In a world where the arts are whittled down and down and down until they fit between ad breaks, where armchair experts dissect opera and where back-to-back Cold Chisel covers fill the air after the mindless prattle of an idiot host there is another world that exists on the premise of quality and dedication to craft. Fame isn’t the goal but it’s a possible by-product. The art, attainment of skills and selection by the company are the task at hand; you have to love it to want it so much and yet loving it still won’t be enough for many.
Maybe it’s been romanticised and become something akin to folklore, but for me ballet is the Cold War and The Iron Curtain, a world of discipline and defection. It’s the Kirov in St. Petersburg and Bolshoi in Moscow; it’s the Ballets Russes in Paris and The Royal Ballet in London. And it’s where you end up after defection. It’s Mikhail Baryshnikov and Rudolph Nureyev, Dame Fonteyn and Anna Pavlova.
It’s a hidden and secret world, one rarely seen or penetrated by outsiders except during performances – where we see the apparent effortlessness of their behind-closed-doors hard work come to life. I can’t help but feel like an outsider. But being an outsider made what I experienced so special. At the Australian Ballet’s headquarters in Southbank I was given a tour, not just of the studios where the students take their first steps towards a career in dance or the senior company members loosen and limber up for another rehearsal – very special in itself – but through the wardrobe department and into the archives, past the milliners and wigmakers.
In case you’re wondering, yes there is a full-time wigmaker and on tour and after every performance the wigs are washed and readied for the following night. To put that into perspective, there are 69 company members and in the recent season of Madame Butterfly everyone wore a wig. There are also 160 costumes that need to be seen to, repaired if necessary and altered or fitted on the fly.
In the archives and still stored in hardcopy, programmes for every ballet ever performed list everything from set design, stage direction and costumes down to the colour and swatch, make-up and hair, music and lights. It is Mecca (or even Shangri-La) to any fan of design, history and dance and I hope nothing ever happens to it.
The upcoming British Liaisons, currently in Sydney, is a showcase of three generations of Britain’s best choreographers. The opening piece, Checkmate, is a ballet where “kings, queens and pawns battle to the death” with costumes to match. The costumes from the original production, where they cannot be used or refurbished, are faithfully reconstructed using original fabrics and the extensive archives. Even down to make-up and hair, the ballet will remain true.
Wardrobe Manager Michael Williams, who joined the Australian Ballet Company in 1976, usually has about four months to prepare for a new production, but sometimes time isn’t an option. Consider this year’s The Merry Widow: there are 280 costumes to somehow find the time for. And no, it’s not just tutus and tights – which provide their own challenges – but a proper, full-on costume drama. Coincidentally, Williams’ production in his first year was The Merry Widow.
In the fabric vault, from the corner of my eye, I got a very secret sneak peek at the beginnings of the Romeo and Juliet costume collection designed by Akira Isogawa. The classic ballet opens in September, with Graeme Murphy’s choreography; it’s a totally new commission for the company that uses Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers and Prokofiev’s magnificent score as its counterpoints.
There is something wonderfully alluring about the ballet: the soft, delicate ballerinas who possess an inner strength and beauty found in few people; the male dancers who, despite an oft-misconstrued reputation for femininity and obscurity, hold such masculinity and confidence it would put the toughest of tough guys to the test. This is the attraction; this is a secret world rarely seen by outsiders. And then, despite the dedication of company members, it’s still only ever seen by the very loyal balletomane.
Perhaps you would be more interested if you knew that every principal artist gets a new pair of shoes everyday and every senior artist every other, that every member prepares their shoes in their own special way and that every member does their own make up; that the Australian Ballet Company is one of the hardest working in the world, giving approximately 200 performances a year, and is recognised as one of world’s major international ballet companies.
But as I learnt from Oscar Wilde via Stephen Fry, all art is quite useless. We don’t need it, it doesn’t hold up our ceilings or provide us with warmth or energy essential to our survival. But this is the point. It is to enjoy. It is to be admired, pondered, acclaimed; it is to encourage controversy. It is to make us think and make us react. So in the end it is what makes us. Its absolute uselessness is why it is so important.
The Australian Ballet Company is offering an exclusive tour of its centre for 10 people (five double passes) on Tuesday May 31 from 10.30–11.30am. To win tickets email firstname.lastname@example.org.
British Liaisons is in Melbourne from August 25 to September 3. Romeo and Juliet opens on September 13 and runs til September 24 before moving to Sydney from December 2–21.