Aussie dancers do well in the UK, but not so our choreographers, observes Matthew Lawrence.
"No, no, noooo, Matthew,” lamented my old ballet master from Birmingham Royal Ballet (BRB), Desmond Kelly. “Your gesture is too laid-back and Australian.” Mr Kelly was of course right. I mimed my princely – “I love you” – more “I love you, mate!” And Sir Peter Wright’s Prince Siegfried would never be so familiar. My foot position was all wrong as well, being more platypus inspired (flat-footed) than court trained (cocked knee at 45 degrees turn-out). The English love to rib the Antipodean’s supposed uncultured ways; and yet they also love to employ us.
It may surprise you to know, that the great southern lands typically represent the highest proportion of expat dancers in UK ballet companies. At a peak, eight years ago – when I was with BRB during David Bintley’s 24-year custodianship (recently replaced by Carlos Acosta) -- there were 10 dancers from the lands down-under; four principals, two soloists and four corps de ballet. During that same period, there were three Aussies -- Leanne Benjamin, Steven McCrae and Alexander Campbell -- in the Royal Ballet’s upper ranks, with many more filling the lower. There has also been consistent representation in the other major UK companies: English National Ballet, Scottish Ballet and Northern Ballet. Numbers come and go (we are slightly less well represented at present) but typically our ballet dancers compete well with Vegemite as our most successful export to the UK.
While it is true that many of these English-based Antipodeans finished their training at UK institutions, their initial training was all home-based. In comparison, British ballet dancers are a rarity in Australia (Donald Trump would certainly not approve of such import/export disparity). On the flipside, English choreographers, particularly in ballet companies, are hot right now! Barely a subscription season passes without an English-bred production. Over the last handful of years, works from British choreographers in Australasian ballet companies have been by Sir Kenneth MacMillan, Sir Frederick Ashton, Christopher Wheeldon, Liam Scarlett, Sir Peter Wright, Wayne McGregor, Ben Stevenson (based in Houston), the Christophers Bruce and Hampson, and the Davids -- Bintley, Dawson and Nixon (Nixon’s a Canadian residing in the UK … but close enough!).
Australians choreographing or restaging their productions for British ballet companies are a rarity. Garry Stewart’s The Centre and its Opposite (2009) for BRB is one exception. Many moons past, Stephen Baynes’s Beyond Bach was restaged for the Royal Ballet, and Stanton Welch’s Powder (2001) was commissioned for BRB. And this year -- you will be pleased to know -- Jack Lister, Queensland Ballet’s dancer/choreographer, is bucking the trend with a new commission involving BRB again. Can you think of any others?
Major influencing factors are to do with environment and culture. One is history and our burgeoning identity within the international arts landscape. Then there are our contrasting needs with the UK. For instance, UK ballet companies tend to be repertory based (they love tradition and lineage), whereas Antipodean companies are in constant search of repertory (we love to update and renovate). Environment also plays a part, as our neck-of-the-woods, in comparison to the UK, is spread and sparse of potential clients to produce works on. And under funded ballet companies down under need a sure-fire box office hit to keep the books balanced.
These figures show that our ballet training is highly competitive with international institutions, something insiders have known for years. Aussie dancers are respected in the UK as hard-working technicians who can successfully adapt to a variety of styles and repertoires -- if a little lacking in the finer details of characterisation and etiquette. Australasian choreographers, however, need assistance in developing better wings.
How then, I wonder, will Brexit further evolve our cultural exchanges? If predictions are correct, and there is a renewed alignment to the old Commonwealth system, surely our dancers will be even more sought after as dancers with talent and limited Visa restrictions. In anticipation of this distinct possibility, perhaps our government’s strategists should be contemplating a caveat to the UK’s arts officialdom:
Engagement of five Aussie dancers shall invoke a proviso of employment for one ‘fair-dinkum’ choreographer.
What do you think?
Matthew Lawrence is a former principal artist with the Australian Ballet, Birmingham Royal Ballet and the Queensland Ballet.
This article was first published in the Aug/Sep 2019 of 'Dance Australia'. Subscribe here and ensure you always read it first!