On the town

Hayes Theatre Co, May 7

IN February 2012 The New York Times published a short article about Dogfight, which would have its Off-Broadway premiere six months later at Second Stage Theater. This is how Patrick Healy’s report ended: “… Lincoln Center Theater originally commissioned and developed the musical but passed on producing it because the show became too large in scale for the space intended.” One has to assume the production was slated for one of Lincoln Center’s smallest performance halls, either the one seating 300 or the other with 130 seats, rather than the Vivian Beaumont, which has nearly 1100 seats.

Sydney’s Hayes Theatre Co, with its 110 seats, proves, however, that small is perfect for Dogfight. Neil Gooding’s production doesn’t go soft on the macho posturing that kick starts and punctuates the action but neither is it exalted and glorified – always a possibility if there’s a big cast, lots of room for exuberant choreography and plenty of budget. It’s easy to glamorise bad behaviour if you put enough resources behind it.

Rowan Witt, Luigi Lucent and Toby Francis. Photo: Noni Carroll

Luigi Lucente, Rowan Witt and Toby Francis. Photo: Noni Carroll

Set in 1963, Dogfight takes its name from a deeply unsavoury challenge played by the military: put in some money in the pot, find an unattractive woman to take to a party, see whose date is judged the ugliest, and bingo! We have a winner. (The musical is based on the 1991 film of the same name.) The heedless cruelty and blood-chilling contempt for women are breathtaking.

But not only did their fathers bring these young men up this way, they’re also embedded in a ferociously masculine and controlling culture. The men in Dogfight are Marines, poised to go a country they’ve barely heard of and couldn’t find on a map. That would be Vietnam. They think they’ll be back soon after an easy tour of duty; we know they won’t. You would have to be made of stone not to feel some sympathy for these emotionally stunted boys as well as despair at their callousness.

Then one of the lads, Eddie Birdlace (Luigi Lucente) meets Rose (Hilary Cole), folk guitar-playing waitress and the show’s moral centre. Eddie is, like all these men, a persuasive bullshitter, particularly attractive to a young woman who doesn’t get out much. He knows how to reel her in, and why not? She is an honest, truthful person who pays Eddie the honour of believing what he says. Well, she doesn’t believe the crap he spouts about music but the rest sounds persuasive. The love story that emerges tentatively, thanks to Rose’s goodness and guts, is gentle and kind even as Lucente and Cole spark satisfyingly off one another. The little-bit-shy, little-bit-sexy bedroom scene is a delight.

Dogfight’s 1960s-style pop, rock and folk score (music and lyrics are by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul) colours and anchors the landscape just as it should. The music lets you know where you are, with whom and why, a state not always achieved in the music-theatre field, even though you would think it’s non-negotiable.

Director Gooding has gathered a terrific ensemble, including Toby Francis and Rowan Witt as Eddie’s closest mates. Witt’s lightning transformation from likeable nerd to momentarily violent aggressor is one of the musical’s most sobering and lasting images, Johanna Allen gives hooker Marcy a ballsy combination of pragmatism and anger, and Mark Simpson does wonders of differentiation with seven small roles. In do-it-yourself style everyone efficiently moves simple pieces of furniture around in James Browne and Georgia Hopkins’s fluid versatile set that quickly establishes a scene and equally quickly changes it.

The evening isn’t without a few niggles. One simply has to understand that Cole has been cast for her voice (splendid) and acting ability (ditto) and not for any lack of personal attraction. The daggy attire (costumes by Elizabeth Franklin) helps only very slightly. In fact, Cole looks rather sweet in her ruffled party frock. As usual, the sound quality at the Hayes can be less than optimal at times but the small band under the charge of Isaac Hayward does a feisty job. And finally, Peter Duchan’s book brings Dogfight to a surprisingly abrupt end, which robs the heart-tugging resolution of some of its effect. Still, while it gives audiences the hopeful ending most people crave, you can’t accuse Dogfight of easy sentimentality. Better this way than the syrupy song others might have thought appropriate at this point.

When in New York recently I saw the rollicking revival of the 1944 musical On the Town, which follows the fortunes over one night of three sailors on leave. In the morning they are shipping out to war but in the meantime they want to find a girl. The echoes in Dogfight are strong: a trio of young men with animal high spirits, a deep friendship, a thing for the ladies and the spectre of imminent departure to war. Dogfight is set just shy of 20 years later than On the Town but the gulf is enormous in its depiction of how certain men feel about women. The innocent hijinks of On the Town seemed a very, very long way away.

Until May 31 at Hayes Theatre Co, Sydney.

A new generation rises to the challenge

Sydney Opera House, April 29.

THE Australian Ballet’s first staging of Frederick Ashton’s Symphonic Variations alongside revivals of his coolly mysterious Monotones II and lucid, delightful one-act version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is well overdue. Ashton’s choreography hasn’t surfaced at the AB since 2004 (the last time La Fille mal gardée was presented) and other works have been absent since the 1970s and 1980s.

That means few of the AB’s dancers have experience with Ashton, something that may account for the very late announcement of casting. Ashton ballets seem to be protected like the crown jewels by those charged with their care. Fair enough. The Royal Ballet’s founder choreographer is one of the 20th century’s most important dance figures and his style, in which wit, high sophistication and virtuosity are seen through a veil of modesty and restraint, is not an easy one to capture.

This program is far and away the most challenging of the year for these dancers and the most intriguing for balletomanes. On opening night the AB met the challenges with great integrity. (Scroll down for updates on later casts.)

Madeleine Eastoe and Joseph Chapman in The Dream. Photo: Daniel Boud

Madeleine Eastoe and Joseph Chapman in The Dream. Photo: Daniel Boud

The Dream couldn’t look prettier in David Walker’s gossamer designs as fairies and mortals fall in and out of love in a whirlwind 50 minutes. Ballet is so very good at compression; all the essentials are there, starting with the tussle between Oberon and Titania for possession of the little Indian Boy that leads to much meddling in everyone’s affairs.

Airiness and delicacy reign in this moonlit world, even in the case of whirling, spinning, high-flying Puck and rustic Bottom when turned into an ass, his black pointe shoes a splendid stand-in for hoofs. Ashton calls for almost impossibly fleet, sparkling feet contrasted with luscious upper bodies and inner glow rather than external show. Wednesday’s first cast caught the light as did Nicolette Fraillon and the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra in Mendelssohn’s radiant music.

Combining muscular presence with a poetic soul, Kevin Jackson (Oberon) grows in stature with every performance; about-to-retire Madeleine Eastoe (Titania) was as dewy as a teenager; Joseph Chapman (Bottom) hopped and ran on pointe as if born to it; and Chengwu Guo was a gravity-defying, ultra-charming Puck who won every heart. His speed, and elevation were a wonder but much more thrilling was the way he used bravura steps to illuminate Puck’s character and story. Just as it should be.

Kondo, Martino, Hendricks and Scott in Symphonic Variations. Photo: Daniel Boud

Ako Kondo, Cristiano Martino, Robyn Hendricks and Amber Scott in Symphonic Variations. Photo: Daniel Boud

The Dream draws the evening to a happy close but the more important event is the acquisition of Symphonic Variations, considered to be Ashton’s defining work. An 18-minute sextet to Cesar Franck’s music for piano and orchestra, the plotless paean to beauty, peace, simplicity and classical harmony was made in 1946 and embraced by a British public deeply scarred by World War II. In Ashton simplicity, of course, does not mean simple. The bodies of the dancers are like willows – graceful, infinitely flexible, turning this way and that, tranquil yet resilient.

Symphonic Variations is intricately structured and overflows with lustrous, evocative imagery. In a particularly lovely repeated gesture the women curve an arm protectively around a partner’s head; several times after all have skimmed across and around the stage – the women and the men in separate groups of three – the six dancers join hands in an echo of bucolic folk-dancing. In the pared-back white costumes and in some groupings there are also intimations of Balanchine’s Apollo but the glorious flow of bodies and action is all Ashton’s own.

While occasionally there was evidence of some strain there was a fine account of Symphonic Variations from its first cast: soloist Robyn Hendricks and principals Amber Scott and Ako Kondo (elevated to that rank during the Sydney Giselle season just passed); and corps member (as he was then) Cristiano Martino, choryphée Christopher Rodgers-Wilson and soloist Brett Chynoweth. Hendricks in particular glowed from within, Martino was an imposing presence and Chynoweth’s buoyancy and crystalline shapes in the air linger in the memory.

Jared Wright, Natasha Kusen and Brett Simon in Monotones II. Photo: Daniel Boud

Wright, Kusen and Simon in Monotones II. Photo: Daniel Boud

The presence of dancers from right across the ranks made for an opening night of unusual interest. As future casting shows, Martino would appear to be one to watch as he is also down for Monotones II and has several appearances as Oberon to come, as do other junior men. Chynoweth is, not surprisingly, one of the Pucks, but that role will also be danced by corps men Marcus Morelli and Cameron Hunter.

Monotones II, which opens the program, is a trio for one woman and two men made in 1965 for a gala, no less. It must be one of the most enduring works ever made for such an event. Ashton was inspired by 1960s moon exploration and the way people might move in its tenuous gravity. The woman – refined, poised soloist Natasha Kusen in the first cast – could be some kind of remote goddess attended by her male acolytes. Certainly the three appear suitably alien, clad entirely in second-skin white bodysuits and caps.

It’s a look that takes quite a lot of personal glamour to carry off and Brett Simon and Jared Wright could have exuded a touch more of that. Still, Monotones II stands up much, much better than you might expect as its three living, moving sculptures serenely move through the ethereal orchestral version of Erik Satie’s Trois Gymnopédies.

With so many dancers in featured roles in this program it is, well, a dream for talent spotters. It was a great pleasure to see Hendricks and Kusen also featured in The Dream on opening night (as Hermia and Helena), playing the comedy sweetly with the Lysander of Rudy Hawkes and Demetrius of Jacob Sofer.

I see The Dream twice more, at the May 6 matinee and May 8. I will update as I go.

Matinee, Wednesday May 6

On a Saturday matinee the house is packed with exuberant youngsters. Not so on a school day. It was a fairly quiet audience – let’s put it that way – although The Dream got a rousing reception. Things were quieter for Monotones II and Symphonic Variations, and fair enough. Neither was given a performance for the ages. The Monotones II cast was the one I saw on opening night – Natasha Kusen, Brett Simon and Jared Wright. Kusen was again luminous – her line pristine, her arms glorious – but the men’s support of her was a little wobbly. This is performance under an unforgiving microscope.

Symphonic Variations was unacceptably scrappy. Andrew Killian had a bad day with his double tours and the cast – the others were Lana Jones, Ingrid Gow, Amanda McGuigan, Ty King-Wall and Andrew Wright – didn’t seem fully at one with each other or all of the work’s complexities, although Jones stood out for her calm poise. Another good thing: McGuigan, a long-legged beauty in the corps de ballet who joined the AB last year, is the real deal. Not that she’s a novice. McGuigan has danced with American Ballet Theatre and Dutch National Ballet and has international gloss. Put her on the watch list. (I see her in Monotones II on Friday, which should be wonderful.)

Also on the watch list is Cristiano Martino, also in the corps but surely not for long. [Note: Martino was promoted to coryphée on May 11.] He’s been with the company for only two years and yet finds himself first-cast Symphonic Variations, cast in Monotones II for some performances and – this is the biggie – is one of the Oberons in The Dream. The others are principals Kevin Jackson, Adam Bull and Ty King-Wall, with coryphée Jared Wright – he recently made his debut as Albrecht – also getting two performances in Sydney. Vastly experienced senior artist Miwako Kubota is Titania to both the junior men.

Martino has stage presence, alert dramatic instincts, a powerful leap and he and Kubota sparked sexily off one another. Martino’s partnering is a work in progress and he appeared to be getting very, very tired by the end of this tough role but it was a surprisingly mature and highly promising performance from one so new to the business.

Another corps de ballet member, Marcus Morelli, was the Puck and his exuberance and sense of fun conquered the audience. He managed the technical challenges well although he needs more polish and finesse. But he’s fast, full of beans and put on a great show.

Friday May 8

The Australian Ballet’s choreographic development program Bodytorque started 11 years ago as a Sydney-only project with an individual personality. It was staged not at the Sydney Opera House but at the Sydney Theatre (recently renamed the Roslyn Packer Theatre Walsh Bay) and usually had five performances featuring five choreographers or thereabouts, with some building on the experience of having made work for previous Bodytorques. Last year the program decamped to Melbourne, where there were three performances in the State Theatre. Among last year’s participants was Richard House – also a 2013 Bodytorquer – and he is a featured Bodytorque artist this year. Indeed he is one of only two Bodytorque choreographers this year.

Richard House's From Something, To Nothing. Photo: Daniel Boud

Richard House’s From Something, To Nothing. Photo: Daniel Boud

Bodytorque 2015 has just four dates in the calendar, two in Sydney and two in Melbourne, and on each evening there is just one new work, presented after a mainstage performance. The audience is invited to stay on to see it after the all-Ashton The Dream program or the contemporary program 20:21 at no additional cost.

House’s From Something, To Nothing, for three couples, received its premiere in Sydney last Friday following The Dream. The music of Satie (Gnossiennes 4 and 5) and Rachmaninov (Elegie for piano and cello) beautifully played by Christian Lillicrap and Andrew Hines, the soft dusk of Graham Silver’s lighting design and Kat Chan’s romantically layered pale costumes established a restrained and enigmatic atmosphere in which stillness and calm alternated with complex close partnering. House creates strong stage pictures and attractive classically based dance and I would have been happy to see where the work might go. But perhaps in calling it From Something, To Nothing, House is acknowledging that a piece lasting 10 or 15 minutes doesn’t really have anywhere to go and that creating a wistful, elegiac mood is the most one can do. The three couples – Heidi Martin and Charles Thompson, Rina Nemoto and Mitchell Rayner and particularly Sharni Spencer and Jarryd Madden – were elegant and sophisticated.

Sharni Spencer and Jarryd Madden. Photo: Daniel Boud

Sharni Spencer and Jarryd Madden. Photo: Daniel Boud

House’s work will be seen again after The Dream in Melbourne on June 12. Another choreographer, as yet unnamed, will create work to be seen after 20:21 in Melbourne on September 4 and Sydney on November 20.

House was seen earlier in the evening in dancer mode, joining Amanda McGuigan and Brodie James for The Dream program’s opening ballet, Monotones II. Although they several times rushed a pose or movement in a ballet that relies on seamless flow, they looked wonderful together.

Another viewing of The Dream confirmed how splendidly the AB women have absorbed the darting, weaving, swooping qualities that define the fairy attendants. The gorgeous sweep of necks, arms and upper bodies, the alert heads and eyes and quicksilver feet are all there.

Brett Chenoweth as Puck in The Dream. Photo: Daniel Boud

Brett Chenoweth as Puck in The Dream. Photo: Daniel Boud

Friday’s performance was also notable for Brett Chynoweth’s Puck. The part is a whirlwind of multiple pirouettes, leaps during which the lower legs carve out tight little circles, heady dashes across the stage and the humorous byplay that makes Puck a character, not just a marvel of pyrotechnics. Chynoweth’s razor-sharp accuracy is a marvel and he seems to find plenty of time in the air to get all the complexities done and dusted without strain.

One might think he is typecasting for this type of role, but that would be to forget his debut as the Prince in the Peter Wright Nutcracker in Sydney last year. Chynoweth gave a deeply poetic performance – indeed, one of the most affecting I’ve seen in this ballet. And I’ve seen a few.

The Dream ends May 16. Melbourne, June 4-14; Adelaide, July 8-9.

Verdi to the Divinyls

See, they say ‘Get to your homes ASAP, stay inside, stay protected, don’t drive unless absolutely necessary and stay away from waterways’ and I hear ‘Hop in your Holden and get on down to sing an opera set in the desert on a floating pontoon with no sides or roof, on the biggest body of water in the immediate vicinity in a sleeveless chiffon dress.’ Cos that’s just how I roll, bitches!

– Jacqueline Dark, mezzo-soprano, preparing for a Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour performance of Aida on April 22 (April 21 performance were cancelled due to “unprecedented weather conditions” and the big wet was by no means over).

IF you’re not regularly checking in on Jacqui Dark’s larger-than-life life as chronicled on her Facebook page you are doing yourself a grave disservice. Irreverent, smart, exceptionally funny and greatly gifted, Dark is a cherishable original.

Tonight she gives her final performance as the vengeful Princess Amneris in Aida for HOSH, the last of 13 shows for her cast (it alternated with another). Early afternoon precipitation flagged a potential Singin’ in the Rain show as it was on Tuesday (interval Facebook post: “Our dressing room smells like wet dog …”), although things were looking brighter by mid-afternoon. But rain or no, the performance was expected to go ahead. [NOTE: Aida was indeed performed, although social media photos of Daria Masierio, in the title role, wearing a cape in the second half over her sleeveless gown suggested conditions were chilly.] Opera singers are not quite the precious, cossetted creatures of (lazy) general opinion. In fact, says Dark, difficult conditions can warm create camaraderie between audience and singers. “It’s like we’re all in this together, let’s make this something special. They appreciate us continuing and we appreciate them sitting there.”

Keeping an eye on things ... Jacqueline Dark as Amnesia is Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour's Aida. Photo: Hamilton Lund

Keeping an eye on things … Jacqueline Dark as Amneris in Opera Australia’s Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour’s Aida. Photo: Hamilton Lund

It’s been a testing schedule (Amneris is a big sing to tackle every second night) but there’s no time for rest after tonight. On Wednesday Dark will be onstage at Sydney club The Vanguard in corset and fishnets singing Brecht, Weill, Amanda Palmer, Rickie Lee Jones and some of her own material in Strange Bedfellows: Under the Covers. By her side will be Kanen Breen, fellow opera star, multiple Helpmann Award winner (as is Dark) and gay co-parent although not biological father of her son Alexander, nearly three. It goes without saying he’s an original too (well, I mean Breen, but it sounds as if Alexander is proving to be rather an individual himself).

Not all opera singers can successfully make the transition from Verdi to the Divinyls – also on the Under the Covers songlist – or indeed to other forms of music considered less challenging than opera. It’s trickier than it may seem to conquer an entirely different vocal technique and musical style, as the, ahem, unidiomatic Kiri Te Kanawa-Jose Carreras foray into West Side Story amply demonstrates. But Dark was singing cabaret and musicals right from the start, about 20 years ago, and although Breen came later to the cause, he proved at the first Under the Covers performances late last year he could have been born in a smoky bôite. (Read my review for The Australian of the December show here.)

So yes, Dark and Breen can certainly do it, despite preconceptions some might have about opera singers straying from their usual realm. It’s early days but interest has been keen. Dark and Breen have successfully taken their show to Melbourne’s Butterfly Club and will appear at this year’s Queensland and Adelaide cabaret festivals. There is a DVD in the making, a venture in Melbourne late this year that can’t yet be discussed and some thoughts about perhaps taking Strange Bedfellows offshore next year. The two are also throwing around ideas for a new show to succeed Under the Covers – perhaps something with a dark, Grimm’s fairtytale kind of theme. “We’ve got enough repertoire, even in a narrowed down list, to have enough stuff for three or four shows,” says Dark. “Plus we keep hearing things and say, ‘we have to sing that’.”

Strange Bedfellows Dark and Breen. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Strange Bedfellows Dark and Breen. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

“We have to sing that” is undoubtedly the key to the passion project that is Strange Bedfellows – that and the bond forged between Breen and Dark together 20 years ago when they sang in the chorus of the now-defunct Victoria State Opera’s production of Gilbert & Sullivan’s Ruddigore. It’s safe to say the production was something of a disaster (I saw it) but at least Breen and Dark got their deep connection out of it. A further result: actor, satirist, writer and director Jonathan Biggins was also in the cast and has offered to advise the Strange Bedfellows.

They’d welcome that, because at the moment the two are multi-tasking with a vengeance. For this aspect of their working life they are their own writer, wardrobe designer, manager, agent, entertainment lawyer and public relations specialist. They’ve worked their contacts and social media, had some crucial help from friends and work with Daryl Wallis as music director, but essentially Strange Bedfellows is a two-person outfit. They’ve made the pitches to venues and festivals, they sort out their own contracts, and if something goes wrong with lighting or sound they have to take charge. (Dark says something about learning how to do a lighting rig and I’m not sure she’s joking. She could probably do it – she is quite the brainiac with a degree in physics.)

They even arranged a series of celebrity endorsements that may be seen on YouTube. I heartily recommend that of beloved Australian soprano Emma Matthews; others offering their thoughts are Lou Diamond Phillips, Stuart Skelton, Cheryl Barker and Kate Miller-Heidke. Those contacts are fairly speccy.

It is, however, a far cry from the world of a big company like Opera Australia, where until recently the two were permanent ensemble members with everything on tap. Becoming a freelance artist has brought its uncertainties but also its rewards. Chief among them was the opportunity to bring Strange Bedfellows to life. It’s an idea they’ve been throwing around for about 15 years. They even wrote some material, including a version of Cole Porter’s Let’s Do It that Breen sings for me, with Dark joining in. Let’s just say time hasn’t diluted any of its deliciously subversive taste.

The desire to challenge and provoke remains today, with Exhibit A a pedophile-inspired medley in Under the Covers and Exhibit B a song involving a dog – not a real one, as a complainant seemed to think – and unusual sexual practices. A later show might include something about violence against women. They don’t want to be preachy, they say, but along with being entertaining they do want to make audiences consider some unsettling issues. “If people go away questioning themselves, that’s a start,’’ says Dark.

“I’ve always wanted to do a cabaret show. I absolutely love it, the intimacy of it. Kanen and I had been on salary [with OA] – me for 10 years, Kanen for 15 years. If you’re full-time you have a very heavy workload and we never had time to do it before. It’s incredibly exciting to create your own work – terrifying, but incredibly exciting. And it’s great to push yourself to do, but you feel so vulnerable. Excited and scared, as Sondheim would say.”

While Strange Bedfellows might be fulfilling, the amount of behind-the-scenes organisation it takes is “laborious and exhausting”, says Dark. Not to mention not exactly lucrative at this point. Happily, however, Dark and Breen are far from disappearing from the operatic sphere. Dark is covering the role of Eboli in Opera Australia’s Don Carlos and sings the role of Marcellina in the new David McVicar production of The Marriage of Figaro. Breen appears in the Melbourne season of Miller-Heidke and Lally Katz’s The Rabbits for Opera Australia and is Beadle Bamford in Victorian Opera’s Sweeney Todd, among other engagements.

That work is their bedrock and helps keep the bank manager happy, but in their new situation they have also to make their own opportunities “and not sit on our bums and wait for work to come to us and assume it’s going to”, says Dark. “You’ve really got to get out there. The more we’ve done that the more we’ve loved that.”

They are incredibly disarming in their modesty about what they’re doing and their roll-up-the-sleeves attitude to getting the job done. Says Breen: “We’re not saying we’re experts at cabaret or that we’re particularly gifted, but what we do have is a preparedness to give it a red hot go and immerse ourselves in the style and emotion of the music, which is what we both get out of our opera work as well.

“It’s very rewarding to us as performers to be able to explore different avenues of that expression and delivery that isn’t always afforded on the operatic stage.”

Cabaret:

The Vanguard, Sydney, April 29 and May 3; Adelaide Cabaret Festival, June 5-7; Queensland Cabaret Festival, June 14; Melbourne Cabaret Festival June 19-20.

 Opera:

Don Carlos, Opera Australia, Melbourne May 20-29; Sydney July 14-August 15; Sweeney Todd, Victorian Opera, Melbourne, July 18-25; The Marriage of Figaro, Opera Australia, Sydney, August 6-29; The Rabbits, Opera Australia, Melbourne, October 9-13

‘I am in the right place’

Robert Curran was a long-serving principal artist with The Australian Ballet, from which he retired in 2011. He’s now leading a small company in the United States and relishing a role that is both very similar – ballet is ballet, the studio is the studio – and yet very different from his  former life.

LOUISVILLE is a city of about 750,000 people lying west of the Appalachian Mountains on the Ohio River in Kentucky. It was founded in 1778 during the American Revolution, named after Louis XVI (the French were allies against the British), and is situated in the South, although very much in the north of the South – it takes little more than two hours in a not very large aircraft to fly there from New York. But a Southern city it is, proud of its hospitality and its role as a leading bourbon producer.

As everyone knows, Louisville is famous for the annual Kentucky Derby, which is kicked off by Thunder Over Louisville, a fireworks display described as the biggest in North America. The city is also the headquarters for the parent company of Kentucky Fried Chicken and Pizza Hut, the jauntily named Yum! Brands. (The city’s major sports complex, seating 22,000, is called the KFC Yum! Center.)

So – horses, booze and fast food are important in Louisville. And bluegrass music. But they are not what I went for in mid-April. In August last year Louisville Ballet named Robert Curran, former principal artist with The Australian Ballet, as its new artistic director. As I have always been keen to see one of the smaller-scale American companies in action, his appointment offered the perfect excuse to make it happen.

Robert Curran in rehearsal with Louisville Ballet dancers. Photo: Sam English

Robert Curran in rehearsal with Louisville Ballet dancers. Photo: Sam English

First, a bit of background. San Francisco Ballet is regarded as the oldest professional company in the US, founded in 1933 as San Francisco Opera Ballet and becoming a separate body in 1942. Just to muddy the waters a little, Atlanta Ballet was founded in 1929 and describes itself as “the longest continuously performing ballet company in the United States”. Presumably it started as an amateur outfit. Whatever the story, ballet started to take root in the US about 85 years ago. Interest had been stirred by touring European troupes in the 19th century and was cemented by Ballets Russes spin-off companies in the mid 20th century. George Balanchine came to the US in late 1933 and his School of American Ballet opened at the beginning of 1934.

By the beginning of the 21st century there would be 100 or more ballet companies in the US. They include a handful of world-renowned organisations – American Ballet Theatre, New York City Ballet, San Francisco Ballet – and other major-city outfits such as Houston Ballet, Boston Ballet, Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet and Seattle’s Pacific Northwest Ballet that can support 40 or more dancers. Louisville Ballet belongs to a third category: smaller troupes established in sizeable cities with a lively arts scene.

After his appointment was announced Curran made a quick trip back home to sort out his visa and then returned to Louisville to dive in. He didn’t have long to become acquainted with his dancers before getting Giselle onstage by mid-September, and also wanted to immerse himself in Louisville cultural life as soon as possible.

Eight months later, Curran couldn’t look happier. Retiring director Bruce Simpson had programmed the first part of the 2014-2015 season so it wasn’t until April 10 that Curran unveiled his first program for Louisville Ballet: a triple bill of Serge Lifar’s Suite en blanc, George Balanchine’s Square Dance and a new piece by Australian choreographer Lucas Jervies, What Light Is to Our Eyes. It was extremely well received by public and critics, but perhaps more impressive was the demonstration of just how quickly Curran had moved on one of his most passionately desired goals. He wants Louisville Ballet to interact meaningfully and visibly with the local cultural scene and Director’s Choice: A New World was a strong beginning.

“That’s something I’m investing a lot of time in. Getting involved in the music scene, getting involved in the visual arts scene,” he says. Curran was given permission by the Balanchine Trust to commission new designs for Square Dance and asked Louisville artist Letitia Quesenberry to be involved. Her serene stage picture was dominated by a quietly glowing painting bisected by a horizontal stream of light. “Meeting Leticia was a great, great moment for me. Her work is so inspiring. It’s absolutely glorious.” Curran hadn’t expected the Balanchine Trust to give him so much freedom, although perhaps his commitment to offer Balanchine in Louisville every year helped. “I didn’t think that [redesigning the ballet] was a luxury that would be afforded a first-time director of a mid-west company with a small budget. When they offered, I had to jump at it.”

Kateryna Sellers and Brandon Ragland in Square Dance. Photo: Wade Bell

Kateryna Sellers and Brandon Ragland in Square Dance. Photo: Wade Bell

Jervies created What Light Is to Our Eyes to young American composer Sebastian Chang’s first symphony, which was commissioned by and given its world premiere performance in late January by Louisville Orchestra. It was conducted by the orchestra’s new music director Teddy Abrams, a 27-year-old who is creating quite a stir in the city. As an interviewer for Louisville Insider put it to Curran recently just before Director’s Choice opened, “You can’t cross the street without running into Teddy – he’s everywhere.” Curran doesn’t want to make himself quite as visible as Abrams, preferring to put the spotlight on his dancers, but they seem to be on the same wavelength.

The intertwining of ballet and orchestra continues in March next year in a co-production called (R)evolution that will feature a new score from Abrams alongside music by Stravinsky and Philip Glass. Adam Hougland will choreograph. Curran also meets with the leaders of two other leading Louisville companies, Kentucky Opera and the famed Actors Theatre of Louisville, with an eye to co-operative ventures. “We’re all in really open communication. We spend time together, we talk together, we deal with tricky situations, but we deal with them together. It’s a really open dialogue, and that goes with the visual arts organisations as well. We’re all trying to work out how we can maximise our impact and minimise our impact on each other – that’s a really exciting thing.”

Drawing on the wider world of ballet connections, Curran was given permission to stage Suite en blanc himself after Claude Bessy, a former director of the Paris Opera Ballet School who is associated with the Serge Lifar Foundation, was unable to come to the US as planned. Curran got Bessy’s blessing after being introduced long-distance by ballet legend Violette Verdy, whom Curran knows from his AB days. Verdy is now a professor at Indiana University. It’s a small world.

Erica De La O in Suite en blanc. Photo: Renata Pavam

Erica De La O in Suite en blanc. Photo: Renata Pavam

In terms of repertoire Director’s Choice was very familiar territory for Curran. He has been acquainted with the Lifar ballet since his student days with the Australian Ballet School, danced Balanchine with the AB and with Jervies founded a small Melbourne-based contemporary ballet company, JACK.

Far less familiar was his new company’s structure. Louisville Ballet has 24 dancers and 15 apprentices, the latter at the stage of finishing vocational training and preparing to start professional careers. Dancers are contracted for 30 weeks of the year, a number Curran would like to see increase to 40 or 42. Houston Ballet, led by Australian choreographer Stanton Welch, has 44-week contracts but that is uncommon. Even the mighty American Ballet Theatre contracts its dancers for only 36 weeks of the year. For the rest of the year they fend for themselves or go on unemployment benefits.

Perhaps even more surprising to an outsider is the small number of performances in each season given by Louisville Ballet and other companies of its size. Director’s Choice was seen only three times in the space of 28 hours – Friday night, Saturday matinee, Saturday night and it was done. The exception of course is Nutcracker, which is both sacred community tradition and indispensible money-spinner for virtually every American ballet company. That has a much longer run.

Nutcracker is a phenomenon I wasn’t exactly prepared for. It’s the most beautiful score ever written for ballet, it’s a beautiful tradition and I love seeing how many children come. It’s a brilliant production [choreographed by Val Caniparoli]. I’m biased but I would rate it in my top five in the world that I’ve seen. The integrity, the quality of the choreography, the through line are really wonderful. It’s unique and it’s also great to see a Nutcracker, a lot like Graeme’s [Graeme Murphy’s Nutcracker: The Story of Clara], that is so specific to its audience. There are a lot of touches that are Louisville.’’

While the company is much smaller than Curran is used to, it means there’s plenty of room for growth. “There are no performances outside Louisville at the moment. That has to change. We are here to serve the whole state and we don’t. I would love for the company to do more performances, and that’s my ultimate goal.” Nutcracker would be a natural ballet to tour, although in a different, smaller-scale version. The Caniparoli production was designed for the vast – 2400 seats – Whitney Hall in Louisville’s Kentucky Center. (Curran’s Director’s Choice program was at the smaller Brown Theatre. Its 1400 seats make it a suitable size for a great deal of repertoire but backstage restrictions make it not entirely ideal.)

One area set to expand is the number of trainees. Curran says there will be a much bigger group next year than the current 15. “I had a phenomenal number of people applying.” As trainees are unpaid they don’t drain resources. There is a little government funding but Curran describes the company’s $3.5 million budget as primarily made up of “about one third box office, one third development [corporate sponsorship and private support] and one third school revenue”. The latter is something Curran, who is also artistic director of Louisville Ballet School, is looking at. If the school’s income is mainly siphoned off for the company it doesn’t get to invest in itself. There are 600 students, not all of whom want to take a vocational path, and Curran would like to see an organisation that better suits the needs of both recreational and vocational students.

The vocational students are the obvious candidates for apprenticeships and, ultimately, a place in the company. And it’s something Curran has to pay close attention to. Louisville Ballet dancers have a higher average age than in most companies, Curran says, with many in their mid to late 30s. That brings maturity and intelligence to the stage, but the careers can’t last forever.

Kristopher Wojtera and Erica De La O in What Light Is to Our Eyes. Photo: Renata Pavam

Kristopher Wojtera and Erica De La O in What Light Is to Our Eyes, by Lucas Jervies. Photo: Renata Pavam

Curran has no intention of letting people go – “I’ve become very fond of them” – but must keep an eye to the future. That means not only developing the next generation of dancers but also giving current company members challenging repertoire.

Suite en blanc was certainly that. It’s danced by the best companies in the world although has not been frequently staged in the US, which made it a clever choice for Louisville. Lifar’s tutu-laden, highly exposed test of classical prowess was greatly enjoyed by the audience at the two performances I saw and clearly stretched some of the apprentices in the corps. “It’s a really hard ballet,” Curran said when we spoke after the opening. “They’ve had to step up mentally and physically. I can see dramatic changes in the way they work and what they look like.”

Many dancers caught the eye, in particular Natalia Ashikhmina in the Cigarette variation and Erica De La O in the Flute variation in Suite; both leading pairs in Square Dance – Kateryna Sellers and Brandon Ragland, De La O with Kristopher Wojtera; and the full cast of What Light Is to our Eyes, which the dancers invested not only with strong contemporary ballet energy but with mature dramatic qualities.

With the dancers going on leave for their long northern summer layoff, Curran and Louisville Ballet general manager Cara Hicks are turning their minds to a reorganisation of the company, which has a staff of about 15 apart from the dancers. Hicks is relatively new to her position (although not to the company), as previously Bruce Simpson combined the roles of artistic director and chief executive. Curran expresses nothing but great admiration and respect for Simpson, who some years ago guided the company out of extreme financial difficulties, but with both Curran and Hicks under 40 different emphases are inevitable.

Along with the major undertaking that is the company restructure, Curran has a new production to prepare, a version of Coppélia that will open Louisville Ballet’s 2015-2016 season in October. He plans to set it in Louisville’s Germantown area in 1917 as the US enters World War I. He also has “perhaps a foolishly ambitious plan” for the company’s 65th anniversary in 2017 about which he will say nothing at present.

He will say, however, how thrilled he is to be in Louisville. “I enjoy the people. They’re so welcoming. The city is fun; it’s really easy, although the food is a little bit too good. This community, they are brave, willing to look at things in a new light. Seeing that standing ovation after Lucas’s work – they were so willing to embrace it.

“I am in the right place. I didn’t know if I would find something as rewarding as my dancing; I really didn’t. But I wasn’t very long into this when I realised I’d found it. It’s a brilliant, brilliant job.”

To each her own

Sydney Opera House, April 2, 4 and 7

TWO and bit years ago, when Paris Opera Ballet came to Sydney with its production of Giselle, I was able to see three excitingly different readings of the title role, two of them from debutantes. We seem to get our fair share of important firsts in Australia. Apart from POB’s Ludmila Pagliero and Myriam Ould-Braham in Giselle, many years ago Sydney saw Alina Cojocaru’s first Odette-Odile (for the Royal Ballet) and Brisbane was graced with the historic debut of Misty Copeland as the Swan Queen when American Ballet Theatre visited last year. (Copeland has just made her US debut as Odette-Odile with Washington Ballet and in June finally makes her first O/O appearances in New York. It’s big news.

Natasha Kusen and Madeleine Eastoe. Photo: Jeff Busby

Natasha Kusen and Madeleine Eastoe. Photo: Jeff Busby

The Australian Ballet’s Sydney season of Giselle gave me the opportunity of seeing another notable title-role debut, that of Juliet Burnett at the first Saturday matinee. The opening night Giselle was, not surprisingly, principal artist Madeleine Eastoe, who makes this role her last with the company when she retires mid-year. There’s some symmetry here, as it was after her 2006 performance in Maina Gielgud’s production of Giselle that Eastoe was elevated to the highest rank at The Australian Ballet. Adelaide has the privilege of the farewell performance on July 6 and I will be there to close a circle for myself – Eastoe joined the AB in 1997 and I have watched her entire career. And on April 7 I saw the Sydney debut of Ako Kondo, whose first performances as Giselle were in the Melbourne season last month. After Kondo’s third Sydney performance, on April 14, the senior artist was promoted to principal, an event that has been expected for some time.

Eastoe’s Giselle was a gentle, open-hearted girl with the bloom and fragrance of an easily bruised rose. Every thought and feeling was exposed without barrier or reservation, her inner world made visible as if her skin were transparent. Eastoe’s lighter than light dancing and aura of fragility in the first act prefigured her absorption into the spirit world of the second act.

Burnett made a memorable debut at the April 4 matinee. Here was an enchantingly radiant lass whose joy and excitement were vibrantly captured in sparkling eyes and a glowing face. Burnett’s Giselle was a little bit flirty with Albrecht and sweetly starstruck by Princess Bathilde. When she stroked the fabric of Bathilde’s lavish gown she was enjoying its beauty rather than being overawed by such splendour. And I loved the way Burnett scrunched up the side of her simple yellow skirt when walking beside Bathilde so it wouldn’t touch the Princess’s costly attire. She made these details and many others fresh and individual.

Juliet Burnett rehearses with Robyn Hendricks. Photo: Lynette Wills

Juliet Burnett rehearses with Robyn Hendricks. Photo: Lynette Wills

Depite warnings from her frail heart and her foreboding mother, Burnett’s Giselle was alert and full of life. In the weightless curve of her arms and poised balances that reached upwards Burnett was not so much a spirit in waiting but a young woman buoyed by love. Then, when she learned of Albrecht’s perfidy, the light was switched off. White-faced and stricken, Burnett’s Giselle was crushed beyond endurance. The mad scene was frantic and incredibly moving. Burnett’s second act was beautifully composed and she looked wonderful in the soft, forward-leaning stretches and airborne beaten steps that show Giselle scarcely tethered to the ground.

Kondo was a skittish Giselle, at first glancing back to the cottage often as if to see whether her mother might suddenly appear, or perhaps thinking she should go back inside. But along with the skittishness there was more than a hint of sensuality, amplified by her expansive dancing. In the second act Kondo had something of an avenging angel quality as she protected Albrecht from the icy commands of Robyn Hendricks’s Myrtha in a thrilling battle of wills.

Ako Kondo, The Australian Ballet's newest principal. Photo: James Braund

Ako Kondo, The Australian Ballet’s newest principal. Photo: James Braund

I would have liked to see Kondo with an Albrecht who provided greater contrasts. Her pairing with the exciting Chengwu Guo is a public-relations dream as they are partners offstage, but the plush physicality of his dancing was, for me, too similar to hers for this ballet. Albrecht and Giselle are not from the same world. On Eastoe’s opening night, when they were cast in the Peasant Pas, they looked just perfect together. Guo also partners the very different Natasha Kusch as Giselle this season; I’m sorry I won’t be able to see them.

Eastoe was given a Rolls-Royce ride with the deeply felt, superbly danced Albrecht of Kevin Jackson. His intentions and reactions were natural, meaningful and expressed clearly through gesture and movement. The snap and height of his Act II entrechats had the audience gasping (Nicolette Fraillon, conducting the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra, had to really slow things down in the pit) but more telling was the weight of sorrow he conveyed as he entered to mourn Giselle. This level of connection with character is as yet unavailable to the much less experienced Jared Wright, who partnered Burnett. His lines are noble, his looks princely, and at this point he is a leading man in development.

Distinctions and evaluations

Les Misérables, Capitol Theatre, Sydney, April 26; Aida, Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour, Fleet Steps, Sydney, April 27

A COUPLE of years ago I interviewed Stephen Sondheim ahead of the Melbourne season of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, and I’m afraid I really didn’t get anything out of him that he hadn’t said many, many times before. This included his definition of the difference between opera and musical theatre. When, for instance, Sweeney Todd was presented on Broadway, it was a musical, he said. When Sweeney Todd was staged by an opera company, it was an opera.

It’s a reasonable point. As Bernard Williams writes frankly in The New Grove Dictionary of Opera (1992 edition), after discussing operetta, Singspiel, the use of Sprechgesang and so on: “The relations between opera and the other forms that are contrasted with it are thus complex, and the distinctions (in particular, that between opera and operetta) are to some degree arbitrary. The present position is that ‘opera’ is to some extent an evaluative term, used to refer to sung drama which is either ‘serious’ enough, or traditional enough in form and technique, to be staged in an opera house.”

Simon Gleeson and Hayden Tee in Les Miserables. Photo: Matt Murphy

Simon Gleeson and Hayden Tee in Les Miserables. Photo: Matt Murphy

That last phrase points to the circular nature of this knotty question of classification. A sung drama can be called an opera because it’s considered worthy of being in an opera house – which of course depends on whom is doing the considering, or evaluating. Sweeney Todd in an opera house? It’s an opera. Perhaps, although I don’t care what you want to call it, other than a great, great work. (Grove: Opera, It., from Lat. opera, plural of opus, ‘work’.)

Just to muddy the issue, the work of a contemporary company such as Sydney Chamber Opera is staged at Carriageworks, a multi-arts venue that concentrates on new work. I doubt that Kate Miller-Heidke and Lally Katz’s hour-long work The Rabbits, of which Opera Australia was a co-producer, will be seen in a traditional opera space, not to mention that the singers are amplified, which for many people would bar it from being called an opera. Perth International Arts Festival, a co-commissioner with the Melbourne Festival, cannily called The Rabbits “a new work of operatic theatre”.

PIAF was right to make that distinction, and I don’t think in this case it is arbitrary. The Rabbits’ music, while it had some qualities one might consider operatic (overlapping vocal lines, for instance), was not of the complexity one associates with opera – not quite “traditional enough in form and technique”. But to get back to my point about Sweeney Todd, who cares what box you put it in, as long as it’s good?

The openings in Sydney of Les Misérables and Aida on consecutive nights brought to the fore these distinctions and evaluations.

It goes without saying that musically speaking, Aida, this year’s Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour, starts any face-off with the unbridgeable advantage of having been written by Verdi. The composer of Les Mis, Claude-Michel Schönberg, is no Verdi, although the same can be said of many – most? – composers of opera, let alone those firmly assigned to the musical theatre realm. Schönberg nevertheless writes memorable, effective melodies that vividly colour and support the stage action.

Walter Fraccaro arrives in triumph in Aida. Photo: Prudence Upton

Walter Fraccaro arrives in triumph in Aida. Photo: Prudence Upton

Schönberg also allows himself a few “serious” references as most Le Mis aficionados know, and they fit seamlessly into his score, which is interesting. Jean Valjean’s Bring Him Home may well remind lovers of Madama Butterfly of the Humming Chorus, and I am grateful to Robert J. Elisberg’s blog for alerting me to the ways in which Little Cosette’s Castle on a Cloud has resonances of Rameau.

One reason, though, why Schönberg and his music theatre confrères will never sound like operatic composers is the non-negotiable requirement that music-theatre lyrics be clearly understood at every moment. In his fine New Yorker obituary for Andrew Porter, the greatly esteemed music critic who died a few days ago, Alex Ross wrote: “Like Wagner, he believed that operas should generally be performed in the native language of the audience—a conviction that marked him as something other than a purist.” Like opera used to be, musical theatre is the theatre of the people and therefore presented in the language of its audience – although when opera is sung in English one sometimes still needs recourse to the surtitles, partly because there may be multiple vocal lines and partly because sometimes diction isn’t what it could be or the conductor isn’t being helpful with the orchestral balance.

Another difference is that music-theatre lyrics pretty much say what they mean and mean what they say. There are few music-theatre lyricists as sophisticated and multi-layered as Sondheim. One may enter a production of a successful musical with no knowledge and leave with full, uncomplicated apprehension of every turn of plot and emotion. You can call it unsubtle if you will, but it’s powerful magic and it’s why Andrew Lloyd Webber is a very rich man. (He likes his Puccini too – Music of the Night from The Phantom of the Opera employs a phrase very like one in Quello che tacete in La fanciulla del West. Let’s put it this way: royalties were paid to Puccini heirs.

Milijana Nikolic as Amneris in Aida. Photo: Prudence Upton

Milijana Nikolic as Amneris in Aida. Photo: Prudence Upton

So far Aida is out in front by quite a margin, although it’s fun to think that perhaps Les Mis could be considered the more serious drama, in that its love triangle (Eponine-Marius-Cosette) is subordinate to the theme of oppression and revolution. In Aida the love triangle (Amneris-Radamès-Aida) is to the fore with political upheaval secondary.

Musically, though, Aida is the goods. Late-stage Verdi in his pomp.

But we’re not just listening. Sung drama is a combination of score, libretto, vocal quality, acting and staging.

In its current production Aida’s musical splendours are forced into the service of an astonishingly vulgar presentation. What was director Gale Edwards thinking? The dominating scenic element in Mark Thompson’s design, a giant head of Nefertiti, is inspired but presides over a sad mish-mash of images and ideas. It is one of those concepts that throws in costuming from across the ages to indicate that the themes are timeless. So there are modern business-suited guards, Fascist soldiers, priests of Ancient Egypt, women overpowered by gargantuan gowns, female dancers in a kick-line (don’t ask) wearing abbreviated versions of traditional African attire and male dancers got up as jackals with a 1970s rock-star vibe by way of a D-grade sci-fi film. Well, it’s work for the dancers, although not choreographer Lucas Jervies’s finest hour.

The mute reference to current Middle East oil politics is very odd. Why all those barrels stacked up the back? It’s not as if Egypt is one of the great oil-producing countries and at war with Ethiopia over the resource. Obviously we were meant to think about current geo-politics but the idea looked and felt tacked on.

Les Mis, ensconced at the rather operatic Capitol Theatre, pulls together its various themes brilliantly. I saw it first in Melbourne in July last year and wrote then: “The staging has the fluidity of a dream, emphasised by darkly romantic atmospherics created by projected backgrounds (Matt Kinley’s designs were inspired by Hugo’s paintings). The stage picture is often startlingly beautiful and always theatrically effective.”

Simon Gleeson as Jean Valjean in Les Misérables. Photo: Matt Murphy

Simon Gleeson as Jean Valjean in Les Misérables. Photo: Matt Murphy

There seem to be more directors than you can poke a stick at for Les Mis but despite the crowd (two directors, two in charge of musical staging) the production is exceptionally coherent. From a staging perspective, Les Mis is the goods. Producer Cameron Mackintosh has done it again, and this summation indicates the most fundamental difference between opera and musical theatre. The first is the art of the composer, the second the art of the producer. And yes, I know there are many who think producers aren’t artists, but then I think of Diaghilev and dismiss that argument. And yes, there are exceptions, such as Sondheim, who is always the exception.

Fortunately for Aida, on opening night there were two stellar performances. Soprano Latonia Moore was a glorious Aida with dark power at the bottom of the range and warm glow at the top. She acted every moment with conviction and made Ritorna Vincitor and O Patria mia the shining dramatic highlights. As Amneris, mezzo Milijana Nikolic, tall and glamorous, deftly wrangled her series of eye-popping frocks – brava! – and persuasively made the transition from haughty, conniving princess to woman of feeling.

The principal artists over at Les Mis were equally thrilling. Simon Gleeson (Jean Valjean) and Hayden Tee (Javert) are tremendous singing actors who have different challenges – Gleeson has to make saintliness compelling and touching; Tee to make blind obsession worthy of understanding. And may the gods of opera forgive me, but both were much more vocally interesting than Walter Fraccaro as Aida’s Radamès. The night I heard him Fraccaro gave a performance that was unsubtle and unvarying. He can sing loudly, that’s for sure. (There were some issues with the amplification at Aida, but all the principals were singing under the same conditions …)

Further down the cast list Aida was graced by the splendid Amonasro of Michael Honeyman and David Parkin’s Ramfis. In Les Mis, Kerrie Anne Greenland (Eponine), for whom this is her first professional engagement, was spectacularly good. In Melbourne I thought her voice wonderful but that she sang the notes all in the right places and rather too dutifully in her big song, On My Own. In Sydney she was able to move within the music to make it individual. She’s a tremendous talent. After what sounded a nervous start – there was a very pronounced beat in the voice – Patrice Tipoki sang feelingly and movingly as the unfortunate Fantine.

Others in Les Mis fared less well. I thought the directors allowed Lara Mulcahy as Madame Thénardier to overdo the grotesque comic business (when you overshadow the Thénardier of Trevor Ashley it’s quite a feat), that Euan Doidge was a too small-voiced Marius, that Emily Langridge was a very unsettled-sounding Cosette and that Chris Durling lacked that last necessary drop of personal and vocal charisma as Enjolras, leader of the student revolutionaries.

Wouldn’t you think those quite serious reservations would knock Les Mis out of the running for Best Sung Drama in the final week of March 2015? But no, they didn’t. Les Mis was, despite the glories of Latonia Moore and despite Verdi, the much more satisfying theatrical experience. And don’t blame Opera on Sydney Harbour, an innovation I adore: Last year’s Best Sung Drama? That would be Madama Butterfly, on the harbour.

Highland fling

Playhouse, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane, May 20.

IN August Bournonville’s enduringly popular Romantic ballet, a young man dozes by a vast open fireplace and is woken by an apparition, a beautiful winged creature who kisses him. Immediately enraptured, he tries to catch her but she eludes his grasp and, in an effect that never fails to delight, disappears up the chimney but not from his thoughts.

It’s not a propitious start to his wedding day and the omens only get worse.

La Sylphide takes place in two worlds, that of the flesh and that of the spirit, although they are not entirely separate dimensions. While humans go about their cosy domesticity, supernatural forces hover, whisper and pounce. The safety of hearth and home can’t be taken for granted.

James flees the conventional future laid out for him and heads to the forest in search of his sylph and a passionate, magical life that he realises too late is unattainable. La Sylphide is a “be careful what you wish for” cautionary tale, pitting stay-at-home ordinariness against fatal attraction.

Qi Huan as James in La Sylphide. Photo: David Kelly

Qi Huan as James in La Sylphide. Photo: David Kelly

Queensland Ballet performs La Sylphide in Peter Schaufuss’s 1979 production, which is essentially faithful to the familiar Bournonville version with some additions and alterations. Schaufuss upgrades James’s home from a Scottish farmhouse to a manor house and gives him more dancing with an extra brooding solo in Act I and a kind of interior monologue expressed as a pas de trois for James, his bride-to-be Effie and the sylph.

The trio feels unnecessary but at the opening performance there was joy in every second spent on stage by Qi Huan, plucked out of retirement by QB artistic director Li Cunxin to dance James. Qi spent nearly a decade with Royal New Zealand Ballet and now teaches at New Zealand School of Dance.

The singular Bournonville dance language is notable for its intricate footwork and floating levitations. Qi’s astonishing elevation gave him all the time in the world for multiple razor-sharp beaten steps in the air, his double tours – to left as well as right – were landed with exceptional poise and precision and the deep, deep plies Schaufuss favours were plush. Purists would undoubtedly think the latter a distortion of Bournonville stylistic modesty but they were undeniably exciting. Qi acted superbly too. His retreat from the stage is a mystery.

Not all audiences will see Qi, of course, as there are five casts for this 10-performance run. If that seems a lot, it is proof of Li’s desire to stretch as many of his dancers as possible and to challenge them in this lovely, incredibly demanding style. Not that Li was able to cast James five times from within. There is another male guest artist for the season, Luke Schaufuss, a dancer with Birmingham Royal Ballet and Peter Schaufuss’s son. The family affair is taken further: Peter’s daughter Tara dances with Queensland Ballet and while on opening night she was a featured Sylph, she is also cast as the Sylphide.

The QB men cast as James are the company’s only male principal, Hao Bin, and soloists Shane Weurthner and Camilo Ramos, the latter in his first weeks with QB. He, like the company’s new principal artist Yanela Piñera, is from National Ballet of Cuba.

I assume Li would like to get his company to the size and level at which he could confidently cast all the major works from within but that’s not done quickly or easily. It is, however, fascinating to watch the process of company building.

The first performance introduced the glamorous Piñera, who seemed a rather flesh-and-blood Sylphide as did fellow principal Clare Morehen as the Lead Sylph. Both are still feeling their way with the spirit of this radiant style, as is Weurthner, who gave a bit too much as Gurn, the man who loves and finally wins Effie.

Sarah Thompson’s sweetly glowing Effie made a strong impression and it was wonderful to see Mary Li in her element as the witch Madge, engineering James’s downfall with scarily cheerful, robust malevolence.

Some muddy horns aside, Queensland Symphony Orchestra played the Herman Lovenskjold score with verve for conductor Andrew Mogrelia, whose pacing and shaping of the overture vividly established the ballet’s quicksilver mood and themes.

La Sylphide ends on March 31.

A version of this review appeared in The Australian on March 24.