Queensland and West Australian ballet companies of one mind in 2020

Queensland Ballet announced its 2020 season in mid-September; West Australian Ballet in this past week. The nation’s leading state ballet companies are different in scale and usually in repertoire but their seasons next year have some striking similarities.

Oscar Valdes as Jonathan Harker and Matthew Lehmann as Young Dracula with the dancers of West Australian Ballet. Photo by Jon Green

Oscar Valdés (seated left) as Jonathan Harker and Matthew Lehmann (right) as Young Dracula in WAB’s Dracula, choreographed by Krzysztof Pastor. Photo: Jon Green

West Australian Ballet offers a repeat season of Krzysztof Pastor’s full-length Dracula in September 2020 after its big success with the Perth public last year. Queensland Ballet, a co-producer, will show it to Brisbane audiences for the first time in May. Both companies have programmed The Sleeping Beauty, with QB reprising Greg Horsman’s 2015 production and WAB premiering a version by Mexican choreographer Javier Torres created for Finnish National Ballet in 2012. Perth and Brisbane audiences will also see a traditional Nutcracker at year’s end. QB has established Ben Stevenson’s Nutcracker as an annual event while in Perth audiences see the ballet every other year. WAB’s current production was co-choreographed by former WAB principal artist Jayne Smeulders, WAB artistic director Aurélian Scannella and WAB principal ballet mistress and artistic associate Sandy Delasalle.

The similarities continue with each company staging a gala program for a number of performances. QB’s is to celebrate its 60th anniversary; WAB’s will feature highlights from its repertoire. In Perth the gala performances will be seen in repertory with The Nutcracker.

Queensland Ballet - The Sleeping Beauty - Carabosse with the Fairies. Photo David Kelly

Queensland Ballet in Greg Horsman’s The Sleeping Beauty. Photo: David Kelly

As always QB and WAB will offer choreographic development seasons – titled Synergy and Genesis respectively – and a contemporary program. WAB’s Ballet at the Quarry has been staged for nearly 30 years in the breathtaking open-air City Beach Quarry Amphitheatre while QB’s Bespoke is a relatively new and important addition to its programming, staged at Brisbane’s Powerhouse.

A splendid development for WAB is an extra annual contemporary program to be performed at Perth’s State Theatre Centre. Titled STATE, the inaugural season will feature the return of Garry Stewart’s Reincarnation, which premiered at Ballet at the Quarry this year. The piece sees WAB collaborate with Western Australia’s state contemporary dance company, Co:3.

Also on the program is Graeme Murphy’s beautiful Air and Other Invisible Forces, made for Sydney Dance Company in 1999. Part of the work will be staged during the 2020 Quarry season and it will be seen in full in STATE.

Dangerous Liaisons

Rian Thompson and Yanela Pinera in Liam Scarlett’s Dangerous Liaisons. Photo: David Kelly

In its 60th anniversary year QB, which started life as The Lisner Ballet in 1960, will present Shanghai Ballet in Derek Deane’s The Lady of the Camellias in March before starting its season proper with the gala program. Continuing to expand its footprint in Australia, QB will travel to Melbourne to stage Liam Scarlett’s Dangerous Liaisons, originally seen in Brisbane this year.

Under the artistic direction of Li Cunxin over the past eight years QB has grown remarkably in size. It now has 43 dancers, two apprentices and 12 young artists. The older WAB – founded in 1952 by Kira Bousloff – is significantly smaller with 29 dancers and six young artists.

A notable feature of both companies, however, is the enlivening presence of Cuban-trained dancers, including three of QB’s five principal artists – Victor Estévez, Camilo Ramos and Yanela Piñera. The six Cubans at WAB include Dayana Hardy Acuña, who was promoted to principal artist after dancing Giselle in September. In May this year she was the brightest presence in WAB’s staging of Greg Horsman’s dismal La Bayadère (another co-production with QB), in which she was the temple dancer Nikiya. After the retirement this year of Brooke Widdison-Jacobs the top rank at WAB was looking very slender indeed with only Chihiro Nomura and Matthew Lehmann remaining as principals. Hardy Acuña’s elevation is most welcome.

Dayana Hardy Acuna as Giselle with Guest Artist Kevin Jackson as Albrecht. Photo by Scott Dennis (3)

Dayana Hardy Acuña as Giselle with guest artist Kevin Jackson of The Australian Ballet as Albrecht in WAB’s 2019 production of Giselle. Photo: Scott Dennis

Giselle, West Australian Ballet

His Majesty’s Theatre, Perth, September 13 and 14.

Was there ever a man who said his life’s ambition was to dance Hilarion? Probably not. He is the spurned lover in Giselle, a gamekeeper who can’t match the allure of his rival, aristo-in-disguise Albrecht. Hilarion offers dead birds to Giselle’s mother to shore up his position; the experienced Albrecht blows sexy kisses and ingratiates himself with Giselle’s friends.

So yes, Albrecht has all the glamour but who Hilarion is, what he does and what he feels is vitally important to the progress and texture of the drama. The same goes for all other secondary figures. The detail is where a company can make this much-performed, much-loved work sing.

Polly Hilton as Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis with the dancers of West Australian Ballet in Giselle (2019) (2). Photo by Sergey Pevnev

Polly Hilton as Myrtha in West Australian Ballet’s Giselle. Photo: Sergey Pevnev

Aurélien Scannella and Sandy Delasalle’s staging for West Australian Ballet retains the usual scenic framework and much of the traditional choreography attributed to Coralli and Perrot, albeit with a few tweaks, while new touches to character and movement make the ballet WAB’s own. The production, first seen in 2014, looks lovely. Peter Cazalet’s design is appealingly modest in scale and Michael Rippon and Jon Buswell’s lighting a thing of beauty, particularly in the second act, which opens with a shaft of moonlight piercing the gloom of the forest where Giselle is buried.

A late injury to principal dancer Matthew Lehmann made changes to casting necessary, which may have accounted for the feeling that not every idea was expressed as convincingly as it could be. Nevertheless, those ideas were persuasive. It’s made abundantly clear, for instance, that Albrecht is deeply committed to Giselle, strengthening the moment when Giselle and Albrecht’s noble fiancée Bathilde realise they are talking about the same man. Hilarion stands by – Jesse Homes in the first cast judged it perfectly – hoping against hope that Giselle will acknowledge him as her betrothed.

Chihiro Nomura as Giselle and Oscar Valdes as Albrecht in Giselle (2019). Photo by Sergey Pevnev

Chihiro Nomura and Oscar Valdés as Giselle and Albrecht. Photo: Sergey Pevnev

In the first act the men of the ensemble are given more to do, including repeated double tours (tidier at the second performance than the first) and exuberant splits in the air that fit well with a day of harvest festival celebrations and it was good to see the Peasant Pas de Deux couple as an integral part of the community. Candice Adea and Julio Blanes did the honours at the first two performances with charm and ease.

In Act II there are interesting choices for Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis, who is less physically explosive than usual but no less in command with her eloquent balances on pointe. At the second performance Glenda Gardia Gomez was a sterner figure than Polly Hilton on opening night (Hilton had earlier appeared as a gracious, amused Bathilde) but with both there was a sense that Myrtha acts more from necessity than vindictiveness. The Leading Wilis at both performances were entrancing, with Mayume Noguromi and Claire Voss outstanding.

The soft, rounded romantic style – embodied marvellously by the WAB corps – is amplified by the first entrance of the Wilis in a swirling, circular group and at the end they shrink from the morning light in chilling fashion as Giselle greets the dawn with exultation. The restoration of a fugue that’s usually cut is intriguing but slightly problematic, delaying Giselle and Albrecht’s glorious pas de deux.

Alexa Tuzil as Giselle and Juan Carlos Osma as Albrecht in Giselle (2019) (2). Photo by Sergey Pevnev

Juan Carlos Osma and Alexa Tuzil in Giselle. Photo: Sergey Pevnev

In the first cast principal artist Chihiro Nomura was a sunny, delighted Giselle until her happiness was shattered. On Saturday corps member Alexa Tuzil’s peasant girl was a highly promising work in progress in the first act. Her second act was absolutely scorching: passionate, fearless and greatly moving in what was her role debut.

The respective Albrechts, Oscar Valdés and Juan Carlos Osma, are perhaps not the most natural actors but each was serviceable in Act I and wonderful in Act II. Both are Cuban and have a gorgeous combination of impeccable line and exciting power. Osma’s elevation is astonishing. (There is quite a Cuban contingent at WAB right now: soloists Valdés, Osma and Dayana Hardy Acuña; demi-soloist Blanes, who was so charming in the Peasant Pas; and corps members Glenda Garcia Gomez and Ana Gallardo Lobaina.)

In the pit the West Australian Symphony Orchestra was under the baton of Jessica Gethin, a rising conductor making her ballet debut. There were ups and downs on both nights. Gethin directed performances that had many pleasures but included a few issues with wayward horns and endings in which dancer and orchestra were not as one. At times in the second act she opted for tempos that were just the tiniest fraction too glacial.

The one true disappointment, though, was Giselle’s mother (Beth James), whose attitudes and motivations remained opaque when they weren’t confused. Not exactly disappointing but a bit puzzling was the inclusion of labradors in the hunting party, adorable though they may be. At the second performance one of them – I believe it was Treacle (there were three named on the cast sheet) – was situated well downstage and wagged his tail enthusiastically through the entire of the Peasant Pas. Well, it was good.

Ends September 28.