Synergy, Queensland Ballet

Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Arts, Brisbane, June 28

Synergy is a small, unpretentious program that’s partly a place where emerging choreographers can test their capabilities and partly where Queensland Ballet’s Young Artists and members of its Pre-Professional year can get some stage time. Both these things are important aspects of QB’s remit but, at least in this year’s iteration, the focus is unclear.

Synergy 2019 puts new work by three highly experienced dance-makers alongside that of two neophytes and casts dancers from QB’s main company as the featured performers in three of the five works. That doesn’t exactly translate to boundless opportunity for the up-and-comers.

Queeensland Ballet

Camilo Ramos and Neneka Yoshida in Never, Stop Falling in Love. Photo: David Kelly

QB’s chief ballet master Greg Horsman is a man with extensive choreographic credits and his Never, Stop Falling in Love could easily pop up on a mainstage triple bill. It’s certainly more engaging than Trey McIntyre’s new The Shadows Behind Us that premiered recently in QB’s Masters Series. The works have some similarities, being danced to popular music interpreted by intriguing artists: jazz singer Jimmy Scott in the McIntyre; genre-hopping “little orchestra” Pink Martini for Horsman.

In Never, Stop Falling in Love three QB couples dance sultry duos while Young Artists weave in and out, promenading or dancing together as if it were a late summer’s evening on the boardwalk. Horsman’s theme of love – no more, no less – may not be earth-shattering but Never, Stop Falling in Love has plenty of charm and leaves a warm glow as it brings the evening to a close.

Queeensland Ballet

QB Young Artists in Magnetic Fields. Photo: David Kelly

Paul Knobloch’s Magnetic Fields, to the music of the seemingly ubiquitous Ludovico Einaudi, is a strong opener. Knobloch is a former dancer with The Australian Ballet, currently a ballet master with that company and has been making dances for more than a decade. Magnetic Fields is danced wonderfully by the 12 Young Artists who later backed up in Never, Stop Falling in Love but here they are the main game. Wearing close-fitting metallic bodysuits, they attract and repel one another, forming and reforming into ever-shifting huddles and lines. The work is entirely abstract but in several solos there’s a suggestion of the individual standing apart from the group, sometimes tentatively, sometimes forcefully.

Queeensland Ballet

Camilo Ramos and Lina Kim in The Cloud of Unknowing. Photo:David Kelly

The third professional choreographer is former Expressions Dance Company artistic director and former Australian Ballet resident choreographer Natalie Weir. Her pas de deux The Cloud of Unknowing, to music of the same name by Gerard Brophy, is another meditation on love, this time involving conflict. QB dancers Lina Kim and Camilo Ramos gave it their considerable all but it’s a forgettable piece with no compelling reason for being on the program.

Company dancer Lou Spichtig sparked the interest with a short narrative work performed by QB dancers Chiara Gonzalez, D’Arcy Brazier and Liam Geck. Spichtig based Demain dès L’Aube on a Victor Hugo poem she learned as a child so it has a lot of personal meaning for her, even if the work feels a little old-fashioned coming from the hands of such a young woman.

Hugo’s daughter made a marriage of which he didn’t approve, causing a deep rift between father and child. She died by drowning, something Hugo only learned about by reading a newspaper report. Spichtig lays out the story clearly, gracefully and with a good grasp of dramatic tension and structure. Her choice of music by Schnittke, Chopin and others is apt and her work quite unlike any others on the program. Spichtig is definitely worth encouraging.

Queeensland Ballet

Liam Geck, Chiara Gonzalez and D’Arcy Brazier in Demain dès L’Aube. Photo: David Kelly

Interestingly, the work that resonates most strongly happens to be by an emerging choreographer, QB dancer Pol Andrés Thió, and a 14-strong cast entirely drawn from the Pre-Professional Program. Thió describes Always in Flight as being “about how we experience art when we find meaning in it”. That concept isn’t easily discerned in the work, but never mind. It looks terrific and has a distinctive voice.

Always in Flight opens with two women in the most basic, unassertive costume imaginable: flesh-coloured leotards and tights that make the dancers look both innocent and vulnerable. Their interactions are physically simple but emotionally complicated – wary, perhaps, but supportive too as one lifts the other.

One woman seems cast as the outsider as men dressed in black flood the stage and other women join the group, they in loose trousers, their long hair flowing. Later everyone wears a long skirt and the lone woman is persuaded, briefly, to don one too. There is an enigmatic interlude in which we hear only the woman’s harsh breathing as she hunches her shoulders as if in distress, an image returned to at the end.

Queeensland Ballet

QB Pre-Professional Program dancers in Always in Flight. Photo: David Kelly

Thió’s handling of this large group is impressive. He has a good sense of ebb, flow and dynamics and the music by Moses Sumney, Hiatus Kayote and Aram Khachaturian is used effectively – not always the case when such different musicians are put alongside one another.

Synergy is performed without sets but with highly expert contributions from costume designers Noelene Hill and Fiona Holley and lighting  designers Cameron Goerg and Scott Chiverton.

Synergy ends July 6.

Flying high

Queensland Performing Arts Centre, June 26.

TREY McIntyre is a prolific American choreographer who has made more than 100 works – he is only 45 – and is widely known and admired in the US. When he announced last year he was closing his Trey McIntyre Project as a fulltime ensemble to concentrate on a broader range of cultural projects it was big news in the dance world. The company, wrote Marina Harss in The New York Times a year ago, had become “something almost unheard-of in the often beleaguered cultural landscape: a small, independent dance troupe that was a familiar name both at home in Boise, Idaho, and nationwide”. It was a “darling of festivals” and an “uncommon success”.

It’s unusual that success drives someone to pull back from the very thing that made them a success, but McIntyre wants to spend more time on film, photography and writing. That said, there are companies still wishing to stage his works and that circumstance brought him to Brisbane to oversee final rehearsals for Peter Pan, the 2002 work that was his first full-length ballet. It was certainly a belated introduction to Australia but a welcome one. Peter Pan was a big success on its premiere at Houston Ballet, other companies have taken it into their repertoire and Houston revived it in 2013.

Peter Pan leads the Darling children to Neverland. Photo: David Kelly

Peter Pan leads the Darling children to Neverland. Photo: David Kelly

Houston Ballet of course is what connects QB’s artistic director Li Cunxin and McIntyre. Li was a principal dancer there when McIntyre started choreographing as a 20-year-old during his first year with the company. In a program note McIntyre says Li and another Houston principal Mary McKendry – now Mary Li and a ballet mistress at QB – were “incredibly supportive and protective of me”. (Li doesn’t forget his old friends. Queensland Ballet’s Nutcracker and Cinderella are from the hand of Ben Stevenson, who was Li’s artistic director and father figure in Houston.)

It’s no surprise that the current season was almost completely sold out before it opened because that’s been the happy state of affairs at QB since Li took over the artistic directorship three years ago. Ticket buyers may have known nothing about this ballet apart from its name but they were prepared to take it on trust. They were right to. It’s a child-friendly work for the school holidays that has enough sophistication for an adult audience without losing the essential element of wonder.

At the time of making Peter Pan McIntyre was in his early 30s but still, as he writes in his program note, “basically just a kid”. That sense of himself as both boy and adult is absolutely crucial to Peter Pan, a story steeped in dualities. Sunlight and shadow, romance and adventure, fantasy and reality, spectacle and intimacy all have their place. The boy who would not grow up is also the Lost Boy who can’t grow up, bitter-sweet knowledge that anchors the sometimes unruly narrative and makes the final encounter between Peter and Wendy exceptionally affecting. He is in the air, poised to return to Neverland, and she is back in her rightful home, unable to fly and needing to stay. They must part. On opening night a technical glitch interrupted this touching scene (there had also been a spot of bother earlier) and the curtain had to be lowered for several minutes, but the emotional weight of the scene was present. I was sorry not to see the full radiance of Peter’s flying.

The story’s broader strokes would be easily comprehended by young viewers. Tinkerbell and a surprisingly sexy band of fairies flutter around the Darling children, who then fly off with wild-haired Peter into an exciting world where lissome mermaids frolic, pirates attack enthusiastically, dastardly Captain Hook masterminds the mayhem and a large croc makes several show-stealing appearances. McIntyre’s movement flows with happy ease between classically based choreography and energetic group shenanigans and his “just a kid” imagination lights up every scene.

And how astute to use music by Edward Elgar – an exact contemporary of Peter Pan’s creator J.M. Barrie – for the ballet’s score. Expressive, melodic selections from the British composer’s oeuvre provide abundant colour for dance and action along with a finely calibrated atmosphere of becoming modesty. The Queensland Symphony under Andrew Mogrelia sounded wonderful.

The vivid children’s-book designs by Thomas Boyd (sets), Jeanne Button (costumes) and Christina R. Giannelli (lighting) are a treat but ultimately McIntyre’s shiny-eyed affection for all his characters is the key to the production’s success. That’s not to say it’s perfect. McIntyre’s overall telling of the narrative is strong and clear but his story-ballet inexperience at the time of creation is evident in occasionally confusing or obscure detail, particularly in the framing scenes at the Darling home. There is also action involving Hook’s son James that requires a dip into the program for clarification, although at every moment this is a wonderful role.

McIntyre, however, is far from being alone in falling short in the area of drum-tight dramatic structure. Many, many seasoned makers of story ballets have made greater errors. (As to why this should be – well, that’s a long discussion to do with choreographers frequently acting as maker of steps, writer or co-writer of libretto, director and dramaturge all in one.)

QB is taking on a strikingly international look in the higher ranks and the opening performance gave audiences the chance to see the company’s newest principal artist, Laura Hidalgo, as a luscious Tinkerbell and recent Cuban recruits Camilo Ramos (soloist) and Yanela Piñera (principal) as Peter and Wendy. But there are entertaining parts for everyone in this sweet, effervescent ballet and among those who made a fine impression were young artist Liam Geck as timid, put-upon James Hook who finally finds his rightful place; company dancer Lina Kim as the littlest Darling, Michael; and company dancer Vito Bernasconi as a robustly commanding Hook.

Ends July 11. Limited availability.

A version of this review appeared in The Australian on June 29.