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Ballet review: Possum Magic The Ballet, Arts Centre Melbourne

Mem Fox's iconic picture book about the little marsupial who becomes invisible is transformed into dance.
Possum Magic. A troupe of young ballet dancers on stage dressed as various Australian animals.

In celebration of the 40th anniversary of Mem Fox’s bestselling picture book, Possum Magic, a staple of many Australian childhoods, came this delightful production by “pre-professional” dance students from The Australian Ballet School. Usually in book adaptations, the challenge lies in condensing a thick volume into a short stage run, as much judicious editing has to be done to get to the marrow of the novel. But in this case the opposite had its own set of concerns – it also required imagination to transform a picture book of few pages into a 45-minute show. In this page-to-stage iteration, Possum Magic The Ballet succeeded admirably.

Choreographed by Loughlan Prior and performed by a troupe of 48 dancers, the book’s story and characters were brought to dazzling 3D effect. As with all ballet, there were no words: the narrative was propelled through dance alone. The stage was kept sparse, with a tree in the corner and lit accordingly by Jon Buswell to represent the changing hours, but its simple design was a good foil for the colourful creatures that inhabited this landscape. The book’s original illustrations by Julie Vivas were adapted by costume designer Emma Kingsbury, whose attention to detail incorporated Vivas’ watercolour palette into the work, but also brought along her own flair – the two combative kangaroos, for instance, wore red boxing gloves and a dozen dancers were resplendent in pavlova-styled tutus.

For those unfamiliar with the story, Possum Magic is about young possum called Hush (an exuberant Milana Gould), whose Grandma Poss (an equally magnetic Kit Thompson) magically turns her invisible in order to protect her from bush predators. Hush at first finds much that’s pleasing about being unseen, with the possum making mischief and teasing her menagerie of friends and taunting the wily snake. Here, the dancers are all sprightly and energetic, each taking on the form of their respective animal as they cavort around the stage. As well as the possums, national fauna representation included the koala, platypus, echidna, dingo, emu, wombat and kookaburra. All manner of flapping, crawling, preening, hopping and jumping could be seen moving to the jaunty music of an original score by Claire Cowan. The narrative was characterised by constant movement.

To undo the invisibility spell (for Hush soon tires of not being seen), the two possums have to travel via bicycle across the country to find quintessential Australian food to render Hush visible again. The snacks encountered include beloved local delicacies such as lamingtons, Vegemite and Anzac biscuits. Here backdrop animations by Glynn Urquhart depicted typical scenes of various cities. (Melbourne/Naarm was a rain-soaked city, complete with a tram and a nearby a graffiti-strewn laneway, while Brisbane/Meanjin was populated with lifesavers showing off their skills in the waves.)

The culinary items Huff bit into were all oversized and, as all Australians seem to be enamoured with “Big Things” on road trips, there was with much joy to be had at the sight of a large Mintie, pumpkin scone and Vegemite sandwich on stage.

Both the book and this ballet performance are a celebratory depiction of Australian culture in the trifecta of food, fauna and geography. Magical indeed.

Post interval, the audience was presented with a bonus shorter program of works, also performed by Australian Ballet dancers in training. Degas Dances by Paul Knobloch, Nexus by Stephen Baynes and Techno Requiem by Lucas Jervies showcased work that left Possum Magic‘s whimsical cuteness behind for a more sophisticated ambience.

Read: Exhibition review: NotFair, 333 Malvern Road, South Yarra

Collectively, in Possum Magic and these three shorter pieces, the dancers’ tender ages belied their skills and technical prowess; Australian Ballet’s future generation of artists is assured.

It was a pity it had such a short run; Possum Magic The Ballet deserves a national tour, across all the cities visited by Hush and Grandma Poss.

Possum Magic The Ballet, Arts Centre Melbourne
Adapted from the book by Mem Fox, with illustrations by Julie Vivas
The Australian Ballet School

Choreography: Loughlan Prior
Music: Claire Cowan
Costume and Set Design: Emma Kingsbury

Possum Magic The Ballet was performed from 8-10 December 2023.

Thuy On is Reviews Editor of ArtsHub and an arts journalist, critic and poet who’s written for a range of publications including The Guardian, The Saturday Paper, Sydney Review of Books, The Australian, The Age/SMH and Australian Book Review. She was the books editor of The Big issue for 8 years. Her first book, a collection of poetry called Turbulence, came out in 2020 and was published by University of Western Australia Press (UWAP). Her next collection, Decadence, was published in July 2022, also by UWAP. Twitter: @thuy_on