In September last year, under the Artistic Directorship of Aurélien Scannella, the West Australian Ballet returned to His Majesty’s Theatre in Perth to perform Dracula. The multi-award-winning ballet by choreographer and Artistic Director of the Polish National Ballet, Krzysztof Pastor, was one of the first mainstage ballets to be performed anywhere in the world. In Warsaw, Pastor’s own ensemble returned to the stage of the Grand Theatre with Le Corsaire. Since then, a resurgence in the number of cases of COVID-19 across Europe has forced the closure of theatres again. As they look beyond this latest disruption, Jansson J. Antmann talks to Scannella, Pastor and Lisa Pavane, Australian Ballet School Director and former prima ballerina, about the impact on the ballet world.

Aurélien Scannella as Old Dracula with Matthew Edwardson and Oliver Edwardson as Phantom Butlers in rehearsals for West Australian Ballet’s Dracula Photo © Scott Dennis 

Prior to the lockdown, the West Australian Ballet had been enjoying unprecedented economic and creative success. Its performances during the annual Ballet at the Quarry in February 2020, which included Pastor’s In Light and Shadow took place as dark clouds gathered over the horizon. Within a month, a pandemic had been declared.

“I remember telling everyone it was our last day,” says Aurélien Scannella. “It was heart-breaking. The size of the company allows us to maintain a close relationship with each other and it’s the only family many of our dancers have. From one day to the next that disappeared.”

Together with his wife Sandy Delasalle, Principal Rehearsal Director and Artistic Associate at West Australian Ballet, Scannella worked hard to safeguard the continuation of daily class, which not only maintains the dancers’ fitness levels, but also engenders camaraderie across the ensemble.

“From the day they go to ballet school, dancers attend class for one and a half hours every day,” Scannella explains. “We knew we had to maintain their daily routine. Every day at 10am we conducted class via Zoom. It only comprised barre warm-up and stretching, because I didn’t want them jumping around the kitchen or on concrete, as we saw a lot of people doing on the internet during lockdown. We found different ways to keep them in shape, such as Pilates, yoga and conditioning classes.”

The social component of life in a ballet company was as important as maintaining the dancers’ physical condition. “We were in constant contact. We met online every day and organised social catch-ups via Zoom, including board-game evenings. Luckily for us, the lockdown really only lasted two weeks,” says Scannella.

As soon as Phase 2 restrictions came into effect, he and Delasalle started to examine the strict guidelines more closely. “We realised that, with the approval of our Chairperson and the Board, we could have two dancers in each of our four studios for one hour every morning. In the afternoon, we did the same thing. As a result, we had 16 dancers in the building every day having a full ballet class, which we taught from home. The pianist also worked remotely.”

Mayume Noguromi and Keigo Muto in Robert Bruist’s Polarity, performed live as part of Genesis for West Australian Ballet in August 2020.  Photo © Frances Andrijich

Apart from daily class, Scannella also wanted the dancers to channel their creative energies into the development of a new dance piece as part of a project titled CoVid Lab.

“It didn’t have to be related to COVID. The main goal was for the dancers to create something. We coordinated the dance pairs, so that if they lived together they could dance together. If they didn’t, they could create two solos, which they danced together. We made sure that one of the dancers in each pair had a car and could pick the other one up on the way to work. The use of public transport was not allowed. If you came to work, you had to walk, drive or come by bike,” says Scannella.

“Phase 3 restrictions came into effect very quickly and we were then able to go from two dancers up to 10 in the large studio, six dancers in Studio 2, four in Studio 3, and so on. During phase 3 we could also come back to teach in person and the full company could have class and rehearse.”

“We’ve been performing since June and all of our CoVid Lab performances were packed. We can normally have up to 170 audience members in our large studio, but for CoVid Lab we only had 45. Masks were made available and we provided hand sanitiser, disinfected the door handles and balustrades, and conducted temperature checks. Our audiences felt comfortable and we had to add extra performances, because demand was so high.”

As the situation in Western Australia improved, Scannella was able to accommodate more and more people at the ballet centre.

“Our last performance of CoVid Lab was held on the same day phase 4 restrictions came into effect and we could have up to 130 people in the audience. Before we did that however, we called the original 45 ticket holders and told them what was happening. We offered to refund their money if they didn’t feel comfortable with the increased capacity, but nobody complained, and we were sold out. Our audiences clearly wanted to come and be entertained.”

In September last year, the West Australian Ballet finally returned to His Majesty’s Theatre to perform Krzysztof Pastor’s Dracula, created for the company in 2018. As they were only permitted to sell 400 of the theatre’s 1200 seats, it sold out quickly with a waiting list for each performance.

“We love Dracula,” says Scannella. “The level of emotion we have when we dance this work is unbelievable and, knowing it was to be our first opening night since February, we just couldn’t wait. When we were told we would have to restrict audience numbers, I thought that perhaps it was a missed financial opportunity. We discussed it with the Board, because we knew the potential of Dracula. When it premiered in 2018, it was completely sold out and we sold one million dollars in tickets for two weeks of performances. However, I could see that Dracula was the best production to come back with after lockdown, because people were still talking about it two years later. It was something they really wanted to see, so they’d be more inclined to come back to the theatre without any sense fear or stress. We were also very fortunate, because Lottery West generously covered the losses we made as a result of the unsold tickets.”

Aurélien Scannella as Old Dracula with Phantom Butlers Matthew Edwardson and Oliver Edwardson in Dracula for West Australian Ballet. Photo © Jon Green

With the West Australian Ballet successfully back on stage, Scannella is convinced that the measures taken not only kept the dancers creatively engaged and in good physical shape, but also helped their emotional wellbeing. This was incredibly important, given how many dancers’ families resided in parts of the world hit hard by the pandemic.

“In April, May and June they were fine, because we got back together fairly quickly, and they were creatively engaged in CoVid Lab. Things were actually more difficult in July, when they had to go on annual leave. Some didn’t want to go on holiday, since they’d been in lockdown, but it’s the law. It was especially difficult for our dancers from overseas, who would normally have gone back home to see their families during the holidays,” he says.

A further concern was ensuring that all the dancers were paid in the absence of box-office revenue.

“Some of our dancers were on JobKeeper for three months, but the dancers on working visas didn’t qualify. Our salaries total half a million dollars every month. Without revenue it was tough, but I was not prepared to sacrifice any of our dancers. They’re the ones working their butts off every day of the year and it would have been unfair. Fortunately, 2019 was very successful in terms of box office takings and we had a good cash reserve. Therefore, we were able to pay our full- and part-time employees throughout the lockdown.”

Back in Warsaw, Krzysztof Pastor’s own company, was feeling the financial impact of the pandemic very differently.

“We are a national institution,” Pastor says. “We are very fortunate that our salaries and building maintenance costs are funded through the Ministry of Culture. That said, we do still miss the revenue from ticket sales. We may not depend on it the way other companies do, but it’s having a negative impact on our discretionary programming like pre-performance lectures, our new productions, freelance choreographic projects, and on anyone who relies on commissions.”

Krzysztof Pastor. Photograph © Łukasz Murgrabia

For Pastor, a return to live performances is vital. “Between March and September 2020, we didn’t work, but we were paid,” he explains. “Fortunately, we’ve been able to perform and start generating revenue since then. Manuel Legris’ Viennese staging of Le Corsaire was supposed to be performed in March and had to be postponed until September. We could only sell 860 seats in the auditorium, which accounts for 50 percent of our total capacity. Of that, we sold about 85 percent. I think people were either worried about the health risks, or that the performances might be cancelled.”

Which is exactly what happened when John Neumeier’s La Dame aux Camélias was cancelled in October, after some dancers in the company tested positive for COVID-19. In November, the Polish government forced the closure of theatres again, resulting in the cancellation of both The Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker.

“The cancellations have been very painful for us and for our audiences, but this is happening everywhere you look, and wherever theatres resumed performances after the first wave of the pandemic. Our knowledge about this virus is much greater now than it was in spring, and we are all learning to live with it,” says Pastor.

“Of course, we are worried about the worsening situation in Poland and across Europe, but so far, we’ve been able to return to work. Fortunately, the dancers who contracted the virus last year had minor symptoms and they’re also back. We have several classes daily and we were able to present our New Year’s Gala, which was streamed live without an audience in the theatre. We are trying to stay optimistic and maintain our positive energy, but we are also aware that this situation is likely to last until next summer.”

As part of a global industry, Scannella and Pastor are in constant contact with their peers. The different approaches by governments around the world toward the pandemic, have resulted in many artistic directors being left to their own devices. However, one initiative has helped them navigate the crisis.

Scannella explains, “As soon as it became a global pandemic, the Artistic Director of the Dutch National Ballet, Ted Brandsen, set up a group chat with anybody wanting to take part. We ended up with about 200 Artistic Directors from all around the world. It was a great platform for sharing information and gathering ideas that might work for us.”

The forum provided the opportunity for benchmarking and many companies looked to Scannella for guidance.

Aurélien Scannella. Photo by Frances Andrijich

“Once companies were allowed back into their studios, artistic directors started sending me a lot of requests, because we were the only ones performing live,” Scannella says. “One day we had a Zoom meeting with most of the Artistic Directors and Executive Directors in the Australian arts industry and they asked us how we’d managed it. Some companies adopted our approach of initially having two dancers, before working their way back up as we had. I still get emails from Artistic Directors around the country asking for feedback and tips. I have to warn them against comparing themselves to Western Australia, because it’s been easier for us.”

The impact of the pandemic stretches beyond the companies themselves and threatens to disrupt many aspiring dancers’ careers before they’ve even begun. In a world of year-long contracts, the annual audition process usually results in a steady international flow of talent. As dancers leave one company, others arrive, and openings are also created for graduates from the ballet academies. The pandemic has seen this process grind to a halt and Scannella acknowledges that last year’s graduates will find it hard to get work.

“They haven’t been able to train properly for months. And even if they were ready to enter the market, they can’t travel anywhere. I think one or two generations of young talent will suffer. Expanding our young artists’ program would enable graduates to join us for a year. However, that would require extra funding, and everybody is knocking on the Government’s door at the moment”.

“It’s a huge issue,” Scannella adds. “Just look at the Queensland Ballet. It has its pre-professional program and academy, but what are they going to do with their students? They can’t keep them forever and they can’t send them anywhere either. The Australian Ballet School is in the same boat.”

In previous years, on average 90 percent of graduates from the Australian Ballet School in Melbourne have landed a contract within half a year. In 2020, none of the Level 8 graduate year students were able to perform during the lockdown and graduations that normally take place in December had to be postponed.

“While last year was unlike any other, we remain committed to nurturing our students and supporting them to step into their professional careers,” says Director of The Australian Ballet School and former Prima Ballerina, Lisa Pavane. “We have worked hard to respond to the unique challenges for our graduating students and developed a Post Graduate Year program that will be offered for the first time in 2021. This will provide our Level 8 Class of 2020 with ongoing training and performance opportunities as well as access to our health & wellbeing team.”

Lisa Pavane. Photograph © Lynette Wills

The program will be flexible enough to allow participants to take up short-term contracts or travel to take part in auditions once travel restrictions are eased. Finding gainful employment is critical to ease the additional financial burden placed on students, and fortunately the school’s philanthropic program can provide scholarships and bursaries, which should offer relief to students in financial hardship.

In Warsaw, Krzysztof Pastor also had to cancel annual auditions. “We were all tested for COVID-19, so we can’t have people coming to audition from outside the company,” he says. “I also decided not to let any dancers go last year. It would be too difficult for them to find work at the moment. Some dancers chose to leave for personal reasons and to retire. One dancer even got a job in Germany and another went to Helsinki. As a result of these openings, I was able to hire four graduates from the Polish National Ballet school.”

In spite of the challenges facing the industry and the inevitable bottleneck that graduate dancers will face as they try to find work, Scannella is still convinced that a career in dance is worth pursuing.

“I always believe that no matter how difficult things get, you have to keep in mind that it’s only temporary and what you are fighting for is your purpose in life. If it’s your passion and the only thing that matters to you, nothing can stop you from doing what you love. It’s not a question of doing ballet; you are a ballet dancer.”

Scannella adds, “I believe the Arts can save lives. They saved mine. I was very badly injured in a car accident as a child. After three months in hospital, my mother was told that ballet would help me recover faster. That’s how I became a dancer. There’s no life without the Arts.”

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