Our much-loved company is celebrating its 50th anniversary with a wealth of offerings, from classical favourites to newly commissioned works
"It is one of those milestones that really makes you stop and think about where you have been and where you are going."
The Australian Ballet's artistic director David McAllister has spent more than four years planning what he describes as "our biggest season ever" to celebrate the company's 50th anniversary in 2012. "The Australian Ballet is now at the point where we can say, 'We are a mature company with history and tradition, and we have uniqueness we should celebrate’," says McAllister. "Our season next year is very much about honouring the successes of the past, as well as looking to the future of ballet. I'd say it's an equal split."
The golden anniversary will kick off in February with Infinity, a triple bill from three of Australia's most acclaimed directors: former Sydney Dance Company chief Graeme Murphy, Chunky Move founder Gideon Obarzanek and Bangarra Dance Theatre artistic director Stephen Page.
"I am so excited about this," says McAllister. "We have three choreographers who are iconic in their own right, creating three brand new Australian works for the company. Infinity is about looking forward. Gideon, Stephen and Graeme were asked to create something about the future and that is what they have done."
Is this the highlight of the season for McAllister? "That's like asking someone who their favourite child is!" he laughs.
As well as Infinity, the season will include a new production of Swan Lake, the ballet which opened the company's inaugural season, John Cranko's much-loved classic Onegin, a re-staging of pivotal works from the company's formative years, including The Display, Gemini and Beyond Twelve (Icons), and Let's Dance, a collaboration with Australia's leading dance companies, featuring a new work by Tim Harbour.
The Australian Ballet will also embark on the biggest national tour since its 40th birthday, visiting most Australian capital cities, and will return to New York for the first time since 1999.
"It feels like the right time to go to New York," says McAllister. "It is one of the most difficult cities in the world for dance because they have all the major companies coming through. I think our 50th anniversary is a good time to benchmark ourselves against other companies, to bring an all-Australian company to New York. It is another huge challenge for us next year but it is a great opportunity for the dancers to mature as artists."
"I am really looking forward to the big classic ballets − Onegin, Swan Lake, Etudes and, of course, the tour to New York," says Lana Jones, a principal artist who has been with the company for 10 years. "The company's milestone next year is extremely significant. We were formed before there was even a McDonald’s in this country! Next year's program is full of history and will create more history. I think it will showcase the company's versatility and draw interest from all ages and ballet lovers."
In the week that marks 50 years since the company's first performance, there will be an international gala at The Arts Centre Melbourne in November, featuring acclaimed dancers from the Paris Opera Ballet, London's Royal Ballet, The Tokyo Ballet and the National Ballet of China.
"It will be fantastic to be involved in the trip to New York and the 50th Anniversary Gala but I am most looking forward to performing Swan Lake and Onegin − two of my favourites," says senior artist Ty King-Wall.
"Over the past 50 years, the company has developed a dynamic and unique style and 2012 will really be a celebration of that. It's got something for everyone," says coryphée Vivienne Wong.
"Ballet is one of those art forms that builds an ongoing audience because the imagery of dance, specifically ballet, is so iconic," says McAllister. "For young girls, it is up there with horseriding or being a nurse. I think at some point in most girls’ lives they dream of being a ballerina. What we have tried to do in the last 10 years is engage a male audience, as well, and really break down that female-only perception."
McAllister believes The Australian Ballet is still as relevant as it was 50 years ago and says the company is using social media to reach new audiences. "We have been aggressively involving ourselves in new technology. I think we have about double the Facebook followers of any other performing arts company in Australia. About 30,000 people follow us on Twitter. Because our constituents − the dancers and the young people who love dance − are mostly first-generation technology users, we have a strong presence in that world."
King-Wall, who has been performing with the company for five years, says, "I think after 50 years we can look back and say we have stood the test of time. We've endured and can genuinely be considered a presence on the world stage. Next year is an opportunity for us, the dancers, to make a statement as the generation of dancers launching The Australian Ballet into the next 50 years."
Lizzie Franks is editor of equity