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.