Renowned Australian ballet dancer Colin Peasley has completed preparing dancers from the Viet Nam National Opera and Ballet for a Graduation Ball. Peasley retired from the Australian Ballet last August after 50 years and a record 6,406 shows. He spoke to Culture Vulture.
What originally brought you to Viet Nam?
The Australian Government is celebrating 40 years of diplomatic ties with Viet Nam by sponsoring a variety of performances. The [Australian] ambassador, Hugh Borrowman, is in love with dance and the arts. He thought it would be really good if the Australian Ballet worked with the Vietnamese national ballet.
We suggested Graduation Ball because it is an old ballet, one of the first big, classical professional ballets. It's particularly using it to introduce people who don't know much about dance. There is a good storyline, simple, lots of fun and good dancing.
Graduation Ball was first premiered in Australia in 1940. It was choreographed by David Lichine to music composed by Johann Strauss. That's the work that suits many young dancers and audiences.
After just 10 days here, what can you say about Vietnamese dancers?
I like their enthusiasm and their attentiveness. They listen and obviously want to do their best. And this is the beginning of good things. If you get a group of dancers who are physically perfect, have good capability with nice turns and jumps, you have the makings of a good company.
When we started, it was a little bit difficult. I think they didn't quite understand what the ballet is about, so I needed to go back to see they had the right roles. I finished instruction last Thursday and with an official rehearsal on Monday, I can see how the ballet is developing, and how they are fitted into the whole structure of the work. I think the audience will enjoy.
The Vietnamese need extra work before they put the ballet on stage. The sad thing is that the national ballet has no money to buy new costumes so we had just take costumes from the store. However, when they dress up, I think it will be a big success.
What advantages and disadvantages do Vietnamese dancers have?
No matter where you go in the world, there is always a national trait. For instance, you can certainly tell a Russian dancer from a French dancer, they have different qualities, but neither is better than the other. These days, the physicality of dance, the ability to do big leaps and clever spins is almost universal.
The Vietnamese body is naturally very supple, it moves very well. The good thing about male Asian dancers is that they have a natural ability to jump high into the air. It is probably because of their lighter frame and body. I'm always amazed at such great jumps.
What criteria are the most important for a ballet dancer?
Commitment. Even if you have the right legs, the right feet and the right proportions, if you don't work hard, you can't achieve anything. If you are willing to commit to dance, dance will be good for you.
The other thing is that dancers are intelligent. People think if you use your body it's because you can't use your brain. This is not right. In Australian ballet schools, our students are required to pass all academic tests. And they do the same at ballet.
The brain is up top. If you have the desire and ability to work and train hard, you will be a good dancer. You learn skills by performing, not by rehearsing. When you get in front of all audiences, you realise how to transmit all that you have learned to the people who pay to see. You become an artist.
What ballet was the most memorable in your life?
I have to say Swan Lake because it was the first ballet I performed with the Australian Ballet back in 1962. When I retired from dancing last year, it was the last ballet I did in my career. So that's a good love relationship between me and ballet.
What are you doing now?
I'm going back to Australia for three days and then fly to Malaysia to judge a competition there. Then it's Australia again to appear in Swan Lake and then as a witch in another ballet. The Australian Ballet is a full-time company and we perform the most performances a year of any company, apart from dancers in the English Ballet. — VNS