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.

Onegin, West Australian Ballet

 West Australian Ballet, His Majesty’s Theatre, Perth, September 20 and 21

WEST Australian Ballet recently took to the streets of Perth with a camera to teach people how to pronounce the name of its latest production (no, it’s not One Gin). There’s a view that if people are wary they’ll get it wrong, they may decide to stay at home. On the other hand, there’s nothing like positive word of mouth to get box office moving, and the volley of bravos for Onegin on its opening night bodes well. The reception was well deserved.

Jayne Smeuldersas Tatiana  and Christian Luck as Gremin in Onegin. Photo: Jon Green

Jayne Smeulders as Tatiana and Christian Luck as Gremin in Onegin. Photo: Jon Green

John Cranko made his version of Alexander Pushkin’s verse novel Eugene Onegin in 1965 for Stuttgart Ballet and it quickly became a ballet loved by dancers and one that most important companies have in their repertoire, although it’s odd that the Bolshoi staged it for the first time only this year. That addition to the Boshoi’s repertoire precipitated one of the biggest ballet scandals of the year, as it happens, when superstar Svetlana Zakharova, who had been learning the role of Tatiana, was passed over for opening night and decided to take her bat and ball and go home. The decision to relegate Zakharova to second cast for an important new production underlined the incredibly tight grip held on the rights, controlled by owner Dieter Graefe and Stuttgart Ballet’s artistic director Reid Anderson.

So how does West Australian Ballet get to do Onegin? It was programmed by former WAB artistic director Ivan Cavallari before he left at the end of last year, in a former life a principal dancer with Stuttgart Ballet. He is one of the people entrusted with staging Onegin around the world. Snap. Now artistic director of Ballet de l’Opera National du Rhin in Strasbourg, Cavallari was on hand in Perth to polish the performances. Earlier coaching had been in the hands of Egon Madsen, the greatly admired dancer on whom Cranko created the role of Lensky.

Cranko follows the essentials of Pushkin’s poem. A bored aristocrat toys with the affections of a guileless country girl, rejects her, and gets embroiled in a matter of honour. Perhaps he didn’t really mean to rouse her passions, but he is far more sophisticated than she and looking for diversion. Years later Onegin is made to suffer the same agonies he once so carelessly caused Tatiana. Caught up in the maelstrom are Tatiana’s lively sister Olga and her lover, the ill-starred Lensky.

Unrequited passion, jealousy, death and renunciation are tightly packed into six swiftly flowing scenes danced to a patchwork quilt of Tchaikovsky melodies arranged and orchestrated by Kurt-Heinze Stolze (Cranko was steered away from using Tchaikovsky’s opera).  As played by the West Australian Symphony Orchestra with guest conductor Myron Romanul at the helm, the music is driven hard and occasionally sounds too rushed. But there’s no doubt it’s a high old time at the ballet.

WAB is fielding two casts, neither without blemishes but each with much to offer. On Friday new leading artist Jiri Jelinek, a glamorous Onegin, and WAB’s prima ballerina Jayne Smeulders set the bar high for mastery of Cranko’s sweeping lines and challenging pas de deux. Jelinek comes to the company with a great deal of experience in the role, having been a principal artist with Stuttgart Ballet, home of Onegin, and National Ballet of Canada. He is now a guest principal artist with NBC and perhaps more rightly should be listed as a guest principal at WAB, given that his contract runs only until January. Presumably if everyone is happy it will be extended.

There are many moments in the choreography that could be called repetitive and unsubtle; whether they strike the viewer as so during the heat of performance is dependent on the conviction of the principal players. Jelinek is well suited to the highly coloured drama of Cranko’s story-telling with its unfolding elongations, deep lunges, sweeping legs and swift, crystalline turns and he establishes the character through aristocratic bearing and an air of disdain for the country society in which he finds himself in the first act. This is a man who wears his superiority like a second suit.

Smeulders is something of a bluestocking Tatiana, an intelligent and perhaps slightly severe young woman who will fall hard. When she writes a letter to Onegin declaring her love, it is done feverishly. Smeulders makes it clear there is a great outpouring of sentiment. She makes it a moment of great urgency rather than a girlish error of judgment. Against that, there was less of a gulf between Tatiana as a girl and the mature woman of the third act who has married a Prince and is in charge of a grand household.

On Saturday Fiona Evans and Matthew Lehmann raised the emotional stakes in what turned out to be an inspired pairing. Lehmann had a scratchy start in the exposing – and important – Act I solo. Onegin needs to be established as a very confident man. But Lehmann clearly took a deep breath during interval, started giving a sense of the character he wanted to be, and the performance took off. Evans had already shown a quite different Tatiana, a fresh, impressionable girl smitten by the man in black. Her transformation into Prince Gremin’s loving but sorely tempted wife was transfixing. Lehmann is a strong partner and the set-piece pas de deux were taken daringly, particularly the Act III renunciation scene. It crackled with passion. Smeulders was a deeper thinker, Evans initially the greater innocent; Jelinek was an elegant thoroughbred, Lehmann a darker soul. Take your pick (or see both).

Dane Holland’s Lensky (Friday) had the musicality and control that sometimes eluded Daniel Roberts in the second cast, although, as with Lehmann on Saturday, Act I nerves led Holland to hurry and blur some turns. His Act II solo, however, showed him to be an expressive dancer of great promise, although as yet his characterisation is not deep. Roberts seemed to be spooked by that lovely, difficult aria of regret and longing, chopping up the dance phrases so they were disconnected from the music. As Lensky’s wayward love Olga, Sarah Sutcliffe (Saturday) edged out Melissa Boniface in conveying the careless high spirits that set tragedy in train. Both danced stylishly and with feeling, although I felt each could have surrendered more freely to the lavish backbends Cranko bestowed on the character. Sutcliffe’s effervescence felt naturally and engagingly expressed. Boniface was a little too tightly wound, the tension expressed in a too-fixed smile. In the small, crucial role of Prince Gremin, the good man who Tatiana marries, Christian Luck and David Mack both impressed.

The rest of the company is relegated to friends (the women of the company needing softer landings in the first act frolics), country folk and some rather irritating pseudo old folk doing too much old folk shtick. This really is a ballet that needs a goodly array of former dancers to take such roles and fill in the society represented, but of course that’s a budgetary issue, and I expect well out of WAB’s means.

A special mention must be made of the sets, borrowed from Prague. The severe limitations of His Majesty’s mean swaths of the Onegin design can’t be used and the production looks sadly under-dressed, diminishing the experience. The small stage also means dancers have to pull themselves in, making smaller what should be grand and expansive. Perth desperately needs a new lyric theatre, right now.

Onegin ends October 5.

La Sylphide, West Australian Ballet

His Majesty’s, June 1

IN her program note for West Australian Ballet’s La Sylphide, stager Dinna Bjorn wrote that while the steps of Bournonville’s 1836 ballet remain true to the original, “the way of executing the steps has changed through the the times with the development of the ballet technique and the body types of the dancers”. Bjorn sees in this inevitable change a way of maintaining authenticity but keeping the ballet fresh.

West Australian Ballet in La Sylphide. Photo: Jon Green

West Australian Ballet in La Sylphide. Photo: Jon Green

That is, of course, the ideal. La Sylphide deserves its continuing place in the repertoire: in the story of a spirit who lures a young man away from his fiancee and the responsibilities of family, society and work lie some difficult and enduring life lessons. Accommodations may need be made when it is brought before a modern audience, but it’s also necessary for the essential essence of the ballet to be preserved.

Watching WAB in two performances on the last day of its recent season, it struck me, however, that different body types and greater technical facility weren’t that much of an issue. There was much more at stake in the crucial area of emotional expressiveness, the inner light of the character.

When it came to absorbing the principles of early Romantic ballet, the WAB dancers were on secure ground. It was wonderful to see the buoyancy of many of the men and the height and elasticity of their jumps, along with swift, sharp footwork (Andre Santos really stood out in this respect). The women combined lightness and precision although most of the corps found it necessary to wear a bright look, giving the superficial impression of a bunch of healthy girls out for a walk in the woods rather than spirits of the forest. (More filtered lighting wouldn’t have gone astray here either.)

And it wasn’t just the corps who seemed unable to divest themselves of an essentially contemporary attitude. Both Sylphs, Brooke Widdison-Jacobs and Fiona Evans, smiled rather too expansively and seemed rather too knowing. Widdison-Jacobs, who was first cast, was praised for her freshness on her first performance, but by the last appeared to me to be quite brittle. Perhaps the burden of dancing six of the 12 performances was showing. At the matinee on June 1 Evans beautifully captured the airy nature of the Sylph’s movement.

Dancing with Evans, Daniel Roberts was a bright, engaging James who nailed that gorgeous “hang” in the air so essential in the  Bournonville style. In the first cast Sergey Pevnev didn’t have quite that degree of height and stage coverage (although it was very attractive dancing) but his experience was invaluable when it came to convincing characterisation.

The same was true with Craig Lord-Sole, Madge in both casts. Lord-Sole, WAB’s ballet master, was compelling, creating a particularly malevolent figure whose enjoyment of the tragedy was chilling.

Craig Lord-Sole as Madge in La Sylphide, West Australian Ballet. Photo: Jon Green

Craig Lord-Sole as Madge in La Sylphide, West Australian Ballet. Photo: Jon Green

It was also a joy to see Jayne Smeulders’s Lead Sylph in the first cast. Again, experience and refined artistry resulted in a connection with the work that was deep and true.

WAB is incredibly lucky to have the West Australian Symphony Orchestra as its musical partner. With ebullient guest conductor Wolfgang Heinz at the helm, the WASO gave a striking account of the Lovenskiold music. After the performance Heinz – who is assistant music director at Stuttgart Ballet and adorably wore a kilt for the evening performance – was loud in his praise for the orchestra, and rightly so.

WAB has an ambitious time ahead, with the company premiere of John Cranko’s intensely dramatic Onegin coming up in September. There couldn’t be a greater contrast with the delicate perfume of La Sylphide, and it is much anticipated.