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.

Highland fling

Playhouse, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane, May 20.

IN August Bournonville’s enduringly popular Romantic ballet, a young man dozes by a vast open fireplace and is woken by an apparition, a beautiful winged creature who kisses him. Immediately enraptured, he tries to catch her but she eludes his grasp and, in an effect that never fails to delight, disappears up the chimney but not from his thoughts.

It’s not a propitious start to his wedding day and the omens only get worse.

La Sylphide takes place in two worlds, that of the flesh and that of the spirit, although they are not entirely separate dimensions. While humans go about their cosy domesticity, supernatural forces hover, whisper and pounce. The safety of hearth and home can’t be taken for granted.

James flees the conventional future laid out for him and heads to the forest in search of his sylph and a passionate, magical life that he realises too late is unattainable. La Sylphide is a “be careful what you wish for” cautionary tale, pitting stay-at-home ordinariness against fatal attraction.

Qi Huan as James in La Sylphide. Photo: David Kelly

Qi Huan as James in La Sylphide. Photo: David Kelly

Queensland Ballet performs La Sylphide in Peter Schaufuss’s 1979 production, which is essentially faithful to the familiar Bournonville version with some additions and alterations. Schaufuss upgrades James’s home from a Scottish farmhouse to a manor house and gives him more dancing with an extra brooding solo in Act I and a kind of interior monologue expressed as a pas de trois for James, his bride-to-be Effie and the sylph.

The trio feels unnecessary but at the opening performance there was joy in every second spent on stage by Qi Huan, plucked out of retirement by QB artistic director Li Cunxin to dance James. Qi spent nearly a decade with Royal New Zealand Ballet and now teaches at New Zealand School of Dance.

The singular Bournonville dance language is notable for its intricate footwork and floating levitations. Qi’s astonishing elevation gave him all the time in the world for multiple razor-sharp beaten steps in the air, his double tours – to left as well as right – were landed with exceptional poise and precision and the deep, deep plies Schaufuss favours were plush. Purists would undoubtedly think the latter a distortion of Bournonville stylistic modesty but they were undeniably exciting. Qi acted superbly too. His retreat from the stage is a mystery.

Not all audiences will see Qi, of course, as there are five casts for this 10-performance run. If that seems a lot, it is proof of Li’s desire to stretch as many of his dancers as possible and to challenge them in this lovely, incredibly demanding style. Not that Li was able to cast James five times from within. There is another male guest artist for the season, Luke Schaufuss, a dancer with Birmingham Royal Ballet and Peter Schaufuss’s son. The family affair is taken further: Peter’s daughter Tara dances with Queensland Ballet and while on opening night she was a featured Sylph, she is also cast as the Sylphide.

The QB men cast as James are the company’s only male principal, Hao Bin, and soloists Shane Weurthner and Camilo Ramos, the latter in his first weeks with QB. He, like the company’s new principal artist Yanela Piñera, is from National Ballet of Cuba.

I assume Li would like to get his company to the size and level at which he could confidently cast all the major works from within but that’s not done quickly or easily. It is, however, fascinating to watch the process of company building.

The first performance introduced the glamorous Piñera, who seemed a rather flesh-and-blood Sylphide as did fellow principal Clare Morehen as the Lead Sylph. Both are still feeling their way with the spirit of this radiant style, as is Weurthner, who gave a bit too much as Gurn, the man who loves and finally wins Effie.

Sarah Thompson’s sweetly glowing Effie made a strong impression and it was wonderful to see Mary Li in her element as the witch Madge, engineering James’s downfall with scarily cheerful, robust malevolence.

Some muddy horns aside, Queensland Symphony Orchestra played the Herman Lovenskjold score with verve for conductor Andrew Mogrelia, whose pacing and shaping of the overture vividly established the ballet’s quicksilver mood and themes.

La Sylphide ends on March 31.

A version of this review appeared in The Australian on March 24.

Rojo, McRae, Acosta at QB

 Queensland Ballet, Brisbane, June 27, July 1,2,3

ROMEO and Juliet was a success in every possible way for Queensland Ballet, starting with the very fact of its presence in Brisbane. Kenneth MacMillan’s ballet is the gold standard for dance versions of Shakespeare’s play and is monumental, needing much larger forces than QB can ordinarily summon. It’s not just a numbers game of course – it requires performers of rare distinction and authority. QB’s artistic director Li Cunxin was able to persuade the MacMillan Trust his company could provide the dancers and the environment to pull it off, and so it did.

The season was illuminated by international guests Tamara Rojo, Steven McRae and Carlos Acosta and Australian guests Steven Heathcote and Daniel Gaudiello, and the key decision to pair Rojo, McRae and Acosta with QB principals was a triumph. Before the event it was made clear that QB’s leading dancers would not be relegated to support-act status. In performance they proved they would not be eclipsed by the superstars’ wattage.

Steven McRae and Natasha Kusch in Romeo and Juliet. Photo: David Kelly

Steven McRae and Natasha Kusch. Photo: David Kelly

Li fielded five casts, of which I saw four: the premiere on June 27 headed by Rojo and QB’s Matthew Lawrence, QB’s Meng Ningning with Hao Bin on July 1, Steven McRae and QB’s Natasha Kusch on July 2 and Acosta and Meng on July 3. (Well, I say five casts – Gaudiello, borrowed from The Australian Ballet for the season, danced Mercutio in six out of eight performances; the QB’s Rian Thompson was Benvolio the same number of times.)

The revelation was QB principal Meng, who was partnered with Acosta for his two performances. Meng has always appeared to keep her emotions locked well within but Romeo and Juliet produced the key and the release was tremendous. (“MacMillan will do that to you,” McRae commented to me when we were talking later.) Even when Meng was the excitable young girl of her first scene there were intimations of tragedy in those questioning eyes, and her long, silken limbs always seemed to be searching and reaching for the overwhelming feelings Juliet discovered could exist.

It initially seemed a big call to put Meng with Acosta, who is such a passionate stage animal. He’s announced that he will quit classical roles in two years (he is now 40) but his dancing still has panther-like strength and smoothness. Perhaps there’s a little less speed and snap but you can’t take your eyes off him.

Any fears about Meng’s ability to throw off her reticence were put to rest when she made her role debut two days ahead of her first performance with Acosta. She danced on this occasion with her husband, fellow QB principal Hao Bin, and while he wasn’t entirely at home with all the allegro aspects of Romeo’s choreography he partnered ardently. And it was clear one had to recalibrate one’s thoughts about Meng.

Meng Ningning and Hao Bin. Photo: David Kelly

Meng Ningning and Hao Bin. Photo: David Kelly

At her first performance with Acosta, the moment when Romeo and Juliet come face to face in the Capulet’s ballroom and are shocked into stillness was electrifying and, with this cast, so touching. Not only does the story tell us these two come from different tribes; the point was made visually with the Cuban-born Acosta on one side and the Chinese Meng on the other. Different externals but hearts and minds as one.

The great pas de deux that ends the first act was heart-stopping. When the would-be lovers kiss near the end, these two hesitated tremulously and longingly before making that irrevocable commitment. You could feel the entire house hold its breath. And Meng’s impetuous rush from her bedroom in search of Friar Laurence was quite magical.

The night before, McRae showed why he is one of the most admired Romeos on the stage today. The impulsive, passionate youth of this dance-drama could have been made for him, so natural is the fit. McRae lit up the stage with his boyish charm. He has a slight, elegant figure but radiates huge amounts of energy, taking the stage like a whirlwind. His crystal-clear line, the way he hangs in the air for precious moments in a turn or jete, his vibrant attack and heady speed are treasures in themselves but given point and purpose by the way these technical gifts create character.

This was Romeo lifted and buffeted by love. In the centrepiece pas deux under Juliet’s balcony McRae soared as if weightless. When the Nurse gave him Juliet’s letter he exited with delirious spins. When he was goaded into fighting with Tybalt after Mercutio’s death his sword-play was desperate and aggressive.

He was a wonderful partner too with his well-matched Juliet. Kusch was the most girlish of the three Juliets I saw and her interpretation meshed with McRae’s although was less fully developed. She seemed a little too flighty and a bit too much in love with love to make Juliet as tragic a figure as she should be. Physically, however, McRae and Kusch, who has a very clean, strong technique, looked wonderful together.

The gala opening was crowned by Rojo’s exceptional Juliet. Rojo, prima ballerina of English National Ballet and its artistic director too, was entrancing at every moment as conflicting emotions flashed across her face and intense feelings through her eloquent body, each one legible and theatrically potent. The chemistry between Rojo and her Romeo, Lawrence, took some time to gel but Lawrence’s all-stops-out tomb scene with the apparently lifeless Juliet was riveting.

Tamara Rojo and Matthew Lawrence. Photo: David Kelly

Tamara Rojo and Matthew Lawrence. Photo: David Kelly

I was sorry to miss Clare Morehen’s Juliet with QB corps de ballet member Emilio Pavan. Pavan has been with the company only since last year, having graduated from the Australian Ballet School in 2012, and Li has already given him some big roles. Also being fast-tracked is Vito Bernasconi (another 2012 ABS graduate), who was an imposing Tybalt – indeed, given that honour on opening night. Bernasconi had some performances as Mercutio as well, a bravura role of great complexity in which he was less effective.

There wasn’t any fat at all in the casting (hence the greatly gifted Gaudiello’s six Mercutios, four of them in a row). QB has only 27 dancers and its numbers essentially needed to double for R&J. At the upper end, apart from the visiting superstars and Gaudiello, there were other guests needed for important parts, including Heathcote as Lord Capulet, proving yet again what superb command he brings to the stage in character roles after his long and stellar career as the AB’s leading man. (Lovely, too, to see his daughter, Mia, shining away in the QB company.)

On top of their day jobs QB ballet mistresses Janette Mulligan and Mary Li shared the role of the Nurse and were both highly enjoyable. In addition, several former QB dancers were spotted among those creating the lively market scenes and the grave formality of the Capulets’ ball, alongside QB’s company dancers, eight young artists (essentially apprentices), professional year dancers and senior students.

One imagines Li was making a point: see what we can do if we have more dancers. It will be fascinating to see if the funding bodies agree QB should be significantly bigger.

Meanwhile, yesterday QB announced R&J had played to 97 per cent capacity in the 2000-seat Lyric Theatre with more than half of the audience new ticket-buyers. They’ll be very happy with that, particularly as I understand the production ended up in profit – not always the case even when huge amounts of money are taken at the box office.

Next up QB presents a quadruple bill under the title Flourish. It includes George Balanchine’s glorious Serenade, a ballet for a large corps of women and a small corps of men, three superb female soloists and two imposing men. With the retirement of lovely principal Rachael Walsh at the end of the R&J season (the photo below shows her as Lady Capulet – she was stunning). QB has only three female principals, and there is just one soloist, Lisa Edwards. There aren’t enough women in the ranks of the corps and young artists to make up the numbers, so, as with R&J, students will have to come into play. That’s fine for Serenade, which was created on student dancers, but this is nevertheless skating on fairly thin ice.

Rachael Walsh as Lady Capulet. Photo: David Kelly

Rachael Walsh as Lady Capulet, her final role for Queensland Ballet. Photo: David Kelly

Li’s ambitions for Queensland Ballet are huge and he’s prepared to take big risks to show what he thinks is possible. As I said at the start in relation to Romeo and Juliet, it’s not only a numbers game, but make no mistake. For what Li wants, numbers are very, very important.

Queensland Ballet’s Flourish runs August 1-9.