Carmen & The Firebird, Queensland Ballet

Queensland Performing Arts Centre, May 26.

You win some and you lose some.

Queensland Ballet is a co-producer of Carlos Acosta’s Carmen with The Royal Ballet and Texas Ballet Theater, which means QB’s name is attached to it forever. I doubt I’ve seen a worse ballet from reputable companies in more than 40 years.

I’m not exaggerating, nor do I say it frivolously. Carmen should never have passed muster at the RB. This is where I should say I can’t understand how it happened, but unfortunately it’s all too common to see serious ballet companies fail to save choreographers from themselves. Mostly the results aren’t quite as bad as Carmen but ballet is littered with the corpses of narrative works whose condition didn’t have to be terminal.

On a brighter note for QB, Liam Scarlett’s Firebird, made for Norwegian National Ballet in 2013, is a brilliant interpretation of Stravinsky’s glittering, gleaming, intoxicating score. Scarlett’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is also in the QB repertory and with the addition of Firebird the company has the choreographer’s two most successful new narrative ballets. (I don’t include Scarlett’s staging of Swan Lake – by all reports a huge success – for the RB this month given its firm foundation in the Petipa-Ivanov 1895 version.)

QB The Firebird 2018. Principal Artist Lucy Green. Photo David Kelly

Lucy Green in the title role of Liam Scarlett’s The Firebird. Photo: David Kelly

Scarlett, who is 32, has a youthful, contemporary sensibility that gives Firebird a modern edge while remaining true to the mythic elements of Mikhail Fokine’s original 1910 work for the Ballets Russes.

It looks wonderful, with a monumental set by Jon Bausor, bathed in James Farncombe’s painterly light. In the shadow of a vast tree with claw-like roots, the magical Firebird (Lucy Green at the performance I attended) and wicked sorcerer Koschei (Jack Lister) battle for supremacy, equal in force of will and with a palpable erotic charge between them. She tempts him with a golden apple and strokes his face; he embraces her with ardour. It may well be a game they’ve played for aeons. Then the wandering Prince Ivan (Camilo Ramos) finds his way into their realm and the Firebird finds him interesting. She dances with him, but not as a frightened captive. She dazzles and teases, whispering in his ear as she lets him have one of her precious feathers.

Scarlett effectively contrasts the Firebird’s strength and exoticism with the innocence and playfulness of the young women enslaved by Koschei. Among them is a Princess (Lina Kim), who is tender, curious and alert. Kim and Ramos glowed in their romantic, silken pas de deux and – how delightful! – the Princess is the one who gets to destroy the egg containing Koschei’s soul.

QB The Firebird 2018. Company Artist Jack Lister and Artists of the Queensland Ballet. Photo David Kelly

Jack Lister (top) as Koschei in The Firebird. Photo: David Kelly

The end of Koschei’s malign rule means the Princess is free to leave with Ivan although Scarlett – unlike Fokine – is less interested in the happy couple than in the representatives of light and darkness. The lovers quietly disappear and the Firebird exults in her power, although not before paying respect to the dead Koschei in one of Scarlett’s many perceptive details.

Scarlett’s success with narrative ballets has been somewhat patchy but Stravinsky’s music and the original libretto give him the best of roadmaps. Scarlett uses the 50-minute version of the score from 1910, played blazingly by the Queensland Symphony Orchestra with Nigel Gaynor at the helm. Jonathan McPhee’s arrangement is for orchestral forces rather smaller than those asked for by Stravinsky – he wrote for quadruple woodwinds and three harps – but it gets the job done impressively.

Other choreographers of this much-visited work have chosen Stravinsky’s shorter 1945 suite (Balanchine in 1949; the 2009 Graeme Murphy recently revived by The Australian Ballet) but the suites were arranged for concert performance and for dramatic impact it’s hard to go past Stravinsky’s first thoughts.

The cast I saw at the first Saturday matinee was testament to the strong ensemble built by Li Cunxin in his six years as artistic director. Performances were vividly realised all round and Green’s mesmerising Firebird was deservedly greeted with a huge ovation. While his dance is made entirely within the classical idiom, Scarlett gives his Firebird – the Princess too – qualities of independence and authority so often missing on the classical stage. This is particularly welcome in light of how women appear in Carmen although, to be fair, Acosta doesn’t do the men any favours either.

QB Carmen 2018. Principal Artist Camilo Ramos and Company Artist Sophie Zoricic 5. Photo David Kelly

Camilo Ramos and Sophie Zoricic in Carlos Acosta’s Carmen. Photo: David Kelly

There are problems with Carmen just about everywhere you look. The storytelling is incoherent, skating over the top of anything that might give insights into Carmen’s character. She’s a sex-mad cipher. Don José (Camilo Ramos, backing up after his Prince Ivan earlier) is similarly superficial, just weaker, and therefore deeply uninteresting. Escamillo is there to toss off a whole lot of ballet tricks. There is no Micaëla, no Frasquita, no Mercedes, no context.

What else? Too frequently there’s no apparent relationship between the music (chiefly an arrangement of bits from Bizet’s opera) and the steps performed to that music. A tavern scene veers off into ersatz flamenco territory, indifferently done. Every now and again a man wearing preposterous bulls’ horns and a bit of bondage appears in the background to represent Fate.

Most problematic is the piece’s depiction of desire. Desire can be many things, not just sexual, and in Bizet’s opera it’s Carmen’s burning need to be free. That desire was dangerous for a woman then and still is. Carmen is murdered for her courage, not that this ballet makes you think about it or care. She’s just someone who dances in her underwear and rolls around the floor locking lips with her lovers.

Carmen is at one point surrounded by men who slap the floor vigorously and proceed to strip. It looked to me like nothing less than preparation for gang rape but also looked so ludicrous (think male strippers at a hens’ night) that the audience roared. Ghastly. I think we can safely say that at this point, as at others, there had been insufficient thought given to meaning and tone.

I felt very sorry for the Carmen I saw, Sophie Zoricic, to whom I send condolences. It was a big chance for her and she gave her all. That said, I suspect Carmen could have only the slightest chance of squeaking past the post if stocked with the biggest stars. Acosta danced both Don José and Escamillo during the London premiere season in 2015 and the RB’s most lustrous female principal, Marianela Nuñez, was the first Carmen.

Acosta is, of course, a relatively inexperienced choreographer while having been one of the RB’s most durable stars. Obviously the company wanted to please him. It should have helped him.

QB is on much safer ground with Scarlett. The young Englishman has a deal with the company to present one of his works annually for four years. The artistic associate arrangement started last year with the one-act No Man’s Land, originally made for English National Ballet. (His delectable Dream, a co-production with Royal New Zealand Ballet, was made in 2015 and isn’t counted.)

That leaves two more works to come. Scarlett’s international demand means it’s too much to hope that both would be new creations but I’m told there will certainly be one ballet made on the QB dancers.

Carmen & The Firebird ends in Brisbane on June 3.

Bespoke, Queensland Ballet

Brisbane Powerhouse, February 10.

Bespoke is a new-choreography program that shows Queensland Ballet moving up yet another gear and broadening its horizons. So far in Li Cunxin’s artistic directorship new contemporary work on the schedule has either fallen into the annual triple bill, of which there is always only one (although none in 2015), or else was part of Dance Dialogues, a small-scale, low-key studio event that encourages an insider atmosphere by being available only to subscribers and including a coaching session of upcoming repertoire.

The mainstage triple bill is generally stacked with extremely well-established names and may or may not include a work created specially for it. It would be unfair to say the programming is tame but it’s not going to frighten the horses too much. At the other end of the scale, Dance Dialogues is likely to include at least one QB dancer who is giving choreography a shot, possibly for the first time, and has to ransack the costume department to clothe the cast. The gulf is wide.

Bespoke fills that gap. It has the specific intention of bringing new voices into the mix and, by being staged at the Brisbane Powerhouse, signals that QB seeks to widen its appeal. (Sydney Dance Company does the same thing by presenting its highly successful New Breed program at Carriageworks, away from the formality of its usual home at the Roslyn Packer Theatre Walsh Bay.) The best news is that Bespoke is intended to be an annual event. Dance Dialogues seems likely to continue but just once a year. There have mostly been two annual sessions; in 2017 there are performances in June only.

Jack Lister's Rational/Animal. Photo: David Kelly

Jack Lister’s Rational/Animal. Photo: David Kelly

While Dance Dialogues is, frankly, a bit naff, it does hold out the possibility of uncovering talent in the ranks. That happened last year when Jack Lister, a company dancer, made a piece called Fonder Heart to the music of Philip Glass. This year he was one of the Bespoke choreographers and absolutely earned his place on the bigger stage with Rational/Animal.

John Adams’s Fearful Symmetries (1988) is catnip to choreographers. Adams says, as its title suggests, the music is “almost maddeningly symmetrical. Four- and eight-bar phrases line up end to end, each articulated by blazingly obvious harmonic changes and an insistent chugging pulse.” He calls it his “travelling music”. New York City Ballet’s Peter Martins, The Royal Ballet’s Liam Scarlett (also, from this year, artistic associate at QB), Scottish Ballet’s Ashley Page (for the RB) and Dutch choreographer Nils Christe are among those who have fallen under the music’s propulsive spell and Lister is the latest, and possibly the youngest, person to tackle this often-used score. The 22-year-old has pulled off a beauty. Rational/Animal is a remarkably confident work from one so young and relatively inexperienced.

In the first nightmarish half, humankind is seen as faceless, frenetic and mechanistic. Lister responds to what Adams calls the “distinctly urban” feel of the music with lines of dancers striding purposefully across the space. Their clothes are the colour of dust and their faces are veiled. Sometimes their figures are echoed, many times life size, in projections on the back wall that emphasise their separateness. There are brief, muscular encounters between dancers and an occasional intimation of tenderness but the atmosphere of control is intense.

It’s fascinating to see how much full-bodied juice Lister injects into essentially robotic movement. It gives this first section unexpected poignancy, as we sense that desires and frustrations have been tightly reined in. Later the dancers strip right down for more intimate, emotionally free and erotically charged interactions.

Lister seems to have an innate grasp of balance and structure, mixing things up at precisely the right time, and it’s wonderful to see the many elements of surprise he brings to his movement vocabulary. At this stage it’s easy to discern the influences on his work but he has excellent taste and, best of all, creates resonant atmospheres.

Stephanie Lake's Chameleon. Photo: David Kelly

Stephanie Lake’s Chameleon. Photo: David Kelly

The decision to invite contemporary dancemaker Stephanie Lake and her frequent musical collaborator Robin Fox to work with QB looked terrific on paper and was even more terrific in reality. Chameleon is Lake’s first ballet commission and for many of the dancers their first exposure to colouring outside the strict lines of classical dance. The result was an exhilarating mash-up of styles wrapped around a big heart.

Lake was clearly enchanted by the formal beauty of classical shapes and the dancers’ technical gifts while casting an outsider’s coolly appraising eye over ballet’s conformist tendencies. Chameleon made much of the pull of the group versus the needs of the individual in ways that were witty, odd, mysterious and touching.

All power to Li for letting Lake use 24 dancers in Chameleon. So frequently ballet companies tacitly make it clear that new-choreography evenings are extra-curricular; a distraction from core programming. You can see limits imposed. The numbers mattered here, particularly in a potent section in which dancers closely followed one another, wheeling, separating and re-combining in groups large and small.

Lake started Chameleon with 11 dancers standing in a line in front of a red curtain, later lifted. They were a motley and rather anxious-looking lot as they twitched and jerked their way through basic classical positions. When they found their individual voices – along with a larger cohort of ragtag companions – they didn’t seem to quite know what to do with their new-found freedom, but what the heck. They had a lively go at letting go before being sucked back into line.

There were too many standout performers to mention them all but principal artist Laura Hidalgo was extraordinary in her deep understanding of both sides of the dance divide. The final image of Chameleon was deeply moving.

The evening opened with Glass Heart, by QB ballet mistress and artistic associate Amy Hollingsworth for the company’s 10 Jette Parker Young Artists (a number soon to grow to 12; impressive). In a further sign of the ambitions for Bespoke the score was composed by celestial-voiced singer-songwriter Katie Noonan and the young Brisbane music producer known as cln, both of whom performed it live.

With the choreography tending to generalised angst Glass Heart was busy but emotionally vacant, at least from a movement perspective. No matter what anyone did, whether in solos, duos or groups, the effect was the same. That left feeling to be generated by the fine musicians, who filled the gap admirably. And if Glass Heart was unremarkable as a dance work, it was undoubtedly a valuable experience for this lovely group of Young Artists.

Hollingsworth’s greater achievement was as Bespoke’s prime mover. After finishing a celebrated performing career in both classical and contemporary dance she turned to coaching, direction, staging, education, mentoring and assisting choreographers in the creative process. These are no small talents and were previously evident at Sydney Dance Company and Expressions Dance Company. As curator of Bespoke Hollingsworth brought Lake in and, I am told, helped teach Chameleon to the dancers. She also helped guide Lister through the process of creating his ambitious piece.

QB’s lighting and technical manager Cameron Georg lit the whole program with dramatic flair and wardrobe production manager and resident designer Noelene Hill did a superb job of interpreting costumes conceived by each choreographer. It’s such a pity there were only five performances. Perhaps there will be more next year.

Footnote: Obviously you’d have to love Fearful Symmetries a lot, but wouldn’t it be fun if QB did a triple bill of ballets to this music? And it could do so with three works connected with the company. In 2010 QB performed the enormously entertaining Nils Christe version (made for Germany’s Ballet Mainz); new QB artistic associate Scarlett made his version only last year for San Francisco Ballet; and now there’s Lister’s take. Too much? Perhaps.

New work at Queensland Ballet

Dance Dialogues, Brisbane, February 20.

Classical ballet is the oddest thing. It has a tiny core repertoire – fewer than 20 works; perhaps less than 15 if you’re being very strict – that define it to the world at large. These are the full-length story ballets that audiences will reliably attend year after year and provide the images that immediately register as ballet: tutus and toe shoes; princely men looking ardent as they support their lady.

Ballet companies revisit these works again and again, with small tweaks or wholesale revisions, new sets and costumes and, crucially, new generations of dancers to make the classics their own.

That can make ballet seem stuck in a loop but there’s an upside too. With the list of popular ballets so brief, companies constantly need contemporary repertoire to balance their annual programs. Why there are so few new story ballets claiming a lasting place alongside Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty, Giselle, The Nutcracker and a handful of other ballets is a perennial, fascinating question -Christopher Wheeldon’s The Winter’s Tale, made in 2014 for The Royal Ballet and National Ballet of Canada looks very like a ballet other companies will want to get their hands on but there aren’t too many others. Meanwhile, the creation of one-act contemporary works proceeds apace and there is a substantial 20th and 21st century repertoire to call upon.

The one-act ballet is also a good place for young choreographers to start, and most companies have a program to encourage their dancers to try their hand. The Australian Ballet’s longstanding Bodytorque series has withered somewhat, being reduced last year to a few performances of a work following a mainstage production (Bodytorque Up Late), but West Australian Ballet’s Genesis and Queensland Ballet’s Dance Dialogues are still cemented into their seasons.

Queensland Ballet's Alex Idaszak and Georgia Swan in Jack Lister's Fonder Heart. Photo David Kelly 2016

Georgia Swan, Alexander Idaszak in Jack Lister’s Fonder Heart. Photo: David Kelly

I wrote recently about WAB’s Ballet at the Quarry, in which a work by company soloist Andre Santos, In Black, first seen at Genesis in 2014, was expanded for the Quarry, deservedly giving it a substantial audience.

A few days ago I went to Brisbane for Dance Dialogues to see a new work, Fonder Heart, by company dancer Jack Lister, a 22-year-old who has made a few small pieces as well as one for last year’s Dance Dialogues, Memory House, which I now wish I had been able to see. He is a remarkably confident dance-maker, even if at this point he hasn’t developed a strongly individual voice. The spirit and choreographic language of Jiří Kylián are very evident and Lister is not backward in acknowledging the Czech master as an influence. He certainly isn’t alone there.

Lister’s achievement was nevertheless satisfying and heartening. It is no small thing to make a work of about 16 minutes that one wishes would last longer. He made decisions that in a relative beginner are evidence of clear thinking, starting with his choice of music – the second movement of Philip Glass’s Tirol Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (2000). A small string orchestra establishes a sweet, slightly melancholy melody, soon picked up by the piano and given an individual voice as the soloist at first picks out the tune gently, then embroiders with changing patterns and dynamic shifts. The atmosphere is dreamy and the music very Glass-y: strongly rhythmic and unfailingly melodic. (It’s why choreographers are attracted to his work, and indeed two of my favourite 20th century dances are to Glass scores – Twyla Tharp’s In the Upper Room and Jerome Robbins’s Glass Pieces. The momentum is irresistible.)

Lister heard in this music the sound of couples joining, parting and perhaps reconnecting – or not – and created a work for three couples. There’s no budget to speak of for these ventures, of course, but Lister managed to persuade QB to let him have a long table that becomes a seventh actor in the piece as it was moved to and fro, providing a place to sit, to walk on, to be lifted from or supported by. Fonder Heart is abstract but works well with the music to evoke states of mind. It is sleek, sophisticated and intriguing.

Queensland Ballet's Vito Bernasconi and Eleanor Freeman in Jack Lister's Fonder Heart 2016. David Kelly 5

Eleanor Freeman and Vito Bernasconi in Fonder Heart. Photo: David Kelly

Lister understands the power of stillness and separation and has a good grasp of structure. Three couples were woven in and out of the dance with assurance and the viewer’s eye was unerringly focused where it should be. The dance itself was strong, fluid and assertive with formidable partnering and a particularly vivid role for Eleanor Freeman, who was a dramatic presence. At the performance I saw Freeman danced with Vito Bernasconi, Lina Kim with Joel Woellner and Georgia Swan and Alexander Idaszak, and all looked passionately engaged with the work.

So, good news at both QB and WAB, with promising emerging choreographers on their books. As always, however, there seem to be fewer young women putting up their hands to have a go at making new work, although it’s pleasing to see that WAB has works from principal artist Jayne Smeulders in the repertoire and the Quarry season had a group work made mainly by women. It’s a start.