When The Australian Ballet was founded in 1962, its charter stated that, in addition to international repertoire and visiting international choreographers, it had to attract Australian choreographers and produce Australian works.
But what does ‘Australian’ look like in ballet?
In 1989, dancer, teacher, choreographer and director of The Ballet Guild (later Ballet Victoria) Laurel Martyn Was asked on what it meant for ballet to be Australian:
It’s Australian because it comes from our experience, what we think, how we do things (…) It has to come from our own life, our own way of seeing.
Martyn had choreographed her first Australian ballet in 1941. The project to create Australian ballet is not new.
In 1964, Robert Helpmann claimed that his ballet The Display was the first Australian ballet, being the first to feature an Australian score, designer, story and choreographer.
His ballet met all those criteria with its Aussie rules football, machismo, woodland picnics and lyrebirds – but there had been many before his.
Like Helpmann’s ballet, some focused on Australian cultural life, such as Kira Bousloff’s The Beach Inspector (1958) and Rex Reid’s The Melbourne Cup (1963).
Others celebrated Australian industry. Joanna Priest’s The Lady Augusta (1946) was about a steamship’s maiden voyage down the Murray River to transport wool. Wakooka (1955) by Valrene Tweedie was about life on a sheep pasture.
Still others looked at the rich natural environment, such as Martyn’s Voyageur on Australian migratory birds (1956).
And there were those who appropriated Australian Indigenous culture in their attempt to create an identity of this place. The most infamous of these was Beth Dean’s Corroboree featuring white dancers in blackface performing for Queen Elizabeth II in 1954.
Since then, Australian ballet has radically transformed the way it incorporates First Nations identity into the construction of what it means to be Australian. The founding of Bangarra Dance Theater in 1989 was key to this new Australian dance identity.
Reflecting this transformation was The Australian Ballet’s 1997 work Rites, a creation by Bangarra’s then Artistic Director, Stephen Page. Page brought the two companies together in a First Nations reinvention of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.
At the 30th anniversary of The Australian Ballet in 1992, the company staged an Australian reinvention of The Nutcracker, choreographed by Graeme Murphy.
Murphy’s ballet told a story of the importance of migration to Australia: a history of how war in Europe had caused many Russian dancers to stay, enriching our cultural landscape and firmly establishing ballet’s roots in this country.
Now, for its 60th birthday, the company is asking again what an “Australian ballet” is. This time it answers the question with a two-part program Identity. Identity includes THE HUM by Wiradjuri man Daniel Riley, a collaboration with Australian Dance Theatre, and Paragon by Alice Topp, which brings many of the company’s alumni back to the stage.
Both works demonstrate an approach to creating an Australian ballet that, as the program suggests, “explores the community of the stage”. They each return to Martyn’s claim that for ballet to be Australian it must come from us.
Whoever stands on that stage as part of that community then becomes critical.
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Featuring a powerful First Nations presence, including choreographer Riley, composer Deborah Cheetham Fraillon, costume designer Annette Sax and dancer Karra Nam, THE HUM engages in a conversation not only with white settler Australia, but also between contemporary dance and ballet.
Dancers meet with a deep inhalation. Holding their gaze, they fall to their knees twice with two short sharp exhalations: confrontation and common ground.
Black rock formations framing the stage are flipped and reused, their constructed nature exposed, a metaphor for our inherited Australian identity.
Neon lights and projected computer-generated images combine with the natural moon, water and tree branches, reminding us that we are both the country and the city in the 21st century.
THE HUM shows a community where members finally face each other, but don’t yet know who they are together – although they know where to start. The public is equally burdened with this provocation.
In Paragon, Topp shows who The Australian Ballet has been in visual material, images, dance styles and in the returning dancers who carry the company’s history in their bodies. These include Marilyn Rowe, who debuted with the company in 1965, Simon Dow, who joined in 1974, and Lucinda Dunn, who danced with the company for 24 years until 2014.
Topp also shows us who we could be in the future in the bodies of the company’s young dancers.
And by bringing these elements together on one stage, she shows us where we are today.
The work radiates a combination of strength and tenderness. Without any trumpets, it offers a thoughtful and sometimes playful festive reflection: painfully nostalgic but contemporary work.
Divided into 12 parts, side by side lyrically pass the deux in Greek white with strong 80s Spartacus style cap body of ballet in black; almost floating 19th century ladies in long gold ball gowns moving through elegant formations with sets of duos in studio clothes moving independently or in canon.
The ages of the dancers are clearly visible. Older and younger bodies dance together on the ballet stage and demand our attention. Like THE HUM, Paragon is the result of this community, a tribute to ancestors and a revelation of ever-present history.
Australian identity is a work in progress, but in Identity it is heartening to see one of our iconic cultural institutions up to the challenge.
Identity is on view at Sydney Opera House until May 20 and then at Arts Center Melbourne from June 16-24.
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