Queensland Ballet, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, April 5
QUEENSLAND Ballet’s ambitious Cinderella has much to say about what new artistic director Li Cunxin wants for his company and a little something to say about Li himself.
Li’s story is well known. He was plucked from deepest obscurity in rural China to be trained in ballet and then defected to the West. There he was taken under the wing of Ben Stevenson at Houston Ballet where one of the first productions he saw – Li says it was the first that touched him – was Stevenson’s Cinderella, a story ballet created in 1970 in the classical style.
Li wants to make that style the bedrock of his QB and doubtless he can identify with a rags-to-riches transformation set in train by magical intervention. Cinderella is therefore a touching choice for QB’s first mainstage production under Li’s direction and has the advantage of being something of a rarity: a full-length romantic piece with instant name recognition that hasn’t been done to death.
Brisbane has bought into it with gusto: the extended season is sold out and a vast store of goodwill for Li was evident on opening night. The production was greeted with a standing ovation, and Li seems to have secured corporate and private funding on a new level for QB’s work. The Queensland Premier, Campbell Newman, was in the first-night audience, as were four government ministers. Important friends travelled to Brisbane for the occasion.
Sounding uncharacteristically nervous, Li spoke to the audience on April 5 before the curtain went up at Queensland Performing Arts Centre’s Playhouse and said – to mighty cheers – that Cinderella had broken a 53-year sales record. He added that he wanted to tour this production around Australia and internationally. On a personal note, he said that Ben Stevenson had made him what he became.
It was, therefore, an incredibly highly charged evening for Li, who would have been thrilled with the reception. The opening night audience lustily acclaimed a production that the company has invested so much in, financially and emotionally.
QB commissioned lovely new sets and costumes (by Thomas Boyd and Tracy Grant Lord respectively) for Stevenson’s production and it looks pretty as a picture book. The interior of the cheerless home where Cinderella lives with her dysfunctional family dissolves swiftly into the light and airy realm of the Fairy Godmother. The Prince’s ballroom is perhaps somewhat less opulent than possible, but serviceable.
Underneath the attractive makeover, however, are several disappointing flaws. The story-telling is often perfunctory and sometimes muddled and a lumpy structure makes room for lengthy swaths of dance but rushes over key matters of character and nuance. As with Frederick Ashton’s influential version of the ballet, Cinderella’s step-sisters are played, panto-style, by men. As in Ashton’s version they are the most vividly realised and memorable figures, diverting attention from what should surely be the unwavering impulse and glowing centre of the work: to celebrate virtue. The balance is out of kilter. (When Cinderella, at the ball, gives her orange to a step-sister who has missed out, the emphasis in this production isn’t on the generous gesture but rather the comedy of the step-sister’s dimness at sort-of but not quite recognising Cinderella in this setting.)
Not only that, if one is to acknowledge the primacy of virtue, there must be darkness to overcome. Prokofiev’s wonderful score explicitly says that, but Stevenson – as Ashton before him – chose to underplay that conflict. The pain of the lost mother registers only fleetingly, the step-mother is a cardboard figure and the father is Mr Cellophane.
Towards the end of the first act there is a series of dances depicting the seasons, each designed to have a very particular flavour, although in Stevenson’s choregraphy there isn’t quite enough differentiation. Why does the Fairy Godmother introduce fairies who illustrate the seasons to Cinderella? Surely it is to show her the passage of time in action, as time is crucial to this story. But more than that, it speaks of mortality. Not for nothing do the dances start with Spring, the season of life-giving, and end with Winter. Well, it should be not for nothing.
On opening Cinderella’s step-sisters were danced by new principal artist Matthew Lawrence and guest Paul Boyd. They were sweetly silly and self-regarding rather than vicious, which is presumably why Cinderella felt free to whack them around a bit with her broom. So it was a huge mystery why Cinders should shortly after be presented as a reluctant, almost cowering figure when the Prince came calling with the shoe; a shoe that matched the one she pulled from her skirt pocket with some radiance not moments before. The sisters’ and step-mother’s capitulation to Cinderella at that point was thrown away, just one example of how the production skates over the darker threads of the tale for a generalised feel-good display.
At the first performance the main pleasure came from two sources, the music and the luxurious quality of dancing from the leads. QB’s music director and chief conductor Andrew Mogrelia presided over a reduced Queensland Symphony that sounded anything but diminished in the Playhouse’s small pit. The score, lovingly played, repays close attention. Onstage, Clare Morehen (Fairy Godmother) radiated calm, grace and benevolence while Yu Hui gave the Jester’s generic acrobatics real sparkle and charm. He made light work of all those turns with tucked legs, high-flying splits, cartwheels and jauntily angled arms and legs.
Meng Ningning (Cinderella) and Hao Bin (the Prince) are QB’s reigning classicists and their purity of line, unmannered style and understated assurance are undoubtedly Li’s desired benchmark for the company. Both were trained in Beijing, as Li was so many years ago. Hao is a danseur noble who, in Cinderella, has nothing to do but look aristocratic. An easy task for this handsome, elegant man. Meng was more comfortable in the serene set pieces in the ballroom than when trying to make sense of Cinderella’s nature and feelings, for which it’s hard to blame her. Meng looked ethereal in her glittering pink tutu and danced impeccably.
Li, by the way, isn’t stacking QB with Chinese dancers even if his predilection is for their style of performance. Meng and Hao were hired by his predecessor, Francois Klaus, as was Yu, who was initially trained in China and then at New Zealand School of Dance. The new position of guest international principal is this year held by Huang Junshuang, who was trained in Shanghai and danced with Guangzhou Ballet Company, but was also a principal artist with Houston Ballet.
Those who watch QB closely will know that the present company line-up is significantly different from last year’s. There has been a big turnover: of the QB’s 27 permanent dancers, 11 are new this year. Of that 11, no fewer than nine came to QB straight from training. In other words, fully one third of the company is as junior as they come. A further five dancers joined the company in 2011 after being trainees, so Li has the opportunity to shape these young men and women in exactly the way he wants.
This situation puts a big workload on the senior dancers, but such is the way of smaller companies. (By comparison the Australian Ballet currently has 70 dancers on its roster.) There are three principal casts for Cinderella, but that doesn’t mean too many nights off for the top-ranked dancers. Lawrence and Hao are both cast as the Prince and Tall Stepsister and Hao is also listed as appearing in the small role of Father; each Cinderella – Meng, Rachael Walsh and Clare Morehen – has a second role. Yu, a soloist, is also cast as Short Stepsister. QB’s only other soloist, Nathan Scicluna, is second-cast Short Stepsister but was spotted on opening night filling out the ranks of dancers at the Prince’s second-act ball.
The corps was augmented with students from QB’s Pre-Professional Program, Junior Program and Queensland Dance School of Excellence, and it did one’s heart good to see the glowing pride on the faces of the young girls who appeared briefly as attendants at the union of Cinderella to her Prince.
It was also heartening to get the sense that the Brisbane audience was personally invested in the production and the company. I haven’t seen a more excited and proud set of people at the ballet – any ballet – for a very long time.
The Queensland Ballet’s Cinderella continues until April 20.
This is an extended version of a review that appeared in The Australian on April 8.