Stephen Baynes joined the Australian Ballet as a dancer in 1976 and after an international career became a resident choreographer at the company in 1995. He's created more than 20 works for the company, and his 2007 piece Constant Variants (performed to Tchaikovsky's 'Variations on a Rococo Theme') is being performed as part of Verve.
You’ve been choreographing work for the Australian Ballet since the mid-1980s; how has the company itself changed since then?
In some ways it hasn’t changed at all, in terms of the organisation and how it works. There’s not a lot of difference in terms of the amount of performances we give.
But the company has changed a lot because there’s a much broader repertoire now. It’s much more eclectic, and the dancers have to be able to do a lot of different styles and change very quickly. They can go from Wayne McGregor to Swan Lake in a matter of weeks, and be rehearsing one and performing the other.
They’re amazingly quick at picking things up. The only danger is that sometimes the assimilation only comes to a certain level and you don’t really get to what’s at the heart of the aesthetic rather than just the physicality of it. But they’re very intelligent as well and want to get it right.
When I first joined the company, all those years ago, the principals were much more apart. They were sort of a revered, separate entity within the company, whereas now they’re just part of the gang. It’s a very even social strata, and they’re colleagues.
How would you say the landscape of ballet in general has changed in Australia over the last couple of decades?
I think dance has taken a much higher profile. It seems like ballet is as popular as ever if not moreso, judging by audience figures and the way they react. I think because there’s a broader cultural and socioeconomic strata within the audience, tastes are more eclectic and people seem to be more accepting of the new.
You’ve been resident choreographer with the company since 1995. What has having that sort of position allowed you to do as a choreographer?
I guess the most beneficial thing is getting to know the company and dancers. They start to know you, you know them, and it’s a very productive environment because you don’t have to break the ice. You can start to feel relaxed with the dancers, and you have an idea of how to cast something.
There are pros and cons, though – if you’re working with a new company you tend to discover things about the dancers you don’t know and discover things about yourself.
Do you think that career paths have changed for choreographers significantly since you started? Is it easier to forge a career as a choreographer now?
Well, a hell of a lot more people are doing it. A choreographer was something quite special back then. Now almost all dancers want to choreograph and have a go. Back then most people were terrified of it and ran a mile from it.
Now everyone seems to want to do it, and companies everywhere are having workshops continually. The Australian Ballet has the Bodytorque season, which is an amazing opportunity because you’re working with some of the best dancers in the country. You’re not given a lot of time because it’s squeezed in, but that’s a great experience anyway to learn how to just get on and do it. It’s incredible how generous the dancers are to these young choreographers trying things.
There are a lot of new opportunities, but on the other hand, it’s like a lot of things in contemporary culture – everybody gets a stab at something, but there isn’t always the best path to follow it through. It’s such a long, gradual learning curve for the whole of your career. It’s still very rare for a real voice to emerge and show that there’s the potential to go further. Everyone can put something together – it’s not necessarily that hard to find a piece of music, get some dancers and make something. But having a voice – and having something unique to say – is much harder.
You choreographed Constant Variants back in 2007. What’s it like to revisit a work from over a decade ago? Do you refine certain things?
It’s great for something to be seen again. We did some revivals of my stuff in 2010 and 2011, so it was great to have a look at things again. This time, after ten years – and I can hardly believe it is ten years – there’s only one person from the original cast in the company. It’s great to have the opportunity to look at it again with time. I haven’t changed anything radically, but I’ve been able to make some refinements with different dancers.
Can you tell me a little about how you created the work a decade ago?
As I’ve done with a lot of works in the past, it’s entirely musically driven. There’s not a narrative happening, but it’s certainly not what I’d just put under the ‘abstract’ label, which can be so misleading. I guess it comes to how I feel about music. Any piece of music is storytelling – and I don’t mean a linear narrative necessarily – but if a piece of music attracts me and I’m drawn to it, it’s usually because I see drama in it and an emotional impetus. That’s what I would call the text of the choreography.