A new year dawns at RNZB

Biographies of the new intake at Royal New Zealand Ballet are now on the website after last year’s bruising and very public exodus of a large number of dancers.

There are currently 32 dancers pictured on the site, 22 of whom were still standing at the end of 2017. Now the dust has settled it appears that 16 dancers left during the last three months of 2017 (there was quite a lot of churn during the past two years, somewhat muddying the numbers and increasing the perception of instability).

The reasons for departure are various, as they usually are, but the company’s handling of this significant turnover was poor and contributed to the drubbing it received in the NZ media. It is not true, as a media report wildly claimed on January 28, that “most” of the company’s dancers left or did not have their contracts renewed but the public perception was of a company in crisis. Even the new Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, was drawn into the furore, although in fairness one has to add that she is also arts minister.

Patricia Barker, Artistic Director, The Royal New Zealand Ballet

Patricia Barker in the studio at Royal New Zealand Ballet. Photo: Stephen A’Court

RNZB usually employs about 36 dancers but new artistic director Patricia Barker is keeping a few contracts up her sleeve. Early in January she told American publication Dance Magazine she would continue to hold auditions through the year. This is to take account of the difference in contract periods between the northern and southern hemispheres.

One of the 10 new names at RNZB, Nadia Yanowsky, is an experienced European soloist who is listed as a guest artist for The Piano: the ballet and Dancing with Mozart seasons. The other nine comprise three New Zealanders, three Australians, two from the US and one from China. One of the Americans, Caroline Wiley, was formerly with Barker’s company Grand Rapids Ballet in Michigan. Barker remains artistic director of Grand Rapids until mid-year, when San Francisco Ballet soloist James Sofranko takes over. Wiley’s signing appears to be recent – she was not named in a January 12 announcement by the company about its new team.

About half the dancers are New Zealanders and Australians, with some of the latter having trained at the New Zealand School of Dance; the others come from Europe, Asia, South America and the US. The mix of nationalities is not at all unusual when one looks at RNZB’s history, although in mid-December, during discussions about the company’s make-up, the RNZB Board asserted – clearly in panic mode – that 42% of its dancers were either from NZ or were NZ-trained, and that the goal for 2018 was for that percentage to be higher.

The company as it exists today can boast about one-third of its dancers having that NZ connection, and that seems in line with other years. I suppose it’s possible Barker could hire another four New Zealanders during the year to boost the percentage to about 45% although that doesn’t seem the most obvious way to create the right mix of dancers for a company.

More interesting is the level of experience of the incoming group. The biographies of eight of the 10 new dancers show only a few years of professional performance, recent membership of Young Artist or pre-professional programs or recent graduation from training institutions. One newcomer, Olivia Moore, is only 16.

In other newcomer news, The Australian Ballet is steadily heading towards its goal of having 85 dancers within the next few years. It is taking seven young graduates into the corps this year while four dancers have left. There are now 77 company members. In addition, American Ballet Theatre principal artist David Hallberg is resident guest artist.

Queensland Ballet has significantly boosted its stocks, including three dancers newly arrived from RNZB. This year it has 37 main company members, up from 33 last year, and 12 Young Artists. It will also have two dancers in the new rank of Apprentice. When Li Cunxin became artistic director in 2012 there were 25 main company members.

Footnote: Patricia Barker took a lot of the flak for RNZB’s tumultuous situation. Some of it was unfair, although as I have written before, it would have been humane to let all dancers stay for one full year under her leadership and then make decisions about contract renewal. As it was, Barker let four dancers go and that fuelled much of the outrage, along with her continued association with Grand Rapids Ballet in Michigan.

Never mind that the Board that hired Barker agreed to let her continue as artistic director of Grand Rapids for the rest of that company’s season, which ends in May. That was known before she set foot in Wellington. Obviously the Board didn’t do a very good job of selling the information, but then it needed Barker to come quickly because her predecessor, Francesco Ventriglia, was about to leave.

Ventriglia’s tenure was not without its upheavals and he announced in 2016, only two years after arriving, that he wouldn’t be staying. He remained to choreograph his new Romeo and Juliet last year, thus giving the Board time to conduct a search for his successor. They just didn’t find someone free of all current commitments.

Ventriglia had been preceded by Ethan Stiefel, who declined to renew his contract after his initial three-year term, which he took up in late 2011. And remember, the company had waited close to a year for Stiefel to take up the job after his appointment was announced, necessitating the hiring of an interim director to fill the gap after Stiefel’s predecessor, Gary Harris, left at the end of 2010. Still with me? Former RNZB artistic director Matz Skoog stepped into the breach for eight months. This means there are dancers at RNZB who have had five artistic directors stand in front of them since 2010.

Doubtless with all these comings and goings in mind, the Board asked Barker to sign on for five years rather than the usual three. Time will tell how that works out but you have to admire Barker’s sang froid. She said this to Dance Magazine: “All of the attention towards that gives me a sense the community really cares about the organisation and I hope that we continue to get this much media coverage as we move into the next season and the wonderful ballets are done.”

Meanwhile, the NZ PM has had a chat to the company, reportedly saying the organisation is aware of her concerns. In addition RNZB has commissioned a report into its processes and how it manages complaints, which may be completed by next month. And the Board is seeking someone with experience in classical dance as well as governance to become a Trustee. Yes, detailed art form knowledge seems to have been lacking to date. Makes you think, doesn’t it?

RNZB’s first work for 2018, The Piano: the ballet, opens on February 23.

Li and QB: my artists of the year

My first Artist of the Year, in 2015, was operatic mezzo, cabaret sensation, music-theatre star and all-round fine human being Jacqueline Dark. Last year I went for a large, disparate group of people and companies – the independent theatre artists who do tremendous work at low prices, making their art accessible to all often at great personal cost.

This year my choice is a company and an individual – Queensland Ballet and its artistic director Li Cunxin.

Jess and Kirby headshots

Queensland Ballet artistic director Li Cunxin takes his curtain call after appearing in a special performance of The Nutcracker. Photo: David Kelly

Li became QB’s artistic director in the second half of 2012 and late last year signed on until 2020. In five years he has utterly transformed Queensland Ballet, turning a frankly provincial company into one of substance and ambition. QB can now perform to capacity houses in Queensland Performing Arts Centre’s largest theatre, the 2000-seat Lyric, for some of its productions. Support has been given for the expansion and renovation of QB’s Thomas Dixon Centre headquarters and a $10 million expansion of Queensland Ballet Academy at Kelvin Grove State College is being funded by the State Government. “This state deserves it and the country deserves it,” says Li.

Brisbane adores Li, as his one-time-only return to the stage on December 10 proved. The special matinee sold out within the hour, raising funds for the company’s work and attracting the kind of publicity for ballet most companies can only dream of. (A Museum of Brisbane exhibition titled Mao’s Last Dancer the Exhibition: A Portrait of Li Cunxin, running until April, refers to “the dramatic influence he has had on the state’s arts scene”.)

Actor David Wenham introduced the performance and presided over a Q&A session afterwards with Li and his wife, Mary, in which Li described himself as an optimistic man. Indeed so. He hopes QB’s success in Queensland will spread interstate and internationally and as part of that goal QB will perform in Melbourne next year, presenting Liam Scarlett’s enchanting A Midsummer Night’s Dream (the 2015 ballet is a co-production with Royal New Zealand Ballet) at Her Majesty’s Theatre.

Jess and Kirby headshots

Lucy Green and Camilo Ramos, both recently appointed principal artists, in QB’s The Nutcracker. Photo: David Kelly

QB’s annual Nutcracker gave Li the perfect role in which to return to the stage after an absence of 18 years, although he went way, way beyond the call of duty.

Li is 56 and could have gone the safe, expected, route of performing the part of Drosselmeyer in Ben Stevenson’s production as written. The mysterious magician bursts dramatically on to the scene, sweeps around the stage, twirls his cape, does a few tricks, hands out gifts to the children, flirts with their mothers and departs with a flourish.

Stage presence is the key requirement, something Li could have offered without breaking a sweat. But he figured his audience would be keen for a bit more than dashing cape-work so after he did the glad-handing and flirting he danced. He really danced.

Stevenson gave his permission for Li to insert himself into the big fight scene between marauding rats and the Nutcracker doll’s soldiers. Li’s opening gambit was a snappy diagonal of chainés. He threw in a couple of air turns and a big circle of jetés but wasn’t finished yet. A series of showy grand pirouettes earned mighty cheers from the capacity house.

The performance is unlikely to lead to a late-flowering revival of Li’s dance career but it served its purpose of highlighting a young dancer competition for regional and rural Queensland called Wish Upon a Ballet Star. This year’s winner, Imogen Hess, was one of the child guests during the Act I Christmas party and took a solo bow at the end. The occasion also drew attention to the gleaming quality of Li’s company, which looks better with each passing year. In 2018 QB increases its number of dancers from 33 to 37. There will also be a bumper crop of 12 Young Artists and two dancers in the new rank of Apprentice.

Speaks for itself really.

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.

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 1895 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.

The Rite of Spring_NZ Festival 2016_Matt Grace

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 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.)


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).


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.