The Australian Ballet 2020

Although David McAllister’s retirement as artistic director of the Australia Ballet was announced back in May, the absolute certainty of his departure at the end of 2020 was clear as I flicked through the October/November issue of Dance Australia.

The search for his successor had formally begun. A half-page ad in capital letters and a bold font began:

THE AUSTRALIAN BALLET — ARTISTIC DIRECTOR

“The ideal candidate” to become the public face of the company should be “a confident, articulate and empathetic leader who can deliver a bold, innovative and compelling artistic vision to advance the company and its dancers consistent to the company’s mission and goals.

“The person will be able to demonstrate an affinity for Australian culture, identify and nurture talent, have a keen results focus and excellent stakeholder management skills”.

Apart from the ad, the reality of David McAllister’s departure was even more apparent when the company launched its 2020 repertoire at the Utzon Room in the Sydney Opera House on 23 September.

This year, instead of the standard launch, when guests were invited to join David for lunch, the guests sat in rows of seats as they listened to his description of the 2020 repertoire then acknowledged the support of his colleagues, in particular Nicolette Fraillon, the company’s chief conductor, and Steven Heathcote, the former principal dancer of the company and now its ballet master.

Hugs and perhaps a few tears at the launch were a sentimental precursor to McAllister’s final season as artistic director.

His 2020 repertoire choice is partly an acknowledgement of his years as the artistic director (2001-2020) and partly a reference to the company’s choreographers past and present.

The 2020 season will begin in Brisbane with the premiere of Graeme Murphy’s new work, The Happy Prince. Although Murphy had played a major role in the Australia Ballet since the 1970s, McAllister brought him back onto the company’s stage when he commissioned Murphy to choreograph a new Swan Lake with designs by Kristian Fredrikson.

At the launch, McAllister spoke of his fear that the new Lake might fail although, he said, his gut told him to go ahead. Murphy’s Lake turned out to be a box office winner that became a signature work for many international tours.

Following the Happy Prince in Brisbane the company will move to Melbourne in March for Volt, the umbrella title of a triple bill. The works are Wayne McGregor’s Chroma and Dyad 1929 that will bookend Logos, a co-commission by Alice Topp, a resident choreographer at the Australian Ballet, and Studio Wayne McGregor.

The Australian Ballet’s connection with McGregor, a resident choreographer at the Royal Ballet, began with the staging of Chroma and continued during the company’s four-year Ballets Russes’ Project (2006-2009) that acknowledged the importance of Colonel de Basil’s Ballets Russes’ tours to Australia from 1936-1940. McGregor’s title, Dyad 1929, refers to the centenary of the death of Sergei Diaghilev, the impresario who founded the original Ballets Russes.

The Australian Ballet’s second triple bill, Molto, will begin in June with Frederick Ashton’s A Month in the Country (a one-act ballet premiered at the Royal Opera House by the Royal Ballet in 1976) followed by works of two Australian Ballet resident choreographers, Stephen Baynes’, Molto Vivace (2003), Tom Harbour’s Squander and Glory (2017).

Leo Tolstoy’s book, Anna Karenina, has inspired at least six choreographers, among them André Prokovsky who at the end of 1979 was commissioned to choreograph a new Anna Karenina for the Australian Ballet.

Now there’s a new Karenina, a co-production with the Joffrey Ballet in Chicago and the Australian Ballet. Choreographed by a former Bolshoi Ballet dancer, Yuri Possokhov, the ballet’s premiere was in Chicago In February 2019 and will make its international debut in Sydney next year. This will be the company’s first full-length ballet in Sydney next year.

There are many connections within the 2020 season and this is another as the Joffrey Ballet’s artistic director, Ashley Wheater, was a dancer at the Australian Ballet in 1982, a year before McAllister joined the company. It’s more than likely that both men danced in Prokovsky’s Anna Karenina.

The 2020 season will end with Harlequinade, another co-production, and this time with American Ballet Theatre. Harlequinade’s history began with Marius Petipa’s ballet that premiered in 1900 at St Petersburg under the title Les Millions d’Arlequin.

Harlequinade disappeared from the stage following the Russian Revolution, then, in 1965 it reappeared with George Balanchine’s full-length Harlequinade for the New York City Ballet.

Alexei Ratmansky’s reconstruction of Petipa’s Harlequinade for ABT premiered in New York in 2018. The co-production with the Australian Ballet will be the company’s second full-length ballet following his surrealistic Cinderella choreographed for the company in 2015.

Ratmansky’s Harlequinade will be staged in just one Australian city next year – Melbourne.

I hope the new artistic director keeps it in the Australian Ballet’s repertoire so audiences in other cities can enjoy the fun of Harlequin and Columbine, the stock characters of Commedia dell’Arte.

2020 calendar

The Happy Prince
Brisbane, 25-29 February
Melbourne, 28 August-5 September
Sydney, 27 November-16 December
Volt
Melbourne, 13-24 March
Sydney, 3-22 April
Anna Karenina
Sydney, 30 April-18 May
Melbourne, 5-13 June
Adelaide, 4-10 July
Molto
Melbourne, 19-27 June
Sydney, 6-21 November
Harlequinade
Melbourne
11-23 September

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Kevin Jackson, Robyn Hendricks and Nathan Brook, Anna Karenina, photo © Justin Ridler

A Month in the Country, Federico Bonelli and Alina Cojocaru, Royal Ballet, 2012, photo © Alice Pennefather

Amber Scott, A Month in the Country

Alberto Velazquez and Victoria Jaiani in Joffrey Ballet’s Anna Karenina, photo © Cheryl Mann

Misty Copeland as Pierette, Harlequinade, American Ballet Theatre, photo © Doug Gifford

Alexei Ratmansky’s Harlequinade, American Ballet Theatre, photo © Marty Sohl

Andrew Killian and Leanne Stojmenov in Wayne McGregor’s Chroma, Australian Ballet, photo © Jess Bialek

Stephen Baynes’ Molto Vivace, Australian Ballet, 2003

The Happy Prince, Brett Chynoweth, Callum Linnane and Serena Graham, Australian Ballet, photo © Justin Rider