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.

Giselle

Queensland Ballet, Playhouse Theatre, Brisbane, June 21 and 22

BRISBANE is turning into quite the ballet town. All performances of the Bolshoi Ballet’s Le Corsaire and The Bright Stream were sold out and one might have expected the visit from such a starry company to have diverted dollars from the Queensland Ballet. Far from it. QB was able to put on extra performances of its year’s mainstage opener, Cinderella, and Giselle also has more performances than originally planned and is heading for a sell-out season.

Rachael Walsh and Matthew Lawrence in Queensland Ballet's Giselle. Photo: David Kelly

Rachael Walsh and Matthew Lawrence in Queensland Ballet’s Giselle. Photo: David Kelly

It was clear from reactions at the first three performances of Giselle that many in the audience were unfamiliar with it, despite its place in the canon. It was also clear by the end of all three shows that people were delighted with what they saw, and so they should have been. QB has a fine production, staged with great integrity and care by Ai-Gul Gaisina (it is based on Petipa’s revivals of the Coralli/Perrot choreography) and boasting some outstanding dancing. Gaisina clearly allowed each cast to find its own way into the key roles while honouring the ballet’s floating, romantic style. It was also extremely satisfying to see the attention paid to mime, here done in a lucid, unaffected way.

The challenge new artistic director Li Cunxin has set himself can’t be underestimated. He has a company numbering only 27 dancers, although he also has access to about 20 young dancers in the QB pre-professional program.

Not only that, there is a high proportion of new dancers. When Li held auditions late last year he greatly admired quite a few dancers from the Australian Ballet School’s graduating year. Half the company has been dancing professionally for only six months, and a handful more for only a couple of years.

Li did bring in two new principal artists, former Australian Ballet and Birmingham Royal Ballet principal Matthew Lawrence, and Huang Junshuang, latterly of Houston Ballet, to beef up the upper end of the ranks. (Huang is listed as a guest international principal artist and his position is funded by private support; it was announced at the Giselle opening night party that this will continue next year.) The mid-tier was thinly populated and still is, although the recent and extremely well-deserved elevation of Lisa Edwards to the rank of soloist is a start in the building process.

It was an impressive feat, then, to be able to field three strong casts, one of them with a wild card in the shape of 20-year-old Alexander Idaszak, making his debut as Albrecht. Idaszak is one of the newbies half a year into his first job so it was a bold move to cast him, but with principal Hao Bin out of contention for Albrecht due to injury it was decided to take the gamble. Idaszak seemed not the slightest fazed by the assignment. Sure, he looks about 12 1/2 – an unusually well-built 12 1/2 – but he took to the stage with impressive aplomb. There were, not surprisingly, some rough patches but Idaszak has noble bearing, excellent form – his Act II cabrioles were crackers – and his partnering is a credit to his ABS teachers.

Clare Morehen and Alexander Idaszak. Photo: Daivd Kelly

Clare Morehen and Alexander Idaszak. Photo: Daivd Kelly

He made a pretty good fist of the acting, too. Sensible choices were made: his Albrecht isn’t a cheating aristo cad; he’s just a puppyish kid who needs to marry well but is looking for love elsewhere. In this scenario it was quite right that his betrothed, Bathilde (Mia Thompson), was a condescending bitch and that Huang’s Hilarion (no chance of principal artists having too many rest days at QB; he was Albrecht only 18 hours earlier) was a tough, mature man.

At this Saturday matinee performance Idaszak was partnered with one of QB’s most vibrant and individual dancers. Clare Morehen was a lively, sunny Giselle, the kind for whom spreading her skirt on the small outdoors bench is a cheeky bit of flirtation rather than a protective move. She was engagingly wide-eyed in Bathilde’s presence but brought a glint of steel to Act II’s mysterious, moonlit world of the Wilis. Peter Cazalet’s set design and Ben Hughes’s lighting came into their own here after a perfectly correct but unexceptional Act I.

Friday’s opening came with added, unwanted drama when Meng Ningning injured her left foot badly early in the first act. Few would have realised, particularly as she beautifully negotiated the diagonal of hops on pointe – on her left foot. Meng danced on to the end of the first half, hiding her pain to play a girl of heartbreaking innocence and trust.  No wonder she looked so believably ill when her heart first starts to give way and so distraught in the mad scene that ends Act I.

With Meng unable to continue – and I would have loved to see her Act II; she is such an ethereal dancer – elegant Huang was out of the picture as Albrecht. Fellow principal artists Rachael Walsh and Matthew Lawrence stepped seamlessly into the breach to give a glowing account of the second act. Walsh had been sitting in the audience watching the first half; Lawrence had appeared in the Act I non-dancing role of the Duke of Courland.

Their full scheduled performance on Saturday night revealed Lawrence as a practised and charming lothario and Walsh as meltingly sweet. Walsh has a pre-Raphaelite face and adagio to die for, controlling the slowest of slow raises of her leg as if gravity were somehow banished for the moment. Lawrence’s high and handsome series of entrechats – the tight beaten steps Albrecht is forced to do unto death until he’s saved by the bell and the breaking dawn– were brilliantly executed on both Friday and Saturday. In this cast Vito Bernasconi played Hilarion as a good lad possibly not possessed of the quickest mind – a strong contrast with Lawrence’s savoir faire. In the first cast, Nathan Scicluna gave the gamekeeper a thoughtful, deep-hearted quality that was most attractive.

Daniel Gaudiello, a guest artist from the Australian Ballet, puts a fourth Albrecht into the mix and his two performances  with Walsh promise much. He is an immaculate artist making his role debut here, which makes it one for the diary.

Two dancers distinguished themselves greatly as Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis. Lisa Edwards, seen on Friday and Saturday evening, has greatly grown in authority of late and demonstrated a commanding presence and gaze and wonderful elevation. Eleanor Freeman’s expressive use of her upper body at the Saturday matinee was magical.

The peasant pas de huit is the most problematic element. It spreads the load of what is frequently done as a pas de deux but exposes some weaknesses in style, unity and quality. Some of the women had not absorbed all the nuances of soft, rounded romantic mode and eloquent epaulement but the group of 12 wilis really came into their own with strikingly precise alighment and immaculately timed turns and gestures in their confrontations with Hilarion and Albrecht. Superb. Of the lead wilis I most enjoyed Eleanor Freeman’s other-worldly lightness and demeanour.

QB had originally planned to perform Giselle to taped music for budgetary reasons but was able to secure private support to engage Camerata of St John’s for the season. Adolphe Adam’s score was arranged for this quite small force – only 26 musicians – and QB music director Andrew Mogrelia drew performances that improved markedly from show to show. While there were still too many glitches from the brass and, to a lesser extent, the woodwinds, it was a fair start to what may be a continuing relationship. (Alas the July 6 performances will be performed to recorded music.)

After his Saturday matinee Idaszak was considerately taken out of the evening’s pas de huit, as I was told before the performance began. Given a well-deserved rest, I thought.  No, he was just doing the less demanding background stuff in the first act. That’s what happens in a small company:  lots of hard work, the need to keep ego well in check – and fantastic opportunities for those who are ready to grab them.

Giselle continues until July 6. Daniel Gaudiello appears as Albrecht with Rachael Walsh as Giselle on June 27 and July 4. Other casting has not been released.

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