Visiting Aurelien Scannella at the WA Ballet Centre this month, I am struck by how comfortable the company's new artistic director seems in his surroundings. It's a Thursday. He started the job on Monday.
"I really like Perth," says Belgian-born Scannella, who has worked predominantly in Europe up to now. "I am a country person, actually. Perth is so big, so spread out - everyone has space. I need space - I don't mind being in a city, as long as I have enough space."
And is WA a culture shock after Europe? "Everything is different," he answers. "I will need, for sure, a few months to adapt, but the differences are not so great. It's not like if I were to go to Ethiopia . . ." he laughs. "I don't feel any stress. People are so nice. We don't have this in Europe - not so much."
Scannella is happy with WA Ballet too. "The company runs very well," he comments. "It has been put on the international standard. There's no big changes to make, I just have to continue the evolution." Scannella takes visible pleasure in the company's light- filled premises and state-of-the-art facilities, noting with a grin that he has timed his arrival well.
Since 2008 Scannella has been working as a freelance ballet master and rehearsal director, mainly in Europe. He has been engaged by an impressive array of companies, including Bejart Ballet Lausanne, Lyon Opera Ballet, and Hong Kong Ballet, to name just a few. From a balletic perspective it sounds pretty appealing, so what drew him away from the freelance life?
"Australia was the only part of the world where I had never been. I always wanted to come here and discover the country. I was looking to become a director, so when I saw this opportunity I immediately jumped on it," he chuckles.
"In Europe, Australia is seen as a young country with lots of energy, where things are still possible. In Europe it is very hard if you want to start something new (career- wise), especially as an artistic director, if you don't have any experience, you don't find a job." Although Scannella had not visited Australia before applying for the job, he has a WA connection in the form of Ted Brandsen, WA Ballet artistic director from 1998-2001 and now director of the Dutch National Ballet.
"The first company to give me a chance as a ballet master was the Dutch National Ballet," Scannella says. "It's one of the best companies in the world. For me, as a first step, that was amazing. Ted Brandsen is the one who really helped me. I had a nice career as a dancer but that didn't mean that I could be a good teacher. Most big companies didn't want to take the risk (on me) but he said 'well you come, you teach, if you're good, you stay'."
Scannella was a successful dancer before moving into teaching and rehearsal directing. His first professional appointment was with the Royal Ballet of Flanders, where he became a soloist after three years. He went on to work as a principal dancer with the State Theatre Wiesbaden, Deutsche Oper Berlin and Ballett Basel.
"The first big, full-length story ballet I danced was Romeo and Juliet," he remembers. "I danced with my future wife. After we danced Romeo and Juliet we got married. That was 15 years ago."
His wife is French dancer Sandy Delasalle and they have a son, eight-year-old Mateo.
And so, to the present, as the WA Ballet prepares for its traditional Ballet at the Quarry season, which opens with the Perth International Arts Festival on February 8.
At the time of interview, Scannella has been working at the company for mere days and so has not seen much of the two new works programmed by predecessor Ivan Cavallari - Cass Mortimer Eipper's Yes, I'll Move for You and Daniel Roberts' Jubilate. He is unconcerned though, saying: "That's always the way with new creations - you never know what you will have on stage."
About the third work, Glen Tetley's Voluntaries, created in 1973, he can comment more easily. "Voluntaries is a very challenging piece for dancers, very difficult. All the dancers are in white leotards so they'd better be in shape," he grins. "It's a very pure, classic piece."
The future? Scannella isn't giving away too much. "I've got lots of big projects for the company," he says enigmatically. "It's a bit too soon to say, because nothing is on paper, but I will bring many choreographers who never came before, from Europe. I have big projects for the Quarry and for His Majesty's Theatre . . . a few collaborations with other companies from Europe.
"Lots of Australian choreographers will work for us. There will be lots of creations (new works) because I think it's important to have our own repertoire," he says. "Hopefully I can get the company to Europe."
'In Europe, Australia is seen as a young country with lots of energy, where things are still possible.'