World Ballet Day companies throw open their studio doors

The big difference between World Ballet Day 2015 and the inaugural event last year was the way the five main ballet companies, the Australian, Bolshoi, Royal, National Ballet of Canada and San Francisco, reached out to include footage and interviews with other dance companies in their region.

The Royal Ballet, for example, brought artistic directors, David Bintley, Tamara Rojo, Christopher Hampson and David Nixon to the Covent Garden studios for a chat with the presenter, Ore Oduba, and the Royal’s artistic director, Kevin O’Hare.

Of the four guest directors, Rojo and her company, the English National Ballet, had the most time before the cameras, including a rehearsal of Dust, Akram Khan’s work for the company. This was followed with an insight into one of ENB’s Dance for Parkinson’s classes, inspired by the American choreographer, Mark Morris, who introduced the idea of classes for those who have Parkinson’s Disease.

Unless I missed something, I didn’t see a similar ‘reaching out’ by the Bolshoi Ballet except for a segment on the Bolshoi’s collaboration with various companies for a contemporary dance festival event.

The Australian Ballet gave Bangarra Dance Theatre a pivotal place in its five-hour segment. Bangarra chose to showcase its very recent tour to Istanbul and Paris and it was also a special moment when the company referred to one of the most important dancers in its history, Djakapurra Munyarryun.

The five main World Ballet Day companies took their turns in the 23-hour live stream in order of their time zone, so the Australians were first.

Classes opened each segment, not only because class begins each day in the life of a dancer but also because the class is what most viewers want to see the most.

Not so much fun, though, for company members, with cameras zooming around the studio, a private space where dancers warm up every day and which is usually watched by very few people – ballet staff of course and, from time to time, visiting choreographers or stagers.

David McAllister was, perhaps, the most relaxed of the artistic directors who took part in World Ballet Day. Public speaking comes easily to him. He introduced his company standing in one of the laneways of the company’s home town, Melbourne, a city blessed with intriguing passageways throughout the central business district.

The class was taught by the Australian Ballet’s much loved former dancer, Steven Heathcote, a contemporary of McAllister’s, and still looking as if he could step on stage and razzle dazzle the audience. Incidentally, Heathcote praised the dancers in class with the encouraging phrase, ‘good, good, good’, as did ballet mistress Eve Lawson and Jackie Barrett teaching the Royal Ballet class.

The Australian Ballet’s segment included pointe shoe tips from corps de ballet dancer Lisa Craig, and a discussion on what it means to be in the top ranks of a company, in a chat with Daniel Gaudiello and Amy Harris.

Rehearsals included the ballets Suite en blanc, Ratmansky’s Cinderella, Murphy’s Swan Lake, McAllister’s new Sleeping Beauty and Stephen Baynes coaching Amber Scott and Rudy Hawkes for Unspoken Dialogues, first danced by Heathcote and Justine Summers in 2004.

The Bolshoi Ballet rehearsed Ratmansky’s Russian Seasons, Jean-Christophe Maillot’s new production, Presque Rein, Hamlet by Radu Poklitaru and A Hero of Our Time by Yuri Possokhov.

But I have to admit I was more intrigued by the personality of the former dancer and now teacher, Boris Akimov, 69. Age has not dimmed his enthusiasm and the way he attempts every step, not just by marking, but by jumping, balancing, and everything else, as best he can.

Whether the dancers like his style or not, and it’s hard to tell with the Bolshoi dancers, he certainly puts on a show for the cameras. His barre was quick, his centre was lavish.

In an interview after the class Akimov talked of his lifelong connection with the Bolshoi where he was artistic director from 2000-2003.

The English dance writer, Ismene Brown, who knows a great deal about the inner workings of the Bolshoi, once described him as “cosy… a familiar face in London, a regular coach at the Royal Ballet since 1989, and one of the Bolshoi’s most distinguished coaches since the end of his dancing career”.

In World Ballet Day, Akimov seemed rather like an amusing godfather overseeing the Bolshoi in the absence of the new boss to come. There’s still uncertainty over who will be the successor to the outgoing Sergei Filin, victim of the appalling acid attack in 2013. Filin’s contract has not been renewed and he will leave the company next March. Who would really want this job? If ever there was a poisoned chalice…

The engaging Ore Oduba, presenter of the Royal Ballet segment, did a great job as he interviewed dancers, directors and choreographers, as well as Royal Ballet School students. (Oduba, by the way, was entranced by Rojo’s dress and very high heels.]

The teacher, Jackie Barrett, whizzed through class with tremendous verve and the occasional “woo-hoo” before the rehearsals began.

Wayne McGregor, coaching Raven Girl, took Ryoichi Hirano and Akane Takada through their steps with McGregor-esque phrases such as ‘phooph!’, ‘jar-dum!’ and ‘da whoom eh!’ His energy and enthusiasm is catching.

McGregor’s choreography is complex, difficult, but the award for trickiest rehearsal of the day had to go to Christopher Carr coaching Alexander Campbell and Yuhui Choe in Frederick Ashton’s quirky Two Pigeons.

The rehearsal was so intense that it came as a relief when Carr finally praised the dancers with the word everyone wants to hear – ‘gorgeous!’

For sheer beauty and the power of the spine chilling Prokofiev score, it was hard to go past the rehearsal of MacMillan’s Romeo & Juliet, danced by Lauren Cuthbertson and Federico Bonelli. An added bonus was watching the coaching by former Royal Ballet principal, Jonathan Cope.

The live stream happened on 1 October. I watched some of it live but most of it on YouTube after the event. I’ve not had time, yet, to watch the National Ballet of Canada and San Francisco Ballet.

Apologies for the poor images, most of which were taken from the live stream.

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Ako Kondo and Chengwu Guo rehearsing Sleeping Beauty

Amber Scott and Rudy Hawkes rehearsing Unspoken Dialogues

Boris Akimov

Sarah Thompson and Benedicte Bemet, Australian Ballet class

Lisa Craig, Australian Ballet

Tamara Rojo, artistic director, English National Ballet

Lauren Cuthbertson in her dressing room, preparing for Romeo & Juliet

Boris Akimov, teaching Bolshoi Ballet class

Students with presenter Ore Oduba, Royal Ballet artistic director, Kevin O’Hare, Nicola Tranah and Sam Raine, photo © Andrej Uspenski