Blessed with a natural open air amphitheatre just 13km from the Perth CBD, West Australian Ballet (WAB) was eager to exit the COVID restrictions and return to its working normal state of dance training, creating, rehearsing and performing in 2021.
Dance Informa caught up with Aurélien Scannella, WAB’s artistic director, to discuss the company’s 2021 season and the challenges they face running a major ballet company in the post-COVID-19 era.
After eight years in this position, Scannella seems unfazed by the challenges he faces and applies a heady mix of long-term planning, boundless enthusiasm for dance, personal stubbornness, artistic discipline and strategic pragmatism.
“It has been a fantastic journey so far,” he says, adding that the remoteness is a bonus. “The fact that we are quite isolated is actually a positive thing for us, for me, because I can really bring the world here, which is great for the dancers and for the public. What we lose in remoteness, we gain in impact.”
Determined to put its best foot forward, the WAB 2021 season opened with Ballet at the Quarry, its annual program of presenting a contemporary piece at its unique open air amphitheatre.
This year’s work is titled As One. Scannella says, “We came up with that name because after such a challenging time with COVID when we couldn’t be together, we couldn’t hug each other, couldn’t spend time even with your own family and friends, you know, we were separated from one another for so long. So when someone came up with that as a title, I thought, ‘That’s it.’ This work captures what we are going through. And now that we are back together as one — the dancers, the public, all the artists, backstage, frontstage — it’s such a unifying and appropriate title.”
He continues, “We are pretty lucky because this quarry, this outdoor venue is so special and unique.” Having performed on a number of outdoor venues in Europe, Scannella knows how hard it can be to perform outside where the weather plays a role as much as the performance.
“The quarry is very special,” he says. “There’s something very special about it. And the fact that people, the public are able to come before the performance, to enjoy a picnic with their friends and share a good time together. And then the show starts under the stars. It’s very special, I have to say. It’s one of the biggest stages in Western Australia.”
Ironically, Scannella reveals, “As One has gone through 25 different options because of COVID. Maybe not 25! But I always try to plan my programs two or three years ahead, so this work has been in creative gestation a long time ago. But with COVID, the whole thing had to change. But with that said, the bonus was we got Natalie Weir with her Four Seasons work. I’ve really wanted to work with her for years but never had the chance. Natalie had worked with WAB before me, so that was on my wish list to invite her to WAB. She is a wonderful lady and a great choreographer. Unfortunately, she hasn’t been able to fly to Perth due to COVID. But we managed to get her on Zoom every day, and we made it work, and the result was absolutely amazing.”
The enforced lockdown has also shaped other works in the program. WAB has a regular Genesis where new works are created with the company’s dancers using more intimate, exploratory and experimental works.
“I’ve had it in mind for quite a few years now to use the works from Genesis and develop them and bring them to a bigger stage,” Scannella says. “And COVID has probably pushed me to do it. Maybe sooner than expected. But I’m really excited and really happy about the result entitled Heartache. We’ve developed a storyline around the works. And I’m really happy with the result. I have to say. It’s a beautiful work, very intense, very deep.”
The other work is Moment of Joy, choreographed by WAB dancers Dayana Hardy Acuña and Juan Carlos Osma, both from Cuba.
“This work really came out of the blue because last year, when they were invited to perform for an online ballet competition in South Africa, they created a pas de deux for that event,” Scannella explains. “And our company pianist composed a score for that, and when I saw it, I thought that it could easily be developed into something bigger for more dancers. I proposed the idea, and the three of them were absolutely delighted, and so Michael [Brett, head of music for WAB] now plays the piano live on stage each night.”
Scannella says that he’s continuing to plan and to organise the future of WAB, regardless of COVID-19. “Of course, I have to have a ‘B’ plan and a ‘C’ plan, but I’m really focusing on my plan ‘A’ because if not, then my plan ‘A’ will look like nothing. So, yes, we know it’s hard at the moment to set anything in stone because any day the situation might change. Bringing people from overseas right now would be extremely challenging. And I think it’s going to be like that for the rest of this year.”
Scannella adds, “We have a brand new Sleeping Beauty program for the end of this year. And the choreographer, Javier Torres, lives in Paris. So he’s supposed to come here in October. We hope he will be able to be over in October. And his assistant is based in Helsinki. So I hope she will be able to come over as well. Otherwise, that’s going to be a big challenge for us. Also in October, I’m hoping to be able to bring another choreographer for two weeks, who will start the creation for next year’s Ballet at the Quarry. That person is supposed to come from New York, but again, is he going to make it? We don’t know. So I think this year we really have to go with the flow.”
Scannella is most proud of his company’s artistic discipline and work ethic. “One thing I’m really proud of is the culture we have at this company and the work ethic instilled in all our artists. No matter the challenge, they are always accepting of every single challenge. I think artists have to be challenged artistically. That’s the only way for them to grow as an artist and to move forward together. They understand that; we are a strong company together. It took me a few years to get it to where I wanted it. But yes, since 2019, I have to say the company is the company that I always wanted to have. They know that the keys to success are commitment, consistency and hard work. These are the three things I’m expecting from them. When they do that, it’s not difficult to perform in front of audiences again.”
In this uncertain world, Scannella summarises his task as simply: “The show must go on…and will go on.”
West Australian Ballet’s 2021 season includes As One: Ballet at the Quarry (through 3 March), Genesis (23 – 31 March), Giselle (13 – 22 May), STATE (24 June – 3 July), Coppélia (16 – 25 September) and The Sleeping Beauty (18 November – 12 December). For more information, head to waballet.com.au.
By Elizabeth Ashley of Dance Informa.