Carmen & The Firebird, Queensland Ballet

Queensland Performing Arts Centre, May 26.

You win some and you lose some.

Queensland Ballet is a co-producer of Carlos Acosta’s Carmen with The Royal Ballet and Texas Ballet Theater, which means QB’s name is attached to it forever. I doubt I’ve seen a worse ballet from reputable companies in more than 40 years.

I’m not exaggerating, nor do I say it frivolously. Carmen should never have passed muster at the RB. This is where I should say I can’t understand how it happened, but unfortunately it’s all too common to see serious ballet companies fail to save choreographers from themselves. Mostly the results aren’t quite as bad as Carmen but ballet is littered with the corpses of narrative works whose condition didn’t have to be terminal.

On a brighter note for QB, Liam Scarlett’s Firebird, made for Norwegian National Ballet in 2013, is a brilliant interpretation of Stravinsky’s glittering, gleaming, intoxicating score. Scarlett’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is also in the QB repertory and with the addition of Firebird the company has the choreographer’s two most successful new narrative ballets. (I don’t include Scarlett’s staging of Swan Lake – by all reports a huge success – for the RB this month given its firm foundation in the Petipa-Ivanov 1895 version.)

QB The Firebird 2018. Principal Artist Lucy Green. Photo David Kelly

Lucy Green in the title role of Liam Scarlett’s The Firebird. Photo: David Kelly

Scarlett, who is 32, has a youthful, contemporary sensibility that gives Firebird a modern edge while remaining true to the mythic elements of Mikhail Fokine’s original 1910 work for the Ballets Russes.

It looks wonderful, with a monumental set by Jon Bausor, bathed in James Farncombe’s painterly light. In the shadow of a vast tree with claw-like roots, the magical Firebird (Lucy Green at the performance I attended) and wicked sorcerer Koschei (Jack Lister) battle for supremacy, equal in force of will and with a palpable erotic charge between them. She tempts him with a golden apple and strokes his face; he embraces her with ardour. It may well be a game they’ve played for aeons. Then the wandering Prince Ivan (Camilo Ramos) finds his way into their realm and the Firebird finds him interesting. She dances with him, but not as a frightened captive. She dazzles and teases, whispering in his ear as she lets him have one of her precious feathers.

Scarlett effectively contrasts the Firebird’s strength and exoticism with the innocence and playfulness of the young women enslaved by Koschei. Among them is a Princess (Lina Kim), who is tender, curious and alert. Kim and Ramos glowed in their romantic, silken pas de deux and – how delightful! – the Princess is the one who gets to destroy the egg containing Koschei’s soul.

QB The Firebird 2018. Company Artist Jack Lister and Artists of the Queensland Ballet. Photo David Kelly

Jack Lister (top) as Koschei in The Firebird. Photo: David Kelly

The end of Koschei’s malign rule means the Princess is free to leave with Ivan although Scarlett – unlike Fokine – is less interested in the happy couple than in the representatives of light and darkness. The lovers quietly disappear and the Firebird exults in her power, although not before paying respect to the dead Koschei in one of Scarlett’s many perceptive details.

Scarlett’s success with narrative ballets has been somewhat patchy but Stravinsky’s music and the original libretto give him the best of roadmaps. Scarlett uses the 50-minute version of the score from 1910, played blazingly by the Queensland Symphony Orchestra with Nigel Gaynor at the helm. Jonathan McPhee’s arrangement is for orchestral forces rather smaller than those asked for by Stravinsky – he wrote for quadruple woodwinds and three harps – but it gets the job done impressively.

Other choreographers of this much-visited work have chosen Stravinsky’s shorter 1945 suite (Balanchine in 1949; the 2009 Graeme Murphy recently revived by The Australian Ballet) but the suites were arranged for concert performance and for dramatic impact it’s hard to go past Stravinsky’s first thoughts.

The cast I saw at the first Saturday matinee was testament to the strong ensemble built by Li Cunxin in his six years as artistic director. Performances were vividly realised all round and Green’s mesmerising Firebird was deservedly greeted with a huge ovation. While his dance is made entirely within the classical idiom, Scarlett gives his Firebird – the Princess too – qualities of independence and authority so often missing on the classical stage. This is particularly welcome in light of how women appear in Carmen although, to be fair, Acosta doesn’t do the men any favours either.

QB Carmen 2018. Principal Artist Camilo Ramos and Company Artist Sophie Zoricic 5. Photo David Kelly

Camilo Ramos and Sophie Zoricic in Carlos Acosta’s Carmen. Photo: David Kelly

There are problems with Carmen just about everywhere you look. The storytelling is incoherent, skating over the top of anything that might give insights into Carmen’s character. She’s a sex-mad cipher. Don José (Camilo Ramos, backing up after his Prince Ivan earlier) is similarly superficial, just weaker, and therefore deeply uninteresting. Escamillo is there to toss off a whole lot of ballet tricks. There is no Micaëla, no Frasquita, no Mercedes, no context.

What else? Too frequently there’s no apparent relationship between the music (chiefly an arrangement of bits from Bizet’s opera) and the steps performed to that music. A tavern scene veers off into ersatz flamenco territory, indifferently done. Every now and again a man wearing preposterous bulls’ horns and a bit of bondage appears in the background to represent Fate.

Most problematic is the piece’s depiction of desire. Desire can be many things, not just sexual, and in Bizet’s opera it’s Carmen’s burning need to be free. That desire was dangerous for a woman then and still is. Carmen is murdered for her courage, not that this ballet makes you think about it or care. She’s just someone who dances in her underwear and rolls around the floor locking lips with her lovers.

Carmen is at one point surrounded by men who slap the floor vigorously and proceed to strip. It looked to me like nothing less than preparation for gang rape but also looked so ludicrous (think male strippers at a hens’ night) that the audience roared. Ghastly. I think we can safely say that at this point, as at others, there had been insufficient thought given to meaning and tone.

I felt very sorry for the Carmen I saw, Sophie Zoricic, to whom I send condolences. It was a big chance for her and she gave her all. That said, I suspect Carmen could have only the slightest chance of squeaking past the post if stocked with the biggest stars. Acosta danced both Don José and Escamillo during the London premiere season in 2015 and the RB’s most lustrous female principal, Marianela Nuñez, was the first Carmen.

Acosta is, of course, a relatively inexperienced choreographer while having been one of the RB’s most durable stars. Obviously the company wanted to please him. It should have helped him.

QB is on much safer ground with Scarlett. The young Englishman has a deal with the company to present one of his works annually for four years. The artistic associate arrangement started last year with the one-act No Man’s Land, originally made for English National Ballet. (His delectable Dream, a co-production with Royal New Zealand Ballet, was made in 2015 and isn’t counted.)

That leaves two more works to come. Scarlett’s international demand means it’s too much to hope that both would be new creations but I’m told there will certainly be one ballet made on the QB dancers.

Carmen & The Firebird ends in Brisbane on June 3.

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.

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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.

Raw, Queensland Ballet

Works by Liam Scarlett, Greg Horsman and Christopher Bruce. Queensland Ballet, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane, March 17.

Death comes to us all eventually but does it have to come so cruelly and so soon to so many? Christopher Bruce’s Ghost Dances was made in 1981 in response to human rights abuses in Pinochet’s Chile but its relevance is, sadly, universal and continuing. It’s an important addition to Queensland Ballet’s repertoire and the key work in the Raw triple bill.

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Teri Crilly and Jack Lister in Ghost Dances. Photo: David Kelly

Ghost Dances is simplicity itself. In a place somewhere between the real world and the darkness beyond, young people dance with joy and spontaneity to the intoxicating music of their homeland as three masked and painted malevolent spirits watch.

The hard, muscular vigour of the masked ones is in stark contrast to the fleet, gorgeously fluid folk-inflected dances that speak of community and continuity. Bodies tilt and sway, feet flex, hands and arms link, legs kick up playfully and heads bob to the sound of breathy panpipes, warm guitars and drums (all the pieces are by Chilean group Inti-Illimani).

But there are intimations of anguish too and no escape from death’s clutches. At the end those who had been so vibrant are drained of vitality. Not so the masked men. They wait for their next victims.

Ghost Dances needs to be at once poetic and rough-hewn. This deeply affecting piece got those qualities from all 11 dancers in the first cast, who cast off the formalities of classical technique to dig deep into movement that takes its impulses from the earth rather than reaching for the sky. My eye was consistently drawn to Vanessa Morelli for the way she lived every moment with every fibre of her being.

An unintended consequence of staging Ghost Dances is that it made Raw’s opening work, Liam Scarlett’s No Man’s Land (from 2014), seem too glossy and calculating in its effects. Scarlett didn’t shy away either from some well-worn effects. Take, for instance, the deep second position as a way of visually describing misery. We saw it in Ghost Dances, with the legs in parallel, and we saw it in No Man’s Land in turnout. Scarlett also unfortunately added a silent scream.

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Liam Scarlett’s No Man’s Land. Photo: David Kelly

Scarlett was recently announced as QB’s first artistic associate and the company will stage one of his works each year for at least an initial four years. I gather new works will alternate with existing pieces and it was inevitable that for 2017 a revival would be on the program. No Man’s Land was made for English National Ballet’s Lest We Forget program, presented in 2014. That year was, of course the centenary of the beginning of World War I and would have had much resonance in London at that time.

QB programmed its own Lest We Forget commemorative evening last year, featuring a welcome performance of Paul Taylor’s Company B and new works by Brisbane-based choreographer Natalie Weir and Tulsa Ballet’s resident choreographer Ma Cong. Ma Cong’s In the Best Moments was negligible; Weir’s We Who are Left was affecting but perhaps a pièce d’occasion. Which is also the category into which No Man’s Land fits.

Shorn of its commemorative context, No Man’s Land looked stranded. It has an impressive set (John Bausor) and lighting (Paul Keogan) that summon the inferno of a munitions factory during the Great War. Women have joined the assembly line in the absence of their men, whose images and fates they conjure and mourn to heavily orchestrated Liszt piano pieces, apart from the final section for piano only.

The bombastic arrangements of selections from Liszt’s Harmonies Poétiques et Religieuses (1847) had the effect of overwhelming the emotional connections between Scarlett’s seven couples. Mia Heathcote and Victor Estévez were lovely in their pas de deux although one was aware more of the shapes than the reason for being. Even with the music heard as written for the big pas de deux at the end of the ballet, that section felt like a superbly crafted depiction of what pain might look like while, at least for this viewer, failing to pierce the heart. Ultimately No Man’s Land beautifies loss and sacrifice.

Laura Hidalgo and Rian Thompson danced the final pas de deux heroically and it is undeniable that Scarlett creates movement that feels musical and organic even when most difficult. His weakness is in storytelling. As many before me have said, he needs help in this area. Only then will his abundant gifts be in the service of truly original and lasting work.

Perhaps his tenure in Brisbane will help. Scarlett, who is still only 30, will be out of the international spotlight where he habitually works. It will be fascinating to see what emerges.

Sitting in the middle of the Raw triple-header, Greg Horsman’s Glass Concerto tested the mettle, stamina, precision and speed of three couples as they were swept along by the mesmerising rhythms of Philip Glass’s Violin Concerto. After an early reminder of – homage to? – Twyla Tharp’s In the Upper Room, also to the music of Glass, Horsman gets into his own stride. Glass Concerto doesn’t break any new ground but it’s entertaining and lively, and it sure sets the dancers a raft of technical challenges, met better at the opening performance by the women than the men.

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Yanela Piñera in Greg Horsman’s Glass Concerto. Photo: David Kelly

The lovely second movement, in which calm, slow violin phrases sing above an undulating, fast-moving current in the orchestra, puts the spotlight on the lead woman. In the first cast principal artist Yanela Piñera’s calm authority and awe-inspiring strength – the woman is ripped – burned themselves into the retina. I liked that when the three men lifted her it felt in homage to her awesomeness rather than the usual balletic flinging about of a smaller person by a stronger bigger person.

Alexander Idaszak partnered Piñera well and looked rather more at home with the quieter demands of the choreography than the allegro eruptions that Horsman has much fun with. Camilo Ramos and Rian Thompson also didn’t look quite as sharp as required when things moved into top gear although to be fair to Thompson, he’d put a lot into the preceding No Man’s Land.

The secondary women, Lina Kim and Tamara Hanton, whizzed around like tops and looked terrific in George Wu’s black-with-sparkles costumes. As Glass Concerto continued the dancers shed a skirt here and a sleeve there. The effect was elegant and witty.

It’s a pity QB doesn’t currently have the resources for live music at all performances. It was recordings all the way in this program, although as QB is in line for a boost in funding from the Australia Council perhaps there is hope in sight.

Raw ends March 25.

A version of this review appeared in The Australian on March 20.

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.

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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.

About last week … April 30-May 6

A week of contrasts started on Tuesday at the Sydney Opera House with the marvellous Bernadette Robinson in Pennsylvania Avenue, her follow-up to Songs for Nobodies. Both were written by Joanna Murray-Smith to give a narrative framework for Robinson’s rare talent and if Songs for Nobodies strikes one as the much better work, Pennsylvania Avenue still offers many pleasures. Robinson has an extraordinary ability to summon the voices and spirit of famous singers and is a fine actor as well. Her art is much more than mimicry. Pennsylvania Avenue is flashback theatre set in the White House as a woman, Harper Clements, recalls her life of service to a string of presidents, starting with JFK. The conceit is that she works with the entertainments wing and thus comes into contact with many famous singers over a 40 year-span. The single set rather traps Robinson into walking around, picking up and putting down a box of belongings as she prepares to leave her position (Simon Phillips directed), and the troubles in Clements’s life aren’t as fascinating as the evocation of events such as Sarah Vaughn’s performance at the White House. Nevertheless, the wide range of songs and Robinson’s skill keep you with her, even if at 90 minutes the show feels a tad long. Robinson does a killer Tammy Wynette (Stand By Your Man – associated, naturally, with the Clinton era), her Eartha Kitt (If You Go Away, the English version of Brel’s Ne Me Quitte Pas) is spine-tingling and her Bob Dylan (The Eve of Destruction) is pitch-perfect, if such a term can be applied to the Dylan vocal style. An excellent band, too, tucked away behind the curtain.

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Bernadette Robinson in Pennsylvania Avenue

On Wednesday morning it was off to Wellington and Royal New Zealand Ballet’s The Wizard of Oz, which I have reviewed at length in the post below. A lovely work, albeit one that can grow as it gets more performances. As always, dramaturgical input is something very much needed in the making of story ballets and it is often put too far down the list of priorities. I’ve very much enjoyed reading British critics talking about the need for dramaturgical and directorial input into Liam Scarlett’s new three-act ballet for the Royal, Frankenstein. I’ve been banging on about this for decades. But back to RNZB, where choreographer and artistic director Francesco Ventriglia has a very strong base from which to work. And we’re not talking huge changes.

Thursday night brought the Queen/Ben Elton musical We Will Rock You, which I missed when it was staged in Australia in 2003. My review is in The Australian today (May 9) and I’ll put it up on the blog later in the week. Suffice to say that as someone who was young in the 1970s I had a very good time indeed.

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Casey Donovan as the Killer Queen in We Will Rock You. Photo: Jeff Busby

Thank goodness for Australian Theatre for Young People’s Friday matinee of Spring Awakening, a production I would otherwise not have been able to fit into the schedule. And I would have missed a beauty. It’s salutary to note that Frank Wedekind’s 1891 play was banned in England until 1963, a clear affirmation of its revolutionary nature. Well, and of British idiocy in respect to censorship. Wedekind’s theme of burgeoning teenage sexuality and adult fear and hypocrisy was incendiary then, and now. Despite children having almost unfettered access to sexual material, there are powerful people who still refuse to allow those children to have straightforward, realistic, all-embracing information and discussion.

The 2006 musical by Duncan Sheik (music) and Steven Sater (book and lyrics) is set in the time of Wedekind’s play yet feels utterly contemporary, and not only because of the indie-rock score. The young ATYP actors are shiningly unselfconscious and thoroughly absorbed and absorbing. Jessica Rookeward’s Wendla glows in spirit and voice and the two leading men, James Raggett (Melchior) and Josh McElroy (Moritz) could not be bettered, so passionate and so different. Mitchell Butel, on only his second directorial outing, proves that should acting jobs dry up – unlikely; Butel is one of the busiest and most versatile men on the Australian stage – he can segue effortlessly to the other side. He gets superb performances of detail, clarity and conviction from relatively inexperienced performers and creates an utterly believable world. The design from Simon Greer (set), Damien Cooper and Ross Graham (lights) and David Bergman (sound) is simplicity itself and all the better for it. Amy Campbell’s choreography is brilliant, as is Lucy Bermingham’s musical direction. Bravi.

It appears there may still be some seats for the Spring Awakening matinees of May 11 and 13. I’d advise jumping on them immediately.

Jessica Rookeward and James Raggatt in Spring Awakening. Photo: Tracey Schramm

Jessica Rookeward and James Raggatt in Spring Awakening. Photo: Tracey Schramm

On Friday it was off to Carriageworks and a showing of the four finalists in the Keir Choreographic Award, a generous biennial prize (yay!). I’ll write more about it later but wasn’t surprised that Ghenoa Gela carried off both the main award of $30,000 and the people’s vote, which added $10,000 to Gela’s prize. Put simply, Fragments of Malungoka – Women of the Sea was much more emotionally engaging than the other works; it was warmer, more human, more interesting, more inviting. Gela’s dancers were, despite the shielding of their faces, women of flesh and blood and their movement connected one with resonant questions about meaning inherent in or imposed on indigenous dance.

Pennsylvania Avenue, The Playhouse, Sydney Opera House, until May 22.

Spring Awakening, ATYP Studio 1, Wharf 4, Sydney, until May 14.

The Wizard of Oz, various cities in New Zealand until June 12.

We Will Rock You, Lyric Theatre, Sydney, until June 26 and then touring Australia into 2017.