When both the Music Center and the Australian Ballet were young, the company appeared on the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion stage as the supporting act for two of the era’s most celebrated ballet stars: Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev.
Nureyev had staged the 1966 production of “Raymonda” that was performed at that engagement. He once again led the Australian Ballet into the international limelight in 1971, when an extended tour of his “Don Quixote” production for the company — with Nureyev himself in the lead role of Basilio, of course, and Australian ballet legend Robert Helpmann in the cast — brought the company back to the Dorothy Chandler.
During those early years, the Australian Ballet had not developed an international profile that provided touring opportunities. But the days when the company left home only as a backup ensemble for touring stars are long gone. Now 80 dancers strong and under the direction of David McAllister, a former principal dancer, the troupe gives 180 performances annually of a repertory that can hold its own in comparison to most major international companies.
The dancers’ technique and versatility are regularly challenged by a repertory that includes not only the full-length classics but also works by Wheeldon, Tharp, McGregor, Ashton and Balanchine alongside those by resident choreographers and other home-grown talent.
The company’s big hit last year — returning next season by popular demand — was a completely new “Cinderella” choreographed by Alexei Ratmansky, who had already been to Melbourne, Australia, several years ago to create a one-act original work for the company.
But the Australian Ballet’s international calling card over the last decade has been Graeme Murphy’s innovative “Swan Lake,” and that is what will reintroduce this energetic troupe to Los Angeles after 43 years.
Though its designs have a gently Edwardian look, Murphy’s staging weaves in a contemporary angle. He partly modeled his central characters on the triangle of Princess Diana-Prince Charles-Camilla Parker Bowles, and his major alterations from traditional versions have much to do with the characters’ states of mind.
The most radical aspect of his production is the creation of a female character, Baroness von Rothbart, who combines elements of Odile and the evil sorcerer Von Rothbart in traditional stagings. While Prince Siegfried is celebrating his marriage to the pure, vulnerable Odette in the first act, it soon becomes clear that his true passion is for the baroness.
Odette’s distress as she recognizes this reality leads her into a state of distraction, and she is committed to a sanitarium. The swans enter the story as figures that her fevered mind conjures up.
“When the prince leaves with the baroness, poor Odette dissolves into this world of her own mind, where she becomes one of the swans — and she conjures the prince back as the perfect man who loves her. So the swans are basically facets of her personality,” McAllister said, speaking from Melbourne.
Murphy is a veteran Australian choreographer who began his career with the group but established his reputation during his three decades as director and choreographer of Sydney Dance Company, a modern-dance ensemble that toured widely. He reconnected with his original company when he created a new “Nutcracker.” His “Swan Lake” was the first work McAllister commissioned when he took over the reins in 2001.
“I figured people tend to want to see works that are different, that reflect what is unique about our company. I wanted something that is uniquely our own, and that says something about our cultural perspective on dance,” McAllister said. Murphy’s “Swan Lake,” he noted, “is definitely not Petipa, but it’s very classical — it’s all on pointe.”
Musically, regular “Swan Lake” aficionados will find much that veers from traditional expectations in the famed Tchaikovsky score. “Graeme went back to the original 1877 score,” McAllister said — rather than the version for an 1895 production that is used for most contemporary stagings of “Swan Lake.”
So while it may be jolting to hear the music generally associated with the Black Swan in Act 3 turn up in Act 1, that’s where it had originally been placed. Murphy made other cuts and some changes in the score.
Among those onstage in Act 1 as part of the royal family and its party is the Lord Admiral, a character role that will be performed by Colin Peasley — a founding member of the Australian Ballet in 1962 who has been on every international tour in this company’s history.
He was onstage when the company gave its first performance — of “Swan Lake,” in a production staged by Peggy van Praagh, the Australian troupe’s determined founder. He continues to perform major character roles with the company — Madge in “La Sylphide,” the grandfather in “Nutcracker.”
Peasley, who was also the company’s ballet master for 14 years, will be celebrating his 80th birthday when the troupe moves on to Berkeley. There was some pretense of his having “retired” in 2012, but as he speaks jovially and robustly from Melbourne, he seems to consider that some sort of joke.
He has vivid memories of the company’s early years — including the tours to Los Angeles. “When we came there in 1971, that was a Sol Hurok tour.” Recalling that legendary impresario, he said, “Hurok was a hard taskmaster. We worked hard, but we still had a ball — because the American audiences are very appreciative.”
Recalling the lengthy tours with Nureyev, Peasley said, “He was hard on himself and on all the dancers. You couldn’t get away with anything. That’s exactly what a company needs in its formative years.”
Now standing solidly on its own, the Australian Ballet has taken the Murphy “Swan Lake” to Tokyo, London, New York, Paris. Shanghai and now, finally, Los Angeles.
“It’s so much part of the company’s DNA now,” McAllister said, noting how those principal dancers now performing the lead roles worked their way up from small ensemble roles, because the ballet has seldom been out of the repertory. “Over their careers, they’ve grown through the whole ballet.”