A ballerina in Manhattan

26 June 2012 | By Juliet Burnett

Juliet and Senior Artist Amy Harris after Swan Lake opening night as the Guardian Swans
Juliet and Senior Artist Amy Harris after Swan Lake opening night as the Guardian Swans
Juliet raids Williamsburg fleamarket
Juliet raids Williamsburg fleamarket
Warumuk ladies after the show
Warumuk ladies after the show
Central Park view
Central Park view

New York City – mecca, muse and enigma – has long been depicted as a sort of Promised Land for all walks of life. But despite the prospect of opportunity and discovery, not every story there ends happily. The city is known as much for being brash and elusive as she is for being welcoming and bounteous. In The Australian Ballet’s 50th year, we would be her guests as part of our celebrations, bearing two programs that proclaim our identity – Infinity, a mixed bill including Stephen Page’s Warumuk: in the dark night, our collaboration with Bangarra Dance Theatre; and Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake, seeing its New York debut after dazzling audiences in London, Paris and Tokyo.

Despite a 6am start in the brisk chill of winter, when we boarded the Qantas A380 in Melbourne our spirits were high and our hearts full of hope. What the next fleeting ten days would deliver was hanging tantalisingly in the air. How would The Australian Ballet story in New York continue, with its last chapter written twelve years ago?

My own relationship with New York began in 2008 on a memorable family holiday. We enjoyed a magical white Christmas and fell in love with all the city’s spoils. On my second encounter my husband, musician Nick Thayer, would also have a show that week in New York, and given our busy schedules we were keen just to kick back and get to know her a little more casually and perhaps more intimately. That was the plan, anyway. The moment the front window of our airport coach framed a perfect vista of the Manhattan skyline, we were all intoxicated with that zealous fever that strikes when confronted with such a marvel. Simone de Beauvoir once said: “there is something in the New York air that makes sleep useless”. A few of us took it literally; as soon as we had dumped our bags and freshened up after crossing time zones, we sped downtown to a Chelsea warehouse to see a gloriously bizarre manifestation of Macbeth called Sleep No More, in which the audience are summoned to follow the individual protagonists in an immersive “choose your own adventure” theatrical experience. New York was coming on strong this time.

When we tour overseas, the dancers are given a free day after the flight to iron out all those long-haul creases. I find the best way to address this is to walk, and walk, and walk. We set out on a balmy Sunday morning to do just that in Williamsburg, with our eye on its riverside flea market with views across to Manhattan. One way to guarantee my happiness is a really good flea market, and I think walking away with a hefty swag of vintage clothes and two artworks surmises my sentiments toward this particular one.

The next morning, entering the David H. Koch Theater at the Lincoln Centre (the stomping ground of great choreographer George Balanchine and his New York City Ballet), almost felt like entering a church, such is its significance in the ballet world. Instead of genuflecting, I went about my warm-up in the studio with increased anticipation of the performances ahead.

After a long day of rehearsals, we glammed it up at the opening night of American Ballet Theatre’s mixed bill at The Met, just across the Lincoln Centre forecourt. From an audience vantage point, I could gain a sense of the enthusiasm for dance in New York. There is of course nothing wrong with polite applause, but I just loved the Americans’ unabashed bravo-ing and general boisterousness. Appreciation of dance doesn’t even begin to cover it. One of the ballets performed that night was Balanchine’s 20th-century classic Apollo, which to me is the perfect work of art, its stunning purity inflected with nuanced classicism, all set to Stravinsky’s sublime music. I sat perched on the edge of my seat, and I wondered whether Nick, sitting next to me, could hear my heart pounding.

Inspired by that performance, I couldn’t wait to get onstage myself. We’d already been through an extraordinary bonding journey with our Bangarra family during the creation process and ensuing Australian performances of Warumuk, and these shows, in extraordinary circumstances, were a fitting culmination of our spiritual growth together. The standing ovation at the end of the performance said it all. Tears of pride streamed down my face, collecting and dispersing smears of ceremonial white clay. In this unrelenting metropolis with its almost greedy wealth of art and culture, we had successfully made an impact with our most honest and humble expression of the Australian spirit.

There was no time to bask in collective glory, as we farewelled Bangarra and plunged into a day of top-to-toe Swan Lake rehearsals. During the break, Nick and I managed to meander across Central Park (which felt like a picture-perfect film set illustrating a bucolic summer’s afternoon, complete with kids on carousels and horses and carriages) to check out The Frick Collection. In a week that had already served up a veritable all-you-can-eat buffet of Extraordinary, I was almost casual about seeing this guy’s 5th-Ave palace filled with the paintings of Dutch and French masters. Once, during a long perfume sampling in a Parisian perfumery, the store clerk brandished a bowl of coffee beans under my nose, urging me to take a whiff. “When you smell so many different beautiful things,” he declared in a gorgeous French accent, “you experience olfactory fatigue. The coffee neutralises your sense of smell.” Here in New York, was I experiencing a multi-sensory, Extraordinary-overdose fatigue? If so, where were my coffee beans?

Nick and I are mad coffee aficionados (we do live in Melbourne, after all), so we engaged in meticulous sleuthing to unearth those beans at Stumptown, and we weren’t disappointed. With breakfast amongst too-cool Manhattanites at The Breslin next door, the experience certainly didn’t have a neutralising effect; instead, it lulled us ever more under the city’s spell.

A mammoth day of Swan Lake dress rehearsal led straight into the opening night show. After dancing this ballet for nine years I continue to be stimulated and captivated by it, both dancing it myself and watching the principal dancers conquer new heights of powerful expression. It is Graeme Murphy’s masterpiece. I don’t know if it was that Aussie have-a-go attitude, the added vigour of de Beauvoir’s “New York air”, or a sense of proving oneself in this big town with its big ballet culture, but there was magic happening onstage. And New York loved it, with a rapturous standing ovation greeting us as the curtain went up at the end of the arduous four acts. We relished the warm reception – the city’s equivalent of giving us an enormous congratulatory bear hug.

The next three shows over the Saturday and Sunday were to be equally stupendous, with a standing ovation completing each one. Though my body felt like a lump of lead from the physical exertion of the last few days, the spirits that had been high and full of hope upon my arrival were now amplified by the multiple extraordinary experiences the week had borne. A lavish cocktail reception hosted by Jeanne Pratt, accompanied by the majestic backdrop of sunset over Manhattan, and a spot of jazz music at the famous Village Vanguard was the perfect finale to this tête-à-tête with New York City. She was the warmest, most generous host. And though I did get to know her better, I have the distinct feeling that I’ve only just scratched the surface. The Australian Ballet has certainly won her heart, ensuring an exciting next chapter of its New York story. I can’t wait to see how deep I will get with her in my own.