Faster: The Australian Ballet

Sydney Opera House, April 12

The key work in The Australian Ballet’s Faster triple bill was supposed to be Wayne McGregor’s new Multiverse, which premiered at the Royal Ballet in November to largely disobliging reviews. A change in programming quickly ensued. Multiverse was out, Infra (2008) was in. It wasn’t unreasonable to program Multiverse sight unseen and assume it would work for the Australian company and audience, as the choreographer made Dyad 1929 for TAB in 2009 and Chroma came into the repertoire in 2014.

The less than ecstatic reception for Multiverse may have given TAB and/or McGregor pause for thought, or more practical considerations could have come into play. It may be that Rashid Rana and Murtaza Ali’s set could have fitted reasonably well on to the State Theatre stage in Melbourne but ultimately wasn’t suitable for the relatively small Joan Sutherland Theatre at the Sydney Opera House, which is the Faster program’s second port of call. Multiverse photographs show a vast box with a dense grid pattern on which photographs and sections of Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa were projected for the second half of the piece.

TAB_INFRA_Artists of The Australian Ballet_Photo Jeff Busby (3)

Wayne McGregor’s Infra. Photo: Daniel Boud

As it happens, even the austere Infra looks somewhat circumscribed on the Joan Sutherland stage but what can you do? TAB is resident at the Opera House and that’s that. And while Infra isn’t seen to greatest advantage, without it this mixed bill would be a thin affair.

The evening starts with David Bintley’s Faster, to Australian composer Matthew Hindson’s suitably muscular and energetic commissioned score. It was the Birmingham Royal Ballet artistic director’s way of getting into the spirit of the London Olympics in 2012, which is where it should have stayed. Sydney audiences may recall Stephen Baynes’s Personal Best, which appeared during the Sydney Olympic Arts Festival in 2000, never to be seen again. If memory serves I liked Personal Best a lot more than Faster, although that’s not necessarily saying much.

Faster obviously and tediously draws on shapes from various sports, grouping their exponents under headings such as Throwers, Aerials and Synchro. Among the Throwers, principal artist Chengwu Guo stood out on Wednesday night for his exuberance – a cracking 540; a high-flying backwards aerial somersault – and for a costume that made him look as if some light S&M awaited him in the athletes’ village (Becs Andrews designed). An over-extended pas de deux of competitiveness, injury and recovery is Faster’s centrepiece and pulls the piece out of shape, and the tone wavers between send-up and seriousness. The final section, where a big group does some fancy running on the spot, is the highlight for more reasons than one. If Faster had gone on any longer I might have been tempted to do a runner myself.

Faster - Squander and Glory - 7pm Dress Rehearsal

Tim Harbour’s Squander and Glory. Photo: Daniel Boud

Tim Harbour’s Squander and Glory is, one gathers, about the build-up of energy and its inevitable release. There is reference in the program note to Georges Bataille’s essay The Accursed Share and the theories that inspired Harbour but if you hadn’t read the program you’d be none the wiser. It looks good, certainly, as 14 excellent dancers make forceful, attractive stage pictures against Kelvin Ho’s mirror backdrop. The look is big-city glamour with a hard edge, momentarily spoiled when the house lights go up and an easily distracted audience sees itself in the mirror. Presumably Harbour has a point, but it’s not clear. Michael Gordon’s hard-driving Weather One (1997) was a good choice of score though.

Infra came as balm after Faster and Squander and Glory. Infra is mysterious and yet utterly clear in its purpose. On one level we are anonymous dots in big societies where people brush past one another on their way to somewhere else. But we’re also desperate for connection and understanding. Underneath an LED screen (British artist Julian Opie’s work), showing electronic figures ceaselessly walking to who knows where, six couples enact a rich world of thoughts, fears and desires to the deeply supportive music of Max Richter. McGregor’s well-known language of ultra-stretched, bent and torqued physicality is here exceptionally moving; a visual correlation of things we find so difficult to say.

There was a great deal of ravishing dancing from the cast I saw, although no one entirely realised all the work’s potential. In Wednesday’s cast, principal artist Robyn Hendricks and soloist Dimity Azoury came closest. It’s got to do with going to the uttermost extremes of McGregor’s movement without making it look mechanical and imbuing it with passionate, expressive intensity. Otherwise the work can look a little too careful and thus less affecting. It is fair to say, too, that the small stage doesn’t help. At one point the six couples are seen together on the stage but in separate rectangles of light. Here they are simply too close together. Infra needs room to breathe.

So thank goodness for Infra. There would have been nothing to speak to the heart otherwise. There was, however, plenty for the ear. The Faster program gives the orchestra a rest from the heavy diet of conventional classics it usually has to provide for the ballet. The Opera Australia Orchestra (formerly the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra) was conducted by TAB’s music director and chief conductor Nicolette Fraillon for the Hindson and Gordon scores while TAB assistant conductor Simon Thew was at the helm for the Richter. The assertiveness of Hindson’s and Gordon’s music gives a superficial impression of sameness but they reach their effects very differently. I’d like to hear them again.

That said, there wasn’t, overall ,the level of contrast that can make a triple bill as stimulating as it should be. Getting the mix right is a delicate art, which is why artistic directors fall on anniversaries with glad cries. Last year the Royal Ballet put on a triple bill to celebrate Wayne McGregor’s 10 years as resident choreographer. In its next season are mixed bills marking the 25th anniversary of Kenneth MacMillan’s death. There will also be a program whose theme is the music of Leonard Bernstein, staged to acknowledge the centenary of his birth. You could also point to another theme: the perennial one of the male choreographer. Bernstein will be honoured with works by McGregor, Christopher Wheeldon and Liam Scarlett. And then there’s the program of three RB resident choreographers: McGregor, MacMillan and Frederick Ashton.

Looking back through old TAB programs I am reminded of choices that put a spotlight on Jerome Robbins, George Balanchine, Jiří Kylián, the Ballets Russes, and repertoire as diverse as Stephen Baynes’s Beyond Bach, MacMillan’s Las Hermanas and William Forsythe’s In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated (in 1996) and Kylián’s Sinfonietta, Balanchine’s Apollo and Twyla Tharp’s In the Upper Room (1997). I am reminded too, of many a new work that has not and never will again see the light of day, but you have to take those risks.

In recent years the Vitesse program (Kylián’s Forgotten Land, In the Middle and Wheeldon’s DGV: Danse à Grande Vitesse) hit the mark, as did 20:21 (Balanchine’s Symphony in Three Movements, Harbour’s Filigree and Shadow and Upper Room).

So it can be done. Just not every time, as Faster proves.

Faster ends in Sydney on April 26.

David Hallberg, The Sleeping Beauty

The Australian Ballet, Brisbane, February 25

When David Hallberg returned to the ballet stage in Sydney in November last year, in Coppélia with The Australian Ballet, he was coming out of a two-and-a-half year layoff due to injury, the last 12 months of which he spent in Melbourne working with TAB’s medical team. The choice of Franz as a comeback role was unplanned. Coppélia just happened to be what was in the schedule when Hallberg came to the understanding that his dancing career was not, in fact, over as he had feared. Nevertheless, the light-hearted part (a role debut) was just what the doctor ordered.

hallberg

David Hallberg. Photo: Renee Nowytarger for The Australian. Used with permission.

Hallberg is intensely grateful to the Australians who helped him through his dark hours and said he would be back regularly. He meant it. Last week it was announced Hallberg would be TAB’s first resident guest artist and it was in that capacity that he appeared as Prince Désiré in artistic director David McAllister’s production of The Sleeping Beauty in Brisbane on February 25 and 28. The agreement is that he will be in Australia twice a year, with his second 2017 visit coming at the end of the year in Sydney when The Sleeping Beauty has a return season there.

The 34-year-old American’s exceptional beauty of line and sophisticated bearing make him look born to this repertoire. He is a prince among men with his commanding yet seemingly effortless stage presence and he is the epitome of grace and courtliness. Hallberg gave Désiré (Florimund in other productions) a largeness of spirit not always found in a part that has little complexity of character. Désiré seeks love but needs the Lilac Fairy’s guidance to find it, he dances a little to express his yearning, is shown a vision of the lovely Princess Aurora, wakes the sleeping maiden with a kiss and marries her with much ceremony.

Who this man might be is glossed over, but Hallberg filled out the slender material with passion and tenderness. A clue might be found in something Hallberg said late last year. In a conversation with me about his recovery, he said he had come to Australia “so stripped of any sort of optimism”. In what he called his rebirth, he found perspective. “I feel now, as an artist proudly 34 years old, that I have such depth of resilience, and through that an artistic understanding that’s completely different from how it used to be. And it’s not driven by ego any more.”

His Prince Désiré embodied that selflessness and maturity and even though a handful of less than fully realised finishes were a reminder of his long absence from this cruelly exposed repertoire, the radiance of his performance was all-encompassing. His cabrioles, for example, in which he floated his outstretched legs in the air rather than beat them together as most men do, were not only individual but deeply poetic.

tab-2017-the-sleeping-beauty-brisbane-amber-scott-dancers-of-tab-photo-kate-longley

Amber Scott as Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty. Photo: Kate Longley

The quality of his partnering added further layers. Hallberg’s Aurora was TAB principal artist Amber Scott (his Swanilda in Coppélia) and the two look wonderful together, with Scott’s dark, delicate beauty even more lovely when set against the blond Hallberg’s tall, supremely elegant figure. The alchemy of stage rapport is a mystery, but suffice to say Scott seems more lustrous in Hallberg’s company and to project the spun-glass virtues of her dancing more eloquently. Hallberg’s connection with TAB will be wonderful for audiences and he will be a mentor and example for the men of the company, but perhaps his greatest gift is being the partner who brings out the best in Scott. She has often seemed too introverted but Hallberg makes her glow.

The Act III grand pas de deux was as grand as the situation demands yet suffused with intimacy. Individually Hallberg and Scott looked sublime and together they dazzled. I’ve never seen the famous trio of fish dives presented with such élan.

For the rest, with Nicolette Fraillon at the helm the Queensland Symphony Orchestra gave a full-blooded account of Tchaikovsky’s score, senior artist Brett Chynoweth was a buoyant Bluebird, Gillian Revie reprised her striking Carabosse and the fairies, looking a treat in Gabriela Tyselova’s luscious tutus, had more than their fair share of technical jitters. As the Lilac Fairy soloist Valerie Tereschenko showed her great promise and her relative inexperience. Her fragrant upper body and clearly articulated mime were lovely but she had a few too many slips. Another new soloist, Jade Wood, gave a good account of Princess Florine although her fixed expression betrayed tension. Still, the company (this year expanded to 77 in number) has plenty of up and coming talent – and needed it in Brisbane, as a fair handful of more senior dancers had niggles that kept them offstage.

McAllister has made some welcome tweaks to his 2015 production to clarify some of the early storytelling although, as with so many productions, the need to bring the show in at under three hours makes some aspects appear rushed. The excision of most of the Act III divertissements while still giving a flavour of them is astutely done but the account of the court in the Prologue is too abbreviated. That charge can’t be directed at Tylesova’s design, which on each viewing looks more opulent than ever.

Footnote: Hallberg’s Australian commitment is in addition to his other jobs as a principal artist with American Ballet Theatre and the Bolshoi Ballet, although it’s not clear yet when he might be dancing again with the latter. For ABT he is first cast in Alexei Ratmansky’s new Whipped Cream, opening in Costa Mesa, California, on March 15 and he will then dance Onegin and possibly Albrecht in New York in ABT’s May-July season.

The Sleeping Beauty ends in Brisbane March 4. Then Melbourne, June 16-27 and Sydney, November 11-25.

Coppélia, The Australian Ballet

Benedicte Bemet (Swanilda) and Brett Chynoweth (Franz), Sydney Opera House, December 3 (matinee).

There are no dancers in The Australian Ballet today that interest me more than Benedicte Bemet and Brett Chynoweth, she a soloist and he a senior artist. No matter where they are on stage or in what role, it’s as if there’s a special spotlight picking them out. They shine just that little bit more brightly than those around them. You can’t fail to notice them, even in the more anonymous roles that fall to anyone not yet a principal artist.

Rankings are, to a degree, a matter of personal taste. There are many fine dancers who never make it to principal artist and whose fans will never be able to understand why. But Bemet and Chynoweth – well, I would be astounded if the AB’s highest level were denied them for much longer.

coppelia-syd-dress-bemet-chynowet-katelongley-0g4a3932-2016-57

Benedicte Bemet and Brett Chynoweth in Coppelia. Photo: Kate Longley.

Last year both were promoted to their current rank after performances in artistic director David McAllister’s new production of The Sleeping Beauty. “The possibilities for Bemet would appear to be boundless,” I wrote at the time. “Her Aurora rates as the most exciting debut I’ve seen in more than 40 years of ballet-watching. At just 21 she brought the authentic glow of youth and promise to the stage. She was so entirely at one with the role that all the technical requirements and difficulties simply disappeared. Every step was part of her journey from innocent to prospective bride to woman on the brink of maturity.

“Usually one has a sympathetic butterfly or two as the dancer approaches the climactic balances and promenades of the Rose Adagio but not here. Bemet was absolutely in the moment and so was her audience. The balances were astonishing – the audience went wild – and they were part of a story. There was purity, radiance and joy in Bemet’s dancing. She was enchanting; a promotion to soloist swiftly came her way.”

To be honest, I wouldn’t have been surprised if McAllister had bounded on to the stage to promote Bemet to principal on the spot. It would have been unorthodox, but the situation was far from usual.

When Chynoweth danced the Prince in the Peter Wright Nutcracker in 2014 he gave notice that he was more than just a brilliant dancer in contemporary pieces; more than the speedy, not-so-tall guy who is seen as a natural Mercutio but perhaps not Romeo. Last year it was heartening to see him again given the chance to play the Prince, this time in Beauty. Chynoweth “radiated passion from every pore and his Act II solo, marked by pillowy elevation and immaculate airborne turns, was a glorious expression of longing,” was how I wrote about it.

This year the two have been partnered in Coppélia, making role debuts as Swanilda and Franz at the first Saturday matinee of the Sydney season. They have two more performances in what is a crowded field taking on the principal roles – there are six leading pairs in all, including that of AB principal artist Amber Scott with American Ballet Theatre and Bolshoi Ballet principal artist David Hallberg, who is making a return to the ballet stage from a long absence due to injury. Franz will be a role debut for him.

Coppélia is an almost weightless romance that holds hands briefly with darkness but firmly banishes it. Swanilda and Franz are betrothed, he falls for a time under the power of the strange doll-maker Dr Coppelius but is saved by Swanilda, who forgives his lapse of judgment. All rejoice as the young lovers marry, bringing harmony and all that is good to their little community.

coppelia-syd-dress-bemet-chynowet-katelongley-0g4a4801-2016-10-2

Chynoweth and Bemet in Act III of Coppelia. Photo: Kate Longley

It was delightful to see Bemet articulate Swanilda’s razor-sharp pointe work and beaten steps with such artlessness, sweetness, buoyancy and freedom. Where some Swanildas offer calculated flirtatiousness (and sometimes regrettably twee village-girl mannerisms), Bemet bubbles with natural gaiety. In Act II, when Swanilda pretends to be Dr Coppelius’s doll come to life, her resourcefulness comes to the fore and the brief Spanish and Scottish dances are done with a more knowing edge.

Swanilda drives all the action in Coppélia. It’s Franz’s job to be a bit silly, incredibly charming and – now the role is danced by a man rather than a woman en travesti, as was traditional – to dance his socks off and partner gallantly. (There was a spot of bother at one point in the complex partnering at Chynoweth’s first performance but recovery was swift.) Chynoweth needs to find more of Franz’s laddish sense of fun but there are few in the company to match his finesse and elegance. The outlines are defined with diamond-edged precision; the movement quality is bountifully plush. It’s a gorgeous combination.

Bemet and Chynoweth appear in Coppélia on December 6 and 15.

About last week … June 20-26

Sydney’s Hayes Theatre Co was the venue for another in the invaluable Neglected Musicals series (June 21). Rehearsal is minimal (a day only), there may be a sketchy set and a few props, and the actors – always very, very good – have books in hand. By some strange alchemy it always feels like a proper show. I’ve seen some beauties. Unfortunately Baby the Musical (1983) can’t be counted among them. We were told it was nominated for seven Tony awards but had the misfortune to be up against Sunday in the Park with George and La Cage aux Folles. Yes, well. I think it was kind of making up the category, as its competition included The Tap Dance Kid (I admit that’s a title entirely new to me) and Kander and Ebb’s The Rink, which did not meet with much critical favour and didn’t last a year (nor did Baby). Baby is little more than an extended skit really about three couples expecting a baby or hoping to. That’s it. Music is by David Shire, lyrics by Richard Maltby Jr and the book by Sybille Pearson. They’re not particularly scintillating except for the big women’s number I Want it All. That still works. The generous actors giving their all at the Hayes included Katrina Retallick, David Whitney (both fabulous) and the incredibly plucky Kate Maree Hoolihan who powered through a respiratory illness to keep the curtain up.

Next in Neglected Musicals (from August 3 for six performances) is Sammy Fain and Paul Francis Webster’s Calamity Jane, starring Virginia Gay. I’m absolutely up for that one.

Nederlands Dans Theater had one thing people could agree on during its brief Melbourne visit: the magnetism, authority and power of its dancers. Responses to the program (June 22) were more mixed. The evening opened and closed with works choreographed by NDT artistic director Paul Lightfoot and his associate Sol León that were long on visual glamour but rather shorter on emotional and visceral satisfaction.

SOLO ECHO -«Rahi Rezvani_print_1 @

Crystal Pite’s Solo Echo. Photo: Rahi Rezvani

Sehnsucht (2009) was simultaneously overwrought and underdone. A man and a women played out a domestic drama in a small rotating box slightly elevated and set back – a kind of square tumble-drier with fixed table and chair and a window for escaping through. In front of them a solitary man emoted to Beethoven piano sonatas. In the second half a large ensemble was borne along by the majesty of Beethoven’s fifth symphony, although the connection between dance and music was tenuous. I couldn’t tell why this work in particular and not another one. One couldn’t deny, however, that Beethoven provided a thrillingly strong, familiar beat. The dancers looked marvelous, of course, although I did feel for Prince Credell, the solo man, who was forced to crouch at the front of the stage when Sehnsucht – the word suggests intense yearning – ended. The auditorium lights came up, he stayed, the audience stood about a bit and then he slowly unfurled himself.

Lightfoot/León’s Stop-Motion (2014), to music by Max Richter, had a similarly glossy air without convincing one that it meant anything other than generalised anguish. Too often the dancers stopped and posed either in arabesque or with legs held high to the side, either straight or with a bent knee. One admired the control, but admiring technical skill, particularly when invited to do so again and again, can get rather tiresome. Sehnsucht would have given the program a more striking ending but as Stop-Motion ends with quantities of flour being thrown about the stage, logistics demanded it closed the evening.

Thanks goodness for the central work (in all senses), Crystal Pite’s Solo Echo. There was a backdrop of falling snow, Brahms piano and cello sonatas, and an aching sense of need and loss. In the crepuscular light dancers swirled, slid and connected as if their lives depended on it. Breathtaking is an overused and frequently meaningless word of praise. Here it was entirely apposite. I wasn’t aware of myself, those around me, or of the need to breathe. Those dancers, that dance, that music, that experience filled every moment.

I won’t say too much about West Australian Ballet’s Genesis program (seen June 23) because I serve as a member of the company’s artistic review panel. The program gives WAB dancers a chance to develop their choreographic skills and is a vital part of the operation, as it is with Queensland Ballet’s Dance Dialogues. The Australian Ballet’s Bodytorque program seems to have disappeared, although this year two alumni, Alice Topp and Richard House, had work programmed as part of the AB’s mainstage season. At WAB just-retired principal artist Jayne Smeulders and soloist Andre Santos have made it to the mainstage via earlier workshops.

You will note I name two women, which is cause for rejoicing. One of the hot topics of conversation in classical dance is the scarcity – it’s close to complete absence – of female choreographers, although Crystal Pite is breaking through, as she deserves to. At WAB this year a gratifying number of women were represented: Polly Hilton, Florence Leroux-Coléno and Melissa Boniface stepped up to the plate alongside Santos, Christopher Hill, Adam Alzaim and Alessio Scognamiglio.

At the end of this year WAB stages a new Nutcracker co-choreographed by Smeulders, WAB artistic director Aurélien Scannella and ballet mistress Sandy Delasalle.

 

Robyn Hendricks promoted to principal artist at The Australian Ballet

In what has become a tradition at The Australian Ballet, Robyn Hendricks was promoted on stage on Friday in Melbourne to the highest rank of principal artist. She was elevated by artistic director David McAllister after dancing Odette-Odile in Stephen Baynes’s production of Swan Lake. Hendricks joined the AB in 2005, became a soloist in 2011 and was named a senior artist only last year. She is South African-born and trained at The Australian Ballet School in Melbourne.

Robyn Hendricks_PhotoLynetteWills_029

Robyn Hendricks after her promotion to principal artist. Photo: Lynette Wills

Hendricks brings the number of principal artists to 10, five men and five women. The AB currently lists 77 company members. Its goal is to have a complement of 85.

Hendricks danced Gamzatti in Stanton Welch’s La Bayadère in 2014 and Aurora in McAllister’s The Sleeping Beauty last year, the role that won her promotion to senior artist late last year. At the time I wrote that Hendricks’s Aurora “was a slightly mysterious young woman in whom you could see the queen she is destined to be. The watchfulness and engagement with her suitors created a whole, interesting, individual character and the elegance and quiet sophistication of her dancing spoke of great things ahead”.

Another key moment last year was her glowing performance in the company premiere of Ashton’s Symphonic Variations and this year in the Vitesse program Hendricks was superb in the slow movement of Christopher Wheeldon’s DGV: Danse à Grande Vitesse. In Symphony in C, which paired the one-act Balanchine ballet with a group of divertissements, she was transcendent in the pas de deux from Wheeldon’s After the Rain, which she danced with Damien Smith, the Australian-born former principal artist with San Francisco Ballet who was making a nostalgic trip back home.

As I wrote then, “AB senior artist – and surely very soon a principal – Robyn Hendricks and Australian-born guest Damian Smith quietly distilled the complexities of love. Smith, who retired from San Francisco Ballet in 2014 after a long and shining career, brought the gravitas and weight of a long, deep association with the role and Hendricks was outstandingly luxurious, mysterious and unknowable.”

Keir Choreographic Award 2016

Carriageworks, Sydney, May 6.

Visual artists have yet another handsome prize to aim for, with the recent announcement of the biennial Ramsay Art Prize for artists under the age of 40, working in any medium. It is worth $100,000 and is funded by the James & Diana Ramsey Foundation. The winner of the annual Doug Moran National Portrait Prize (founded in 1988) receives $150,000 and the winner of the venerable Archibald Prize, also for portraiture, is given $100,000. And these are the big ones. There are others.

Dancemakers don’t have quite the same degree of support, to put it mildly, but the Keir Foundation’s biennial Keir Choreographic Award – which has just concluded its second iteration – offers tremendous encouragement, offering the substantial amount of $30,000 to the winner, plus $10,000 for the people’s choice award. Eight semi-finalists are chosen from applicants and supported to develop their ideas into a piece of about 20 minutes; the winner is then selected from four finalists.

20160427-GL-keiraward2016-1275

Ghenoa Gela’s Fragments of Malungoka – Women of the Sea. Photo: Daniel Boud

The award is “dedicated to commissioning new Australian choreographic short works and promoting innovative, experimental and cross-artform practices in contemporary dance across Australia and internationally”. The Keir also “welcomes choreographic ideas for works that reflect the interconnectivity between disciplines and challenge conventions about what the moving body is or can be in contemporary society. It hopes to foster new understandings of what choreography might become.”

The goal is admirable, but regrettably the work of the four Keir 2016 finalists didn’t offer much that was new or, in the case of three of them, much that was particularly challenging or even interesting. I wasn’t in the least surprised to see Ghenoa Gela carry off the people’s vote but it was perhaps telling that she also took out the main award with the most conventional of the pieces. As I wrote in my last week’s round-up, Fragments of Malungoka – Women of the Sea was much more emotionally engaging than the other works; it was warmer, more human, more interesting, more inviting. It was also the most dancerly of the works.

Fragments of Malungoka – Women of the Sea included some use of technology – the desired “interconnectivity between disciplines” – but its power was in the questioning of meaning inherent in or imposed on Indigenous dance. Three women wearing stylised masks danced while being “watched”. A camera worn by one of the performers relayed movement to a screen behind them and some game-playing aspects of the choreography (What’s the time Mr Wolf?; rock paper scissors) hinted at conflict and surveillance. The alert, watchful pauses often seen in Indigenous dance took on a different flavour in this context, as did the shadows of the performers thrown on to the screen. Despite these intimations the performers – Elle Evangelista, Melanie Palomares and Melinda Tyquin – connected with the audience as women of flesh and blood.

20160427-GL-keiraward2016-1013

Rebecca Jensen’s Explorer. Photo: Daniel Boud

Rebecca Jensen’s Explorer, in which the choreographer performed, contained several impressive feats of strength as Jensen walked sideways around the space, supported by a male partner who also carried her up a long flight of stairs and moved her from one side of the room to the other as she lay across his shoulders horizontally. There were rolling bodies, a leaf blower, smoke and a hanging branch, none of which resonated strongly. Jensen wished to show how the “rapidly shifting digital world” has transformed “the perceived limitations of the body”, yet she was doing nothing much that hasn’t been seen in the new circus for many years.

Martin Hansen’s If It’s All in My Veins was potentially the most intriguing piece. Its theme was – if I understand the somewhat confusing program note correctly – that a forward-looking gaze and critical mind must be brought to bear on how the weight of time and history affects dance in the present and future. Three women dressed in tops and trousers that suggested hospital scrubs spoke in unison and counted down to new sections of action. Clips of famous dancers and dances were shown and the audience laughed, for what reason I couldn’t divine. Showing they recognised Isadora Duncan and Nijinsky?

20160426-GL-keiraward2016-0291

Martin Hansen’s If It’s All in My Veins. Photo: Daniel Boud

The performers reacted to the clips in various ways, mimicking, for instance, Beyoncé’s – ahem – homage to Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker in her video for Countdown, and moving chairs around when a sliver of Pina Bausch’s Café Müller was shown. In the main the unfortunate effect was of sourness and mocking rather than a call to be as creative, groundbreaking and influential as these illustrious forebears.

Sarah Aiken’s (Tools for Personal Expansion) started well with three women, dressed identically except for a small difference in costume colour, all proclaiming themselves to be Sarah Aiken. In its second half the piece’s distortion of the body, achieved via camerawork, was ho-hum. The self was expanded. And? I felt the same way about similar effects in Body of Work, by inaugural Keir winner (in 2014) Atlanta Eke. Body of Work was shown at this year’s Adelaide Festival although I could see that its depiction of body as machine and monster could well have been more interesting in its shorter version for the Keir award. As I wrote in my Adelaide Festival wrap a little while ago, there was a cool atmosphere of disconnection and skewed reality that couldn’t sustain interest for the work’s 40-minute length.

20160426-GL-keiraward2016-0446

Sarah Aiken’s (Tools for Personal Expansion). Photo: Danile Boud

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Queensland Ballet, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane, April 1.

The second act of Liam Scarlett’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream begins with deliciously controlled chaos. At the behest of Oberon, lord of the forest and fairies, Puck has got busy with magic love dust. The result is instantaneous passion for whoever is first seen, complicated by Puck’s tendency to get things wrong. Mayhem ensues as pleasure-seeking mortals, their entourage of bumbling rustics and the fairies whose domain has been invaded dash about trying to make sense of things. Proper order has been disrupted and must be restored, but not before there has been an ample display of foolishness from all quarters.

Scarlett remains entirely faithful to Shakespeare’s comedy, apart from the unsurprising excision of Theseus’s Athenian court. Otherwise it’s all there. Oberon and his queen Titania squabble over a Changeling boy (amusingly clad in a purple onesie and clutching a storybook and a toy donkey), humans enter the forest at night and are captured by its mystery, and Titania is smitten with the low-born Bottom, who has unfortunately gained an ass’s head but is an absolute sweetheart.

Queensland Ballets Midsummer Nights Dream. Laura Hidalgo and Rian Thompson. Photo David Kelly HR

Rian Thompson and Laura Hidalgo in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Photo: David Kelly

Scarlett, not yet 30, is one of the most sought-after names in classical choreography with commissions from top-drawer companies including New York City Ballet, San Francisco Ballet, English National Ballet and his home base, London’s Royal Ballet. Queensland Ballet’s co-production with Royal New Zealand Ballet (which premiered the work last year) gives these smaller outfits entry into a rather exclusive club. It’s quite a coup and they have a delectable ballet to show for it – one that’s genuinely funny, frequently touching and outstandingly sensual in its movement and visual appeal.

Tracy Grant Lord’s set design provides Scarlett with a sumptuous playground, an ornate multi-level affair that evokes a dense tree canopy and allows the fairies to dart in and out of view, gorgeously bathed in Kendall Smith’s lighting. Puck is established as a creature of the air, spotted at first in a lofty hideaway (he has to shimmy down a pole to reach ground level) and Oberon as an autocrat who likes to survey his domain from on high and whose moods can alter the very atmosphere. When he is angry the stars take notice.

Grant Lord was responsible for the striking costumes too – adorably fluffy tutus in saturated colours for the fairies and sportif day wear for the mortals, who have come equipped with tents, torches, nets and the rustics for backup. They are on a fairy safari. Bless.

Queensland Ballets Midsummer Nights Dream. The Lovers and Rustics. Photo David Kelly

Lovers and rustics in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Photo: David Kelly

Scarlett fills the forest with rapturous choreography that eloquently describes story and music. (The first thing everyone says about Scarlett is that he is intensely musical.) With their busy arms and feet the fairies indeed look as if they can fly while their swooning (and at one point shivering) backs give a delicious hint of excitements to come. The language is unquestionably classical but Scarlett relaxes ballet’s upright lines with swirling, supple freedom in the upper body that contrasts happily with bright, sharp, ground-skimming footwork. The characters are thrilingly alert and alive. It’s not hard to feel the influence of the Royal Ballet’s founder choreographer, Frederick Ashton, although Scarlett has a confident voice of his own. He certainly hasn’t copied Ashton’s one-act The Dream but there is nevertheless a delicate Ashtonian quality in this ballet.

On opening night QB’s newest principal dancer, Victor Estevez – just 22 years old! – was expansive and commanding as Oberon and Laura Hidalgo’s Titania was light and airy when with Bottom and more sexually charged when with Oberon. The Act II pas deux in which the two make up after their quarrel is stunningly intimate – the sexy little shivers of Titania’s legs as she is entwined with Oberon say it all. Camilo Ramos was a bouncy, highly likeable Puck and Rian Thompson delightful as Bottom. Every fairy and rustic had his or her moment too. This is a ballet made for relatively small forces and a meaningful part for everyone.

Of course the mortals never manage to capture any fairies, those enticing supernatural beings whose presence is known and felt but remains invisible. On opening night Yanela Piñera, Shane Wuerthner, Clare Morehen and Vito Bernasconi were the four high-spirited lovers who leave the forest with their nets empty but their hearts full. Scarlett makes each of them individual and engaging.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is danced to the much-loved Mendelssohn incidental music for Shakespeare’s play, augmented with selections from other works by the composer to create a full-length ballet. Nigel Gaynor, who conducted Queensland Symphony Orchestra in a spirited performance, stitched it all together admirably. Gaynor and Scarlett chose music that would be, as Gaynor told me in New Zealand, “proportionate to the fairy world”. Oberon dances to the Hebrides Overture of 1830 and, as Gaynor pointed out, it first appeared on the same program as the Overture to a Midsummer Night’s Dream. “It belongs,” he said. Music from the Octet in E-Flat Major – written when Mendelssohn was only 16 – is fittingly given to Puck: Mendelssohn’s sister Fanny wrote of the scherzo that “one feels so near the world of spirits, carried away in the air”.

Gaynor, by the way, was RNZB’s music director when Dream was being created; he now holds the same position with QB. The man who had been QB’s music director and principal conductor from 2013-2015, Andrew Mogrelia, is currently guest conductor at The Australian Ballet, at the helm of most of the performances of Swan Lake. Small world.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream ends in Brisbane on April 16.

A version of this review appeared in The Australian on April 4.