WA Ballet pivots around COVID-19 lockdowns, as border closures pose new challenges
Alexa Tuzil is used to dancing on a stage in front of hundreds of people. It was therefore an unusual experience to perform pirouettes in his kitchen on a small square of suspended floor.
With COVID lockdowns in place, the West Australian Ballet soloist was sent home with the rest of the company.
Performances were canceled and theaters went silent.
“It was a shock to hear ‘this is off, this is off,'” she said.
Although the show could not continue, the dancers still had to practice.
“Every day we had a class from our ballet masters on Zoom in the morning, and then usually in the afternoon we had Pilates or yoga or some sort of extra workout routine.
“We would have a schedule to keep us motivated.”
Thanks to donors, WA Ballet was able to obtain portable barrettes and small squares of ballet floor for dancers to take home.
“I don’t have a big kitchen,” Ms. Tuzil laughed.
But with the bar and the dance floor, she was able to continue her training.
“We could do our pirouettes on the ground, but we never really jumped to avoid injuries because we’re used to a professional ballet floor. Then going to jump on concrete is quite dangerous,” she said. .
It came with some frustrations.
“Sometimes it was tough because it’s hard to get motivated in the morning by doing classes in your kitchen,” she said.
“Sometimes the piano wasn’t in sync with what we’re trying to dance to, so they’d say, ‘You’re out of sync with the music’, but that’s because our video is delayed – just by little things like that – now it’s funny.”
The online scene
Internet-based training wasn’t the only change WA Ballet made.
When the first lockdown was announced, the company quickly filmed its canceled production, Genesis.
Artistic director Aurélien Scannella said the show is usually presented to a limited audience in a small theater, but the filming made it possible to show it to a much larger audience online.
“We were lucky to have enough time to record it just before the lockdown,” Mr Scannella said.
“I mean, as soon as we finished taping, the next day that was it, everyone was home.
“Then we were able to put that on the web and broadcast it and I think we were probably the only ballet company in the world with a web presence, so that was something very special.”
Many dancers come from interstate and overseas, including Ms. Tuzil, which also gave their families the opportunity to see them perform.
The dancers also used the time to create and choreograph their own works.
“When the lockdowns started to loosen, they created this CoVid lab where (artistic associate Sandy Delasalle) put us in pairs and we each choreographed a different piece to music and that kept us busy and kept our mind creating,” Ms. Tuzil mentioned.
“One of the best things to come out of this lockdown was creating this choreography and then being able to show it to a smaller audience when we were able to perform, it was awesome.”
Mr Scannella said his return to acting last year was a huge relief.
“It was like being a newborn, all over again,” he said.
“Already moving from the kitchen to the ballet studios and the fact that we could all be together again, that was just amazing, and then when we go back to Her Maj, of course, that was the icing on the cake.”
Securing the future
Despite the challenges and not producing many shows, WA Ballet was able to strengthen its financial results and even increase the number of dancers it employs.
WA Ballet executive director Olivier David said when early performances were canceled more than 400 people returned their tickets to the ballet instead of asking for a refund.
“We are very grateful to these people and it shows how much the people of Western Australia love the arts and love Western Australian ballet,” he said.
One such innovation was the creation of a $7 million endowment fund, made up of donations and pledges.
“The endowment fund is a reserve of money that we keep to ensure the safety and longevity of Western Australian ballet,” Mr David said.
“We are using the dividends from this endowment fund to help us make WA Ballet even stronger and better.”
Room to grow
The funding allowed the business to expand and employ six more dancers, but getting them into WA has been a problem with state border closures.
“It’s not sustainable, we can’t go on like this any longer,” Scannella said.
He is working with foreign costume designers, set designers and choreographers for the 2022 season, but so far most of the collaboration is done over the internet.
“It has been impossible for me to bring anyone from abroad in the last 18 months.
“I also have a waiting list for dancers who wish to join the WA ballet from abroad; it is impossible at the moment.
“I’m even trying to bring in young artists from Melbourne and they’re supposed to start in January, I don’t think they’ll be able to come.”
A big year ahead
This year marks the 70th anniversary of WA Ballet – it is Australia’s longest running ballet company.
To celebrate, Mr. Scannella has planned more shows with more dancers.
“The way I wanted to celebrate [the] 70 years was about having creations throughout the year,” he said.
They are busy preparing an original production of Swan Lake, based on stories native to the Swan River Settlement.
It’s a collaboration with Indigenous artist Barry McGuire.
“At one of the meetings we had, Barry began to explain to me that his family had a Black Swan Dance that hadn’t been performed publicly since 1901,” Mr Scannella said.
After much discussion, he decided to create a Swan Lake story, based in the Swan River Settlement, which tells the native story of the Black Swan to play out later in the year.
With the ballet season starting in early February, new dancers stuck in Melbourne, costume fabrics slowly heading to WA by post and meetings with international creatives still hanging out online, Mr Scannella hopes the worst is behind them.
“When I think about it, what we went through, oh my God, I hope we never have to do it again, it was really hard.”