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West Australian Ballet during COVID-19: Keeping the company conditioned

Sandy Delasalle and dancers of West Australian Ballet in rehearsals for 'La Sylphide'. Photo by Sergey Pevnev.
Sandy Delasalle and dancers of West Australian Ballet in rehearsals for 'La Sylphide'. Photo by Sergey Pevnev.

It would be easy to throw up our hands. Artists in Australia have been brutalised by a combination of pandemic measures and recent public funding decisions. However, the current cultural hibernation also serves to make us think, to drive our creative responses and remind the nation more broadly what our absence looks like. TikTok notwithstanding, the dance community finds its structures splintered, its seasons in disarray and its audiences dispersed and distant. So, what do you do if you are a large organisation with 75 full time staff, numerous financial and partnership arrangements to juggle and a company of dancers to keep conditioned?

Photo courtesy of West Australian Ballet.
Photo courtesy of West Australian Ballet.

Founded in 1952, West Australian Ballet (WAB) is the country’s oldest, and one of our premier dance institutions. Since March 30, the company has been ‘at home’, the regular seven-hour daily contact with dancers is down to an hour on Zoom, and cash strapped sponsors are starting to step away. 

That said, Executive Director Jessica Machin knows the company will survive (unlike others). “As a large organisation, whilst we have a healthy balance sheet, our biggest asset is our people, and it’s also our biggest liability, meaning salaries and wages,” she says.

Whilst WAB is one of the more fortunate organisations, Machin is keenly aware that the entire ecosystem of the arts is under stress. “The government, at the moment, has not listened to the calls from the arts sector to have a special package,” she observes. “We’re part of a larger advocacy now hoping to get the government to listen. Our sector was the first to be hit, and it will be the hardest thing to restart, I suppose. The biggest challenge will be re-building audience confidence. For all of us in the arts sector, box office is going to be hugely effected over the next 12 months to two years.”

West Australian Ballet's Artistic Director Aurélien Scannella and Executive Director Jessica Machin. Photo by Frances Andrijich.
West Australian Ballet’s Artistic Director Aurélien Scannella and Executive Director Jessica Machin. Photo by Frances Andrijich.

Meanwhile, one of the Ballet’s key challenges is to keep its corp of dancers fit and ready to go. This is where Sandy Delasalle and her husband, Aurélien Scannella, come in. She is the principal ballet mistress and he the artistic director. Together with their now distant dancers, they form the creative heart, the raison d’être of the company. 

“Although there is not much we can do with the dancers, we think it’s really important to keep training them physically and making sure that mentally they will survive,” says Delasalle. “They are elite athletes, they need motivation, they need to have goals, and they really miss being in the studio and working all day together.”

To that end, she and Scannella have split the dancers into two groups and have daily Zoom sessions, with 30 minutes of barre and 30 of conditioning. As we speak (mid-April), online yoga classes have been arranged and preparations made to allow for pairs to use studio space for jumps and turns. (Luckily, there are a number of couples amongst the corp, making this task easier.)

“What concerns me is that if they are not jumping, they will injure themselves when we get back,” Delasalle notes. “But we have also given them other tasks, like shooting videos and making stuff we can use later for marketing.”

Sandy Delasalle.
Sandy Delasalle.

However, ballet, like any elite physical pursuit, requires continuous repetition and attention to detail, a task made harder by distance and atomisation. According to Delasalle, “You lose one percent a day if you don’t train. It’s a bigger challenge when you don’t have a date when everyone knows, ‘Okay, from here everything will be fine, and we will start again.’ So, we are trying to get them all through until the date we will get back together and start doing what we love to do.”

Beyond the merely physical, the mental health of all the company’s staff is something that Machin is focused on. “We’ve established a kind of team check-in process across the organisation,” she explains. “Not just ‘how are you going’ but quite a deep check-in. Mostly we just go, ‘Oh yeah, I’m okay,’ but when you ask, ‘No, how are you?,’ it goes deeper. We’re still finding the balance of that.”

To help maintain a sense of company togetherness, three weeks of “Thursday games nights” have been arranged. In her role as Executive Director, Machin’s task is to ensure that WAB emerges financially, creatively and psychologically in shape, and finding ways for the company’s people to come together, if only online, is a critical part of that.

WAB Demi-Soloist Melissa McCabe doing morning class from home.
WAB Demi-Soloist Melissa McCabe doing morning class from home.

For Delasalle and Scannella, the task is more tightly defined. Aside from making herself available 24/7 to the dancers, Delasalle explains, “The fact that we are apart now, the dancers feel this miss, and they really want to connect. They really have this need just to have a chat, even just to hear my voice.” 

Balancing this out, she adds, “Any psychological things, when you are dancing, for this hour, you can escape. So, we can just forget for this hour.”

As a company dedicated to the notion of live performance, of the theatre, WAB is not rushing to add to the clutter of digital dance. When asked about the possibilities offered by streaming, Delasalle is adamant. “I don’t want to do ‘whatever’. There are so many things now that are shown, because everyone wants to be present, but you have to stick with your creativity, with the way you want to present your company and don’t just do ‘whatever.’ It’s better to be missed a lot than to have done too much.”

Therefore, although she and her husband are tinkering with ideas, nothing is decided. Indeed, as Scannella argues, there are higher ideals than mere presence. “When I witness a performance or see any type of art, I like to feel, I like it to take me on an emotional journey, and I want it to educate the audience. Without that, this leaves a gaping void in the makeup of our society.”

Right now, many of us are feeling that void, but we should perhaps also be thankful that in this country we are privileged, not simply because we can observe physical distance from the comfort of our own homes but because we can reasonably look forward to the day when we can go back to the ballet. There are many in this world for whom this would be an unimaginable luxury.

By Paul Ransom of Dance Informa.

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