Drowning in a sea of pensioners, I am surprised to see a woman who looks about my age. She’s smiling and having an animated chat to a man in his early sixties. But as I walk up the stairs to catch a closer look, I see that she is wearing the telltale black uniform of staff. Of course. Why else would a 20-year-old be at the Opera House for the 6pm performance of Manon? Surely being lost in a drunken tangle of limbs, surrounded by dozens of inebriated roid junkies spilling their drinks whilst awkwardly lurching to 200 beats per minute is more appropriate. However, resurgence in the popularity of ballet, coupled with a change in marketing strategy, is slowly destroying that assumption.
The Australian Ballet Company (ABC) has pushed aggressive marketing techniques that directly target both younger audiences and potential devotees who may be curious about ballet, but feel deterred by preconceived notions of the culture surrounding the spectacle. Through the ‘Introduction to the Ballet’ program, aspiring ballerinas and ballerinos, as well as complete novices, are encouraged to interact directly with the dancers, via a training session, Q&A and performance.
The first performance in the 2014 repertoire is Manon. The fact that it was first staged in 1884 at the Opéra-Comique in Paris may disinterest some. However, principal artist Lucinda Dunn disagrees. As the title character in Manon and longest serving full-time ballerina with the ABC, Dunn argues that in a rapidly modernising world “where everything happens in an instant”, the ballet offers respite with slowly developing plots that rely on athleticism, refined technique and nuanced storytelling.
The culture surrounding ballet is sorely misunderstood. An air of snobbery and an image of highbrow, inner city finance executives speaking of the ‘tasteful’ solos and ‘moving’ symphonies pervades ballet. In defiance of these presumptions, the ABC performs in more regional areas than any other national arts company and displays over 200 shows annually. Student tickets are offered at $36 and the ABC’s ‘Children at the Ballet’ program is aimed squarely at dance fans below six years of age.
Dunn has dedicated her career of 22 years as a prima ballerina to the ABC, with leading roles in Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty and Romeo and Juliet that have paved the way for many aspiring dancers. One such dancer is Ella Havelka, a young ballerina from the small town of Narromine in Western NSW who joined the company in 2013 as their first Indigenous dancer. Australian ballet is evolving to include international trends, with performances exploring neoclassical, contemporary and post-structural form.
By investing in international choreographers and directors, the ABC has built a strong reputation that has seen its performances travel as far as Paris, Tokyo and Shanghai. Their latest season in London won the UK Critics’ Circle award for Best Foreign Dance Company and cemented Australia’s place as a preeminent, globally respected company.
But Manon was still over-populated by the aging, well-dressed, champagne-swilling crowd that would be anticipated at a typical Opera House event. Young children (with rich parents) and elderly regulars (who provide hefty donations) are keeping ballet alive and thriving in Australia, but there is a gaping hole in the fan-base. As modern music spits out a plethora of new sub-genres every week, an appreciation for classical librettos is virtually nonexistent for the average person looking for something to do on a Friday night. However, with lowered ticket prices, contemporary routines and well-stocked, lively bars nearby, there’s no reason why the Opera House shouldn’t be a stop on every student’s weekend plans.