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Learn from a survivor

Raphael Morris

West Australian Ballet, Australia’s oldest still-existing ballet company, is entering its 65th year. Why has this company flourished when so many others have fallen?
Learn from a survivor

Dancers of West Australian Ballet performing Ambiguous Content in Five by Night Ballet at the Quarry. Photo Sergey Pevnev. 

In a world where technology, society, and the arts are constantly changing, many organisations find themselves struggling to keep up with the pace of development. Among such a dynamic landscape, the age of an organisation stands as a monument to its ability to adapt to the trends and advances of the day.

 Such institutions must retain relevance without sacrificing the core of consistency and discipline that has allowed the organisation to maintain financial and structural stability whatever the social or political climate. It’s a difficult balancing act, especially with the precarious position of arts funding in Australia.

But balance always has been a critical skill in ballet, and West Australian Ballet (WAB) has exemplified this skill in both the literal and metaphorical spheres throughout its existence. As Australia’s oldest extant ballet company, WAB is entering its 65th year on the back of a record-breaking 2016 season that included an international tour to Jakarta, Indonesia and an original production of The Nutcracker. Over six decades on from its beginnings, WAB grows its audiences every year.

Executive Director Jessica Machin attributes its success to ‘the diversity of the artistic offerings’ provided by WAB. Machin explains that WAB has five  main seasons in the year. Two of them are contemporary ballet seasons: Genesis and the Quarry season. Genesis is an in-house season where we support and nurture our emerging dancers and choreographers. Dancers are given the opportunity to choreograph their own pieces and develop their choreographic skills. The Quarry Season takes place at the start of the year, and often features dancers who are progressing onward from the Genesis program. ‘For us the Quarry season… is a wonderful opportunity for audience members who may not have seen a ballet,’ says Machin. ‘The performance features four short works , which are very contemporary.’

One such work is Radio and Juliet, an adaptation of the classic ballet Romeo and Juliet featuring the music of the band Radiohead, which premiered at Ballet at the Quarry in 2014. The success of Radio and Juliet was such that it was revived in alongside the original ballet this year in the September main house season (generally reserved for more traditional ballets, though often with new choreography, such as David Nixon’s Beauty and the Beast which premiered in the May 2016 season), drawing a whole new audience to the original ballet. The final season is the Christmas season, which features a family ballet like The Nutcracker.

Chihiro Nomura and Oliver Edwardson performing in Ambiguous Content in Five by Night Ballet at the Quarry. Photo Sergey Pevnev.

WAB’s performance seasons are just facet of its many artistic dimensions. ‘Our Access Program, which features both an education stream and a community engagement stream, has grown over the years exponentially,’ says Machin. With its mission ‘to enrich people’s lives through dance,’ the Access program includes an array of initiatives: The Jumpstart program that introduces ballet to community groups with limited access to the arts, a membership program for dance students that includes cheap tickets and masterclasses, and a regional engagement program. Machin is grateful for the ‘huge support from philanthropic organisations… We’re running workshops with kids who may never have even danced before,’ she says.

That’s not to say that the current cultural and political climate is an easy one. ‘Nationally, we’re operating in a cultural policy desert,’ laments Machin. ‘There’s no overarching vision, no cultural framework… and these are real issues naturally, that affect the whole sector… even though the arts is a huge contributor to the GDP, it’s the first place that gets cut… with the Australia Council cuts, and cuts to VET student loans we’re worried that only students who can afford [professional arts] courses are going to be able to do it [pursue a career in the arts] – that’s a real concern.’ To safeguard against entry into the arts becoming even more financially restricted, WAB has been heavily involved in advocacy to provide loans for students who want to study dance.

In the absence of federal support for the arts, Machin sees arts organisations turning to state organisations. She cites Culture Counts, a Department of Culture and the Arts initiative whose purpose is to evaluate best practice in the arts, as a step in the right direction. This initiative is also being adopted in the UK. ArtsSmart, a South Australian program that combines arts and education, is another inspiration. Machin says she would like to see something like that on the federal level.

The tour to Jakarta this year was also a taste of what Machin believes WAB will see more of in the future. ‘The arts are becoming seen as more and more important for diplomacy,’ she says. ‘We see an international presence as crucial… it helps us attract a calibre of dancer, because a lot of dancers want to be with a company that tours… it builds our dancers, builds morale, builds our company profile and brand.’ The international touring also allows for cultural and skill exchange programs that WAB hopes to continue in other countries. Recently WAB’s Artistic Director Aurélien Scannella was a judge at the prestigious Youth America Grand Prix competition, and provided scholarships for Japanese students to come to WAB’s winter school in July 2017.

Ultimately, Machin sees cooperation and collaboration as the key to success in the arts in the 21st century. ‘In this current climate, it’s really important for all of us in the arts sector to start thinking about greater possibilities for collaboration with major, medium and small organisations in this changing environment, and how we can work more collaboratively – these are the key questions to ask ourselves.’

About the author

Raphael Morris is a Melbourne writer.

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