The Australian Ballet

Season 2024 has been revealed. Explore the season.

Romeo and Juliet: The Coaches

Romeo and Juliet 08227

Fiona Tonkin and Steven Heathcote in Romeo and Juliet (1991)

Photo by Earl Carter

Fiona Tonkin and Steven Heathcote learnt Romeo and Juliet from one of the great Cranko coaches. Now, they’re handing on their precious knowledge to The Australian Ballet’s current crop of dancers.

One of the most unique things about ballet is the way that it is handed down from generation to generation, through bodies, through stories. All the YouTube clips in all the world can’t replace this direct transmission. The Australian Ballet hasn’t performed John Cranko’s Romeo and Juliet in two decades, so there’s a whole generation of dancers who are learning it for the first time, without even having seen their older colleagues performing the main roles. Fortunately, two of the company’s greatest Cranko interpreters, Principal Coach Fiona Tonkin and Ballet Master Steven Heathcote, are around to keep the torches burning bright. (The dancers also have the benefit of Artistic Director David Hallberg, who was an acclaimed Romeo in Kenneth MacMillan’s version of the ballet, and who counts it among his favourite roles.)

Through Heathcote and Tonkin, today’s dancers are just three degrees of separation away from Cranko, who died in 1973. They learnt the ballet from Anne Woolliams, who was Cranko’s ballet mistress and trusted lieutenant (and was also Artistic Director of The Australian Ballet in the 1970s). “Anne was a force of nature,” says Tonkin. “So direct, and so professional, and so passionate about everyone in the company knowing exactly how they were feeling, so that the action on stage looked organic. She’d ask some extra at a fruit stall, ‘What are you thinking right now?’”

Romeo and Juliet 08111 1

Fiona Tonkin and Steven Heathcote in Romeo and Juliet (1991)

Photo by Earl Carter

Romeo and Juliet 08015

Fiona Tonkin and Steven Heathcote Photo by Graeme Webber

Heathcote encountered Woolliams in 1983, his first year in the company. She gave him his first big opportunity: understudying the plum role of Mercutio, which he eventually performed at the end of that year’s season. It was a huge break, and a huge learning curve. “Anne’s attention to injecting true life into every moment was wonderful to be exposed to as such a young dancer. It was essential to her that you lived the role, that you were that person. She was insistent that everyone on stage have a back story worked out. I remember she said once, ‘Whenever you come on stage, you’ve come from somewhere. Where have you come from?’ She meant that you haven’t just stepped on from the wings – your character had been somewhere. Who were you talking to? Why have you moved into this new space?”

Woolliams gave the dancers cast as Mercutio a lot of insight into the role. “She talked about the fact that he flirts with both houses, the Capulets and Montagues, and can move between the two without any great allegiance to either, although he happens to be great mates with Romeo and Benvolio. He harbours a disgust for the aggression that exists between the two houses. He’s a free spirit … but part of him is a bit of a lost soul, as well. He’s your original Rebel Without a Cause. He fills his life with wine, women and song, and you kind of get the impression that this guy was always going to live a short, hard and fast life.” Heathcote was also able to learn from the principals of his day, especially Paul DeMasson, “who was such a gifted actor-dancer, in my mind one of the greatest Mercutios of all time. From him I gleaned some of the finer points, the things that cut through.”

La Sylphide 02857

Fiona Tonkin in La Sylphide (1985) Photo by Gregory McCloskey

Birthday Offering 05910

Fiona Tonkin and Steven Heathcote in Birthday Offering (1989)

Photo by David B Simmonds

Through YouTube, the dancers of today have access to whole libraries of extraordinary dancers, and often turn to them for inspiration and to gather those “finer points”. But Tonkin likes to impress on her Romeos and Juliets the importance of building their own interpretations. She tells them not to get overly caught up in the technical aspects, and directs them to the Shakespeare play and the Franco Zeffirelli film. In her own dancing life, she would do research and reading before tackling a role like Juliet or Giselle. “It really helped me develop my own storytelling, to make it individual and authentic, and that means you’re able to build on it when you return to the role.”

In the studio, Heathcote talks to the dancers about motivation. “In any theatrical scene, someone always wants or needs something.” He also encourages them to talk through a scene without dancing it, as if it really were dialogue. “It can help to clarify it and to make the communicative connections stronger. Then, when you take the words away, the dialogue remains in the head, and the intention is left within the body.”

TAB The Sleeping Beauty Mc Allister Melbourne Photo Lynette Wills 13

Fiona Tonkin and Steven Heathcote in rehearsal for The Sleeping Beauty

Photo by Lynette Wills

TAB Nutcracker The Story of Clara Studio Rehearsal Photo Kate Longely 2017 b20

Steven Heathcote with artists of The Australian Ballet

Photo by Kate Longley

For Tonkin, the interactions between dancers is vital, but there is a third element, apart from the steps and the acting: the music. “That’s what meshes it all together, especially if you have an artist like Cranko who matched the music with the action. So if you know what the music is saying, and you’re interacting with the people around you, it becomes quite an organic thing.”

In Romeo and Juliet, Cranko repeats choreographic motifs in different emotional contexts, layering them to build a crescendo of feeling. Clarifying the differences between them as they reappear is crucial. One instance of this is a pas de deux sequence where Romeo lifts Juliet onto his shoulder and runs in a circle. He puts her down and, overcome, walks away; she runs to him and puts her hand on his shoulder; he turns to her and hugs her. The first two times are in the balcony scene, the third in their bedroom pas de deux. “The first time, she’s unsure why he’s turned away from her, and then he hugs her, and she’s relieved,” says Tonkin. “The second time, she does it because she wants that rush of relief again, and it becomes more passionate. The third time, in the bedroom scene, she’s distraught and trying to stop him leaving. So every time you dance that motif, it’s different, and that’s important to build the height of emotion.”

Over time, Cranko’s steps have been given names to convey to the dancers the quality of movement and emotion that should run through them. A swinging leg is ‘the bell’; a battement in the bedroom scene is ‘the scream’; another moment in that scene is ‘vomiting’. A flung lift that ends in a tight ball is ‘the suicide’. Who named the steps? Tonkin doesn’t know. “As long as I’ve rehearsed the ballet, I’ve always known those labels.” Their origin is lost somewhere in the three degrees, but their vivid communication to the dancers lives on.

TAB Nutcracker The Story of Clara Studio Rehearsal Photo Kate Longley 2017 b25

Fiona Tonkin Photo by Kate Longley

Fiona Tonkin and Steven Heathcote Onegin 1989 EARL CARTER

Fiona Tonkin and Steven Heathcote in Onegin (1989) Photo by Earl Carter

Romeo and Juliet 08208

Fiona Tonkin and Steven in Heathcote in Romeo and Juliet (1991)

Photo by Earl Carter

TAB The Sleeping Beauty Mc Allister Melbourne Photo Kate Longley 2015 19

Fiona Tonkin Photo by Kate Longley

Romeo and Juliet 08112

Fiona Tonkin and Steven Heathcote in Romeo and Juliet

Photo by Earl Carter

TAB The Sleeping Beauty Mc Allister Melbourne Photo Kate Longley 2015 31

Steven Heathcote and Fiona Tonkin Photo by Kate Longley

Onegin 04850

Fiona Tonkin and Steven Heathcote in Onegin (1989)

Photo by Branco Gaica