“I never thought I would create a ballet with animals in it,” declares Loughlan Prior after another day of rehearsal, “if only because of Cats the movie, and how much criticism it got.”
That the Royal New Zealand Ballet’s resident choreographer finds himself back in his native Melbourne creating a dance version of Mem Fox’s beloved children’s book Possum Magic is an irony not lost on him. It turns out that grafting animal movement patterns onto classical ballet technique and narrative storytelling is “just so much fun.”
Indeed, Prior is not shying from the inherent playfulness of the work. “I’m leaning into that beautiful, innocent language,” he reveals, “Again, going back to the source material, it is this classic children’s book. We really want to honour that.”
Beyond this, there are deeper symmetries. Aside from being a famed author, Fox was also a teacher working with students much the same age as those in the graduating class of The Australian Ballet School who are currently bringing her bestselling book to life. (Confession, in the late 1980s, I was one of her students.)
More importantly, the book’s inter-generational theme resonates powerfully with Prior. He was eight when his father died and, as a result, his grandparents played an expanded role in his early life. As a child, Possum Magic rang especially true for him.
Although he is now New Zealand-based, with an international practise spanning dance for both stage and film, Prior started life on Melbourne’s outskirts, in the semi-rural town of Warrandyte. Hence his desire to make and share work in his old hometown.
Recalling the inspiration for this latest ballet, he says, “I just happened to be rummaging through the bookshelf and came across Possum Magic. It had always been an absolute favourite of mine and, realising this was going to be the 40th anniversary of its release, I actually sent a very gushing letter to Mem [Fox], talking all about my upbringing in Warrandyte and about her book and what it meant to me.”
The gush worked, and Fox agreed. Thereafter, The Australian Ballet School put their hand up, and now, a month out from opening night, Prior finds himself in a café teasing apart the creative process with one of Fox’s old students.
He begins by addressing the challenges of adaptation. The leap from page to stage can be tricky, but making ballet from a book about animals is potentially fraught. Here is where Prior’s preferred process kick in.
Starting with a small team – himself, composer, designer – a core structure is created. This, he argues, is especially critical with new works. “We’re not reinventing Swan Lake,” he explains. Although there is some pressure to “live up to expectations about what the book is,” there remains considerable freedom to explore.
“The conceptual building is the thing that takes the most time. Once that’s all laid out, my time in the studio is very fun and easy,” he elaborates.
Prior’s choreographic approach is consciously methodical. “I have everything planned out in my head narratively. Then, I teach the steps to the dancers and adjust things to fit their individual needs, and from there we build the characters.” Thus, the final weeks of rehearsal are all about “adding the finer details and nuances.”
Regarding the work as a whole, he adds, “The most important thing is the story, that it’s interesting and digestible right the way through.”
With Possum Magic, this means that the ensemble needs to pay special attention to eyelines, principally because of the invisible possum motif in the story. Such a sharp focus on detail and storytelling discipline is something Prior works hard on. He is, it seems, not a big fan of dance that “just looks beautiful.”
The other aspect of bringing Hush and Grandma Poss to the ballet is the reality of a large ensemble, and the overarching educational context. “It’s really important that everyone has lots of meaty dancing,“ Prior confirms. Fortunately, the nature of the narrative and characters allow this.
“We spent a lot of time at the beginning identifying the strengths and weaknesses of the animals and pairing that with the right dancers. We also have some dancers learning multiple roles. Also, this is their very final performance, so it’s a celebration of their entire training life.”
Pondering the average age of the cast (18-19), and remembering his own development as a dancer, his sense is that it is an ideal fit. They are, he states, “hungry for it.” They do not yet see things through the “jaded eyes” of older dancers. “In a way, this is why it’s happened with the school, because it is that perfect type of show for this group.”
At this, Prior smiles, before concluding, “Unleashing your inner child is really fun and refreshing because life’s too serious sometimes. It’s good just to be a possum.”
I wonder if my former teacher Mem Fox would agree. My guess is yes.
The Australian Ballet School will present Loughlan Prior’s Possum Magic at Arts Centre Melbourne from 8 – 10 December. For tickets and more information, visit www.artscentremelbourne.com.au/whats-on/2023/dance/tabs-possum-magic.
By Paul Ransom of Dance Informa.