Facing the pandemic # 3: West Australian Ballet

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Artistic director Aurélien Scannella. Photo: Frances Andrijich

We are now four weeks away from a Covid-19 lockdown in Australia with no clear end in sight. It is evident, however, that any proposed easing of restrictions will be a gradual process, and as places like theaters were the first to close, they will most likely be the last to reopen as well. To say it’s a devastating time for the performing arts is an understatement, but for dancers, whose careers are already short, 10 to 15 years old, it’s especially cruel. Unlike singers and musicians, who can train at home, dancers can’t throw in their living room, and daily Zoom classes won’t go any further to keep those highly trained physique in shape. A six-month hiatus in training and performance could therefore be devastating.

The West Australian Ballet’s artistic director, Aurélien Scannella, is particularly concerned, and while respecting government guidelines on distancing, he agrees that what dancers need is space. “So that’s a challenge. What is important for the dancers is to keep a certain consistency, a roster and a schedule, ”he insists. “We can’t have a full course for dancers at home, it’s not really possible, so we do a bar line, then we have half an hour of physical conditioning with our wellness manager, and it’s been an hour to an hour and fifteen for the dancers in the morning. We’re also running a social catch-up through Zoom, just to ask them how they’re doing and what they’ve been up to. We try to give them a goal, tasks to do, either daily or weekly; for example, creating video content so that it can be uploaded to our donors. We try to keep them in as good shape as possible, both physically and mentally.

Layoffs, however, are out of the question. “I have always fought for my dancers, but even more so now,” says Scannella. “Dancers are the ones who always work hard all year round. All over the world, they work hard every day. It would be really unfair to cut contracts. We haven’t talked about it yet, it’s not on the table, and it’s fine for the moment. We can keep all of our employees full time for the next 12 months. But I’ll fight to the end if it gets to this point – it’s something I’ll never accept.

Despite the uncertainty, Scannella tries to be optimistic. Financially, the WAB manages, with only maintenance payable at their home base in Maylands, and all rental charges are waived by His Majesty’s Theater. His hope is that their self-imposed 90-day shutdown will suffice, allowing the company’s season to grow. Dracula go ahead in September. But in the meantime, they have also made the difficult but necessary decision to let go of all their casual workers. “The company is in survival mode right now,” he confirms. “By canceling or postponing all of our performances, we save money – by reducing all the costs of putting on a show – and everyone understands the situation very well. No one is making a profit off someone else’s back.

What if they can’t get back on stage in September? “It’s really hard to say,” Scannella considers, “because everyone we employ has worked with us for many years, and it would be devastating to go any further (with cuts) than what we have now. We have plans, but we don’t want to make a decision now because we don’t know what next week has in store for us.

Scannella admits that, like many, the company has been taken by surprise by the rapidly advancing coronavirus pandemic. “I don’t think we realized how bad it was. Europe took its time to react but thank goodness Australia made the right decision at the right time. And echoing the sentiments of all the performers, especially the dancers, he adds: “At the moment the numbers are good, so let’s hope for the best! “

– DENISE RICHARDSON

WAB's Oscar Valdes and Candice Adea rehearse
WAB’s Oscar Valdes and Candice Adea rehearse “In Light and Shadow” for the career season earlier this year. Photo: Sergei Pevnev.


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