Swan Lake, Queensland Ballet

Queensland Performing Arts Centre, May 5.

Queensland Ballet’s Swan Lake had a 42nd Street quality on opening night as junior company member Joel Woellner was chosen to dance Prince Siegfried alongside the seasoned Odette-Odile of QB principal artist – and former top-ranked star at the National Ballet of Cuba – Yanela Piñera.

Piñera has presence in spades and technical prowess to burn. She laid out her credentials within seconds of taking to the stage with a pure, extended balance on pointe that was an eloquent expression of the Swan Queen’s sorrow and entrapment. As the imposter Odile she decorated the treacherous (for some; not her) fouette sequence with triple pirouettes and gave a magisterial account of her solo.

Qld Ballet

Yanela Piñera and Joel Woellner in Ben Stevenson’s Swan Lake. Photo: David Kelly

Piñera nailed the big effects that seem to be a Cuban birthright, including sky-high extensions and Odile’s don’t-mess-with-me grand pirouettes in Act 3 but it was the delicate detail that lingered. Odette’s tiny flutters of foot against ankle in Act II were exquisite.

Woellner was going out a courageous youngster but had to come back a star, or at least as close to one as possible in a nearly impossible assignment. The desperate, deep-seated passion that should drive Siegfried eluded him, resulting in a muted relationship with Odette. There was, nevertheless, gleaming beauty in almost all his dancing. Double tours were plush and precisely landed and lovely air turns finished in stretched, poised arabesques. It was impressive to see how much value he gave each moment, never smudging or cutting steps short. Woellner is not yet a fully-fledged prince but is a hugely promising princeling.

Qld Ballet

Joel Woellner as Prince Siegfried in Swan Lake. Photo: David Kelly

For the first Swan Lake of his tenure as QB artistic director, Li not surprisingly chose Ben Stevenson’s 1985 version made for Houston Ballet. It makes sense for the size of the company – currently at 32 permanent members and 10 Young Artists – and Li knows the production well, having danced in it in those early days. One can also never underestimate the affection and loyalty Li has for Stevenson, now in his early 80s. Stevenson was responsible for Li’s American career and therefore in a sense all that followed.

It’s a conventional production based on the 1895 Petipa-Ivanov version. Stevenson retains some of the best-known choreography, although much is new. The 1985 designs by David Walker placed Stevenson’s ballet in the late 19th century but for this incarnation QB has borrowed Kristian Fredrikson’s luxuriant Renaissance-tinged designs made for Russell Kerr’s Royal New Zealand Ballet version in 1996.

The beating heart of Swan Lake is the first lakeside act in which Siegfried comes across Odette and her retinue of swan maidens, here a corps of 24 that sensibly incorporates the two Big Swans and four Cygnets. It’s a significant number for a company of QB’s size and was augmented by Queensland Ballet Academy pre-professional students. The teaching is clearly excellent. The corps as a whole looked beautifully schooled and had the strength-in-unity power that makes Act 2 so captivating. (And these dancers have to be strong: Lucy Green, newly appointed soloist at QB, on opening night danced in the Act 1 pas de trois, was a Cygnet in Act 2 and the Spanish Princess in Act 3. This was the night before her Odette-Odile.)

Qld Ballet

Lucy Green, Neneka Yoshida, Lina Kim and Teri Crilly. Photo: David Kelly

Different details in storytelling mean the fit isn’t always exact between Stephenson’s vision of the ballet and Fredrikson’s designs. The white acts looked wonderful, of course, but in the first and fourth acts it wasn’t always easy to get a grip on all-important distinctions of rank. It was surprising in this respect to see the Queen arrive without a suitable entourage to Siegfried’s coming-of-age celebration, symbolically set in a thick glade through which there’s a glimpse of decaying grandeur.

In Act 3, when foreign princesses are presented to Siegfried so he can choose a bride, the princesses lead the national dance of the country they represent. At RNZB the princesses wore distinctive, decorative tutus; here they are dressed similarly to all the other women in their troupe and dance like entertainers, some friskily showing quite a lot of leg and behaving quite unregally.

Stevenson trims the action significantly, for good and bad. Act 1 is enjoyably fast-paced while shortened Acts 3 and 4 elide with dramatically convincing sleight of hand. I was less convinced by the transition from Acts 1 to 2, in which the Prince dances his yearning solo while his mother (Zenia Tátcheva) pressures – no, harangues – him about the weighty responsibilities of State he must take on. It rather spoils the mood.

With the production coming in at under two hours of dancing, Tchaikovsky’s music at times sounds chopped back to its detriment although at the opening the Queensland Symphony Orchestra under QB music director Nigel Gaynor delivered a sympathetic account of what is there. Concertmaster Warwick Adeney’s violin solos in Act II and III were sublime.

Qld Ballet

Lina Kim and Victor Estévez in Act 1 of Swan Lake. Photo: David Kelly

Stevenson’s choice of music for Siegfried and Odette’s final pas de deux in Act 4 comes from left field. Tchaikovsky died in 1893 and Riccardo Drigo had a hand in arranging music for the 1985 Petipa-Ivanov production, orchestrating Tchaikovsky’s piano piece Un poco di Chopin, a mazurka, for this section. Drigo smoothed out the mazurka’s prominent accents and slowed the conventionally bright tempo to achieve a romantic quality, but to these ears the music underplays the depths of Siegfried’s agony and contrition. Stevenson, however, obviously feels it better expresses Siegfried’s remorse for having betrayed Odette. In any event, it is rarely heard these days.

Perhaps transcendence was hard to come by on opening night but there was plenty of fine dancing, particularly from Lucy Green, Lima Kim and Victor Estevez as they whizzed and fizzed through the Act I pas de trois. Vito Bernasconi as Von Rothbart didn’t have a huge amount to do but looked imposing, albeit perhaps rather too emphatic in his directions to Odile in the ballroom scene. It was too much of a giveaway.

As is the case in every production I’ve seen, Von Rothbart and Odile are immediately accepted as having a right to be at the ball with no questions asked. It’s always bemusing. (Kevin McKenzie’s American Ballet Theatre version has a red-hot go at dramatic coherence by making Von Rothbart amazingly sexy and charismatic. He makes every woman in the room, including Siegfried’s mother, bewitched, bothered and bewildered.)

Those lucky enough to have tickets for May 11 will see guest artist Evgenia Obratszova from the Bolshoi as Odette-Odile (she also danced on May 9). And at certain performances there is the interesting – but by no means revolutionary – splitting of those roles as Mia Heathcote dances Odette and Neneka Yoshida tackles Odile.

Swan Lake ends on May 13.

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.