The Influence

For The Australian Ballet’s Dimity Azoury, the power of Simon Stone’s 2013 production of Hamlet opened up the possibilities of performance. By Kate Holden.

Dimity Azoury

Toby Schmitz as Hamlet in the Belvoir production of Simon Stone’s Hamlet, and Dimity Azoury (below).
Toby Schmitz as Hamlet in the Belvoir production of Simon Stone’s Hamlet, and Dimity Azoury (below).
Credit: Brett Boardman (above), Jeff Busby (below)

Dimity Azoury is a principal artist with The Australian Ballet, having joined the company in 2008 after studying with the Australian Ballet School. She’s toured internationally with them, working with choreographers such as Graeme Murphy, Stephen Page, Nicolo Fonte, Tim Harbour and Stephen Baynes, and performing in works by Twyla Tharp, David McAllister and Maina Gielgud. This month she’ll be appearing in her first speaking role in An American in Paris at Arts Centre Melbourne.

She chose to speak about Simon Stone’s 2013 Belvoir production of Hamlet, starring Toby Schmitz, Robyn Nevin and John Gaden.

So the production was in 2013 but it’s stayed with you?

It really has. I’ve had a lot of theatre since then, but in 2013 I was younger in the [Australian Ballet] company. I trained at the Australian Ballet School, which is very intense, full-time, and then you get into the company and all of a sudden life opens up again – you realise there’s more than just ballet training – and that’s when I decided to go to the theatre. I discovered a love for Shakespeare, and for just watching actors and their physicalities. So I always try to go and see different productions. It’s helped over the years because we don’t really have any formal acting training, so our experiences assist what we then produce on stage.

I remember Hamlet was onstage almost the entire time. It was edited down, it’s usually like a three-hour play. I remember Emily Barclay as Ophelia was incredible, really, really beautiful, and her mad scene was very raw, and it was quite a stark set: really white. I don’t know what I can tell you! It was Hamlet, it was different; it was really good. I wish it wasn’t 10 years ago!

As a young person, seeing this production, which by all accounts was quite dramatic, it must have been exciting.

It was, it was so intense to witness, and of course the theatre at Belvoir is quite intimate, so you’re seeing all that emotion and intensity from such a close distance. You can see the actors immerse themselves and completely let go as their characters, and I found that really intriguing. You do see performances like that in dance, but it’s that different element of the spoken word as well. It almost doesn’t have to be as refined. In some ways we try and express things with our bodies, with our arms, with our legs and our feet – everything has to be that character – because that’s all you have to express to the audience who you are. Whereas they have words as well. It’s really interesting seeing the different physicalities of dancers versus actors.

Did this speak to you of the possibilities of what a performer could be?

Absolutely. For me I don’t think purely dancing would have been enough to keep me in a 15-year career. I love dancing, but the storytelling and the power of becoming a character is what those sorts of productions helped me discover. It’s interesting to witness people completely change who they are. It’s quite addictive when you discover that yourself. That production, it was quite a shock: this is what theatre can make you feel.

Looking out into the audience can be a funny experience, you can feel so, so vulnerable, you want to hide away. You can’t really hide in front of 2000 people – but you can, by shutting off and not opening up. But those actors in that production, there’s no hiding and they weren’t, they weren’t self-conscious at all because they weren’t themselves.

They had the chance to break into new incarnations of themselves. Now you’re doing musical theatre, with An American in Paris?

I’ve never spoken on stage before. All of a sudden I’m mic’d up, speaking, singing – I don’t sing. But now I have to do a solo in front of a massive audience. So it sounds like a big step, but I realised it’s just another element of what I do every day. At The Australian Ballet we learn so much repertoire we’re constantly learning different movement styles, and in a way the voice is just another movement. It’s a struggle to my ballerina-perfection brain to go out on stage knowing that I’m a relative amateur at this. I can’t believe I’m going out on stage singing. But that’s what the character does, so that’s what I have to do. I have one song and it requires a sweet, innocent voice that isn’t a trained one.

That Hamlet, as manifested by Toby Schmitz, was devoured by very spectacular grief. I spoke recently with your artistic director David Hallberg about the internal reality of being a perfectly composed performer. As the audience, we see a flawless, almost superhuman being. What’s your process for getting there?

The more structured and strong you are in your technique – that’s the platform that allows you to explore. All that discipline is addictive in itself because it gives you that strength to then let go. But if you don’t have that, you’re constantly worrying about how to dance and then you can’t let go with the music, your character. Madness, grief, anger, all those emotions are, in a way, more appealing to perform, because you don’t have to compose yourself. That composure is – I don’t want to say it’s false, because you work hard at finding that calm and that’s a big strength, to be able to smile while performing something really difficult, and to keep on top of all that anxiety that comes from wanting to be perfect but never being perfect. You have to set all that aside before you walk out, and that’s why being onstage is often a freeing moment. It’s just so appealing for that raw emotion to come out, because you can use nerves and pressure to help you. Whereas to be a composed ballerina is a lot harder. I love a tragedy now! I love a good death scene.

Hamlet is such a famous example of angst. Young women are always supposed to be nice, clean, lovely. Why does he get to go berserk, and we don’t? I guess there’s Ophelia, that tragic girl…

I think there are a lot of stories we need to catch up on, and ballet, dance, theatre are so powerful. I want to see stories where women can be like that. With ballet we’re on pointe, and there are lady steps. I’m actually more of a strong dancer myself, I love jumping and more of the men’s moves, and I would love to see a ballet, a new work, a new story, about a different kind of woman. [The new ballet] Anna Karenina is about a woman who goes crazy; it’s sort of there. But it’s not a new story, it’s an old story that’s been done in a new way that allows the dancer to be that mad person and break down. Giselle is great, it’s got the mad scene… But is there something more radical? I don’t know, I think there could be.

Definitely it’s something I love, to be that mad lady. I’m not like that at all, I don’t raise my voice, I’m very passive as a person, so I really enjoy those characters where you aren’t. Sometimes ballerinas are underestimated because you don’t see the strength. But the company’s filled with dancers who are athletic and intelligent. You have to be intelligent and in control to then be able to let go.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 12, 2022 as "Dimity Azoury".

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Kate Holden is the author of The Winter Road, winner of the 2021 Walkley Book Award and the 2022 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards Douglas Stewart Prize for Nonfiction.

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