For the first time in its 85-plus year history, Britain’s internationally acclaimed Royal Ballet is heading to Cairns.
More than 160 company members, including 85 dancers, flew to Australia this month for an exclusive season which opens at the Queensland Performing Arts Centre (Qpac) on Thursday.
Accompanying the Brisbane season is the We All Dance program, a series of dance workshops the company has been running since March in Brisbane and Cairns, inviting local youth groups, arts and dance organisations, multicultural groups and disability services to learn from and dance with members of the Royal Ballet.
The program culminates next month with free performances in Brisbane and Cairns, where groups from around Queensland will perform their work at a gala night before the Royal Ballet takes the stage.
“When we tour we don’t just want to come in and do a couple of shows,” the chief executive of the Royal Opera House, Alex Beard, told Guardian Australia. “We want to engage with the local communities to show people the wonderful form of self-expression dance can be.”
The Royal Ballet’s season at Qpac comprises The Winter’s Tale – a “bold and colourful” reimagining of Shakespeare’s play – and Woolf Works, which is based on the life and stories of the author Virginia Woolf, and has been praised for the powerful performances.
Like those productions, the We All Dance program also began in London, with the company working with community youth groups to teach dance to people who may never have had access to ballet.
“We want to encourage them to develop their own choreographic responses to what we’re presenting on stage,” Beard says.
In Australia, the company has been working with Qpac to engage community groups in Brisbane and Cairns.
Two dancers from the company, David Pickering and Elizabeth Foster, came out in March to work with other teacher artists in Brisbane and Cairns, teaching them choreography from The Winter’s Tale to incorporate into their groups.
“We introduce scenes and ideas from The Winter’s Tale program, but with no restrictions on how they can use it,” Foster said. The groups have been rehearsing since March.
Participating groups include disability advocacy group Access Arts, the Aboriginal Centre for Performing Arts, the Police-Citizens Youth Club, non-profit social services and advocacy group Micah Projects, Multicultural Development Australia, Catholic social services agency Centacare, and ARC Disability Services.
“In Cairns we have Indigenous groups, we have a regular high school group and an intergenerational group where mothers and children dance,” she said. “To make ballet accessible to everyone is the real goal of this program.”
Each bring their own touches to the company’s choreography. And the program, Pickering stresses, is very much an exchange of ideas.
“It’s a two-way process. We’re here to offer up what we do, and also find out from all the different groups what they know best,” he said.
“We had a really wonderful time learning some of the Indigenous dances up in Cairns. There’s such a rich cultural heritage in this country and it was a pleasure to learn about that.”
The Royal Ballet has a strong connection to Australia. Beard says that six dancers in the company are Australian, and there is a growing appetite and interest for ballet in the country. The decision to take the program to Cairns was put forward by Qpac; it took “only a second” for them consider, before saying yes.
“Part of it is to bring ballet to audiences who may not consider themselves having access to it,” Foster says. “I think it goes further than that though. Dance is a tool that can really help to bring cohesion to different communities.”
A small number of company dancers will even be integrated into the performances in Brisbane, dancing alongside the Australian groups who have learned from them.
“In countries like Australia there are so many varied languages, so many different voices,” Pickering says. “But we all share a common language in dance.”
• Woolf Works opens on 29 June at Qpac; The Winter’s Tale opens on 5 July at Qpac. The free We All Dance galas take place Sunday 2 July, from 4.30-5.30pm at Melbourne Street Green, Brisbane; and on Wednesday 12 July 2017, from 5–6pm at Munro Martin Parklands, Cairns