Posted on November 1, 2018
This month I’d like to offer some thoughts on this year’s World Ballet Day. Last year’s online marathon of behind-the-scenes ballet viewing was, I felt, vital for our industry because it enabled dance-lovers to go behind the curtain and witness the kind of experiences that made me want to spend my life in dance. My enthusiasm remains, though 2018’s offering on October 2 seemed smaller in some ways. Focusing on three major ballet companies – The Australian Ballet, the Bolshoi Ballet and The Royal Ballet – a much greater presence was given to an impressive range of guest companies. If you failed to tune in for the entire 15 hours, a full schedule is available here with links to each company’s footage via their Facebook pages. Casting your eye over several of the companies featured will show you how the studio can stimulate in different ways to the stage.
The rich relationships between ballet staff and dancers visible at The Australian Ballet gave interesting light to comments by Diana Vishneva in the Daily Telegraph on October 1, where the ballerina drew attention to the unrealistic expectations set by viral clips of ballet dancers on Instagram and YouTube, explaining how these can undermine a work ethic in young aspiring dancers. The clear ethos at The Australian Ballet would be an example to any neophytes. What shines through in the five hours of footage from Melbourne is how much of a dancer’s job is analysing and solving problems effectively with others. Dancers spend their training understanding the physical principles of technique, but life in a company is about reconciling that understanding with other people, with numerous other variables.
There simply is no short cut for experience. Watching a rehearsal of the Act III pas de deux from Alexei Ratmansky’s Cinderella with Ty King-Wall and Leanne Stojmenov was rewarding as it demonstrated the complex mechanics behind seemingly fluent and free-flowing steps, the dancers working together to find the perfect balance so that a luscious turn can transform into a silky unfolding of the leg. Thoughtful commentary from senior artist Jarryd Madden highlighted the way Ratmansky’s choreography takes advantage of épaulement, seeing it not only as a body design in the shoulder, but as “twist and torsion” within the entire body, and then interrogating how this extends to partner work. This constant spiraling, and using it to come on and push off balance is what contributes to the “look” classical dancers have today.
The collaborative approach of this rehearsal held true in a corps de ballet rehearsal of David McAllister’s production of The Sleeping Beauty, where the goal was about “finessing small details… little half counts” in the words of ballet mistress Elizabeth Toohey. I loved watching Toohey teach class during last year’s World Ballet Day, so seeing her prepare a dance for an upcoming tour to China, was inspiring; with her inclusive language, and the authoritative encouragement of comments such as “let’s take a look”, she showed the best of ballet.
Toohey’s words relate to pertinent comments David Bintley made during Birmingham Royal Ballet’s guest slot later in the day: “It’s not about how many people you command, it’s about how many people will follow you. People will only follow you if they really trust you”. Bintley’s reverence for “what a director can do in terms of other people’s careers… the pastoral care”, explains the touching sentiments from his staff and dancers.
The contrast between The Australian Ballet and the Bolshoi couldn’t be more dramatic. Watching footage of class was revelatory, and seeing the strength and propulsion in a small transitional dance step like a glissade from all the dancers demonstrated the thinking behind the system of training adopted in Russia. The composite movements of ballet always serve a bigger purpose, everything is there to help a dancer perform more and more perfect physical feats. This impression was made more engrossing because of the inclusion of footage from the Moscow State Academy of Choreography’s entrance examinations at the beginning of the Russian company’s livestream. I’m not sure I was comfortable being privy to the physical examinations of young children to ascertain their appropriateness for life in ballet, but it does make real the systematic commitment to excellence within this dance culture. How it develops up into the company is thought provoking.
The close relationship principal dancers at the Bolshoi have with their coaches was interesting to see, something the US-born dancer David Hallberg made reference to in his autobiography, A Body of Work. One rehearsal sees a coach question his charge, “but you rest when you’re in the air?” It was a good technical reminder to constantly push, even when airborne. My formative teachers spoke about the co-ordination of Bolshoi trained dancers such as Irek Mukhamedov, and here was the same effort to increase elevation, to fly without wings.
Great power was on show, too, at The Royal Ballet where the push from the feet of Natalia Osipova and the elegance of Vadim Muntagirov, while rehearsing Natalia Makarova’s La Bayadère, demonstrated how the same truths of technique apply in a company more famed, in Sylvie Guillem’s words, for “having the soul of someone else”. I enjoyed watching the commitment of Sarah Lamb, Laura Morera and Steven McRae rehearsing Kenneth MacMillan’s Mayerling, and was left marvelling again at what a satisfyingly complex ballet this must be to perform. Morera mentioned how rich the characters are, how Countess Larisch, “is going through a lot in her life when we pick her up in the ballet”.
The in media res quality Morera highlights is what is riveting about MacMillan’s narrative works; the sense that a whole world bubbles and continues to do so behind the curtain, away from the standpoint of the audience. The eloquence of Leanne Benjamin’s coaching, her coherent instructions and intimate knowledge of the work were an engaging watch. Benjamin has a way of bringing out the graphical look of the pas de deux, how the shapes are made to travel in space and what the dancers have to do with their limbs in order to achieve the movement so that the right image sweeps across a viewer’s eye. MacMillan loved and gained inspiration from cinema; Benjamin’s understanding was almost screen-directorial in tone.
This year, I’m left with the sense that ballet means different things in different places. Analysis of movement, and the different approaches taken to communicate it, seems to be the thread from my viewing of the World Ballet Day. I’m most struck by the contrast between what could be reductively described as old and new, encapsulated by the Bolshoi Ballet and The Australian Ballet. Famed for its dancer healthcare provisions, the data-driven, analytical approach that Sakis Michelis, The Australian Ballet’s strength and conditioning instructor, has for getting the dancers ready for particular portions of their repertoire seems exciting to me, but how does this interact with a centuries-old art form?
How ballet companies are developing, what we’re choosing to leave behind and take with us is worth talking about. With more and more access at the audiences’ fingertips, what does “open up” mean to our industry right now? Who are we placing in the top positions so that the art form can thrive for many more World Ballet Days to come?
Pictured: The Royal Ballet during the 2018 World Ballet Day. Photographs by Andrej Uspenski.