While producers and heads of arts organisations in Victoria and New South Wales bite their nails as they continue to postpone live performances due to a second wave of coronavirus infections, things are looking very different in Western Australia. There, performing arts companies are gradually returning to the stage thanks to the easing of restrictions due to the lack of community transmission.

The West Australian Symphony Orchestra has announced a Remixed 2020 program, opening on October 2. Meanwhile, West Australian Ballet is to perform a fully staged production of Dracula at His Majesty’s Theatre in September – its first major production since COVID-19 closed theatre doors. Prior to that, it will present Genesis LIVE, a season of short works by WA dancers, at the West Australian Ballet Centre from July 30. At the end of the year, in traditional, festive fashion, it plans to perform The Nutcracker at His Majesty’s.

Aurélien Scannella and Matthew Lehmann as Old and Young Dracula. Photograph © Frances Andrijich

Not that WA Ballet’s Artistic Director Aurélien Scannella is taking anything for granted. “So far, so good,” he says. “The WA State Government has taken some drastic decisions in the early stage, in February/March, so thanks to that we are now quite good. So we will see how long it will hold.”

Scannella says that the chance to perform live again is “a ball of oxygen for us, for our dancers and for the public. People were just dying [of boredom] at home and waiting to be able to get out and come to the performances.”

During the lockdown when restrictions were lifted from phase 1 to phase 2 and then to phase 3 on June 6, dancers were allowed to come into the studios, but only in very small numbers initially. So Scannella created a project for them to create a pas de deux or solo.

“We were first allowed to have only two dancers at a time in the studio and during that period we gave them a task which was creating a duo. If they were a couple in life they could work on a pas de deux and they were able to physically touch each other. If not, they were creating two solos that would make a duet but without physical touching,” he says.

“The dancers have been incredibly creative so as soon as we knew we were going to be able to perform in front of a real public from June 17, we decided to perform their creations in front of the public. We called it CoVid Lab and it has been extremely successful. It was great really. It was also important to build the public’s confidence and that was a good way to do that.”

During phase 3 the company was allowed to perform to an audience of 48 in its large studio. There was such demand for tickets that extra shows were added. When phase 4 was introduced on June 27 – the final performance of CoVid Lab – they were allowed to increase the audience to 120.

“We called all the people who bought a ticket, we told them ‘look, on Saturday phase 4 starts so we are allowed to have more people in the audience, are you fine with it? If not, we are able to refund your ticket.’ Nobody complained, nobody asked for a refund, everybody came. It was a very positive season for us,” says Scannella.

Genesis LIVE will be presented at the West Australian Ballet Centre from July 30 to August 8. During the lockdown, Genesis 2020 – an annual program offering a showcase for emerging choreographers among WA Ballet’s dancers – was presented online instead of on stage and proved extremely successful.

Ludovico Di Ubaldo in Uncommon, choreographed by Matej Perunicic for Genesis 2020. Photograph courtesy of WA Ballet

“It is probably the first time we went so far with our digital platform. It was also a way for us to keep connected with our donors, with our public, even with some of our sponsors, it was a great way to stay connected so they could still have virtual access to our beautiful artform and to our dancers,” says Scannella.

He admits he wondered at first whether people would subsequently come to the live performances, but he need not have worried. “Ticket sales are really good. At first I was thinking maybe people have seen it on the Internet, maybe they won’t be interested to come, but actually they have seen it and now they want to see it live,” he says.

The first big production, however, is Dracula to be performed at His Majesty’s Theatre with the West Australian Symphony Orchestra in September. Based on Bram Stoker’s classic gothic tale, the neo-classical, full-length ballet was created by Polish choreographer Krzysztof Pastor to a dramatic score by Wojciech Kilar. A co-production between WA Ballet and Queensland Ballet, the ballet was premiered by WA Ballet in 2018 and proved a big hit with Perth audiences. Scannella had already programmed a revival as part of the 2020 season before COVID-19 hit, and feels confident that it is the right ballet to be staging in the wake of the pandemic.

Phase 5, which will see the removal of remaining restrictions including the two square metre rule and the 50 percent capacity at major venues, has been pushed back from July 18 to August 1. But Scannella says that Dracula will go ahead even if phase 4 remains in place.

“His Majesty’s has 1200 seats. We won’t be able to sell 1200 seats [under phase 4] but it will be enough for us to go ahead with the production. And I think we really need to move forward with it because, as I said, people here are really looking forward to being entertained and to get back out to a normal life. When we were still in lockdown, I thought ‘we need to find a way to come back to live performing’. We couldn’t go from nothing to Dracula in September, we had to work on increasing the public’s confidence to come back so that’s why we had the CoVid Lab and that’s why we will do Genesis, which will have a bit more audience. And then we will go into Dracula. And I think after the situation we’ve been in here in WA, the best way to go back to a big show is probably Dracula because it has been so successful two years ago and it’s such a beautiful ballet. People are still talking about it two years later so I thought it was really the best way to get back into His Majesty’s.”

As for the 2021 season, Scannella says that they will probably have to announce it in November rather than in October as usual. “Of course my 2021 program went through I don’t know how many changes,” he says. “It has just been finalised now, but I still need to get the Board’s approval. Then we will go through the usual process of creating a brochure and that takes time.” Given the difficulty of bringing people in from overseas because of the pandemic, Scannella says that he has not included any international artists in his 2021 program until October, hoping that by then the situation will have improved and it will be easier to fly people in.

Melissa Boniface as Lucy Westenra and Aurélien Scannella as Old Dracula in the 2018 WA Ballet production of Dracula. Photograph © Jon Green

Queensland Ballet, which is a co-producer of Dracula with WA Ballet, had originally scheduled the ballet for May this year but has postponed it to 2021.

In May, Artistic Director Li Cunxin announced that QB had decided to move the rest of its 2020 season to 2021. The company’s Crisis Management Response Team had established a safe step-by-step return of ballet activities, he said. The document, entitled Queensland Ballet’s Return to Magic Framework outlines how the reintroduction of activity will occur. It is unfeasible, believes the company, to recommence mainstage performances before 2021.

In March, QB created a pandemic crisis response team. Felicity Mandile is QB’s Senior Pandemic Officer with oversight of the company’s activities, including the planned return to the stage in 2021.

“It has been a difficult decision, and definitely not made lightly, but we have listened to our patrons, we have heard them express their wish that they still want to see the ballets that they had thought they were going to see in 2020 and they are happy to see them in 2021,” says Mandile.

“Essentially it was economic modelling that led to our decision-making. Considering the potential social distancing restrictions, a return to the stage just would be extremely costly and potentially detrimental in the long run to our company. It’s absolutely not feasible [to make money when the audience is socially distanced].”

Postponing a season is devastating. What made it even sadder for QB was the fact that 2020 was its 60th birthday. “2020 was meant to be a mammoth year for us. We were celebrating our 60th anniversary, we were honouring our founders’ legacies – all of the artistic directors who have been leading the company throughout that time. However, we are proud to be able to shift the season to 2021,” says Mandile.

Given the changing climate for the arts world in the wake of COVID-19, QB is forecasting a 30 percent to 40 percent downturn in attendance for the start of 2021. “That is modelling based on what we are hearing, based on the Government and economic insight. Due to the unprecedented financial impact we have experienced, we are indeed forecasting a 30 to 40 percent downturn in attendance at least for the first quarter of 2021,” says Mandile.

Neneka Yoshida in After Glow of a Nocturne for Queensland Ballet’s 60 dancers: 60 stories

When theatres were closed  in March due to COVID-19, QB quickly launched its digital Keep the Magic Alive campaign as a way to maintain a connection with audiences and the Queensland community. As part of that it has released 60 dancers: 60 stories – a series of short ballets receiving their world premiere online.

Keep the Magic Alive also has a portal for people to make donations and the company announced in June that it had reached its $1 million donation goal. The donation campaign will remain open.

“Queensland Ballet has been very ready to respond post COVID-19. Our Return to Magic Framework sings to our intentions to get our business back in our buildings, to get our audiences back into theatres, and to keep doing what we do best with our communities and across communities with our friends in the arts. We are optimistic because we have put plans in place. The Return to Magic Framework was submitted to Queensland Health and it closely follows what we are seeing going on in the sports arena so we know there’s a precedent there. We know that there is light at the end of the tunnel and we are positioning ourselves ready to resume and ready to reactivate so that we are on the front foot, and so that that front foot is sustainable well into the future,” says Mandile.

The Australian Ballet has so far had to cancel seasons of Volt (featuring Wayne McGregor’s Chroma and Dyad 1929, and Alice Topp’s new ballet Logos) in Melbourne and Sydney; Yuri Possokhov’s ballet Anna Karenina, based on Leo Tolstoy’s novel, in Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide; Molto (featuring Frederick Ashton’s 1976 ballet A Month in the Country, Tim Harbour’s Squander and Glory and Stephen Baynes’ Molto Vivace) in Melbourne; Graeme Murphy’s new ballet The Happy Prince in Melbourne; and Alexei Ratmansky’s reconstruction of Petipa’s 1900 ballet Harlequinade (a co-production with American Ballet Theatre) in Melbourne.

It has, of course, introduced a digital program, but the company is yet to announce whether or not it will perform live this year. The current increase in coronavirus cases in Victoria will doubtless have put any immediate plans into jeopardy. Whether the Sydney seasons of Molto in November and The Happy Prince in November/December go ahead remains to be seen.

David McAllister, TAB’s Artistic Director, told Limelight: “We are delighted for our friends at WA Ballet, we wish them the most magical return to the stage. As we are dealing with an ever-evolving COVID situation around the country, unfortunately we can’t confirm when The Australian Ballet will be returning to the stage. We would love to perform this year and we are working on several scenarios and we will investigate all options. But at this stage it’s just too early to tell.”

WA Ballet will perform Genesis LIVE at the West Australian Ballet Centre, July 30 – August 8, and Dracula at His Majesty’s Theatre, Perth, September 11 – 26