Daring smoke-and-mirrors act

Queensland Ballet, Playhouse, QPAC, Brisbane, August 1.

ONE masterwork, a party piece and two relatively new dances that look far better than they are provide an entertaining but creatively uneven program at Queensland Ballet. Very much on the plus side is that the company looks energised despite the rigours of the Romeo and Juliet season that ended only four weeks ago. Very much on the down side is that Flourish, as this quadruple bill is titled, is performed without live music. Everyone is ill-served: Tchaikovsky, Cesare Pugni, Philip Glass, Ravel, the audience and particularly the dancers.

Katherine Rooke (top), Emilio Pavan and Meng Ningning in Serenade. Photo: David Kelly

Katherine Rooke (top), Emilio Pavan and Meng Ningning in Serenade. Photo: David Kelly

It’s not that QB is penny-pinching in this regard. It’s that the company has ambitions it can’t entirely afford at the moment. Mind you, it’s not clear who could play for QB at this time of the year. On the last night of Flourish (August 9), Queensland Symphony Orchestra is in the Concert Hall at QPAC playing Berlioz, Sibelius and a world premiere of a commissioned score, Gordon Hamilton’s Ghosts in the Orchestra. QB has also worked several times with the chamber orchestra Camerata of St John’s, which at present is in Townsville for that city’s annual chamber music festival.

Nevertheless, QB is charging forward in a way one has to admire even while wincing at George Balanchine’s Serenade – the masterwork of the evening – being performed to a recording. It didn’t help that the sound system emitted a nasty burst of static at one point. Rather ironically, on August 1, while QB was dancing to Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings, up in Townsville the Camerata was also playing Serenade for Strings, although this one by Dvorak. The Tchaikovsky would have been too, too cruel.

Serenade (1934) is the first Balanchine to be acquired by QB and the company acquitted itself well. On opening night Meng Ningning, whose triumph as Juliet seems to have released her, was a romantic, eloquent Waltz Girl and Lina Kim’s Russian Girl was poised and distinguished by pillowy elevation. Katherine Rooke started a little nervously as the Dark Angel but there is promise in those sometimes unruly, coltish limbs. The large ensemble of women, filled out with Young Artists and Pre-Professional Program dancers, was not entirely as one stylistically (Balanchine mastery is not achieved in a moment) but their commitment was total. Matthew Lawrence and Emilio Pavan were strong and sensitive in support.

After Serenade came Flourish’s party piece, the grand pas de deux from La Esmeralda (to Pugni’s music), choreographed by Ben Stevenson after Petipa. It gave long-serving QB dancer Teri Crilly a much-deserved chance to shine alongside diminutive but powerful guest artist Dmitry Zagrebin from Moscow’s Stanislavsky Ballet. The two were a lovely match – sunny, flirty and carrying off the technical fireworks with self-possession without being self-regarding. Utterly charming.

Nils Christe’s Short Dialogues (created for QB in 2011 to the music of Glass) and Nicolo Fonte’s Bolero (2008), to the famous Ravel score, are negligible works in the glossy, sexy, crowd-pleasing vein. The choreographers are both big names in the field but both have better works in their portfolio. I would have been very pleased, for instance, to see again Christe’s Fearful Symmetries, staged at QB in 2010.

Short Dialogues has three couples entering and leaving the stage through gloom and haze – the process is reminiscent of Twyla Tharp’s In the Upper Room – in a manner that appears meaningful about relationships but has little to say. Clare Morehen with Keian Langdon, Lina Kim with Matthew Lawrence and Meng Ningning with Alexander Idaszak looked wonderful but the work failed to register with me. (Kim, incidentally, impresses more and more with each outing.)

Bolero is surprisingly blank despite the propulsive music and, again, splendid dancing. Clare Morehen (in both works) and Natasha Kusch (Bolero) were magnetic and it was a treat to see former QB principal artist Langdon return as a guest for Short Dialogues.

Indeed, guests were absolutely necessary on the night, an indication of QB artistic director Li Cunxin’s daring smoke-and-mirrors act. He wants to present work that needs many more dancers than QB has at the moment. The MacMillan Romeo and Juliet showed that in the most emphatic way, but Flourish also sends the message, albeit a little more quietly. Li wants to show what is possible and he is pushing very hard to make the case.

Serenade needs 20 women. With the retirement of principal Rachael Walsh at the end of the Romeo and Juliet season there are only 25 full company members and eight Young Artists, of whom 18 are women. Hence the use of Pre-Professional Program dancers – that is, students – in Serenade. (Incidentallly, Walsh was repetiteur on Short Dialogues, so she has already started the next phase of her career.)

In addition, there is a shortage of senior men, which is why there were no fewer than three male guest artists at the Flourish opening – Zagrebin, Langdon and Idaszak, back after a short stint with Royal New Zealand Ballet, and working as a guest with QB, his former company. QB’s international guest principal Huang Junshuang is not in the country at the moment and principal Hao Bin is injured. That leaves Matthew Lawrence to fly the flag for the company’s principal men.

The margin of error is tiny. Lawrence will need to keep very fit.

Flourish ends August 9.

Coppelia

Queensland Ballet, Brisbane, April 24

GREG Horsman’s appealing new production of the 19th century comedy Coppelia gives it a human scale and an Australian setting. It is the late 1800s and we are in the South Australian town of Hahndorf, settled in 1839 by German migrants and thus celebrating its 175th anniversary this year. I don’t think Queensland Ballet has a visit to Hahndorf on the 2014 schedule but it really should.

The essentials of the original ballet remain. Franz, not the brightest bloke, falls for a remote beauty who is, in fact, a life-sized mechanical doll. His sidelined girlfriend, the plucky Swanilda, has to come to his rescue when he falls into the clutches of the man who made the doll, Dr Coppelius, and in the third act everything comes right.

Clare Morehen and Huant Junshuang in Queensland Ballet's Coppelia.

Clare Morehen and Huang Junshuang in Queensland Ballet’s Coppelia.

In Horsman’s revision Dr Coppelius (the wonderful Paul Boyd) is a migrant from the Old World, a medical man rather than a dark-hearted magician. In a prologue that mixes stage action and effective sepia animations, Coppelius and his young daughter are seen preparing to leave their home in Germany. But the girl is sickly and dies on the sea voyage to Australia. Coppelius’s doll-making is an attempt to restore her to him.

Meanwhile the little town goes about its business, which mainly involves lots of larking about to the pretty Delibes score, neatly arranged by QB’s music director Andrew Mogrelia and played by Camerata of St John’s. The good folk of Hahndorf are a lively lot – there are some rather cheeky Scots – but even the Lutherans don’t seem to mind a bit of banter. If I were queen of the world, however, I would place a ban on children holding hands and prancing about in a circle. Surely there are other ways in which youngsters can move.

Horsman’s push towards realism, or as far as you can go when lifelike dolls are involved, has its pluses and minuses. In setting up his story Horsman takes a little time to get the action moving but he does build a pleasing picture of community and individuals within in it. In his sweetest inspiration he brings on the local footy team – Australian football, of course. Some of the QB lads need to work on their handpass skills and on opening night the Sherrin was definitely too soft for an effective bounce, but the audience enthusiastically applauded a high mark. Yes, in Brisbane.

The downside is a lack of magic in the second act, in which the usual cave of wonders is reduced to a couple of half-finished automatons. It fits Horsman’s scenario but is far from a sparkling setting for Swanilda’s centrepiece impersonation of Coppelius’s doll.

For key moments – including Swanilda’s solos and the big Act III pas de deux – Horsman has kept choreography familiar from traditional versions and at the opening performance Clare Morehen (Swanilda) and Huang Junshuang (Franz) despatched the high points with ease and verve. Eleanor Freeman and Vito Bernasconi lit up the stage as the second pair of lovers and Lina Kim’s joyous dancing delighted every time she appeared with Swanilda’s flock of girlfriends.

Also delightful are Hugh Colman’s sets, which bring to mind colonial paintings (Louis Buvelot perhaps), and Jon Buswell’s exquisite lighting, in which bright day fades to velvety evening. This kind of quality is possible because in a venture that makes a great deal of sense, Coppelia is a co-production between QB and West Australian Ballet. Perth will see the ballet next year. Expect the footy to go down extremely well indeed.

Coppelia ends on May 10.

A version of this review appeared in The Australian on April 28.

QB Nutcracker; David Hallberg at the AB

The Nutcracker, Queensland Ballet, Playhouse, QPAC, Brisbane, December 7

Cinderella, The Australian Ballet, Sydney Opera House, Sydney, December 14

IN many places in the northern hemisphere, but particularly in the US, seeing The Nutcracker at Christmas is as necessary as having gifts and dressing a tree. There’s another necessity too: so popular has The Nutcracker become that it keeps many a ballet company afloat financially. In Australia’s snow-free summers The Nutcracker has had no purchase as an annual event, although The Australian Ballet will present Peter Wright’s Birmingham Royal Ballet production next year, four years after its last outing.

Eleanor Freeman and Emilio Pavan in The Nutcracker

Eleanor Freeman and Emilio Pavan in The Nutcracker

Brisbane, however, is promised its own Nutcracker tradition, starting right now. Queensland Ballet artistic director Li Cunxin is banking on his audience coming back every December to see Ben Stevenson’s version, and if the response from two audiences on the first Saturday of the season is a guide, his instincts remain acute. In choosing a production that involves large numbers of young children, Li is giving Brisbane dance students something special to aspire to, and on a pragmatic note, there will always be friends and family who want to see them perform. This year’s season extended to 17 sold-out performances.

Stevenson’s approach to The Nutcracker is straightforward, although bumpy in one or two spots. The Stahlbaum family is having a lively Christmas party at which Dr Drosselmeyer performs a few magic tricks and Clara, a girl who is not quite grown-up but more than a child, receives a nutcracker doll as a gift. Her brother, Fritz, who appears to have a rather dismaying affection for his toy rifle, rattles around the place boisterously, life-size Soldier, Nurse, Harlequin and Columbine dolls perform and older folk fuss about and do a few steps. At the evening’s end Clara falls asleep, dreams of her doll coming to life, and is swept into a world of pesky rats, brave soldiers, a handsome Prince and a journey through the snow to a land where everything is sweet and the Sugar Plum Fairy holds radiant sway.

One could wish for a larger company of rats – unusually they are on pointe – and soldiers to do battle with one another but otherwise QB’s relatively small forces fill the stage admirably at the party, as snowflakes at the end of Act I and in the usual set of Act II dances.

The grand pas de deux for Prince and Sugar Plum Fairy was danced with much brilliance at the first Saturday matinee by QB’s newest principal artist, Natasha Kusch, and guest artist Remi Wortmeyer. Wortmeyer was previously with the AB (big loss) and is now a highly admired principal with Dutch National Ballet. Kusch and Wortmeyer were exceptionally well matched for purity of line and sparkling detail. Kusch glittered with the hard-edged brilliance of diamonds but also filled the music sumptuously – a gorgeous combination. Wortmeyer’s dancing was plush, buoyant and joyous, qualities that papered over the fact that once the Nutcracker doll turns into the handsome Prince, he essentially discards Clara for more glamorous partners.

As the first Saturday night’s Suger Plum Fairy, Clare Morehen radiated beauty, calm and benevolence, which doubtless helped her young and inexperienced Prince greatly. Emilio Pavan is another of Li’s bright young men being fast-tracked to important roles and looks most promising. He danced cleanly, forcefully and with becoming modesty.

Stevenson provides a second ballerina role, that of the Snow Queen, danced at both Saturday performances by Meng Ningning in magisterial form. The Prince gets to partner her too, which sidelines Clara at a crucial part in her journey. Furthermore, the Prince is given a bravura solo to the children’s wordless chorus that couldn’t suit the music less.

Still, once Clara finds herself in the Kingdom of Sweets she is given appropriate honour, although not a great deal of dancing. It was pleasing to see the keen intelligence and warmth of Lina Kim (afternoon) and engaging exuberance of Teri Crilly (evening) in the role.

As for the disparate Act II dances, who knew the Arabian could be such a hit? It usually seems interminable, but as danced very strongly and sexily by Mia Thompson and Alexander Idaszak on Saturday afternoon it had the crowd cheering. Sarah Thompson and Nathan Scicluna got a similar reception in the evening. It was also a relief to see the Chinese dance done with acrobatic and martial inflections rather than embarrassing foot shuffling and head nodding.

Stevenson’s ballet is perhaps more workmanlike than thrilling, particularly when sections of choreography are irritatingly antithetical to the music. But the key moments are lovely, the production looks handsome and the Queensland Symphony Orchestra is on hand for Tchaikovsky’s imperishable score, conducted by Andrew Mogrelia.

What does an annual Nutcracker mean for the QB repertoire as a whole? Unless the company manages to increase radically in size (in The Nutcracker company members have to assume several roles), one assumes it means one less new mainstage production each year. This year the QB performed three new full-length works in Brisbane – Giselle, Cinderella and The Nutcracker – as well as a contemporary program and two studio seasons. Next year there’s a new Coppelia, the Kenneth MacMillan Romeo & Juliet and the Nutcracker repeat. There’s also a regional tour of Cinderella as well as the programs of contemporary and new work.

Li may well feel that two new full-length programs is quite enough to have on the plate with the QB’s other responsibilities, not to mention the cost of new work. He will ultimately be able to bring his new Giselle, Cinderella and Coppelia back into the mix, but not for a couple of years. I believe he will be staging La fille mal gardee – the production West Australian Ballet is premiering next year – in 2015, so that’s another story ballet to add to the list. The Nutcracker, meanwhile, will be bedded in and paying itself off.

I note that while there are 17 performances of The Nutcracker this year, there are just nine performances listed for 2014. There’s also room to add shows if those sell out, but at the moment the approach is a reasonably conservative one. Clever planning, I think you’d have to say.

Ends December 21. All performances are sold out, returns only. There is a free outdoor screening on December 21 at River Quay, South Bank, Brisbane, 7.30pm.

David Hallberg at the Sydney Opera House. Photo: Wendell Teodoro

David Hallberg at the Sydney Opera House. Photo: Wendell Teodoro

DAVID Hallberg is not only a prince among men in ballet; he is a prince among princes. On Saturday night, in his final performance of three as the Prince in The Australian Ballet’s Cinderella, he was in his element. That is to say, he wore the dramatic requirements of the role like a second skin and was at one with Alexei Ratmansky’s choreography, which asks for an entrancing combination of a luscious, yielding upper body and a swift, razor-sharp lower body.

Hallberg understands that regal comportment is an inner quality; there is no need for arrogant display or overt signs of command. Thus, this Prince wore his nobility lightly, unpretentious in manner and alert to those around him. His ardour for Amber Scott’s Cinderella – lacy, glowing, ultra-romantic – felt deep and true. Every moment seemed fresh and unforced.

The clarity and refinement of Hallberg’s technique are wonders, and have brought him to the pinnacle of not one but two great ballet companies – he is a principal artist with American Ballet Theatre and the Bolshoi Ballet. How fortunate the AB has been to have him as a guest twice (Hallberg danced in Melbourne in the Wright Nutcracker in 2010, before joining the Bolshoi, and would have appeared at the AB’s 50th anniversary gala except for injury). Let’s hope there’s more.

Elegance, Queensland Ballet

Queensland Performing Arts Centre, August 2

EMMA Lippa is one of Australian ballet’s hidden treasures. She developed her formidable skills as an accompanist at the Bolshoi Ballet then used her gifts for two decades at the Australian Ballet. Lippa has retired from the AB but not from the piano or from ballet, as Queensland Ballet audiences were privileged to see at some performances of Elegance (her role was shared with QB company pianist Kylie Foster, who unfortunately I wasn’t able to hear).

Lippa’s musicality underpinned the most successful of the four pieces making up QB’s Elegance program, Ben Stevenson’s Three Preludes, choreographed in 1969 to the music of Rachmaninoff. Two dancers are first seen on either side of a ballet barre, at times reflecting each other’s movements as if they are taking daily class. This isn’t a new idea for dance but Stevenson’s take on it is beguiling. He sensitively creates an atmosphere in which boundaries dissolve. Two private, individual worlds melt into one as, slowly, an intimate relationship develops.

Carolyn Judson and Huang Junshuang in Three Preludes. Photo: David Kelly

Carolyn Judson and Huang Junshuang in Three Preludes. Photo: David Kelly

This restrained, glowing ballet is about love, but also can’t help but be about a love for ballet and music. In a short Russian documentary about her career, Lippa says a ballet accompanist “has to breathe with the ballet”, and this she did in eloquent, memorable readings of the Rachmaninoff.

American guest artist Carolyn Judson was alert and responsive while maintaining the work’s introspective quality, although she tended to smile rather too brightly. At times it was hard to concentrate on her, however, given the incredibly potent stage presence of QB’s international guest principal Huang Junshuang. He is tall, powerful, glamorous and a splendid partner. The man’s choreography is supportive – Junshuang leaves the floor only once for a low jete – as he tenderly looks after the woman, who is free to fly with the knowledge she will be completely safe.

Elegance opened with Ma Cong’s Ershter Vals (First Waltz), an attractive, folk-inflected piece for four couples that reminded me strongly of Nacho Duato’s Jardi Tancat. Ma Cong was born in China and danced with National Ballet of China and Tulsa Ballet before retiring recently to concentrate on choreography. He is now resident choreographer for the Tulsa company, but Ershter Vals, his most widely seen work, was made for Richmond Ballet in 2010.

Ershter Vals is danced to a selection of compositions by Italian group Klezroym, whose approach has been described as “new Jewish music”. In his dance piece Ma intends references to Jewish dispossession – the silent opening gives an atmosphere of unease and at times the women cover their faces as if they cannot bear to see – but Ma is more concerned with joy and resilience, seen in the constant and vibrant stream of action and interaction between individuals and groups.

Queensland Ballet in Ma Cong's Ershter Vals. Photo: David Kelly

Queensland Ballet in Ma Cong’s Ershter Vals. Photo: David Kelly

The women (Sophie Zoricic, Eleanor Freeman, Mia Thompson and Teri Crilly on Friday night) looked lovely in the flow and sweep of the movement, in which highly expressive, swirling backs were important. The men (Nathan Scicluna, Joseph Stewart, Vito Bernasconi and Rian Thompson) seemed less comfortable with releasing their emotions and the repression of abandon detracted from the work’s undertow of loss. They were mostly too careful, although the spirit of the piece started working its spell towards the end, with Bernasconi particularly catching the eye.

Former QB dancer Gareth Belling’s Sweet Beginnings, to Vivaldi’s over-used Summer from The Four Seasons, was a disappointingly bland outing for three couples. The piece means to chart the life of a relationship in retrospect (a difficult idea to convey even for the most experienced of choreographers) but had little emotional heft. Belling uses classical vocabulary confidently enough but structurally Sweet Beginnings felt less assured, with the connection between the main couple and the two secondary couples failing to express as much as Belling does in his program note. Noelene Hill designed extremely pretty, long floaty skirts for the women but put the men into particularly ugly loose pants and tops that looked all the world like builders’ singlets. Principal artist Matthew Lawrence was definitely not seen to advantage.

Lina Kim and Matthew Lawrence in Sweet Beginnings. Photo: David Kelly

Lina Kim and Matthew Lawrence in Sweet Beginnings. Photo: David Kelly

It was good to have Vivaldi played live by the quartet Collusion, although intonation was an issue at several points.

On Friday Lina Kim’s vivid commitment was the main attraction of Sweet Beginnings and she also stood out in the upbeat closing work, Greg Horsman’s Verdi Variations. This tutu-fest is an often uneasy mix of humour and high classicism as former Australian Ballet and English National Ballet principal dancer Horsman simultaneously celebrates and sends up the art of which he was such a celebrated exponent. I certainly laughed, but didn’t like myself for it. The “isn’t ballet a funny old thing” approach diminishes the art to my mind. It’s not that there can’t be comedy in ballet, but when ballet itself is the butt of the joke it seems a bit self-defeating. The audience seemed to have lots of fun, despite their being rather too much untidy execution.

Among the pratfalls on Friday one could enjoy Yu Hui’s exuberant elevation and neat entrechats and guest artist Jenna Roberts’s calm assurance, gained from her Royal Ballet School training.

Matthew Lawrence and Jenna Roberts in Verdi Variations. Photo: David Kelly

Matthew Lawrence and Jenna Roberts in Verdi Variations. Photo: David Kelly

A native of Newcastle, NSW, Roberts is a principal dancer with Birmingham Royal Ballet who was making her professional debut in Australia on Friday. Verdi Variations, while a trifle, gave opportunities to enjoy her beautiful placement, unshowy but complete command of the stage and a most becoming understated radiance. Lawrence, who is Roberts’s former BRB colleague, partnered her with his usual grace, as he did with Lim in Sweet Beginnings, and his solo work was clean and assertive.

The season was brief – only five performances – but that was one more than had been intended, continuing QB’s happy situation of having to increase the number of performances of each of its programs this year.

The heavy workload for this relatively small company is, however, taking its toll. QB did not field any of its three principal women in Elegance nor was Hao Bin back on stage after an injury took him out of Giselle. The newly named soloist Lisa Edwards was also nowhere to be seen as she was also on the injury list.

Such situations, of course, give opportunities to more junior dancers (and to guest artists). QB has a large number of relatively inexperienced young men and women for whom stage time and exposure is necessary for their development. It was lovely to see Lina Kim shine. Overall, however, in Elegance only Three Preludes was a truly satisfying experience. Mature artistry will always trump eagerness.

This is an extended version of a review that appeared in The Australian on August 5.