A building that flies

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Photo by Chris Wardle.
Photo by Chris Wardle.

Matthew Lawrence takes us on a personal tour of the Qld Ballet’s new state-of-the-art home.

"This building will be here when I and my sons have long passed away, as a monument of pluck and indomitable perseverance.” (Thomas Dixon)

What once started as a “minor renovation”, led by Queensland Ballet’s Artistic Director Li Cunxin, has ballooned to a $100 million plus reimagining of QB’s old home: the Thomas Dixon Centre (TDC). Against a backdrop of COVID, El Niño, significant delays, rampant inflation and rising costs, QB’s new home was finally completed in July last year. It is a spectacular new arts hub for Brisbane. After getting the insider’s titbits from QB’s precincts manager, Julia Urbanska, let me take you on a behind-the-scenes tour.

One hundred and fourteen years ago – if your maths is good, that’s 1908 – Yorkshire immigrant Thomas Dixon relocated his boot tannery, after fire and floods had shifted him around various West End locations, to its present Drake Street location. Today, walking down adjoining Montague Street, you will be struck by a lovely example of Georgian revival architecture. Unusually, for warehouses of this period, it has an open-lit space with large sash windows, patterned red bricks, and impressive ceilinged king trusses; clearly Dixon looked after his employees well.

As a heritage-listed site, all elements of the original building had to be painstakingly restored. Urbanska shared with me that the existing bricks were cleaned and reused, with even historic graffiti – one from a World War 2 veteran – preserved.  Because of the uncompromising details of the build by the architect firm, Conrad Gargett, the complementary internal timbers were sourced from several sawmills throughout Queensland and New South Wales. 

Photo by Chris Wardle.
Photo by Chris Wardle.

Another world class feature of the build is WELL: a new international, research-led building measure for employee well-being. According to Urbanska, the new TDC features the latest in wellness initiatives: green spaces utilising recycled water, filtered air that is cleaner than outdoors, lighting designed to match the body’s circadian rhythms, and a state-of-the-art rehabilitation centre – with plunge pool, gym/Pilates space and multiple consultation rooms (an inviting environment that is hard to leave!).

Upon entering the building through large glass doors, you will be impressed by the expansive, light-filled foyer. Overhead, the old building is cleverly linked to the new extension via a glass skylight. Urbanska noted that this design feature was inspired by a 2018 episode of well-liked TV show, Grand Designs. At the entrance is the community dance studio – one of six dance studios – which hosts various dance programs, from Dance for Parkinson’s to Petit Pointers for tiny tots. Accessibility – such as a level entry way, ground-floor café and disabled amenities – have been tailored to meet needs.

Walking on, what will strike you next are large windows displaying tutus with costumiers busily stitching for the next production deadline. It is a sneak peek into the inner sanctum, and an introduction to, as Urbanska put it: “Uncovering the mysteries of ballet and showcasing the hard work of the many behind-the-scenes”. After all, ballet is traditionally a little like Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory – without the Oompa Loompas, or chocolate – with its enigmatic processes.

Further along the ground floor is a chic champagne bar and the entrance to the jewel in the TDC’s crown, the Talbot Theatre. Once upon a time, the Theatre’s present site was a narrow carpark. Now, miraculously defying the natural laws of space – like Doctor Who’s Tardis – there sits a 350-seat auditorium with a stage wider than Queensland Performing Arts Centre’s Lyric theatre. You would be most impressed viewing the stage from the lofty 22-seat viewing gallery, which plays host to board and corporate events. From that elevated viewpoint, my attention is drawn above to an industrial “catwalk” used by technical production for access to the lighting rigs. Far below in the auditorium there is a good view of local indigenous artist Judy Watson’s carpet, inspired by Queensland’s natural environment – casuarina branches and bunya leaves wrapped around a tutu’s tulle.

Now heading up the cleverly designed staircase – with its angles and gold embellishments – to the first floor, we enter the heartbeat of operations. Along an open floating causeway are five light dance studios, named after the company’s five directors, from Charles Lisner to Cunxin. The studios and first floor facilities house 60 company dancers and a large cohort of pre-professional academy students. A private greenroom space, kitchen, outside balcony and dressing-rooms with theatre-styled make-up desks make a comfortable retreat for the dancers. 

Photo by Chris Wardle.
Photo by Chris Wardle.

Circling up the stairs on the second floor is my home, the Artistic Suite (I am the messy desk in the corner), which overlooks the Cunxin studio. A feature of the space is a dedicated soundproof music studio (which is helpful if anyone needs to scream).

And now the “wow” moment. Up past the third floor, which is dedicated to QB’s costume archives, the fourth floor leads to a trendy bar and open terrace with unobstructed city views – perfect for the Riverfire festival.  It has been named the Kite terrace – inspired by Cunxin’s childhood of making and flying kites with his dad. Attached to their tails were written messages sharing his hopes and dreams to the clouds.

Buildings are more than just bricks and mortar. As philosopher Alain de Botton puts it in his book, The Architecture of Happiness: “We depend on our surroundings obliquely to embody the moods and ideas we respect”. Enabled by a community of supporters and the state and federal governments, the new TDC is a building which embodies, for me, ideals of beauty, ambition, passion, respect and financial security. It is a building that flies with Cunxin’s vision for QB’s continued success: to infinity and beyond! 

Tours of the Thomas Dixon Centre are held once a month, hosted by Julia Urbanska. The promo code for the dance community is TDCOffer, which will reduce the price to $15pp. Go to: https://www.thomasdixoncentre.com.au/whats-on-events/guided-building-tours/For private tours for groups up to 20 people, best to inquire at hello@thomasdixoncentre.com.au.

Matthew Lawrence is a former principlal artist with the Australian Ballet, Birmingham Ballet and the Queensland Ballet. He is currently Ballet Master at the Queensland Ballet.

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