Posted on April 7, 2020
At this current time, I think it’s important people have access to content that shows some of the realities of a dancer’s life. In a world where we are all calibrating to a life of social-distancing and self-isolating, many of us are consuming the arts online. I thought now was a useful time to look back at 2019’s World Ballet Day footage, originally broadcast on October 23. Most is still available on YouTube, and though lots of footage came from rehearsals of very familiar ballets, the focus of this particular World Ballet Day seemed to be how ballet companies are reaching out in broad ways to engage with more people.
In 2018, I noted that The Australian Ballet made me think about how new ideas about training were effecting change in the art form. A clear commitment to looking at a dancer holistically still defines the ethos of the company, but 2019 saw The Australian Ballet on the cusp of transition after David McAllister announced he was stepping down as artistic director at the end of the 2020 season. I’m always in admiration of the company’s repertoire choices, and a beautiful teaser video of 2020’s ballets, including two new full-length works and the company’s first production of Frederick Ashton’s A Month in the Country, looked promising, though sadly will no longer take place. For World Ballet Day 2019, we saw the dancers rounding out the edges on more traditional pieces, heavily featuring Peter Wright’s production of The Nutcracker and Maina Gielgud’s staging of Giselle.
Though the company’s dancers are very familiar with these long-established ballets, it’s valuable to see how they are constantly probing the steps they execute. The sensitivity of coaches such as Elizabeth Toohey, seen rehearsing parts of Act II of The Nutcracker, is what keeps dancers engaged and focused on refining movement. I enjoyed watching the women of The Australian Ballet rehearse Stanton Welch’s Sylvia: their command and physical vitality reflected the rich, easy confidence this company has. Senior artist Jarryd Madden’s thoughtful commentary throughout the day – and his quick skateboard from The Australian Ballet’s studios to Melbourne’s Federation Square where an outdoor stage featuring demonstrations and live performances was built – help show how outward looking this company is; how keen it is to place its work within the fabric of the community it inhabits.
Year after year, the world of the Bolshoi Ballet astounds with the weight of an institution steeped in national pride, politics and glamour. I don’t know if I could ever adequately describe how this Russian company comes across to me. The Bolshoi dancers’ sense of artistry isn’t impressionistic in tone. The point of perfecting a method for these dancers is all at the service of the observer. The individual dancer doesn’t decide what feels right: the coach, or balletomane, tells them what must be so based on a long heritage of powerfully adroit performers. Boris Akimov taught a class that swept me away with its logic: the sense that each step was interconnected, and how that flow made the body sing.
I enjoyed seeing the rawness of a rehearsal by the company. Dancers felt free to analyse steps together in a rehearsal of the Act III pas de deux from Don Quixote. It was an exchange that may have appeared more direct than necessary to a western dancer’s ear, but I think this outlines an interesting difference in training and approach. Alexei Ratmansky, coaching the first mime scene between Giselle and Albrecht in the 1841 ballet, placed story right at the heart of his rehearsal, beginning by reminding the dancers of their dramatic intentions. It was stimulating to see how deeply this choreographer had thought about the character traits of two roles that feel so familiar to audiences the world over.
The Royal Ballet placed new engagement initiatives at the heart of its segment, taking advantage of the “opened up” spaces the front of house areas at the Royal Opera House now boast. Footage of a Monday Moves class for the visually impaired was a wonderful way to see how the beauty of classical movement can be enjoyed by all. Former principal dancers with the company, Leanne Benjamin and Darcey Bussell, coached sections of the well-loved classics Coppélia and The Sleeping Beauty respectively, showing how dancers absorb their careers within their bodies only to pass it down to another generation. In a similar vein, the jewel of The Royal Ballet’s coverage was a coaching session of the hauntingly beautiful second movement of Kenneth MacMillan’s Concerto. Elegant and eloquent, Alfreda Thorogood emphasised beautiful port de bras in the comments she gave Yasmine Naghdi, whilst Gary Avis helped Ryoichi Hirano establish a noble, but undetectable presence throughout his partnering. Students in the graduate year of The Royal Ballet Upper School also took part in this masterclass.
Seeing three generations of dancers in the same studio, engaging with the same choreography, shows what priorities lie at the heart of a company like The Royal Ballet. Despite all the technological advancements, the data driven approach to healthcare and the streamlining of a dancer’s physicality, conversation is the vital blood of ballet – ironic for an art form that is speechless. There is a special balancing act occurring in ballet companies today. Though it’s our duty to be innovative and investigative in tone, appreciating our foundations is the keystone of large repertoire companies, as demonstrated by the Australian, Bolshoi and Royal Ballet. Though I thought repertoire choices were conservative, these works are usually what first ignite people’s interest in ballet. I did not feel there was any “dumbing down”, just a healthy “getting back” to our roots.
Pictured: Daniel Pratt. Photograph by Zedex Honea.