Theatre in Wales

Commentary and extended critical writing on theatre, dance and performance in Wales

Aussies go home?

The Australians are here in force, and they are not doing terribly well.

The Australians are here in force, and they are not doing terribly well. Forget the cricket team. The real test is being faced, and mostly flunked, by Aussie arts bosses who, over the past five years, have taken hold of some of our more troubled cultural institutions.

Top pair are Michael Lynch, chief executive of London's South Bank, and his wife, Chrissy Sharp, general manager of Sadler's Wells Theatre - theirs a potentially unhealthy congruence between competitive arts centres. Resident orchestra at the South Bank is the London Philharmonic, which is managed by Australian Tim Walker, who used to organise the orchestral season for Lynch when he ran the Sydney Opera House. Nice to have a few old mates around the London riverside.

In Wales, the 104 million Millenium Centre is in the hands of Judith Isherwood, Lynch's Sydney Opera successor, and fellow-Aussie Fiona Allan. Guess who's opening there next week? It's Australian Ballet, unseen in Britain for 12 years and presenting, of all innovations, Swan Lake with a Princess Di subtext. 'The Australian Ballet is a world class company that has been absent from the UK stage for far too long,' says Fiona Allan, defensively.

After Cardiff, the AB is booked into the London Coliseum by its boss Sean Doran, an Irishman recruited from the Perth Festival. Doran has hired his music director, Oleg Caetani, from the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. Doran has said he refused to consider any other candidate. Get the picture?

Two of the three top posts in British ballet are occupied by Australians. Craig Hassall, is new chief of English National Ballet, while Gailene Stock heads the Royal Ballet School - appointed around the same time as Ross Stretton, best man at her wedding, who ran the Royal Ballet for a turbulent year.

Now even if Australia were a culturally advanced nation of 60 million and we a Pacific island of 20 million souls, the antipodean preponderance at the head of British arts would appear disproportionate, the more so when the Aussies have proved unequal to the task.

Exempting Lynch and Walker who cannot be judged until the Royal Festival Hall reopens, most of the rest are out of their depth. The Millennium Centre Wales has drawn low attendances to a depressingly lowbrow inaugural season. Isherwood has seen off two heads of marketing in as many years and alienated senior staff. There is mutiny in the air and press leaks are mounting. Doran's ENO is a disintegrating disaster. while Stock has lampooned young British dancers as couch potatoes while trying to ride the Billy Eliot boom.

At London's Wigmore Hall, artistic director Paul Kildea has just departed after less than two years. Appointed to reform a rich but tired menu of lieder evenings and piano recitals, Kildea sprinkled his brochures with first-person pronouns and fixed a London debut for his Aussie music teacher. When taxed with his prolonged absences from duty, Kildea quit to pursue a conducting career, boosted by the appointment of his Opera Australia mentor, Simone Young, as music director at Hamburg.

Kildea's departure was remarkable only for its speed and self-interest. He displayed none of the dedication required of an artistic leader and showed scant interest in the needs and sensitivities of London audiences. In this, he was not alone. Many of his compatriots see their British jobs as short-term, planning to flee the smog and drizzle as soon as they get regime change back home.

Privately, they call themselves asylum seekers from the suburban dullness that Australia has become under John Howard's conservative government, a land of shrunken expectations and forced mergers between ensembles in different cities. 'The Federal Government is so nonchalant about the arts that after a while it becomes a bit depressing to be banging your head against the wall,' declared Craig Hassall, second in command at Sydney Theatre Company, flight ticket in hand.

But landing at Heathrow exposes their limitations. Little in their sunkissed insularity has equipped them for the ethnic and economic diversity of British arts and their focus is so short-term that only the most desperate of boards would, it seems to me, choose a second-string Aussie above a locally experienced, lifelong committed Brit. It makes no sense at all.

More alarming still is the effect of their mass defection on the morale and infrastructure of Australian culture. While Sydney brags about the great show it put on for the 2000 Olympics, levels of performance ever since are at their lowest for half a century. The Australian film industry, what's left of it, hinges on the occasional involvement of Russell Crowe and Nicole Kidman. Theatre is in reverse gear and opera has been cut so severely than Simone Young quit in disgust, leaving an upbeat Brit, Richard Hickox, to pick up the shards. The Australian Chamber Orchestra is the only classical band that gets to play abroad. Australian Ballet's 'world class' will be severely tested after so long an absence from the world stage.

Writing as one who was thrilled at close hand by the ravenous Australian appetite for cultural enlightenment and the demand for cultural self-definition, the recent decline is profoundly depressing. Geographic isolation and colonial history left Australia with a sense of missing out - a void, falsely mistaken for creative cringe, that turns many Australians into natural culture vultures. Gough Whitlam's Labour government in the early Seventies fuelled the arts sector with public funds and, for the first time, persuaded native talents to stay home and build a national culture. Out of that flowering grew a run of Booker-winning novelists, Hollywood filmstars, aspirational artists and the uniquely post-modern icon that is Kylie Minogue.

The present gloom offers chinks of hope. Melbourne is building a dedicated arts centre under outstanding creative management. Perth is contemplating renewal. The timorous ABC, terrified of being condemned as elitist, is eagerly watching the BBC's cultural re-engagement.

What Australia requires at its lowest ebb is a hard corps of impresarial administrators to argue the political case for arts, education and social harmony with unignorable authority. But where are they, these advocates of Australia fair? Huddled under sponsors' umbrellas in Cardiff, London and Edinburgh, that's where.

The arts thrive on merit, and if an Aussie is the best candidate for any top job I'll be the first to put a chilled Chardy in their fist. But the Aussies are currently here mob-handed and mostly for the wrong reasons. Their country needs them more than we ever will. The message to these misfits is: Aussies, go home.

author:Norman Lebrecht

original source: La Scena Musicale
11 July 2005


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