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.

Coppelia

Queensland Ballet, Brisbane, April 24

GREG Horsman’s appealing new production of the 19th century comedy Coppelia gives it a human scale and an Australian setting. It is the late 1800s and we are in the South Australian town of Hahndorf, settled in 1839 by German migrants and thus celebrating its 175th anniversary this year. I don’t think Queensland Ballet has a visit to Hahndorf on the 2014 schedule but it really should.

The essentials of the original ballet remain. Franz, not the brightest bloke, falls for a remote beauty who is, in fact, a life-sized mechanical doll. His sidelined girlfriend, the plucky Swanilda, has to come to his rescue when he falls into the clutches of the man who made the doll, Dr Coppelius, and in the third act everything comes right.

Clare Morehen and Huant Junshuang in Queensland Ballet's Coppelia.

Clare Morehen and Huang Junshuang in Queensland Ballet’s Coppelia.

In Horsman’s revision Dr Coppelius (the wonderful Paul Boyd) is a migrant from the Old World, a medical man rather than a dark-hearted magician. In a prologue that mixes stage action and effective sepia animations, Coppelius and his young daughter are seen preparing to leave their home in Germany. But the girl is sickly and dies on the sea voyage to Australia. Coppelius’s doll-making is an attempt to restore her to him.

Meanwhile the little town goes about its business, which mainly involves lots of larking about to the pretty Delibes score, neatly arranged by QB’s music director Andrew Mogrelia and played by Camerata of St John’s. The good folk of Hahndorf are a lively lot – there are some rather cheeky Scots – but even the Lutherans don’t seem to mind a bit of banter. If I were queen of the world, however, I would place a ban on children holding hands and prancing about in a circle. Surely there are other ways in which youngsters can move.

Horsman’s push towards realism, or as far as you can go when lifelike dolls are involved, has its pluses and minuses. In setting up his story Horsman takes a little time to get the action moving but he does build a pleasing picture of community and individuals within in it. In his sweetest inspiration he brings on the local footy team – Australian football, of course. Some of the QB lads need to work on their handpass skills and on opening night the Sherrin was definitely too soft for an effective bounce, but the audience enthusiastically applauded a high mark. Yes, in Brisbane.

The downside is a lack of magic in the second act, in which the usual cave of wonders is reduced to a couple of half-finished automatons. It fits Horsman’s scenario but is far from a sparkling setting for Swanilda’s centrepiece impersonation of Coppelius’s doll.

For key moments – including Swanilda’s solos and the big Act III pas de deux – Horsman has kept choreography familiar from traditional versions and at the opening performance Clare Morehen (Swanilda) and Huang Junshuang (Franz) despatched the high points with ease and verve. Eleanor Freeman and Vito Bernasconi lit up the stage as the second pair of lovers and Lina Kim’s joyous dancing delighted every time she appeared with Swanilda’s flock of girlfriends.

Also delightful are Hugh Colman’s sets, which bring to mind colonial paintings (Louis Buvelot perhaps), and Jon Buswell’s exquisite lighting, in which bright day fades to velvety evening. This kind of quality is possible because in a venture that makes a great deal of sense, Coppelia is a co-production between QB and West Australian Ballet. Perth will see the ballet next year. Expect the footy to go down extremely well indeed.

Coppelia ends on May 10.

A version of this review appeared in The Australian on April 28.

When Time Stops

Expressions Dance Company
Brisbane, September 10

IN Greek mythology the river Styx marks the point of no return. On one side is life, and on the other death; the ferryman Charon is the intermediary, transporting souls to the afterlife. Natalie Weir has taken this enduring story as the wellspring of When Time Stops, a new work for Expressions Dance Company that has just premiered at the Brisbane Festival. The central character is a woman who, In Weir’s words, “could be anyone, in her last moment of life’’. That moment is extended and suspended as experiences are relived, in flashes, by the Woman or replayed by others.

When we first see the Woman (Riannon McLean) she is at the point of joining the Ferryman (Thomas Gundry Greenfield) for her final journey. He is seated in a small white boat, back rippling as his arms press and circle in huge, powerful strokes that have a mesmerising but implacable rhythm. Never, one imagines, has the afterlife looked quite so enticing. McLean, so poised and centred, reaches towards him but is interrupted. The stage fills with musicians and other dancers. A life’s flashback begins.

This is a striking and eloquent beginning, much enhanced by Bill Haycock’s cool, elegant design and David Walters’s sympathetic lighting. And how marvellously and unselfconsciously the members of Camerata of St John’s move in and out of the dance, playing Iain Grandage’s new score from memory and doing it very, very proud. Weir’s direction of this aspect of the production is exceptional.

The dancers give every sinew of their being to the work and are captivating. McLean draws the eye even when still and in the background, such is her charisma; there can never be too many opportunities to see Daryl Brandwood; and Gundry Greenfield, whether entering the dance or continuing his endless ferryman labour, is as imposing a presence on stage as I have seen in quite a while.

When it comes to the choreography itself, however, I have significant reservations. Weir relies too much on several relatively obvious ideas – running backwards, slow-motion moves, rolling, leaping – in a way that does little to differentiate stages in the woman’s journey (there are 12 sections). There are several intimations of tenderness but mostly I felt as if I were seeing 17 kinds of sorrow on a loop.

Most troubling for me is a hardness in much of the partnering that borders on violence. There is one section clearly depicting some kind of accident or harm where the use – abuse? – of male strength is dramatically justified. But there were so many times when young women hurled themselves at the men, when they were slung over shoulders and when they were hurled around. The partnering looked very unequal in power and authority. I was also dismayed when women upended themselves on the floor, their floaty skirts naturally dropping down over their heads and shoulders as they extended their legs. I don’t mean to suggest Weir had the intention of making her female dancers look manipulated and anonymous; far from it. But, to me, apart from McLean they looked just that and I found it hard to watch.

That said, When Time Stops has many individual moments of great beauty. Apart from the opening the most satisfying image is of Gundry Greenfield morphing into a man who, in earlier times, rescued the Woman (danced at this point by Elise May) from drowning. The section is overlong, but has clarity of purpose not always so evident elsewhere.(It’s astonishing to learn that Gundry Greenfield did not start formal dance training until he was 21, although his background does include Australian Rules football, so that sort of counts.)

When Time Stops could do with some focusing and tightening. So many new works fail to get the second look they deserve because of time or money constraints, but I hope Weir does have a chance to reconsider some things about When Time Stops because it’s certainly worth it. Undoubtedly a major problem about restaging would be the participation of the number of musicians Grandage requires for his score, and the dance would be immeasurably diminished by the use of recorded music.

Grandage, whose score for Sydney Theatre Company’s The Secret River was greatly admired, describes his music for When Time Stops as having, among other things, elements of minimalism, surrealism and polytonality. That may sound rather dry. In practice there is a great wealth of colour and texture as the orchestration – for strings alone – moves from the group to individual instruments, from the lower strings to the higher, from quite romantic plushness to thrilling astringency. The music appealed greatly on this one hearing and the Camerata of St John’s and their music director, Brendan Joyce, put in a blinder.

When Time Stops continues at the Playhouse, QPAC, until September 14.

Giselle

Queensland Ballet, Playhouse Theatre, Brisbane, June 21 and 22

BRISBANE is turning into quite the ballet town. All performances of the Bolshoi Ballet’s Le Corsaire and The Bright Stream were sold out and one might have expected the visit from such a starry company to have diverted dollars from the Queensland Ballet. Far from it. QB was able to put on extra performances of its year’s mainstage opener, Cinderella, and Giselle also has more performances than originally planned and is heading for a sell-out season.

Rachael Walsh and Matthew Lawrence in Queensland Ballet's Giselle. Photo: David Kelly

Rachael Walsh and Matthew Lawrence in Queensland Ballet’s Giselle. Photo: David Kelly

It was clear from reactions at the first three performances of Giselle that many in the audience were unfamiliar with it, despite its place in the canon. It was also clear by the end of all three shows that people were delighted with what they saw, and so they should have been. QB has a fine production, staged with great integrity and care by Ai-Gul Gaisina (it is based on Petipa’s revivals of the Coralli/Perrot choreography) and boasting some outstanding dancing. Gaisina clearly allowed each cast to find its own way into the key roles while honouring the ballet’s floating, romantic style. It was also extremely satisfying to see the attention paid to mime, here done in a lucid, unaffected way.

The challenge new artistic director Li Cunxin has set himself can’t be underestimated. He has a company numbering only 27 dancers, although he also has access to about 20 young dancers in the QB pre-professional program.

Not only that, there is a high proportion of new dancers. When Li held auditions late last year he greatly admired quite a few dancers from the Australian Ballet School’s graduating year. Half the company has been dancing professionally for only six months, and a handful more for only a couple of years.

Li did bring in two new principal artists, former Australian Ballet and Birmingham Royal Ballet principal Matthew Lawrence, and Huang Junshuang, latterly of Houston Ballet, to beef up the upper end of the ranks. (Huang is listed as a guest international principal artist and his position is funded by private support; it was announced at the Giselle opening night party that this will continue next year.) The mid-tier was thinly populated and still is, although the recent and extremely well-deserved elevation of Lisa Edwards to the rank of soloist is a start in the building process.

It was an impressive feat, then, to be able to field three strong casts, one of them with a wild card in the shape of 20-year-old Alexander Idaszak, making his debut as Albrecht. Idaszak is one of the newbies half a year into his first job so it was a bold move to cast him, but with principal Hao Bin out of contention for Albrecht due to injury it was decided to take the gamble. Idaszak seemed not the slightest fazed by the assignment. Sure, he looks about 12 1/2 – an unusually well-built 12 1/2 – but he took to the stage with impressive aplomb. There were, not surprisingly, some rough patches but Idaszak has noble bearing, excellent form – his Act II cabrioles were crackers – and his partnering is a credit to his ABS teachers.

Clare Morehen and Alexander Idaszak. Photo: Daivd Kelly

Clare Morehen and Alexander Idaszak. Photo: Daivd Kelly

He made a pretty good fist of the acting, too. Sensible choices were made: his Albrecht isn’t a cheating aristo cad; he’s just a puppyish kid who needs to marry well but is looking for love elsewhere. In this scenario it was quite right that his betrothed, Bathilde (Mia Thompson), was a condescending bitch and that Huang’s Hilarion (no chance of principal artists having too many rest days at QB; he was Albrecht only 18 hours earlier) was a tough, mature man.

At this Saturday matinee performance Idaszak was partnered with one of QB’s most vibrant and individual dancers. Clare Morehen was a lively, sunny Giselle, the kind for whom spreading her skirt on the small outdoors bench is a cheeky bit of flirtation rather than a protective move. She was engagingly wide-eyed in Bathilde’s presence but brought a glint of steel to Act II’s mysterious, moonlit world of the Wilis. Peter Cazalet’s set design and Ben Hughes’s lighting came into their own here after a perfectly correct but unexceptional Act I.

Friday’s opening came with added, unwanted drama when Meng Ningning injured her left foot badly early in the first act. Few would have realised, particularly as she beautifully negotiated the diagonal of hops on pointe – on her left foot. Meng danced on to the end of the first half, hiding her pain to play a girl of heartbreaking innocence and trust.  No wonder she looked so believably ill when her heart first starts to give way and so distraught in the mad scene that ends Act I.

With Meng unable to continue – and I would have loved to see her Act II; she is such an ethereal dancer – elegant Huang was out of the picture as Albrecht. Fellow principal artists Rachael Walsh and Matthew Lawrence stepped seamlessly into the breach to give a glowing account of the second act. Walsh had been sitting in the audience watching the first half; Lawrence had appeared in the Act I non-dancing role of the Duke of Courland.

Their full scheduled performance on Saturday night revealed Lawrence as a practised and charming lothario and Walsh as meltingly sweet. Walsh has a pre-Raphaelite face and adagio to die for, controlling the slowest of slow raises of her leg as if gravity were somehow banished for the moment. Lawrence’s high and handsome series of entrechats – the tight beaten steps Albrecht is forced to do unto death until he’s saved by the bell and the breaking dawn– were brilliantly executed on both Friday and Saturday. In this cast Vito Bernasconi played Hilarion as a good lad possibly not possessed of the quickest mind – a strong contrast with Lawrence’s savoir faire. In the first cast, Nathan Scicluna gave the gamekeeper a thoughtful, deep-hearted quality that was most attractive.

Daniel Gaudiello, a guest artist from the Australian Ballet, puts a fourth Albrecht into the mix and his two performances  with Walsh promise much. He is an immaculate artist making his role debut here, which makes it one for the diary.

Two dancers distinguished themselves greatly as Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis. Lisa Edwards, seen on Friday and Saturday evening, has greatly grown in authority of late and demonstrated a commanding presence and gaze and wonderful elevation. Eleanor Freeman’s expressive use of her upper body at the Saturday matinee was magical.

The peasant pas de huit is the most problematic element. It spreads the load of what is frequently done as a pas de deux but exposes some weaknesses in style, unity and quality. Some of the women had not absorbed all the nuances of soft, rounded romantic mode and eloquent epaulement but the group of 12 wilis really came into their own with strikingly precise alighment and immaculately timed turns and gestures in their confrontations with Hilarion and Albrecht. Superb. Of the lead wilis I most enjoyed Eleanor Freeman’s other-worldly lightness and demeanour.

QB had originally planned to perform Giselle to taped music for budgetary reasons but was able to secure private support to engage Camerata of St John’s for the season. Adolphe Adam’s score was arranged for this quite small force – only 26 musicians – and QB music director Andrew Mogrelia drew performances that improved markedly from show to show. While there were still too many glitches from the brass and, to a lesser extent, the woodwinds, it was a fair start to what may be a continuing relationship. (Alas the July 6 performances will be performed to recorded music.)

After his Saturday matinee Idaszak was considerately taken out of the evening’s pas de huit, as I was told before the performance began. Given a well-deserved rest, I thought.  No, he was just doing the less demanding background stuff in the first act. That’s what happens in a small company:  lots of hard work, the need to keep ego well in check – and fantastic opportunities for those who are ready to grab them.

Giselle continues until July 6. Daniel Gaudiello appears as Albrecht with Rachael Walsh as Giselle on June 27 and July 4. Other casting has not been released.

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