Over a trailblazing 20-year career at The Australian Ballet, Music Director and Chief Conductor Nicolette Fraillon has built an extraordinary trove of memories and achievements. She shares some of the highlights.
01 Dec 2022
“I’ve walked into ballet heaven.” It was Nicolette Fraillon’s first thought as she came into the studio at Sydney Opera House and saw The Australian Ballet for the first time. It was 2002, and she’d been invited to co-conduct its season of László Seregi’s Spartacus. Although she’d conducted dancers before, most notably as Music Director of the Dutch National Ballet, this company struck her as unique. “I was just blown away by the look of them, how tall and strong and athletic they were. The women were powerful, they exuded confidence. They all threw themselves into what they were doing.” On the morning of opening night, word came that her co-conductor couldn’t do the performance. “I suddenly found myself conducting opening night at the Sydney Opera House, which was kind of a dream! So I called my family in Canberra and Melbourne, and they all scrambled and made it in time.” It wasn’t long after this fairytale beginning that the company’s Artistic Director, David McAllister (“an artistic soulmate from day one”) offered her the job of Music Director.
When Fraillon became Music Director of Dutch National Ballet, she was the world’s first female Music Director of a ballet company. Given the establishment resistance to women conductors, what led Fraillon to the world of dance? She began her musical life as a violin player. When she played for the first time in a student orchestra, she had “an a-ha experience. A whole world of colour opened up, and I wanted to be in charge of those colours.” After winning the Kondrashin Conducting Competition in the Netherlands, she was approached by the famed Nederlands Dans Theater to cover a program for a conductor who’d fallen sick. “Knowing what I now know about dance, I should have said no. But I said yes.” The program was a dream introduction: a triple bill with a work by the legendary Jiří Kylián, another by Nacho Duato, and the first mainstage work of Paul Lightfoot and Sol Léon (whose joint creative powers were recently seen on The Australian Ballet’s stages in Kunstkamer). Fraillon found learning the “whole new language” of ballet “frightening, and fascinating, and completely engrossing.” Kylián immediately entranced her with his thorough, immersive knowledge of the score. At her first orchestra rehearsal, she was facing the musicians in the pit when she felt a presence behind her and turned around to find him there. “He said, ‘You realise the third horn played an E flat rather than an E natural there?’ and, of course, as the conductor, I had heard it, but I was really impressed that he
had heard it.”
Other peak moments include working with Wayne McGregor as he made Dyad 1929 for the company in 2009, and with Alexei Ratmansky, who made a full-length Cinderella for the company in 2013 to Fraillon’s favourite Prokofiev score. Working with repetiteurs from Nederland Dans Theater on Kylián’s ballets (“works of Shakespearean depth, that you can come back to time after time”), nutting out the musical journey of The Sleeping Beauty with David McAllister, and seeing audiences all around the country and abroad respond to it with delight. Finally, working on the company’s four-year Ballets Russes project, a tribute to the revolutionary companies whose tours led to the founding of Australia’s ballet culture. As part of this, three former Ballets Russes stars – Anna Volkova, Valrene Tweedie and Irina Baronova came to coach The Australian Ballet’s dancers in repertoire that they had premiered and danced around the world. “These women, who were elderly, who had arthritis – Irina Boronova hobbled into the studio on two sticks, and was visually impaired, as soon as they heard the music any physical impairments seemed to disappear: it was as if they were the ballerinas they had been in the 1930s, dancing with our ballerinas of today. Watching that happen – and the honour of working with those women and hearing their histories – I will never forget it. That’s what ballet is: it’s not a picture on a wall, it’s not a book on a shelf, it’s both kept alive and transformed as it passes through the generations.”
There are more personal memories, as well. “My sons were four and eight when I joined The Australian Ballet. They were embraced by the company, and I couldn’t have done what I did without that. They grew up in the studios, with 70 older brothers and sisters, who would come and ask me if they could take them out to the beach, or to play cricket. The tech staff would play snooker in the Green Room with them. They came on tour with me to Asia; in China, Robert Curran [a former principal artist] took my son off and taught him how to bargain in the marketplaces, and they came back with all sorts of wondrous things. I loved seeing the joy on my kids’ faces as they discovered music and ballet and the world.”
Fraillon’s first performances as Music Director with The Australian Ballet were with Romeo and Juliet – “What a dream! The score every orchestra wants to play, and every dancer wants to perform to!” – and it’s a beautiful full circle to be conducting it in her final season. So what are her plans after stepping down from the rostrum on closing night?
“I had planned to have a bit of a break. COVID was absolutely exhausting: we kept trying to perform, so you’d plan, and you’d plan again, and you’d worry about keeping the company and the orchestra afloat, without standing people down, not to mention the constant concern for all the remarkable casual players on whom we rely and who relied on us. It was quite a traumatic period. There’s been very little time to process it. I’ve felt for some time that I am running on empty, and need time to work on and through what COVID did to us all. Artistically, I will work on some other projects and take time to look at the rest of the world, at other art forms and cultures and also just have a bit of headspace.” Amongst other things, she will be working on The Australian Ballet’s contemporary program Identity with choreographers Alice Topp and Daniel Riley, and composers Christopher Gordon and Deborah Cheetham, the First Nations soprano and composer, who is also Fraillon’s new life partner.
Although she doesn’t rule out becoming a music director in the future, she’s looking forward to guesting, to pushing aside all the admin and planning so she can “just focus on the work and be an artist for a change, not a full-time administrator who also has to get into the pit every night.”
“However, while I adore classical music, I don’t do what I do just for the music or the ultimate interpretation – I do it because I’m fascinated by working with people, and helping them be their best. I loved finding an art form that drew together so many different elements and disciplines. When I found ballet it was like coming home: I found where I was always supposed to be.”