For its newly announced 2019 season, the Australian Ballet is promising a “year of enchantment”. It’s the latest themed season for the company; 2016 was a year of “beauty”, 2017 was a year of “wonderment”, and 2018 is all about the “power of the imagination”.
But next year’s theme seems pretty apt and can be taken literally – there are enchanted characters in just about every ballet, from the magical statue at the centre of The Happy Prince to the toy soldiers that come to life in The Nutcracker, the many bizarre creatures in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the princess transformed into a swan in LAC, and the arrow-wielding nymph in the rarely performed classic Sylvia.
“They’re all ballets that take you on a bit of a journey; there’s a lot of fantasy and that whimsical, mysterious feel to them,” says the Australian Ballet’s artistic director, David McAllister.
He wants to not only fill his stages with enchanted figures but also enchant the company’s audiences with virtuosic dancing and spectacular choreography.
“Sometimes people refer to the dancers as being like unicorns because they’re just so unbelievably unnatural sometimes,” he says.
Next year, the Australian Ballet’s regular subscribers will get to see plenty of new productions – Sydney and Melbourne audiences are being treated to three productions that have never before been seen in each city. At the centre of the Melbourne season is a visit from Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo, which will perform a limited run of its modern take on Swan Lake, called LAC.
McAllister says it’s important that the company provides its audience, which is made up of about 50 per cent regular ballet-goers, with new experiences alongside its most popular repertoire.
Here’s what he’s got planned for Melbourne next year.
The Happy Prince (Mar 19-28)
Choreography: Graeme Murphy
This year, the Australian Ballet celebrated the 50th anniversary of choreographer Graeme Murphy’s dance career with a retrospective show. Now he’s creating a new production for the company, joining with theatre-maker and designer Kim Carpenter to bring Oscar Wilde’s short story for children to the stage.
Wilde’s story concerns a golden statue of a young prince who bestows all of his gold and jewels upon the people of his village, all suffering from extreme poverty. The production has already been about three years in the works and has grown in size and ambition over that period.
“It’s an unusual story for ballet in that there’s no romantic attachments,” McAllister says. “The swallow and the Happy Prince are the two leading characters, and they’re both men. Ballet tends to like to pair up male and female for the big pas de deux.”
Carpenter’s set design will transform over the course of the performance, from the poverty of post-World War II Australia into a vibrant, colourful and affluent 1950s Bondi.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (Jun 8-22)
Choreography: Christopher Wheeldon
Christopher Wheeldon’s contemporary take on Lewis Carroll’s fantastical world had its Australian premiere just last year, but it’ll be back in town next year.
“We did more performances of Alice in Melbourne than we’d done of any repertoire ever, and we still sold out,” McAllister says. “So there was obviously a really strong desire for people to see it.”
“I said last year that it’s almost like a musical without singing; it’s got that sort of appeal.”
LAC (Jun 27-Jul 6)
Choreography: Jean-Christophe Maillot
Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo was established in 1985 by Princess Caroline of Hanover (in accordance with her mother, Grace of Monaco’s wishes) and has since become one of the world’s most exciting ballet companies.
“For a ballet company, they’re so different to what we do, but they’re really creating ballet of the 21st century,” McAllister says.
The company has been invited to Melbourne with this new, critically acclaimed take on Swan Lake.
“As Jean-Christophe always does, he approaches it from a very contemporary angle,” McAllister says. “It’s the same Swan Lake story – the white swan versus the black swan – but in this production they’re played by different people.”
Sylvia (Aug 31-Sep 10)
Choreography: Stanton Welch
Sylvia falls very firmly into the “neglected classic” category and has been relatively rarely performed since it premiered more than 150 years ago.
“It’s sadly neglected, and I think it has one of the great scores written for ballet,” McAllister says.
And you don’t have to believe just McAllister: Tchaikovsky famously said that Léo Delibes’ score was better than anything he had written, including Swan Lake.
The ballet draws its narrative from Greek mythology, following Sylvia, a chaste, ferocious huntress who swears off love but eventually falls for a human man.
“The thing that’s always been difficult is that the story is fairly convoluted,” McAllister says. “Sometimes those Greek, Arcadian stories don’t really play for a modern audience. But Stanton has done a lot of work to make it a lot more resonant today, and not just looking at Sylvia and Diana, but the whole idea of Greek mythology and how it fits into our lives today.”
The female dancers of the company will be getting in touch with their inner warriors (much like the male dancers are doing right now with Spartacus) and will learn to sword fight for the production.
“The boys have been battling each other up in Spartacus, and now the girls are going to be fencing themselves into a frenzy next year.”
The Nutcracker (Sep 17-28)
Choreography: Peter Wright, Lev Ivanov, Vincent Redmon
The company is ending its 2019 season with a special Christmas treat: this beloved classic production of The Nutcracker.
McAllister says he first saw Peter Wright’s production, originally made for the Birmingham Royal Ballet, in the early 1990s, and he considers it one of the best Nutcrackers he’s ever seen. (And he has seen a lot of Nutcrackers.)
“The transformation scene is just magical,” he says. “I remember the first time I saw it, I couldn’t work out how they made the tree grow and take over the entire stage.”
“It’s timeless. And I like to say: every four years there’s a new bunch of four-year-olds who need to come and see The Nutcracker, which is why it’s usually about four years between drinks for us.”