Darcey and Rafael in conversation

The ticket said ‘Darcey and Rafael in conversation’. The menu cover said ‘Dance—collaboration, creativity and choreography’. A tall order? This luncheon event associated with the National Gallery of Australia’s current exhibition Ballets Russes: the art of costume featured former Royal Ballet star Darcey Bussell, now living with her family in Sydney, and Rafael Bonachela, artistic director of the revamped Sydney Dance Company. So what happened?

Well, about 200 people gathered in Gandel Hall, the Gallery’s new-ish public event space. Seated at round tables accommodating nine or ten people per table, we started with a main course, a most acceptable meal given that it clearly needed to be prepared in advance. Then, as dessert was brought in, Darcey and Rafael, made their way to the stage and, seated in armchairs, began to talk about dance. So far fairly predictable. Things began to get interesting as dance became the focus.

Some footage was shown. We saw the amazing Ms Bussell, with those incredibly articulate arms and legs not to mention face and entire body, in excerpts from Christopher Wheeldon’s Tryst, which Australian audiences were lucky enough to see when Ross Stretton brought the Royal Ballet to Australia in 2001, then in parts of the Black Swan pas de deux from Swan Lake Act III, and finally in the last pas de deux from Manon. Footage of Bonachela’s recent works followed, including segments from We Unfold and 6 Breaths.

The conversation centred for a while on the similarities between classical and contemporary dance in terms of the athleticism required by dancers whatever style they are performing, and on the nature of collaboration. Bonachela stressed his aesthetic of commissioning artistic collaborators to produce new work and outlined the importance of moving the art form forward through the creation of new work. Bussell introduced a certain degree of humour as she recounted the trials of rehearsal and the pitfalls (and pleasures) of performance. They both showed a beautifully human side of themselves.

But perhaps the most interesting moments came when the floor was opened up to questions. For me there were three particularly provocative questions. The first concerned narrative in contemporary dance. Did it exist? And was its lack (or apparent lack outside of ballet) what differentiated contemporary dance from ballet? Bonachela’s answer was beautifully phrased. ‘I believe’, he said ‘that the body has a narrative and I am interested in finding it through my choreography. I want to engage with the audience in an emotional way. I am interested in ideas and think the body is a strong communicative tool.’ He did add however, tongue in cheek, that perhaps he would wake up tomorrow and want to make a narrative work!

The second question of particular interest to me concerned the Australian Ballet and its now apparently entrenched decision not to perform in Canberra. How, asked the audience member posing the question, do we continue to engage with ballet when the flagship company denies Canberra audiences the opportunity to see Australian Ballet performances other than by spending large amounts of money to travel out of Canberra? Bussell rightly outlined the various problems associated with touring especially by major companies. But because she may not be aware of the situation, she didn’t mention the Australian Ballet’s apparent problems with the size and nature of the Canberra Theatre’s stage, nor its perceived issues with the Canberra Symphony Orchestra. But she did say that in the end it is up to us, the people of Canberra, to make it known that we do constitute an audience for ballet and that we want to see performances by the main company, not only those of the Dancers Company or specially contrived one-off events. Well, I’m not sure that any movement from the people would have the slightest effect.

And the third question of particular interest to me concerned the difference in physicality between the dancers of the Ballets Russes era and those of today. It is clear from watching old footage from the 1930s that the dancers who came to Australia between 1936 and 1940 were different in musculature, in technique and in the performance values they brought to the stage. But probably the luncheon conversation was not the forum in which to elaborate on the various changes we see in the way dancers look and perform today. The responses petered out a little. Another occasion perhaps?

The National Gallery of Australia has provided some inspiring events associated with its Ballet Russes exhibition. This was one of them. May there be more events where an audience feels free to ask and comment in the way it did at this event.

Michelle Potter, 10 March 2011

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