Lest We Forget, Queensland Ballet

Queensland Performing Arts Centre, July 29.

The Andrews Sisters style is all honey, sunshine and an irresistible life force, even when there’s a touch of wistfulness in the lyrics. No wonder the trio was so popular with US troops during World War II. The silken close harmonies, bouncy syncopations and light-on-the-feet melodies were made to please. They are optimism in a three-minute package.

Paul Taylor’s Company B uses nine of the sisters’ hits that show that in spades. The genius of Company B, though, is in the shadows the choreographer casts. While Brylcreemed young blades and flirty-skirted women whoop it up with infectious vitality there are men who fall, or are seen silhouetted on the periphery in martial poses. These ones melt in and out of the dance like ghosts while around them couples dance as if there were no tomorrow, full of juice and hope and infectious high spirits. I have no idea whether Taylor, now the grand old man of American modern dance, was thinking about contemporary conflicts when he made Company B in 1991, but its premiere at Houston Ballet came shortly after the first Gulf War.

Expressions Dance Company

Laura Hidalgo in Paul Taylor’s Company B. Photo: David Kelly

A song such as There Will Never Be Another You takes on quite a different complexion in Taylor’s context and when at the end of the bravura Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy (of Company B) the soloist collapses to the floor, we think not only of goofily exaggerated exhaustion. This happens again and again, joy undercut by sorrow, until we are back at the beginning with a reprise of Bei Mir Bist du Schön. War never stops, nor do its consequences.

Company B closes Queensland Ballet’s commemorative Lest We Forget program on a strong note, even though the exhilarating mix of contemporary and social dance is delivered a little too carefully overall. Not everyone fully captures the scintillating swing of hips, jaunty shoulders and the effervescence that comes from within. On opening night principal Laura Hidalgo in Rum and Coca-Cola and soloist Camilo Ramos in Oh Johnny, Oh Johnny, Oh! show how it should be done and two less senior dancers – Vanessa Morelli in There Will Never Be Another You and Lima Kim always – were marvelously alert to the music.

Expressions Dance Company

Queensland Ballet in Natalie Weir’s We Who are Left. Photo: David Kelly

The other two works in the triple bill are new company commissions. Natalie Weir’s We Who are Left is perhaps a piece d’occasion rather than a stayer but her aim is true. The melancholy of young men at war and the women who grieve for them is affectingly expressed. The extensive filleting of Benjamin Britten’s 85-minute War Requiem to find not quite 30 minutes of music gives pause for thought but Weir is sensitive to its purpose. The gestures of love, loss and pain feel authentic and the five couples in the first cast did Weir proud, dancing with eloquent simplicity in David Walters’s gorgeous lighting. Principals Clare Morehen and Shane Weurthner were particularly fine in Weir’s delicate, bodies-not-quite-touching duet She Who Was Left.

Ma Cong’s In the Best Moments, which opens the evening, is dominated by a series of pas de deux that manage to be bland and overwrought all at once, with men lifting women in big, tricky manoeuvres that look effortful. The connection with its music, sections from Philip Glass’s score for the film The Hours, is primarily one of busyness. There are lots of notes, lots of steps.

Lest We Forget ends on August 6.

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.