Allie Graham: Dutiful maiden and fierce warrior in ‘Aida’

Allie Graham in 'Aida'. Photo by Prudence Upton.
Allie Graham (left) in 'Aida'. Photo by Prudence Upton.

Opera Australia is returning to Sydney Opera House with a lavish production of Aida. This production is directed and choreographed by Davide Livermore, and features extraordinary design by design studio Giò Forma and costume by Gianluca Falaschi. Dance Informa caught up with dance captain for the production Allie Graham about the experience and about her practice as a dancer and maker.

There is a production image of you holding a dagger looking very menacing. Can you describe the role you are playing in that image?

Opera Australia in 'Aida'. Photo by Prudence Upton.
Opera Australia in ‘Aida’. Photo by Prudence Upton.

“As part of the dance ensemble, I play a warrior of the Egyptian Court. We morph between dutiful maidens performing sacred rites entertaining the princess of Egypt and transform into fierce warriors of war. In this scene, we are summoned to perform blood sacrifices to bring victory upon Egypt in the upcoming war.”

What does this production require of you physically? How do you stay in condition for this production? 

“This production draws from classical movement of the baroque era as well as modern contemporary and physical theatre forms. The dancers draw upon a fusion of classical ballet, modern contemporary, physical theatre, improvisation and characterisation. To prepare for the opera and to stay fit, I use a combination of adjunctive training through Pilates, strength training, cardio, as well as classical ballet, contemporary dance, release technique and improvisation. I stay connected to my own sources of imagery and movement language through improvisation practice.”

What does your role as dance captain on this project require?

“As dance captain, I act as a hybrid form of rehearsal director and dancer, responsible for relaying the movement, physicality and characterisation to the dancers and working alongside director Shaun Rennie and assistant director Danielle Maas in maintaining the integrity of the production as well as performing on stage myself. My preparation involved watching the archival footage on repeat, listening for musical cues in the orchestration and referencing the libretto which informs the narrative and intentions behind the movement. Learning the individual track of each dancer, their series of interactions and how their pathway pans out in each scene, as well as organising covers in case of emergencies. I have a scrapbook of colour-coded mind maps to organise the new cast into formations as I felt an organisation demon come over me!”

Opera Australia in 'Aida'. Photo by Prudence Upton.
Opera Australia in ‘Aida’. Photo by Prudence Upton.

Which performers do you admire and why? Are there choreographers or dancers who influence you

“I’m hopelessly obsessed with the alien, neo-classical contemporary style unique to Israeli choreographer Sharon Eyal and her company L-E-V. They possess this slinky, broken-limbed language distorting their form in sporadic twitches and insect-like dislocations.

The absurdist Belgian dance theatre, Peeping Tom – they pull contemporary dance into the realm of storytelling unveiling the inner lives of their characters through outlandish movement just as one reveals their neuroses through physical symptoms. I will forever be in awe of the finesse and grace of Cyd Charisse as well as the feline cynicism of Bob Fosse – the curved shoulders, broken doll walk, pigeon-toed feet, shoulder rolls and snapping fingers – obsessed. I fell in love with Ohad Naharin’s movement language, Gaga, while taking class in Tel Aviv at the Batsheva Dance Company. Gaga is a form of play and improvisation that induces the body into this surreal state of hyperawareness by connecting to imagery and sensation. You can fill your bones with honey, step into a cold shower. It allows me to discover all the colours available within me, my delicacy, exaggeration, melodrama and sense of fantasy.”

I am looking at some of the images in the production – what a lavish set and costumes. Is there a different type of process that you undertake when working with such ornate and resplendent scenography and costumes? in opposition to, say, a minimalist Sydney Dance Company production? 

“As a performer, you are in service to the libretto, the musical score, Verdi’s interpretation and the director’s own voice. You cannot stray from the realm of the set design (Giò Forma), the world surrounding you. You are an engine in a larger machine, an essential puzzle piece in the world created on stage. The choreography of the 10 LED screens (video design by D-Wok) is just as important as our choreography! The screens shift, rotate, turn, and transform our space into a harsh desert or the lavish, perfume-filled apartments of Amneris. This alters how we navigate the space, coordinate spatial pathways and interactions with other performers.”

What brought you to working with the Opera Australia? 

“I auditioned in 2018 for a dancer position in this production of Aida. I wanted to experience the demands of performance on such a grand scale, to utilise my training and movement language in a new context, to embody a character and be part of a huge team.”

Opera Australia in 'Aida'. Photo by Prudence Upton.
Opera Australia in ‘Aida’. Photo by Prudence Upton.

What sorts of dancers are suited to working at Opera Australia? 

“It varies from job to job. Every production has different requirements. Well trained, professional dancers from all backgrounds are encouraged and welcome. Each opera requires varied roles and skill sets, dependent on the characters, aesthetic, time period, narrative and director’s interpretation. All sorts of dancers are employed from all disciplines with unique talents. For example, clowning, pointe work, stilt-walking, street styles.”

What are your preshow rituals? 

“Before a show, I am caffeinating and sipping on three different bevvies: coca cola, coffee and Powerade. A potent blend. I engage in my typical opera routine of warming up in the studio with a combination of a ballet barre, improvisation and contemporary exercises; pincurling my hair, applying stage makeup, having a chat with the wardrobe, hair and makeup staff. I always find myself constantly moving, using improvisation to awaken my mind and body, familiarise myself with specific pathways, shapes, textures, modes of movement required in the show.”

Catch Aida by Opera Australia at the Sydney Opera House from the 19 June – 21 July. For more information on the production or to purchase tickets, visit opera.org.au/productions/aida-sydney.

By Tamara Searle of Dance Informa.

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