There is, of course, no ballet in Australia. I expect it is still necessary to begin with this statement. There are ballets in Australia, some of them produced by Australian choreographers; there are even a few ballet companies. But there is no ballet in Australia in the sense one can refer to ‘ballet in Russia’, or ‘ballet in America’. Perhaps we need an indigenous tradition of dance, a sense of dance as articulating social and religious attitudes, customs or conventions; perhaps we need a lively curiosity about the cultural achievements of the past (which is to say, a curiosity about the possibilities of our own culture). Whatever the reason for its ineptness, the phrase ‘ballet in Australia’ obscures the true station of ballet among the theatrical arts practised in this country. And the current discussion of ways in which we are to develop a ‘distinctively Australian style of dance’ seems to me equally inappropriate: to propose such an aim is, at best, uninformed, probably unreal and precious. In a country such as Australia where there is no tradition of performance and creation of dance, the development of a distinctive style must depend on the vision and dispatch of an individual, or a number of individuals. And to elevate this personal, perhaps idiosyncratic, quality to the status of a national style is naive. Moreover, if an Australian style is a remote possibility where no vital tradition exists to assimilate and remould the innumerable influences that characterize a true style or manner, the acceptance of public taste as a guide to desirable cultural habits and interests is even more dangerous. A ballet which would be immediately acceptable (that is to say, commercially successful) among the theatre-going public would be a ballet of considerably less than the first rank. It is, one learns with experience, the third or fourth best we needs must love when we see it.
The fable that ballet is a popular art is now firmly entrenched among audiences, dancers, critics and directors. Ballet’s origins as an aristocratic spectacle are lost to sight in the enthusiasm to inject contemporary subjects into a thoroughly ancien régime mode. It may be that these origins, in an oppressive and petrified society, have been and always will be a limitation on the sort of life the form can obtain. However the case may be, it is saddening that a form of such potential richness, capable at best of filling an imaginative world with a drama of shapes, sounds, colours, gestures and motion, should be in the realisation so trivial and vulgar. Such popularity as ballet enjoys is achieved in banality and tawdriness, and unless the ballet itself offers something of value, no informed or receptive public is likely to appear. The possibilities of the form, therefore, wait upon the education of dancers, directors and répetiteurs: reappraisal must begin here, or it will not begin at all.
This emphasis seems peculiarly apt at the present time, since nothing in The Australian Ballet Company’s last production of Giselle or Aurora’s Wedding suggested that many of its members could give an intelligently relevant account of the nineteenth-century ballets they present. The dramatic continuity of the scores was unrealized; they were not allowed the time to establish their whole rhythm and evocative power. The choreographies likewise suffered from an arbitrary foreshortening and blurring so serious that it was impossible to see that Giselle is a Romantic myth of considerable stature, whereas Aurora’s Wedding—for all its sophisticated detail and occasional imaginative vibrancy—is art-as-spectacle. The nineteenth-century ballets were so misunderstood and vulgarized, that their essential demonstrations of the classical idiom went unrecognized. The heavy, rich and formal mime-scenes of the Court, intruding on the peasant-world of Giselle, were shapeless and diminished; the sense of interacting visions of reality that should be felt through the movement-patterns of Giselle, Albrecht, the Court and the Wilis, was non-existent. No more care was taken to reproduce the brittle, impermanent and compelling choreographic shapes of the Wilis, with their subtle changes of accent, shifts of rhythm and dynamic fluctuations, than was evident in the presentation of the merely decorative (often unfocussed or undirected) choreography for the peasant Pas de Deux. The question is not one of mechanical efficiency on the part of the corps (they were in general extremely well-marshalled), but of imaginative inwardness with the life of the choreography. It is not surprising that the ballet attracts so undiscriminating an audience when judgment and response are subverted by the productions.
The artistic pretensions of The Australian Ballet seem to me to show their character in three main ways: first, the emphasis placed, by performance and publicity, on individual dancers, rather than on the ballets they render; second, the interest shown in the choreographies of the past; and third, the judgment shown in commissioning new works. The first course displays a superficial and amateur understanding of ballet; the second evinces confusion and insufficiency of awareness, and the third is disquietingly unsound. Neither technical accomplishment nor individual taste in ‘interpretations’ elevate the dancer above the ballet, and where a production is unconscious of the work’s significance, neither is a substitute for the missing ballet. The visit of Margot Fonteyn and Rudolph Nureyev is said to have shown us the finest ballet of today. But if we consider the nature of the performances, it is clear that the present time—in Australia, at least—must be one of deterioration: the productions in all their shameful inadequacy quite deformed the nature of the art they should have served, and in place of ballet we were provided with personality, technical feats and sentimental melodrama. No part of which substitution was, perhaps, the fault of individual dancers.
Again, the ballets revived by the national company have been cheapened and distorted in such a way as to disinherit us of the past. Tschaikowsky’s score for Swan Lake was so mutilated and misrepresented that its histrionic lyricism and boldly-coloured formalism were concealed. The ballet sees the sources of power for good and evil established in a world to which the Romantic imagination alone has access. Life shaped and patterned by this world becomes mysterious, nerved and compelling, but at the same time is lessened, made less pliant—at once innocent and inhuman—and is redeemed from this condition of vibrant, unnatural stasis by human choice and action. This passionate, yearning engagement with.a visionary world is the centre of the ballet, as the narrative and the music and the Ivanov choreography demonstrate. But The Australian Ballet showed no more intense an interest in the encounters between the Prince and the enchanted world than in the clumsily interpolated Pas de Six of Act I.
Instead of the results of discipline and study, such productions afford only a factitious, theatricalised glamour. And the evidence is unmistakeable: crudity and speciousness degrade taste and unsettle judgment. Uninstructed by the past, discrimination among contemporary achievements is baseless. The Australian Ballet has commissioned and performed The Display, Just for Fun, The Melbourne Cup and Jazz Spectrum. The first of these ballets has not been shown in Melbourne, but some assessment of the others is possible. Jazz Spectrum is slight, at moments diverting; unadventurous, modishly casual and so little self-respecting that its conscious quaintness has no strength with which to resist, on the one hand archness, on the other laboured sentimentality. The appropriation of the classical technique is unreflecting and somewhat garish, but the work has a vivacity and occasional sharpness that raise it above the wearying facetiousness of Just for Fun, with its nervous mannerisms, brash formlessness and unsophisticated, self-protecting jocularity. Here human relationships have vanished beneath the uniform, frightening cheeky grin, the frenetic scurrying and jerky automaton disordering of natural bodily gestures, or have dissolved into an adolescent sweetness. In either case, the ballet’s restlessness is, paradoxically, quite unenergetic, almost inactive: it is merely the absence of repose. The Melbourne Cup is eclectic and quite without self-knowledge, showing all the unsteady assurance of the nouveau-riche. Everything is sacrificed for effective ‘theatre’—even, in the assertive, tired vulgarity of the Finale, the central romantic interest of the ballet. Unhappily, no theatrical effectiveness is to be gained so cheaply.
Honest criticism and intelligent production concern themselves with the dance as a human action, a relevant drama. And the chief criticism to be made of The Australian Ballet is that it has attempted to degrade or extinguish the humanity of the art it should raise. This attempt is not wholly successful because human bodies always imply humane values.
The life of a ballet is in the choreography or it is nowhere. Such a statement may appear to deny the importance of the Fokine-Diaghileff revolution in the theatre, but from what has already been said it will be clear that ballet is necessarily an impure art. It provides (and this may be its significance for contemporary theatre) a unique imaginative element in which the other arts are drawn together, composed and transformed. So, while music and décor are of great importance, it is in the choreographic life that they receive their definition, through that life that they are intensified into the one stylized imaginative gesture that is a ballet.
Ballet has flourished only when theatrical dance has been understood to receive its complete meaning in relation to the other arts: a focus of the activities of musicians, writers and painters. The significance of the Russian journal Mir Isskustva, The World of Art (1899-1905) in the history of the Diaghileff ballet should be considered, for here the ballet received serious critical attention. The magazine was directly associated with the revival of interest in Russian art and architecture, with the founding of Les Soirées de Musique Contemporaine and Les Assemblées Religieuses et Philosophiques as well as exhibiting and discussing the work of some of the foremost Russian and European painters. Such an environment ensured that the excellence of dancers such as Karsavina and Nijinsky was achieved in circumstances very different from those that face dancers of our own generation: these dancers of the past were the instruments of living choreography. But if Nureyev is the greatest dancer of the present time, it is disheartening to reflect that not one significant ballet has been created for him.
In Australia, the debasement of ballet demonstrates most tellingly the urgent need for a new Mir Isskustva, for some centre of various alert and relevant criticism of the arts in Australia. But such a centre, even if established, will require time to survey the area, to test judgments, to formulate and define responses. Meanwhile, the standards of ballet in Australia are, necessarily, set by our national company. A national school has been founded, planned to guide dancers in two years from students to professionals; and it is from undertakings of this kind that we must hope for an examination of the nature and possibilities of ballet in Australia. The pressures that make for intellectual meanness, pretension and triviality are manifold and disquieting; but the need for exacting standards of performance and criticism seems to me the greater since, with Laurel Martyn’s Sylvia (1963), we at last have a three-act ballet of subtlety, wit and dignity produced by an Australian choreographer. There could be nothing more testing than the creation of a full-length ballet that explores the very personal idiom which this choreographer has developed during twenty years. And that the energy of the ballet was so assured, various and sustained indicates the richness and liveliness of the tradition from which it derives. The existence of such a tradition, in the face of the many countering influences of our society, encourages some hope in the future of ballet in Australia.