Lisa Pavane: Leaving with her head held high

Lisa Pavane. Photo by Lynette Wills.
Lisa Pavane. Photo by Lynette Wills.

Lisa Pavane’s journey with The Australian Ballet School (“the School”) commenced in 1978, when she was accepted as a student, relocating from Newcastle to Melbourne to train full time. Following an illustrious performing career with The Australian Ballet, English National Ballet and as a guest artist with some of the world’s best companies, Pavane retired from the stage in 1999, having reached the pinnacle of her performing career. She made her return to the School in 2007, firstly as a teacher, then Head of Student Training in 2012, before becoming Director in 2015. 

Pavane is the fourth Director of The Australian Ballet School, following in the footsteps of founding director Dame Margaret Scott AC DBE, Gailene Stock CBE AM and Marilyn Rowe AM OBE. Pavane will conclude her distinguished tenure at the end of June of this year.

Lisa Pavane. Photo by Lynette Wills.
Lisa Pavane. Photo by Lynette Wills.

Dance Informa spoke to Pavane on the phone from her new home on the Sunshine Coast, and when we noted that 2024 will mark the end of a 46-year relationship with the School, she sounded surprised: “I hadn’t done the numbers, but it is a long, long time since starting there as a child.”

We asked Pavane if it was a difficult decision to step down from her position as Director. “It is certainly not a decision I made lightly, and I had hoped to complete the full 10 years and celebrate the 60th anniversary of the School, which is such an exciting time. I just felt that I am a little bit lacking in energy, and I just thought, ‘Am I sticking this out for a little bit longer when I should be doing what is best for the School?’ And I feel really thrilled with my tenure and what I think I have achieved. I am really excited about the opportunity to leave with my head held high. I always said that when I felt I was getting tired – it is such a hard job – that it is the right thing to do. The School has been such a part of my life and feels like family. It is what gave me my career and means the world to me. I feel comfortable that the time is right for someone to come in with some fresh eyes and fresh energy.”

The School has seen many changes under Pavane’s direction, including the creation of a boarding house for students, a holistic well-being approach to training, and she has created a team whose skills ensure the emotional, mental and physical health of the students is nurtured just as much as their technical ability. We queried whether it has been a difficult balance maintaining the strict training and discipline required of the students while allowing an approach that fosters health and well-being.

Lisa Pavane with Hannah O'Neill. Photo by Sergey Konstantinov.
Lisa Pavane with Hannah O’Neill. Photo by Sergey Konstantinov.

“No, absolutely not,” she remarks. “All the work that we have done around positive psychology and education and understanding about the mental health and well-being of young people is that if they are not in a place where they are feeling nurtured and cared for, then they are not going to flourish. I think happiness and wellness has to come first, and then there is an engagement that allows young people to step into the space. It’s a two-way conversation, and it’s a two-way step to have that engagement to enable a different relationship other than the authoritarian relationship which was dictatorial and ‘well, you’re here to learn.’ The best learners are self learners, and they are teaching themselves so an awful lot has changed. It is a whole team approach across the entire organisation – the administration, through boarding, through our health team into our artistic staff.”

Spearheading such grand changes is no mean feat, especially in an area that is so entrenched in tradition and outdated ways of training. Pavane also lead the School through the unprecedented COVID-19 lockdowns in Melbourne, which totalled 262 days of strict isolation and saw the School close its doors to students.

“I think the Covid years took a little bit off my tenure because it was really, really challenging. We had a fantastic approach across the entire team, so I certainly didn’t do it on my own, but it was the immediacy of the Melbourne lockdowns and no one knew what we were going to go through – and thank goodness we didn’t know! Initially, it was, ‘How do we get this program up and running so we can keep training our dancers?,’ and we had to slip into action really quickly. We did massive risk assessments for all our people and worked out a mentoring program that would keep them engaged and also keep them safe, so in the initial stages of the lockdown, it was all systems go and we worked hours and hours and hours. Being the one person at the top (the General Manager was on leave) meant I became the mailman, the banker, I would go into the ballet centre and change the servers every day. Hardest of all was managing the morale of dancers and staff, particularly the artistic staff who had to conduct all their classes on Zoom. Managing the dancers’ concerns and worries and fears of what this was doing to their training and performance opportunities was challenging. There were a lot of difficult calls to students. An example is where I was able to let the Level 6 and 7 students back into the studio because they were part of an RTO (registered training authority), but I had to tell the Level 8s that they couldn’t come in and also the Dancers’ Company tour had been cancelled. I felt a sense of responsibility to the students, their families and the staff, and everyone was looking to me for direction.” 

Lisa Pavane.
Lisa Pavane. Photo courtesy of Australian Ballet School

It was a time when the health and well-being of students was at the forefront of Pavane’s mind. If students did not feel as though they could log on some days, then they were encouraged to rest and return when they would feel more engaged.

Amazingly, there were only two students who chose to discontinue their studies during this period who were able to continue their training in person in Queensland, where lockdown was not a harsh reality. Pavane was able to find silver linings from the lockdown experience, despite all the challenges. “We really took the training back to basics. The dancers, because they didn’t have anyone there to cue them, they ended up becoming their own teachers and ended up learning through their own bodies and own experiences. It was amazing to see what the dancers achieved in their backyards and in stairwells and with internet problems.” 

Pavane also established a new Post Graduate Year Programme to extend training and care to the graduate year students affected by the pandemic. “It was very necessary for the Level 8s who missed out on everything,” she says. “We had to get everyone to the point where they were ready to graduate and audition for companies.” 

While the program has now ended, graduates are still able to come into the School and do classical, pointe and pas de deux classes, and access the gym while they are waiting for auditions or contracts to commence.

What sets The Australian Ballet School and its dancers apart from the rest of the world? “Our system of training has developed and evolved over many years,” Pavane says. “As Australian dancers, we are quite open and fearless, and when you’re in a safe environment where you can explore your limits is part of what we do. There is more awareness about dancers as individuals rather than cookie cutters because isn’t that what directors like? They like people who are different. Our success rate for employment is very, very high, so when I see the cohorts of dancers and alumni who are in companies all around the country and all around the world, I think we are doing something that provides a vocational pathway or a platform for young people to then go out and continue developing and exploring.”

Lisa Pavane. Photo by Lynette Wills.
Lisa Pavane. Photo by Lynette Wills.

When asked how important she thinks education is for dancers, Pavane emphatically replies, “Very important. When I went to the School, I did grade 10 and did not go all the way through to grade 12. Lots of dancers now are undertaking online schooling from a very young age, and I am so against it. At the School, we absolutely support and nurture our young people to understand that their academic pathway is really, really important. While the focus is on working toward a vocation, ultimately they will have a short-ish career, and they should enjoy learning and be equipped to step into the world able to contribute as global citizens later on down the track with skills that they can transfer into other activities, either when a dance career doesn’t come for them or they are coming to the end of their dancing career. It is really important for young people not to be so narrow minded with their blinkers on about dance because things can go wrong.” 

Pavane further notes that there is more to being a dancer than doing 32 fouettés such as “attending functions and working with donors. It is much broader than just being on stage, so education and transferrable skills work in tandem with dance.”

It is hard to see history when you’re in the middle of it. When asked what she wanted her legacy to be from her time as Director, Pavane first mentions some additional facilities the students could access and the performance opportunities that came with that. Pavane considers the question further: “for the students being able to come out as a well rounded person ready to tackle the challenges of this profession and life. That is a really difficult question!” 

Lisa Pavane. Photo by Lynette Wills.
Lisa Pavane. Photo by Lynette Wills.

We suggested that she was spot on and that her legacy has been creating young adults who are well rounded and prepared for both dance and life more generally. “When you say it back to me like that, that is exactly what I want to be remembered for,” says Pavane. “Creating a space for our young people to really thrive and to continue to thrive once they step away from the School.”

As to what the future holds? “I am fully invested in my final six months with the School and will be planning the entirety of the year, even the gala performances at the end of the year,” Pavane explains. “I will also assist with a handover to the next person coming in. I won’t walk away until I know that it is all done. Beyond that, I am open to participating in dance competitions, masterclasses or coaching; I would love to do that. I definitely don’t want to lose my links to dance, but I won’t be undertaking any full-time jobs or roles in the dance world.”

Pavane also has her sights set on undertaking volunteer work in non-dance areas. “I want to do something that is giving back to the community. There’s also a lot of work to be done in the area of anti-racism and body diversity in dance, as well as access to training. If I were to be asked to be on any panels or working group in that space, I would have time to devote to that, and there is so much we can achieve.”

Her greatest legacy could be yet to come.

DANCE TEACHERS: Lisa Pavane will be a special guest speaker at Vitality Dance Teacher Conference this April at the Melbourne Showgrounds. Come and meet Lisa and hear more about her career, her time at the helm of The Australian Ballet School and the evolution of teaching and holistic education. Get tickets at VDF.com.au/teacherconference.

By Rebecca Martin of Dance Informa.

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