Quakes and tremors at RNZB

The party to mark Royal New Zealand Ballet’s 60th anniversary was in full swing at Wellington’s St James Theatre when the earthquake struck. The special matinee performance of Swan Lake on July 21, 2013, had been attended by many former dancers, staff and friends and now it was time to raise a glass and reminisce. At 5.09pm the building started to shake. To the sound of scores of wine glasses rattling mightily, everyone dropped to the floor. After what seemed like an age but was only 20 seconds, the movement stopped. It had been a big quake, no doubt about it, but no one in the room was injured. People stood and the party continued.

Lucy Green as Odette credit Evan Li

Lucy Green, now with Queensland Ballet, as Odette for RNZB in 2013. Photo: Evan Li

RNZB’s artistic director at the time was Ethan Stiefel, the starry former American Ballet Theatre principal artist whose appointment was seen as a great coup for the company. He took up the role in 2011 on a three-year contract. It was hoped he would stay for at least five years but one never got the impression that he felt entirely comfortable. He left in September 2014 to return to the US.

Stiefel was replaced by the Italian choreographer and former La Scala dancer Francesco Ventriglia, previously director of MaggioDanza in Florence. He started in November 2014 but just two years later, amid reports of some staff and dancer dissatisfaction, RNZB announced Ventriglia had decided to end his contract with them and would finish in mid 2017, some months short of his first three-year term. Ventriglia was recently announced as adjunct artistic director of Ballet Nacional Sodre in Montevideo, Uruguay.

On June 7 this year, the former Pacific Northwest Ballet prima ballerina Patricia Barker was anointed RNZB’s 12th artistic director. Signalling that the Board realised there needed to be rather more stability, Barker was asked to sign for five years, not three. By December there were new reports of dancer unrest and predictions that, for various reasons, perhaps half the company’s complement of 36 dancers would not be returning in 2018. That’s quite an upheaval.

Is RNZB experiencing an earthquake that will leave it seriously damaged? Or is it simply subject to all-too-familiar tremors that rattle the nerves, but only temporarily? The next month or so will give a strong indication of which way things go.

Right now, some dancers – perhaps four, the number is unclear – are reportedly unhappy that their annual contracts haven’t been renewed and have made grievance claims against RNZB. That’s a process to keep an eye on. The new New Zealand Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, is also Minister for Arts, Culture and Heritage and has said she’s concerned about RNZB’s situation. She’s asked the Ministry of Culture and Heritage to do a report for her. That should be interesting.

Adding to the impression of tumoil, half a dozen dancers, mainly Italian, left around the time Ventriglia departed in August. (After Barker’s arrival he stayed on as guest choreographer to stage a sumptuous new version of Romeo and Juliet.) Three other dancers are off to Queensland Ballet and its magnetic artistic director Li Cunxin, yet others are retiring, some possibly reluctantly. Can all these departures be sheeted home to Barker? It doesn’t matter really. It’s happened under her watch. She gets to wear it.

One might suggest it would have been a reasonable, politically astute and – let’s put it out there, humane – move to give 2018 contracts to all current dancers who wanted them. It would give everyone a chance to get to know one another properly and acknowledge the upheaval visited upon the dancers over the past six years. Three artistic directors in that time. It’s brutal.

RNZB dancers begin the 2018 year on January 8. The company will announce their names on that day, a list that will be closely scrutinised. How many New Zealanders? How many people who trained at the New Zealand School of Dance, which is RNZB’s official school? How many names of long-serving company members are missing? How many dancers will come from Grand Rapids Ballet, the US company of which Barker is still artistic director, concurrently with RNZB, as Grand Rapids seeks her successor?

It won’t be unusual, of course, if Barker brings in some Americans. Stiefel hired dancers associated with his former employer, the University of North Carolina School of the Arts; Ventriglia brought in a group of Italians. Many left when or shortly after their AD left, again not unusual. But Barker is reaping that particular whirlwind and it’s been mighty breezy out there. I can identify close to 70 names of people who have danced with RNZB in the past five years and January will bring more. The level of churn is high.

Behind all these questions and anxieties is the one big question: what is the nature and purpose of a national ballet company? There are fundamental concerns, such as how the company’s identity is described and forged; how the relationship with its home audience is cemented; and the degree of responsibility in nurturing, developing, employing and celebrating home-grown artists. New Zealand isn’t short of tremendous talent.

These concerns, by the way, really should be greatly exercising the minds of Board members. Perhaps this is happening as we speak but there’s no way of telling. The current chair, Steven Fyfe, has made no comment so far, not even a word of support for the artistic director so recently appointed.

As I’ve mentioned before, RNZB’s current Strategic Plan ends this year. I assume the Board has a new one ready to go (one more thing to watch out for). Its current Mission, by the way, is: “To become a compelling expression of New Zealand’s creative spirit”. You can read the whole Strategic Plan here.

Meanwhile, the show will go on. It always does. RNZB turns 65 this year, starting the celebrations with a ballet version of the Jane Campion film The Piano (commissioned by Ventriglia). Barker plans to mark the milestone with a series of new commissions from female choreographers that will do double duty as a tribute to the 125th anniversary of women’s suffrage in New Zealand.

The Wellington season of Strength and Grace: Women will be seen not at the company’s usual home, the St James Theatre, but at the Opera House, as will the earlier program Dancing with Mozart. That’s due to strengthening work to be undertaken at the St James, due to start around the middle of 2018. The upgrade will make the theatre less vulnerable to the quakes and tremors so prevalent in this part of the world. If only RNZB itself could be assured of such security.

Don Quixote, West Australian Ballet

His Majesty’s Theatre, Perth, May 11 and 12.

Don Quixote is all fluff and high spirits. Based glancingly on the Cervantes novel, the ballet foregrounds the romance between Kitri, an innkeeper’s daughter, and the impecunious barber Basilio. Kitri’s father would prefer her to marry money, which turns up in the form of Gamache, a fool.

Crusading knight Don Quixote bumbles upon the scene and complications ensue before everything is sorted. A fancy wedding entirely out of keeping with Kitri and Basilio’s meagre fortunes follows but what the heck. This is a rom-com, a fantasy and a chance for dancers to show off their classical chops while having fun.

Gakuro Matsui, Chihiro Nomura and dancers of West Australian Ballet in Don Quixote. Photo by Sergey Pevnev

Chihiro Nomura and Gakuro Matsui, centre, in Lucette Aldous’s production of Don Quixote for West Australian Ballet. Photo: Sergey Pevnev

West Australian Ballet’s production is a judiciously slimmed-down staging created in 2010 by Lucette Aldous, a celebrated Kitri in her day. It could be argued that bigger is better when it comes to Don Q: hordes of merry townsfolk, a substantial band of gypsies and a gorgeously attired corps in the vision scene can do much to buoy the featherweight narrative. Nevertheless, Aldous’s production is mostly effective theatrically, albeit with one big, regrettable loss. Don Quixote’s reverie, in which he sees Kitri as his beloved Dulcinea, is ruthlessly pulled back to feature only the leading characters. The scene lacks meaning and magic.

In Allan Lees’s warm design the first image is of a huge page flapping and floating in the air as if torn from a gigantic book: Don Quixote is dreaming of chivalrous deeds. Later, when the Don famously tilts at windmills, pages swirl about evocatively as the wind howls. It’s an elegant solution in a production that moves swiftly from scene to scene. After their very brief introduction Don Quixote and sidekick Sancho Panza head off on their adventures, the Don seated, endearingly, on a wine cask. Within a minute or so the main action has begun in San Sebastian’s town square.

At the first performance newly minted principal dancers Chihiro Nomura and Gakuro Matsui were sweet, charming lovers whose appeal was that of light playing on dappled leaves rather than the midday-sun swelter of the second cast Kitri and Basilio, soloists Florence Leroux-Coléno and Cuban-trained newcomer Oscar Valdés.

Gakuro Matsui and Chihiro Nomura in Don Quixote. Photo by Sergey Pevnev (5)

Chihiro Nomura and Gakuro Matsui in Don Quixote. Photo: Sergey Pevnev

Nomura and Matsui are both finely tuned classicists – and Matsui a fine partner – who made light work of the barrage of small beaten steps and flurries of manèges and pirouettes that keep the principals very busy indeed. The next night Leroux-Coléno and Valdés turned up the wattage with a knowing and vivacious account of Kitri and Basilio. True, they over-indulged themselves with the tricky one-arm lift in Act I – Valdés held Leroux-Coléno aloft, twice, for longer than I’ve seen anywhere and it was frankly just showing off, although one had to admire the chutzpah. Well, perhaps Li Cunxin, now artistic director of Queensland Ballet, held the moment just as long when appearing as Basilio for The Australian Ballet in 1999 but he was entitled – it was his farewell performance. Less would have been more for Leroux-Coléno and Valdés at that point.

At times Valdés’s dash trumped finesse but his ebullience and daring are exciting. He gets thrilling height and speed in his double saut de basque and when he danced the Lead Gypsy on opening night the temperature on stage rose dramatically.

Valdés was well matched with Leroux-Coléno, whose good humour and spark made her a witty, flavourful, memorable Kitri. It is beyond understanding why she is not a principal artist in this company.

Andre Santos was the highly enjoyable Gamache in the first performance and a high-octane Lead Gypsy the next night, tossing in an airborne cartwheel as if in answer to the “get that” 540 (a complicated air turn that comes from martial arts) with which Valdés punctuated his Lead Gypsy pyrotechnics. Santos is leaving at the end of this season after eight years with WAB to return to Brazil and will be sorely missed, particularly in light of some disappointing performances from higher ranked dancers on Thursday and Friday. The company is looking somewhat uneven.

Principal Matthew Lehmann did not appear match fit for the role of the matador Espada in the first performance. At the second, Alessio Scognamiglio heroically carried off Espada’s unforgiving pink satin outfit with oodles of the matador’s self-regarding glamour, displayed in luxurious backbends and arrogant strides about the stage. Brooke Widdison-Jacobs, also a principal artist, was miscast as the flashy street-dancer Mercedes in the second cast but at the opening demi-soloist Polly Hilton was alluring in the role. Swings and roundabouts.

Looking further down the ranks, corps de ballet member Carina Roberts continues to make her mark on the company and was a fleet, enchanting Cupid in the vision scene and the alternative Gamache, corps member Adam Alzaim, was goofily appealing. The Don is something of a dancing role in this production and both Christian Luck and Christopher Hill affectingly captured a man who still has some physical vigour while his faculties dim.

Minkus’s score may not be a masterpiece but it’s cheerful earworm material and West Australian Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Canadian guest conductor Judith Yan gave a rollicking account of it.

Don Quixote ends in Perth on May 27. Performances in Albany, June 24; Kalgoorlie, June 30; and Bunbury, July 7.

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.

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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.

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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.

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.

My year in dance

Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker and Pina Bausch made my year. For his final Sydney Festival in January, artistic director Lieven Bertels programmed two bracing De Keersmaeker works, Fase and Vortex Temporum, and the huge thrill was seeing the choreographer herself in Fase (my review is here). Living dance history. Festival clout and money also made the Bausch experience possible. At the Adelaide Festival in March Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch performed Nelken, which was obviously a necessity to see, but just a week later Wellington’s New Zealand International Arts Festival trumped Adelaide. In the repertoire carve-up the Wellington-based festival got the double bill of Café Muller and Rite of Spring. I had always longed to see both live. And now I have.

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Pina Bausch’s The Rite of Spring. Photo: Matt Grace

The Perth International Arts Festival (February) and the Brisbane Festival (September) – there’s a theme here – also provided performances that made it into my best-of list. It was absolutely worth going to Perth for just one night from Sydney (flying time: five hours) to see Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s Apocrifu, which was outstandingly beautiful, in a rough, sweaty kind of way, and accompanied by celestial a capella singing from the all-male group A Filetta. It was a much easier business to pop up to Brisbane for Jonah Bokaer’s Rules of the Game – not really for the much-hyped title work (its score was by Pharrell Williams) but for the chance to see earlier Bokaer pieces and the choreographer himself onstage.

More festival highlights, these from local choreographers: Stephanie Lake’s super-intelligent Double Blind at the Sydney Festival, Kristina Chan’s ravishing A Faint Existence at Performance Space’s Liveworks festival in October and Nicola Gunn and Jo Lloyd’s Mermermer, also at Liveworks.

kristina-chan

Kristina Chan in A Faint Existence. Photo: Ashley de Prazer

The rest of the key works in 2016 come from major companies. The Australian Ballet, which has been looking very, very conventional of late, stretched dancers and audiences with John Neumeier’s Nijinsky (which I reviewed for Limelight magazine); Bangarra Dance Theatre’s triple bill OUR land people stories was a luminous program; and Sydney Dance Company’s double bills Untamed (October) and CounterMove (February) yet again demonstrated the thoroughbred power and impressive individuality of Rafael Bonachela’s dancers.

In the year I saw dance in Sydney, Perth, Brisbane, Adelaide, Melbourne, Auckland and Wellington, but yet again I mourn the fact that I just wasn’t able to visit Melbourne more often to sample its contemporary dance riches. As so often, Samuel Beckett comes to mind: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

On the people front the biggest news of the year was the re-emergence of David Hallberg after a two-and-a-half year absence from the stage. The American superstar, a principal artist at both American Ballet Theatre and the Bolshoi Ballet, spent a year at The Australian Ballet’s headquarters in Melbourne undergoing extensive rehabilitation after having surgery for an ankle problem. His return to the stage was, fittingly, with the AB, and as it happened, the scheduled ballet gave Hallberg a role debut. He danced four performances as Franz in Coppélia. (You can read about the rehabilitation process here and the Coppélia performance here.)

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David Hallberg in Act I of Coppelia. Photo: Kate Longley

Queensland Ballet made a splash when it announced the appointment, from 2017, of Liam Scarlett as artistic associate. Scarlett retains his artist in residence role at the Royal Ballet. At the same time QB announced artistic director Li Cunxin had signed on for four more years. The board must be happy about that.

Less happily, Royal New Zealand Ballet announced that its relatively new artistic director, Francesco Ventriglia, would be relinquishing that role in mid-2017. He will stay on to choreograph the announced new Romeo and Juliet, but then he’s off. What happened? I’ll let you know when I find out, although previously he had spoken to me enthusiastically about being in New Zealand. The RNZ website (Radio New Zealand) wrote in early December that as many as a dozen dancers and staff had left RNZB because of conflicts with Ventriglia, quoting a representative of the union that represents dancers.

I stress I have no information that suggests these departures are connected with Ventriglia’s, but leading Australian-born RNZB dancer Lucy Green has accepted a position with Queensland Ballet for 2017 and RNZB’s former music director Nigel Gaynor, who was hired by Ventriglia’s predecessor Ethan Stiefel, is now QB’s music director. These gains by QB could easily be explained by Li Cunxin’s voracious eye for talent – as in the Liam Scarlett coup (QB and RNZB share Scarlett’s lovely Midsummer Night’s Dream so there’s a close connection).

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Queensland Ballet’s Rian Thompson and Laura Hidalgo in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Photo: David Kelly

The biggest disappointment of the year is the AB’s lack of commitment to developing new choreographers. It’s true that Bodytorque, which started in 2004, needed a fresh look, but it’s become the incredible shrinking show, offering less and less each year. The name is no longer used at all and the amount of new work from developing choreographers is minuscule.

Bodytorque was last seen in its familiar form in 2013 – six new or relatively inexperienced choreographers made works that were seen in a short special season at what is now the Roslyn Packer Theatre in Sydney. In 2014 Bodytorque went to Melbourne and featured five works, including a piece by newly minted resident choreographer Tim Harbour. The other four dance-makers included Alice Topp (her fourth year at Bodytorque) and Richard House (with his second piece).

In 2015 the name still lingered but the program had dwindled to the creation of just one work, House’s From Something, to Nothing, shown once in Sydney and once in Melbourne as a “pop-up” event called Bodytorque Up Late. This took place after performances of mainstage repertoire, once in Sydney and once in Melbourne. The audience could stay to watch for free if it wished. Or not.

In 2016 it was clear favour had fallen on Topp and House, which is fair enough. Both, but particularly Topp, are worth persevering with. This time their new works, each of about 10 minutes in length, were programmed as part of a group of divertissements that acted as a curtain-raiser to Balanchine’s Symphony in C, which gave the whole evening its name.

And for 2017? Those two pieces will be seen again, this time in Melbourne when that city gets Symphony in C. So – let’s add up the minutes. In the three years from 2015-2017, there will have been a bit under 40 minutes in total of new choreography from developing choreographers.

It’s possible AB artistic director David McAllister has big plans for Topp, or House, or both. After all, Harbour was developed via a series of Bodytorque commissions. But Harbour emerged from a quite a large pack. The window of opportunity has now narrowed excessively – and depressingly.

Li Cunxin extends his Queensland Ballet tenure and Liam Scarlett joins as artistic associate

IN October Queensland Ballet announced that artistic director Li Cunxin had signed on for another four years, doubtless much to the relief of the QB board. Li succeeded François Klaus in July 2012 and in his first four years has transformed a lacklustre company into one of significant growth, steadily increasing artistic standards and apparently boundless ambition.

The achievements include introducing a young artist program; securing more State government funding that will, by 2020, boost the size of the company to 36 dancers (not including the eight young artists); performing at least one large-scale work annually in Queensland Performing Arts Centre’s 2000-seat Lyric Theatre; beefing up the senior ranks, including hiring three dancers from National Ballet of Cuba; and selling out just about every performance for every program, every year.

QB has also been successful in attracting significant private donations to the company, a happy state of affairs that tends to be attributed to Li’s networking skills and charisma. Last year the Melbourne-based Ian Potter Foundation announced a gift of $5 million, earmarked for improvements to the company’s facilities at the Thomas Dixon Centre in Brisbane’s West End (Li was a long-time Melbourne resident, working there as a stockbroker after his retirement as a principal dancer with The Australian Ballet) and in its statement regarding Li’s contract extension, QB revealed that an anonymous donor is “committed to supporting Li’s appointment over the next four years”.

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Liam Scarlett rehearsing principal dancer Yanela Pinera in A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Queensland Ballet. Photo: Eduardo Vieira

There was more to come. High-profile young British choreographer Liam Scarlett, who is artist in residence at London’s Royal Ballet and has a busy international career, joins QB next year as artistic associate (he keeps his RB role). A QB representative said Scarlett’s tenure was for four years “initially”, with extension possible, and that the position is being fully funded by one private donor.

In a statement released by QB on November 4, Scarlett said the company had “a commitment to excellence and a desire to push the boundaries and that’s an exciting creative environment to work in”.

The details of the association aren’t yet clear but it is likely QB will perform one Scarlett work each year, either one made on the company or an existing ballet. In 2017 QB will stage No Man’s Land, the one-act work Scarlett made for English National Ballet’s World War I centenary program Lest We Forget in 2014.

Scarlett’s talent was identified when he was a student at the Royal Ballet School. He juggled dance-making and performing with the Royal Ballet until 2012, when he became a fulltime choreographer. He has works in the repertoires of American Ballet Theatre, New York City Ballet, Miami City Ballet and San Francisco Ballet, among other leading companies.

The introduction to QB was made when Royal New Zealand Ballet’s then artistic director, Ethan Stiefel, invited Scarlett to create a full-length Midsummer Night’s Dream for RNZB and asked QB to be a co-producer. Dream premiered in Wellington last year to wide approval – it is captivatingly musical and sensual and has a sweet sense of humour – and sold out its performances in Brisbane earlier this year.

Scarlett’s one-act abstract works have been regarded rather more favourably by leading dance critics than his narrative ballets, although his three-act Carmen, made last year to the music of Bizet for Norwegian National Ballet, must have been received well: the company is reviving it in February and March next year. RNZB took A Midsummer Night’s Dream to Hong Kong in October and gives four more performances of it in Wellington from November 25. This year’s three-act Frankenstein, however, was handed particularly stinging reviews on its London premiere in May this year. (It is a co-production with San Francisco Ballet and opens there in February.)

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Queensland Ballet’s Rian Thompson and Laura Hidalgo in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Photo: David Kelly

When I interviewed Scarlett ahead of the Dream premiere in Wellington last year, at a time he was also deep into planning for Frankenstein, he said he was “very aware I wanted to do narrative – I grew up with all these story ballets and loved them. They were my favourite to do when I was dancing. I soaked them up. But I was very aware you needed tools to do that.”

It’s those tools, or lack of them, that have come under close critical scrutiny. Scarlett’s approach is to work closely with his artistic collaborators, but not with a dramaturg. “I have been criticised for that,” he told me. “But I’ve also worked with people who have worked with a dramaturg and they’ve been criticised equally. No, I run things by people but if I want to do it, I will do it, and if I make a mistake then it’s my mistake that I will learn from eventually.”

His lengthy CV might suggest otherwise but Scarlett is only 30. He doubtless has more mistakes to make along with his successes, but his name will add lustre to QB and Queensland audiences will have the chance to see at close range the further growth of a significant choreographer.

Character building: dance isn’t only for the young

The received wisdom is that ballet is strictly a young person’s game. When a classical dancer gets near or just beyond 40 there is much marveling at their longevity and conjecture about what they will do when they retire. There are always exceptions, of course. Think of the wondrous Alessandra Ferri, who on June 23 danced Juliet for American Ballet Theatre at the age of 53 (in the MacMillan version). Leanne Benjamin, long-serving Australian-born principal at the Royal Ballet, retired at 48 still looking spectacular.

And there is another, much larger, cohort of mature dancers whose contribution is great but less remarked upon. They are kings and queens; mothers, fathers and grandparents; attendants at court, kindly godmothers, clog-dancing widows, bad fairies and more. They bring experience, authority, wisdom and texture to the stage – not to mention sparing the audience the unpleasing sight of vigorous 20-somethings giving us their old-person acting. The character dancer is an essential part of any company.

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Colin Peasley ready to take the stage in Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

“Once a dancer, always a dancer,” says David McAllister, artistic director of The Australian Ballet, who has in front of him one of the great examples in the business. When the AB opens its London tour on July 13 with Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake, the role of the Lord Admiral will be taken – as usual – by Colin Peasley. Peasley, a founding member of the AB in 1962, will be 82 before the year is out (he celebrated his 80th birthday in the US while on tour with the AB in 2014). His role is not extensive but you know what they say: there are no small parts, only small actors. McAllister was a principal artist with the AB before becoming artistic director and says: “I remember as a young performer learning so much from watching people like Colin.” Young performers also need to watch out: an expertly judged cameo can shine far more brightly than a larger routine performance.

Li Cunxin, artistic director of Queensland Ballet (and also a former AB principal) says story ballets need experienced older artists to add depth and weight to the production. “No matter how brilliant young dancers are, they haven’t lived the ups and downs, the heart-breaking moments. The way you walk, the way you look at a person, the subtlety, is very hard to teach. “Furthermore, to have those marvelous dancers is such a great inspiration for the younger members of the company. Dancers are such visual learners so to have someone like that in front of you – it makes a huge difference.” McAllister agrees. It is invaluable for “all the company to witness that theatrical craft at such close range”.

Li invited Steven Heathcote to dance Lord Capulet when QB staged the MacMillan Romeo and Juliet in 2014. Heathcote was the AB’s alpha male principal artist for many years and is now a ballet master and regional touring associate for the national company. He also performs character roles for the AB and was most recently seen on stage in Stephen Baynes’s Swan Lake, bringing his considerable charisma to the role of the Lord Chancellor.

Rachael Walsh unforgettably made Lady Capulet in the QB Romeo and Juliet her final role before retiring as a principal dancer and taking the position of corporate partnerships manager at the company. Heathcote and Walsh are “fabulous artists, truly rare”, says Li. Walsh is now listed as one of QB’s character artists, alongside veteran Paul Boyd, members of the ballet staff and others.

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Paul Boyd as Catalabutte in Greg Horsman’s The Sleeping Beauty for Queensland Ballet

Other former AB principal artists seguing into character roles include Lisa Bolte (now working in philanthropy for the AB), who recently appeared as the Queen in the Baynes Swan Lake, and Lynette Wills. Wills created the role of the Godmother in Alexei Ratmansky’s Cinderella in 2013 and Carabosse in McAllister’s The Sleeping Beauty last year, these performances an adjunct to her frequent credits as a ballet photographer. In Sydney former Royal Ballet first soloist Gillian Revie was a memorable Carabosse in the McAllister production.

Bolte and Wills may be somewhat older than most of the dancers on stage but they are positively teenaged by comparison with some. “I think of Sir Robert Helpmann in Checkmate, Dame Margaret Scott in Nutcracker: The Story of Clara and pretty much every role that Colin Peasley does,” says McAllister. The Red King in Checkmate was Helpmann’s final role. He died in 1986 at the age of 77 only two months after he was last on stage. Scott was in her late 70s when she last danced in the Murphy Nutcracker – and dance she did, including a highly physical encounter with giant rats in a dream sequence.

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Lisa Bolte as the Queen in Stephen Baynes’s Swan Lake for The Australian Ballet

Peasley had more than 6000 performances under his belt when he formally retired in 2012 but in his farewell interviews flagged that he wouldn’t be averse to accepting further invitations to appear. I asked him then about the legendary Freddie Franklin, who died at 98 in 2013 and who had appeared as the Tutor in Swan Lake for American Ballet Theatre when he was 94. Peasley seemed inclined to want to match or better that. You’d be mad to bet against it.