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Barry Wordsworth: Best of the Brits

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Barry Wordsworth
Photo Boyd Gilmore

A veteran of conducting for ballet, Barry Wordsworth was Music Director at The Royal Ballet from 1990 to 1995 and again from 2007 to 2015. The Grammy Award-winning conductor joins The Australian Ballet for the Frederick Ashton double-bill, The Dream/Marguerite and Armand and takes some time to chat about all things 'Ashton' and the longevity of storytelling through dance.

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Abril Ward, Las Hermanas (MacMillan) 1979
Photo Branco Gaica

How did you begin conducting for ballet?

When I came back from studying in Amsterdam, the Sadler’s Wells Ballet were doing a piece by Sir Kenneth MacMillan, a ballet called Las Hermanas (The Sisters), to a score by Frank Martin. It was a harpsichord concerto and the soloist they had booked fell sick. I was asked if I would come and play it, and that’s what started my connection with the ballet and my love for working with dancers in the theatre. Before then I had been an organist and church musician. The ballet was a big success but eventually dropped out of the repertoire and they (Sadler’s Wells Ballet) said to me, ‘we understand you like to conduct, would you like a go?’ Ultimately it worked well, so they gave me a job as Assistant Conductor.

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Principal Artists Benedicte Bemet and Joseph Caley in rehearsal for The Dream (Ashton) 2023
Photo Brodie James

You’ve conducted many of Frederick Ashton’s ballet’s, what is it that draws you to these works?

The power of his theatrical ability to tell stories wonderfully, we see this this so clearly in The Dream and in Marguerite and Armand.

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Barry Wordsworth
Photo Boyd Gilmore

You worked alongside Ashton at the beginning of your conducting career, did you get a sense of what he was trying to achieve with the musicality and movement?

My knowledge of Sir Fred’s choreography came through his notators and assistants, in particular Faith Wurth, and Monica Parker, both of whom had a deep understanding of his style. He was retired by the time I joined the company, so we only usually saw him for the last few rehearsals.

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Principal Artist Amy Harris and Nathan Brook in rehearsal for Marguerite and Armand (Ashton) 2023
Photo Brodie James

You have a long history with The Royal Ballet, what do you think makes Ashton’s style ‘British’?

When Ninette de Valois founded Sadler’s Wells (later The Royal Ballet), she was asked why she called it the ‘theatre ballet’ and she said, “because the British don’t know much about the ballet, but they love the theatre.” And I think that theatricality is what makes Ashton’s work so British.

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Artists of The Australian Ballet, The Dream (Ashton) 2023
Photo Daniel Boud

Having such an extensive career means you’ve worked alongside the worlds most renowned choreographers, how important is it to continue the legacy of these works?

Variety of style and approach is very important to the future of any artform, and in ballet, I feel it’s very important to maintain a balance between traditional works and present-day creations.

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Principal Artist Brett Chynoweth and Yichuan Wang in rehearsal for The Dream (Ashton) 2023
Photo Brodie James

The Dream is based on Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, why do you think Shakespeare’s plays are the inspiration behind so many ballets?

I think choreographers are inspired by the power of his plays, and the challenge of conveying that power in wordless theatrical performance.

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Principal Artist Sharni Spencer in rehearsal for Marguerite and Armand (Ashton) 2023
Photo Brodie James

The story of Marguerite and Armand is based on Alexandre Dumas fils novel that also inspired La traviata, have you ever conducted Verdi’s opera?

Yes, I did La traviata at Sadler’s Wells, and it was a wonderful experience, along with a lot of operettas, which were also fabulous experiences.

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Barry Wordsworth, BBC Proms 1993
Photo © Royal Albert Hall

What are some of the conducting highlights if your career?

I think conducting the Last night of the Proms in 1993 was an amazing experience, and I will never forget the excitement of that evening. We performed, amongst other things in the programme, Constant Lambert’s The Rio Grande, for chorus, orchestra and piano soloist. It was wonderful to include repertoire by the first Music Director of The Royal Ballet.

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Yuumi Yamada with artists of The Australian Ballet, The Nutcracker (Wright) 2019
Photo Daniel Boud

Do you have a favourite piece to conduct?

The Nutcracker is my favourite, not only because it’s a short ballet, but because the score is a wonderful example of Tchaikovsky’s genius.

To see (and hear!) The Dream/Marguerite and Armand

The Dream / Marguerite and Armand