What's next for the Australian Ballet: 'We have to create the classics for the future'

As the company stages the ‘timeless’ crowdpleaser Coppélia, its most faithful audiences remain hungry for new works

Can a ballet production from 1978 still be relevant today?

The Australian Ballet believes so: its final production for 2016, which opened on Friday, is a restaging of the company founder and first artistic director Peggy van Praagh’s interpretation of Coppélia – nearly 40 years later.

Coppélia is a tried-and-true crowdpleaser – the classic tale of an inventor and his lifelike dancing doll that captivates the heart of a local village boy, Franz, causing him to jilt his betrothed, Swanilda.

But the ballet’s artistic director, David McAllister, explains that this particular interpretation is also a piece of company heritage.

The company performed Coppélia in 1962, the year it was founded, then revived the work in the late 1970s “from a different angle”. Taking the modern standard choreography and adding some her own, van Praagh worked with the prolific theatre and film director George Ogilvie and the reclusive but renowned designer Kristian Fredrikson to create what McAllister believes is a “timeless” production.

Audiences may well agree: the company has restaged van Praagh’s version repeatedly over the past four decades, the last time in 2010. That it continues to succeed upon revival is a testament to its aesthetic endurance – but at the same time, it raises questions about the diversity of programming.

One of the biggest challenges facing the heritage performing arts companies in Australia today is the need for broad appeal: many of Australia’s major companies have their origins in the 50s and 60s; the audiences that grew up with them and, in many cases, still make up the bulk of their subscriber base, are now older and often much wealthier than their younger counterparts. The need to retain these audiences appears to push companies towards conservative programming choices, thereby alienating younger audiences.

Dancers in Coppélia
A tried-and-true crowdpleaser: Coppélia was one of the first works produced by the Australian Ballet. Photograph: Daniel Boud

But the ballet’s audiences, McAllister says, have proven to be less predictable. “A number of years ago we did a lot of research on who comes to what programs,” he says.

The results flew in the face of expectations. “The older audiences had seen all of those classics 25 million times, and … there was a real appetite in our older audiences for the new works, and new productions of big titles.”

At the same time, classics like Swan Lake and The Nutcracker were functioning as gateway works for the younger demographic, whom the company had believed were their primary audience for contemporary material.

McAllister has been with the Australian Ballet “for a hundred years” (or, more precisely, 33 – he joined as a dancer in 1983). Given that he has been part of the company for more than half its lifetime, what is his vision for it over the next decade?

“Excellence,” he says. “That we continue to push the envelope on what we perform … I want every person in Australia, even if they don’t have any desire or knowledge or understanding about ballet, to have pride in the fact that we have a national company that’s as good as our Olympic team, our cricket team, our rugby team.”

The word “excellence” has accrued new baggage in the Australian arts community ever since funds were stripped from the Australia Council in 2014 by the then-arts minister, George Brandis, to set up the National Program for Excellence in the Arts (since rebranded as Catalyst). Much of the discourse at the time viewed “excellence” as a conservative policy buzzword which, in the context of arts funding, as Ben Eltham argued, “means the performance of the western canon by performing arts companies … [favouring] the dead, the white and the male over the living, the not-white and the female”.

The Australian Ballet has been criticised on this score before: the bulk of its work is classical or classically derived, and productions are regularly recycled or revived, sometimes just two or three years apart.

But McAllister doesn’t believe that “excellence” necessarily means defaulting towards conservative choices. “On one hand, yes, because we are a ballet company and the big, narrative classical ballets are the ones that the dancers train to dance and they love doing … and there’s a high recognition factor [with audiences], so they love coming to see them,” he says.

“But every year we do a contemporary program … and there’s a growing audience for that new, more athletic contemporary work.”

Chengwu Guo and Ako Kondo in Coppélia
Chengwu Guo and Ako Kondo in Coppélia. Photograph: Daniel Boud

Still, McAllister admits, this year’s production of John Neumeier’s contemporary full-length ballet Nijinsky was “a bit of a gamble” – the Australian Ballet was only the third company in the world to produce it. “I said, ‘Guys, this isn’t Sleeping Beauty, it’s not going to be little girls in pink tutus waiting out the front, but it’s a really important work and it will develop the artistry of the company.’ And that’s exactly what happened.”

And what of local choreography? The resounding success of the 2015 triple-bill 20:21 – and in particular, the critical acclaim for Australian choreographer Tim Harbour’s commissioned piece, Filigree and Shadow – is evidence that audiences are yearning for diversity and want to see new, homegrown works on their stages.

The current major change, however, comes down to access: specifically in the cinema screenings of the company’s works, following the lead of the Met Opera in New York, and further inroads made by the Royal Ballet in London, and Russia’s Bolshoi and Mariinsky. After Sleeping Beauty in October and Cinderella in November, Coppélia will be the final act in a triptych of live Australian Ballet performances shown in cinemas across the UK and Europe.

This month the company will also play host to a megastar of both American Ballet Theatre and the Bolshoi Ballet, David Hallberg, in a post-injury return to the stage for four performances during Coppélia’s Sydney season. It’s the continuation of a tradition of international collaboration that perhaps most famously saw Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev dancing in Australian Ballet productions in the 60s.

“I think that you’ve got to continue to push those boundaries,” McAllister says. “You can’t just sit back on the classical repertoire and get flabby … We have to create the classics for the future.”

Coppélia is playing in Sydney until 21 December and will screen in the UK via CinemaLive in April 2017


Stephanie Convery

The GuardianTramp

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