One of ballet’s busiest superstars is making the big leap to Melbourne

It’s after 10pm in New York, and finally Daniil Simkin can spare time for a chat. He’s been dubbed one of the ballet world’s busiest superstars for a reason: based in Berlin, currently dancing Don Quixote at the Met, then back to Berlin, then Italy in the summer, on to South Korea and beyond.

But he’s squeezing in a little side trip. Saturday is his last show in New York and the next day he flies to Melbourne, for two guest performances as the title role in The Australian Ballet’s Harlequinade.

The Russian-born dancer, who spent a decade as a soloist then principal at American Ballet Theatre before moving to Berlin’s Staatsballett, is famed for his astonishing leaps and spins: a combination of grace and athleticism that sees him master moves others wouldn’t even attempt.

But when he first performed in Harlequinade, at the ABT under the great choreographer Alexei Ratmansky, he faced new challenges.

Ratmansky, formerly of the Bolshoi, was restaging a lost classic, originally created by Marius Petipa in 1900.

Alexei is very particular and very exacting in what he wants and needs of a dancer, says Simkin. [He] will give us a little bit of leeway here or there, but nevertheless he was very clear about what he sees . . . it was a pleasure and quite a bit of work.

The first obstacle was that he would have to dance in a big hat, and a mask.

So you have to be more aggressive with your body language, your mannerisms and your characterisation, because basically you have no face to play with, says Simkin. It was a very interesting and beautiful challenge.

He also had to bring the comedy. The harlequin is a classic figure from the Italian commedia dell’arte tradition, a fool with a literal slapstick in his hand: there was a history to pay tribute to, and a sense of mischief to embody.

How to make it tasteful, intricate and interesting and personal, that’s also a beautiful challenge – to make this really something substantial not just superficial entertainment.

The character even had a particular way of walking that Simkin adopted: like prancing, he says. And he was asked to lower his centre of gravity: the Petipa classical style meant his legs had to be lowered and not as extreme and not as athletic . . . more restrained.

Don’t worry, you’ll see him take to the air. An early review praised Simkin’s turns and leaps and jumps galore. . . [at one point] he somehow managed to suspend his body in the air before falling to his knees.

His reason for coming isn’t hard to fathom: The Australian Ballet’s artistic director David Hallberg played Pierrot in the same production.

We’ve been friends for more than a decade, Simkin explains. He invited me . . . and I’m excited to for the first time dance with The Australian Ballet.

Simkin has also created a new contemporary dance studio, to experiment with new ideas and new technology.

I think dance, and especially contemporary dance, has a lot of potential to really evolve into something more meaningful in our day and our time, he says. [It] can become even more current, and touch people in ways which they could not be touched by any other art form.

Dance can be very primal, and touch on something very basic that every human being has . . . done in the right way, contemporary dance has a direct line to the heart.

But that’s for another time – for now, there’s Harlequinade.

It is entertaining, it is beauty, it is light-hearted . . . but also there’s a substantial historical basis.

Simkin is due to perform in Harlequinade at Arts Centre Melbourne on June 23 and 25.

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