The Australian Ballet

5 Things you didn't know about Études

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Principal Artists Joseph Caley, Ako Kondo and Chengwu Guo, Études (Lander) 2024
Photo Daniel Boud

Some lesser-known facts about Études, a ballet that turns pure technique into a theatrical spectacle.

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Mia Heathcote, Samara Merrick, Saranja Crowe, Larissa Kiyoto-Ward and artists of The Australian Ballet, Études (Lander) 2024
Photo Daniel Boud

It all started with Autumn leaves

One Autumn day, the composer Knudåge Riisager was walking through the streets of Copenhagen amid swirling leaves when he heard the sound of someone playing a Carl Czerny piano exercise. The movement of the leaves in conjunction with the music sparked an idea. He decided to orchestrate Czerny’s studies, and took the score to Harald Lander with the suggestion that it would make a good ballet (it did). There’s a passage in Études where the ballerinas drift across the stage in endless chaînes turns, recalling the leaves that inspired Riisager.

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Principal Artist Ako Kondo, Études (Lander) 2024
Photo Daniel Boud

If you look closely, you might see fairies

Harald Lander was the artistic director of the Royal Danish Ballet for two decades, and his work is steeped in the style of August Bournonville, the famous 19th-century Danish choreographer who created La Sylphide (sylphides are air spirits who live in forest glades). Lander also studied in New York with Michel Fokine, the Ballets Russes choreographer, whose one-act Les Sylphides is an abstract, poetic distillation of La Sylphide. In Études, when the ballerinas come on stage dressed in long, floating Romantic tutus to dance with soft arms and airy jumps, Lander is paying tribute to these ballets. You may even see echoes of poses in Les Sylphides, as when the ballerina leans deeply into an arabesque with her face close to her partner’s.

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Artists of The Australian Ballet, Études (Lander) 2024
Photo Daniel Boud

It mimics the structure of a ballet class

Études is made up of 20 short segments. It starts with barre exercises and, except for the Sylphides interlude, proceeds in the way that class would, becoming ever more complex and finishing with bravura turns and jumps. As well as paying tribute to the centuries-old tradition of the ballet class, it allows us to see how perfectly the basic foundations of ballet build to virtuosic movement. It’s as if you’re seeing the creation of a masterful oil painting in time lapse, from the preparatory sketch to the fully shaded final effect.

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Samara Merrick, Rina Nemoto, Mia Heathcote and Karina Arimura, Études (Lander) 2024
Photo Daniel Boud

It’s devilishly difficult

When you hear the term “classroom ballet” applied to Études, or learn that the music is based on piano exercises for students, you may think that it’s a simple ballet to dance. Au contraire! Johnny Eliasen, who stages Études around the world, calls it “terrifying”. No characters, no story, no scenery: just 45 minutes of rigorously technical dancing, often in massed unison. Even the barre segments, in which the dancers’ silhouetted or spotlit legs must move with perfect alignment and timing, are hugely challenging: Eliasen calls this choreography “a beautiful nightmare” that’s only mastered by endless practice. Find out more about the technical feats of Études from one of our ex-dancers.

Hidden gems in Études
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Artists of The Australian Ballet, Études (Lander) 2024
Photo Daniel Boud

It’s carefully guarded

Harald Lander had three wives. His first, Margot Lander, danced the lead in the world premiere of Études in 1948. His second, Toni, danced the lead in the New York premiere in 1961. Lise Lander, his third wife, controls the rights for the ballet and only grants them to companies of the highest standard. “It’s a very difficult ballet … I only give permission to dance it when I’m sure that everything is ok,” she says. The Australian Ballet is one of the elite companies that have been allowed to stage the work, along with famed organisations such as American Ballet Theatre, Paris Opera Ballet, the Bolshoi Ballet and National Ballet of Canada.

Études plays at the Sydney Opera House alongside Stephanie Lake's Circle Electric until 18 May before heading the Melbourne in October 2024.

Études / Circle Electric