Even amidst the swirl of gregarious, digital modernity, ballet retains an aura. For young dancers in this country, the dream of one day being part of The Australian Ballet still excites and ignites. Indeed, it is probably fair to suggest that for many (perhaps most) aspiring dancers the big ballet dream is the one that motivates them to turn up for weekend classes, practise their pliés and perfect the five positions.
As the nation’s premier dance institution, The Australian Ballet is aware that this brings both expectation and responsibility. In an arts environment where the jargon routinely extols engagement and inclusivity, and where ‘old’ artforms are continually called upon to assert their ‘relevance’, it is little wonder that the ballet is reaching out.
Thus, on the last Saturday in October, the much-vaunted Australian Ballet School will throw open the gates of its Southbank (Melbourne) campus to young dancers aged eight through 13. Dubbed An Afternoon at The Australian Ballet School, this initiative is aimed at both the dance mad and the merely curious. As the Director of the school, Lisa Pavane, reveals, “We want it to be quite informal in a way. You know, build the community, build the love for ballet.”
However, it is clearly more than an exercise in institutional branding or talent spotting. “Dance is for many, many people,” Pavane declares with obvious passion. “I suppose, as The Australian Ballet School, we are the national, pre-eminent school as far as ballet is concerned, and we want to open our doors to as many people as possible. I mean, there’s so much to gain and learn from dance and music — the physical activity, the coordination, all of those things.”
Indeed, in the context of obesity spikes, screen addictions and other sedentary trends, dance is frequently touted as an alternative to sport or gym as a socially engaged and physically challenging activity. In this light, An Afternoon at The Australian Ballet School is a broader invitation. “It’s a chance to really see and appreciate what you can do with dance,” Pavane observes. “And especially for young boys; because I think we’re still seeing a little bit of a drought of males wanting to take up dance. This will really let them see how rigorous and strenuous it is, how strong they have to be, and how athletic it is.”
More specifically, the ‘afternoon’ experience offers participants two classes (one classical, the other either character or contemporary), and an opportunity to observe the school’s graduating year level students doing their pas de deux drill. Dancers will be split into age strands, (eight to 10, 11-13), with group sizes likely landing around twenty five.
Yet perhaps the big point of difference will be the chance to take a class with live music. “A lot of dancers who come from regional or smaller schools might not have that beautiful opportunity to work with musicians live,” Pavane notes. “So, we hope that’s a really special experience for those dancers who may not have had that chance yet.”
The school’s resident eight-piece ensemble is, according to Pavane, critical to their work. As she says, “In our minds, music is number one.”
Whilst acknowledging that the ballet and the school are in a privileged position, Pavane is keen to stress that this does not translate into an exclusivist mentality. “Even though we are a vocational school and have that at our core, we are open for everyone to come in and see some of the amazing talent we have here. That, I’m sure, will probably be quite inspiring, not just for some of those who are thinking about dance as a career but maybe even for others who never thought it was possible for them.”
Although it may only be one Saturday afternoon, the long term take-out for students, the school and the ballet company is clear. “The other benefit of this, of sharing a love of dance, is that they’re our future audience,” Pavane elaborates. “It’s important for the future, not just for our art but for all arts, to show how the arts blossom and have a cultural importance for our community.”
If, in a decade or so, we find ourselves cheering for someone who went to An Afternoon at The Australian Ballet School in 2019, then Pavane’s ballet dream will also have come true.
An Afternoon at The Australian Ballet School will take place on 26 October. For more information and to register, visit www.australianballetschool.com.au/products/an-afternoon-at-the-australian-ballet-school.
By Paul Ransom of Dance Informa.