A Thousand Encores – The Ballets Russes in Australia

28 October 2009 | By Isabel Dunstan

In her latest film, award-winning documentary maker Mandy Chang has captured the magic and extraordinary past of one of the greatest performing arts companies of the 20th century. A Thousand Encores: The Ballets Russes in Australia follows the Ballets Russes, the company that changed ballet, and the face of performing arts in Australia, forever. The Ballets Russes awoke a nation, transformed the cultural landscape of conservative ‘30s-Australia, leaving a rich legacy that lasts to this day. The film includes footage of Graeme Murphy and Janet Vernon working with The Australian Ballet to create their Ballets Russes tribute Firebird.

A Thousand Encores: The Ballets Russes in Australia premieres Tuesday 3 November 2009 at 8.30pm on ABC1.

What is it about the Ballets Russes era that sends your heart racing?
For me it’s the incredible combination of design, dance, choreography and music, all fused into one sublime art form. The sheer cutting-edge nature of it and that it was created by the greatest artists, composers, dancers and choreographers of the time. The idea of fusing these disciplines equally was first dreamed up by Wagner, who called it Gesumstkunstwerk. It inspired and drove Sergei Diaghilev to achieve the incredible.

You spoke to some ex-Ballets Russes dancers. Could you name just one who was particularly inspiring to you?
I found them all inspiring, but I loved the vitality, enthusiasm and outspokenness of Anna Volkova. She had a treasure trove of incredible stories about the Ballets Russes. Only a tiny fraction of them made it into the film. When she talked about ballet and the music, her whole being would come alive. Her hands, and then her whole body (totally unconsciously), began to move as a way of communicating. Even at the age of ninety-something, dance is still in her.

What was it like coming across all the old programmes, photos and footage?
It was a whole entire world in Australia’s history. Suddenly stumbling across a drawing of sets and costumes by Picasso or Derain – artists whose paintings I’ve loved all my life – was thrilling. I was touched by the passion of the people who had collected all this material, often in scrapbooks, writing little comments next to the text. I’ve worked on many documentaries that use archive footage but I’ve never seen anything like the footage of the Ballets Russes dancers in Australia. Colour footage from the ‘30s is so rare. To see these young people grand jetéing and pirouetting on the beach encapsulates the purest expression of the joy and freedom they experienced in Australia and we’re so lucky to have this rich resource.

You followed the making of Graeme Murphy’s Firebird. What was it like following them in action?
Janet and Graeme were incredibly generous to let us in on their creative process. For me it was a great insight into how a ballet comes together. I think Janet and Graeme are unique in the way they work together, almost as one – it’s very intense. Graeme is right in there, knitting the bodies together and Janet is across the big picture. It’s funny but sometimes you can almost hear Graeme thinking as he works – the concentration is so focused – although there was a lot of laughter in the studio as well.

Tell us about the biggest challenge you faced when making this documentary
I think fusing the old (the story of the Ballets Russes coming to Australia) and the new (following the creation of The Australian Ballet’s Firebird) was the biggest challenge and trying to seamlessly weave between past and present. The Ballets Russes story alone was a huge and ambitious tale to tell, but to follow The Australian Ballet as they put together Firebird, made it even more epic, not to mention daunting.

One hour to capture years worth of ballet must have been tough! Was there anything you were sorry to leave out?
There was so much good footage that we couldn’t squeeze into an already jam-packed film. We spoke to some wonderful old Australian dancers, many had danced for the Ballets Russes dancer Eduard Borovansky, but we just couldn’t fit them into the film (and Borovansky’s story deserves a documentary all to himself). I was particularly upset that I couldn’t include Audrey Nichols, Martin Rubenstein and the fabulous Barry Kitcher, who all danced for Borovansky, in the film. Audrey is still teaching and performing in her ‘70s! And of course there was so much good footage of Graeme and Janet’s rehearsals that didn’t make it in, but that’s the nature of film-making – there’s always heartache when you get into the cutting room and have to make tough decisions.

Do you see ballet in a different light now that you have so much knowledge about its history?
Yes, of course. Gaining deeper knowledge of any art form always enriches your experience of it and gives you a greater appreciation of what goes into it. I think it was a huge privilege to have been asked to direct this film and I’m grateful to people for sharing their stories and their worlds with me.

Igor Youskevith as the Harlequin