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For the past five years, The Australian Ballet has devoted several illuminating programs to investigating its own history and the beginnings of professional ballet in Australia. Audiences went wild for the Ballets Russes when they visited our shores during the 1930s and ‘40s, but our colonial roots run even deeper and the Brits have had a similarly profound impact on Australia’s dance companies.
These ties are the subject of British Liaisons, a triple bill bringing together strongly contrasting productions across three generations – Checkmate, Concerto and After the Rain – under the auspices of the Union Jack.
The story begins after the Second World War, explains Nicolette Fraillon, music director and chief conductor of The Australian Ballet. “In the 1940s and 1950s, classical ballet took a great leap forward in this country. After the war the British government, concerned that we would become too Americanised, invested a lot of money into bringing British culture to Australia. One of the groups they brought out was London’s Rambert Dance Company, which introduced the Australian public to British ballet on a scale we hadn’t seen before.
“The next strong cultural wave to hit, and the direct postwar influence on ballet in Australia, was British. It was connections with those English dancers who stayed and repeatedly came back that led to the founding of the Australian Ballet in 1962, and those strands have really influenced the way we dance and the kind of repertoire we have in the company.”
Checkmate is an example of Russian and British dance elements intertwined. The classic production with music by English composer Arthur Bliss was created by Ninette de Valois, who Fraillon describes as “the grande dame of British ballet”. Born in Ireland, de Valois danced with Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes before she founded The Royal Ballet in London. It is she who brought Checkmate to Australia with one of our greatest dancers, Robert Helpmann, in the original cast for the 1937 premiere. “Through that passing on of tradition it became a favourite of the company and it stayed with us”, says Fraillon.
But it’s not an inherently patriotic example of British ballet; in fact, a sinister undertone creeps in as the dancers move across Checkmate’s chessboard. “It’s almost prescient in heralding war without actually knowing it was coming at the time it was created. It tells the story of a decaying monarchy, political systems at war with one another. You’re not sure at the end who really triumphed – it looks like the bad guys win out.”
For Fraillon, Bliss’ dramatic score steeped in the language of orchestral film music was a “fabulous discovery, full of those strong expressionist contrasts and emotional outbursts followed by more introspective moments.”
“When I first looked at the score of Checkmate there’s no way I could have envisioned the colour palettes and movements on stage, but the two were developed together – it was a real collaboration in terms of composer and choreographer."
A different approach then, from the other two works in British Liaisons which appropriate abstract music as the basis of a stage work. How does that affect what goes on in the pit?
“In the case of Kenneth MacMillan's Concerto (1966), which is danced to Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No 2, there are some very slow tempi compared to what Shostakovich originally wrote in the score and to what many other people give as concert performances. That can be quite challenging instinctively, but as a ballet conductor you really need to understand how to marry music with the action on stage.
“Just as no pianist would interpret the Shostakovich Piano Concerto the same way, no dancer interprets the steps the same way, so I have to be engaged in that process from early rehearsals in the studio”.
Anyone looking at the program of British Liaisons would be forgiven for thinking Arvo Pärt’s starkly contemporary, minimalist music would be the odd one out following lush orchestral scores by Bliss and Shostakovich. But Fraillon insists that After the Rain, the final work in the triptych set to Pärt’s Spiegel im Spiegel and Tabula rasa, fits in perfectly as a more intimate expression of the romantic of ballet.
“One of the things I love about ballet is that, if you’re a musician working in ballet, you cannot specialise in one period or style because there’s no such thing as ballet music. It can be anything; it can be John Cage, it can be Tchaikovsky, or Schoenberg. It’s the theatrical context and the storytelling, even in abstract ballet.”
Fraillon conducted After the Rain for the Australian premiere in 2007, with choreographer Chris Wheeldon overseeing rehearsals. “I have Chris’ words and desires musically as well as theatrically in my ears in re-approaching it, even though we have Jason Fowler out here staging it this time.
“The work has evolved over the last four years as it did the rounds internationally and that does have some musical consequences. Understanding and rethinking the piece in those terms is a fascinating process, but with Tabula rasa it’s like coming back to an old friend.”
Although the three works that form British Liaisons are vastly different musically, Fraillon feels they hang together well. “They would even work as an exciting concert program: different nationalities and different periods as a snapshot of 20th-century music, from 1930s Romantic expressionism to Russian neoclassicism and the contemporary, stripped-back gems by Pärt.”
But she won’t admit to a favourite ballet of the three. “I honestly don’t have one, because I’m so fascinated by the different periods in history and I always approach a work from its total political, cultural and artistic concept. I’m just fascinated by all of them!
“For its quirkiness and its representation of the period I love Checkmate. After the Rain I absolutely love; it’s one of the best pieces created in the last ten years and Chris Wheeldon is a landmark genius of choreography. Concerto is a spectacular piece of music and a great picture of the 1960s and what was happening politically. I see all of that on stage.
“In triple bills like this where we have really contrasting works there are always splits of opinion from the audiences as to which is there favourite and why, and I love hearing those discussions. It’s definitely a program designed to stimulate conversation about ballet and where it’s headed”.