As the saying goes, when life gives you lemons, make lemonade. David Hallberg has taken up the challenge.
In Hallberg’s first year as Artistic director – and in David McAllister’s last year in the job – The Australian Ballet’s path has been strewn with disappointments as the COVID-19 pandemic has surged, waned and surged again, causing the heartbreaking cancellation of many performances. But Hallberg is not one to retreat in the face of adversity. He has announced an exciting new addition to the Australian dance calendar, a short, sharp festival called DanceX that will take place at Arts Centre Melbourne in late September and early October.
Hallberg started thinking about the project last year in September or October when he was still in New York, preparing to move to Australia. The pandemic had closed theatres and “dancers were in their lounge rooms”. Hallberg hit the phones.
The Australian Ballet will be joined for DanceX by seven other leading Australian dance companies – Australian Dance Theatre, Bangarra Dance Theatre, Chunky Move, Lucy Guerin Inc, Queensland Ballet, Sydney Dance Company and West Australian Ballet. TAB will perform twice; the others will be seen once in either Program One or Program Two. “I want to spread the love and highlight companies and other artists that are doing great things,” Hallberg tells Limelight.
He agrees that in normal circumstances a venture such as this would be like herding kittens, but these are not usual times and companies were able to make themselves available. “Everyone was enthusiastic to get together. It’s so rare, anywhere.”
In an open-hearted gesture, TAB has commissioned new works from Melbourne contemporary companies Chunky Move and Lucy Guerin Inc. TAB will bring a third Australian premiere to the mix with I New Then by Swedish choreographer Johan Inger. It is described as a “comic, romantic dance theatre piece” performed to songs by Van Morrison.
The other companies will perform existing repertoire by choreographers Stephen Page, Bernadette Walong-Sene, Greg Horsman, Natalie Weir, Rafael Bonachela and Garry Stewart, who this year leaves ADT after 22 years as its Artistic Director.
The Chunky Move and Lucy Guerin Inc commissions ‘’came from sheer desire on my part to have both involved. I didn’t just want the big ballet companies. I wanted diversity in programming and inclusivity,” Hallberg says. Chunky Move’s Artistic Director Antony Hamilton didn’t have a work suitable for staging in Arts Centre Melbourne but Hallberg was undeterred. In what he calls a bit of “blue-sky thinking” he asked Hamilton would it change things if Hallberg were able to secure funding for a new piece. It would. The same went for Guerin.
TAB will be seen in a different light with I New Then, which is stylistically unlike anything the dancers of the company have previously performed and includes spoken word. “We’re starting to take the audience on a different kind of ride,” Hallberg says. “There’s such a hunger within the dancers to do work like this and it isn’t the last time we’ll approach work like this.” Hallberg stresses that TAB is not abandoning the classics but adding to the mix. “We need to be much like Paris Opera Ballet – a really diverse company in terms of repertoire.”
Queensland Ballet’s Artistic Director Li Cunxin says he was determined to make QB’s participation in DanceX work, even though the company’s Bespoke program of new choreography opens only a week or so after the festival. Fortunately QB is now of a size that enables it to cope with working in two directions at the same time. “It’s such a fantastic initiative,” says Li. He chose Greg Horsman’s Glass Concerto for several reasons. He was keen to present an Australian choreographer and felt Glass Concerto would showcase classical style in a program (Program One) that also features Bangarra, SDC, Lucy Guerin Inc and TAB.
In a statement, WAB’s Artistic Director Aurélien Scannella said: “It’s exciting to see the Australian dance industry unite and celebrate our strength, creativity and diversity. DanceX will reinforce the importance of the arts and the need for further investment in our critical sector.”
Sydney Dance Company’s Rafael Bonachela makes a similar point. “Culture and the arts underpin society and humanity and enrich our souls. After what we have been through this past 18 months, and the profound impact it has had, I hope it makes us realise the value of the arts. Artists are the ones who imagine a different and a better world. We bring people together. But we have to keep justifying what we do. Really?”
He is “absolutely thrilled and excited” that SDC can take part in DanceX, and not just because the companies get to perform together. “It’s wonderful that new work is being created and I’m so happy for Melbourne to have this. They have suffered enough!”
Hallberg would like to see DanceX continue after this year in some form. “It might take different iterations but I think the DanceX umbrella is going to be an arm of The Australian Ballet. It’s not always just about The Australian Ballet. It’s about presenting dance, collaborating with other art forms and giving audience members a really robust experience – by which I mean not only what we do, but what other people are doing really well.”
DanceX will take place at Arts Centre Melbourne, with Program One running 24–27 September, and Program Two, 30 September 30 – 2 October