Flouncing out: Australian Ballet stows away the tutu in 2022

Flipping through the Australian Ballet 2022 season program, you could be forgiven for thinking something was missing.

Where are the tutus?

Beloved by the many little girls who dream of becoming ballerinas, the great tutu ballets – Swan Lake, Nutcracker, Giselle and The Sleeping Beauty among them – are notably absent.

Have the iconic tutus been pensioned off?

Artistic director David Hallberg, whose tenure at the helm of Australian Ballet began mid-pandemic with a much-disrupted 2021 stagione, is quick to reassure. “The tutus are here to stay. Tutu ballets were my bread and butter throughout my dancing career, and come 2023, they will be back.”

The scarcity of tutu ballets in the 2022 program reflects the realities of programming in unprecedented times, Hallberg explains. The AB’s productions of Anna Karenina and Romeo and Juliet, both dramatic story ballets without tutus, have been rolled over from the company’s pandemic affected 2020 e 2021 seasons, rispettivamente.

“I felt that these works really needed to be seen,” says Hallberg. “We made a financial investment in those productions but they are also testament to [former AB artistic director] David McAllister’s taste as a curator – something I want to honour and continue, and not just throw by the wayside.”

Hallberg’s vision for the company is perhaps more evident in the programming of Kunstkamer, a large-scale contemporary work for 40 or more dancers (no tutus, no pointe shoes) created by choreographers Paul Lightfoot, Sol León, Marco Goecke and Crystal Pite for Nederlands Dance Teatro. The Australian Ballet production will be the first staged by another company.

“I believe ballet audiences in Australia are very open to the new,” says Hallberg. “There isn’t a preconceived idea of what ballet should be, like in Russia or in London. There is an openness here.”

That openness extends to the AB’s dancers.

“They’re not bogged down in tradition or by the patina of companies like the Bolshoi or Royal Ballet,” Hallberg says. “They can absorb varying styles more easily than a dancer trained in the French, Russian or English style.”

Hallberg will be putting his personal stamp on Anna Karenina and Romeo and Juliet, pure.

“I want to emphasise individual interpretation,” he explains. “I want to empower the dancers in their own ability to interpret characters. In the ballet world – and I was subject to this – we focus so much on technique that it’s possible to lose sight of the true essence of the art form.” What really moves people, he says is “in the character you portray”.

Those in need of a tutu fix might consider the Australian Ballet’s Celebration Gala, a stripped back showcase featuring 15 of the company’s senior dancers.

“If you’ve never been to the ballet before, this is the one to come to because you’re getting a short, sharp greatest hits of ballet,” says Australian Ballet principal artist Benedicte Bemet. “It will have that purist tutu aesthetic and some contemporary works. I’m performing in La Favorita and the tutu is a beautiful red, very feminine and sexy. But then you’ve also got the Black Swan and the Sugar Plum Fairy tutu is just stunning, it has thousands of crystals sewn onto it.”

Performing in a stiff tulle tutu is very different to dancing in Juliet’s loose dress or one of Anna Karenina’s elegant gowns, Bemet says.

“The tutu often has a corseted bodice so the way you hold your back is very upright and perfect for those regal ballets where you want to be long and poised.

“Wearing a dress for a younger character like Juliet, there is a bit more abandon and a free-flowing physicality. Even how we stand is affected. In a tutu, you are always standing in a formal classical position with your feet. But in a dress, you can stand like a normal human with both feet flat on the ground. Your whole mindset changes in a tutu.”

The only tutu ballet in the AB’s season 2022 is Harlequinade, a lesser-known work by Marius Petipa (Swan Lake), revised by Alexei Ratmansky.

The precision required makes it a challenging work, despite its “old school ballet aesthetic”, says Bemet.

“We imagine the more modern ballet aesthetic of high legs and heaps of turns to be more difficult or impressive. But Harlequinade is very challenging in getting the lines right. I was really surprised – and there are some great tutus!"

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