In the foyer of Sydney’s Her Majesty’s Theatre on 2 November 1962 Peggy van Praagh told a journalist “It’s a terrifying night for us”. That night marked the birth of The Australian Ballet. After the photos and chats in the foyer van Praagh, the founding artistic director of the company, took her place in the stalls while the dancers in the wings were ready to step on the stage after Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake overture.
Her time as artistic director wasn’t easy. In 1963 there were already plans to close the company then reassemble after 18 months. Instead the company danced on and is now on the edge of its 60th year.
There may be celebrations to mark the 60th anniversary as there were in the 50th anniversary when the former artistic director, David McAllister, worked tirelessly to make it a great event. Late last year he decided to step down. His planned celebrations were cancelled because of Covid-19 that arrived in Australia when a man who had returned from Wuhan, Hubei, China, tested positive for the virus.
Both McAllister and David Hallberg, the new artistic director, faced the difficulties of Covid-19. These were the times of curtain up, curtain down, Zoom ballet classes and financial disaster. The Australian Ballet forfeited $32 million in ticket revenue in 2020 as it cancelled shows in 2020 and 2021. This year the company toured to Australian states when they could. Based in Melbourne in the state of Victoria, The Australian Ballet could only move to other states when they were able to open.
The Australian Ballet’s executive director, Libby Christie, said the cancelled performances resulted in a “very, very significant” box office impact of $4.1 million”.
Early this year Hallberg was able to stage a gala in Melbourne followed by two triple bills, New York Dialects and Counterpointe, at The Sydney Opera House.
The highlight of the 2020 repertoire was Anna Karenina, a co-production with the Joffrey Ballet. Anna K was moved from 2020 to 2021 then cancelled in Melbourne although the company was able to move to Adelaide, the capital city of South Australia, where it received positive reviews.
Now the company is promoting two more 2021 productions, Cranko’s Romeo and Juliet and Alexei Ratmansky’s revival of Petipa’s Harlequinade. Along with Anna K, both will be available on Live on Ballet TV. It’s a fluid situation, but it also looks like the ballets will be staged in Sydney later this year and in Melbourne next year.
Sydney’s been in lockdown for seven weeks and it looks like the lockdown will continue until the end of September or October.
Despite the struggles, The Australian Ballet found a way to keep the company front and centre in Australia and abroad, with the help of WildBear Entertainment, an Australian company that works across television and theatre.
Titled And We Danced, based on The Australian Ballet’s history became a commercial project funded by The Australian Broadcasting Corporation, (ABC), Australia’s national broadcaster. Recently screened in Australia the documentary is now on the way to other territories.
Four years in the making, the documentary is a mixture of archival footage and recent interviews with past and present artistic directors, choreographers and dancers.
WildBear already had a connection with their producer, Veronica Fury, having worked on Ella, a feature-length documentary that premiered at the Melbourne International Film Festival in 2016. The documentary was based on Ella Havelka, the first Indigenous dancer to be invited into The Australian Ballet in the company’s 50-year history. Veronica remembered how “we kept in touch with the ballet for years, talking about different projects off the back of Ella and the success (of the film) Ella”.
In June 2020 ABC launched ‘Fresh Start’, a $5 million development fund to support Australian producers, creatives and musicians amid the shutdown of the production industry. The fund received about 4,000 applications and one of them was WildBear’s.
After a meeting with Robyn Fincham, the Australian Ballet’s producer of Recording and Broadcast, Veronica and WildBear’s CEO, Michael Tear, began to work on a new documentary.
The first decision was all about the narrative. Andy Southwell, a WildBear a director, said “I didn’t know anything about ballet. My naivety was an asset. One of the main goals of And We Danced was to tell the story that not only a balletomane would understand but in a way that every Australian would understand”.
WildBear first filmed interviews of The Australian Ballet’s artistic directors, choreographers and dancers but ultimately, they had to dig deeply into the archives at The Australian Ballet and footage helded at NFSA (National Film and Sound Archive of Australia).
And We Danced is a three-episode documentary with the first episode covering the company from 1962 to 1979. Those were the days when Peggy van Praagh was the sole artistic director of The Australian Ballet and was then joined by Robert Helpmann as a co-artistic director.
Many dancers, previously in the Borovansky Ballet, were surprised when Van Praagh spoke in the accent of a BBC announcer while Helpmann, born in Australia who lived in the UK for many years, found his place when he said “the stages and the people (overseas) knew me”. As well he claimed he would be “a great help” for Rudolf Nureyev who was rehearsing The Australian Ballet dancers before their five-month grand tour.
The footage of those days shows Australian Ballet dancers smoking cigarettes in the studios while Helpmann, a heavy smoker, dangled his cigarettes with his fingers.
Born in New Zealand I didn’t know the history of The Australian Ballet in the 1960s and early 1970s. Moving to Australia in the 90s I followed The Australian Ballet as a journalist and dance critic. The second episode of And We Danced (1980-1999) brought back many memories among them the switch of artistic directors, from Maina Gielgud to Ross Stretton, the success of Graeme Murphy’s new Nutcracker, The Story of Clara and many chats with Colin Peasley, an Australian Ballet dancer, a teacher and exceptional raconteur.
The third episode (2000-2020) covers the exit of Ross Stretton and the start of David McAllister’s years. After four years as artistic director at The Australian Ballet Stretton’s tenure at the Royal Ballet was a struggle against numerous forces until he walked out of a board meeting at the theatre in Covent Garden. Asked whether he was sorry he ever took the job, Stretton replied: “No, no, I loved it’’.
McAllister’s success as The Australian Ballet’s artistic director began with his first commission, Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake. Set in an Edwardian court Odette marries a prince although he is still in love with his mistress. Murphy’s love triangle story was another success as it travelled the world.
The last And We Danced episode covers the collaboration of The Australian Ballet and Bangarra Dance Theatre, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander dance company led by the artistic director, Stephen Page. From there on the documentary is focused on a “new face of the Australian Ballet”.
The documentary’s coda shows footage of David McAllister talking to the dancers who said goodbye and later the arrival of David Hallberg who said he “loved the Australian culture” and described the time he spent at The Australian Ballet’s medical team when he was recovering from a tear in his deltoid ligament.
And the future? The Australian Ballet has danced for almost 60 years. Despite our recent years of uncertainty, we can only look forward to continue how well we dance.