Romeo and Juliet, Queensland Ballet

Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane, August 28.

When Queensland Ballet staged Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet in 2014 the then-small company took a huge risk, although one mitigated by bringing in superstars Carlos Acosta, Tamara Rojo and Steven McRae to partner QB principal artists. The gamble paid off. The season was a record-breaking success and, more importantly, the company looked terrific from top to bottom, right down to the extras and students needed to animate MacMillan’s sprawling canvas and Prokofiev’s richly coloured score.

QB Romeo and Juliet

Joel Woellner, Steven Heathcote, Vito Bernasconi and Queensland Ballet artists in Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet. Photo: David Kelly

This time around there were no visiting luminaries and, on opening night, a risk of a different kind. Playing the doomed young lovers were dancers plucked from the lower end of QB’s ranks, 24-year-old soloist Mia Heathcote and company artist Patricio Revé, 21. (Both were promoted onstage at the end of the performance.)

Revé, who joined the company only last year, has the marvellous combination of dash and silkiness that seems to be the birthright of male Cuban dancers. Heathcote is a luminous beauty whose dancing has gorgeous breadth and fullness. They looked wonderful together but needed to find a greater sense of rapture and abandon in the ravishing series of pas de deux around which MacMillan built the ballet. Romeo and Juliet have a truly dangerous relationship and it felt too careful.

QB Romeo and Juliet

Mia Heathcote and Patricio Revé in Romeo and Juliet. Photo: David Kelly

The production around them pulsated with life and in the pit the Queensland Symphony Orchestra played a blinder with its music director Alondra de la Parra at the helm. Bravi to the brass in particular. It was piquant casting to have former Australian Ballet principal artist Steven Heathcote – Mia’s father – as Lord Capulet. He’s lost none of his stage presence. Nor has former QB principal Rachael Walsh mislaid hers. She reprised her searing Lady Capulet, shedding any vestige of propriety as she keened over the body of her dead kinsman Tybalt, again given glowering charisma by Vito Bernasconi. Kohei Iwamoto was a charming, slightly underpowered Mercutio and Joel Woellner as good as it’s possible to be in the thankless role of Paris.

Romeo and Juliet (1965) was MacMillan’s first three-act ballet but he seemed to know instinctively how to fill a stage excitingly and make a world. Everywhere you look there are people fighting, dancing, plotting, chatting and flirting. The big set-piece scenes of quarrelling clans in the marketplace and the Capulets’ lavish ball are as good as it gets in narrative ballet. And then there are the smaller moments that underscore the tragedy to come – Juliet playing with her nurse and her doll; Juliet and Romeo coming face to face in the ballroom and time standing still. This is where Heathcote and Revé were most affecting.

Heathcote has been one to watch from her earliest days with QB. She has always thrown herself heart and soul into her dancing and often looked passionate but slightly unruly. In some ways her first Juliet showed something of the reverse: the dancing was splendid but the emotions more reined in. The right balance will surely come as Heathcote takes on other challenging roles in big ballets. She is absolutely a star in the making.

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

Daniel Gaudiello exits The Australian Ballet

When The Australian Ballet stages Stephen Baynes’s traditional Swan Lake in Sydney from April 1 for 21 performances it will field six couples in the leading roles of Odette-Odile and Siegfried. One of those couples was to have been senior artist Natasha Kusch with principal Daniel Gaudiello, a partnership that promised a great deal. Kusch, then a soloist with Vienna State Opera Ballet, first danced with Gaudiello in a Queensland Ballet gala in 2012 where they were clearly an excellent match on stage. Soon after Kusch joined QB and then the AB in 2015, where she and Gaudiello danced together regularly.

As late as Wednesday of this week – March 23 – casting on The Australian Ballet’s website listed Kusch and Gaudiello. On Thursday a press release came late in the afternoon, advising that Gaudiello was leaving the company after 12 years, the past six as principal artist. His performance in Melbourne on Monday March 21 in the Vitesse program was his last. I saw him on the opening night of that season in William Forsythe’s In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated, which he danced with passionate intensity and impeccable technical gifts. He was sporting a new, sleeker haircut that was much remarked-upon. He was at the top of his game.

Daniel Gaudiello and Natasha Kusch in In the Upper Room. photo by Jeff Busby

Daniel Gaudiello and Natasha Kusch in In the Upper Room. Photo: Jeff Busby

Obviously Gaudiello’s decision had come quickly in one way, in that he was expected to appear in Swan Lake, but he must also have been weighing up what was best for him for many months. The AB’s press release said Gaudiello “for some time has been working towards this decision”.

Possibly he wished to avoid the high-visibility public farewell usually accorded a principal artist. Alternatively, he simply woke up on Tuesday and thought, today’s the day.

There were no specifics in the press release about Gaudiello’s plans, other than he had “decided to step away from the stage and focus on new artistic and personal pursuits”. Gaudiello wrote on Facebook: “The humanity in dance is what has kept the art form alive, and what has kept me coming back after the hard knocks it gives us all. No one escapes this time in their careers, where something dies but something is born again.” He went on to write that his “drive to succeed is at an all time high” and that he still has “a lot to say”. He is believed to be interested in an acting career, something for which he would seem well suited. Among his many successes in roles requiring a strong ability to create a believable character are Petrouchka, Basilio in Don Quixote, Franz in Coppélia and, outstandingly, Mercutio in the Kenneth MacMillan Romeo and Juliet at Queensland Ballet, in which he appeared – brilliantly – alongside the Royal Ballet’s Steven McRae as Romeo.

Daniel Gaudiello (Mercutio) Steven McRae (Romeo) Rian Thompson (Benvolio)

Daniel Gaudiello as Mercutio, Steven McRae as Romeo and Rian Thompson as Benvolio in Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet for Queensland Ballet. Photo: David Kelly

Gaudiello’s announcement was followed immediately by heartfelt expressions of love and admiration from dancers and dance-lovers. British choreographer Christopher Wheeldon was just one to express dismay at Gaudiello’s retirement from dance, writing “even I’m not ready and I was only there for 10 minutes”. (Wheeldon refers to his brief visit to Melbourne to put the finishing touches on DGV: Danse à Grande Vitesse, the ballet that gave the Vitesse program its name.)

Gaudiello is 33 and at the peak of his powers, but also at an age when the future starts looming large for dancers. (I recall having a vivid, detailed conversation with him about choreography, in which he has some experience, although it’s not clear that he intends to pursue this.) For all its beauty dance is a brutal business, exacting a great toll on the body. Not only is a career usually winding down when a performer is in his or her late 30s or early 40s, she or he has also usually been training and working in dance for more than 30 years. Gaudiello started dancing at the age of six in his hometown, Brisbane. (The AB’s artistic director, David McAllister, was 37 when he left dancing to succeed Ross Stretton at the company.)

Leanne Stojmenov and Daniel Gaudiello in Cinderella, 2013 photo Jeff Busby_3765

Daniel Gaudiello with Leanne Stojmenov in Cinderella. Photo: Jeff Busby

With Gaudiello now not dancing in Swan Lake, the AB hastily rearranged its schedule. Amber Scott and Adam Bull are first cast, followed by Ako Kondo and Chengwu Guo, Lana Jones (she is married to Gaudiello) and Ty King-Wall, Leanne Stojmenov (happily back from maternity leave) and Kevin Jackson and senior artist Miwako Kubota with principal Andrew Killian.

The sixth cast is Kusch with hard-working Killian, a pairing that gets its first outing on April 13, with two further performances to follow. The show always goes on. For Gaudiello it will just be a different one.

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.

Cojocaru and Kobborg

WHEN Alina Cojocaru and Johan Kobborg join The Australian Ballet in Sydney for two performances of Manon in April it will be their first appearance with an Australian company, but their second time in Australia together and Cojocaru’s third visit. She danced in A Midsummer Night’s Dream with Hamburg Ballet in Brisbane in 2012.

Cojocaru and Kobborg in Manon during the RB's Tokyo tour last year. Photo: Kiyonori Hasegawa

Cojocaru and Kobborg in Manon during the RB’s Tokyo tour last year. Photo: Kiyonori Hasegawa

In 2002 the Royal Ballet visited Sydney under the directorship of Ross Stretton – he was David McAllister’s predecessor in the equivalent role at the AB – when the dancers were relatively new members of the company. Cojocaru had just turned 21 but was already a principal dancer and considered one of the most wondrous artists to grace the international stage. Because of her youth she still had important roles to add to her repertoire, and it was in Sydney that she danced her first Odette-Odile.

Her partner in this Swan Lake, as it was in Giselle that season, was the Danish-born Johan Kobborg, himself a dancer of rare grace and artistry. They were not at that early stage the partners in private life they would become, but their chemistry was palpable. In my review of Swan Lake for The Australian, published on June 14, 2002, I wrote: “[Cojocaru’s] Prince Siegfried, the warm and sympathetic Johan Kobborg, looked as if he couldn’t believe how precious a creature had flown into his arms …

“The tiny Cojocaru is an Odette made of spun glass, one who might break if Siegfried were to hold her too tightly, but in need of his protection. She created an unforgettable image of sweet and sad fragility, expressed via a sweeping back, exquisite placement, mime delivered with a touching sense of being new-minted and a melting quality that saw her float rather than fall into Kobborg’s embrace.”

In the following 12 years reviews for the pair have only got better. Kobborg, now 41, is still dancing at the highest level with the best companies – he guested with San Francisco Ballet in January, partnering Maria Kochetkova – but is diversifying his talents widely. He also stages ballets, choreographs (including a captivating Giselle co-choreographed with Ethan Stiefel last year for Royal New Zealand Ballet) and a month ago took up the post of artistic director of Romanian National Ballet. At 32, Cojocaru is in her prime. The current standing of both is testament to their ferocious commitment to the art of ballet. They do not submit to the status quo.

Ballet knows no borders these days. There have, of course, always been artists who have accepted guest roles around the world, but activity in this area has become a whirlwind – at a certain level. The starriest names in ballet are pursuing fresh inspiration and experiences around the globe. If one company can’t provide everything these superlative dancers need, they’ll find others that can.

Last year the AB hosted American David Hallberg, widely considered the world’s reigning male classicist, and stratospheric Russian pair Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev. This year those fortunate enough to be in Sydney at the evening performance of Manon on April 19 and on Tuesday April 22 will see Cojocaru and Kobborg. Riches indeed.

Cojocaru and Kobborg caused a huge stir in the UK last year when they abruptly left the Royal Ballet after more than a decade. Their departure was announced just two days before their final London performance (a Tokyo tour shortly afterwards marked the absolute end), causing consternation among fans and ballet critics. The dancers are deeply loved and their longstanding stage partnership – an increasingly rare phenomenon – is hailed as one of the art form’s greatest.

Cojocaru was swiftly snapped up by English National Ballet, a company that appears to allow the flexibility she desires. Writing via email, she says she has just been working in London on new pieces by the young turk Liam Scarlett and contemporary great Russell Maliphant, which she will perform just before coming to Sydney, and is about to dance Onegin with Hamburg Ballet, with which she has a strong association. In addition, Kobborg, speaking by phone from Bucharest about the AB visit, said he considers Cojocaru part of his Romanian company. “I consider this one of her homes. Of course I want to involve Alina as much as possible.” (She was born in Romania.)

Cojocaru’s craving for such variety and for new work impelled her to leave the RB. “The artist in me became starved for inspiration and challenges,” she wrote in her email. “I have so much more to learn and experience in this amazing art form!”

‘The artist in me became starved for inspiration and challenges’

Kobborg says the RB could offer security and that he could potentially have stayed another five years, “but it just didn’t really do much for me any more. And if Alina wasn’t going to be there … She wanted to do something different and I support her. You have to put yourself in situations where you don’t feel too secure. To experiment, if that’s the right word. It’s about art, not about recreating the past.”

Despite her eye being equally focused on the future, Cojocaru’s Sydney debut in Swan Lake remains a treasured experience. “I was very lucky and happy that Ross Stretton had asked Natasha Makarova to work with me on this role. And for me it is [the] most special memory of this ballet ever.

“After that tour, we had a few attempts to come back dancing in Australia … but I guess things do happen when they are meant to and it looks like now is [the] right time for it. I am really very excited about coming back to a place where I have such wonderful memories of our shows there with Johan!

“And Manon is of course such a masterpiece that we are very much looking forward to work on this ballet with The Australian Ballet. Especially as each person in the ballet brings their energy and way of performing that I am sure it will be very inspiring journey of discovering and developing a connection with everybody.”

While his artistic directorship is his priority, Kobborg said he is able to plan around the job to continue his onstage career. “I started a month ago and had known about it for about two months before that,” he says. “It was not something I applied for, it was not something that was planned.” For that reason he still had – and has – dancing commitments in the diary for up to 18 months. He may withdraw from a few things, but says of the AB visit: “Manon is a ballet very close to me and Alina. There was no question about it,” says Kobborg.

“I’m not saying goodbye to dancing; [but] I only have to say yes to the things I really want to do. I want to be realistic. I’m getting old” – Kobborg gives a little laugh at this point – “but there are still definitely some things I find interesting and I can bring something to.” He doesn’t necessarily plan to dance with his Romanian company but doesn’t close the door either. “If there is a need, of course … if I can help by being on stage then I will do it.”

This year the AB doesn’t have the superstar power all to itself. Performances of Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet by the resurgent Queensland Ballet in June and July will feature RB principals Carlos Acosta and Sydney-born Steven McRae as well as Tamara Rojo, who also happens to be Cojocaru’s boss at ENB. Like Kobborg she is an artistic director who continues to perform. Further proving ballet’s current fluidity, Brisbane-born AB principal artist Daniel Gaudiello also guests with QB.

“We not trying to out-guest the guests,” McAllister says about the conjunction of stars. “More ballet and better ballet from everyone makes everyone better. It’s certainly great to see QB developing and growing, as it is with West Australian Ballet. It builds an excitement around ballet.”

The Sydney season of Manon runs from April 3-23. Cojocaru and Kobborg appear on April 19 and 22. The Melbourne season of Manon runs from March 14-24.

A version of this article ran in The Australian on March 3.

Manon

The Australian Ballet, Brisbane, February 21

MANON, which premiered 40 years ago next month (March 7, 1974), is in an exclusive club, the handful of full-length 20th century ballets that have insinuated themselves firmly into the repertoire. The Australian Ballet doesn’t exactly have it on high rotation but, including this year, Manon has shown up five times in the 20 years since the AB first presented it, including a short Melbourne Festival season guest-starring Sylvie Guillem, for whom the title role was a signature one. Indeed, so well does Manon suit Guillem that despite her almost exclusive concentration on contemporary dance these days she appeared in the role as recently as 2011, with La Scala when she was 46.

Lucinda Dunn and Steven Heathcote in The Australian Ballet's Manon

Lucinda Dunn and Steven Heathcote in The Australian Ballet’s Manon

At the AB notable Manons have included Vicki Attard, Justine Summers, Kirsty Martin, Amber Scott, Rachel Rawlins and others – I have seen perhaps a dozen Manons and they all were quite different, as they need to be. One doesn’t go to Manon after Manon to remind oneself of the steps, just as repeated viewings of opera or hearings of a symphony are not undertaken so the experience can be repeated exactly. The role of Manon is greatly coveted because of the flexibility it offers, and for the unparalleled stream of shiveringly sexy pas de deux Kenneth MacMillan lavished on his heroine and her lover, the student des Grieux. Manon’s is a story of choices made and consequences suffered, with a flesh-and-blood immediacy that sets her quite apart from the supernatural and fairytale heroines who dominate the classical stage.

The AB’s 2014 season opened in Brisbane on Friday with Manon, featuring Lucinda Dunn in what was – and this is scarcely believable – her debut in the role. Dunn has been with the AB for 23 years and in the top rank since 2002 but was on maternity leave in 2008 when the production last surfaced. In 2001, the Melbourne Festival year, it was Guillem’s show. In 1999 Dunn was a senior artist and various principals had claims on the part. The wait was worth it. Dunn’s artistry deepens with each passing year and she must have a doppelganger in the attic absorbing the physical wear and tear that bedevils ballet dancers.

As the ballet opens Manon is on her way to join a convent, not because she has a vocation but because she is poor. She is diverted from this grim fate by chance, swept away by the handsome poet who is, alas, also impoverished. An opportunity to move up the greasy pole of prosperity is taken as money and slightly shop-worn glamour trump penniless young love. It will not end well. Now well versed in the ways of seduction and offered material rewards for it, Manon rides high in demi-mondaine society, falls low and pays with her life, as women must in 18th century operatic stories such as this. Easier to order the moon to relinquish control of the tides than to have the woman prosper, even though she is taking the only path open to her. Well, other than the convent.

In her first performance Dunn was wonderfully alert and active, the driver of her own destiny in co-operation with her brother, Lescaut. This is another role that can be played in a variety of ways – Lescaut can be brutal and controlling, or an amoral cad, or a louche charmer who is cannily opportunistic when he’s not drinking too much, which is the way it felt on Friday. The rakish dash of Lescaut’s choreography suited the first-cast Lescaut, Andrew Killian, extremely well and he and Dunn seemed like siblings, making sense of actions that can seem unmotivated in MacMillan’s headlong dash through the story’s reversals. Their trio with predatory Monsieur GM – scarily attractive Steven Heathcote, himself a former des Grieux of great note – was superb.

Lucinda Dunn and Adam Bull in Manon

Lucinda Dunn and Adam Bull in Manon

It was always worth focusing on the key players even when there was abundant colour and movement to distract attention. While the ensemble work is undeniably lively it is mostly inferior flim-flam. In what is supposed to be an upmarket brothel, for instance, the cavortings of MacMillan’s cutsey-pie scrubbers, decked out in appalling wigs, could not be less sexually alluring. In the opening scene there are cart-wheeling lads with grubby faces who are exceptionally cheerful, as such characters usually are in balletland, and entirely unbelievable. And they all conveniently go to sleep at the very same time so Manon and des Grieux can have their first gorgeous pas de deux.

It was much better to watch Lana Jones, dancing with wit and diamond brilliance as Lescaut’s mistress, and the des Grieux of Adam Bull, who started cautiously but got better and better – it will be good to see him after he has a few performances under his belt. That first long, slow solo, in which des Grieux yearningly offers himself to Manon is a tricky one and one could see Bull negotiating the steps rather than the character. His partnering in the first bedroom pas de deux had a couple of clunky moments, and then he seemed to click into gear and submit to the passionate drive of the piece.

The silken way in which Dunn approached the choreography excluded any element of coquettishness, a quality that is brittle and artificial. It is perfectly reasonable to treat Manon as a version of Thackeray’s Becky Sharp, the knowing little madam whose first action on leaving school is to toss the farewell gift of a bible straight out the window of her carriage. But that kind of hard-edged calculation is not what Dunn showed. The luscious back bends and delicious ripples in the shoulder spoke of deep pleasure in Manon’s sexual awakening and the goodies it delivered. She didn’t have to work hard at attracting men; she just did.

The production, designed by Peter Farmer, looks suitably sumptuous on the stage of Queensland Performing Arts Centre’s Lyric Theatre, although I felt at one or two moments the lighting was brighter, and less evocative, than remembered, particularly in the final scene in the Louisiana swamps where Manon meets her end. Still, much of the staging looks like a luscious 18th-century painting come to life.

Along with Dunn’s debut, Friday’s performance brought the first opportunity to hear the newish (dating from 2011) arrangement and orchestration of the score by Martin Yates. Bits and pieces of Massenet, but not anything from his opera on this subject, were sourced and arranged for MacMillan by Leighton Lewis with input from Hilda Gaunt. It worked reasonably well, but after its overhaul the material now sounds more coherent and has a better sense of dramatic build.

The opening pages of the score have an attractive gauzy quality and the sense of transparency continues as a way of underscoring the fragility of the Manon-des Grieux romance before it builds into an outpouring of sexual urgency. The key melodies are lovely and work well as returning motifs that help the drama cohere, and overall Yates seems to have toned down aspects that could fall into the overly sentimental or vulgar category. I hope to get a few more hearings under the belt when Manon comes to Sydney, although undoubtedly one heard the music to greater advantage in the Lyric Theatre. Certainly it was very handsome on Friday in the hands of the Queensland Symphony Orchestra, conducted by the AB’s music director Nicolette Fraillon.

In the end, though, it was Dunn’s night as a woman who delighted in her power and thrilled to the sex, the gifts and the attention but most of all, I think, had that most human of desires: to belong.

The AB opened the year in Brisbane for scheduling rather than strategic reasons, but ballet is becoming a hot commodity here. With Queensland Ballet’s star-studded MacMillan Romeo and Juliet coming up and the American Ballet Theatre visit hot on its heels, you’d have to say Brisbane is now ballet central.

Queensland Performing Arts Centre until March 1. Melbourne March 14-24, Sydney April 3-23.

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

The Australian Ballet launches a new look

The Australian Ballet’s 2014 season introduces a few surprises

IT used to be chiselled in stone. Every mainstage season of the Australian Ballet in Melbourne would have 11 or 12 performances and in Sydney, in the smaller Joan Sutherland Theatre, there would be 20 or thereabouts.  It didn’t matter if it was Swan Lake or a harder-to-sell triple bill; the number of performances was pretty much the same. The AB would add a few extra shows for extremely popular repertoire, as it is doing for next year’s Nutcracker (the Peter Wright version), but there was no adjustment down for the mixed programs that are rarely as well attended as full-length ballets. Each season was also strictly dedicated to the one program.

AB dancer Benedicte Bernet in a promotional shot for the 2014 season. Photo: Paul Scala

AB dancer Benedicte Bernet in a promotional shot for the 2014 season. Photo: Paul Scala

For 2014 the AB has made several changes that look eminently sensible: win-win-win for audiences, dancers and the company’s bottom line. There is a reduction in the number of Sydney and Melbourne performances of the two mixed bills, Imperial Suite and Chroma, with Sydney seeing a big change – in the slot where you’d usually see one mixed bill, Sydney will divide the time more or less equally between two. The change in Melbourne is far less marked in this respect; it gets a reduction from the norm of only a couple of performances. The cities will each get exactly the same number of performances for Imperial Suite (nine) and Chroma (10), which suggests Melbourne is a rather stronger market for mixed bills than Sydney given the significant difference in theatre capacity between Melbourne’s State Theatre and the Joan Sutherland. Or perhaps that’s just how the juggling act had to work.

In Melbourne Chroma will precede Imperial Suite but in Sydney the programs will be presented in repertory – a major change. On Saturday May 17 it would be possible to see both by attending the matinee and evening performances.

Melbourne does have one little overlap. For the first time the new choreographers’ workshop, Bodytorque – in its 10th year – will be staged in Melbourne and one of the three performances (June 24) will be in the midst of the Imperial Suite season (June 20-28). This is good news for Melbourne dance-lovers who have been asking for Bodytorque, but it will be challenging for the choreographers. Instead of the Sydney Theatre’s friendly proportions for smaller-scale work they will have to come to grips with the huge State Theatre stage and auditorium.

Ako Kondo in a promotional shot for the AB's Bodytorque.DNA. Photo Paul Scala

Ako Kondo in a promotional shot for the AB’s Bodytorque.DNA. Photo Paul Scala

In her introduction to the season, the AB’s new executive director, Libby Christie, wrote that the changes would allow a more diverse selection of works, create flexibility for audiences and give dancers more opportunities to perform. In broad terms it means Sydney now has room for an extra mainstage program, although it loses Bodytorque. And it gives the AB the chance to get bigger houses for the contemporary work. Well, that’s obviously the idea, and good luck to it.

Work from both the AB’s resident choreographers will be seen in Melbourne and Sydney next year. Stephen Baynes will be part of the Chroma program (headlined, obviously, by Wayne McGregor’s Chroma from 2006 and including Jiri Kylian’s Petit Mort and Sechs Tanze). The AB has also programmed Stanton Welch’s 2010 production of La Bayadere, made for Houston Ballet where he is artistic director. The often omitted temple-tumbling fourth act is included and there is the promise of live snakes. If this photograph is any guide, the production will live up to its tag of being opulently Oriental in design – Peter Farmer is the man responsible.

Robyn Hendricks and Ty King-Wall give a taste of Stanton Welch's La Bayadere. Photo: Paul Scala

Robyn Hendricks and Ty King-Wall give a taste of Stanton Welch’s La Bayadere. Photo: Paul Scala

In addition, Brisbane is rapidly becoming ballet central: next year the AB gives it two programs, Kenneth MacMillan’s Manon (February 21-March 1) and Imperial Suite (February 26-27), a strong addition to the visit from American Ballet Theatre in August-September (Swan Lake; a mixed bill of Twyla Tharp, Jerome Robbins and Alexei Ratmansky) and Queensland Ballet’s presentation of MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet, featuring international guest artists Carlos Acosta and Tamara Rojo. It is worth noting that this year extra performances have been added to all QB’s seasons in artistic director Li Cunxin’s first full year, despite sell-out performances for the visiting Bolshoi.

Adelaide is also visited in 2014, and will see Alexei Ratmansky’s Cinderella, which premieres in Melbourne later this month and is seen in Sydney from November 29.

The Australian Ballet’s 2014 program in brief:

Manon (MacMillan), Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney

Imperial Suite (Balanchine’s Ballet Imperial, Lifar’s Suite en blanc), Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney

Chroma (McGregor, Kylian, Baynes), Sydney and Melbourne

La Bayadere (Welch), Melbourne and Sydney

The Nutcracker (Wright), Melbourne and Sydney

Cinderella (Ratmansky), Adelaide

Bodytorque.DNA, Melbourne