It’s time to talk about the tour I took back in July at the Australian Ballet in Melbourne. They offer several tours of their facilities, but some are only available at certain times and fill up quickly, as they are limited to a small number of people. The tour I decided to take and was able to book into was for their production centre in the Melbourne suburbs. I was able to get in because I booked early enough; I booked online when I was still in the U.S. back in mid-June. And my tour was on 11 July. So if you’re interested in any of their tours, I recommend that you book well in advance! (Scroll to the bottom of this post for links to the info.)
On the morning of the tour, I was running a bit behind, so I took one of the free trams that runs through Melbourne CBD to make it on time to our meeting point, which was the Primrose Potter Australian Ballet Centre. I just barely made it (whew!), but I met up with the small group, and a representative from the Australian Ballet was ready to check our names off the list and give us a fancy visitor lanyard (that we unfortunately didn’t get to keep) for our short jaunt out to the suburbs.
We were then herded into a few hired cars with professional drivers. I ended up getting into the passenger seat of a nice sedan with a driver named Rob. In the back were two older ladies from Sydney who had come down just for the tour and the Van Gogh exhibit that was showing at the National Gallery of Victoria at the time. Their names were Ellen and Pam, and they were both friendly and interested in learning why this random American girl with blue hair was going on a ballet tour of all things.
We made some small talk but also learned of each other’s interest in the arts and connected over being fellow balletomanes. It was quite fun getting to know some Aussies in a personal setting. They said my accent was lovely, to which I replied how I wished I could sound Australian! I have to admit, I fell for the lilted tones and distinctly Aussie slang more and more every day I was there.
After a short and comfortable ride out to the suburbs, we arrived at the production centre, which was hidden away behind neighborhoods and discreet back roads. Not much signage to indicate where we were other than the cars in front of us that pulled up to the curb and let out the other tour-goers. It’s no wonder—there’s a lot of damn valuable stuff stored away in that massive place.
It was outside the centre where we were greeted by Colin and Evan, our two knowledgeable tour guides. Colin was our ballet insider—I later looked him up and realized how much of an influential figure he was in the origins of the Australian Ballet! He was bursting at the seams with charisma, and you could tell right off the bat how excited he was about ballet and sharing it with others. He also very adamantly apologized about the fact that we couldn’t take photos on the tour due to designer and licensing issues. And I quote—“It’s something I think is quite a pain in the ass,” he said. “You’re nice enough to go on our tour, and I think the least you should get is a photo of yourself standing next to a beautiful tutu! I’ve called and called to request they amend the rules for our tours, but they have yet to get back to me.”
Evan, on the other hand, was our quiet but just as knowledgeable production guide, who was able to explain how certain set pieces were built and how the centre was organized. He also kindly answered question after question from an enthusiastic tour participant who was clearly trying to network and get a word in for himself in the production department (which, if you ask me, was a bit inconsiderate to the rest of us who might have wanted to ask a question or two).
Colin got the tour rolling by introducing us to the front office — there was a miniature model of the set design for their 1973 Don Quixote film in a large display case in the middle of the room. We took a quick peek, and I was able to take a photo of the general vicinity of this display at the end of the tour (Colin said it was okay!). We then passed through the halls and into the production area itself, where Evan took over in telling us about the set storage. The enormity of the centre was quite impressive, and I gasped as I looked around at all the impeccably placed industrial-sized crates that were labelled, “Sleeping Beauty,” “Nutcracker,” “Alice in Wonderland,” and more.
We then moved back into the hallways and through a doorway to another office space, where a woman was detaching a tutu from a bodice for cleaning. Just think—they do this for nearly all of their costumes! Then we made our way to the main feature of the tour: level one of the costume department.
Rows and rows of costumes in the middle, and stacks and stacks of boxes containing headpieces, accessories, and wigs on the walls—all organized by production and date. Level one was where they kept all of the costumes from their current season productions. I ogled the names I saw on some of the boxes we passed—Marianela Nuñez in particular caught my eye (!!!!). Colin was kind enough to pull out some of the headpieces from the boxes, including the Black Swan headpiece said Royal Ballet prima ballerina had worn, no doubt as a guest artist, in Swan Lake. It was absolutely stunning. We were all blown away by the detail of every piece—everything was handmade with a level of artistry and technique that can only be learned by years of apprenticeship under someone who has spent decades perfecting their craft.
The tutus and costumes were of course on the same level of craftsmanship as the headpieces. Colin also pulled off the racks plenty of garments for us to look at and even touch. At one point he dragged out a massive robe meant to be worn by a male dancer playing a king. He passed it—no, more like drudged it up and down—on its equally large hanger to each of us so we could feel the weight of the costume in its entirety.
Accompanying the hands-on experience was story time with Colin: “So the dancers have to learn to avoid getting on the designer’s bad side! I learned this the hard way back when I was in the company. All the designers must have hated me then. I had to wear stuff like this all the time!” We all laughed and a woman closest to him said, “Surely not!” as Colin managed to benchpress that weight of a costume back onto the rack.
After rummaging through the first level of current costumes, we climbed a staircase that let us overlook the beautiful sea of colorful fabrics and layers upon layers of gorgeous tulle. Then we followed the rest of the steps to the second level, which held the archives.
Just imagine—year after year of historical costumes, famed dancers, and magical past productions. Sitting right there across that floor. Just imagine if those costumes could talk…they could tell us some amazing stories. It’d be like one of those re-enactments you see at historic battlefields, except with tutus and pointe shoes instead of guns and cannons. Just the surreality of getting to breathe in nearly half a century of international dance history was unbelievable. That is a memory I’ll never forget—with or without the photo.
Something else I won’t forget is a name I learned on this tour. It was easy enough to pick out the people on the tour who were either students of dance or ballet-obsessed enough to know who’s who in the dance world. One woman and the man she had in tow kept asking about whether we were going to see any of Nureyev’s costumes (we didn’t). Somehow, I sort of gravitated towards these two and another woman over to a row that was labeled as a 1965 production of something I can’t recall the name of at the moment. The Nureyev-couple oohed and ahhed at some kind of brown, almost suede-looking jacket. After the couple deciphered the handwriting on the garment label, the other woman turned around and shot big eyes at anyone who was nearby (uh, me): “That’s Gailene Stock’s old costume!”
Okay, so anyone who’s Aussie and associated with the dance world who might be reading this is probably gonna want to wring my neck at this next part.
I smiled real big at the lady and didn’t open my mouth lest I reveal my American-ness, but I actually had no idea who Gailene Stock was.
But you can be damn sure that I etched that name onto my brain and looked her up as soon as I got home.
So, it turns out, Gailene was this amazing dancer who only recently passed away due to a brain tumor. Through the brief online research I did about her, I found out how hard she worked to overcome a myriad of health issues and serious injuries to be able to do what she loved—dance. She was not only a principal dancer with the Australian Ballet and other internationally-renown companies, but she also became director of the Australian Ballet School and the Royal Ballet School. She was known for ushering more diversity into the British dance world. This is only a short summary of what there is to discover about this inspiring woman, but everything I read made me quite admire her strength and legacy. And to think that I had gotten to see one of her costumes in person! Amazing.
After ogling historic costumes on the second floor, as well as getting to see a wig that Colin himself had worn in a production back in the day, we returned to the first floor and slowly made our way through the costumes again, cherishing every second. On the way out of the costumes department and back into the main offices, Colin took us around to the wigmaker’s office, where she was quietly working by the natural light that shone through the window, creating a wig with real hair via a tiny needle—hand-stitch after hand-stitch. Some of the more sociable members of the tour questioned her on how long she had been working there, how she had gotten the job, and how long it took to make a single wig. While I don’t remember all the details now, I do recall she had been working with the Australian Ballet for well over a decade, and she could only make wigs under natural lighting due to the minuscule nature of the hairs and materials.
While watching the wigmaker still at work while kindly chatting with us, nonchalantly stringing in strands of hair one at a time, it hit me how amazing it must be to work at a place where so many people are extremely talented and very passionate about what they do. Even if I weren’t actually dancing there, I think it’d be an incredible opportunity to work at some place like the Australian Ballet. (I don’t know what the heck I’d be qualified to do there, but a girl can dream, right?)
After passing back into the front office, Colin announced the conclusion of the tour and agreed that we could take any pictures of what was on display in that area. After snapping a couple of shots, I thanked our hosts and rushed off to meet the car and Rob, where my two tour companions were waiting for me and in a hurry to catch a flight back to Sydney. On the drive back to the CBD, we compared notes on the tour — needless to say, we all enjoyed it immensely.
So, some personal takeaways from the Australian Ballet Production Centre Tour —
- Getting to know Aussie locals in a more personal setting
- An enhanced appreciation for the behind-the-scenes work of the ballet, especially the details of the costumes that one can only see up close
- Learning the name of a prolific Aussie dancer, Gailene Stock, who I now admire and want to learn more about. I feel humbled by and grateful for getting the opportunity to see one of the late dancer’s costumes
- Reconfirming my appreciation and admiration for the passion, artistry, technique, and hard work that goes into every aspect that makes a single production into a memorable performance. The dancers usually get the brunt of the audience appreciation, but this tour gave me proper gratitude for all the departments that work so hard to make the Australian Ballet a world-renown company
- Getting a glimpse of a place where I could see myself legitimately working. As a wandering twenty-something who, frankly, hasn’t been all that excited about seeking work, actually envisioning my future as a successful working adult who not only contributes to society but is passionate about what she does and happy to work with so many who feel the same, was quite encouraging. Now whether or not that vision is actually realistic is not what matters — it’s the possibility that I could be something greater than I am now that I took away from this tour that really counts
So, should you go on this tour? If you’re ever in Australia (Sydney or Melbourne) and have any inkling of interest in dance, hell yes, you should. It cost me $160AUD (~$125USD) to take this tour, which lasted about 2 hours. That may seem a bit expensive (especially to our non-balletomane brethren), but to me, it was worth every cent. And I got to support the Australian Ballet in the process, which was a satisfying contribution in itself — especially since I didn’t actually get to go to any production this time around (next time, for sure!).
Thanks for reading this long ass post! (Maybe they will get shorter in the future…? No promises.) I hope you got something out of it. If you did (or even if you didn’t), leave me a comment and let me know your thoughts. Looking forward to hearing from my fellow dancers and/or balletomanes!
Info for the Production Centre Tour: https://australianballet.com.au/event/production-centre-tours
General info for the Australian Ballet events: https://australianballet.com.au/step-inside