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We need more diverse stories – and more lessons from CHANEL’s in conversation event with The Australian Ballet

"Do we want to respect history or do you prefer to mess it up?" asks David Hallberg, artistic director of The Australian Ballet, as he addresses an audience within The Studio at Sydney Opera House. With Hallberg's background, both as an iconoclast and observer of ballet's traditions – he was a principal dancer with the Bolshoi Ballet, after all – we carefully weigh this question in our minds. Soon after, RUSSH editor in chief, Jess Blanch, steps out to join Hallberg on stage. Blanch is moderating a conversation on creativity and storytelling on behalf of The Australian Ballet and its living heritage partner CHANEL.

Gathered before Hallberg and Blanch, on the land known to its traditional owners, the Gadigal people, as Tubowgule, sit an attentive crowd of dancers, actors, writers, and artists across all disciplines; including Chloe Leong, Aggie Choi and students from 10 schools and colleges. We're here to listen to Hallberg in conversation with fellow storytellers at the apex of their respective fields. He's joined by Frances Rings, artistic director of Bangarra Dance Theatre, Bruna Papandrea, known for producing Big Little Lies and Wild, and actor and CHANEL ambassador Phoebe Tonkin. Together, the quartet offer up pearls of wisdom collected during their creative careers, while reflecting on their own motivations and "invisible roadmaps," as Papandrea puts it. They all agree that there is no greater need for storytelling, and as Rings later mentions, truth-telling, than this current moment.

The morning begins in typical French fashion with croissants, coffee and a dramatic view – we doubt the sight of Sydney Harbour Bridge will ever get old. At 11am, we file into the auditorium and darkness falls, pierced by a screening celebrating the continuation of Gabrielle Chanel's legacy and arts patronage through the likes of Tilda Swinton and Margaret Qualley.

The tension between our reverence for history and our desire for progress underpins the discussion. What practices are essential to carry with us, and what do we cut loose? For Hallberg, fear has no place in the dance studio. Instead, he hopes to strike a balance between nurturing his students and striving for excellence. For Rings, she's created a collaborative environment for her dancers to use dialogue and movement as a means for truth-telling, and see her purpose to be a creator of "inspiring Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander works that give insight, promotes understanding, and creates change". Papandrea shares an anecdote from her time in Hollywood, and ends the tale with a message: "You can enable or disable creative people with your words so be careful how you use them." While Tonkin emphasises the power of advocating for your peers instead of seeing them as competitors, and credits it to her success.

What becomes clear as Blanch engages with each storyteller, is how Hallberg, Rings, Papandrea, and Tonkin, are in their own distinct way, testaments to the importance of collaboration and community. Hallberg cites a lack of community as his biggest barrier growing up in South Dakota. "I was supposed to play soccer or baseball, and I wanted to put on tap shoes and be like Fred Astaire... And I was called every name under the sun for it."

Rings shares how her father and family were her greatest champions, and their encouragement propelled her forward. Tonkin found solace in the camaraderie of fellow actors like Margot Robbie and Teresa Palmer, noting that "allies I made in those pivotal growing stages have ultimately become some of the greatest collaborations of my life". And Papandrea mentions the drama teacher that "changed her life", along with her determination to defy expectations laid on her as a female producer, so that other people from varying intersections of difference can have a seat at the table too.

It's not lost on me that the very fact of us being in this room is a bid at community too. CHANEL, with its commitment to innovation and emboldening creativity, embodies the adage of thinking global and acting local.


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