On Being a Ballet Master

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Tristan Message rehearsing 'The Sleeping Beauty'.
Tristan Message rehearsing 'The Sleeping Beauty'. Photo: JAMES BRAUND

Behind every ballet you see and behind every dancer on stage there is a person who remains for the most part unacknowledged - the ballet master. One such person is Tristan Message, Ballet Master at the Australian Ballet since 2012. He speaks here to Emma Sandall.

"A teacher I respect a lot once told me, 'You need to give them what they need, not what they want.' I see teaching today as a bit more of a collaborative effort, working with the dancers to create an outcome for them and for the company. It’s not like fifty years ago when people were walking around with a stick. It’s more about finding my own way, which fits with the positive and supportive culture of the Australian Ballet.

"Working as a company ballet master was always something I wanted to do – partly because you get to work with some of the best ballet dancers in the country. I taught company class from the time I was 28 while still dancing in the Australian Ballet but I only saw being a ballet master as a serious possibility when the position became available. There are relatively few ballet staff positions in Australia. I became a ballet master at 32.

"I said to David McAllister (artistic director, the Australian Ballet), 'I’ve heard this job is available, think about me for it if you don’t mind.' He was receptive to the idea because of the personality I had as a dancer in the company. Your personality type is important in this role – it’s about how you operate within busy, stressful environments. You are working with 70 talented people in a room, on things they feel very strongly about, so you need a balance of a positive energy with clear, calm direction.

"While my point of entry to becoming a ballet master was my ability to teach and coach ballet there are other skills that are important. There are seven of us in this role at the Australian Ballet and we take on different responsibilities. Part of mine is strategy and planning which means looking at the 2018 schedule and making it all fit together. First David (McAllister) will get the repertoire, then company managers will organise theatre dates and I’ll make sure the repetiteurs are all coming in at the right time so that we’re rehearsing each work with enough time for it to be prepared properly. I also make the daily schedules. And then there’s the logistics of making the casting work, which for a ballet like Sleeping Beauty can be pretty painful! Because I work mostly with the soloists and the corps de ballet I have a general responsibility to manage their casting and workload.

"Despite how busy things are I try to make time to communicate well with the dancers – the human side of things. Sometimes there are difficult conversations to have. I always ask myself, “What if I don’t have the conversation, what is the outcome then?” If you don’t have the conversation, then the dancers don’t have all the information and it’s really hard for people to work when they don’t know what’s going on. Communication is everything, doing it respectfully and clearly and strongly if you need to, but we’re far better off when we do it well.

"If there’s anything that’s hard about the job it’s that your work/life balance isn’t so good. When I first started my wife was still dancing. Now we have two children and my wife’s no longer dancing and touring with us so I see them a little less than I would like!"

This is an extract from an article by Emma Sandall in the Oct/Nov issue of Dance Australia OUT NOW!

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