La Bayadère, Queensland Ballet

Playhouse, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, March 16.

La Bayadère is a difficult ballet to take seriously in the 21st century and Queensland Ballet’s new production does it few favours. Despite some fine dancing the abiding impression is of a narrative in sore need of stringent dramaturgical intervention. Greg Horsman’s revision invites – no, demands – nuanced reflections on colonialism and a sophisticated appreciation of Indian culture but there is only unthinking and at times cringe-making entertainment that could have been made 150 years ago.

Marius Petipa’s sprawling melodrama, created for the Imperial Theatres in St Petersburg in 1877, played to the 19th-century fascination with the exotic East. The scenario called for a consecrated forest, a Great Brahmin, warriors, fakirs, bayadères (temple dancers), a rajah’s magnificent palace, the destruction thereof, and “in the distance, the peaks of the Himalayas”. Given that nobody ever went there, the setting was an India of the imagination: romanticised, vividly coloured, sensual and excitingly foreign.

QB La Bayadere 2018. Principal Artist Camilo Ramos. Photo David Kelly

Camilo Ramos in Queensland Ballet’s La Bayadère. Photo: David Kelly

Bayadère isn’t on high rotation – it’s too odd and hokey for that – but even if one thinks the story is occasionally worth retelling there is a lot of work to be done regarding how to tell it. The choreography was revised in Petipa’s lifetime and chunks of it altered after his death, key solos in particular. The magisterial dance for the Golden (sometimes Bronze) Idol was a Soviet-era interpolation and Petipa’s fourth and final act, in which the gods exact revenge for the death of the bayadère (temple dancer) Nikiya by bringing down a palace hall and killing all within, was omitted in Soviet productions. It was likely not an artistic decision but because the sets had been destroyed at some point and not rebuilt.

Until Natalia Makarova restored the last act for American Ballet Theatre in 1980 (the first full production in the West), Bayadère ended abruptly after The Kingdom of the Shades, one of the most celebrated scenes in classical dance. It’s the glowing heart of the ballet (so singular it’s frequently seen as a standalone one-act work) and the reason Bayadère persists in the standard repertoire, albeit at the fringes.

Horsman duly stages The Kingdom of the Shades faithfully while significantly altering the surrounding landscape. The action moves to the dying gasp of the British East India Company in mid-19th century India, adding a political and racial dimension to the love triangle involving Nikiya, the princely warrior Solor and the high-born woman he is promised to, Gamzatti. In this version Gamzatti is recast as Edith, daughter of the British Governor General of India.

QB La Bayadere 2018. Artists of Queensland Ballet 2. Photo David Kelly

Queensland Ballet’s La Bayadère. Photo: David Kelly

To the welcome sound of the sitar, a prologue shows the Governor General and a Maharajah deciding on a treaty to end deadly conflict between their forces. The pact is to be sealed with a marriage between Solor and Edith.

In its own way this scenario is as much a fantasy as Petipa’s, even if more rooted in a real society, but its superficial handling is the real problem. Horsman’s broad brush turns Indian servants into figures of parody, makes Edith an inexplicably forward and vulgar opportunist and strips Solor of his dignity with a drunken dance and an act of violence that makes nonsense of the apotheosis that immediately follows. This is pantomime, not tragedy.

Decorum, subtlety and an understanding of tone are in short supply again and again. When attendants in Solor’s opium den play for laughs in the prelude to the solemn Kingdom of the Shades, misjudgement is taken to an impressive level.

It is one of the mysteries of the age that ballet companies persistently ignore the need for expert dramaturgy. They do choreographers no favours by enabling virtually impossible quadruple duty as librettist, dramaturg, dance-maker and director.

At the QB premiere Yanela Pinera danced Nikiya with a diamond edge and little spiritual dimension. The admirable Georgia Swan did what was asked of her as Edith and the three soloist Shades – Neneka Yoshida, Lucy Green and Laura Hidalgo – brought much balm after the 20-strong corps made an unfortunately shaky start to the hallucinatory Kingdom scene.

The Shades represent Solor’s multiple vision of his lost love Nikiya and their hypnotic power resides in breathing and moving as one, a state not achieved at the first performance.

QB La Bayadere 2018. Soloist Joel Woellner. Photo David Kelly

Joel Woellner as Solor in La Bayadère. Photo: David Kelly

Soloist Joel Woellner scored a big personal success as Solor. His unaffected sincerity, ardour and noble bearing showed what this ballet could be. He still has some way to go to be in full command of his technique and stamina but is the real deal. He was rewarded several days later with a promotion to senior soloist, QB’s second-highest rank.

There was also a great deal to enjoy musically. QB’s music director Nigel Gaynor reorchestrated significant sections of the score to feature Indian instruments and modes. Minkus’s pleasant, danceable melodies were much enlivened.

La Bayadère is a co-production with West Australian Ballet and Royal Winnipeg Ballet. It ends in Brisbane on March 31.

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 1895 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.