Swan Lake, Queensland Ballet

Queensland Performing Arts Centre, May 5.

Queensland Ballet’s Swan Lake had a 42nd Street quality on opening night as junior company member Joel Woellner was chosen to dance Prince Siegfried alongside the seasoned Odette-Odile of QB principal artist – and former top-ranked star at the National Ballet of Cuba – Yanela Piñera.

Piñera has presence in spades and technical prowess to burn. She laid out her credentials within seconds of taking to the stage with a pure, extended balance on pointe that was an eloquent expression of the Swan Queen’s sorrow and entrapment. As the imposter Odile she decorated the treacherous (for some; not her) fouette sequence with triple pirouettes and gave a magisterial account of her solo.

Qld Ballet

Yanela Piñera and Joel Woellner in Ben Stevenson’s Swan Lake. Photo: David Kelly

Piñera nailed the big effects that seem to be a Cuban birthright, including sky-high extensions and Odile’s don’t-mess-with-me grand pirouettes in Act 3 but it was the delicate detail that lingered. Odette’s tiny flutters of foot against ankle in Act II were exquisite.

Woellner was going out a courageous youngster but had to come back a star, or at least as close to one as possible in a nearly impossible assignment. The desperate, deep-seated passion that should drive Siegfried eluded him, resulting in a muted relationship with Odette. There was, nevertheless, gleaming beauty in almost all his dancing. Double tours were plush and precisely landed and lovely air turns finished in stretched, poised arabesques. It was impressive to see how much value he gave each moment, never smudging or cutting steps short. Woellner is not yet a fully-fledged prince but is a hugely promising princeling.

Qld Ballet

Joel Woellner as Prince Siegfried in Swan Lake. Photo: David Kelly

For the first Swan Lake of his tenure as QB artistic director, Li not surprisingly chose Ben Stevenson’s 1985 version made for Houston Ballet. It makes sense for the size of the company – currently at 32 permanent members and 10 Young Artists – and Li knows the production well, having danced in it in those early days. One can also never underestimate the affection and loyalty Li has for Stevenson, now in his early 80s. Stevenson was responsible for Li’s American career and therefore in a sense all that followed.

It’s a conventional production based on the 1895 Petipa-Ivanov version. Stevenson retains some of the best-known choreography, although much is new. The 1985 designs by David Walker placed Stevenson’s ballet in the late 19th century but for this incarnation QB has borrowed Kristian Fredrikson’s luxuriant Renaissance-tinged designs made for Russell Kerr’s Royal New Zealand Ballet version in 1996.

The beating heart of Swan Lake is the first lakeside act in which Siegfried comes across Odette and her retinue of swan maidens, here a corps of 24 that sensibly incorporates the two Big Swans and four Cygnets. It’s a significant number for a company of QB’s size and was augmented by Queensland Ballet Academy pre-professional students. The teaching is clearly excellent. The corps as a whole looked beautifully schooled and had the strength-in-unity power that makes Act 2 so captivating. (And these dancers have to be strong: Lucy Green, newly appointed soloist at QB, on opening night danced in the Act 1 pas de trois, was a Cygnet in Act 2 and the Spanish Princess in Act 3. This was the night before her Odette-Odile.)

Qld Ballet

Lucy Green, Neneka Yoshida, Lina Kim and Teri Crilly. Photo: David Kelly

Different details in storytelling mean the fit isn’t always exact between Stephenson’s vision of the ballet and Fredrikson’s designs. The white acts looked wonderful, of course, but in the first and fourth acts it wasn’t always easy to get a grip on all-important distinctions of rank. It was surprising in this respect to see the Queen arrive without a suitable entourage to Siegfried’s coming-of-age celebration, symbolically set in a thick glade through which there’s a glimpse of decaying grandeur.

In Act 3, when foreign princesses are presented to Siegfried so he can choose a bride, the princesses lead the national dance of the country they represent. At RNZB the princesses wore distinctive, decorative tutus; here they are dressed similarly to all the other women in their troupe and dance like entertainers, some friskily showing quite a lot of leg and behaving quite unregally.

Stevenson trims the action significantly, for good and bad. Act 1 is enjoyably fast-paced while shortened Acts 3 and 4 elide with dramatically convincing sleight of hand. I was less convinced by the transition from Acts 1 to 2, in which the Prince dances his yearning solo while his mother (Zenia Tátcheva) pressures – no, harangues – him about the weighty responsibilities of State he must take on. It rather spoils the mood.

With the production coming in at under two hours of dancing, Tchaikovsky’s music at times sounds chopped back to its detriment although at the opening the Queensland Symphony Orchestra under QB music director Nigel Gaynor delivered a sympathetic account of what is there. Concertmaster Warwick Adeney’s violin solos in Act II and III were sublime.

Qld Ballet

Lina Kim and Victor Estévez in Act 1 of Swan Lake. Photo: David Kelly

Stevenson’s choice of music for Siegfried and Odette’s final pas de deux in Act 4 comes from left field. Tchaikovsky died in 1893 and Riccardo Drigo had a hand in arranging music for the 1985 Petipa-Ivanov production, orchestrating Tchaikovsky’s piano piece Un poco di Chopin, a mazurka, for this section. Drigo smoothed out the mazurka’s prominent accents and slowed the conventionally bright tempo to achieve a romantic quality, but to these ears the music underplays the depths of Siegfried’s agony and contrition. Stevenson, however, obviously feels it better expresses Siegfried’s remorse for having betrayed Odette. In any event, it is rarely heard these days.

Perhaps transcendence was hard to come by on opening night but there was plenty of fine dancing, particularly from Lucy Green, Lima Kim and Victor Estevez as they whizzed and fizzed through the Act I pas de trois. Vito Bernasconi as Von Rothbart didn’t have a huge amount to do but looked imposing, albeit perhaps rather too emphatic in his directions to Odile in the ballroom scene. It was too much of a giveaway.

As is the case in every production I’ve seen, Von Rothbart and Odile are immediately accepted as having a right to be at the ball with no questions asked. It’s always bemusing. (Kevin McKenzie’s American Ballet Theatre version has a red-hot go at dramatic coherence by making Von Rothbart amazingly sexy and charismatic. He makes every woman in the room, including Siegfried’s mother, bewitched, bothered and bewildered.)

Those lucky enough to have tickets for May 11 will see guest artist Evgenia Obratszova from the Bolshoi as Odette-Odile (she also danced on May 9). And at certain performances there is the interesting – but by no means revolutionary – splitting of those roles as Mia Heathcote dances Odette and Neneka Yoshida tackles Odile.

Swan Lake ends on May 13.

Flying high

Queensland Performing Arts Centre, June 26.

TREY McIntyre is a prolific American choreographer who has made more than 100 works – he is only 45 – and is widely known and admired in the US. When he announced last year he was closing his Trey McIntyre Project as a fulltime ensemble to concentrate on a broader range of cultural projects it was big news in the dance world. The company, wrote Marina Harss in The New York Times a year ago, had become “something almost unheard-of in the often beleaguered cultural landscape: a small, independent dance troupe that was a familiar name both at home in Boise, Idaho, and nationwide”. It was a “darling of festivals” and an “uncommon success”.

It’s unusual that success drives someone to pull back from the very thing that made them a success, but McIntyre wants to spend more time on film, photography and writing. That said, there are companies still wishing to stage his works and that circumstance brought him to Brisbane to oversee final rehearsals for Peter Pan, the 2002 work that was his first full-length ballet. It was certainly a belated introduction to Australia but a welcome one. Peter Pan was a big success on its premiere at Houston Ballet, other companies have taken it into their repertoire and Houston revived it in 2013.

Peter Pan leads the Darling children to Neverland. Photo: David Kelly

Peter Pan leads the Darling children to Neverland. Photo: David Kelly

Houston Ballet of course is what connects QB’s artistic director Li Cunxin and McIntyre. Li was a principal dancer there when McIntyre started choreographing as a 20-year-old during his first year with the company. In a program note McIntyre says Li and another Houston principal Mary McKendry – now Mary Li and a ballet mistress at QB – were “incredibly supportive and protective of me”. (Li doesn’t forget his old friends. Queensland Ballet’s Nutcracker and Cinderella are from the hand of Ben Stevenson, who was Li’s artistic director and father figure in Houston.)

It’s no surprise that the current season was almost completely sold out before it opened because that’s been the happy state of affairs at QB since Li took over the artistic directorship three years ago. Ticket buyers may have known nothing about this ballet apart from its name but they were prepared to take it on trust. They were right to. It’s a child-friendly work for the school holidays that has enough sophistication for an adult audience without losing the essential element of wonder.

At the time of making Peter Pan McIntyre was in his early 30s but still, as he writes in his program note, “basically just a kid”. That sense of himself as both boy and adult is absolutely crucial to Peter Pan, a story steeped in dualities. Sunlight and shadow, romance and adventure, fantasy and reality, spectacle and intimacy all have their place. The boy who would not grow up is also the Lost Boy who can’t grow up, bitter-sweet knowledge that anchors the sometimes unruly narrative and makes the final encounter between Peter and Wendy exceptionally affecting. He is in the air, poised to return to Neverland, and she is back in her rightful home, unable to fly and needing to stay. They must part. On opening night a technical glitch interrupted this touching scene (there had also been a spot of bother earlier) and the curtain had to be lowered for several minutes, but the emotional weight of the scene was present. I was sorry not to see the full radiance of Peter’s flying.

The story’s broader strokes would be easily comprehended by young viewers. Tinkerbell and a surprisingly sexy band of fairies flutter around the Darling children, who then fly off with wild-haired Peter into an exciting world where lissome mermaids frolic, pirates attack enthusiastically, dastardly Captain Hook masterminds the mayhem and a large croc makes several show-stealing appearances. McIntyre’s movement flows with happy ease between classically based choreography and energetic group shenanigans and his “just a kid” imagination lights up every scene.

And how astute to use music by Edward Elgar – an exact contemporary of Peter Pan’s creator J.M. Barrie – for the ballet’s score. Expressive, melodic selections from the British composer’s oeuvre provide abundant colour for dance and action along with a finely calibrated atmosphere of becoming modesty. The Queensland Symphony under Andrew Mogrelia sounded wonderful.

The vivid children’s-book designs by Thomas Boyd (sets), Jeanne Button (costumes) and Christina R. Giannelli (lighting) are a treat but ultimately McIntyre’s shiny-eyed affection for all his characters is the key to the production’s success. That’s not to say it’s perfect. McIntyre’s overall telling of the narrative is strong and clear but his story-ballet inexperience at the time of creation is evident in occasionally confusing or obscure detail, particularly in the framing scenes at the Darling home. There is also action involving Hook’s son James that requires a dip into the program for clarification, although at every moment this is a wonderful role.

McIntyre, however, is far from being alone in falling short in the area of drum-tight dramatic structure. Many, many seasoned makers of story ballets have made greater errors. (As to why this should be – well, that’s a long discussion to do with choreographers frequently acting as maker of steps, writer or co-writer of libretto, director and dramaturge all in one.)

QB is taking on a strikingly international look in the higher ranks and the opening performance gave audiences the chance to see the company’s newest principal artist, Laura Hidalgo, as a luscious Tinkerbell and recent Cuban recruits Camilo Ramos (soloist) and Yanela Piñera (principal) as Peter and Wendy. But there are entertaining parts for everyone in this sweet, effervescent ballet and among those who made a fine impression were young artist Liam Geck as timid, put-upon James Hook who finally finds his rightful place; company dancer Lina Kim as the littlest Darling, Michael; and company dancer Vito Bernasconi as a robustly commanding Hook.

Ends July 11. Limited availability.

A version of this review appeared in The Australian on June 29.

Daring smoke-and-mirrors act

Queensland Ballet, Playhouse, QPAC, Brisbane, August 1.

ONE masterwork, a party piece and two relatively new dances that look far better than they are provide an entertaining but creatively uneven program at Queensland Ballet. Very much on the plus side is that the company looks energised despite the rigours of the Romeo and Juliet season that ended only four weeks ago. Very much on the down side is that Flourish, as this quadruple bill is titled, is performed without live music. Everyone is ill-served: Tchaikovsky, Cesare Pugni, Philip Glass, Ravel, the audience and particularly the dancers.

Katherine Rooke (top), Emilio Pavan and Meng Ningning in Serenade. Photo: David Kelly

Katherine Rooke (top), Emilio Pavan and Meng Ningning in Serenade. Photo: David Kelly

It’s not that QB is penny-pinching in this regard. It’s that the company has ambitions it can’t entirely afford at the moment. Mind you, it’s not clear who could play for QB at this time of the year. On the last night of Flourish (August 9), Queensland Symphony Orchestra is in the Concert Hall at QPAC playing Berlioz, Sibelius and a world premiere of a commissioned score, Gordon Hamilton’s Ghosts in the Orchestra. QB has also worked several times with the chamber orchestra Camerata of St John’s, which at present is in Townsville for that city’s annual chamber music festival.

Nevertheless, QB is charging forward in a way one has to admire even while wincing at George Balanchine’s Serenade – the masterwork of the evening – being performed to a recording. It didn’t help that the sound system emitted a nasty burst of static at one point. Rather ironically, on August 1, while QB was dancing to Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings, up in Townsville the Camerata was also playing Serenade for Strings, although this one by Dvorak. The Tchaikovsky would have been too, too cruel.

Serenade (1934) is the first Balanchine to be acquired by QB and the company acquitted itself well. On opening night Meng Ningning, whose triumph as Juliet seems to have released her, was a romantic, eloquent Waltz Girl and Lina Kim’s Russian Girl was poised and distinguished by pillowy elevation. Katherine Rooke started a little nervously as the Dark Angel but there is promise in those sometimes unruly, coltish limbs. The large ensemble of women, filled out with Young Artists and Pre-Professional Program dancers, was not entirely as one stylistically (Balanchine mastery is not achieved in a moment) but their commitment was total. Matthew Lawrence and Emilio Pavan were strong and sensitive in support.

After Serenade came Flourish’s party piece, the grand pas de deux from La Esmeralda (to Pugni’s music), choreographed by Ben Stevenson after Petipa. It gave long-serving QB dancer Teri Crilly a much-deserved chance to shine alongside diminutive but powerful guest artist Dmitry Zagrebin from Moscow’s Stanislavsky Ballet. The two were a lovely match – sunny, flirty and carrying off the technical fireworks with self-possession without being self-regarding. Utterly charming.

Nils Christe’s Short Dialogues (created for QB in 2011 to the music of Glass) and Nicolo Fonte’s Bolero (2008), to the famous Ravel score, are negligible works in the glossy, sexy, crowd-pleasing vein. The choreographers are both big names in the field but both have better works in their portfolio. I would have been very pleased, for instance, to see again Christe’s Fearful Symmetries, staged at QB in 2010.

Short Dialogues has three couples entering and leaving the stage through gloom and haze – the process is reminiscent of Twyla Tharp’s In the Upper Room – in a manner that appears meaningful about relationships but has little to say. Clare Morehen with Keian Langdon, Lina Kim with Matthew Lawrence and Meng Ningning with Alexander Idaszak looked wonderful but the work failed to register with me. (Kim, incidentally, impresses more and more with each outing.)

Bolero is surprisingly blank despite the propulsive music and, again, splendid dancing. Clare Morehen (in both works) and Natasha Kusch (Bolero) were magnetic and it was a treat to see former QB principal artist Langdon return as a guest for Short Dialogues.

Indeed, guests were absolutely necessary on the night, an indication of QB artistic director Li Cunxin’s daring smoke-and-mirrors act. He wants to present work that needs many more dancers than QB has at the moment. The MacMillan Romeo and Juliet showed that in the most emphatic way, but Flourish also sends the message, albeit a little more quietly. Li wants to show what is possible and he is pushing very hard to make the case.

Serenade needs 20 women. With the retirement of principal Rachael Walsh at the end of the Romeo and Juliet season there are only 25 full company members and eight Young Artists, of whom 18 are women. Hence the use of Pre-Professional Program dancers – that is, students – in Serenade. (Incidentallly, Walsh was repetiteur on Short Dialogues, so she has already started the next phase of her career.)

In addition, there is a shortage of senior men, which is why there were no fewer than three male guest artists at the Flourish opening – Zagrebin, Langdon and Idaszak, back after a short stint with Royal New Zealand Ballet, and working as a guest with QB, his former company. QB’s international guest principal Huang Junshuang is not in the country at the moment and principal Hao Bin is injured. That leaves Matthew Lawrence to fly the flag for the company’s principal men.

The margin of error is tiny. Lawrence will need to keep very fit.

Flourish ends August 9.

QB Nutcracker; David Hallberg at the AB

The Nutcracker, Queensland Ballet, Playhouse, QPAC, Brisbane, December 7

Cinderella, The Australian Ballet, Sydney Opera House, Sydney, December 14

IN many places in the northern hemisphere, but particularly in the US, seeing The Nutcracker at Christmas is as necessary as having gifts and dressing a tree. There’s another necessity too: so popular has The Nutcracker become that it keeps many a ballet company afloat financially. In Australia’s snow-free summers The Nutcracker has had no purchase as an annual event, although The Australian Ballet will present Peter Wright’s Birmingham Royal Ballet production next year, four years after its last outing.

Eleanor Freeman and Emilio Pavan in The Nutcracker

Eleanor Freeman and Emilio Pavan in The Nutcracker

Brisbane, however, is promised its own Nutcracker tradition, starting right now. Queensland Ballet artistic director Li Cunxin is banking on his audience coming back every December to see Ben Stevenson’s version, and if the response from two audiences on the first Saturday of the season is a guide, his instincts remain acute. In choosing a production that involves large numbers of young children, Li is giving Brisbane dance students something special to aspire to, and on a pragmatic note, there will always be friends and family who want to see them perform. This year’s season extended to 17 sold-out performances.

Stevenson’s approach to The Nutcracker is straightforward, although bumpy in one or two spots. The Stahlbaum family is having a lively Christmas party at which Dr Drosselmeyer performs a few magic tricks and Clara, a girl who is not quite grown-up but more than a child, receives a nutcracker doll as a gift. Her brother, Fritz, who appears to have a rather dismaying affection for his toy rifle, rattles around the place boisterously, life-size Soldier, Nurse, Harlequin and Columbine dolls perform and older folk fuss about and do a few steps. At the evening’s end Clara falls asleep, dreams of her doll coming to life, and is swept into a world of pesky rats, brave soldiers, a handsome Prince and a journey through the snow to a land where everything is sweet and the Sugar Plum Fairy holds radiant sway.

One could wish for a larger company of rats – unusually they are on pointe – and soldiers to do battle with one another but otherwise QB’s relatively small forces fill the stage admirably at the party, as snowflakes at the end of Act I and in the usual set of Act II dances.

The grand pas de deux for Prince and Sugar Plum Fairy was danced with much brilliance at the first Saturday matinee by QB’s newest principal artist, Natasha Kusch, and guest artist Remi Wortmeyer. Wortmeyer was previously with the AB (big loss) and is now a highly admired principal with Dutch National Ballet. Kusch and Wortmeyer were exceptionally well matched for purity of line and sparkling detail. Kusch glittered with the hard-edged brilliance of diamonds but also filled the music sumptuously – a gorgeous combination. Wortmeyer’s dancing was plush, buoyant and joyous, qualities that papered over the fact that once the Nutcracker doll turns into the handsome Prince, he essentially discards Clara for more glamorous partners.

As the first Saturday night’s Suger Plum Fairy, Clare Morehen radiated beauty, calm and benevolence, which doubtless helped her young and inexperienced Prince greatly. Emilio Pavan is another of Li’s bright young men being fast-tracked to important roles and looks most promising. He danced cleanly, forcefully and with becoming modesty.

Stevenson provides a second ballerina role, that of the Snow Queen, danced at both Saturday performances by Meng Ningning in magisterial form. The Prince gets to partner her too, which sidelines Clara at a crucial part in her journey. Furthermore, the Prince is given a bravura solo to the children’s wordless chorus that couldn’t suit the music less.

Still, once Clara finds herself in the Kingdom of Sweets she is given appropriate honour, although not a great deal of dancing. It was pleasing to see the keen intelligence and warmth of Lina Kim (afternoon) and engaging exuberance of Teri Crilly (evening) in the role.

As for the disparate Act II dances, who knew the Arabian could be such a hit? It usually seems interminable, but as danced very strongly and sexily by Mia Thompson and Alexander Idaszak on Saturday afternoon it had the crowd cheering. Sarah Thompson and Nathan Scicluna got a similar reception in the evening. It was also a relief to see the Chinese dance done with acrobatic and martial inflections rather than embarrassing foot shuffling and head nodding.

Stevenson’s ballet is perhaps more workmanlike than thrilling, particularly when sections of choreography are irritatingly antithetical to the music. But the key moments are lovely, the production looks handsome and the Queensland Symphony Orchestra is on hand for Tchaikovsky’s imperishable score, conducted by Andrew Mogrelia.

What does an annual Nutcracker mean for the QB repertoire as a whole? Unless the company manages to increase radically in size (in The Nutcracker company members have to assume several roles), one assumes it means one less new mainstage production each year. This year the QB performed three new full-length works in Brisbane – Giselle, Cinderella and The Nutcracker – as well as a contemporary program and two studio seasons. Next year there’s a new Coppelia, the Kenneth MacMillan Romeo & Juliet and the Nutcracker repeat. There’s also a regional tour of Cinderella as well as the programs of contemporary and new work.

Li may well feel that two new full-length programs is quite enough to have on the plate with the QB’s other responsibilities, not to mention the cost of new work. He will ultimately be able to bring his new Giselle, Cinderella and Coppelia back into the mix, but not for a couple of years. I believe he will be staging La fille mal gardee – the production West Australian Ballet is premiering next year – in 2015, so that’s another story ballet to add to the list. The Nutcracker, meanwhile, will be bedded in and paying itself off.

I note that while there are 17 performances of The Nutcracker this year, there are just nine performances listed for 2014. There’s also room to add shows if those sell out, but at the moment the approach is a reasonably conservative one. Clever planning, I think you’d have to say.

Ends December 21. All performances are sold out, returns only. There is a free outdoor screening on December 21 at River Quay, South Bank, Brisbane, 7.30pm.

David Hallberg at the Sydney Opera House. Photo: Wendell Teodoro

David Hallberg at the Sydney Opera House. Photo: Wendell Teodoro

DAVID Hallberg is not only a prince among men in ballet; he is a prince among princes. On Saturday night, in his final performance of three as the Prince in The Australian Ballet’s Cinderella, he was in his element. That is to say, he wore the dramatic requirements of the role like a second skin and was at one with Alexei Ratmansky’s choreography, which asks for an entrancing combination of a luscious, yielding upper body and a swift, razor-sharp lower body.

Hallberg understands that regal comportment is an inner quality; there is no need for arrogant display or overt signs of command. Thus, this Prince wore his nobility lightly, unpretentious in manner and alert to those around him. His ardour for Amber Scott’s Cinderella – lacy, glowing, ultra-romantic – felt deep and true. Every moment seemed fresh and unforced.

The clarity and refinement of Hallberg’s technique are wonders, and have brought him to the pinnacle of not one but two great ballet companies – he is a principal artist with American Ballet Theatre and the Bolshoi Ballet. How fortunate the AB has been to have him as a guest twice (Hallberg danced in Melbourne in the Wright Nutcracker in 2010, before joining the Bolshoi, and would have appeared at the AB’s 50th anniversary gala except for injury). Let’s hope there’s more.

Elegance, Queensland Ballet

Queensland Performing Arts Centre, August 2

EMMA Lippa is one of Australian ballet’s hidden treasures. She developed her formidable skills as an accompanist at the Bolshoi Ballet then used her gifts for two decades at the Australian Ballet. Lippa has retired from the AB but not from the piano or from ballet, as Queensland Ballet audiences were privileged to see at some performances of Elegance (her role was shared with QB company pianist Kylie Foster, who unfortunately I wasn’t able to hear).

Lippa’s musicality underpinned the most successful of the four pieces making up QB’s Elegance program, Ben Stevenson’s Three Preludes, choreographed in 1969 to the music of Rachmaninoff. Two dancers are first seen on either side of a ballet barre, at times reflecting each other’s movements as if they are taking daily class. This isn’t a new idea for dance but Stevenson’s take on it is beguiling. He sensitively creates an atmosphere in which boundaries dissolve. Two private, individual worlds melt into one as, slowly, an intimate relationship develops.

Carolyn Judson and Huang Junshuang in Three Preludes. Photo: David Kelly

Carolyn Judson and Huang Junshuang in Three Preludes. Photo: David Kelly

This restrained, glowing ballet is about love, but also can’t help but be about a love for ballet and music. In a short Russian documentary about her career, Lippa says a ballet accompanist “has to breathe with the ballet”, and this she did in eloquent, memorable readings of the Rachmaninoff.

American guest artist Carolyn Judson was alert and responsive while maintaining the work’s introspective quality, although she tended to smile rather too brightly. At times it was hard to concentrate on her, however, given the incredibly potent stage presence of QB’s international guest principal Huang Junshuang. He is tall, powerful, glamorous and a splendid partner. The man’s choreography is supportive – Junshuang leaves the floor only once for a low jete – as he tenderly looks after the woman, who is free to fly with the knowledge she will be completely safe.

Elegance opened with Ma Cong’s Ershter Vals (First Waltz), an attractive, folk-inflected piece for four couples that reminded me strongly of Nacho Duato’s Jardi Tancat. Ma Cong was born in China and danced with National Ballet of China and Tulsa Ballet before retiring recently to concentrate on choreography. He is now resident choreographer for the Tulsa company, but Ershter Vals, his most widely seen work, was made for Richmond Ballet in 2010.

Ershter Vals is danced to a selection of compositions by Italian group Klezroym, whose approach has been described as “new Jewish music”. In his dance piece Ma intends references to Jewish dispossession – the silent opening gives an atmosphere of unease and at times the women cover their faces as if they cannot bear to see – but Ma is more concerned with joy and resilience, seen in the constant and vibrant stream of action and interaction between individuals and groups.

Queensland Ballet in Ma Cong's Ershter Vals. Photo: David Kelly

Queensland Ballet in Ma Cong’s Ershter Vals. Photo: David Kelly

The women (Sophie Zoricic, Eleanor Freeman, Mia Thompson and Teri Crilly on Friday night) looked lovely in the flow and sweep of the movement, in which highly expressive, swirling backs were important. The men (Nathan Scicluna, Joseph Stewart, Vito Bernasconi and Rian Thompson) seemed less comfortable with releasing their emotions and the repression of abandon detracted from the work’s undertow of loss. They were mostly too careful, although the spirit of the piece started working its spell towards the end, with Bernasconi particularly catching the eye.

Former QB dancer Gareth Belling’s Sweet Beginnings, to Vivaldi’s over-used Summer from The Four Seasons, was a disappointingly bland outing for three couples. The piece means to chart the life of a relationship in retrospect (a difficult idea to convey even for the most experienced of choreographers) but had little emotional heft. Belling uses classical vocabulary confidently enough but structurally Sweet Beginnings felt less assured, with the connection between the main couple and the two secondary couples failing to express as much as Belling does in his program note. Noelene Hill designed extremely pretty, long floaty skirts for the women but put the men into particularly ugly loose pants and tops that looked all the world like builders’ singlets. Principal artist Matthew Lawrence was definitely not seen to advantage.

Lina Kim and Matthew Lawrence in Sweet Beginnings. Photo: David Kelly

Lina Kim and Matthew Lawrence in Sweet Beginnings. Photo: David Kelly

It was good to have Vivaldi played live by the quartet Collusion, although intonation was an issue at several points.

On Friday Lina Kim’s vivid commitment was the main attraction of Sweet Beginnings and she also stood out in the upbeat closing work, Greg Horsman’s Verdi Variations. This tutu-fest is an often uneasy mix of humour and high classicism as former Australian Ballet and English National Ballet principal dancer Horsman simultaneously celebrates and sends up the art of which he was such a celebrated exponent. I certainly laughed, but didn’t like myself for it. The “isn’t ballet a funny old thing” approach diminishes the art to my mind. It’s not that there can’t be comedy in ballet, but when ballet itself is the butt of the joke it seems a bit self-defeating. The audience seemed to have lots of fun, despite their being rather too much untidy execution.

Among the pratfalls on Friday one could enjoy Yu Hui’s exuberant elevation and neat entrechats and guest artist Jenna Roberts’s calm assurance, gained from her Royal Ballet School training.

Matthew Lawrence and Jenna Roberts in Verdi Variations. Photo: David Kelly

Matthew Lawrence and Jenna Roberts in Verdi Variations. Photo: David Kelly

A native of Newcastle, NSW, Roberts is a principal dancer with Birmingham Royal Ballet who was making her professional debut in Australia on Friday. Verdi Variations, while a trifle, gave opportunities to enjoy her beautiful placement, unshowy but complete command of the stage and a most becoming understated radiance. Lawrence, who is Roberts’s former BRB colleague, partnered her with his usual grace, as he did with Lim in Sweet Beginnings, and his solo work was clean and assertive.

The season was brief – only five performances – but that was one more than had been intended, continuing QB’s happy situation of having to increase the number of performances of each of its programs this year.

The heavy workload for this relatively small company is, however, taking its toll. QB did not field any of its three principal women in Elegance nor was Hao Bin back on stage after an injury took him out of Giselle. The newly named soloist Lisa Edwards was also nowhere to be seen as she was also on the injury list.

Such situations, of course, give opportunities to more junior dancers (and to guest artists). QB has a large number of relatively inexperienced young men and women for whom stage time and exposure is necessary for their development. It was lovely to see Lina Kim shine. Overall, however, in Elegance only Three Preludes was a truly satisfying experience. Mature artistry will always trump eagerness.

This is an extended version of a review that appeared in The Australian on August 5.

Cinderella

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.

Meng Ningning and Hao Bin in Cinderella. Photo David Kelly

Meng Ningning and Hao Bin in Cinderella. Photo David Kelly

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.

Yu Hui as the Jester in Ben Stevenson's Cinderella. Photo: David Kelly

Yu Hui as the Jester in Ben Stevenson’s Cinderella. Photo: David Kelly

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.