Young dancers Brett Chynoweth and Dana Stephensen of the Australian Ballet were both promoted to soloist rank at the start of this year. Nina Levy caught up with the two rising stars, who are currently dancing in Wayne McGregor’s Dyad 1929, as part of the Australian Ballet’s “Vanguard” season.
It was always going to be a career in the arts for Brett Chynoweth. “I started training at the Australian Ballet School when I was eight and went right through the school system, from an after school basis to a full time position,” he says. “I knew from a very young age that the arts were for me, ballet and theatre in particular were very powerful sources of inspiration. I used to go to the Australian Ballet dress rehearsals, all dressed up, and would sit in the theatre, soaking up every aspect of the event. I still enjoy sitting on the other side of the curtain and try to see as much dance, theatre and music as I can.”
At the age of 16, Chynoweth received a travelling scholarship which took him to the School of American Ballet and the Jacqui Kennedy Onassis School (at American Ballet Theatre) in New York and National Ballet School of Canada in Toronto. “This was my first opportunity to experience first-hand the skill, style and approach of international dancers,” remembers Chynoweth. “It was a thrilling time full of growth and excitement. It taught me independence in both life and dance and other skills that I have taken into my career and all other traveling opportunities. I learnt to be open to experience and skills that were foreign to me, which is a vital asset to a professional dancer. The ability to be invested in the unknown and adapt to that is something that helps at home, on tour and outside of work.”
Chynoweth is now in his fifth year with the Australian Ballet (AB), and is relishing the challenges that company life brings. When asked what his favourite thing about working with company is, he replies, “The lengths that you can stretch yourself! The repertoire is vast and in a few weeks, or even in a day, you can be expected to be extremely classical in one rehearsal and then completely contemporary in the next. This means that the potential for depth of personality and physicality is enormous and you can learn to bring elements of both extremes into each other. That is really interesting for an audience, and a satisfying investment in yourself. I am frequently astounded to see our artists diving around in a rehearsal and then composed and elegant on stage just hours later, or vice versa.”
Currently Chynoweth is dancing in Wayne McGregor’s Dyad 1929, as part of the AB’s “Vanguard” program. “Dyad 1929 was an astounding endeavour for the company when it was made for the AB in 2009 which was also my first year with the company,” he remarks. “There was a buzz in the building and to watch rehearsals of the dancers being challenged in a way they had never been before was fascinating. I had admired this work – particularly the role that I am performing, originally danced by the incredible Tzu-Chao Chou - and was thrilled to get the opportunity to be in it for this season.”
So it’s an exciting time for Chynoweth, but it’s not without its challenges, he says. “Stepping into a work with a cast who had all performed it before – such as my dance partner Lana Jones who performed it in our 2012 NYC tour - and looking and feeling completely comfortable was a challenge for me! Fortunately the work is high intensity, dynamic and intricate, which are all things that I love in a work. The challenge of stepping up turns out to be a boost for performances. The other dancers in the cast taught me to enjoy it and to relax into the flow of the work, which enables you to push yourself and others.”
If you’re in Sydney or Melbourne you’ll be able to see Chynoweth rise to the challenge yourself – details at the bottom of this page.
Like her colleague, Brett Chynoweth, Dana Stephensen has never been in any doubt about pursuing a life in performing arts. “Choosing ballet was a natural progression for me as I started to become more involved with exams, bursaries, scholarships… as well as becoming an interstate associate with the Australian Ballet School around 13,” says Stephenson. “The striving for perfection was enticing at that age and I was fortunate enough to have wonderful teachers like Sandra Ashley and Mary Heath who saw potential in me and encouraged that. Plus my plan was to have a ballet career first and then move into musical theatre afterwards! Who knows...”
Stephensen also enjoyed the benefits of travel early on in her career. “In 2008, I was awarded the Khitercs scholarship to travel to take class and watch performances of multiple companies in Europe over my Christmas break," she remembers. "So much of the trip was a highlight; Nederlands Dans Theater, Paris Opera Ballet, the Royal Ballet and everywhere in-between gave me something special. It was a huge time for my career development - I was really in a 'thrust' phase and after absorbing as much as I could from all the talent I saw in Europe, I came back to work in 2009 incredibly inspired. It definitely gave me a lot of insight into our beautifully unique style and how the most important thing is to be confident in your own self and what you have to offer.”
Stephensen worked with McGregor when he created Dyad 1929 on the Australian Ballet in 2009. She relished the time spent with McGregor. “I don't know if I can use enough adjectives to describe working with the amazing person that Wayne is,” she exclaims. “It was one of the most creatively satisfying and intellectually fascinating times of my career so far. He works so quickly, you really have to be on the ball, but he is also so encouraging and gives you so much confidence in what you offer as a dancer in a collaborative sense and as an individual. He respects his dancers so much and we throw all our respect right back to him. I would be doing Dyad on the tram it was that exciting and rewarding. I love that he pushes boundaries, he pushes an audience with what they are looking at and he pushes dancers to explore more and more. I love people who let me do more, I'm often told to tone it down!”
And what can those of us who haven’t see Dyad 1929 expect from the work? “Dyad is a visually arresting, challenging, explosive, spongy, liquid, elastic, punchy, loud dance,” says Stephensen. “Visually the set is a big white box with black dots and the costumes are all very monochrome - black, white and beige. In Wayne's words, we misbehave badly! We redirect the audience's eye to a place they weren't expecting, it's very athletic and the Steve Reich score is adrenalin inducing from the first note to the end. I take a while to come down to earth after this one. For me Dyad represents a time of exploration, of finding confidence in the different, the unique, the left of centre and pushing myself to go further each time. It's fierce and it's some of the most fun I've ever been allowed to have on stage.”
Catch Stephensen, Chynoweth and the rest of the Australian Ballet in “Vanguard” at the Sydney Opera House until 18 May and then Arts Centre Melbourne, 6-17 June. More info: www.australianballet.com.au
Read Dance Australia’s review of "Vanguard" here.
Below: Andrew Killian and Dana Stephensen in Dyad 1929. Photo: Branco Gaica.