The ballet dancer and the footie player

Bob and Laurel at the ballet – photo by Belinda

As we settled into our ballet seats at the Lyric Theatre for Sunday’s matinee of Queensland Ballet’s Cinderella, two kilometres away another group of elite athletes were preparing for their own performance.

It wasn’t much of a decision, whether to take up our pre-booked $100 matinee seats or go to the last-minute NRL home game between the Brisbane Broncos and St George Illawarra Dragons.

At least nobody spills beer on you at the ballet,” I jested, as She Who Also Goes to The Ballet ironed my suit. I’d have done it myself but she’d already hogged the ironing board.

The performance – the timeless story of Cinderella, a fable of class warfare and how goodness and generosity should always prevail, did not disappoint. It was another flawless piece of work from the Queensland Ballet company and the Queensland Festival Philharmonic orchestra. The audience was dominated by children and parents/grandparents and the usual gang of gangly girls whose curious splay-footed stance gives them away as ballet students.

The choreographer (Ben Stephenson) played it for laughs, casting Vito Bernasconi and Camilo Ramos as the ugly sisters. Tradition requires that the ugly sisters be played by men. Bernasconi and Ramos tried their best to look ungainly and uncoordinated, somehow falling on their faces without injuring themselves. Stephenson laid on the magic tricks, with the old woman transformed, with a minor explosion and cloud of smoke, into a svelte fairy godmother. Later SWAGTTB nudged me: “Did I miss the part when she changed the pumpkin into a coach?” Feed two old people lunch outdoors in the Queensland sun and then put them in a stuffy dark room for a few hours – someone’s bound to nod off.

During one of two intervals, SWAGTTB demonstrated her classical education by recounting the gruesome Brothers Grimm version of Cinderella, where the ugly sisters, in failed bids to fit into the glass slipper (and thereby become an idle rich Queen), mutilate their own feet.

I mentioned a favourite radio comedy skit from my childhood where the fairy story is told in spoonerisms – Rindercella and the Pransome Hince. It has an opaque provenance, this sketch, with some attributing it to Ronnie Barker. The latter may have performed it, but this much-recycled skit dates back to the 1930s. I’m sure Barker didn’t write it, as he was much funnier than Rindercella, which quickly becomes tedious and predictable. Eight year old boys find it hysterical, though.

Later, driving home and resisting the urge to listen to the rugby league ‘sudden death’ semi-final, we marvelled that QB could finance lavish productions like this, with top-level dancers and an orchestra. We’ve been subscribers for a long time and have seen this world-class company grow and prosper. QB’s annual report shows it made a net operating profit of $1.64 million in 2017. They did this with the help of some $5.38 million in ticket sales and $7.25 million from sponsors and State Government grants.

Not for nothing do I make comparisons between Queensland Ballet’s company of dancers and the injury-depleted Brisbane Broncos squad. Those of you familiar with arts productions will know about ‘notes’ – the after-performance meeting when the producer/director goes through the things that worked and the things that could have been better. I can’t imagine QB”s ballet master having too much to say except maybe chide someone for raising the curtain a few seconds before everyone was in place for the third curtain-call.

Post the 48-18 drubbing by the Dragons, I imagine Broncos coach Wayne Bennett had a few terse things to say to his squad who, well, just didn’t cut it. In the spirit of Rindercella, the Sisty Uglers (all Dragons forwards) bullied Rindercella (Broncos forwards and halves) into submission. There was no Gairy Fodmother to save the day. The final whistle blew and the Broncos turned into pumpkins and field mice and retreated to the sheds.

As Wayne Bennett said later, the squad was decimated by injuries all year including losing three top players for the season.

Now here’s something: you never hear a ballet company complain about the inevitable stress fractures or knee, ankle and back injuries. While dancers’ rarely suffer the traumatic torque injuries common among rugby players, the cumulative effect of injuries can be serious.

When key footie players are injured, there are constant media updates. For example, when Broncos playmaker Andrew McCullough was taken from the field on a stretcher a few weeks back with serious concussion, the updates and speculation on his welfare were continuous.

Rugby league players can all have a month or two off now before the pre-season training begins in November. All the while they are pulling in salaries which range from the minimum ($80,000) to $1 million a year for top players like Cameron Smith or Johnathan Thurston. The average NRL salary is $371,000.

After Cinderella finishes on September 16, Queensland Ballet dancers will be straight into rehearsals for The Nutcracker, which starts its season on December 8. It’s a big deal, being appointed principal dancer of a ballet company, but it’s not something you’d do for the money. Averages are suspect in such a small field, but it seems principal dancers in Australia can earn around $75k-$85k. The average salary for a company dancer is about $48k.

Budding footie players and ballet dancers start working on their craft at an early age. Their parents foot the bill and the time to take children to dance lessons or footie training. Both disciplines require intense training and perseverance, particularly through injury and rehabilitation.

Then there’s the ongoing expense of buying ballet flats ($25 a pair) or pointe shoes (up to $100 a pair). You could argue that parents of footie-mad kids are up for a new pair of boots every time Junior moves up a size. That’s around $200-$250 a pair for the best, or they can browse Gumtree for second-hand boots.

A hard-working ballet dancer, however, can go through 50 to 80 pairs of pointe shoes ($5,000 – $8,000) a year. Some companies buy dancers’ shoes, others can’t. Professional dancers and aspirants may have to factor it into their personal budgets. If you wondered why pointe shoes wear out so quickly, every time a dancer jumps on pointe, three times her body weight is carried on the tip of her big toe. QB has a donation page where you can help out with this inevitable expense.

In arts as in sport, many have expectations, but only a small percentage make the grade to top billing. The difference in sport – and this is particularly noticeable in soccer and American basketball’s NBL – the top-level salaries can be huge.

Contact sports like rugby union or rugby league attract the support and big dollars from television broadcast rights and sponsorship and, more recently, from betting agencies.

Meanwhile, it is up to supporters of the arts to make sure superb creative companies like Queensland Ballet can cover their costs each and every year. I can’t see anyone promoting a televised State of Origin dance-off between State ballets anytime soon, even though it’s not a bad idea.



Rainy day at the ballet


Racheal Walsh and tap dancers performing during Queensland Ballet's Strictly Gershwin
Queensland Ballet guest dancer Rachael Walsh stepping out with tap dancers in Strictly Gershwin. Image courtesy of Queensland Ballet (David Kelly 2016)

So it’s not ballet, but last Thursday night I’m down at the local RSL supporting a new monthly music venture, Club Acoustic. Everyone gets charged $5 admission and then a succession of musicians and poets each have a 15-minute spot to entertain the punters. The evening closes with a guest band and people get up and dance. Organiser Regalia (not her real name), has a novel approach to raising money for the musicians. She asks people to ‘sponsor’ someone they particularly like and then at the end of the night the door takings and bonuses are recycled and most of the musicians get their $5 refunded. Some even end up in the black. It’s called subsidising the performing arts.

On Saturday, we took a punt on the wild weather warnings and drove to Brisbane for the matinee of Strictly Gershwin, a Queensland Ballet production. We are subscribers, (thanks to She Who Books Tickets Early), so the five of us ended up in the second row from the front. I became aware we were seated on top of what would normally be the Lyric Theatre orchestra pit. Yet I could hear an orchestra tuning up back-stage. Then the curtain rose and there was the Queensland Symphony Orchestra, spread across the back of the stage like a big band from the 1920s.

As is the way with professional shows, musical supervisor and conductor Gareth Valentine got stuck right into it, stirring the ensemble through a lively Gershwin overture. Pretty soon the dancers came on stage and a completely absorbing spectacle unfolded. Not just dancers and an orchestra, but a piano soloist,  four singers, tap dancers, two people on in-line skates, two French ladies wheeling prams, can-can dancers and a gendarme on a bicycle. One of our ballet companions, an experienced set designer and theatre producer was a bit dubious about the in-line skaters, imagining one or both of them ending up in our laps. But as is almost always the way with the world-class Queensland Ballet, there were no mis-steps or wardrobe malfunctions as up to 25 dancers negotiated the space between the orchestra and our laps.

Splendidly done!

One of the most popular performers of the afternoon was retired principal ballerina Rachael Walsh making a guest appearance, deftly stepping (in heels) alongside tap dancers.

As Anne Richards once famously said: “Ginger Rogers did everything that Fred Astaire did. She just did it backwards and in high heels.”

For those who enjoy and understand ballet, this 5-star review by Elise Lawrence will give you the full flavour.

Did I mention the whole season, which ended on June 4, sold out? We subscribed in September last year and even then had to pick a matinee! Did I also mention our average subscriber ticket price per ticket for four ballets was $77.50?

People who bought individual tickets for this show paid as much as $140, but even then, what value! Sitting there in row 2BB, soaking up this world-class spectacle, I wondered how the hell they can afford to put this on.

As is my wont, I went off to investigate.

Downsize orchestras or provide more funding?

The Queensland Symphony Orchestra is one of six state-based professional groups that perform a wide range of classical and popular material for all age groups and interests. The QSO states in its 2015 annual report it employs 88 full-time musicians. This year the QSO scheduled 157 concerts over 47 weeks, performing on average at least three times a week. The Brisbane-based orchestra also takes on a free community engagement program and an extensive state-wide education program that connects with 30,000 students. So who pays for all of this? Certainly not the 1.6 million QSO punters alone.

The QSO, like many other professional performance troupes of this scale, is supported by Federal and State government funding, along with funds provided by sponsors, donors and supporters.

Federal and State funding ($11.147 million), accounted for 64% of the QSO’s budget of $17.516 million in 2015.

Ticket sales contributed 15% ($2.59 million) with philanthropy (sponsorships, donations, bequests, memberships) contributing $2.863 million. Employee costs and artists’ fees and expenses came to $11.981 million.

Queensland Ballet, itself supported by sponsors, subscribers, donors, and state funding, employs the QSO on a per-performance basis. Most orchestras are available to outside troupes needing their skills. A spokeswoman said that when QB is unable to have the orchestra, either through availability or budgetary constraints, they use QSO recorded music.

It’s a good sideline for the QSO, which earned $852,010 in orchestra hire fees in 2015. You might recall over the years the QSO accompanying artists as diverse as Harry Connick Jnr, k.d Lang, Dionne Warwick, Andrea Bocelli, Pavarotti, Anthony Warlow and george.

Unhappily for those who cherish State support for the arts, a recent article on the financial performance of Australia’s six orchestras shows the majority struggling to make an operating surplus.

Author Hans Hoegh-Guldberg compared the financial performance of the six state orchestras in 2013 with a decade earlier.  In 2003, the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra (MSO), Sydney Symphony Orchestra (SSO) and the WA Symphony Orchestra (WASO) made profits.

Among the others, the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra (TSO) almost balanced its books while the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra (ASO) suffered the worst result (-$855,000) followed by QSO (-$445,000).

In 2013, SSO was the only symphony orchestra showing a surplus apart from TSO (a small surplus of $1000).

However, there were significant fluctuations in the net result from year to year. In 2012, QSO showed a large net profit of $2.26 million and in 2013 a loss of $273,000, almost entirely due to a $3m+ decline in funding revenue. QSO posted a net profit of $622,369 in 2014 and $655, 080 in 2015

Here’s the (ahem) key problem: it is not possible to increase orchestra productivity through technology; it can only be done by reducing the numbers of players, as recommended in the Strong Report (2005). Fortunately, good sense prevailed and the Federal government chose instead to increase funding and maintain the current size of orchestras.

But how long can we stave off the day when someone called in to do a cost-benefit analysis goes home and tells his wife: “Honey, I shrunk the orchestra.”

By now you will see that our $77.50 per head for a two and a half hour Australasian premiere by the Queensland Ballet and the QSO was somewhat of a bargain.

Not to mention a quartet of professional singers and pianist Daniel Le (he tackled Gershwin’s ground-breaking Rhapsody in Blue with considerable élan, looking splendid under the spotlight in his white suit).

Musical Supervisor and Conductor for Gershwin, Gareth Valentine, himself a showman, performed an animated dance routine through the overture and towards the finale joined Kylie Foster in a piano duet (whilst still conducting the orchestra and vocalists).

Not a page turner in sight.

Queensland Ballet, led by Li Cunxin, relies on Government funding for only 25% of its annual budget. Impressive contributions from sponsors, generous subscribers, supporters and donors (up 81.49% on 2014) and ticket sales cover the rest. Queensland Ballet set a new box office record of $3.23 million in 2015. It’s hard to see the man known world-wide as Mao’s Last Dancer topping that in 2017 or indeed, a show the calibre of Strictly Gershwin.

But as George and Ira Gershwin would say: “It ain’t necessarily so.”