Robert Curran attracts $US1 million gift for Louisville Ballet

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

Robert Curran. Photo: Quentin Jones

Robert Curran. Photo: Quentin Jones

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘I am in the right place’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everything old is new again

Capitol Theatre, Sydney, February 20 and February 24.

GRAEME Murphy’s Swan Lake has been a touchstone production – and a fortunate one – not only for The Australian Ballet as a whole but for many dancers. At its premiere in Melbourne on September 17, 2002, Simone Goldsmith started the evening as a senior artist and ended it as a principal. Steven Heathcote was Prince Siegfried, as he would be so frequently until his retirement in 2007 and Margaret Illman was an unforgettable Baroness von Rothbart, the third party in the tangled triangle at the heart of the ballet.

By the time the production opened in Sydney on November 28, 2002, senior artist Lynette Wills had assumed the role of the Baroness and she, like Goldsmith, found herself promoted to the company’s highest rank at the after-show festivities. She had waited a long time, and this role gave her the breakthrough.

Over the years young dancers who started out as wedding guests or swans in 2002 graduated to larger roles: the corps de ballet list in September 2002 includes Adam Bull, Andrew Killian, Lana Jones, Amber Scott, Leanne Stojmenov and Danielle Rowe, all of whom would become principal artists and dance Odette, Siegfried or the Baroness. All are still with the company with the exception of Rowe, now with Netherlands Dance Theatre.

In the case of Madeleine Eastoe, then a soloist and now a long-serving principal artist, the path to Odette was swift. I first saw her in December of 2002 and most recently five days ago when Swan Lake opened in Sydney. She was lovely then and is extraordinary now.

Madeleine Eastoe and Kevin Jackson. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Madeleine Eastoe and Kevin Jackson. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

From the start audiences loved the interpretation created by Murphy, his creative associate Janet Vernon and designer Kristian Fredrikson. It looked absolutely luscious and its story, while being set in an Edwardian world, was clearly influenced by the troubled marriage of Prince Charles and Diana. It was, and is, a wildly glamorous and highly emotional piece of theatre. The AB didn’t hold back. The Murphy Swan Lake has been staged almost every year since 2002, although not always in Australia. It is the work invariably chosen to take on tour and has been seen in Paris, Tokyo, London, New York, Los Angeles and other cities. Later this year it will tour to Beijing.

For this Sydney season Swan Lake continues its role as a trailblazer. It’s not being seen at the AB’s usual home of the Joan Sutherland Theatre at the Sydney Opera House but is at the Capitol, a venue devoted almost exclusively to large-scale musical theatre. Amusingly, this is because the Wicked juggernaut is tying up Queensland Performing Art Centre’s largest theatre, which is where one would expect the AB to be at this time of year – and the Capitol is the very theatre vacated only last month by Wicked before it headed north.

There is obvious potential to broaden the company’s reach beyond the rusted-on ballet crowd by coming to this venue and the undeniable truth is that Swan Lake looks much better on the Capitol stage than at the Opera House (Opera Australia is ensconced there as usual in February so the Joan Sutherland Theatre was unavailable anyway).

Lockett, Bernet, Nanasca and Martin as the Cygnets. Photo: Branco Gaica

Lockett, Bernet, Nanasca and Martin as the Cygnets. Photo: Branco Gaica

Friday’s opening night was strong, which didn’t surprise given that the company knows the work inside out (this was the 185th performance). What lifted Swan Lake into another realm was the riveting connection between Eastoe and her Siegfried Kevin Jackson. This is truly one of the exceptional partnerships of Australian ballet.

She was all air, light as a feather blown across water; he was all earthy desire and anguish, a flawed and complicated man. As a partner Jackson is not quite in the league (who is?) of Heathcote and Robert Curran – they both danced with Eastoe many times in this ballet – but his immersion in the role and his interpretation of it were electrifying. He wasn’t afraid to look brutal in his treatment of Odette as she unravels on her wedding day, having seen the extent to which Siegfried is in thrall to the Baroness. But he seemed more desperately unhappy and frustrated than a hardened brute, and his Act II lakeside pas de deux was filled with tenderness.

Eastoe has not changed her approach to Odette; she just seems more and more luminous every time. Of the eight Murphy Odettes I’ve seen she is the most heart-rending. Each has had a strongly individual character – a hallmark of this production is that markedly different interpretations are equally valid – but with Eastoe you see innocence slaughtered. It is devastating.

Ako Kondo has exceptional allure but on Friday I thought her vampy Baroness was still a work in progress. In Tuesday’s cast Kondo’s fellow senior artist, Miwako Kubota, was more multi-layered and sympathetic. Kubota made you see the Baroness’s pain as well as her desire. (By the way, Kubota was also in the corps in 2002 when Swan Lake premiered.)

Senior artist Juliet Burnett finally got her chance to dance Odette, and did so partnered by fellow senior artist Rudy Hawkes. It was a persuasive match. Hawkes was an entirely different Siegfried from Jackson. Here was a prince entirely out of his emotional depth, fulfilling his duty as expected and finding things falling apart disastrously and unmanageably on his wedding day. Burnett’s Act I Odette was somewhat spiky in temperament and unstable. This bride, who appears compliant and unsure of herself, is not entirely subservient.

Burnett hasn’t entirely worked these contradictions into a seamless whole. It interests me that Burnett is a very fine writer about dance and thinks deeply about her work; on Tuesday, particularly in Act I, she telegraphed some of that thinking a little too forcefully. When her strong, clear ideas were transformed into action and into feeling they had powerful dramatic authority.

In pure dance terms Burnett and Hawkes had a few moments on Tuesday night that didn’t go entirely to plan – and they were just a few – but they also put their own stamp on the choreography, making many key images entirely fresh with different accents or textures. This is why balletomanes go to a particular ballet repeatedly: not to see it again, but to see it made anew.

Other thoughts:

Brooke Lockett, Benedicte Bernet, Karen Nanasca and Heidi Martin must now be the Cygnets of choice. They are adorable.

No one does a dash across the stage and hair-raising body-slam as vividly as Reiko Hombo (Young Duchess-to-be).

Sometimes it’s just impossible to erase memories of past exponents of certain roles. Take the Guardian Swans, for example. I can still see Danielle Rowe and Lana Jones. Perfection.

Colin Peasley – what can you say? He’s 80 and still getting out there on stage as the Lord Admiral, as ramrod straight as ever.

 Swan Lake ends on Saturday February 28.

‘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, 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.

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.

La Sylphide

The Australian Ballet, Sydney Opera House, November 7

WHAT to do about a ballet as dreamily brief as La Sylphide? In the middle of this year West Australian Ballet took the minimalist approach and added nothing to fill out the evening. Over the years the Australian Ballet has taken several paths.

In 1996, under Maina Gielgud’s directorship (and in her final year at the AB), I saw Bournonville’s La Sylphide (1836) in Brisbane in July paired with the premiere of Stanton’s Welch’s Red Earth. Later in the year, in Sydney, La Sylphide shared the bill with Jiri Kylian’s Stepping Stones (1991). Both were a “something old, something new” combination that may appear to be, as Gielgud wrote about the Kylian program, ‘’as extreme a contrast as you can get”. In fact a case can be made for a connection, not only between La Sylphide and Stepping Stones, but also Stepping Stones and Red Earth, and therefore La Sylphide, if that’s not too circuitous.

The Australian Ballet in La Sylphide. Photo: Jeff Busby

The Australian Ballet in La Sylphide. Photo: Jeff Busby

Kylian, who came to Australia to oversee the final rehearsals of the first AB season of Stepping Stones, wrote in a program note of attending a 1980 gathering of Aborigines in northern Australia and being “deeply impressed by the central role which dance seemed to play in their lives”. He asked an old man why this was so, and received this response: “Because my father taught me and because I must hand my dance on to my son.” Culture equals history.

Kylian then wrote: “There is a line in my work which has – since then – been reflecting on this view of existence.” He was interested in “the traces old civilisations have left, traditions which show the way from out of a living past”. Welch’s Red Earth was concerned with the struggles white settlers had in trying to impose themselves on the ancient soil of Australia, and was danced to Peter Sculthorpe’s Nourlangie. (I think I’m right in saying Red Earth hasn’t been revived by the AB, although Welch staged it for Houston Ballet, where he is artistic director, in 2007.) As Sculthorpe wrote in a program note, the music’s name comes from a sacred rock in Kakadu and while the piece is not intended to be descriptive, “its concern is with my feelings about this powerful and serene place”.

It can be profitable to think of La Sylphide in the light of such reflections as more than just a silly fairy story, gossamer-light though it may appear. While its history is the swiftest blink of an eye compared with that of Aboriginal dance, La Sylphide comes, nevertheless, from the earliest days of what we recognise as ballet performance. Furthermore, ballet shares the old Aboriginal man’s tradition of – and reverence for – transmitting stories and history from person to person and body to body.

As for spiritual significance, the two traditions are divided by a gulf as wide and as old as the Australian continent. Yet in La Sylphide, as in Swan Lake and Giselle, there is a deep yearning for something beyond the tangible; a transcendence of quotidian relationships and responsibilities. In those three ballets, however, the spirit world represents the elusive and unattainable rather than Sculthorpe’s serenity.

Colin Peasley as Madge in La Sylphide. Photo: Jeff Busby

Colin Peasley as Madge in La Sylphide. Photo: Jeff Busby

My cast list from the November 30, 1996, matinee performance of Stepping Stones, by the way, shows it was danced by Vicki Attard, Miranda Coney, Lynette Wills, Rachael Read, Geon van der Wyst, Damien Welch, Li Cunxin and Adam Marchant. Lucinda Dunn was the Sylph on that occasion. I saw three other performances in that Sydney season, and other casts of Stepping Stones included Lisa Bolte, Kirsty Martin, Robert Curran and David McAllister. What riches.

In 2005, under McAllister’s directorship, the AB went for stylistic unity, prefacing La Sylphide with two short Bournonville pieces – an excerpt from Le Conservatoire and the pas de deux from The Flower Festival in Genzano – and Walter Bourke’s fizzy, taxing1974 Grand Tarantella. The Grand Tarantella casts included current principals Leanne Stojmenov and Daniel Gaudiello (then coryphée and corp de ballet member respectively); and Lana Jones (then a coryphée) with Remi Wortmeyer, now a principal with Dutch National Ballet. Good to see McAllister’s eye was nicely in.

Which is all a long way of getting to the current AB La Sylphide, in which the Romantic ballet is preceded by the wedding celebration from Petipa’s version of Paquita (1881), based on Joseph Mazilier’s 1846 original, in which Petipa himself once danced. Early Romantic ballet had given way to the grand classical style dominated by Petipa, but the bloodline is there.

Of these five approaches – one from WAB, four from the AB – my heart and my head are with the Stepping Stones solution. The connection was one of imagination rather than style, which is more interesting, I think – and I must also be honest and say Stepping Stones is an enduring favourite of mine.

Furthermore, on opening night last Thursday the AB didn’t really make a big case for the huge chunk of dance ripped from context that is Paquita. Given its essential meaninglessness, Paquita can work only as spectacle and illumination of the classical form with its array of principals, soloists, demi-soloists and corps.

Lana Jones was divine as leader of the pack, I’ll say that much. She presented a glowing image of the all-conquering ballerina, glamorous yet highly aware of her role as benefactress as she graciously inclined her head this way and that to acknowledge our presence. Her role was to be adored; ours was to adore. That was also the task of her cavalier, Kevin Jackson, who had his successes and shortcomings in the proceedings. Uncompromising purity of line and pinpoint accuracy were not always his to command, although his self-effacing demeanour and seamless partnering were attractive.

There was too much untidiness in the ranks for comfort and while the four solos were all attractively danced, only Ako Kondo in the third raised the spirits to the required level. Along with Jones she radiated the qualities of grandeur, composure, elegance, ease and sophistication that are the non-negotiable requirements if Paquita is to have any reason for being.

Ako Kondo in Paquita. Photo: Jeff Busby

Ako Kondo in Paquita. Photo: Jeff Busby

While Hugh Colman’s tutus are beyond delicious, Paquita otherwise has an unappealingly basic look. There are two chandeliers, which are fine; a backdrop of little points of light in a dark cloth, which is OK; and nothing else other than black tabs at the side of the stage. Talk about dreary.

To end on a happy note, La Sylphide is exquisitely staged and on opening night conductor Paul Murphy, a guest from Birmingham Royal Ballet, shaped the Lovenskjold score superbly, particularly in the overture. The Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra did honour (mostly) to this uncomplicated but charming and effective music.

Gielgud used to say the AB “always had an instinctive understanding” of La Sylphide and under McAllister – who was invited to join the AB by Gielgud and whose career was shaped by her – that understanding continues. The airy delicacy of the upper body, crisp batterie, the upward trajectory in leaps, precision of mime, the softest of landings – all were present and correct.

Daniel Gaudiello as James in La Sylphide. Photo: Jeff Busby

Daniel Gaudiello as James in La Sylphide. Photo: Jeff Busby

With her slightly otherworldly air, Madeleine Eastoe is a natural for the Sylph. Daniel Gaudiello – and how wonderful it is to see him getting more opening nights – has matured greatly as an actor and on opening night gave James a credibly dark hue. Andrew Wright (Gurn) soared in his solo and also created a well-shaded character.

It was a joy to see Colin Peasley back on stage. A founding AB member, he retired formally last year during the company’s 50th anniversary celebrations – such a nice round number, he said of his half-century – but of course we hadn’t seen the last of him, nor should we.

Peasley is a quintessential creature of the stage. His Madge is better than ever, perhaps more nuanced than in the past and delivered with the wisdom of ages.

La Sylphide ends at the Sydney Opera House on November 25.