Li Cunxin and Queensland Ballet, one year on

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

What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Queensland Ballet artistic director Li Cunxin

Queensland Ballet artistic director Li Cunxin. Photo: Christian Aas

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

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

Clare Morehen and Alexander Idaszak. Photo: Daivd Kelly

Clare Morehen and Alexander Idaszak. Photo: Daivd Kelly

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

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

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

There was a significant turnover in dancers after Li arrived.

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

Matthew Lawrence as Albrecht. Photo: David Kelly

Matthew Lawrence as Albrecht. Photo: David Kelly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Never. No, never.

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.

Robert Curran

In the first of an occasional conversation and discussion series, former Australian Ballet principal artist Robert Curran talks about his sometimes frustrating, not yet achieved but deeply considered and tenaciously sought transition from dancing to an artistic directorship

ROBERT Curran gave his last performance with The Australian Ballet on November 26, 2011 – as Danilo in The Merry Widow – and took a year off to prepare for what he hoped would be his second act: running a ballet company. Such a role hasn’t yet come his way so the preparations continue, with Curran determined to prove he has what it takes.

To that end, earlier this year he took the position of rehearsal director for Bangarra Dance Theatre, a company with 13 permanent dancers based in Sydney. He still has a mortgage in Melbourne so doesn’t have a permanent base in the harbour city. He couch-hops, he says. Curran has a long-distance relationship, another sacrifice he’s prepared to make to achieve his goal.

Robert Curran at Bangarra's Sydney headquarters. Photo: Quentin Jones

Robert Curran at Bangarra’s Sydney headquarters. Photo: Quentin Jones

Curran, now 36, spent his entire 16-year career at the AB, where for a decade he held the top rank. He succeeded Steven Heathcote as the AB’s undisputed leading man, a title that is still up for grabs at the national company. He was much missed during last year’s season of Onegin. The title role in John Cranko’s ballet would have been a perfect fit for someone whose partnering gifts were unequalled in his time with the AB and still remain unequalled. But, as Curran says about the timing of his retirement, there’s never a good time to stop, but there is a right one.

He has been setting himself up for the future more than a decade. He has a degree in business studies (including psychology, human resources and marketing) and a certificate of elite dance instruction from the Australian Ballet School. He choreographed four short works for the AB’s experimental Bodytorque program and co-founded a small Melbourne-based, project-based, contemporary ballet company, JACK, which is currently on hiatus.

As well as working with indigenous dance company Bangarra, Curran has been asked to choreograph Nixon in China for Victorian Opera.

Curran and I spoke recently at length about his commitments with Bangarra and how he has gone about making himself an attractive candidate for an artistic directorship. His openness is engaging and his insights enlightening. This is an edited transcript of his views on ballet. – DEBORAH JONES

The ballet of the future:

I DEVOUTLY believe the classic ballets are just as important as a Turner or a Manet. Everyone should see the Coppelias and Giselles. That foundation is very important. For a dancer, the kind of training needed is invaluable. Those ballets need to be ongoing.

But we need new versions of the classics, and at the same time we need to push into collaboration with actors, onstage musicians, circus artists, to create works that will be tomorrow’s classics. Collaborations that come out of a more multi-disciplinary approach might create something that could be considered worthy of joining the canon of Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, Coppelia, Giselle. It might be a version of a story we haven’t heard of yet and [performance artist] Marina Abramovic is involved somehow. It might be that in 100 years dancers are fighting to keep that alive.

“I have this vision of a classical ballet dancer who has full dramatic skills, who can sing, can speak, can project their voice, can be in film, can be up in the air, multi-disciplinary, rich in their art form.”

I love going to the theatre, hearing the rumpty-tumpty music of Don Quixote or La Bayadere, or sitting in the dark hearing the overture to Suite en Blanc. You know you’re in for a pure classical treat. But I also like sitting in a traverse theatre [as he did recently] with 20 other people seeing a show with one actor playing every single role. The weirder, the crazier the better. I have this vision of a classical ballet dancer who has full dramatic skills, who can sing, can speak, can project their voice, can be in film, can be up in the air, multi-disciplinary, rich in their art form.

You need to be talking on stage, singing on stage, miming, putting yourself way outside your comfort zone. What you learn about your art from experimentation you can apply to Swanhilda or Odette. There is a maelstrom of activity [elsewhere] that is sometimes lacking in classical ballet. For many dancers there’s no awareness that you need to extend yourself.

I was reading Jennifer Homans’s Apollo’s Angels and was incensed at her last chapter [in which she expressed the view that ballet was in its death throes] … We could talk about this for hours. People have this expectation that we’re going to have to grow another limb to make dance new and exciting. The beauty of classical ballet is the rigour that results from that training; it’s the collaboration and trying new combinations rather than trying to come up with new movements.

There is no new movement. You go forward and back and sideways and up and down. You have two arms and two legs and one head. That’s kind of it.

Life at Bangarra:

I ARRIVE at around 8 o’clock and try to get as much administration done before class, which is at 10. So I’m doing schedules, co-ordinating a lot of the Safe Dance program for the dancers. I’m in charge of all their physio with the in-house team, organising teachers and pianists. There’s a lot, a lot of admin. I enjoy doing it; it gives me a good insight into management, dealing with a lot of different people, getting things to work for people as much as possible, and then I either teach class or I try to do class with the dancers.

“If you see someone working on their own body with a focus that starts before class and finishes after class it’s an important example.”

They have class every day for an hour and a half – ballet, contemporary, theatre craft, yoga, Pilates. It depends on what they need at the time. There’s a long-term and a short-term strategic thing in my mind about what’s best [to develop the dancers] technically and what’s appropriate for the time of week and year.

Stephen [Page, Bangarra’s artistic director] is very trusting about that – he’s too busy to deal with it. He has his over-arching artistic vision for the company and he would most certainly let me know if that wasn’t being reached or was heading in a different direction. He’s great about giving me the responsibility about doing what’s best for the dancers to facilitate their work.

[After the early administration work] either I teach class or do it. I’m trying to keep in shape. Where possible it’s good to set an example and I like the idea of being fit and healthy and being able to demonstrate without risking life and limb. It’s for my own safety but it’s also important for younger dancers to observe someone who knows what they’re doing for themselves.  If you see someone working on their own body with a focus that starts before class and finishes after class it’s an important example.

Rehearsals start at 12. At the moment Blak is being created – I’m not actively involved in those rehearsals but like to be in the room wherever possible.  Daniel [Riley McKinley, 27] is a dancer and choreographer for Blak, so he’ll need another set of eyes to help him. He’s very open to collaborating with the dancers and with me. He’s very open-minded and intelligent about opening up a dialogue. A very smart man.

Soon after he joined Bangarra Curran went to northeast Arnhem Land with the company on one of its regular trips back to country …

AND what a mind-blowing experience that was! Of course I had my mental model of what it was like and it was a very strange experience to have that mental model blown away. I was really happy to have it blown away.

We went to local sacred sites and held a workshop [in Dhalinybuy]. Bangarra dancers were teaching and being taught by the local children. Then we went to Bremer Island where [Bangarra cultural consultant] Kathy Marika is from. And that was amazing too. It was a tropical holiday but with such intense, wonderful cultural saturation.I found it almost intimidating.

I felt my perception of my responsibility growing exponentially, which was a little bit disturbing but also inspiring. It reaffirmed this opportunity I’d been given, but it’s impossible not to notice that I’m not one of them. Impossible to not notice that and to be aware that this is not my world. My world is traditional ballet and the future of that. It’s challenging.

So how did Curran come to be at Bangarra?

I’M not embarassed to say that I got a little disillusioned with my search for artistic directorships. I do think there is a prevailing conservatism; either that or people are lying to me. Because everyone that gave me feedback on all of my applications said that my vision was exciting and inspiring but my lack of experience was the only thing that meant it couldn’t go forward. I began to get very disillusioned about the whole process, thinking, how am I going to get the experience before I get a job that’s going to give me the experience?

“Robert said to me straight up if a ballet job came up he would go. We’re very open. I just hope that job doesn’t come up just yet. He’s a decent man and he’s passionate, he just hunts quietly.”

– Stephen Page in The Australian, February 14, 2013

I wanted to have 12 months off [after leaving the AB] but I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that about two months in I began to get itchy and not content to have it last that long. By November I was starting to really get my feet back in the water and I heard on the grapevine that my predecessor at Bangarra was leaving. It’s such a small world.

I’ve always had a huge amount of respect for Stephen. I’ve watched all of Bangarra’s shows; I really do respect what this company has done and is doing. So when the job came up I thought, well, I’m back in the studio, out of my comfort zone. I’ve always taken for granted what ballet staff do and artistic administration do, and it’s been great for me to get a deeper understanding of how much is involved. That’s a very valuable lesson for me.

The year off:

[AFTER his last show in Sydney] I had one night in Melbourne then went straight to New York for four or five weeks. I spent almost every day with American Ballet Theatre. They were wonderful. They opened the doors, said go where you want, meet who you want. Do what you want. In reality I didn’t spend that much time hovering behind Kevin McKenzie. It’s a really difficult thing to organise. I spent the time getting to know the company and their operations.

Then I went to [UK dance leaders’ forum] DanceEast. That was an interesting exercise because it really was getting at the crux of leadership. Not concentrating on networking or skills development, but very much more exploring what it means to be a leader in the arts.

A standout experience was the World Theatre Festival in Brisbane [in February 2012]. The potential for collaboration across artistic genres and artistic technologies was something I spent two weeks revelling in. It was such a wonderful two weeks. I went from London to Russia – I spent a lot of time in Russia, then went to Japan and then straight to Brisbane. There were some pretty exciting people – Belarus Free Theatre, Il Pixel Rosso, the Italian-British multimedia arts company, [Italian theatre company] Motus. It was really thrilling and inspiring.

I did a workshop with Il Pixel Rosso and and Motus. Il Pixel Rosso was specifically about multimedia, Motus was about the creative process and their methods of creation. I was really open and ready for it. I wanted to be outside my comfort zone, I wanted to get away from plies and fondus – for a period of time. Not to shun them, but get away from them for a time.

I thought it would be a good idea for me to spend some time exposing myself to other forms of theatre. I went to the Metropolitan Opera in New York, I saw the Bolshoi any number of times, I went to Kabuki theatre in Japan, symphonies, Melbourne Theatre Company, Sydney Theatre Company. Any night I had free I was filling up with being in the theatre. Which is something I never got to do as a dancer. That was also contributing to my desire to experience more and see how it can apply to dance.

Does he feel he is now on his way?

IT depends on the day, to be honest. What I’m desperate for is for some company to take a risk and employ someone who has a really exciting vision, and then trust in the rest of their organisation – that there will be conversation and the existing administration, the existing dancers will safeguard the organisation. It’s a risk; I do get that.

“I should never, ever be artistic director of Bangarra Dance Theatre, ever. I wouldn’t want to be … It’s not the right job for me and I’m not the right person for the job.”

I’m busy, I’m working hard, but Stephen knows that I’m looking for bigger things … I want more responsibility. I love the dancers in Bangarra, I love what this company does, and at the moment that’s fuelling me to go in and do the best I can do, but at the end of the day I have got a vision for ballet that I would like to put on a company.

We’re talking about a classical ballet company. We’re talking between 30 and however many classically trained dancers and what their potential is and fully exploring that potential. As I have respect for the heritage of Aboriginal dance, I have the same respect for the heritage of classical ballet, but I am really, really excited about throwing a bunch of actors and musicians and designers and classical dancers together in a room and seeing what exciting things they can come up with for whatever medium, be it film, stage, site-specific, flash mob-y, whatever.

It sounds trite, and it’s been said before, but they become the classics of tomorrow. That’s in my mind. That’s not being fulfilled at Bangarra. It’s not possible. I should never, ever be artistic director of Bangarra Dance Theatre, ever. I wouldn’t want to be. It’s not the right fit. It’s not the right job for me and I’m not the right person for the job.

What is the involvement with Nixon in China?

THE second half of the second act is a scene where Pat and Richard Nixon go to the National Ballet of China to see The Red Detachment of Women. I’m not going to try to recreate it – the production is contemporary, a little bit sparse, and Victorian Opera doesn’t have the budget for 50 women in military costume.

There are four dancers and there is a lot of interaction with the principals. I’m trying to focus on ideas of liberation and what kind of emotional involvement there is in that, all framed within the American visit. Is America there to liberate China, or is China already liberated and trying to show America that they are?

I’m working on it only for three weeks so it’s a very short turnaround, but Bangarra’s tour to Melbourne coincides with the production of Nixon so it’s perfect for me. It will be stressful, but I’m really excited about collaborating and extending myself.

Are there any boundaries?

WOULD I go anywhere? Yes. Sydney is not my home. I’m couch-hopping. I wouldn’t say I’m hedging my bets, but it’s ridiculous to spend $400 a week on rent … I’m seeing this year as an opportunity to clarify my vision so when the opportunity arrives I can confidently say, “Look, I’d like to do a new version of this; I’d like to put this ballet with this ballet with this ballet.” I’ve done that in however many applications I’ve done. But I am contemplating and consolidating that vision.

Last year was a year of flux [vacancies came up at Queensland Ballet and West Australian Ballet]. Whether I’ve missed the boat and it’s another 10 years before there’s this kind of flux I don’t know. But I keep my ear to the ground. It’s a really difficult transition to make. I thought I was doing the right thing with my teacher’s course, bachelor of business, starting JACK Productions – but it’s not enough. I’ve made sure in the [Bangarra] contract that the company won’t have difficulty if I leave [early]. It clashes a bit with my feelings about how things should be done, but the [ballet] year in Europe and America starts in September; here in January. There’s a disconnect.

“It’s important to have leadership experiences that are not limited to your own art form. I believe passionately that ballet is still relevant, and have a great passion for it, but we do need to keep up, to be adaptable, flexible and open-minded.”

– Robert Curran, The Australian, November 29, 2011.

Applying to Queensland Ballet was by far the best experience. Their recruiting process was really, really good. It was my first [application] and they really walked me through it. It was a time full of hope for me, but they managed my disappointment as well. The fact that Li [Cunxin]  turned up with all his wonderful assets, there was no way anyone was getting to get a look in. And West Australian Ballet had their eye on Europe. [WAB appointed Belgian ballet master and rehearsal director Aurelien Scannella to the post.]

Leaving The Australian Ballet:

NOT dancing Onegin was a real wrench. It was difficult. I didn’t want to do Onegin and not enjoy it because of all the other things going through my head at that time. There was no other way for me to look at it than I was on the other side of the hill and sliding down. I was never going to be opening night Onegin. That decision had already been made. It wasn’t just that in and of itself [that sparked his retirement]. It was a combination of things – can I constantly prove that I’m worthy of doing the work that these young boys are ready to do?

I was being told that these people were ready and I needed to share. I had an awesome year with The Merry Widow, After the Rain, Concerto, then after that was told I needed to step back, to share. I understood that; but that didn’t happen to Steven Heathcote. I was his understudy until he decided to go.

But I got to do a traditional Swan Lake in Hong Kong in August 2011 with Jin Yao [previously a guest artist with the AB]; a beautiful production. I really, really loved it. I miss performing, and I really, really miss partnering. It could bring me to tears talking about it.

Bangarra Dance Theatre’s Blak opens on May 3 in Melbourne before touring to Wollongong, Sydney and Brisbane.

Victorian Opera’s Nixon in China opens in Melbourne on May 16.

Dorothee Gilbert, Ludmila Pagliero, Myriam Ould-Braham: three Giselles

Paris Opera Ballet, Capitol Theatre, Sydney: January 29, February 4, February 5

IT’S always something of an occasion when a dancer takes on a big role for the first time, particularly in one of the small handful of works in which ballerinas cement their reputation.  I remember being thrilled to discover that Alina Cojocaru, then just 21, would tackle her first Odette-Odile in Sydney in 2002 when the Royal Ballet was visiting. That performance at the Capitol Theatre remains fresh in my mind. As will two debuts in Giselle this week, also on the stage of the Capitol Theatre – that of Paris Opera Ballet etoiles Ludmila Pagliero (February 4) and Myriam Ould-Braham (February 5).

The corps de ballet of Paris Opera Ballet in Giselle. Photo: Sebastien Mathe

The corps de ballet of Paris Opera Ballet in Giselle. Photo: Sebastien Mathe

POB doesn’t just bring a production to town; it brings history. It’s worth noting that this year is the 300th anniversary of what would become POB’s school, the place at which most of its company members have trained to become not just dancers, but Paris Opera Ballet dancers with in a very specific tradition and style.  A glance at the program for Giselle shows that all POB’s etoiles trained at the school, with the exception of Argentinian-born Pagliero. Is this why her Giselle was so different in texture from that of Ould-Braham and the etoile who entranced on opening night, Dorothee Gilbert? (My review of the first performance can be seen below.)

The aura of the spirit world hovered over Gilbert from the first. She was modest in manner, quietly radiant in the sweep and romance of her upper body and uncannily quiet in landing from swift, high entrechats and pillowy jetes. Her audience acknowledgement in Act II, after her solo, will stay with me for a very long time. Gilbert came onstage only a short way, curving in on herself and giving the impression of something already disintegrating. In her performance there was the clearest line of action, leading to distraction and death at the end of the first act and diaphanous immateriality in the second.

On Monday Pagliero gave a dramatically different reading. She was large in gesture, flirtatious, wilful, mature. It seemed as if this Giselle was creating an invisible perimeter around her with swooping bends that looked exaggerated when set against the way in which others used their upper bodies. It appeared of little significance to her when her lover Loys – Albrecht in smart peasant-wear – presented her with the daisy from which he has surreptitiously pulled a petal so the message now is, yes, he loves me. Well of course he does. And when Giselle and Albrecht went through their little game of pulling hands away, Giselle was teasingly in charge, quite the forward one. When her exuberant dancing brought on a heart scare, Pagliero made it a moment of high impact, contracting extravagantly with a shudder.

I found it difficult to believe this Giselle would go mad from grief. But rage – that’s possible. She has been mightily humiliated. I got the compelling impression Giselle would be a formidable presence in the woods at night: Myrtha might have to watch her back. I could even believe she saves Albrecht as a demonstration of her abilities.

Pagliero covered the ground voraciously and astonished with super-high entrechats. As with Gilbert and, the following night with Ould-Braham, the audience gasped at the blurringly fast bourrees that zoomed her backwards offstage in Act II. The performance was marred for me by overly noisy footwork and because the Albrecht, Stephane Bullion, had a fairly ordinary night. He didn’t impose himself strongly on the piece and his substitution of double sauts de basque for part of the series of entrechats that represent Albrecht’s forced dance in Act II wasn’t particularly effective. Pagliero didn’t look terribly happy at the curtain call – or is that just a projection of mine? Perhaps things will gel better in the performances tonight (Wednesday February 6) and Friday (February 8).

It was lovely to see Pagliero and Bullion acknowledge the corps, whose contribution is so central to Giselle. They are superlative in their unity of style and purpose and the formations are exceptionally trenchant for this group of “zombie virgins”, as British critic Richard Buckle memorably called the Wilis in a 1962 review. The manner of their final exit in two tightly bunched groups is chilling.

Another relevant Buckle witticism I’d like to share: “Have you noticed, by the way, that the heroine … in French ballets always has eight Friends? That in itself is not so remarkable as the fact of their all being in town on the same day.” The eight Friends in POB’s Giselle are delightful, by the way, making one notice just how good for dance and for this ballet the often maligned Giselle score is.

And now to Ould-Braham, whose natural, girlish appearance – she looks about 16 – and sweet (never saccharine) manner could not be more perfect. You could see she would be putty in the hands of an experienced man, and he would be likely to find her utterly adorable. Buoyant jetes, melting turns, delicate epaulement and the kind of security that banishes any sense of artifice were at Ould-Braham’s command. She was ravishing, carrying into the second act some of the gentle life force that illuminated the first half. This Giselle isn’t really dead until she has saved Albrecht.

Mathieu Ganio partnered both Gilbert and Ould-Braham, and it was fascinating to see him make similar dramatic choices with each, and how they took on a different hue. With both he asserted himself firmly, controlling – albeit most courteously – some of their movements. But he seemed warmer with Ould-Braham; less remote. He danced divinely of course – that exquisite line, magnificent elevation and whisper-quiet control! – and is scheduled to appear again with Ould-Braham tomorrow (February 7) and Saturday evening (February 9). If I were not in Perth for the festival I’d be there again. (Saturday’s matinee is danced by Melanie Hurel – lovely, if her peasant pas is any guide – with fellow premier danseur Florian Magnenet.)

A few final thoughts:

POB’s Giselle has the most brilliant ending to Act I. Usually a bit of a melee forms around Giselle’s body. Here Berthe, Giselle’s mother, simply sees Albrecht off with a long, penetrating stare. Perfect.

No one can really match Marie-Agnes Gillot for command of the stage. Second-cast Emilie Cozette is fine as Myrtha if you haven’t seen Gillot, but doesn’t have her grandeur, nor her ability to come down from a jete without a sound. Nolwenn Daniel made her debut as Myrtha alongside Ould-Braham, and impressed with serious balances on pointe and the way she used the air – the wind beneath her wings, if you like – to convey weightlessness.

Sydney Lyric Orchestra played well for conductor Koen Kessels, who liked to set a lively pace. The brass didn’t have a great night on Monday.

The Capitol Theatre is excellent for large-scale ballet. It would be very pleasant to see more big companies there more often.

A bouquet for premier danseur Audric Bezard, who has danced Hilarion every night so far and did get one thinking seriously about whether Giselle was an extremely silly girl to knock him back.

And many bouquets to Leo Schofield and Ian McRae for bringing POB back to Sydney. In a world in which ballet commentators are forever banging on about the internationalisation of companies and the consequent dilution of national style, POB remains sui generis.

The best of 2012 and my picks for 2013

The long list for my top 10 shows of 2012 numbered more than 20 – a pretty good indication of a strong year in the arts. So why restrict myself to 10? No point really, so here are the shows that worked for me last year:

At the Sydney Festival: Babel (Words), a wild dance-theatre ride from choreographers Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Damien Jalet; Griffin Theatre Company’s searing production of Gordon Graham’s The Boys, directed with frighteningly effective violence by Sam Strong; The Hayloft Project’s Thyestes, making a welcome Sydney appearance after rocking Melbourne; and the superb I’m Your Man at Belvoir, verbatim theatre about boxing by Roslyn Oades with an authentic whiff of sweat.

In other theatre, Lee Lewis’s spot-on direction made Bell Shakespeare’s School for Wives a delight from start to finish. At Belvoir, Kate Mulvaney and Anne-Louise Sarks’s version of Medea, directed by Sarks, was a triumph. The audacity of the approach – the play is seen from the perspective of the little boys who have no idea what is coming – and superb performances from its two young actors made it one of the year’s absolute best. The final show of the year (and it’s sort of the first production of 2013) came with Sport for Jove’s terrific Shakespeare festival, and you can see my review below.

In the pure dance arena, the first whammy of the year came at the Perth International Arts Festival with American legend Lucinda Childs’s Dance; one of the most intricate, delicate, mesmerising, atmospheric, bloody difficult pieces you’re ever likely to see. Sydney Opera House’s Spring Dance festival, curated by Sydney Dance Company’s Rafael Bonachela, scored a big hit with Tao Dance Theatre, another demonstration of how apparently minimal means can imply so much.

Also in dance, retiring Australian Ballet principal artist Rachel Rawlins was exquisite in her final performance for the company, as Odette/Odile in the new Stephen Baynes Swan Lake. The torment of Odette’s situation and her desperate need for love’s saving grace have never been more clearly articulated or more moving.

On the opera front Opera Australia’s Lyndon Terracini became a metaphorical rainmaker and a literal rain stopper when Sydney’s weather somehow turned obedient for Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour. La traviata somehow simultaneously offered intimacy and grand spectacle against one of the most astonishing backdrops anywhere in the world, and threw in Emma Matthews’s gorgeous Violetta too. Matthews backed up with a stellar Lucia in the new John Doyle Lucia di Lammermoor for OA. Its austerity didn’t appeal to those who like a bit of bling to go with their big night out, but Doyle put the performers and the music above all else with stunning results.

Sydney Symphony showed that a big orchestra, huge chorus and a group of top-flight singers can take an audience places that elude many opera productions. The concert performance of Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades was outstanding.

I liked Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s Phantom of the Opera sequel Love Never Dies more than many – it had everything but a truly convincing story. Top-notch in all departments was South Pacific, the Lincoln Centre production mounted by Opera Australia to huge acclaim and monster box office (and a hugely welcome alternative to Gilbert & Sullivan). South Pacific went so well it gets a return season in Sydney this year. Another instance of Terracini rain-making. A much smaller piece of music theatre – cabaret really – grabbed my attention earlier in the year. Christie Whelan’s portrayal of troubled songstress Britney Spears in Britney Spears: The Cabaret was remarkable for its wit, insight and sensitivity. Not all audiences were in tune with the show’s vein of melancholy and saw it as a send-up. It was much more than that.

Synaesthesia, the music festival staged at Hobart’s Museum of Old and New Art, was extraordinarily stimulating. Involving talents as disparate as Brian Ritchie, David Walsh and Lyndon Terracini (yes, him again), Synaesthesia presented a wide array of music inside MONA, which proved to have wonderfully spacious and sympathetic acoustics. A real winner.

Looking offshore, in New York superstars David Hallberg and Natalia Osipova danced Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet for American Ballet Theatre and, at the performance I saw, had to come out for an ovation after the first act so vociferous was the audience demand; later in the year Royal New Zealand Ballet staged Giselle in a new, beautifully lucid production from the hands of RNZB artistic director Ethan Stiefel and Royal Ballet star Johan Kobborg.

And in 2013 …

Frequent Flyer points at the ready, I am greatly looking forward to (in no particular order):

Dance: Sacre, Sydney Festival, Paris Opera Ballet’s Giselle (Sydney), Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev in Don Quixote for the Australian Ballet (Melbourne only), The Bolshoi Ballet with Le Corsaire and The Bright Stream (Brisbane), Alexei Ratmansky’s new Cinderella for the Australian Ballet (Melbourne and Sydney), West Australian Ballet’s Onegin (Perth)

Theatre: The Threepenny Opera from the Berliner Ensemble, Perth Festival, One Man, Two Guvnors (Adelaide, Sydney, Melbourne),Elevator Repair Service’s The Select (The Sun Also Rises), Ten Days on the Island festival (Hobart), Angels in America Parts One and Two, Belvoir (Sydney), The Maids, with Cate Blanchett and Isabelle Huppert, Sydney Theatre Company, Venus in Fur, Queensland Theatre Company (Brisbane), Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead with Tim Minchin and Toby Schmitz, STC (Sydney), The Cherry Orchard with Pamela Rabe, Melbourne Theatre Company, Waiting for Godot with Hugo Weaving and Richard Roxburgh, STC (Sydney)

Opera: Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour’s Carmen, (Sydney), A Masked Ball, in a La Fura dels Baus production, Opera Australia (Sydney, Melbourne), Sunday in the Park with George, Victorian Opera (Melbourne), The Flying Dutchman in Concert, Sydney Symphony, The Ring Cycle, if I can get my hands on a ticket (Melbourne)

Exhibitions: Turner from the Tate – The Making of a Master, Art Gallery of South Australia (Adelaide), The 7th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art, Queensland Art Gallery and Gallery of Modern Art (Brisbane)