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August 2005 Issue
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Australian art's 'Big Bang' a Russian revolution

 Performing Arts

The Ballets Russes tours to Australia between 1936 and 1940 constituted the "Big Bang" of Australian high art; a feast of cutting edge dance, music and décor whose impact continues to be felt to this day.

The content and impact of the tours are the subject of a unique research project that brings together the University of Adelaide, The Australian Ballet and the National Library of Australia in Canberra.

Overseen by Dr Mark Carroll, a Senior Lecturer at the University's Elder School of Music, the Ballets Russes project received a boost recently with the Australian Research Council awarding it a prestigious Linkage Grant totalling almost $370,000 over the next four years.

The ARC funding follows the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding between the University of Adelaide and The Australian Ballet, which will foster closer collaborations and links between the two institutions across a range of activities.

"The project and its associated ARC funding represent a major coup for the University of Adelaide, and place us at the forefront of research into the Australian performing arts," Dr Carroll said.

The Ballets Russes project is designed to coincide with Australian Ballet's special commemorative program celebrating the 70th anniversary of the first Ballets Russes performance in Australia in 1936 (given in Adelaide), as well as the centenary of the Ballets Russes debut in Paris in 1909.

Research will draw upon extensive archival material located in major Australian urban and regional centres, including the National Library in Canberra.

Among the more important archives to be tapped is the Wilkie Theatre Collection, held in the Barr Smith Library's Special Collections area. According to the Special Collections Librarian, Cheryl Hoskin, this nationally significant collection of dance and theatre ephemera will play a pivotal role in establishing the impact of the tours on Adelaide cultural life.

Dr Carroll said residents of Adelaide were not alone in their appreciation of the choreographies of Massine, the music of Stravinsky and the decors of Picasso.

"Australian audiences had seen or heard nothing like it before, and for those four years between 1936 and 1940 the Ballets Russes tours gripped our imagination - we were fascinated by them," he said.

"Equally significantly, it was not just the general public who were enthralled by this celebration of European high art. The tours opened a window of opportunity for Australian talent - a young Sidney Nolan, for example, created the set and costume design for one of the performances in 1940, and thanks to those artists who elected to remain in Australia at the outbreak of World War II, the tours led ultimately to the establishment of The Australian Ballet in 1962."

Dr Carroll points out that the great strength and originality of the Ballets Russes research project is that it brings together archival research and practical performance outcomes in a way that is unique both here and abroad.

"The project is designed not only to gauge the impact of the tours at the time, but also to provide raw materials that will inform directly The Australian Ballet's upcoming commemorative performances," he said.

Story by Ben Osborne

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David Lichine as the Faun in Ballets Russes’ <i>L’Après-midi d’un faune</i> in 1940
Photo by Max Dupain, courtesy of the National Library of Australia

David Lichine as the Faun in Ballets Russes' L'Après-midi d'un faune in 1940
Photo by Max Dupain, courtesy of the National Library of Australia

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