Kusch joins the AB; Cubans come to Brisbane

AS I foreshadowed on December 15 on my Diary page, Queensland Ballet has lost one of its principal artists, Natasha Kusch, to The Australian Ballet. Kusch was with QB for less than 18 months after leaving the Vienna State Opera Ballet. She joins the AB as a senior artist. In a press statement released today the AB says Kusch will make her debut as Giselle when Maina Gielgud’s production opens in Melbourne in March.

Kusch is pictured here as Juliet with Australian superstar Steven McRae, who was a guest artist from the Royal Ballet when QB staged Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet last year.

Natasha Kusch and Steven McRae in Romeo and Juliet

Natasha Kusch and Steven McRae in Romeo and Juliet

There is significant movement at several of the country’s leading dance companies, but none more striking than at QB. It’s possible to interpret Kusch’s move as something that could create tension between QB’s artistic director Li Cunxin and the AB’s David McAllister (the two, of course, danced together at the AB) but it also points to how greatly Li has increased QB’s strength and visibility.

And Li was able to bury news of Kusch’s departure in an early-December press release. The big announcement he had to trumpet was the hiring of two dancers from the National Ballet of Cuba – premier Yanela Piñera and principal Camilo Ramos (the top two ranks at NBC).

As I wrote on my Diary page at the time, the pair, partners in life, join at the end of this month. Piñera joined NBC in 2005 and was promoted to premier dancer in 2011. She would have gained some knowledge of Brisbane when NBC visited in 2010. Unfortunately she wasn’t in the opening night cast of Don Quixote so I haven’t seen her dance live but there are, naturally, many clips on YouTube. It will be fascinating to see how the Cubans fit into the QB repertoire for next year – La Sylphide, Coppelia, Trey McIntyre’s Peter Pan and The Sleeping Beauty.

The QB press release said Piñera’s position would exist under Queensland Ballet’s International Guest Artist program, funded by the Jani Haenke Charitable Trust, but Li told me that Piñera will be a full-time principal – her position is not apparently like that of Huang Junshuang, who for two years was QB’s very welcome guest principal but not permanently with the company.

Further down the press release was news of comparable interest, the retirement of incredibly valuable principal Matthew Lawrence and long-serving soloist Nathan Scicluna. However, with the arrival of Piñera to join principals Hao Bin, Clare Morehen and Meng Ningning and with Ramos joining soloists Lisa Edwards and Shane Wuerthner (an American who joined QB last year), the senior ranks are close to full strength.

West Australian Ballet is seeking a new senior man after the announcement that soloist Daniel Roberts has joined Sydney Dance Company, where there have been extensive changes in the 16-member troupe. Chloe Leong, Josephine Weise and Sam Young-Wright have also joined and former member Richard Cilli has returned. Leaving are Chen Wen, Tom Bradley and Jessica Thompson, while Chris Aubrey is taken a year’s sabbatical. Company member Petros Treklis joined only last year.

Lee Johnston is SDC’s new rehearsal director.

Bangarra Dance Theatre also announced the return of two former dancers who left last year but are now back in the fold – and it’s very good news. Deborah Brown and Daniel Riley, both of whom also choreograph, are back with the company.

The AB also has three new junior dancers, coryphée Nicola Curry, who was formerly with American Ballet Theatre, and corps members Shaun Andrews and Callum Linnane, who are Australian Ballet School graduates.

West Australian Ballet opens its 2015 season with Zip Zap Zoom: Ballet at the Quarry, Perth, from February 6; The Australian Ballet’s 2015 season starts in Sydney with Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake from February 20 and Giselle opens in Melbourne on March 13; Sydney Dance Company opens Frame of Mind in Sydney on March 6; Queensland Ballet’s La Sylphide opens in Brisbane on March 20; Bangarra’s Lore opens in Sydney on June 11 and before then the company works on a film of Spear, based onStephen Page’s wonderful 2000 work of that name, which will premiere at the Adelaide Film Festival in October.

Lucy Green, RNZB, in profile

WHEN Lucy Green stepped on to the stage at Wellington’s St James Theatre on July 21 it was in front of the toughest crowd imaginable. Dancers from every era of Royal New Zealand Ballet’s history were in town for the company’s 60th anniversary celebrations and they’d come en masse to a special matinee performance of Swan Lake. They would see a 22-year-old Australian who had made her debut in the double role of Odette-Odile only two days before. Many pairs of expert eyes would be assessing her every move.

Lucy Green as Odette. Photo: Evan Li

Lucy Green as Odette. Photo: Evan Li

That’s not all. There were also television cameras in the wings, filming for the third series of the reality show about RNZB, The Secret Lives of Dancers, and those cameras weren’t around just to capture what used to be called Kodak moments. Green has been prominent in the first two series and knows only too well that drama and conflict are considered more entertaining, and that filming is stressful. It’s also relevant that last week Green was alternating with RNZB’s stellar principal guest artist Gillian Murphy, she of American Ballet Theatre fame and one of Swan Lake’s great exponents.

These are circumstances to test any performer’s mettle but brutal as they may be, they sort out the women from the girls; the winners from the losers. By ballet’s end Green had won through. She had shown what RNZB’s artistic director, former American Ballet Theatre principal dancer Ethan Stiefel, calls her ability to “continually rise to the occasion”.

Clutching flowers, she beamed as cheers rang around the theatre and Stiefel said from the stage: “I couldn’t have picked a better group of people to put before six decades of alumni. I’m proud to work with all of you.”

Green is a quietly poised, thoughtful and modest young woman, aware of her good fortune and grateful for it. “I never, ever thought that I would ever get the opportunity and especially not at this age. It’s a role I never dared to think I would do,” she says. She has form, however. Also on her CV after just three years with RNZB is Giselle, which she danced on the company’s recent tour to China, and last year’s Cinderella.

She is talented, a rising star, no doubt about it. But the thing everyone mentions about Green – the unromantic but necessary part of the equation – is that she has worked indefatigably for her success. This is the less thrilling but more truthful secret life of the dancer.

The story started at Australia Street Infants School, in Sydney’s Newtown. “It was quite a radical school at the time,” says Green’s mother, Bridget. “The parents got together and decided contact sport was a no-no. They employed a dance teacher.” Lucy was entranced from the start. “She was with Miss Jenny, who she adored and who imbued a passion for dance. Lucy asked me if she could go to after-school classes in the school hall. She never looked back. She decided that was it. She was a dancer.”

Jenny Eldridge (“Miss Jenny”) says Lucy “focused, listened and concentrated from the word go. She was a beautiful child to teach.” Many years later Eldridge saw Green compete at the City of Sydney Eisteddford, in a solo from Giselle, and “the thing that captured me about her was that she was dancing from her heart”.

After the Green family moved to Melbourne Lucy studied at the National Theatre Ballet School under Beverly Jane Fry’s directorship. There she came to understand what aiming for a life in ballet demands: not just liking it or wanting it, but the effort it takes. After that epiphany she took every class possible, says her mother. “That’s the key to Lucy. She’s serious and she works hard.” Green successfully auditioned for the Australian Ballet School but chose the Victorian College of the Arts Secondary School. “She saw Maggie Lorraine as a mentor and she knew that she’d made the right decision,” says her mother. Lorraine was Green’s teacher at VCASS for four years and also mentions the hard graft: Green “didn’t have an easy body to work with. She virtually resculpted her body.”

At one point Green would have liked to join the Australian Ballet. The offer, however, came from across the Tasman. “From day one when she auditioned, straight away … we had to have her. She shone,” says Greg Horsman, formerly ballet master with RNZB and now with Queensland Ballet. “She’s very musical, she’s very co-ordinated and she has amazing turns. And she’s intelligent. You can give her a correction and she takes it on board right away. I loved working with her.”

Green found out she was being considered for Odette only eight weeks before her Swan Lake debut, having just returned from a three-week European holiday with her boyfriend, Rory Fairweather-Neylan, also a dancer with RNZB. It wasn’t the best preparation, she acknowledges, having not been able to take regular classes, but at least there was an eight-week rehearsal period ahead. The production being revived was that created by former RNZB artistic Russell Kerr, with designs by Kristian Fredrikson.

Lucy Green as Odile with Kohei Iwamoto. Photo: Evan Li

Lucy Green as Odile with Kohei Iwamoto. Photo: Evan Li

As is the way with dance companies, the news was relayed via a list on the company noticeboard that had names, in alphabetical order, alongside various roles. Green was down to learn Odette-Odile as were three other company members. “We had no warning. It just went up one day, this is what you’re learning.” The fifth name on the list was Murphy’s. Engaged to Stiefel, Murphy spends a significant amount of time at RNZB. She is also one of Green’s great inspirations.

“She is the perfect embodiment of the white and the black,” Green says. “She really makes you believe she is a swan in the white acts … the delicacy of her arms and her hands. It’s like they are actually wings. Everything she does comes from the heart. As Odile she’s completely the opposite. The eyes are so powerful, she commands everyone to look at her and she owns the stage. I’ve loved watching her and studying her. But you have to be careful – you don’t want to be a cheap copy of something someone’s already been.”

Obviously Murphy would be getting performances. As for the rest of them, “you could be an understudy or you could be doing it. You don’t know.”

Throughout the rehearsal period Green was getting a lot of coaching – unusually not from a former Odette but from Stiefel and ballet master Martin Vedel. “But we didn’t learn who was doing what when” until about two and a half weeks before opening. “There was always the hope, I guess. It’s a small company [34 dancers], so it was more likely than being in a big company of course. I had had a lot of encouragement about the roles I’d done previously so I was quite hopeful, but you never want to get your hopes up too much.

“People know any roles can be up for grabs by anyone. There’s a lot of disappointment sometimes when someone doesn’t get something they want, but I do find here people are so supportive that they tend to put aside their disappointments. That’s something that I really felt [at the first performance], the energy I got from everyone, even those who might want to be doing the role I’m doing.”

Being far from the major ballet centres meant Green had to go to YouTube to see how others approach the role. “I remember watching these long, beautiful dancers with long classical lines, their legs go on forever, their arms are just like wings. I never thought I’d have those qualities. But yeah, here I am, and I’ve done it. I can’t believe it.” And while she was able to have only one orchestral rehearsal, she found Tchaikovsky’s music inspiring. “It’s got all the emotion and all the qualities you need,” she says.

Then there’s all that work. “You’ve got to put in a lot yourself. You’ve got to make the corrections sit with your body and feel right. One of the main concerns with me dancing the role was everything was quite small to begin with. I didn’t have the expansiveness, the full breadth of movement. I could feel it, but when you see yourself [some rehearsals were filmed] you can see what [coaches are] talking about and better apply what they are saying.’’

Another help was dancing with Japanese-born, Australian Ballet School-trained Kohei Iwamoto, 23, as Siegfried. (“He’s another nice dancer with huge potential,” says Horsman.) Iwamoto has partnered Green before, notably in Giselle, and it’s “a really good partnership. When I go out there and I see him I feel really comfortable and I trust him. It’s really nice.’’

In a company of this size it’s not all Odette and Giselle, however: Green dances secondary roles too and gets few performances off. She dreams in the future of Juliet and Kenneth MacMillan’s Manon and of perhaps dancing in Europe, but in the immediate future, after Swan Lake, lies the biennial Tutus on Tour program that splits the company and takes ballet to small NZ centres where “you have one dressing room for 16 dancers, and you’re sharing a bathroom with the audience”.

It’s a blast, she says. “It’s kind of crazy but you get this close group of dancers and everyone supports each other. It’s an intense workload but somehow we manage to pull it off.”

Swan Lake continues at various NZ centres until September 1.

This is a slightly extended version of a profile that first appeared in The Australian on July 25.

Li Cunxin and Queensland Ballet, one year on

LI Cunxin arrived at Queensland Ballet as artistic director-designate on July 16, 2012. He took full control of the company’s reins this year and has made significant changes already with more in store. When I was in Brisbane to review QB’s Giselle, which closes this weekend, I took the opportunity to talk to Li about his goals and plans. At the June 21 opening performance, less than 24 hours before, Li had to tackle one of the most difficult issues any artistic director faces. His first cast Giselle, Meng Ningning, had injured her foot during the first act and at interval Li was told he urgently needed to go backstage. After an only slightly longer interval than advertised, Li made an announcement from the stage that Act II would be danced by Rachael Walsh and Matthew Lawrence.

What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Queensland Ballet artistic director Li Cunxin

Queensland Ballet artistic director Li Cunxin. Photo: Christian Aas

AS a director it’s your worst nightmare when they said at interval, Ningning is in tears, please come back. She says to me she can’t feel her foot. She doesn’t know if she can go on. I asked her to rate her pain out of 10. Eight or nine she says, tears pouring down her face. But she says she’ll go on if I want her to. I say, “No, no!”

I’m lucky as a director to have two alternative couples [Walsh and Lawrence; Clare Morehen and Alexander Idaszak, who was scheduled to make his Brisbane debut as Albrecht the next day]. Rachael was in the audience, and we had to stop her going into the intermission reception [Li laughs]. I did consider Alex and Clare because they were made up and warmed up [Idaszak had danced in the peasant pas de huit; Morehen played the role of Bathilde; Lawrence had appeared as the Duke of Courland], but I really felt that for Alex it was already an enormous ask for him to go on today [at the June 22 Saturday matinee]. Often you can destroy a young dancer’s confidence, destroy their careers by pushing them too far. In my heart, when I sat there and closed my eyes, [I asked], what is the right thing, what is the best experience you can give to the audience?

Clare Morehen and Alexander Idaszak. Photo: Daivd Kelly

Clare Morehen and Alexander Idaszak. Photo: Daivd Kelly

Alex is 20 [Li smiles like an indulgent father]. He has an innate noble quality. He’s a very natural partner and a very elegant dancer. Wonderful form. It’s always a big step for a director to give someone who is first year out of [the Australian Ballet School] and give them such an opportunity, but I was the beneficiary of such opportunities. When you have that kind of talent you have to give them opportunities when they arise. It wasn’t intended to be, because one of our top principals, Hao Bin, had a wrist surgery, he had a chipped bone. So I thought, well, you know, [for Idaszak] that’s the kind of opportunity you dream to have. The other thing is, it really sends a very clear message to all dancers that if you work hard, the opportunities will be there. It takes enormous faith and trust from a director to give opportunities like that, but I think it’s very important to do that.

My goals were, at the very beginning, I want to get the right team together. The team is key to realising the vision – the artistic team, the music, the production, the wardrobe, closely under my supervision. All these key people have to be right to allow me to reach the artistic goal. I think we’ve done very well to have the calibre of teachers and coaches to allow the dancers to reach their potential – to challenge them, to push them, to help them improve on a daily basis, and to have that innate understanding and knowledge [of classical ballet]. Classical ballets are the most difficult to do well. The most challenging. I really think we have that team.

Also we have to be able to – it’s not a one-year thing – we have to have a vibrant, talented and exciting group of dancers. I think we’re nearly there. I would never say we are there, because there’s continual improvement, continual fine-tuning.

There was a significant turnover in dancers after Li arrived.

IT was very much dependent on what I was going to find in the audition process. I wasn’t sure about what calibre of talent I was going to find. In particular there were ABS graduates of really good quality, good standard, so I felt it was an opportunity for QB. [This gave him a very junior company; about half the dancers are in their first professional job.]

Matthew Lawrence as Albrecht. Photo: David Kelly

Matthew Lawrence as Albrecht. Photo: David Kelly

It’s an enormous challenge. I felt there were two ways to go about adding experience. Obviously the knowledgeable and experienced artistic staff is one important element; the other was to balance it out with experienced dancers. So Matt Lawrence for us was a godsend addition [the former Australian Ballet principal dancer was subsequently a principal at Birmingham Royal Ballet, which he left to join QB]. Then we also have Huang [Junshuang] from the US [where he danced with Houston Ballet], He’s a phenomenal dancer. Absolutely phenomenal. His skill set is really way up there in the international standard. So we have him and Matt and also Hao Bin, three male dancers at the top, coupled with three female experienced dancers, Ningning, Rachel and Clare. So we’ve got three star couples to lead. The middle rank, the soloist rank, is what I want to be able to bring up.

Li recently promoted Lisa Edwards to soloist and she was first cast Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis in Giselle.

SHE is fabulous. I couldn’t have asked any more from that girl, in every area. Leadership, commitment, the care for her dancing, anything you ask her. Clare had a hip injury so I had to rest her for a couple of days and I wanted her partner, Alex, to keep working, so I asked Lisa to step in. She knew everything. She knew every step. She’s thriving. She’s the happiest. A happy dancer is a good dancer.

If Ningning doesn’t come back [Edwards] would be a very logical person to give the opportunity [to dance Giselle]. [This indeed happened; Edwards danced two performances with Huang. Morehen was also given a performance with Huang.]

I really think as a dancer you want to do different things. You can’t be just typecast as the prince. That’s not my company. My company has to be versatile. Huang was Albrecht last night and Hilarion today. I think it’s fabulous. As they mature they take these kinds of experiences with them and it makes them better artists at the end. Matt Lawrence did [the non-dancing role of] the Duke last night. He was fabulous as the Duke. He did Ugly Sister in Cinderella [QB’s first major production this year]. It’s wonderful to have that humility and that willingness to give it a go rather than, ‘’I’m a star’’. I don’t want that kind of company.

Li’s fund-raising skills have been in early evidence.

MY goal was to be able to have as many performances to live music as possible. When we announced the [2013] season we did not have the funding [for live music for Giselle]. I really struggled with myself. I thought, I cannot let the audience see this ballet with taped music. I cannot let my dancers dance this ballet with taped music. On tour, it’s a different story. It’s hard to take an orchestra [QB performed a pre-Brisbane regional Queensland tour]. But I felt it would take a lot of the magic away [from the main season] so I’m so pleased we found the generosity and the support for this. [Private money was raised so QB could engage St John’s Camerata to play for Giselle.]

I went to these two dear friends of ours from Melbourne, Bruce Parncutt and Robin Campbell, and they said, ‘’we will support you’’. They love the music, they love the ballet, but they really gave me a challenge: “You need to find Queensland-based support. You need to match what [we] give you. So  Philip Bacon, who is a very generous soul, he came forward and said, ‘’I see your vision’’.  He’s passionate about music. It’s a nice fit.

QB, it would appear, has attracted a lot of new money this year, although Li will not elaborate.

I WOULD like to keep that to ourselves for the time being. Let’s say it’s substantial. The government money is really static. But definitely our box office is hitting incredible strides. We’re adding 10 extra shows this year throughout the season, including the Dance Dialogues. But we are definitely on target to sell out all the main seasons. Even with the 10 extra shows. That’s absolutely unprecedented. It’s thrilling. It’s thrilling for our dancers to perform to full houses, to sold-out houses, and for the audiences when they place that kind of faith and enthusiasm in you. But you have to give them quality. [The Giselle season was extended from nine to 12 performances and is sold out.]

A goal was to focus on quality sets and costumes. I really felt particularly for story ballets, and even for contemporary ballets, you’ve got to do it with taste and quality. So again we found these really generous donors to allow us to have a brand new Cinderella, Gerry and Valerie Ryan from Melbourne. Their reason was simple. They said, we didn’t make our money just in Victoria. We made our money nationwide. So this is something we’d like to give to Queensland. They wanted to help me with my vision too.

Another goal was on the business side, the admin side. From marketing to PR to development to education to finance. Every aspect of the company would really have to work together to share the same vision, to strive towards the same goal. Everybody has really risen to the challenge. It’s a paradigm shift in people’s minds. I saw people in development, reception, greeting [guests] on opening night with generosity. I was proud, not only did the dancers shine on stage but the whole organisation took pride in what they did.

Dancer numbers are, not surprisingly for a company of this size and ambition, a concern.

I WOULD like to have more. We have 27 now. We will have 28 by August, so we have one more dancer coming. I can’t talk about it now. Somebody who’s fantastic. We have about 20 pre-professional dancers. This year they are really fantastic. They are a good foundation to build upon. My aspiration from day one, I thought 35 dancers is our goal. That’s the ideal number for us. It will probably take us a few years to get there, but 35, plus around 20 pre-professionals, that gives us 55. Then we can do any size ballets.

At the moment 27 – we do need a few more. We don’t have much room for error. Injuries always happen with this many performances. We work our dancers really hard. [For this reason, at this stage QB does not announce casting ahead of performances. Its small numbers and the casting of dancers in multiple roles can mean, and allow, significant re-arrangements at short notice.]

A way to increase numbers is with guest artists. For the Giselle season the Australian Ballet principal artist Daniel Gaudiello was invited to dance two performances with Rachael Walsh.

I’M really gung-ho about artist exchanges. I think it’s very important. Daniel really wants to work with us. It’s a natural fit. He’s a graduate of QDSE [Queensland Dance School of Excellence] and the pre-professional program. He’s a Queenslander. This is a wonderful connection for him to still have. We can give him … [Li pauses]. He hasn’t danced Albrecht before. He’s very excited.

I’m very picky about who I have dancing with the company, so not just anybody can come in. I’m open about collaboration, but it has to be the right fit. We have three beautiful principal couples, so I want to give our dancers the opportunity first. But Daniel is quite unique in his relationship with Queensland Ballet. I think he and Rachael will be just magic. There’s already wonderful chemistry.

Next year Tamara Rojo, artistic director and prima ballerina of English National Ballet, and the Royal Ballet’s Carlos Acosta, will be guest artists when QB stages Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet – but they will not dancing together.

YOU cannot sentence a smaller company to always do smaller ballets. It’s not fair. We’re going to do this in a very innovative way. I convinced Lady Deborah MacMillan that we are going to do a very high quality production. To have stars like Tamara and Carlos to appear with our own principal dancers, for them to agree to it, was very generous. But they see my vision. It [would be] easy for me to say, you two dance together, you know each other … My idea was always, I want them to dance with our stars. Because that experience will be with our dancers forever. That knowledge is going to carry them for the rest of their lives. To watch Tamara and Carlos dancing [together], it’s not the same.

There are also negotiations with ENB on other collaborations. Can he talk about the exact nature of the relationship?

I CAN’T! But I would like to say I’m so excited. Tamara and I have really built a wonderful rapport and relationship. We share a similar vision and we see it as so important for companies to collaborate. Artist exchanges, coach exchanges, production collaborations. Those are the areas. The reason I can’t tell you is that we still have ongoing discussions. We definitely have a partnership, but on what scale, exactly what will happen, to what extent, we are still in discussions. I would like to stress, ENB will not be the only one. We will be collaborating with other international companies as well. I would like to think we will have a few really closely aligned international partners in the future. It’s exciting. I truly believe in collaboration, in partnership. It will be of enormous mutual benefit.

Could I add another goal? Both [QB chief executive] Anna Marsden and I said on day one we really want to make QB’s image very appealing. I want the company to feel there is a whole refreshed approach, with sex appeal on stage and offstage. I want to be fashionable. I want to say we do quality, but interesting works. That aspiration has permeated to every aspect of the organisation, not just on stage. We are definitely hitting that goal too.

Li Cunxin with senior Queensland Ballet dancers. Photo: Alexia Sinclair

Li Cunxin with senior Queensland Ballet dancers. Photo: Alexia Sinclair

I’m very happy. I am truly proud of how our dancers have performed. To be totally honest, the company is very young. For us to do these full-length story-telling productions – it takes the Royal Ballet and the Bolshoi and ABT [American Ballet Theatre] with 90 to 250 dancers to do these ballets, so for us it’s very ambitious.  Our company has done them very well. There’s always a way to improve. There’s always more experience needed, [but] so there is at ABT, so there is at the Bolshoi. They will never say, that is perfect.

I’ve only taken over total charge since January. Before then I was doing a lot of planning and preparation work and assembling a new team. So it’s really only six months.

Does he ever think he has ambitions for the company that are too great?

Never. No, never.