Kusch joins the AB; Cubans come to Brisbane

AS I foreshadowed on December 15 on my Diary page, Queensland Ballet has lost one of its principal artists, Natasha Kusch, to The Australian Ballet. Kusch was with QB for less than 18 months after leaving the Vienna State Opera Ballet. She joins the AB as a senior artist. In a press statement released today the AB says Kusch will make her debut as Giselle when Maina Gielgud’s production opens in Melbourne in March.

Kusch is pictured here as Juliet with Australian superstar Steven McRae, who was a guest artist from the Royal Ballet when QB staged Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet last year.

Natasha Kusch and Steven McRae in Romeo and Juliet

Natasha Kusch and Steven McRae in Romeo and Juliet

There is significant movement at several of the country’s leading dance companies, but none more striking than at QB. It’s possible to interpret Kusch’s move as something that could create tension between QB’s artistic director Li Cunxin and the AB’s David McAllister (the two, of course, danced together at the AB) but it also points to how greatly Li has increased QB’s strength and visibility.

And Li was able to bury news of Kusch’s departure in an early-December press release. The big announcement he had to trumpet was the hiring of two dancers from the National Ballet of Cuba – premier Yanela Piñera and principal Camilo Ramos (the top two ranks at NBC).

As I wrote on my Diary page at the time, the pair, partners in life, join at the end of this month. Piñera joined NBC in 2005 and was promoted to premier dancer in 2011. She would have gained some knowledge of Brisbane when NBC visited in 2010. Unfortunately she wasn’t in the opening night cast of Don Quixote so I haven’t seen her dance live but there are, naturally, many clips on YouTube. It will be fascinating to see how the Cubans fit into the QB repertoire for next year – La Sylphide, Coppelia, Trey McIntyre’s Peter Pan and The Sleeping Beauty.

The QB press release said Piñera’s position would exist under Queensland Ballet’s International Guest Artist program, funded by the Jani Haenke Charitable Trust, but Li told me that Piñera will be a full-time principal – her position is not apparently like that of Huang Junshuang, who for two years was QB’s very welcome guest principal but not permanently with the company.

Further down the press release was news of comparable interest, the retirement of incredibly valuable principal Matthew Lawrence and long-serving soloist Nathan Scicluna. However, with the arrival of Piñera to join principals Hao Bin, Clare Morehen and Meng Ningning and with Ramos joining soloists Lisa Edwards and Shane Wuerthner (an American who joined QB last year), the senior ranks are close to full strength.

West Australian Ballet is seeking a new senior man after the announcement that soloist Daniel Roberts has joined Sydney Dance Company, where there have been extensive changes in the 16-member troupe. Chloe Leong, Josephine Weise and Sam Young-Wright have also joined and former member Richard Cilli has returned. Leaving are Chen Wen, Tom Bradley and Jessica Thompson, while Chris Aubrey is taken a year’s sabbatical. Company member Petros Treklis joined only last year.

Lee Johnston is SDC’s new rehearsal director.

Bangarra Dance Theatre also announced the return of two former dancers who left last year but are now back in the fold – and it’s very good news. Deborah Brown and Daniel Riley, both of whom also choreograph, are back with the company.

The AB also has three new junior dancers, coryphée Nicola Curry, who was formerly with American Ballet Theatre, and corps members Shaun Andrews and Callum Linnane, who are Australian Ballet School graduates.

West Australian Ballet opens its 2015 season with Zip Zap Zoom: Ballet at the Quarry, Perth, from February 6; The Australian Ballet’s 2015 season starts in Sydney with Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake from February 20 and Giselle opens in Melbourne on March 13; Sydney Dance Company opens Frame of Mind in Sydney on March 6; Queensland Ballet’s La Sylphide opens in Brisbane on March 20; Bangarra’s Lore opens in Sydney on June 11 and before then the company works on a film of Spear, based onStephen Page’s wonderful 2000 work of that name, which will premiere at the Adelaide Film Festival in October.

Coppelia

Queensland Ballet, Brisbane, April 24

GREG Horsman’s appealing new production of the 19th century comedy Coppelia gives it a human scale and an Australian setting. It is the late 1800s and we are in the South Australian town of Hahndorf, settled in 1839 by German migrants and thus celebrating its 175th anniversary this year. I don’t think Queensland Ballet has a visit to Hahndorf on the 2014 schedule but it really should.

The essentials of the original ballet remain. Franz, not the brightest bloke, falls for a remote beauty who is, in fact, a life-sized mechanical doll. His sidelined girlfriend, the plucky Swanilda, has to come to his rescue when he falls into the clutches of the man who made the doll, Dr Coppelius, and in the third act everything comes right.

Clare Morehen and Huant Junshuang in Queensland Ballet's Coppelia.

Clare Morehen and Huang Junshuang in Queensland Ballet’s Coppelia.

In Horsman’s revision Dr Coppelius (the wonderful Paul Boyd) is a migrant from the Old World, a medical man rather than a dark-hearted magician. In a prologue that mixes stage action and effective sepia animations, Coppelius and his young daughter are seen preparing to leave their home in Germany. But the girl is sickly and dies on the sea voyage to Australia. Coppelius’s doll-making is an attempt to restore her to him.

Meanwhile the little town goes about its business, which mainly involves lots of larking about to the pretty Delibes score, neatly arranged by QB’s music director Andrew Mogrelia and played by Camerata of St John’s. The good folk of Hahndorf are a lively lot – there are some rather cheeky Scots – but even the Lutherans don’t seem to mind a bit of banter. If I were queen of the world, however, I would place a ban on children holding hands and prancing about in a circle. Surely there are other ways in which youngsters can move.

Horsman’s push towards realism, or as far as you can go when lifelike dolls are involved, has its pluses and minuses. In setting up his story Horsman takes a little time to get the action moving but he does build a pleasing picture of community and individuals within in it. In his sweetest inspiration he brings on the local footy team – Australian football, of course. Some of the QB lads need to work on their handpass skills and on opening night the Sherrin was definitely too soft for an effective bounce, but the audience enthusiastically applauded a high mark. Yes, in Brisbane.

The downside is a lack of magic in the second act, in which the usual cave of wonders is reduced to a couple of half-finished automatons. It fits Horsman’s scenario but is far from a sparkling setting for Swanilda’s centrepiece impersonation of Coppelius’s doll.

For key moments – including Swanilda’s solos and the big Act III pas de deux – Horsman has kept choreography familiar from traditional versions and at the opening performance Clare Morehen (Swanilda) and Huang Junshuang (Franz) despatched the high points with ease and verve. Eleanor Freeman and Vito Bernasconi lit up the stage as the second pair of lovers and Lina Kim’s joyous dancing delighted every time she appeared with Swanilda’s flock of girlfriends.

Also delightful are Hugh Colman’s sets, which bring to mind colonial paintings (Louis Buvelot perhaps), and Jon Buswell’s exquisite lighting, in which bright day fades to velvety evening. This kind of quality is possible because in a venture that makes a great deal of sense, Coppelia is a co-production between QB and West Australian Ballet. Perth will see the ballet next year. Expect the footy to go down extremely well indeed.

Coppelia ends on May 10.

A version of this review appeared in The Australian on April 28.

The year ahead

And coming up in 2014 …

LAST year it was easy to point to the events in dance one thought would be unmissable (not so very many) and theatre (vast amounts). Mostly performances and productions delivered pretty much what one thought they would and moments of transcendence were few, but I guess they always are. Sydney Theatre Company’s Waiting for Godot, Griffin Theatre Company’s The Floating World and Nature Theatre of Oklahoma’s Life and Times (for the Melbourne Festival) are among the shining few, and opera offered tremendous occasions in Opera Australia’s Ring cycle and Pinchgut’s Giasone.

This year is a bit harder to read, particularly in theatre. There’s a handful of sure things – well, likely sure things, if that makes any sense at all – alongside some more intriguing propositions. Note that I’m only talking about Sydney theatre because that’s where I see most in this art form. Otherwise I get around a bit.

The events are in chronological order – which incidentally reveals a few unfortunate clashes for the dedicated dance fan – American Ballet Theatre’s Swan Lake (Brisbane) and The Australian Ballet’s La Bayadere (Melbourne) open August 28; West Australian Ballet’s La fille mal gardee (Perth) and ABT’s Three Masterpieces triple bill opens September 5. Akram Khan’s DESH opens in Brisbane on September 6.

Dance:

Dido & Aeneas, Sasha Waltz & Guests. From January 16, Sydney Festival. Purcell, the Akademie fur Alte Musik, singers, dancers and a huge tank of water.

Patyegarang, Bangarra Dance Theatre. From June 13 in Sydney, then Canberra, Perth, Brisbane, Melbourne. Stephen Page’s new work on the meeting of minds between Lieutenant William Dawes and Patyegarang, a young indigenous woman, in colonial Sydney.

Romeo and Juliet, Queensland Ballet. From June 27, Brisbane. Kenneth MacMillan’s version (the best in my opinion) and guest stars Carlos Acosta, Tamara Rojo, Steven McRae and Daniel Gaudiello.

The Red Shoes, Expressions Dance Company, from July 18, Brisbane. Choreographer Natalie Weir tackles this much-loved, influential – albeit rather creepy – story of obsession in the ballet world. Intriguing.

American Ballet Theatre, from August 28, Brisbane only. First up is Kevin Mackenzie’s Swan Lake, but I’m more interested in the triple bill, which includes Twyla Tharp’s Bach Partita, which was recently revived by ABT after a 28-year hiatus. From September 5.

La Bayadere, The Australian Ballet, from August 28 in Melbourne, then Sydney. Choreographer Stanton Welch promises Bollywood colour and energy and a clearer, speedier version than usual. The beloved Kingdom of the Shades scene will, of course, be as expected.

La Fille mal gardee, West Australian Ballet, from September 5. This sweet and sunny ballet, updated to 1950s rural France, is seen in Perth and then will go to Queensland Ballet in 2015. QB’s Coppelia, choreographed by ballet master Greg Horsman (opening April 24 this year), goes to WAB next year in a sensible sharing of resources.

DESH, Akram Khan, from September 6, Brisbane Festival. I have longed to see this since its premiere and missed it at the Melbourne Festival in 2012. This is one occasion on which I won’t rail against the tendency of arts festivals to program work from a fairly small (admittedly stellar) group of dance artists.

Theatre:

Noises Off, Sydney Theatre Company, from February 17. I first saw Michael Frayn’s brilliant farce about 30 years ago and laughed like a loon. The memories are vivid; let’s hope they can be matched – surpassed even! – by this new production.

Ganesh versus the Third Reich, Back to Back Theatre, Carriageworks, from March 12. At long last Sydney gets to see this hugely admired work.

Hedda Gabler, Belvoir, from June 28. Ash Flanders will star. And yes, he’s a bloke who often performs in female guise. Flagrant nicking of a role a woman should have or a revelation? We shall see.

Macbeth, Sydney Theatre Company, from July 21. STC is giving over the auditorium of the Sydney Theatre to the actors and putting the audience on the stage. Hugo Weaving stars. Sounds promising, no?

Emerald City, Griffin Theatre Company, from October 17. David Williamson never really went away, despite the protestations of retirement, but he’s having quite the resurgence these days (Travelling North gets things moving at STC from January 9).

Opera and musical theatre:

Madama Butterfly, Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour, Opera Australia, from March 21. No explanation required.

Strictly Ballroom the Musical, from March 25, Sydney. No explanation required.

The King and I, Opera Australia and John Frost, Brisbane, from April 15, then Melbourne and Sydney. I saw this lovely production when it premiered in 1991, directed by Christopher Renshaw, designed by Brian Thomson and with frocks by Roger Kirk that got their own applause. There’s no reason to think it won’t be a winner again, particularly with Lisa McCune rather than Hayley Mills as Anna.

Into the Woods, Victorian Opera, Melbourne, from July 19. Stephen Sondheim. Say no more.

The Riders, Victorian Opera, Melbourne, from September 23. New Australian opera from Iain Grandage with libretto by Alison Croggon, based on Tim Winton’s book.

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.

La Sylphide, West Australian Ballet

His Majesty’s, June 1

IN her program note for West Australian Ballet’s La Sylphide, stager Dinna Bjorn wrote that while the steps of Bournonville’s 1836 ballet remain true to the original, “the way of executing the steps has changed through the the times with the development of the ballet technique and the body types of the dancers”. Bjorn sees in this inevitable change a way of maintaining authenticity but keeping the ballet fresh.

West Australian Ballet in La Sylphide. Photo: Jon Green

West Australian Ballet in La Sylphide. Photo: Jon Green

That is, of course, the ideal. La Sylphide deserves its continuing place in the repertoire: in the story of a spirit who lures a young man away from his fiancee and the responsibilities of family, society and work lie some difficult and enduring life lessons. Accommodations may need be made when it is brought before a modern audience, but it’s also necessary for the essential essence of the ballet to be preserved.

Watching WAB in two performances on the last day of its recent season, it struck me, however, that different body types and greater technical facility weren’t that much of an issue. There was much more at stake in the crucial area of emotional expressiveness, the inner light of the character.

When it came to absorbing the principles of early Romantic ballet, the WAB dancers were on secure ground. It was wonderful to see the buoyancy of many of the men and the height and elasticity of their jumps, along with swift, sharp footwork (Andre Santos really stood out in this respect). The women combined lightness and precision although most of the corps found it necessary to wear a bright look, giving the superficial impression of a bunch of healthy girls out for a walk in the woods rather than spirits of the forest. (More filtered lighting wouldn’t have gone astray here either.)

And it wasn’t just the corps who seemed unable to divest themselves of an essentially contemporary attitude. Both Sylphs, Brooke Widdison-Jacobs and Fiona Evans, smiled rather too expansively and seemed rather too knowing. Widdison-Jacobs, who was first cast, was praised for her freshness on her first performance, but by the last appeared to me to be quite brittle. Perhaps the burden of dancing six of the 12 performances was showing. At the matinee on June 1 Evans beautifully captured the airy nature of the Sylph’s movement.

Dancing with Evans, Daniel Roberts was a bright, engaging James who nailed that gorgeous “hang” in the air so essential in the  Bournonville style. In the first cast Sergey Pevnev didn’t have quite that degree of height and stage coverage (although it was very attractive dancing) but his experience was invaluable when it came to convincing characterisation.

The same was true with Craig Lord-Sole, Madge in both casts. Lord-Sole, WAB’s ballet master, was compelling, creating a particularly malevolent figure whose enjoyment of the tragedy was chilling.

Craig Lord-Sole as Madge in La Sylphide, West Australian Ballet. Photo: Jon Green

Craig Lord-Sole as Madge in La Sylphide, West Australian Ballet. Photo: Jon Green

It was also a joy to see Jayne Smeulders’s Lead Sylph in the first cast. Again, experience and refined artistry resulted in a connection with the work that was deep and true.

WAB is incredibly lucky to have the West Australian Symphony Orchestra as its musical partner. With ebullient guest conductor Wolfgang Heinz at the helm, the WASO gave a striking account of the Lovenskiold music. After the performance Heinz – who is assistant music director at Stuttgart Ballet and adorably wore a kilt for the evening performance – was loud in his praise for the orchestra, and rightly so.

WAB has an ambitious time ahead, with the company premiere of John Cranko’s intensely dramatic Onegin coming up in September. There couldn’t be a greater contrast with the delicate perfume of La Sylphide, and it is much anticipated.