“Ballet is unique: It has no written texts or standardised notation. It is a storytelling art passed on from teacher to student.” Jennifer Homans, Apollo’s Angels: A History of Ballet.
The Sydney City Youth Ballet (SCYB) was established over 40 years ago by Tanya Pearson, and today, the company is stronger than ever, literally bursting at the seams with young talent.
In January 2015, Lucinda Dunn OAM took the reins as artistic director of SCYB with 40-plus company artists (depending on the season), plus artistic and administration staff, overseeing the annual program of SCYB performances, which now includes domestic tours to regional towns, as well as the annual collaborative season of Together Live with the Sydney Youth Orchestras (SYO) Philharmonic.
When Dance Informa paid a visit, the company was busier than ever in rehearsal preparing for the 2018 Together Live, with Act Two of Giselle.
The rehearsal was mesmerising as 15-year-old Grace Carroll was put through her paces, coached by Dunn and Danilo Radojevic. Carroll has an ethereal serenity about her, with a calmness and maturity that belies her years. Her technique and poise are impeccable, and she willingly incorporates the refinements that Dunn and Radojevic provide during rehearsal.
Following rehearsal, we have a few minutes to chat to Carroll. I’m interested in where she finds the required depth of emotion to portray Giselle. “It was overwhelming at first,” she admits, “but for me, the music is so beautiful. I really feel it in my body, and the movement reflects the music so well; it expresses everything I need to express. I think a lot of dancers think about the storyline, but for me, I just really think the music. I really feel that in my body.”
Off stage, Carroll is an unassuming schoolgirl in year 10 studying for her NSW School Certificate. Along with other young company artists, there is quite a workload, juggling the full-time ballet training, the rehearsals for the SCYB seasons, as well as studying for the School Certificate. And where would Carroll like to find herself dancing in the future? “Either at The Royal Ballet or The Australian Ballet,” she says.
Coming full circle
Dunn has come full circle in her dance career, having trained with Pearson as a youngster before heading to The Royal Ballet School in London, where she overcame significant injuries to become one of the youngest dancers to be accepted into The Australian Ballet at the age of 17. Dunn is the longest serving ballerina in The Australian Ballet after performing with the company for 23 years.
“I’ve always had a connection and been part of the SCYB,” Dunn explains, “even when I was with the Aussie Ballet, being invited to guest coach and perform, so in a way I never really left. But to come back and lead in this mammoth role now is a huge responsibility with a lot of pressure as Artistic Director!”
Dunn juggles two major roles. Her role includes overseeing the full-time program, choosing the dancers who are accepted into the Academy, overseeing 20-plus faculty, forward planning, as well as looking at variations dancers want to do. Her role includes the annual season of performances, the planning of the repertoire (in this case for Together Live), choosing costumes and planning rehearsals.
“I also feel the need to be very generous with the dancers — in their work ethic, their artistry, providing a real insight into what life is like in a company,” Dunn adds. At the moment, ages are between 15 to 18 years, and Dunn is mindful of the maturity and capacity of each dancer, not pushing them beyond their emotional maturity. “I’m not going to suggest a role such as Giselle to a 15-year-old who may have the required technique but lacks the emotional maturity. Grace has both, as well as the capacity to remain grounded.”
Dunn runs SCYB like a professional company, which includes going on tour and being part of a team. 2017 saw the first Together Live collaboration between SCYB and the SYO Philharmonic. Dunn is very enthusiastic and says, “With the orchestra on stage rather than in the pit, everyone is part of the performance. It’s so magical for the dancers to get to feel the music and the musicians to see the dancers performing to their music. They’re both in awe of each other!”
In terms of future goals, Dunn would like to tour more, so that performances are not just one-off events. In this way, the dancers face the same challenges as any touring company, needing to settle into a new theatre, a different stage, as well as experiencing the camaraderie on tour.
Future challenges for SCYB
Dunn outlines the challenges for the company’s future. “We desperately need a permanent studio for the company. We need funding. Currently, there is no government funding. We rely on our sponsors and benefactors, so budgeting is tight.”
Pathways for professional dancers
SCYB provides a launching pad for pre-professional artists and can open up real opportunities for company contracts. In 2018, two SCYB company artists were accepted into The Australian Ballet, and many others have gone on to join the world’s leading ballet companies.
Dunn adds, “I don’t want all these amazing dancers to have to go overseas and not come back, and unfortunately, that’s what they often do.”
The week following our interview, SYCB presented Maina Gieulgud’s Giselle Act II as part of an impressive and demanding triple bill at the Concourse Theatre, Chatswood, together with the SYO Philharmonic. The audience was enthralled with Grace‘s artistry and maturity, realising they were witnessing a star in the making.
The program also included Paquita, a technical and unforgiving ballet with a stunning Lillian Easterbrook in the title role, as well as the world premiere of Powerhouse, a brand new contemporary ballet choreographed by Lucas Jervies.
With young companies such as SCYB and artistic directors such as Dunn, the transfer of ballet artistry and storytelling are certainly in good hands.
For more information on Sydney City Youth Ballet, visit www.facebook.com/sydneycityyouthballet.
By Elizabeth Ashley of Dance Informa.