Adam Blanch has created a new ballet to Sculthorpe’s Earth Cry, with inspiration too from Hitchcock’s The Birds.

Sydney City Youth Ballet was founded over 20 years ago by Tanya Pearson. Now run by Lucinda Dunn – a former Principal Artist with The Australian Ballet, who has been Artistic Director for the past two-and-a-half years – the company is about to collaborate with Sydney Youth Orchestra Philharmonic for the first time for a concert called Together Live.

Queensland Ballet dancers Mia Heathcote (daughter of former AB Principal Steven Heathcote) and Joel Woellmer will perform as guest artists – a measure of how well regarded SCYB has become. “It’s not your local ballet school concert. This is a youth ballet with dancers striving to break into a professional career,” says Dunn.

The programme for Together Live will feature selections from classical ballets The Nutcracker, Les Sylphides and Le Corsaire, as well as the world premiere of The Sky is Falling by Australian choreographer Adam Blanch.

Cameron Doherty, one of the SCYB dancers in The Sky is Falling. Photograph © Nick Prokop

Blanch trained at The Australian Ballet School and has danced with Queensland Ballet and Sydney Dance Company. He has worked with choreographers including Rafael Bonachela, Graeme Murphy, Meryl Tankard, Kenneth Kvarnstrom, Wayne McGregor and Akram Khan among others.

“Adam has a supreme understanding of the classical ballet body and technique, and incorporates this with his own contemporary style, creating a distinct, appealing an exciting performance,” says Dunn.

The Sky is Falling uses Peter Sculthorpe’s orchestral work Earth Cry, composed in 1986, the year that scientists first went to the United Nations to raise concerns over global warming. The late Sculthorpe composed the piece to portray the cry of the Australian earth as we selfishly destroy land that the Indigenous Australians have loved and nurtured for tens of thousands of years.

Adam Blanch with SCYB dancers. Photograph © Nick Prokop

Adam Blanch spoke to Limelight about becoming a choreographer, and about The Sky is Falling.

You had a long career as a dancer, working with many leading Australian and international choreographers. When did you begin choreographing yourself?

Officially only four years ago when I had to stop dancing due to a knee injury. The day my surgeon told me that I had to retire I received a call from [Australian dance artist] Sarah Boulter asking me if I’d be interested in choreographing for [The Dream Dance Company] mid-year intensive. Out of necessity for work I said “yes” and really loved the experience. Opportunities just seemed to stem from that experience. Unofficially, in my last ten years as a professional dancer I only had one choreographer choreograph an entire show. Most would expect the dancers to contribute to the work by [setting tasks]. So I guess in that sense I’d been choreographing for a decade before I retired. 

Have you taken inspiration from particular choreographers?

There are certainly people I have worked for who have influenced my aesthetic. Graeme Murphy, Larissa McGowan and Rafael Bonachela all had a big impact on me. I really admire the works of Twyla Tharp, Crystal Pite and, of course, William Forsythe. All these choreographers are incredibly physical and able to create work that is incredibly emotive. 

You created a work called The Disserverence for the Tanya Pearson Academy last year. When did you first become involved with the Academy (which is associated with SCYB)? And how did that relationship come about?

I had choreographed a solo for a boy competing in the YAGP [Youth America Grand Prix] in New York who was now attending the Academy. After his success in the competition Lucinda [Dunn] and Nicole [Sharp, the General Manager] approached me to create a few more solos for their students. I feel because of my ballet training I was really able to connect with the dancers.

Can you tell us about your new work The Sky is Falling, commissioned by SCYB?

It’s a wonderful opportunity to be creating a work that will be performed to a 65-piece orchestra. I was approached by Nicole Sharp to create the work after the success of The Disseverance. When I listened to Peter Sculthorpe’s composition I was really taken with how vast it is. I wanted to showcase the technique and athleticism of the dancers but knew I had to create a world that was both vast and sparse for the movement to exist in. The music was composed as a response to the way that Australians were treating the land. The Sky is Falling takes place in a world where I imagine Sculthorpe saw our country was destined to go if we continued to be ignorant towards the needs of the land.

I was also influenced by one of my favourite films, Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. I love how you never know why the birds attack but there’s this immense feeling of nature fighting back. The dancers are certainly not pretending to be birds but it allows you to explore themes of retaliation and herd mentality. The way the film is crafted also inspired my lighting and how I build suspense in the work.

Peter Sculthorpe’s music was obviously your starting point. Was it a piece that you have wanted to use for a while?

Actually no. Once I was connected to the project it was difficult to find the right piece of music. As it’s a youth project it was important that we found a piece of music that made use of the entire orchestra, that the orchestra would feel comfortable playing and of course that we could get the rights to. It was Brian Buggy, the conductor of the Youth Orchestra, who originally suggested the music. I instantly had a connection to the piece. 

The issue of global warming was close to Peter Sculthorpe’s heart. Is it something you feel strongly about?

I have always been aware and concerned with global warming but I honestly can’t say at the start of the project I was overly passionate about it. I felt a huge responsibility to research as much as possible before we commenced rehearsals. It was fascinating to read transcripts of hearings at the US Senate from 1986 (the same year Earth Cry was composed) as well as endless papers, documentaries and podcasts. You can’t help but be more connected  to the issue by the end of the process.

Have you created the work with members of SCYB? And how many dancers feature in it?

Yes, the work is completely original and has been created on the dancers of the SCYB. It features 15 dancers.

Is it an abstract piece? 

The work is abstract. The dancers are all classically trained and it was important for me to showcase their training so it’s very movement driven. I used my concepts to create a universe for the movement to exist in. When I watch the work I get a strong sense of the struggles of a younger generation due to their predecessors and a retaliation of nature. There is no narrative though.

Did you work with a designer? 

I’ve designed how I wanted the space and sets to look. I wanted a post apocalyptic playground. A ridiculously awesome dad of one of the dancers has built the set. Kerry Cooper has designed and created the costumes.

What do you hope audiences will take away with them from the work?

Like any choreographer, I hope the audience is moved by the work. I hope that it provokes conversation and that they’re impressed with the quality of dancing. I’m incredibly connected to the work, not just as a choreographer but because to all of these young dancers I am their teacher. That is a title I care more about than ‘choreographer’. What I love about creating work though is that once it’s out there it no longer really belongs to me. The work is out in the universe and the audience is free to judge and draw their own conclusions. 

Together Live will be performed at The Concourse, Chatswood on September 22 and 23.