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Interview: Artistic Director David McAllister Discusses the Australian Ballet's New SLEEPING BEAUTY

Pearl Buck, the Nobel Prize winning author, once wrote that "if you want to understand today, you have to search yesterday." Which is what Australian Ballet Artistic Director David McAllister has attempted with his new production of Tchaikovsky's The Sleeping Beauty, which will premiere in Melbourne, Australia, on September 15 2015, before touring to Perth from October 7-10, and Sydney from November 17-December 16.

Originally presented by the Mariinsky in St. Petersburg on January 5, 1890, with choreography by Marius Petipa and conducted by Riccardo Drigo, the ballet has become a symbol for all that classical ballet holds in the highest esteem: grandness of dance execution, memorable music that has transcended its original Russian roots to find a place in the orchestral and recorded repertory, and characters that still remain undeniably recognizable in today's society.

It is interesting to read that the Tsar's reaction to the ballet was "very nice." Critical response to the ballet was decidedly mixed, most referring to the overly symphonic nature of the score. The ensuing years have definitely proved them wrong!

For McAllister, "our new production of The Sleeping Beauty will be a classic retelling, based on Marius Petipa's ballet, but shaped to reflect the concerns and responsibilities of a modern day monarchy."

Broadwayworld Dance recently sat down to interview Mr. McAllister on his forthcoming production.

Q. Why a new Sleeping Beauty now?

A. Over the past few years we have refreshed the "big title" ballets and now have two Swan Lakes: one choreographed by Graeme Murphy and a more traditional one by Stephen Baynes; the Sir Peter Wright Birmingham Royal Ballet's Nutcracker and a Murphy production: Nutcracker: A Story of Clara, not to mention Alexei Ratmansky's innovative Cinderella.

I felt that Sleeping Beauty was one ballet we needed to nail. While there were so many productions the world over that we could have staged here, there were particular aspects that I wanted to address with this production. While I considered commissioning someone to do the production, I think I would have driven them wild with all the various boxes I wanted ticked. As I really had a very clear vision for the production after many conversations with colleagues, I decided to take up the challenge myself.

Q. You already had Stanton Welch's Sleeping Beauty in your repertory. Is this new version one that you see exceeding the former's capabilities or is this your own personal vision of Sleeping Beauty?

A. Stanton's production was a big success for the company, enjoying two sell out seasons. It had a specific aesthetic that I think was a very fresh and exciting departure from what most Sleeping Beautys have to offer. Master designer Kristian Fredrickson created the settings, but unfortunately this was his last theatrical realization before passing in 2005. All productions change and evolve over time. For us to tweak this production would have been very difficult without the designer being a part of that process, so I decided it would be better to keep this production as it was and embark on a new version.

Q. I've read that this production will be family friendly?

A. Very much so. I was really keen for this new ballet conception to be one that was family friendly. I've endeavored to make the production a little shorter without losing its majesty and clarity, trying to make the storytelling very clear and hopefully enabling non ballet goers to follow the narrative, even if it is their first introduction to ballet. Gabriela Tylesova, who is designing the production, is an amazing artist. I think she is going to give us a magical fairy tale world production, one that sits well within the comfort zone that an audience expects from this ballet, but which also has a freshness and opulence that will dazzle and excite!

Q. We all hear of different ballets resonating for different ages. What is it about Sleeping Beauty that resonates for you in 2015?

A. I was a young boy in Perth when I saw my first full length Sleeping Beauty--Rudolf Nureyev's production with the Festival Ballet. It totally transported me to a rich and amazing theatrical world told through dance; I guess that experience stayed with me, and that is what I want this production to do for those who see it, both young and old. I want it to be a magical journey into a world where fantasy meets real life and a princess can be awakened from a curse by the kiss of her beloved.

I think the story is eternal and continues to resonate with audiences as it has since Perrault wrote it in the 17th century. That whole idea of good versus evil, and the way that we navigate its consequences during our lives will continue to be a theme in theatre for many years to come.

Q. It's interesting that all the key characters in the ballet are female.

A. Most definitely: Aurora, the Lilac Fairy and Carabosse. If anything, the Prince is the one that is manipulated and cajoled by all these women into breaking Carabosse's curse. I see him very much being the prince consort to a reigning future monarch.

Q. Sleeping Beauty requires a huge company. You have, I believe, 69-72 dancers. Will they all be utilized for the production, or will you be bringing in extra people/dancers? I ask because sometimes the Sleeping Beauty kingdom can look very under-populated, or over-populated, depending on one's point of view.

A. We will be using the whole company. There will be a few extra people, but not as many as in some other productions. As a touring company, we have to make sure our productions are pretty portable, so it will be populated, but not overcrowded!

Q. Sleeping Beauty is very costly to produce. I know that you have a special donation drive for this production. In 1921, it famously almost bankrupted Diaghilev, and it has set a number of companies back financially. May I be too presumptuous to ask how the production costs will be covered?

A. As you mentioned, we have been doing a capital campaign and so far we have raised in excess of what we had expected. The production will come in at the budget we projected, and we will have it completely paid for in its first season. So if I do my job properly, from this year it will be an asset for the company.

Q. You said that you're not crediting yourself as a choreographer, rather a curator. I'm not sure what you mean: did you check the Harvard Theatre Collection, speak to dancers/choreographers associated with other productions. Who will be the ultimate decision maker?

A. I guess I will be doing some original choreography, but I really think that the choreographic material will mostly be what has been handed down to us from Petipa. It's all about arranging the known text and embroidering around the edges to make a ballet that looks traditional and yet has some new elements. I have done a lot of reading about the original productions. I've looked at many different versions and choreography of this ballet from around the world to compare and contrast. I've also examined our archive from the Ballets Russes films that we have in Australia, which are really fascinating. I wouldn't say it was an exhaustive research process, but I feel confident that it will have a feeling of Beauty's past.

Q. Whenever we read a Sleeping Beauty program we always notice that the choreography is by Marius Petipa, new choreography by (so and so) and new production by (so and so). How do you quite figure out where Petipa begins, and, let's say, McAllister takes over?

A. I think that unless you do a reconstruction as they did at the Mariinsky in 1999, or what Alexei has done more or less recently, then it is open for a great deal of interpretation. I would say that all productions are inspired by Petipa and then interpreted by whoever is in charge of the staging. It certainly is the case in all the various productions that I have been looking at. All are quite different, but with common touch points.

Q. Is it the steps based on the ballet tradition, or just what you are adding, based on your knowledge of classical ballet?

A. I would hope that the new choreography, while definitely in the style of Petipa, has evolved authentically to what it is now. When I saw Alexei's Paquita last year in Munich, I was amazed at how different the original text was from what we have come to expect in that work. So I would think that this Beauty will be informed more from my perceptions of ballet over the past 50 years rather than what was performed in 1890.

Q. I've read that you will take elements from previous productions, including the Diaghilev version in 1921. Have you been conversing with Alexei Ratmansky about his new production? By the way, I saw your name in the program last night, June 12, with a special nod of thanks. Did you have anything to do with this version?

A. How lovely. We spoke about his production only very briefly when he was here doing Cinderella for us in 2013. We later sent him the films we had from our Ballets Russes archives on its tours here from 1938. I have really been quite catholic in my resource material, but I do love the use of the upper body in these old Ballets Russes films. It seems that the 1921 version was one of the first to really depart from the original 1890 production, and Bronislava Nijinska had quite a hand in that choreographically. I would love to see Alexei's production, as I think he is brilliant, and I have read so many of the various reviews and seen some of the images. I hope to catch it somewhere in the world soon!

Q. The new version in New York has the women's extensions going no higher than 90 degrees, and dancing, for a great deal of the time, on demi-pointe. Do you see your production taking the same direction?

A. No. I think our production will not be as faithful as Alexei's. I think he is amazing for having done such detailed research and brought that authenticity to the stage. I will be looking a little closer to our current technical 'norms' for this Beauty.

Q. The Tchaikovsky score lasts about 3 ½ hours. How do you decide where to cut the music? Some of it is repetitive.

A. As probably one of the greatest scores written for ballet, it is always with great care that one needs to proceed in the arrangement of the score and what is, and what is not, incorporated into the ballet production. As one of my aims was to streamline the length of the production, I have taken a great deal of advice from Nicolette Fraillon, my music director and chief conductor, to ensure that what we have taken out does not diminish Tchaikovsky's genius. I have amalgamated the prologue into Act One, and also have only the Blue Birds dance their standard variations in Act Three. The other characters, Red Riding Hood and the Wolf, Cinderella and her Prince, Puss in Boots and the White Cat will appear, but as a part of the group dances. They will all be the Prince's friends who are part of his hunting party in Act Two.

Q. How will that be done?

A. The Prince will spend his time at the hunt reading a book of fairy tales rather than engaging in the hunting frivolities. When the party leaves, they steal his book away from him, hoping that he will follow, which of course he doesn't. When they turn up in Act Three at the "masked ball," they are all dressed as characters from his book. While this makes the connection to Act Two, it also makes his courtier friends very recognizably different from Aurora's courtiers. As with all weddings, it makes the coming together of both "families" more obvious.

Q. In terms of costumes and scene design, are you basing your production on any particular time period?

A. Gabriela and I really loved the idea of the Baroque period, as she was inspired by the Baroque theatres that she knew as a child growing up in Prague. She was cognizant of its fantastic era for design, both architecturally and for costumes. We have loosely put the Prologue and Act One in the late 1700's and then the hundred year awakening taking place in the late 1800's, right around the time when Tchaikovsky wrote the music.

Q. It's always seemed to me, at least, that the Lilac Fairy gets the greatest music in the ballet. It's almost like a Wagnerian motif-- it is played consistently through the ballet. Personally, it's one of Tchaikovsky's most beautiful melodies. Yet Aurora never gets this. Any wonder why?

A. Artists always tend to relate more fully with one of the characters they create. Maybe Tchaikovsky felt a close affiliation with the Lilac Fairy. I think the genius of the score is that the motifs for Lilac and Carabosse are so cleverly developed, and there is no doubting when they are on stage as they are so clearly represented. He also makes it so clear when we are engaging in the "fairy" world and when we are part of the 'real' world by the use of various instruments and color.

While not a musical point of interest, I love the way each of the fairy variations relates choreographically with Aurora's later solos. It is a tangible way in which we see how the fairy blessings have manifested themselves in the maturing Aurora.

Q. I've noticed that your Carabosse will be played by a woman. Any reason for not casting a man?

A. I think the balance between the Lilac Fairy and Carabosse is a little more interesting when they are both women. I am having former dancers perform Carabosse, so it won't be a dancing role as such but still allowing the performer to look like a dancer. When reading notes from the original production, I discovered she was an 'older' fairy, and the reason for her not being invited was that she had not been seen for many years. I liked the idea that there could have been a power struggle between the two fairies, and so I wanted them both to be women, but of different ages. Gabriela has created a beautiful image for Carabosse that makes her inhabit the fairy world, but with a more world weary look.

Q. What about the mime? In most productions I've seen, the mime is very indistinct. No one in the audience knows what is going on. How will you incorporate it in your version?

A. I am working with Lucas Jervies as dramaturge on this production. He was a former dancer in our company, and has also danced around the world and choreographed many original works. He also recently completed the Directors course at NIDA (the National Institute of Dramatic Art) and so is well qualified for this role! We have had a lot of conversations about how we can make the mime more clear and understandable for the audience. I think there are certain balletic gestures that are very easy to understand, while there are others that need to be more clearly articulated. We are hoping to come up with gestural mime that is understandable for a non-ballet going public and using props and other theatrical devices to underline the plot points.

Q. Your contract has been extended through December 2017. After Sleeping Beauty do you plan to go into hibernation for at least three weeks?

A. I will certainly be looking forward to our annual leave over Christmas!!!! This has been such a wonderful addition to my usual duties. I think on one level I will be quite sad when it is done. Then again, is a work ever finished? I am sure each performance will reveal things that I will want to play with and clarify. I am loving this new challenge of staging a ballet like Sleeping Beauty, and am thrilled to be continuing in my role as Artistic Director and the work to build the future of the Australian Ballet.

Q. I read that you have this motto, "Caring for tradition, daring to be different." What can we expect from you in the coming years?

A. We have a number of exciting projects in the pipeline, including the revival of some of our heritage works and also the commissioning of new works. I hope to continue to maintain a varied and innovative program that covers a broad range of repertoire and inspires our dancers to develop artistically and technically.

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Photograph: Justin Ridler

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From This Author - Barnett Serchuk

Writer/Interviewer--Broadwayworld Dance.

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