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Sharing the emotional journey of ballet with Japanese audiences

We sat down with two of the Australian Ballet's principal dancers to talk about their upcoming performances in Tokyo and Nagoya.

September 2010

Madeleine Eastoe and Adam Bull recently came to Japan as part of the Australian Ballet's preparations for their upcoming performances of "Swan Lake" and "Nutcracker: The Story of Clara". They shared some interesting behind-the-scenes stories.

The Australia Ballet has been getting a lot of attention this season. They've been seen dancing on the world stages as well as up on the silver screen. As they prepare to perform over seven days in Tokyo and Nagoya in October, members are also appearing in the elegantly filmed ballet scenes in the movie "Mao's Last Dancer" which has been enthusiastically received in Tokyo and now also in New York.

The version of "Swan Lake" being performed in Japan is actually based on the story of Princess Diana.

The version of "Swan Lake" that will be performed in Japan revolves around the classical score by Tchaikovsky, but the drama and choreography are original to the Australian Ballet. This "Swan Lake" has been completely re-envisioned and choreographed by Graeme Murphy (one of Australia's greatest choreographers with a long history of working with the Australian Ballet) as the story of a love triangle that's loosely based on the story Princess Diana.

The piece was so well received in the performances in 2007 in Japan that they decided to bring it back. Eastoe plays Odette, the young bride who suffers from knowing of her husband's infidelity, and Bull will play Prince Siegfried, who wanders between his innocent young wife and his passionate baroness lover.

Ballet Interview
Adam Bull

According to Bull, "It's two and a half hours of pure human drama, with incredible highs and lows. And it's based on real people, so it's not some fairy tale. We pour all our emotions into it, and it's a technically demanding ballet. So by the end of performance, you feel completely spent. You couldn't give any more to that story. We really put it all out there. It's an emotional roller coaster."

Eastoe says, "I think love triangles in ballet dramas are very juicy. It's so rewarding as an artist to be able to interpret or portray such a unique and dramatic tragedy on stage. Particularly, because none of us have been in such a love triangle, so we have to work hard to find reasons behind the acting in each scene. And while the choreography may be the same, each dancer brings a very different set of emotional reactions to the part, so it becomes incredibly personal."

The climax of the ballet is in the final scene. It's a performance that will hold your attention from start to finish.

Madeleine Eastoe also plays the role of a principal dancer in "Mao's Last Dancer" which is currently being shown in Tokyo.

Ballet Interview
Madeleine Eastoe

In the movie "Mao's Last Dancer", which is based on Li Cunxin, a Chinese dancer who defected to the U.S., Eastoe made her film debut gracefully filling the role of a principal dancer in a ballet troop in Texas.

The movie's ballet scenes are beautifully choreographed by Graeme Murphy and have been widely praised. However for Eastoe, the biggest challenge of the part wasn't the dancing but rather to play an American whose accent and attitude is so different from her own.

Eastoe said that she also learned that the kind of movement and expression required on stage to project to a large audience would look exaggerated on the big screen as the camera captures every little nuance and gesture. She also laughs about having nightmares about the film being released, "and I sounded like an Australian".

In the movie, there is severe competition between members of the ballet troupe, but according Eastoe and Bull, the Australian Ballet has more of a sense of family compared to ballet troupes in other countries and has developed more of a team or family approach rather than depending on just a few star performers.

This "Nutcracker" celebrates the history of Australian Ballet

The Australian Ballet will also be performing "Nutcracker: The Story of Clara" in October in Japan. It's another case where Graeme Murphy has put his own distinctive dramatic and creative twist on a ballet classic. This Nutcracker still revolves around Tchaikovsky's enchanting musical score and Christmas, but from there the story takes off in a completely different direction.

According to Bull, "It's the story of a dancer who came to Australia from Russia, which is reminiscent of the history of the Australian Ballet, which traces its origins back to a small group of Russian dancers from the Ballet Russes. It's a perfect work for audiences to begin to understand what Australian Ballet is all about".

Meanwhile the Australian Ballet, whose motto is "caring for tradition while daring to be different" has been performing a more traditional "Nutcracker" back in Australia.

Because of this, there is a bit of a juggling act going on between these two dramatically different Nutcrackers – practicing one Nutcracker for Japan during the day while performing a totally different Nutcracker but both have the exact same music.

Eastoe maintains that in the actual productions, "You'd never get them confused, because they're so completely different. But in the rehearsal studio…"

"It's quite interesting," says Bull. "The board says we're rehearsing Nutcracker today. Which one?"

"We are all so excited to be coming back to Japan, where people have such an appreciation for ballet."

Eastoe and Bull both commented that their three-day trip to Japan was the envy of their fellow dancers. It seems that everyone who performed here in 2007 has a tremendous impression of Japan and Japanese audiences.

"Australians love sports, and sometimes they look at ballet from an almost athletic view," says Bull. "But here in Japan ballet is respected more as a pure art."

"Japanese audiences are so respectful of the experience of the ballet and so attentive," Eastoe says. "It's almost silent during the performance. But at the end, it's clear from their response that they've been with us the whole way along our emotional journey."

"Around the world there is nothing quite like a Japanese audience," Bull says, "In Japan, people are queuing up at the stage door. They treat us like rock stars."

"You certainly feel like a superstar when you're here," says Eastoe. "I don't know if I could wear that every day, but it's lovely while we're here. We feel very looked after."

"Australia is rather a long way from anywhere," Bull continues. "And coming overseas is a huge undertaking. But everyone is really excited about coming back to Japan."

"Yes, indeed," adds Eastoe. "We love being in Tokyo."

Information about the Australian Ballet in Japan can be found at http://arts.australia.or.jp/en/events/view/295/ and the movie "Mao's Last Dancer" at http://arts.australia.or.jp/en/events/view/299/.