West Australian Ballet – long distance dancers

West Australian Ballet is the country’s oldest ballet company – it’s also the most isolated. Andrew Anderson talks to chief executive Steven Roth and artistic director Aurélien Scannella about how the company is reaching out to the city, state and the world beyond

‘We’re the only professional ballet company in Western Australia,’ says West Australian Ballet (WAB) chief executive Steven Roth. ‘We cover an area that is twice the size of Western Europe.’

The massive scale of the state creates all sorts of problems, from the logistical demands of travelling, to sourcing materials for costumes. ‘The distances between places are vast – we can fly two hours from Perth before we get to the next major town – so what we usually do is bring the company back after tour performances and send the infrastructure out ahead of us,’ says Roth. ‘Logistically, it is quite complicated.

‘It also costs a lot to bring everything here. We have to send our wardrobe out of the state to Melbourne or Hong Kong or Europe, which is expensive. If we buy equipment we have to get it sent all the way here. It’s a challenge.’

But while geographical isolation can create problems, it is also the source of WAB’s identity. Western Australia is a warm, dry area, yet its vast arid plains are edged by lush coastal towns. Inhabitants are outdoor types, used to spending an evening under the stars rather than inside at the ballet, a preference that is reflected in the programming.

As a result, WAB spends at least quarter of its season – sometimes more – outdoors, beginning with 16 nights at the Quarry Amphitheatre in Cambridge as part of Perth International Festival each February.

‘We start every year at the quarry, which is a beautiful open-air venue very close to the ocean,’ says WAB artistic director Aurélien Scanella. ‘Here we present basically the only triple bill we stage for the whole year. We can experiment at PIF and do contemporary stuff, like Radio and Juliet from Edward Clug.’

The inspiration for turning the abandoned quarry into an amphitheatre came from Diana Waldron, director of the Perth City Ballet Company, who developed the site with her architect husband in the early 1980s.

‘Because of the mixed bill people come out and sit under the stars, they bring a picnic with them,’ says Roth. ‘It is a really good entry point to ballet because even if you don’t like what is on stage, you can sit back and enjoy the ambience and the music.’

Dancing outside though can be difficult, especially for female ballet dancers. ‘While the days are very hot the nights can be chilly – when the air cools the moisture can settle on the warm stage,’ explains the chief executive. ‘It is not such an issue if you’re wearing flat shoes, but it is a big risk to have dancers on pointe if the stage is even a tiny bit slippy. In the past, we’ve had to cancel entire performances some nights.’

To combat this WAB developed a heated sprung floor, which stays at a constant 30 degrees. ‘It’s the only one of its kind in the world,’ explains Roth. ‘It can rain up until an hour and a half before the performance and still dry out in time.’ The stage cost AUD30,000 (€20,750) to build and develop, and was completed in 2011.

This unique stage also means WAB can perform in towns without a theatre, as it did recently with a sold-out trip to the city of Karratha in the north of the state. ‘A few years ago there was a cyclone that damaged the theatre in Karratha and we haven’t been able to go back since. But now we have our heated and movable stage we can,’ says Roth. ‘We sent it up by truck – which took two days.’

WAB performed on 6 June on a picturesque beach at Hearson’s Cove just outside the town, with a mixed bill that included Balanchine’s Swan Lake as well as pieces by Jayne Smeulders and Amy Wiseman.

Along with its heated stage, the company took lighting equipment to the cove to illluminate the surrounding rocky outcrops that are covered in aboriginal carvings. ‘Hearson’s Cove is a remote beach, a really special place. We sold out the show and it was a wonderful event … even if the generator did break down for 10 minutes! Aurélien got on stage and told some jokes, so we kept the crowd entertained during the disruption.’

In 2012 WAB moved from its old home at His Majesty’s Theatre to the new custom-made facility, The West Australian Ballet Centre. Formerly the Royal WA Institute for the Blind, new space has allowed the company to expand, growing from from 19 dancers in 2007 to 40 today. ‘It has meant we have a full complement of dancers now, which has opened up a whole new repertoire for the company.’

Finance for this, and for other projects, comes from the usual suspects: government, box office and private funding. ‘It’s about 40 per cent box office, 40 per cent government and about 20 per cent sponsorship and philanthropy,’ says Roth. ‘We’re trying at the moment to move towards 25 per cent from sponsorship and philanthropy so we’re less reliant on government funds.’

Although WAB has not been affected by the recent changes at Arts Council Australia – it is one of the 28 major performing companies whose funding was left untouched – Roth believes developing strong ties with private companies is the way forward. ‘It is a matter of finding the right fit with any particular company, making sure we have a good proposition for them. Rather than continually struggling to find new sponsors, we want to deepen the relationship with the ones we have.’

For example, WAB’s primary sponsor, Woodside Energy, financially backed the recent Hearson’s Cove event as it has a number of platforms located off the Karratha coast. ‘I am used to Europe where everything is state funded, but everyone is so ready to help, so eager to support the ballet – I’ve never known anything like it, it’s amazing.’

WAB’s outreach isn’t limited to only taking trips across the state; the company also reaches out to people in the city of Perth (who might otherwise be unable to attend performances) via a Lotterywest matinee series.

‘Each year we try to find an organisation that we haven’t worked with before. Then we start up a conversation to learn who their clients are and what kind of barriers might inhibit them from attending the ballet.’ In the past WAB has catered for single mums by providing a crèche facility at its shows, it’s also worked with a whole range of groups from the caregivers of cancer patients to charities helping survivors of torture and trauma. ‘There is no language barrier to our performances because it is just music and dance – it improves the lives of those people,’ says Roth.

The rest of WAB’s 2015 season consists of a performance of Arthur Saint-Léon’s 1870 work Coppélia in September, followed by Cinderella in December, both at His Majesty’s Theatre. What Roth would like to see next, though, is for WAB to travel further afield.

‘One of the key things in our new five-year strategy is to get the company seen more internationally. We want people to experience the quality of what we do and build our brand. I think this also helps improve the morale of a our dancers and staff too. We’ve got a tour of China planned for 2017, which we’re all very excited about.’

Given the logistical demands – it takes four hours to reach Sydney, let alone travel abroad – touring to China isn’t going to be easy, but Roth thinks the Western Australian spirit is ideally suited to the task: ‘You learn to be innovative and find ways to solve problems. It is a can-do attitude. We have to be adept at finding solutions on the spot with all kinds of things. It is a quality that will keep us successful in whatever we do.’