Aside from the Australian Ballet, Melbourne has not just one, but two professional ballet companies.
The first to emerge is the appropriately named Melbourne Ballet Company. Founded in its present incarnation in 2007, director Alisa Finney traces its beginnings much further back. From 1960 to 1984, her mother, who owned a large school in North Balwyn, ran the Melbourne Ballet Company. It consisted of a mix of students and paid professional dancers, performing the “great classics to sold-out audiences in major theatres around Melbourne”, according to Finney.
Though the company “went into hiatus” after 1984, Finney kept the name registered, and felt “I was born to carry this on”. In 2007, by now principal of her mother's school, she relaunched the company. She appointed Simon Hoy (who had had extensive career in Europe and the US) as resident choreographer and tour director and Sharon Fernandez as principal dancer. MBC now has a permanent residence at the newly refurbished Hawthorn Town Hall, east of Melbourne.
Finney started the MBC out of a desire to provide employment opportunities for dancers.
“As a ballet teacher I was finding it frustrating that year after year I was producing these beautiful students, but they would not get into the Australian Ballet School and they would give up. There are just not enough jobs for them, unless they go overseas, which is difficult to do when you're 18 years old.” She and her team are committed to employing “qualified” professional dancers and paying them accordingly, with full weekly wages and offering contracts of increasing length. By 2009 the company had included dancers formerly with the Australian Ballet, Sydney Dance Company, Paris Opera, Nederland Dans Theatre, Royal New Zealand Ballet and the Hamburg Ballet. In 2015 Finney employed eight dancers for up to eight months of the year. In 2016 she hopes to be able to offer contracts from January through to November.
The journey has been hard won but the company has always managed to work within its budget. The initial funds were raised through the ballet school, “literally dollar by dollar”, Finney says -- a two-year campaign of cake stalls, Bunning's barbeques and masterclasses and summerschools. The first season was held at Gasworks Art Park in Melbourne, with 15 dancers on five week contracts. Finney admits this was “a very ambitious” beginning, and for the next four projects chose the more modest but respectable Chapel off Chapel venue in Prahran with a paid ensemble of 10 dancers. The company was invited to move into to the Hawthorn Town Hall in 2013, a partnership which provides the company with studio space in return for presenting three seasons a year in the art-deco venue.
A major part of the company's success, however, has been with regional touring. Country towns rarely see the large ballet companies like the Australian Ballet, while the Dancers Company, which was set up by the Australian Ballet to tour the regions, can only serve a small number. Because MBC is small, it can travel relatively cheaply and easily and fill the gap left by the bigger company. “We have found [regional audiences] have been hungry for ballet, and every tour has literally been a sellout season,” Finney says. In 2015, for instance, MBC had bookings at the Darwin Entertainment Centre (for the second time), the Whitsundays at Airlie Beach, Portland (Vic), the Burrinja Cultural Centre in Upwey in the Dandenongs Shire of outer Melbourne, Byron Bay, Coffs Harbour, the Casula Powerhouse in Newcastle, and “our first international tour to Auckland in New Zealand”. In Darwin, Finney says, the reception was extraordinary. “Men were in black ties and women in pearls and the theatre even had a “best dressed of the night” award. Children asked us for autographs in the street the next day!”. In 2016 the company plans to return to New Zealand, and also has a “guest spot” in Los Angeles and New York in the U.S.
Another large and successful part of MCS's revenue comes from its public classes and holiday schools – it has an extensive program of classes for children up to advanced students and its partnership at the Hawthorn Town Hall involves summer and winterschool offerings, thus bringing people into the hall and making use of its facilities.
The artistic policy of MBC is to present new work – “modern ballet performed by highly trained classical dancers,” as Finney puts it. Any ballet company finds new work hard to sell, yet Finney and Hoy feel it is important to the development of a unique company identity. Since its launch MBC has presented over 35 original works, mostly by Hoy, but also over the years by guests: next year it is commissioning Tim Harbour, Lucas Jervies and Tim Podesta. It also collaborated with Deakin University's Motion.Lab research, culminating in a performance at the Victorian Arts Centre, for which the dancers wore motion sensors on their bodies and the audience watched through 3D glasses.
Like Melbourne Ballet Company, Melbourne City Ballet began out of a desire to provide more work opportunities for dancers. It was started in 2013 by Michael Pappalardo. Queensland-born, a graduate of the NZ School of Dance, Pappalardo dropped out of dance for a number of years to become a newspaper publisher before realising he couldn't stay away from dance. He was actually a member of MBC for a short while before establishing Melbourne City Ballet.
Pappalardo's combination of dance and business experience that has served him well in the formation of a new Melbourne company. Although new on the scene, MCB has established itself very quickly. Today the company has six full-time dancers on paid 48 week contracts, plus another four part-time contracts and five interns (who are paid performance fees only). “We have an amazing support structure, the dancers get free gym membership, free physio, free pointe shoes,” Pappalardo says proudly. There is also a youth company with about 35 members. The schedule is busy, with six seasons a year for the main company and another three by the youth company.
Like Finney, Pappardo believes there is a huge untapped audience for ballet.
“What we saw moving into the market is that ballet has a slightly elitist image. As in, if you can afford to pay $60 to $80 a ticket, you can go to the ballet. Whereas 60% of the population, maybe more, can't afford that. Our tickets are at the most $38 a ticket. The contemporary season is $25 a ticket. So we are really capturing a market that would never have been able to go the ballet and take the kids. Now they can.” Ticket sales seem to be proving him right: “We had a sell-out season of Carmen and in Sydney we had to add seats,” Pappalardo says.
While the company bills itself as “neo-classical”, rather than create a repertoire around new works, Pappalardo prefers to cater to what he believes is a big market for the classical story ballet.
The company's 2016 repertoire, for instance, includes its own stagings of the Bournonville classic, Napoli (remastered by Pappalardo), Dracula (choreographed by company dancer Brendan Bradshaw), Romeo and Juliet (Pappalardo) and Madam Butterfly (Pappalardo and Bradshaw). There is also a children's ballet called Tink (which gives Tinkerbell's side of the Peter Pan story), choreographed by company dancer Yuiko Masukawa, and a season of new work called Play Rewind. If choreographers are commissioned:“They are always an emerging choreographer, that's our strong mantra,” Pappalardo says.
Also like MBC, MCB has found a particularly receptive audience outside the metropolitan area, such as Geelong, Wangaratta and Wodonga. In 2016 the company is spending 10 weeks in the Northen Territory with its new Outback program, delivering residencies, workshops and school programs, with additional time spent in Qld, NSW, Victoria and South Australia.
MCB also maintains a strong “outreach” policy, engaging widely with the local community. “We like to work with a community and tailor our work to them. From our experience, we have seen that taking a show we have produced to a theatre doesn't always work. They want a specific thing for them – a workshop, or a show with a workshop, or just a collaborative activity -- we are very flexible and that's been our success.”
Financially, from the start Pappalardo knew he could not presume on government grants and would have to be financially independent. Funds come from a range of sources, including ticket sales and a little from state and local governments. Another source of funding comes from classes. The company offers a Junior Extension program, a part-time (Certificate 3) level and a full time (Advanced Diploma) “Elite Program”, and a “Finishing Year” (pre Professional), in which students can take part in company performances.
But Pappalardo says most of the company's finances come from corporate sponsorship. He and his company manager, Sean Memery, have built up an impressive number of corporate partnerships with companies such as PW Dancewear, which supplies costumes, Melbourne Airport, which supplied some valuable advertising, and Harlequin floors, among others.
At present Melbourne City Ballet is based in an old church hall in Brunswick. From the end of 2016 it will move into huge new premises in the redeveloped Pentridge Gaol site in Coburg.
So, two ballet companies in one state, and both reportedly not just surviving, but growing. Who would have thought such a state of affairs could happen? Maybe now it's Sydney's turn!
Dance Australia considers a “professional” company to be one that contractually engages the majority of its dancers with a weekly full-time wage over reasonable length of time for rehearsals and performances.
Melbourne also benefits from other high standard semi-professional or pro-am companies.
Picture above is of MCB's junior artist Kealy Fouracre. Below is a scene from MBC's 'Le Sacre du Printemps'.