Sun, sand and Swan Lake at Hamilton Island

Australian Ballet dancers Adam Bull and Miwako Kubota perform at Hamilton Island.
Australian Ballet dancers Adam Bull and Miwako Kubota perform at Hamilton Island.

On a balmy Saturday night on Hamilton Island’s Pebble Beach, four Australian Ballet dancers whipped out virtuoso pas de deux from August Bournonville’s Flower Festival in Genzano, The Nutcracker and Swan Lake in front of a 150-strong black tie crowd.

The dancers — principals Adam Bull, Ty King-Wall and Amber Scott and senior artist Miwako Kubota — had flown to Queensland’s exclusive Whitsunday Islands resort Qualia to dance on an outdoor stage fringing the Coral Sea in the Australian Ballet’s Pas de Deux in Paradise program, a partnership with Hamilton Island that began nine years ago.

Watching from a nearby table was the AB’s artistic director David McAllister. In 2008, the national ballet company made its debut performance at the resort, owned by the Oatley family, with six dancers in company choreographer and former dancer Tim Harbour’s Wa.

Since then, McAllister says, the sellout event has evolved into a “much more glam, divert-y experience” that attracts well-heeled ballet tragics as well as novices keen to sample a high-end cultural experience during their stay.

The event, sold as part of a weekend package including access to morning barre classes and masterclasses, is set to go biennial with two concerts across the weekend instead of just one to address cost and logistics challenges involved in its staging, among other things.

So-called concert tourism is big business. From these ballet dancers pirouetting on a tropical island stage to Gold Coast surf lifesavers marching past giant sand pyramids in the Verdi classic Aida; from Sydney Symphony brass and percussion musicians performing Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture surrounded by the dramatic escarpments of the Wolgan Valley in NSW, to coloratura sopranos arriving on camels in the shadow of Uluru — art is meeting commerce in often spectacular style.

From Margaret River and Hunter Valley vineyards to remote outback centres, culture has become the new consumable, offered as part of luxury packages by operators looking for value-added experiences for guests, and provided by arts companies hunting for new sources of philanthropic support and new audiences.

It’s a thriving field of partnerships and alliances, taking in everything from the Huntington Festival in November in the Hunter Valley, headed by Musica Viva’s Carl Vine, to the Australian String Quartet’s appearances next year at the Margaret River Weekend of Music in Western Australia and the Dunkeld Festival of Music in Victoria’s Southern Grampians.

Veteran Opera Australia names such as Amelia Farrugia and David Hobson will perform next month in a program of works by Puccini, Verdi and Delibes in a return of the popular privately run Opera in the Vineyards concerts at the Roche Estate in Pokolbin, while artists ranging from Marina Prior to Bryn Terfel have appeared at the Leeuwin Estate concerts, which began in 1985 when the winery provided financial support for the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s tour to Australia.

The Sydney Symphony has performed at the luxury Emirates One&Only Wolgan Valley resort, and in the Hunter Valley (last year’s event was a Diana Krall concert at Bimbadgen Winery) while Opera Australia will perform Aida on Coolangatta Beach as part of its Griffith Opera on the Beach program, presented in partnership with City of Gold Coast and Tourism and Events Queensland, and in association with Bleach Festival. The event follows OA’s performance of The Magic Flute on the beach in 2014.

Earlier in the year, OA also will reprise Gale Edwards’s glittering Carmen as the sixth offering in the Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour series — funded by Japanese businessman Haruhisa Handa in partnership with OA and Destination NSW — that has brought more than 37,000 overnight visitors to Sydney since 2012.

In the hunt for the international cultural tourism dollar — particularly targeting the lucrative Chinese market — OA provided subtitles in Mandarin for the first time this year in Turandot.

Qualia hosted a dinner for the Australian Ballet and Chinese media and officials during the AB’s China tour last year, with a goal of tapping into the country’s rapidly growing tourism market.

Australian arts companies are well aware of the potential of the concert tourism market, a rapidly growing sector that is pouring millions into regional economies (according to Destination NSW, events such as the Tamworth Country Music Festival and the Byron Bay Bluesfest played a major part in enticing more than 19 million visitors to regional NSW last year).

It also has seen a new breed of impresario — witness the rise of entrepreneur Michael Hope, who has brought some of the biggest rock bands to his Hope Estate winery in the Hunter Valley, including the Rolling Stones in 2014.

For the sceptics, however, there are some concerns: where do you draw line when it comes to touting art to business?

McAllister admits he was unsure when the idea of performing on Hamilton Island was first raised with him.

“I was a bit like, oh, no, we don’t do that,” he says. “I remember when I took over as director, I said, we don’t perform in shopping centres — not that Qualia was a shopping centre but I thought, oh, I don’t know.”

But he was sold during a scouting visit to the island, he says. “When they said, we can put the stage right here, next to the sea, I thought this would be amazing.”

For the company, “it exposes us to different audiences. A lot of people who come and stay for the weekend are ballet lovers but some are people who love their experiential thing, going somewhere and having a beautiful time, so ballet is something new and interesting.” For the Oatley family, owners of Hamilton Island, it represented a new brand of sponsorship, blending support for the arts with commercial strategy.

Nicky Oatley, brand manager for Hamilton Island, says, however, that the costs of staging the event — including flying in the dancers, building an outdoor stage and supplying all the infrastructure including lighting and sound — means “there is no way Hamilton Island would be making a profit out of an event like this”.

“So it’s more about showing Hamilton Island in a different way to our guests and also allowing audiences to see the Australian Ballet in a different way,” Oatley says.

Like McAllister, she harboured concerns at the outset — in her case, it had to do with fears that staging costs would prove prohibitive and that it would fail to find an audience. But over time “it gained more and more momentum”.

Her grandmother Val is a big fan of the ballet. On Saturday night, Oatley went to check her reaction after the performance, quipping “if my grandmother isn’t happy then we’re not happy”.

Outdoor concerts are no rarity for the ballet company — for McAllister, an exotic high point involved an owl flying by with a rat in its mouth in the middle of Giselle’s mad scene at a concert in Darwin in 2006 — but tropical island concerts were a new experience.

“There are some vagaries about the time of the year we can do it because sometimes it can get quite dewy at nightfall — the last time we had to cover the stage with theatre fabric to keep the dew off,” he says. “And because it’s right by the sea, there is often sea spray depending on the weather … all the fun things about performing in the tropics.”

On Saturday night, he was thrilled by the performances, including Scott’s partnership with King-Wall in the Flower Festival. “It’s not a thing Amber tends to do, she tends to do the more lyrical stuff, so it was very exciting.”

The dancers were given free rein to choose their excerpts, and he was pleased with the result.

“The Swan Lake Act Two pas de deux is always so beautiful, especially looking out over the water, very atmospheric … I quite like it to be a classic program because I think in that environment, it’s good to do big, grand ballet.”

Sharon Verghis travelled to Hamilton Island as a guest of the Oatley family.

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