Together Live 2017

Sydney City Youth Ballet with the SYO Philharmonic. The Concourse, Chatswood, Sydney. September 23.

The room is always full of hope and desire when student performers take to the stage, particularly if they are dancers or classical musicians.

Some will have started as young as four or five and certainly by eight or nine. In their early teens they are upping the number of classes they take each week. If they survive the rigours of intense practice and the personal sacrifices required by these all-consuming arts, their late teens see them negotiating the transition from L-plates to a professional career.

Getting in front of an audience is part of the process, hence all those competitions and eisteddfods, but there’s nothing like a proper concert to get the juices flowing for the performers and for those out front. Who doesn’t like getting in on the ground floor of someone’s brilliant career?

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Janae Kerr and Alexander Smith in Les Sylphides. Photo: Winkipop Media

Student dance concerts are almost always staged to the unyielding backdrop of recorded music for understandable economic reasons but the lack of living, breathing, energising music is felt. The inaugural collaboration between Sydney City Youth Ballet and the SYO Philharmonia – Sydney Youth Orchestras’ second-most senior orchestra – was therefore an occasion to cheer and with luck it won’t be a one-off.

The Together Live 2017 program was ambitious, featuring two substantial new works, two orchestral numbers and an appearance by guest artists from Queensland Ballet alongside three classical showcases.

Arranged at the back of the stage, the SYO Philharmonic opened with the third movement of Prokofiev’s Symphony No.1 in D Major “Classical”, with Wim Broeckx’s new work Classical Symphony, arranged to Prokofiev, following.

Broeckx made attractive use of a six-member corps of women, whose entrances, exits and graceful patterns formed an ever-changing backdrop to a series of solos and pas de deux for leading men and women. Alexander Smith, 17, formerly with Sydney’s Tanya Pearson Academy and currently studying in Stuttgart, was a little tested by the fast tempo set by conductor Brian Buggy but showed swift, clean beaten steps.

The other premiere was a two-part contemporary piece by Adam Blanch that took the not-unfamiliar theme of environmental degradation and a collapsing society. An atmosphere of unease was well sustained by the choice of music. Blanch used an electronic score by Seymour Milton for part one, Redemption, following with Peter Sculthorpe’s Earth Cry for the second part, The Sky is Falling, in which the SYO Philharmonic had a big success. After a beginning that was perhaps a little too literal in its depiction of isolation, a large group prowled, gathered, dissipated and reformed, each member ferociously committed to the work.

In between those two works there was the chance to see 18-year-old Cameron Holmes tackle the Le Corsaire pas de deux with apparently serene and absolutely justified confidence. Not once but twice he threw in a clean, high-flying 540, that highly acrobatic aerial move borrowed from martial arts that all the men have co-opted these days, or at least those who appear in splashy party pieces such as this. His partner, Audrey Freeman, had poise and maturity well beyond her years. She is only 14 but also emanated sophisticated mystery in Redemption, as did Aaron Matheson.

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Cameron Holmes in Le Corsaire. Photo: Winkipop Media

In the Les Sylphides pas de deux Janae Kerr, 16, captured the poetic perfume of Mikhail Fokine’s choreography, seen in floaty balances and a melting backbend over her partner Smith’s shoulder.

The glamour quotient was sky-high in the grand pas deux from The Nutcracker in Ben Stevenson’s version, danced by Queensland Ballet and here performed by QB’s Mia Heathcote and Joel Woellner. I’ve seen Stevenson’s production several times in Brisbane but hadn’t registered just how sensual the woman’s choreography is. Heathcote looked divine, luxuriously swaying her spine and curving her neck this way without losing a sense of classical style. Woellner is a strong, fine dancer who at this matinee wasn’t entirely on form. As always he partnered well.

SCYB artistic director Lucinda Dunn suggested in her program note that Together Live 2017 might be only the beginning of the partnership with the SYO. Certainly the name hints at future collaborations and they’d be most welcome.

SYCB is associated with Tanya Pearson Classical Coaching Academy and the acadamy’s general manager, Nicole Sharp, says she and Dunn had long discussed wanting SYCB to perform with an orchestra. Money, as always, was the issue.

The situation changed when a student’s grandfather dropped by Sharp’s office to have a chat. It was Brian Buggy, who has conducted the SYO Philharmonic since 2007. After much discussion with Buggy and SYO chief executive Yarmila Alfonzetti about music and repertoire, the deal was done.

The SYO Philharmonic – a full symphony orchestra with members ranging in age from 12 to 24 – gave a fearless reading of the Prelude of Act II of Wagner’s Lohengrin, which gives the whole orchestra a bracing workout in about three speedy minutes. The brass and winds were particularly effective – the brass terrific in the Sculthorpe too – but there were strong contributions from all sections.

Swan Lake, Queensland Ballet

Queensland Performing Arts Centre, May 5.

Queensland Ballet’s Swan Lake had a 42nd Street quality on opening night as junior company member Joel Woellner was chosen to dance Prince Siegfried alongside the seasoned Odette-Odile of QB principal artist – and former top-ranked star at the National Ballet of Cuba – Yanela Piñera.

Piñera has presence in spades and technical prowess to burn. She laid out her credentials within seconds of taking to the stage with a pure, extended balance on pointe that was an eloquent expression of the Swan Queen’s sorrow and entrapment. As the imposter Odile she decorated the treacherous (for some; not her) fouette sequence with triple pirouettes and gave a magisterial account of her solo.

Qld Ballet

Yanela Piñera and Joel Woellner in Ben Stevenson’s Swan Lake. Photo: David Kelly

Piñera nailed the big effects that seem to be a Cuban birthright, including sky-high extensions and Odile’s don’t-mess-with-me grand pirouettes in Act 3 but it was the delicate detail that lingered. Odette’s tiny flutters of foot against ankle in Act II were exquisite.

Woellner was going out a courageous youngster but had to come back a star, or at least as close to one as possible in a nearly impossible assignment. The desperate, deep-seated passion that should drive Siegfried eluded him, resulting in a muted relationship with Odette. There was, nevertheless, gleaming beauty in almost all his dancing. Double tours were plush and precisely landed and lovely air turns finished in stretched, poised arabesques. It was impressive to see how much value he gave each moment, never smudging or cutting steps short. Woellner is not yet a fully-fledged prince but is a hugely promising princeling.

Qld Ballet

Joel Woellner as Prince Siegfried in Swan Lake. Photo: David Kelly

For the first Swan Lake of his tenure as QB artistic director, Li not surprisingly chose Ben Stevenson’s 1985 version made for Houston Ballet. It makes sense for the size of the company – currently at 32 permanent members and 10 Young Artists – and Li knows the production well, having danced in it in those early days. One can also never underestimate the affection and loyalty Li has for Stevenson, now in his early 80s. Stevenson was responsible for Li’s American career and therefore in a sense all that followed.

It’s a conventional production based on the 1895 Petipa-Ivanov version. Stevenson retains some of the best-known choreography, although much is new. The 1985 designs by David Walker placed Stevenson’s ballet in the late 19th century but for this incarnation QB has borrowed Kristian Fredrikson’s luxuriant Renaissance-tinged designs made for Russell Kerr’s Royal New Zealand Ballet version in 1996.

The beating heart of Swan Lake is the first lakeside act in which Siegfried comes across Odette and her retinue of swan maidens, here a corps of 24 that sensibly incorporates the two Big Swans and four Cygnets. It’s a significant number for a company of QB’s size and was augmented by Queensland Ballet Academy pre-professional students. The teaching is clearly excellent. The corps as a whole looked beautifully schooled and had the strength-in-unity power that makes Act 2 so captivating. (And these dancers have to be strong: Lucy Green, newly appointed soloist at QB, on opening night danced in the Act 1 pas de trois, was a Cygnet in Act 2 and the Spanish Princess in Act 3. This was the night before her Odette-Odile.)

Qld Ballet

Lucy Green, Neneka Yoshida, Lina Kim and Teri Crilly. Photo: David Kelly

Different details in storytelling mean the fit isn’t always exact between Stephenson’s vision of the ballet and Fredrikson’s designs. The white acts looked wonderful, of course, but in the first and fourth acts it wasn’t always easy to get a grip on all-important distinctions of rank. It was surprising in this respect to see the Queen arrive without a suitable entourage to Siegfried’s coming-of-age celebration, symbolically set in a thick glade through which there’s a glimpse of decaying grandeur.

In Act 3, when foreign princesses are presented to Siegfried so he can choose a bride, the princesses lead the national dance of the country they represent. At RNZB the princesses wore distinctive, decorative tutus; here they are dressed similarly to all the other women in their troupe and dance like entertainers, some friskily showing quite a lot of leg and behaving quite unregally.

Stevenson trims the action significantly, for good and bad. Act 1 is enjoyably fast-paced while shortened Acts 3 and 4 elide with dramatically convincing sleight of hand. I was less convinced by the transition from Acts 1 to 2, in which the Prince dances his yearning solo while his mother (Zenia Tátcheva) pressures – no, harangues – him about the weighty responsibilities of State he must take on. It rather spoils the mood.

With the production coming in at under two hours of dancing, Tchaikovsky’s music at times sounds chopped back to its detriment although at the opening the Queensland Symphony Orchestra under QB music director Nigel Gaynor delivered a sympathetic account of what is there. Concertmaster Warwick Adeney’s violin solos in Act II and III were sublime.

Qld Ballet

Lina Kim and Victor Estévez in Act 1 of Swan Lake. Photo: David Kelly

Stevenson’s choice of music for Siegfried and Odette’s final pas de deux in Act 4 comes from left field. Tchaikovsky died in 1893 and Riccardo Drigo had a hand in arranging music for the 1985 Petipa-Ivanov production, orchestrating Tchaikovsky’s piano piece Un poco di Chopin, a mazurka, for this section. Drigo smoothed out the mazurka’s prominent accents and slowed the conventionally bright tempo to achieve a romantic quality, but to these ears the music underplays the depths of Siegfried’s agony and contrition. Stevenson, however, obviously feels it better expresses Siegfried’s remorse for having betrayed Odette. In any event, it is rarely heard these days.

Perhaps transcendence was hard to come by on opening night but there was plenty of fine dancing, particularly from Lucy Green, Lima Kim and Victor Estevez as they whizzed and fizzed through the Act I pas de trois. Vito Bernasconi as Von Rothbart didn’t have a huge amount to do but looked imposing, albeit perhaps rather too emphatic in his directions to Odile in the ballroom scene. It was too much of a giveaway.

As is the case in every production I’ve seen, Von Rothbart and Odile are immediately accepted as having a right to be at the ball with no questions asked. It’s always bemusing. (Kevin McKenzie’s American Ballet Theatre version has a red-hot go at dramatic coherence by making Von Rothbart amazingly sexy and charismatic. He makes every woman in the room, including Siegfried’s mother, bewitched, bothered and bewildered.)

Those lucky enough to have tickets for May 11 will see guest artist Evgenia Obratszova from the Bolshoi as Odette-Odile (she also danced on May 9). And at certain performances there is the interesting – but by no means revolutionary – splitting of those roles as Mia Heathcote dances Odette and Neneka Yoshida tackles Odile.

Swan Lake ends on May 13.

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.