated and trying to show America that they are?

I’m working on it only for three weeks so it’s a very short turnaround, but Bangarra’s tour to Melbourne coincides with the production of Nixon so it’s perfect for me. It will be stressful, but I’m really excited about collaborating and extending myself.

Are there any boundaries?

WOULD I go anywhere? Yes. Sydney is not my home. I’m couch-hopping. I wouldn’t say I’m hedging my bets, but it’s ridiculous to spend $400 a week on rent … I’m seeing this year as an opportunity to clarify my vision so when the opportunity arrives I can confidently say, “Look, I’d like to do a new version of this; I’d like to put this ballet with this ballet with this ballet.” I’ve done that in however many applications I’ve done. But I am contemplating and consolidating that vision.

Last year was a year of flux [vacancies came up at Queensland Ballet and West Australian Ballet]. Whether I’ve missed the boat and it’s another 10 years before there’s this kind of flux I don’t know. But I keep my ear to the ground. It’s a really difficult transition to make. I thought I was doing the right thing with my teacher’s course, bachelor of business, starting JACK Productions – but it’s not enough. I’ve made sure in the [Bangarra] contract that the company won’t have difficulty if I leave [early]. It clashes a bit with my feelings about how things should be done, but the [ballet] year in Europe and America starts in September; here in January. There’s a disconnect.

“It’s important to have leadership experiences that are not limited to your own art form. I believe passionately that ballet is still relevant, and have a great passion for it, but we do need to keep up, to be adaptable, flexible and open-minded.”

– Robert Curran, The Australian, November 29, 2011.

Applying to Queensland Ballet was by far the best experience. Their recruiting process was really, really good. It was my first [application] and they really walked me through it. It was a time full of hope for me, but they managed my disappointment as well. The fact that Li [Cunxin]  turned up with all his wonderful assets, there was no way anyone was getting to get a look in. And West Australian Ballet had their eye on Europe. [WAB appointed Belgian ballet master and rehearsal director Aurelien Scannella to the post.]

Leaving The Australian Ballet:

NOT dancing Onegin was a real wrench. It was difficult. I didn’t want to do Onegin and not enjoy it because of all the other things going through my head at that time. There was no other way for me to look at it than I was on the other side of the hill and sliding down. I was never going to be opening night Onegin. That decision had already been made. It wasn’t just that in and of itself [that sparked his retirement]. It was a combination of things – can I constantly prove that I’m worthy of doing the work that these young boys are ready to do?

I was being told that these people were ready and I needed to share. I had an awesome year with The Merry Widow, After the Rain, Concerto, then after that was told I needed to step back, to share. I understood that; but that didn’t happen to Steven Heathcote. I was his understudy until he decided to go.

But I got to do a traditional Swan Lake in Hong Kong in August 2011 with Jin Yao [previously a guest artist with the AB]; a beautiful production. I really, really loved it. I miss performing, and I really, really miss partnering. It could bring me to tears talking about it.

Bangarra Dance Theatre’s Blak opens on May 3 in Melbourne before touring to Wollongong, Sydney and Brisbane.

Victorian Opera’s Nixon in China opens in Melbourne on May 16.