What’s next for the Australian Ballet and Australian Ballet School

As principal artists of the Australian Ballet, Lisa Pavane and David McAllister were colleagues for more than a decade.

And although Pavane left the company in 1994, she returned to the fold in 2007 when she began to work with the Australian Ballet School and last year she was appointed director of the school.

Next Sunday (3 July), they will be speaking at a Friends of the Australian Ballet event in Sydney, discussing the way they see the evolution of the Australian Ballet and the next generation of dancers at both the school and company.

I asked McAllister for a few insights on where the open discussion might go and was especially interested in the direction he sees for the company in the next decade.

“Ultimately I would like the Australian Ballet to reflect the population of Australia”, he said.

“That’s been very important to me during my tenure and I think as we develop it can only become more important.

“I hope we continue to have more indigenous members of the company through the training program. That would be fantastic”.

He thinks the next wave of dancers may also include the children of those people who have migrated or will migrate to Australia from the near Pacific islands, from the Middle East and Africa, just as there are now dancers who are the second generation of Asian immigrants and previously, the second generation of post war immigrants from Italy and Greece.

Underpinning all of that are “the fundamentals, all the things needed to be a great ballet dancer, musicality, technique, theatricality” and he said, “that innate sense of performance quality” that all ballet schools and companies look for.

I asked about the direction that the company might take in the way it commissions choreographers and the balance in the company’s future repertoire between ballets created by international choreographers and Australian choreographers.

It was important, McAllister said, that the company dancers felt they are working with “internationally recognisable people. To build your own choreographic talent is vital but if we only ever commission Australian choreographers it would make the company feel they were a little bit more isolated”.

Choreographers such as Alexei Ratmansky, Wayne McGregor and Liam Scarlett (who he hopes might work with the company), are the kind of people who really excite the dancers.

“That’s a very important thing for the company but equally important is to have the next wave of Australian choreographic talent.

“Tim [Harbour] showed he took a really great step forward in his last work and Stephen Baynes and Stanton Welch have become quite mainstream for us now so I guess it’s important to discover the new.

“For dancers it’s important to be choreographed on. While it’s nice to do existing repertoire, there’s nothing like having something created on you for you”.

As for the number of dancers in the company, 85 would be the limit, and that’s the number the company is aiming for by 2019.

“It’s a good number for us because it does give us a bit of extra latitude for those big ballets, for example for the Baynes’ Swan Lake and for Sleeping Beauty we had to employ a couple of extra people to make the numbers work”.

The first stage of building the company meant the numbers jumped from 70 to the present 77.

“We can’t grow company any more until we increase our facilities”.

In terms of venues in Australia, next year the company will perform at the Capitol Theatre in Sydney, as the Sydney Opera House will be undergoing major renovations.

“We would love to have every three years a season at the Capitol or Lyric Theatre where we could do some of those bigger works in that sort of enlarged and featured venue, but obviously the Opera House is our home.

“There’s talk of a new theatre being built in Brisbane. There are various people lobbying the Queensland government to make that happen. In some ways a second lyric theatre in Brisbane would really help us. Either that will free up QPAC (the Queensland Performing Arts Centre) to make our seasons a bit more regular or it will mean somewhere else to go”.

The company did have a regular slot at QPAC but if there’s a big musical production there then of course there will be a problem with availability.

McAllister plans to continue international touring to the big cities in Asia, Europe and the United States with two tours to take place within every three year period.

“It’s important to keep that international relationship going” and, he adds, “I’d love to take the company back to Russia”.

The Australian Ballet School.

I asked how many graduates a year are usually offered contracts by the company.

“It fluctuates on who is leaving. For a couple of years it was quite static and until this year there were quite low numbers.

“But I feel that the company is in a phase of regeneration. By the time we get to the end of the London tour (23 July) we’ll have five gentlemen leaving the company and I think there will be a couple of ladies that retire from the company as well so I think we’re in that space of regeneration.

“It’s a really good time for people to be around and for us to look at these kids and obviously we look at the ballet school first, they are our first port of call but there are often other dancers who have either been at the school and gone somewhere else or who have been to international schools and come back.

“You know I’ve never been of that mind that we won’t take them because they’ve never been to the school. I think that’s limiting but I think equally we have a commitment to the ballet school so we want to make sure we look at their graduates first”.

At the new school residence in Melbourne there is a mix of level 7 to level 4 students. Many fulltimers already have accommodation in Melbourne so it will be the students of tomorrow who will build up numbers in the new facility.

“There’s much more duty of care within that facility and it feels like home”.

Pavane asked five choreographers to create works for the school this year – Graeme Murphy, Stephen Baynes, guest flamenco teacher, Areti Boyaci and school faculty teachers, Margaret Wilson and Christine Howard.

“When Marilyn (Rowe) was director Leigh Rowles had a claim over the choreographic work and I think Lisa wanted to open that up and I think she wanted choreographers who work for the main company.

“Obviously the kids training are aspiring to join the company so it’s great to have choreographers who are in our rep going through that training program with them.

“The interesting thing is that those choreographers have been really excited about working with the students. They’re the future of what they’re going to work with”.

The full time students at the school will be performing at the Sydney Opera House next December in what will be an annual event.

Generation Next: In Conversation with David McAllister and Lisa Pavane is on Sunday 3 July at The Ivy/Sunroom, Level 3, 330 George St, Sydney.

Friends of the Australian Ballet-Contact: 02 9252 7322 (9.30am-4.30pm Mon-Fri) www.fab.org.au