Heritage and heresy

In This Article

I am very pleased that Ausdance has asked me to give the Dame Peggy van Praagh Memorial Address this year, because I get the feeling that classical ballet is regarded as the slightly embarrassing aged aunt at many dance conferences. Ballet is so fuddy-duddy and so unfashionable. Well, it certainly doesn’t feel like that from within the ballet world. First and foremost, ballet is dance, so this is where I have to start.

The first thing we have inherited, from the beginning of man, is the will to dance. Our second inheritance probably developed soon after—the urge to dance our own dance. The first, the will to dance, has given us our dance heritage, the second has led to what some people perceive as heresy—the divergence from accepted practice in the quest for our own dance.

Our heritage is a continuum. I don’t see our heritage as the things that happened up until last week, or even less, the things that happened until I came on the scene. Our heritage has accumulated throughout man’s existence, we are continually developing our future heritage.

Life is change. Our bodies change and our minds change, the things about us change—our lawns grow, our fences need mending, our children get cleverer than we are. Our own personal dance must change too.

We create our own personal dance heritage. From our first expressive movements as babies we have been forming our own dance. We have enjoyed certain movements more than others and we have expressed ourselves with our individual movement language. By the time we begin to dance in a formal sense, probably taking dance lessons, we are bringing our own movement heritage with us.

This is where the problems can begin. On the whole, dance teachers are interested in handing on a dance heritage created by other people in another time. It is a miracle of good luck if our personal dance and the dance heritage we are learning coincide. The people who experience this miracle become the really good professional dancers—because they are able to continue dancing their own individual dance within the framework of their acquired dance.

The difficulty for any dancer is to keep the dance personal, and to make it more and more personal, not to lose the individual dance heritage under the weight of the collective heritage.

But remember, life is change. Dancers mature as people, they start to see and feel things differently, so their own personal dance changes. The dance they create and pass on to others will be different from the dance they received as young people. In the end, the way our personal dance changes can influence the progress of the collective dance.

And this is where we strike a real problem. Most people dislike change, especially in others. Change makes them uncomfortable, it threatens the security of their known world. People can be violent in their resistance to change.

For many people, going to a dance performance and finding it different from expectations can be like going to dinner and finding everyone else is speaking a foreign language. People feel alienated and cheated, so they often become quite aggressive in their opposition.

The other day I was looking at a group of young people in the street, and they were pierced with rings and studs everywhere you could see. They had changed from the adorable babies they once were, but most of their mothers and families still love them, and they tolerate their new directions because they have faith in the adult to come!

This is how we should be with dance. We should allow dance to explore its boundaries, to push against the edges, to rebel, but we should have faith. Dance is strong, it will survive if it is important to us.

The more established the dance form is, the more audiences resist change, and I am speaking from the perspective of someone working in that stronghold of tradition—classical ballet. Classical ballet attracts many audiences precisely because they see it as predictable—people think they know what they will get, and it won’t hurt a bit. Everything is beautiful at the ballet!

But ballet, like everything else, is changing. We create new ballets with a different outlook, and we dance the traditional works from a contemporary perspective. We are different whether we like it or not—we don’t have to kill off the past to be different. Should we pull down everything over twenty years old? Will this prove we are different? In fact, it will remove all our reference points and we won’t be conscious of our differences, of the characteristics of our age.

At times I see dance rejecting the past with such determination that it avoids any movement that bears a resemblance to anything seen before. Now most movements have been seen before, in some context or another, so what we end up with is, in my mind, impoverished dance—the cupboard is bare.

At other times I come into contact with people working within dance who attack and mock their heritage with astounding energy. Pulling down the past seems to be the reason for their existence. They seem like rebellious teenagers, spitting at their parents to assert their independence. Once the adolescents grow up and recognise that they are in fact independent, they are usually surprised to see that their parents are not so bad after all.

We should welcome our heritage as we welcome the wheel—it’s not a new concept but it’s a very useful one! What is new is the way we can use it, the way we can put it to our own purpose.

I am sure everyone here believes that dance is an essential means of human expression. It is one of the ways we consider and convey our ideas and emotions and we need it for our mental and emotional health. But while dance is essential to our well-being, it is also in danger in so-called civilised societies.

In primitive societies people dance because they must—they don’t weigh it up against anything else—they dance in the same way they eat when they are hungry. In Australian society there are all sorts of other distractions that can devalue dance in our thinking. Compared with television, football or partying it is expensive and inconvenient. Dance isn’t always comfortable either, it can disturb our minds or upset our senses.

I am not here to defend ballet, I have to do that by making it good enough to defend itself, but I am here to defend diversity in dance. I am here to say that we must fight for all forms of dance, whether they appeal to us or not, simply because they are essential to the integrity of the whole.

We should not be dividing ourselves up into different camps, each defending one corner and attacking the others. We must work together—for audiences for sponsorship, for government funding, for media coverage, for recognition—we must do it together, or we won’t do it at all.

It is only by supporting the dance of others that we can have our own dance.

Now I want to talk about the things that helped me to form my own personal dance, the things that have inspired me and my ideas for the future.

When I look at my son Luke’s movement, I know that he enjoys moving in the same way I did as a child. He eats space, he throws himself through space with complete abandon. At times he even throws himself through plate glass doors! Luke also immerses himself in music and rhythm. In him I can see my own dance as a child.

Tap dancing is all about rhythm and music. Tap was very close to my own dance and I took to it like a duck to water. Then ballet hit me! Ballet made you fly, ballet made you propel yourself through space, push yourself to the physical limits. This was the other part of my dance. I could have all the rhythm, all the music and I could be master of space and gravity as well! This was very seductive, and I was hooked. In fact, I still am!

When I first became a dancer I was still filled with the wonder of all this movement, all this rhythm and all this music—for a young man, the physicality of ballet can be completely intoxicating. My own dance was simply about the pleasure of moving. I tried to make my dance as musical and as effortless as I could, because that gave me pleasure.

The ballet heritage presented me with lots of princes, heroes and magical spirits —rather a leap of the imagination for a young man from suburban Canberra! I think I was trying to create the visions placed before me by other people —the choreographers and directors in charge of my performances. I was also trying to live up to the ideals set by those who had gone before me—maybe I was trying to be my version of them.

But sometimes in the middle of a performance I would be overwhelmed by a total identification with the character I was dancing—my dance and the dance became one. It always left me completely stunned, and in awe of the power of dance.

Then came New York!

Anthony Tudor, Robert Joffrey, Kenneth MacMillan, Agnes de Mille, Anthony Dowell, Mikhail Baryshnikov, and Twyla Tharp all pushed and prodded me in one direction then the other. Maybe they did not know more than people like Anne Woolliams and Peggy van Praagh, but there were so many of them, all demanding more—more of me in my dance.

At the same time I could see what I wanted on stage every night. I was working with dancers of such brilliance—it was continual inspiration, but it was also continual confrontation—how can you be that good?

Some dancers danced with the most extraordinary energy—their bodies exploded with vitality and sheer physicality. Their physicality was as much a thing of the spirit as the body. I wanted that energy.

Others danced with such ease—the movements flowed out of them like the most natural thing in the world. They looked as if they became the music. This really attracted me—it was my own dance carried further than I had ever taken it.

Other people gave such passionate performances—they gave themselves entirely, body, soul and mind, to their dance. Their passion knocked you sideways. And it was their dance, they were not pretending! You could see their human desires and their vulnerability.

I don’t think it was one person or another who made the difference to me—I think it was the combined effect of all that creativity. You couldn’t stay the same—the creative power of my surroundings took over. I finally began to dance as Ross Stretton again. I re-found my own dance.

The dance I found was actually a different dance from the one I had danced as a boy and a young man, because I was different. I was a man with children, I knew more about the world, and I was prepared to let that experience show. I was not trying to live up to my dance heritage, and I was not trying to fight it, I was just dancing my own dance.

A few years after I moved to New York, I began to dream. I knew that I could never stop being an Australian, it just didn’t wash off in the shower. I realised that I wanted my life to make a circle, so I could bring all the things I was learning back. I realised I eventually wanted to lead The Australian Ballet.

I began to analyse more consciously what makes companies great, what makes dancers great and what makes great dance. This is not as easy as it sounds. Each great company and each great dancer is so individual —it was not a matter of being better, it’s not a matter of being different. What is it? How could I lead a company to greatness if I didn’t know what the trick was?

I admire many dancers, many companies and many choreographers, but there are a few that take my breath away, that make my heart stop. They all have complete honesty, no pretence, no holding back. Even within the so-called artificiality of a 19th century classic, with all its technical demands and unrealistic setting, a dancer can be totally real, totally human. These dancers are dancing their own dance, bringing us all their life experience, their sorrows and ecstasy.

How can I do that? How can I make my company all these things?

I think the answer lies in finding our own dance. Our dancers, our choreographers and our whole company need to embark on an endless journey of discovery. We need to find who we are in the deepest sense. We need to be brave, vulnerable and honest. We need to be generous. We need to be unafraid of our heritage, but we also need to be true to ourselves.

We need to dance our own dance.