Don’t expect wilis or muscle-bound Roman slaves when the Australian Ballet comes to City Center Tuesday. The 37-year-old company brought standards like Giselle and Spartacus when they last were here, but the only familiar fare this time is William Forsythe’s In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated. Otherwise, the repertory consists of homegrown works created for the troupe. “This repertoire has been choreographed on these dancers and it shows their strengths,” says artistic director Ross Stretton.
Familiar to New Yorkers from his nine years as a principal with American Ballet Theatre, Stretton took charge of AB in 1997, returning to his native land—and the company where his career began—after an absence of 17 years. “I was given a scholarship to study in the United States for two months. I never went back!” he recalls. He joined ABT early in the Baryshnikov era, after a brief stint with Joffrey, and shifted from performing into backstage work, becoming assistant director.
The four Aussie dancemakers displayed in this run include AB’s two resident choreographers, Stanton Welch (represented by Divergence and the two-act Madame Butterfly) and Stephen Baynes, whose At the Edge of Night is set to Rachmaninoff preludes. Stretton discovered Natalie Weir, whose background is in modern dance, through a company workshop. Her Dark Lullaby was inspired by Goya and uses a Mahler score.
Rites, a work of which Stretton speaks with particular pride, is a collaboration with Bangarra Dance Theatre, an aboriginal troupe, choreographed by its director, Stephen Page. “When I got back to Australia, the first dance I saw was Bangarra,” Stretton observes. “I sat there and didn’t move—I thought it was fantastic—very indigenous and grounded. I went to Stephen with a CD of Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps; he had never heard it before, knew nothing about its historical baggage. I said, ‘Just listen to it, see what it does for you.’ ” The result was Rites, first performed in 1997. Ten Bangarra dancers (“Talk about expense!” laughs Stretton) will join two dozen AB members in the work.
With a gleaming new Melbourne building that is home to both company and school, AB enjoys a degree of stability its American counterparts can only envy. The dancers (all Australian except for two Japanese and one Vietnamese) are on 52-week contracts. They give 180 performances yearly in Sydney, Melbourne, and on tour. “We have a really strong subscriber base; there’s a lot of support for dance in Australia. The company is not connected to an opera house, to any other identity—I enjoy that, and I’m able to move it in the direction that I feel it should be going,” Stretton explains.