Lucinda Dunn: Act II, updated

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

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

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

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

The original story follows:

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

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

Lucinda Dunn_crop

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pearson Nuts2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lucinda Dunn and Robert Curran in The Nutcracker Photography Jim McFarlane

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

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

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

Lucinda Dunn, Cojocaru and Kobborg

The Australian Ballet, Sydney Opera House, April 22 and 23

AS the curtain came down on Lucinda Dunn’s farewell performance for The Australian Ballet she wept, the streamers flew, the audience roared and an era ended. Dunn has been with the AB for 23 years, longer than any other ballerina, and was a principal artist for more than a decade.

As she danced the title role in Kenneth MacMillan’s Manon she looked as if she could dance for another 23 years, so immaculate was her artistry and technical command. But she is 40 in an art form that exacts a brutal toll on bodies. As much as balletomanes would wish it otherwise, she had to choose a moment to call it quits.

Lucinda Dunn and Adam Bull in Manon

Lucinda Dunn and Adam Bull in Manon

Dunn did it while at the pinnacle of success and with her formidable gifts intact. She has long been the AB’s prima ballerina, the best of the best. That’s why fans queued in the dawn light (or earlier) on the day of her last show to secure standing room tickets, and why there was a lengthy line for box office returns in the evening. There were doubtless few. The Joan Sutherland Theatre at the Sydney Opera House was, of course, over-flowing.

That Dunn has had a special relationship with her audience was borne out by the long and tumultuous ovation she received. As she waved goodbye, many in the house tearfully waved back. Dunn has been an old-school star, always dressed immaculately to greet her fans and conscious of her obligations. She has given them great respect and they have loved her in return. Dunn was officially recognised this year when awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia.

Dunn had all the major classical works in her repertoire, having a particular triumph as Aurora in Stanton Welch’s version of The Sleeping Beauty when the AB toured to ballet-mad Tokyo in 2007. The role of Clara in Graeme Murphy’s Nutcracker – The Story of Clara was one of Dunn’s favourites and she was superb in contemporary work as well. There was nothing she couldn’t tackle with distinction as she proved last year when appearing in works by George Balanchine and Wayne McGregor, choreographers who could not be more different.

She was fortunate, too, in having one of ballet’s holy grails: she shared with Robert Curran, who became a principal artist on the same day as Dunn, a long and exceptionally fruitful artistic relationship. Curran retired from the AB in 2011 with a reputation as a stellar partner.

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

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

Dunn has been a role model for younger dancers in many ways, but perhaps none more potent than her return to performing at the highest level after two periods of maternity leave. Dunn’s husband, Danilo Radojevic, brought young daughters Claudia and Ava onstage to share Dunn’s final moments as a dancer.

Dunn’s retirement doesn’t end her association with ballet. She was recently announced as artistic-director designate of the Tanya Pearson Classical Coaching Academy and Sydney Youth Ballet. She takes up the position on January 1.

The night before Dunn farewelled an audience that didn’t want to let her go, Alina Cojocaru and Johan Kobborg were guest artists in Manon and showed a wildly appreciative full house why they form one of ballet’s most treasured partnerships.

As leading dancers roam the globe to work with different companies, the building of a special artistic relationship that endures and deepens is increasingly rare and precious. At the most fundamental level Cojocaru and Kobborg look as if they belong together, as if they are constantly drawn to one another and that they understand one another profoundly. They undoubtedly do, as they are also offstage partners, but such a relationship doesn’t necessarily translate to the stage.

It did here. Myriad piquant individual details within a seamless overarching interpretation built a picture of a steadfast, deeply anguished lover and a sweetly innocent woman whose sensuality is awakened and is her downfall. It was fascinating to see Cojocaru transformed by Manon’s initiation into sexual delights. She danced as if in a dream, quietly intoxicated. The sumptuousness of her upper body was exquisite, yet there always remained something of the youthful radiance of the girl who rushed into a courtyard to spend time with her brother before she entered a convent.

The artistry was of the highest order. Those audiences lucky enough to see one of Kobborg and Cojocaru’s two performances with the AB were greatly blessed.