Beauty in the eye of the beholder

Revelations in New York, stars made at The Australian Ballet, Alina Cojocaru in Brisbane and more …

The Australian Ballet dubbed its 2015 season A Year of Beauty. Giselle, Swan Lake, Cinderella and Frederick Ashton’s The Dream were on the program, lovely ballets all, but essentially teasers for the main event – the new Sleeping Beauty, staged by artistic director David McAllister with opulent designs by Gabriela Tylesova. On the other side of the world an even grander production was unveiled. American Ballet Theatre’s Alexei Ratmansky sought to return The Sleeping Beauty to something close to its original form and style.

Artists of The Australian Ballet in David McAllister's The Sleeping Beau...

The Australian Ballet’s The Sleeping Beauty, designed by Gabriela Tylesova

In Brisbane, Queensland Ballet staged Greg Horsman’s smaller-scaled interpretation (originally made for Royal New Zealand Ballet in 2011) and a visiting company, Russian National Ballet Theatre, toured Australia and New Zealand extensively with (inevitably) Swan Lake but also Beauty. The AB’s new Storytime Ballet venture for very young children was launched this year with, yes, The Sleeping Beauty (a miniature clocking in at well under an hour).

I thus had my own Year of Beauty in 2015 with 10 performances in all – two casts of the Ratmansky, four of McAllister’s, two of Horsman’s and just one Russian National Ballet Theatre (more than enough, alas) and one Storytime Ballet: The Sleeping Beauty. 

This Beauty bounty inevitably drew me back to DVDs of productions including those by The Royal Ballet, Bolshoi Ballet and The Australian Ballet. Their stagings of Sleeping Beauty could be looked at anew, particularly in light of Ratmansky’s discoveries, and encouraged repeated returns to the complete score (the 2012 version by the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Neeme Järvi for Chandos is superb) although none of the versions I saw used all the music, as no one does. A little-admired four-hour 1999 Mariinsky version aiming for authenticity has been dropped from the repertoire. These days companies want – and need – to bring The Sleeping Beauty in under three hours. At American Ballet Theatre the reason was stated bluntly in the program: “The ballet has, however, had to be cut somewhat to fit within the union-defined time limitation.”

Alexei Ratmansky's The Sleeping Beauty

Gillian Murphy as Princess Aurora for ABT. Photo: Gene Schiavone.

It’s worth quoting in length from David Nice’s scene-by-scene analysis that accompanies the Chandos recording to see the kind of thing that’s lost. In the second entr’acte (the first is rarely heard at all), “the note C is sustained by the strings, principally the violins, for exactly one hundred bars. This is time suspended: the ‘sleep’ chords … and the themes of the Lilac Fairy and Carabosse pass and dissolve. Few if any productions observe the full symbolic duration of this hypnotic spell – Aurora is usually heard to sleep for a mere forty or so years.” Not that Petipa used every bit of the music Tchaikovsky wrote for his ballet either. Pragmatism reigned then as now.

All the productions I saw were traditional ones underpinned by Petipa’s 1890 staging for St Petersburg’s imperial Ballet. It and other ballets were recorded in the Stepanov system of notation and came to the West in the luggage of Nicholas Sergeyev, a regisseur who managed to exit Russia not long after the revolution of 1917. Diaghilev’s 1921 production The Sleeping Princess was based on these notations as was The Royal Ballet’s of 1939, staged by Sergeyev and also called The Sleeping Princess although claiming to be more true to Petipa’s original than Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes version (with which Sergeyev was also closely associated). When revived in 1946 – and famously winning over New York in 1949 – the ballet was now The Sleeping Beauty and contained some new choreography.

The Beauty staged by the RB to celebrate its 75th anniversary in 2006 had further changes: it was billed as being produced by Monica Mason and Christopher Newton after Ninette de Valois and Nicholas Sergeyev with additional choreography by Frederick Ashton, Anthony Dowell and Christopher Wheeldon. That list in itself tells the story of how ballet is translated and transformed down the ages. The Australian Ballet’s 1993 recording has choreography by Petipa, “reproduced by Monica Parker from the Nicholas Sergeyev notation” with direction and additional choreography by Maina Gielgud.

Alexei Ratmansky's The Sleeping Beauty

Sarah Lane and Herman CornejoŽ in Alexei Ratmansky’s The Sleeping Beauty. Photo: Rosalie O’Connor.

The versions are very similar when it comes to the overall story arc and key passages but have many different details that give an individual stamp. Not all of them are improvements, as Ratmansky’s painstaking research into how The Sleeping Beauty would have looked in 1890 makes clear.

The choreographer made a close study of the Stepanov notations and created a revelatory version for ABT and La Scala, who shared the eye-watering cost, reported to be in the vicinity of $US6 million. The money was well spent: this was indisputably the dance event of the year. I saw it in New York in May following its premiere in California. The production was extraordinarily sumptuous, flooding the Metropolitan Opera stage with so many dancers and supernumeraries that at some points there were more than 100 people on stage.

Even so, Ratmansky used fewer people than were in Petipa’s original, with its hordes of children, pages, courtiers, cavaliers and minor royalty to attend upon their majesties, each carefully arranged according to rank. The Sleeping Beauty is not only a fairy tale celebrating the victory of good over evil. It depicts a formal, long-established power structure as the embodiment of harmony. Its traditions and ceremonies imply continuance and order. In such a world Carabosse’s exclusion from Aurora’s christening, the event that initiates the action, puts a great tear in the social fabric. Ratmansky shows that in a healing gesture she is invited to Aurora’s wedding. It makes perfect sense, even if in the vast congregation at the end of the ballet Carabosse was seen only fleetingly.

And that’s the thing about Ratmansky’s version. It feels right dramatically and musically at every point.

A brief moment in the Rose Adagio perfectly illustrates how ballet can shift from its original intention into a kind of never-never land of whispers only partly heard. Aurora steps forward on her left foot, on pointe, then lowers her heel to the floor. She bends forward in an arabesque penchée, inclines her head and upper body towards the audience, bends her right arm and holds it close to her chest. Her right hand is seen to touch her left cheek, or perhaps is held near her face without obscuring it. Aurora does this four times, and sometimes the four Princes kneel behind her, all together or else one by one. Sometimes she leans on each Prince as she passes (as in the Grigorovich version for the Bolshoi), sometimes not. Sometimes she gives the Princes a glance, sometimes not. What exactly is she doing here, in this very specific sequence of body and head inclines?

Alexei Ratmansky's The Sleeping Beauty

Diana Vishneva with violin pages. Photo: Gene Schiavone.

Ratmansky tells us. Aurora is listening to a group of little pages as they play violins. In the Grigorovich staging, filmed in 1989, we can see youngsters dancing in the background while holding violins; in the RB version, young boys stand in the background plucking mandolins in a haphazard and desultory fashion. So the idea there should be some young people on stage with stringed instruments has survived, sometimes, in some form, but not their reason for being there. It may seem odd to single out a sequence that lasts less than 20 seconds but it always looked meaningless to me; Ratmansky turns the light on.

It was also delightful to see the Precious Stones music of the third act danced by the rarely seen fairies of Gold, Silver, Sapphire and Diamond (in McAllister’s and Horsman’s productions the Prologue fairies are drafted in for these dances). The Sapphire music is, excitingly, in the tricky metre of 5/4, written this way because Petipa was thinking of a five-faceted stone. In 1946 the RB introduced the now-familiar characters of Florestan and his sisters to replace the jewel fairies, with choreography by Ashton.

Study of the Stepanov notations revealed a quality of movement that has changed dramatically since Petipa’s time although Ratmansky also examined many other sources to fill gaps. For guidance on upper-body style Ratmansky consulted Ballets Russes material, including film shot in Australia by Melbourne eye specialist and ballet enthusiast Ringland Anderson that McAllister was able to make available. In Ratmansky’s version there are no extreme extensions. Legs are held softly, there is extensive use of the demi-pointe and lines are more rounded. With less height comes more speed and time for intricate footwork. The ballet sparkles as much as it intrigues. A delightful aspect is the low retiré position in pirouettes, sometimes not much above the ankle. In supported pirouettes the men use one arm only to guide the ballerina rather than paddling her around, and there are many other surprises, such as the double air turn for the Prince that ends with a landing on one foot. A beguiling airiness prevails.

The production includes some elements from The Sleeping Princess and later versions of the ballet that are now considered standard, including fish dives in the grand pas de deux and the arms raised en couronne as Aurora pauses, balancing on pointe, in between greeting each suitor (said to be a Fonteyn innovation). Interestingly, the very poor production from Russian National Ballet Theatre is more faithful to Petita in both those respects although quite chaotic in others. I couldn’t help thinking, though, that the Russian Aurora I saw, Elizaveta Lobacheva, perhaps didn’t attempt the balances in the Rose Adagio as we know them because the taped music offered no room to move. (I saw her Odette-Odile too; she’s a very proficient dancer.)

David McAllister’s staging experience was quite limited before he took on the task of bringing a new Sleeping Beauty into his company’s repertoire to replace Stanton Welch’s 2005 production. It was a courageous move on his part, pulled off remarkably well. I have a handful of reservations about aspects of the storytelling but audiences have responded strongly and a long life seems assured. It needs to stick around: this Beauty cost the royal sum of $2 million or thereabouts, although more than 70 per cent of the budget came from about 2000 ballet-lovers, making donations big and small. Some gave individual gifts of more than $50,000, others put in $100. It was an impressive fund-raising feat.

Lana Jones in David McAllister's The Sleeping Beauty. The Australian Bal...

Lana Jones in David McAllister’s production of The Sleeping Beauty for The Australian Ballet. Photo: Jeff Busby

While the drain on the AB coffers wasn’t particularly great for such a large-scale production, the many people who donated would have a right to feel very cheated if it wasn’t a stayer. My prediction: when the AB vacates the Joan Sutherland Theatre at the Sydney Opera House for some months in 2017 to allow replacement of the ageing theatre machinery it will presumably perform elsewhere in the city and will need popular repertoire to entice the audience to follow. If it can get the Capitol – and I stress I have no information on this – the larger stage and the big, ornate auditorium would be perfect for this Sleeping Beauty.

I digress. As I wrote just after the Melbourne premiere in September, Gabriela Tylesova’s design “is almost absurdly beautiful. Tylesova revels in saturated colours, flounces upon ruffles, embellishments, beads, crystals and feathers. There are columns, chandeliers and romantic vistas.” It is a sumptuous fantasia at one with Tchaikovsky’s magical score and I enjoyed it greatly each time I saw it, or at least most of it. I still think McAllister and dramaturg Lucas Jervies have muddled and muddied certain details of the story but McAllister was able to field strong casts and gave several dancers a career-defining break.

The AB seems to have hit the mark with Storytime Ballet: The Sleeping Beauty. Hordes of tutu-wearing, wand-waving little ones packed the Drama Theatre of the Sydney Opera House to see a vastly simplified version of the ballet, helped along with clear, clever narration. The dancing from young Australian Ballet School graduates and members of the AB’s education ensemble was a touch on the careful side as they negotiated bits and pieces of Petipa on the small stage. (For the first time ever I regretted the absence of the White Cat and Puss-in-Boots from Act III; I think the children would have adored them.) The real fun came from panto-like interaction between narrator Catalabutte and an enthusiastic audience that was thrilled to warn of Carabosse’s appearance at Aurora’s birthday party – “Behind you! Look behind you!!” – and helped rouse the slumbering palace with lusty wake-up shouts.

Storytime Ballet The Sleeping Beauty. The Australian Ballet 2015. photo Jeff Busby 01

Storytime Ballet: The Sleeping Beauty. Photo: Jeff Busby

Queensland Ballet’s production, which I saw in October, is a great success. Greg Horsman made it for relatively small forces and his cuts and conflations are done with a keen eye to clarity and logic. The world he creates is coherent and consistent in tone. Everything makes sense in a world that’s perhaps not terribly grand but zesty and imaginative. Among the pleasant innovations is the presence at the christening of four young princes who will grow up to become Aurora’s suitors; the garland dance arranged for gardeners and their girls, making it happy and relaxed; and a youthful, glamorous Carabosse who has the ability to turn into a dragon.

Russian National Ballet Theatre toured New Zealand and Australia for three months, offering more than 100 performances divided between Swan Lake and The Sleeping Beauty. They performed in a variety of venues, from modestly sized arts centres in small cities to large theatres such as Melbourne’s Regent and Sydney’s State. In October I saw The Sleeping Beauty in the Big Top at Sydney’s Luna Park, not the most atmospheric venue for grand classical ballet but RNBT was taking whatever venues it could. There was a set of the most meagre kind (well, an unchanging backcloth really), recorded music, far too few dancers and the story told in such broad strokes as to be incomprehensible.

It was depressing to see how basic everything was. The Princess Florine made no attempt to emulate the flutterings of the Bluebird with whom she was dancing, thus eliminating all charm and meaning; Carabosse, shorn of attendants, dashed about the stage manically and confusingly; the hunt scene appeared to be happening within the castle confines; and so on. RNBT’s ability to have so many dates on this tour is evidence, however, that there is audience demand for the ballet classics that is not being met by local companies, and that Russian companies, no matter how inadequate, can still pull a crowd.

While I greatly admired Ratmansky’s production, the first-cast Aurora of Gillian Murphy felt rather too modern for this staging despite the care taken to rein in her 21st-century facility. Her Prince, Marcelo Gomes, was a wonderfully charismatic figure. Although Sarah Lane, a soloist I saw at the second New York performance, was not as technically assured as Murphy she was warm, youthful and had lovely rapport with her Prince, the superlative Herman Cornejo. He bounded through the fleet, delicate, precise footwork with much ease and charm.

Queensland Ballet - The Sleeping Beauty - International Ballet Stars Alina Cojocaru and Chi Cao Image 6. Photo David Kelly

Chi Cao and Alina Cojocaru for Queensland Ballet. Photo: David Kelly

At Queensland Ballet there was the gift of Alina Cojocaru as guest artist. She is rightly thought to be among the very best, if not the best, Aurora of the moment. As I wrote at the time: “She radiates light and joy from a tiny body that gives the impression not only of being buoyed by the music but indivisible from it. Her dancing is brilliant, each moment etched with great precision, yet everything feels as if it is the inspiration of that moment. Most potent of all is her warm generosity, seen in abundant, open-hearted gestures and an intense gaze that encompasses the entire theatre.”

QB’s second-cast Aurora was the newish principal artist Yanela Piñera, who came to Brisbane from National Ballet of Cuba. She dances on a grand scale, making the Act III pas de deux a glittering highlight in concert with principal Hao Bin, who recently announced his retirement and will be missed in a company with few experienced leading men.

The AB ended its Year of Beauty on a high note by promoting three dancers who had made debuts in Sydney as Aurora and Prince Désiré. At the Melbourne premiere principals Lana Jones and Kevin Jackson gave stately performances that matched the grandeur of the setting. Two months later, on the smaller Joan Sutherland Theatre stage in Sydney, there was a more intimate feel, at least in the performances I attended.

Brett Chynoweth was made a senior artist (the second-highest rank) after his soaring, heartfelt Prince Désiré. There was a felicitous pairing with senior artist Natasha Kusch as Aurora – though both are relatively small they make an abundant impression with legs like rapiers, exquisitely articulated feet and loads of height and speed. This was an incredibly important opportunity for Chynoweth, who has rarely been cast in leading classical roles (although he danced a very fine Prince in The Nutcracker in 2014). In Beauty he radiated passion from every pore and his Act II solo, marked by pillowy elevation and immaculate airborne turns, was a glorious expression of longing.

Robyn Hendricks’s first Aurora also won her a promotion to senior artist. She was a slightly mysterious young woman in whom you could see the queen she is destined to be. The watchfulness and engagement with her suitors created a whole, interesting, individual character and the elegance and quiet sophistication of her dancing spoke of great things ahead. Principal Adam Bull partnered her securely although he was not looking in peak physical form – a little tired at year’s end perhaps.

Bernet-Kate Longley

Benedicte Bemet in rehearsal with Kevin Jackson. Photo: Kate Longley

McAllister astutely gave coryphée Benedicte Bemet the inestimable support of principal Kevin Jackson, who has been on fire all year, for her debut as Aurora. It could be the start of a very fruitful relationship following the retirement earlier this year of Jackson’s most frequent partner, Madeleine Eastoe. The possibilities for Bemet would appear to be boundless. Her Aurora rates as the most exciting debut I’ve seen in more than 40 years of ballet-watching. At just 21 she brought the authentic glow of youth and promise to the stage. She was so entirely at one with the role that all the technical requirements and difficulties simply disappeared. Every step was part of her journey from innocent to prospective bride to woman on the brink of maturity.

Usually one has a sympathetic butterfly or two as the dancer approaches the climactic balances and promenades of the Rose Adagio but not here. Bemet was absolutely in the moment and so was her audience. The balances were astonishing – the audience went wild – and they were part of a story. There was purity, radiance and joy in Bemet’s dancing. She was enchanting; a promotion to soloist swiftly came her way.

I haven’t even got started on the many exquisite fairies and Bluebirds, the merits or otherwise of various Carabosses and Catalabuttes, the conducting and many other aspects of this endlessly fascinating ballet. But enough, I think, for now.

Queensland Ballet’s The Sleeping Beauty

Lyric Theatre, Brisbane, October 23 and October 24

It is something of an understatement to say Greg Horsman knows The Sleeping Beauty well. Not only was it the first ballet he saw, the one that made him want to be a dancer, it was a key role for him. Among the stages on which he performed as Prince Désiré are the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden and St Petersburg’s Mariinsky, where The Sleeping Beauty was brought to life in 1888.

Now ballet master at Queensland Ballet, Horsman has revived the production he created in 2011 for Royal New Zealand Ballet, a company of similar size to QB (he was ballet master there before coming to QB). This Sleeping Beauty isn’t one for the purists given the changes Horsman has made to what is considered the usual text, but it is a highly attractive and satisfying one. The production has an appealing human scale without sacrificing any of its fairy tale magic. The broad strokes of the familiar legend are there, shaped into a narrative that Horsman fills out with many original, felicitous details. It’s not a hugely grand Sleeping Beauty but one that beguiles with its unfailingly clear storytelling – there is quite a lot of mime, all of it instantly legible – and wonderful concentration on character rather than effects.

Alina Cojocaru and Chi Cao in The Sleeping Beauty. Photo: David Kelly

Alina Cojocaru and Chi Cao in The Sleeping Beauty. Photo: David Kelly

Horsman makes a virtue of transforming the ballet for medium-sized forces (QB has 31 dancers at present and eight young artists). The ballet has only one interval and a very brief pause between acts II and III, Horsman excises and conflates characters stylishly, gracefully interweaves the fairies from the Prologue throughout the action, builds up the wicked fairy Carabosse’s role enjoyably and keeps pomp to a minimum. It might seem odd to describe The Sleeping Beauty – the ultimate achievement in Russian Imperial-era ballet – as an intimate experience, but that’s how it felt.

Horsman’s first surprise comes early. The curtain rises on Catalabutte fussing around with the invitations to Aurora’s christening and, guess what? He’s a cat. You shake your head for a moment and then think, well, why not? This isn’t a palace unacquainted with non-humans, as the influx of fairies, sparkling emissaries from the supernatural realm, indicates. It’s lovely how the latter keep turning up, all bright and full of good cheer, to keep an eye on things. Their recurring presence gives the ballet a strong spine.

In a lively piece of characterisation Carabosse is presented as an impossibly glamorous contemporary of the good fairies, the kind of young woman who would have led the pack of mean girls at high school and graduated from university with a higher degree in viciousness. Clare Morehen at the first performance and Eleanor Freeman at the second invested Carabosse with super-model confidence and glossiness with their high-flying jetés and insolent stares. I particularly liked the link-up with the good fairies, all of them holding hands and dancing in unison, as perhaps they once all did in happier days. Carabosse also has quite a trick up her sleeve for later, when the prince fights his way to the sleeping Aurora.

Clare Morehen (centre) as Carabosse. Photo: David Kelly

Clare Morehen (centre) as Carabosse. Photo: David Kelly

I was constantly taken with how carefully Horsman makes sure the world he creates is consistent in tone throughout. The garland dance, for example, is a relaxed affair for a group of young palace gardeners and their girls rather than the entire village putting on a formal show for Aurora’s 16th birthday. The hunt scene is for Prince Désiré, two friends and his tutor only. The Act III wedding dispenses with all the usual fairy tale characters except the cats – yes, that would be Catalabutte and his wife, Lady Florine – and Bluebirds, who arrive in a cage as a wedding gift and are, of course, catnip to Catalabutte, much to the audience’s delight.

It was striking how fresh, individual and lively everyone was, in particular the zesty women. New QB principal, Argentinian-born Laura Hidalgo, was a luscious Bluebird and I would very much like to see her Aurora. At the second performance junior soloist Teri Crilly enchanted with her sparky, darting Bluebird (she was, not surprisingly, in the first cast as the fairy who bestows the gift of Song on Aurora). All the fairies distinguished themselves but special mention goes to soloist Lisa Edwards, the fairy of Beauty in the first cast and fairy of Grace in the second. She has a very appealing aura of calm and mystery.

All Horsman’s inventions sit easily around the traditional set pieces for Aurora, danced on opening night by guest artist Alina Cojocaru. Formerly with The Royal Ballet and now with English National Ballet, Cojocaru is widely considered to be the Aurora of her generation. She radiates light and joy from a tiny body that gives the impression not only of being buoyed by the music but indivisible from it. Her dancing is brilliant, each moment etched with great precision, yet everything feels as if it is the inspiration of that moment. Most potent of all is her warm generosity, seen in abundant, open-hearted gestures and an intense gaze that encompasses the entire theatre. She is an extraordinary artist.

Chi Cao and Alina Cojocaru. Photo: David Kelly

Chi Cao and Alina Cojocaru. Photo: David Kelly

At the second performance QB’s glamorous principal artist Yanela Piñera, formerly with the National Ballet of Cuba, danced Aurora with a similarly bounteous engagement with the audience. I would venture she isn’t perhaps entirely a natural Aurora temperamentally speaking – Piñera has a very sophisticated quality – so Act III was a better fit for her than Act I, although her dancing is very fine indeed. She can achieve a triple pirouette with the lightest of touches, unrushed and unshowy, as a demonstration of delight and wonder rather than display of technique.

Queensland Ballet principal Yanela Pinera as Aurora. Photo: David Kelly

Queensland Ballet principal Yanela Pinera as Aurora. Photo: David Kelly

Guest artist Chi Cao, from Birmingham Royal Ballet, partnered Cojocaru elegantly, although at the second performance I found QB principal Hao Bin a more ardent prince who made more of the awakening kiss, which is given pride of place – far from always being the case – in Gary Harris’s extremely effective set. There are intimations of soaring Gothic arches, a storybook forest for the vision scene and a moveable gazebo that enables the kiss to have the dramatic impact it often lacks. A pity, though, about the very loud clunking when it’s moved about.

QB’s music director-designate Nigel Gaynor conducted the Queensland Symphony Orchestra in a sumptuous performance of Tchaikovsky’s greatest ballet score. The QSO’s playing made one wish we were hearing the whole score, but of course we weren’t. It was cut – but then it always is. Companies always want to bring the ballet in at three hours or less and Horsman, by having only one interval instead of two, manages a brisk two and a half hours.

So Horsman makes the usual nips and tucks (the hunt scene, entr’actes, Act III jewel variations), which isn’t much of a surprise. But his most surprising cut isn’t really to do with length; it’s about that coherent world view for the ballet. Except for a tantalising bar or two, the blazing, magisterial, hymn-like processional on which the ballet usually ends is gone, replaced by music associated with the Lilac Fairy. The usual salute to the splendour of the monarchy – and its continuation through the union of Aurora and Désiré – gives way to a couple in love being blessed by the Lilac Fairy, also called the fairy of Wisdom.

As I say, human scale.

Queensland Ballet’s The Sleeping Beauty ends on October 31.

Highland fling

Playhouse, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane, May 20.

IN August Bournonville’s enduringly popular Romantic ballet, a young man dozes by a vast open fireplace and is woken by an apparition, a beautiful winged creature who kisses him. Immediately enraptured, he tries to catch her but she eludes his grasp and, in an effect that never fails to delight, disappears up the chimney but not from his thoughts.

It’s not a propitious start to his wedding day and the omens only get worse.

La Sylphide takes place in two worlds, that of the flesh and that of the spirit, although they are not entirely separate dimensions. While humans go about their cosy domesticity, supernatural forces hover, whisper and pounce. The safety of hearth and home can’t be taken for granted.

James flees the conventional future laid out for him and heads to the forest in search of his sylph and a passionate, magical life that he realises too late is unattainable. La Sylphide is a “be careful what you wish for” cautionary tale, pitting stay-at-home ordinariness against fatal attraction.

Qi Huan as James in La Sylphide. Photo: David Kelly

Qi Huan as James in La Sylphide. Photo: David Kelly

Queensland Ballet performs La Sylphide in Peter Schaufuss’s 1979 production, which is essentially faithful to the familiar Bournonville version with some additions and alterations. Schaufuss upgrades James’s home from a Scottish farmhouse to a manor house and gives him more dancing with an extra brooding solo in Act I and a kind of interior monologue expressed as a pas de trois for James, his bride-to-be Effie and the sylph.

The trio feels unnecessary but at the opening performance there was joy in every second spent on stage by Qi Huan, plucked out of retirement by QB artistic director Li Cunxin to dance James. Qi spent nearly a decade with Royal New Zealand Ballet and now teaches at New Zealand School of Dance.

The singular Bournonville dance language is notable for its intricate footwork and floating levitations. Qi’s astonishing elevation gave him all the time in the world for multiple razor-sharp beaten steps in the air, his double tours – to left as well as right – were landed with exceptional poise and precision and the deep, deep plies Schaufuss favours were plush. Purists would undoubtedly think the latter a distortion of Bournonville stylistic modesty but they were undeniably exciting. Qi acted superbly too. His retreat from the stage is a mystery.

Not all audiences will see Qi, of course, as there are five casts for this 10-performance run. If that seems a lot, it is proof of Li’s desire to stretch as many of his dancers as possible and to challenge them in this lovely, incredibly demanding style. Not that Li was able to cast James five times from within. There is another male guest artist for the season, Luke Schaufuss, a dancer with Birmingham Royal Ballet and Peter Schaufuss’s son. The family affair is taken further: Peter’s daughter Tara dances with Queensland Ballet and while on opening night she was a featured Sylph, she is also cast as the Sylphide.

The QB men cast as James are the company’s only male principal, Hao Bin, and soloists Shane Weurthner and Camilo Ramos, the latter in his first weeks with QB. He, like the company’s new principal artist Yanela Piñera, is from National Ballet of Cuba.

I assume Li would like to get his company to the size and level at which he could confidently cast all the major works from within but that’s not done quickly or easily. It is, however, fascinating to watch the process of company building.

The first performance introduced the glamorous Piñera, who seemed a rather flesh-and-blood Sylphide as did fellow principal Clare Morehen as the Lead Sylph. Both are still feeling their way with the spirit of this radiant style, as is Weurthner, who gave a bit too much as Gurn, the man who loves and finally wins Effie.

Sarah Thompson’s sweetly glowing Effie made a strong impression and it was wonderful to see Mary Li in her element as the witch Madge, engineering James’s downfall with scarily cheerful, robust malevolence.

Some muddy horns aside, Queensland Symphony Orchestra played the Herman Lovenskjold score with verve for conductor Andrew Mogrelia, whose pacing and shaping of the overture vividly established the ballet’s quicksilver mood and themes.

La Sylphide ends on March 31.

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

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.

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.

Rojo, McRae, Acosta at QB

 Queensland Ballet, Brisbane, June 27, July 1,2,3

ROMEO and Juliet was a success in every possible way for Queensland Ballet, starting with the very fact of its presence in Brisbane. Kenneth MacMillan’s ballet is the gold standard for dance versions of Shakespeare’s play and is monumental, needing much larger forces than QB can ordinarily summon. It’s not just a numbers game of course – it requires performers of rare distinction and authority. QB’s artistic director Li Cunxin was able to persuade the MacMillan Trust his company could provide the dancers and the environment to pull it off, and so it did.

The season was illuminated by international guests Tamara Rojo, Steven McRae and Carlos Acosta and Australian guests Steven Heathcote and Daniel Gaudiello, and the key decision to pair Rojo, McRae and Acosta with QB principals was a triumph. Before the event it was made clear that QB’s leading dancers would not be relegated to support-act status. In performance they proved they would not be eclipsed by the superstars’ wattage.

Steven McRae and Natasha Kusch in Romeo and Juliet. Photo: David Kelly

Steven McRae and Natasha Kusch. Photo: David Kelly

Li fielded five casts, of which I saw four: the premiere on June 27 headed by Rojo and QB’s Matthew Lawrence, QB’s Meng Ningning with Hao Bin on July 1, Steven McRae and QB’s Natasha Kusch on July 2 and Acosta and Meng on July 3. (Well, I say five casts – Gaudiello, borrowed from The Australian Ballet for the season, danced Mercutio in six out of eight performances; the QB’s Rian Thompson was Benvolio the same number of times.)

The revelation was QB principal Meng, who was partnered with Acosta for his two performances. Meng has always appeared to keep her emotions locked well within but Romeo and Juliet produced the key and the release was tremendous. (“MacMillan will do that to you,” McRae commented to me when we were talking later.) Even when Meng was the excitable young girl of her first scene there were intimations of tragedy in those questioning eyes, and her long, silken limbs always seemed to be searching and reaching for the overwhelming feelings Juliet discovered could exist.

It initially seemed a big call to put Meng with Acosta, who is such a passionate stage animal. He’s announced that he will quit classical roles in two years (he is now 40) but his dancing still has panther-like strength and smoothness. Perhaps there’s a little less speed and snap but you can’t take your eyes off him.

Any fears about Meng’s ability to throw off her reticence were put to rest when she made her role debut two days ahead of her first performance with Acosta. She danced on this occasion with her husband, fellow QB principal Hao Bin, and while he wasn’t entirely at home with all the allegro aspects of Romeo’s choreography he partnered ardently. And it was clear one had to recalibrate one’s thoughts about Meng.

Meng Ningning and Hao Bin. Photo: David Kelly

Meng Ningning and Hao Bin. Photo: David Kelly

At her first performance with Acosta, the moment when Romeo and Juliet come face to face in the Capulet’s ballroom and are shocked into stillness was electrifying and, with this cast, so touching. Not only does the story tell us these two come from different tribes; the point was made visually with the Cuban-born Acosta on one side and the Chinese Meng on the other. Different externals but hearts and minds as one.

The great pas de deux that ends the first act was heart-stopping. When the would-be lovers kiss near the end, these two hesitated tremulously and longingly before making that irrevocable commitment. You could feel the entire house hold its breath. And Meng’s impetuous rush from her bedroom in search of Friar Laurence was quite magical.

The night before, McRae showed why he is one of the most admired Romeos on the stage today. The impulsive, passionate youth of this dance-drama could have been made for him, so natural is the fit. McRae lit up the stage with his boyish charm. He has a slight, elegant figure but radiates huge amounts of energy, taking the stage like a whirlwind. His crystal-clear line, the way he hangs in the air for precious moments in a turn or jete, his vibrant attack and heady speed are treasures in themselves but given point and purpose by the way these technical gifts create character.

This was Romeo lifted and buffeted by love. In the centrepiece pas deux under Juliet’s balcony McRae soared as if weightless. When the Nurse gave him Juliet’s letter he exited with delirious spins. When he was goaded into fighting with Tybalt after Mercutio’s death his sword-play was desperate and aggressive.

He was a wonderful partner too with his well-matched Juliet. Kusch was the most girlish of the three Juliets I saw and her interpretation meshed with McRae’s although was less fully developed. She seemed a little too flighty and a bit too much in love with love to make Juliet as tragic a figure as she should be. Physically, however, McRae and Kusch, who has a very clean, strong technique, looked wonderful together.

The gala opening was crowned by Rojo’s exceptional Juliet. Rojo, prima ballerina of English National Ballet and its artistic director too, was entrancing at every moment as conflicting emotions flashed across her face and intense feelings through her eloquent body, each one legible and theatrically potent. The chemistry between Rojo and her Romeo, Lawrence, took some time to gel but Lawrence’s all-stops-out tomb scene with the apparently lifeless Juliet was riveting.

Tamara Rojo and Matthew Lawrence. Photo: David Kelly

Tamara Rojo and Matthew Lawrence. Photo: David Kelly

I was sorry to miss Clare Morehen’s Juliet with QB corps de ballet member Emilio Pavan. Pavan has been with the company only since last year, having graduated from the Australian Ballet School in 2012, and Li has already given him some big roles. Also being fast-tracked is Vito Bernasconi (another 2012 ABS graduate), who was an imposing Tybalt – indeed, given that honour on opening night. Bernasconi had some performances as Mercutio as well, a bravura role of great complexity in which he was less effective.

There wasn’t any fat at all in the casting (hence the greatly gifted Gaudiello’s six Mercutios, four of them in a row). QB has only 27 dancers and its numbers essentially needed to double for R&J. At the upper end, apart from the visiting superstars and Gaudiello, there were other guests needed for important parts, including Heathcote as Lord Capulet, proving yet again what superb command he brings to the stage in character roles after his long and stellar career as the AB’s leading man. (Lovely, too, to see his daughter, Mia, shining away in the QB company.)

On top of their day jobs QB ballet mistresses Janette Mulligan and Mary Li shared the role of the Nurse and were both highly enjoyable. In addition, several former QB dancers were spotted among those creating the lively market scenes and the grave formality of the Capulets’ ball, alongside QB’s company dancers, eight young artists (essentially apprentices), professional year dancers and senior students.

One imagines Li was making a point: see what we can do if we have more dancers. It will be fascinating to see if the funding bodies agree QB should be significantly bigger.

Meanwhile, yesterday QB announced R&J had played to 97 per cent capacity in the 2000-seat Lyric Theatre with more than half of the audience new ticket-buyers. They’ll be very happy with that, particularly as I understand the production ended up in profit – not always the case even when huge amounts of money are taken at the box office.

Next up QB presents a quadruple bill under the title Flourish. It includes George Balanchine’s glorious Serenade, a ballet for a large corps of women and a small corps of men, three superb female soloists and two imposing men. With the retirement of lovely principal Rachael Walsh at the end of the R&J season (the photo below shows her as Lady Capulet – she was stunning). QB has only three female principals, and there is just one soloist, Lisa Edwards. There aren’t enough women in the ranks of the corps and young artists to make up the numbers, so, as with R&J, students will have to come into play. That’s fine for Serenade, which was created on student dancers, but this is nevertheless skating on fairly thin ice.

Rachael Walsh as Lady Capulet. Photo: David Kelly

Rachael Walsh as Lady Capulet, her final role for Queensland Ballet. Photo: David Kelly

Li’s ambitions for Queensland Ballet are huge and he’s prepared to take big risks to show what he thinks is possible. As I said at the start in relation to Romeo and Juliet, it’s not only a numbers game, but make no mistake. For what Li wants, numbers are very, very important.

Queensland Ballet’s Flourish runs August 1-9.

Affecting ardour

Queensland Ballet, Lyric Theatre, Brisbane, June 27

KENNETH MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet is big in every way. At street level testosterone-fuelled gangs jostle and fight in the marketplace, revelling in their ancient grudge, as Shakespeare called it. Inside the great house of Lord Capulet the tumult is even greater, but is within the hearts of young lovers from different sides of the divide. Passion, sweat, blood and grief saturate Verona.

From its opening moments the ballet is one headlong rush to tragedy. MacMillan’s choreography, nearly 50 years old but still thrillingly immediate, blazes with energy and is swept along by the vivid drama of Prokofiev’s score.

Tamara Rojo in Queensland Ballet's Romeo and Juliet. Photo: David Kelly

Tamara Rojo in Queensland Ballet’s Romeo and Juliet. Photo: David Kelly

The forces required to do the production justice are immense and are normally found within companies two or three times the size of Queensland Ballet – the Royal Ballet, where it originated; American Ballet Theatre; La Scala; Birmingham Royal Ballet. QB is small, with a company of just 27. And yet, with a display of will breathtaking in its ambition and lavish in its provision of stellar guest artists, QB has brought it to Brisbane with affecting ardour.

Friday’s opening was crowned by the exceptional Juliet of guest Tamara Rojo, but that was to be expected. Rojo, prima ballerina of English National Ballet and its artistic director too, was entrancing at every moment as conflicting emotions flashed across her face and intense feelings through her eloquent body, each one legible and theatrically potent. She made every moment appear as if freshly experienced and newly thought and it simply defies belief that Rojo is 40. She makes you believe in the cosseted young girl who needs her Nurse, loves her doll and is both a little bit curious about and strongly resistant to the attentions of Paris. Her skittering little circle of bourees around Paris (stern, reticent Hao Bin) was delightful: a circumnavigation to see what she thought of him, which wasn’t much.

But the idea of love had been put into her head, and when she saw Romeo, any notion that she may have come around to Paris was futile.

QB’s artistic director Li Cunxin has paired his international guests – the others are Steven McRae and Carlos Acosta  – with QB principals. Rojo’s Romeo was Matthew Lawrence, who took some time to disappear into the role. He appeared more distanced from events than Rojo, a mature presence rather than a youth giddily in love, and therefore less touching in the earlier scenes, but his all-stops-out tomb scene with the apparently lifeless Juliet was tremendous. The great balcony pas de deux of the first act wasn’t entirely seamless, perhaps as a result of limited rehearsal time – a reason that could possibly also be applied to the trio for Romeo, Mercutio and Benvolio in the first act, which was scrappy and failed to fizz.

Also failing to fizz initially was the Queensland Symphony Orchestra conducted by Andrew Mogrelia, but after a safe and stolid start the QSO got back into the game decisively after the first interval to give a cracking performance that matched the grandeur of Paul Andrews’s glowing design. The strings that usher in the ballet’s final scene were particularly ravishing.

There were fine performances from former Australian Ballet principal artist Steven Heathcote as a magisterial Lord Capulet and current AB principal Daniel Gaudiello as the witty, razor-sharp Mercutio. Far less able to be predicted was the showing by young QB men in two key roles, Vito Bernasconi as “Prince of Cats” Tybalt and Rian Thompson as Romeo’s friend Benvolio. Thompson’s never faltering watchfulness commanded attention and Bernasconi, who graduated from the Australian Ballet School only in 2012, has stage presence to burn.

Of the QB women, principal Rachael Walsh was super-luxury casting as Lady Capulet and Eleanor Freeman, Meng Ningning and Sophie Zoricic roamed the stage avidly as women of lusty appetites.

Filling out crowd scenes and a few small ensemble roles for this performance and for the rest of the season are young artists, pre-professional program dancers and senior students – a fair number but not really quite enough of them, as in the ballroom scene QB can field only 12 couples rather than the 16 the Royal Ballet can easily summon. The stage did look a little under-populated at this point but otherwise the ensemble was splendid, and its part in the creation of the ballet’s teeming world crucial.

The relative inexperience of these dancers was the greatest risk for this Romeo and Juliet but their unwavering engagement on Friday night was in some ways the greatest achievement.

Coming later in the week: the cast led by QB principals Hao Bin and Meng Ningning (July 1); and Steven McRae (July 2) and Carlos Acosta (July 3).

Romeo and Juliet ends on July 5.

A version of this review appeared in The Australian on June 30.