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The Australian Ballet is tackling an Oscar Wilde story for its 2019 season

Written by
Ben Neutze

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 on the stage, from the magical statue at the centre of The Happy Prince, to the toy soldiers that come to life in The Nutcracker, 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 to ensure he’s enchanting 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 been seen in each city. 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 regular repertoire.

Here’s what he’s got planned for Sydney next year.

Verve (Apr 5-25)
Choreography: Stephen Baynes, Tim Harbour, Alice Topp

This contemporary triple bill – which played Melbourne this year – features a diverse range of Australian choreographic talents forging ahead with new and provocative works. Baynes and Harbour are both choreographic veterans, whereas Topp is a relative newcomer. But she’s recently been appointed resident choreographer at the company on the strength of her work for Verve.

“I was really proud of the fact that it’s an all-Australian bill and got such a great response,” McAllister says. “I think the program really reflects three different creative voices in our company, and the breadth and diversity of what people are creating in dance.”

The Happy Prince (May 1-18)
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 brand 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 the course of that time.

“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.

Lisa Craig. Photograph: Supplied.

Sylvia (Nov 8-23)
Choreography: Stanton Welch

Sylvia falls very firmly into the “neglected classic” category, and has been 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 (Nov 30-Dec 18)
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 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.”

Check out what Sydney Theatre Company and Opera Australia have in store for the year ahead.

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