Live, onstage performances were a distant dream when the original 60 Dancers: 60 Stories was created in isolation earlier this year. With raw creativity and the drive to dance, inspire, and connect, what was once a collection of short, daily ballet premieres has become one of our greatest achievements. From the latest edition of Pas Magazine, this is the story of 60 Dancers: 60 Stories.
— It was Friday, March 13 and a week before the opening night of Queensland Ballet’s 60th Anniversary Gala when the dancers were officially told the news - that there would not, in fact, be a Gala.
The season was postponed and then cancelled, QPAC closed, and the rest of the year’s performances were dubious at best as the COVID-19 pandemic swept across Australia at a spiraling rate, going from less than 200 cases nation-wide on March 13 to more than 2000 in 12 days. After months of rehearsing, choreographing, costume-creating, collaborating, and storytelling, QB dancers and staff were soon sent home in what became, as we now know, a shut-down of global proportions. Dust covers covered grand pianos, tights and pointes and tulle tutus were stored, and Queensland Ballet effectively closed down.
Except it didn’t.
In April, we launched a #keepthemagicalive website dedicated to finding new ways to inspire and entertain every day - with digital content, community programs, and the ambitious initiative 60 Dancers: 60 Stories. Featuring a world premiere of new ballets released daily throughout June, the project aimed to inspire philanthropy to keep the company alive, with donations quadrupled by an anonymous donor until they reached the $1 million target. We knew we needed a wildly ambitious campaign whilst producing something truly valuable for our audiences.
Little did we know the production would go on to grace stages across southeast Queensland later in the year.
Dilshani Weerasinghe, QB Executive Director
— “When we had to move our dancers and pianists out of the studio, Li (Cunxin) and I were considering how to ensure their creativity remained ‘in gear’ and engaged, and we came up with the 60 Dancers: 60 Stories idea. It was very important to both Li and I that COVID-19 took nothing away from us (dancers, pianists, enablers) or from our patrons. Given they couldn’t connect through performance, this was a different way to reach out. It was very embryonic when it was given to Matt as a thought and he flew with it!
As we digested a different reality, it didn’t take long for QB to be a-flush with stories and ideas coming from all directions: dancers, musicians, wardrobe, marketing…and in thinking about when we could share these 60 stories with our patrons meaningfully, we aligned 60 stories with 30 days in June and decided to release them two per day.
There are so many inspiring elements to this initiative. Mentors included our artistic team and our Resident and Associate Choreographers, Natalie Weir and Jack Lister. Our dancers, pianists and editors have truly created something very special, that has been derived from deep inside themselves – it’s truly engaging and unique. Not only were they choreographers, but they were also the lighting designers, the music directors, the directors and the film artists!
Some formed collaborations across borders (Ave Maria, for example) and some explored opportunities to incorporate the spoken word or the natural environment. Those who have been watching them have expressed appreciation that ballet and creativity continues to thrive at QB, that the arts will prevail. They have generously offered donations but their comments on www.keepthemagicalive.com.au have in turn inspired us in their honesty and heartfelt emotion.
These unprecedented times have taught us many things but perhaps we have also learned new ways to engage creativity and reach our patrons/viewers. The arts will prevail and not just in studios and on stages.
Matthew Lawrence, QB Ballet Master
— “Most companies during this period were doing smaller scale and conservative collaborations, or free viewing of existing repertoire. 60 new works, involving all company members, with multiple collaborations, had not been attempted before to this scale. Including the dancers, more than 100 people collaborated
to make this project come alive, including choreographic mentors, editing mentors, musical collaborators, and family and friends. It was a complex operation to coordinate!
As most of the dancers had never choreographed before, and indeed never shot a dance film, we had a team of 12 mentors who did an amazing job supporting our dancers to achieve their best. In the early set up for the project, there was a lot of work in their initial proposals and storyboards, and this gave me a chance to strategically look at balancing the program. Also, musically, 17 works were original compositions and the other 43 works were arrangements of past works; our music team was kept very busy.
I was blown away by the quality of dance films – it certainly surpassed mine and everyone’s expectations. Even just 10 years ago, this project would have been impossible. But with the advent of iPhones and quality cameras, coupled with accessible editing software such as iMovie, communicating through film is
a lot easier now.
For QB, this project is a legacy, a rare digital footprint, of who we were in our 60th year. It shows us as a company of not just dancers with excellent technique, but also expectational artistic talent. I’m hoping the spirit of 60:60 will drive QB through this tough period and propel us into the next 60 years of growth.”
Mia Heathcote / Victor Estévez: Ave Maria
— “Our process began with the music. We thought it would be a special touch to collaborate with Victor’s talented sister, Anabel Estévez (violin) and his cousin, Adrian Estévez (piano) who played and recorded Ave Maria so beautifully. This was what really inspired us initially and then we took pen to paper to actually write out a story line with themes and emotions.
After that, the movement and choreography came from what we felt in the music and the way we wanted the story to be portrayed. We worked together to create movements that symbolised the narrative and the emotions we were aiming to provoke. Technically, our lovely friend and housemate, Harley Campbell helped us film the piece. Firstly, we set up Victor's iPhone to film the piece from start to finish on a chair so we were able to get a full shot. Then Harley filmed some sections from different angles with her own camera which we then merged and edited in with the iPhone footage.”
“What I enjoyed the most was the opportunity of creating a piece together. For us it was a completely raw area in this art form that we haven’t experienced before. It was a very enjoyable and satisfying process seeing our ideas coming along together with the music.
Moreover, having my sister Anabel and cousin Adrian playing this incredible, touching piece of music by Franz Schubert was a very unique experience that gave me the opportunity to feel more connected with my family despite the distance.”
Edward Pope: Real Love
“My process began from (QB Pianist) Steph’s beautiful music. I listened to it and jotted down ideas that came to me. I then rehearsed some movements (in my living room) slowly sewing them together over a few days before filming. I’ve been lucky to have had a few choreographic opportunities in the past…having said this, I found choreographing on myself and alone quite challenging. But it forces you to find the pure joy of movement again and explore what your body enjoys doing, free from mirrors and critique.
My Dad was very helpful by filming for me. I was lucky to be able to use a space at a construction site he was close to completing and it became a bit of a collaboration between myself and Pope Constructions as I drew inspiration from the polished concrete floors and the skylights in the ceiling. I’ve got a brilliant Canon Camera so we gave video mode a go and I was pleased with the results. We filmed across the day, taking different takes of the same choreography from various angles.
Over time the sun had lowered, adding shadows and contrast to the film. We both loved the idea of the camera panning around me as I dance, but in reality is very difficult to keep smooth. Out of the corner of my eye I spotted a vacuum on wheels... this became best camera assistant ever!
It was so wonderful to be part of this initiative in response to these extraordinary times.”
Liam Geck: Eros
“My partner Callyn helped me film my project, just on a standard iPhone 10. I haven’t done much choreography at all in a professional sense, however I do like to play around and think up ideas and concepts in my spare time, on the rare occasion creativity sparks.
Once I had the recording of the music arranged by Stephanie it was easier to find inspiration from hearing the music. I did some research around the broad theme of love and narrowed it down to the Ancient Greek gods and their beliefs. I wanted lots of different landscapes to film in to bring in the idea of the gods meddling in people’s lives, so started out with the hands in the sky, which also represented a love that slipped away.
The movement came easily, showing the ups and downs post break-up and then I revisited the sky at the end, but this time only one hand reached out to be disappointed by finding itself alone in the world.
The best part of this process was obviously being in control and having full artistic license to explore movements and shots that complimented my idea. And also, surprisingly, the film editing process was so enjoyable, it was something I had only dabbled in before and having such a wonderful platform to showcase the work was delightful!”
For more in-depth features, read our latest edition of Pas Magazine here
Photography by Tamara Hanton