Whether hosting international guest dancers or sending dancers to perform with companies overseas, the exchange of dancers can bring huge benefits to individual artists, companies and audiences, writes Nina Levy.
AS a dance journalist based in Perth, one of the world’s most isolated major cities, I’m well aware of the challenges that distance imposes on the Australian dance sector. Just getting to the national office of Dance Australia’s publisher, Yaffa Media, involves a four-hour flight and a two-to-three hour time change.
But if we’re talking geographic challenges, Australia’s are two-fold. In addition to the fact that our population is concentrated into relatively few urban centres, with massive distances between many capital cities and states, we’re also famously distant from other countries and continents.
For Australian dance companies that means touring, whether within Australia or to other countries, is a costly venture. In fact – long haul international flights aside – it could, perhaps, be argued that touring internationally is a more feasible option than touring regionally at home, simply because other countries offer much denser populations and much shorter distances between towns and cities.
Similarly, the costs involved in international companies touring Australia are significant. Consequently, in comparison to punters living in Asia, Europe and the US, Australian audiences have fewer opportunities to experience international artists. And dancers in Australian companies have fewer opportunities to experience dancing for new audiences.
International arts festivals – such as Adelaide Festival, Asia TOPA, Melbourne International Arts Festival, Perth Festival, OzAsia Festival, Sydney Festival – help bridge this gap.
But what about our companies?
Hosting guest artists and sending dancers to other countries to be guest artists is a tradition around the world, but it’s of particular significance in Australia, where it gives both dancers and companies an opportunity for cultural exchange.
There are multiple benefits to such exchanges, for both dancers and audiences, says Queensland Ballet (QB) Artistic Director Li Cunxin, whose company has hosted a plethora of acclaimed international guests, including Tamara Rojo, Carlos Acosta, Steven McRae and Alina Cojocaru. On the flipside, QB dancers have guested with companies such as Shanghai Ballet, Texas Ballet Theatre and Germany’s Ballet Dortmund.
“It’s inspiration for our dancers, not just how [the guests] perform, but how they work in the studio: the approach, the attention to details, how they interpret roles, music, how they relate to other dancers on stage. All of these things made them megastars,” observes Cunxin. “Carlos Acosta, Tamara Rojo, Steven McRae, Alina Cojocaru – they are really special artists because there’s so much . . . not only natural talent, but also so many experiences.
“Dancers are such visual artists, so to have someone right in front of them, working alongside them, they can learn so quickly from that, rather than me [as artistic director] telling them something. When you see someone doing something in a different way, or a more beautiful way… it is very inspiring.”
That inspiration has lifted the company as a whole, he observes. “It definitely has helped attract audiences and helped the company’s reputation. Over the years, in the last few years, in particular, Brisbane audiences have been able to see just how quickly the Queensland Ballet dancers’ standard has risen.”
"Over the years, in the last few years, in particular, Brisbane audiences have been able to see just how quickly the Queensland Ballet dancers’ standard has risen."
And it’s not all one way, says Cunxin, with some pride. “The greatest thing about exchange is learning from each other. Some of the guest artists, even though they are stars, also feel they have learned something by performing here, not just from their fellow dancers but the whole experience of working within our cultural environment, with our teachers, the level of discipline, the atmosphere, the culture we have built for the company. So I think it’s a mutual learning experience. When we send our own dancers to guest with other companies, or attend galas, the feeling is the same. They come back feeling that they were not just stars performing with those companies, but that they have learned something from those experiences.”
Of course, as anyone who has read Cunxin’s autobiography Mao’s Last Dancer knows, his understanding of the benefits of dancer exchange is informed by personal experience too. “I know first-hand that those experiences guesting with La Scala, or dancing with the Royal Ballet, or dancing on the Bolshoi stage, really matured me as a dancer. The experience truly played a major part in me becoming a better dancer, a better artist.”
This article was first published in the December '18/January '19 edition of Dance Australia and included interviews with Queensland Ballet's Vito Bernasconi and Expressions Dance Company's Jake McLarnon about guesting overseas and working as a guest. If you missed out on this issue you can buy an electronic version here. Want to make sure you never miss an issue? Subscribe here.
Pictured top: Principal dancer of the Royal Ballet Steven McRae as Romeo and Natasha Kusch, then QB principal, as Juliet in QB's 'Romeo and Juliet' (2014). Photo: David Kelly.