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.

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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.

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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.)

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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.

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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.

My year in dance

Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker and Pina Bausch made my year. For his final Sydney Festival in January, artistic director Lieven Bertels programmed two bracing De Keersmaeker works, Fase and Vortex Temporum, and the huge thrill was seeing the choreographer herself in Fase (my review is here). Living dance history. Festival clout and money also made the Bausch experience possible. At the Adelaide Festival in March Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch performed Nelken, which was obviously a necessity to see, but just a week later Wellington’s New Zealand International Arts Festival trumped Adelaide. In the repertoire carve-up the Wellington-based festival got the double bill of Café Muller and Rite of Spring. I had always longed to see both live. And now I have.

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Pina Bausch’s The Rite of Spring. Photo: Matt Grace

The Perth International Arts Festival (February) and the Brisbane Festival (September) – there’s a theme here – also provided performances that made it into my best-of list. It was absolutely worth going to Perth for just one night from Sydney (flying time: five hours) to see Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s Apocrifu, which was outstandingly beautiful, in a rough, sweaty kind of way, and accompanied by celestial a capella singing from the all-male group A Filetta. It was a much easier business to pop up to Brisbane for Jonah Bokaer’s Rules of the Game – not really for the much-hyped title work (its score was by Pharrell Williams) but for the chance to see earlier Bokaer pieces and the choreographer himself onstage.

More festival highlights, these from local choreographers: Stephanie Lake’s super-intelligent Double Blind at the Sydney Festival, Kristina Chan’s ravishing A Faint Existence at Performance Space’s Liveworks festival in October and Nicola Gunn and Jo Lloyd’s Mermermer, also at Liveworks.

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Kristina Chan in A Faint Existence. Photo: Ashley de Prazer

The rest of the key works in 2016 come from major companies. The Australian Ballet, which has been looking very, very conventional of late, stretched dancers and audiences with John Neumeier’s Nijinsky (which I reviewed for Limelight magazine); Bangarra Dance Theatre’s triple bill OUR land people stories was a luminous program; and Sydney Dance Company’s double bills Untamed (October) and CounterMove (February) yet again demonstrated the thoroughbred power and impressive individuality of Rafael Bonachela’s dancers.

In the year I saw dance in Sydney, Perth, Brisbane, Adelaide, Melbourne, Auckland and Wellington, but yet again I mourn the fact that I just wasn’t able to visit Melbourne more often to sample its contemporary dance riches. As so often, Samuel Beckett comes to mind: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

On the people front the biggest news of the year was the re-emergence of David Hallberg after a two-and-a-half year absence from the stage. The American superstar, a principal artist at both American Ballet Theatre and the Bolshoi Ballet, spent a year at The Australian Ballet’s headquarters in Melbourne undergoing extensive rehabilitation after having surgery for an ankle problem. His return to the stage was, fittingly, with the AB, and as it happened, the scheduled ballet gave Hallberg a role debut. He danced four performances as Franz in Coppélia. (You can read about the rehabilitation process here and the Coppélia performance here.)

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David Hallberg in Act I of Coppelia. Photo: Kate Longley

Queensland Ballet made a splash when it announced the appointment, from 2017, of Liam Scarlett as artistic associate. Scarlett retains his artist in residence role at the Royal Ballet. At the same time QB announced artistic director Li Cunxin had signed on for four more years. The board must be happy about that.

Less happily, Royal New Zealand Ballet announced that its relatively new artistic director, Francesco Ventriglia, would be relinquishing that role in mid-2017. He will stay on to choreograph the announced new Romeo and Juliet, but then he’s off. What happened? I’ll let you know when I find out, although previously he had spoken to me enthusiastically about being in New Zealand. The RNZ website (Radio New Zealand) wrote in early December that as many as a dozen dancers and staff had left RNZB because of conflicts with Ventriglia, quoting a representative of the union that represents dancers.

I stress I have no information that suggests these departures are connected with Ventriglia’s, but leading Australian-born RNZB dancer Lucy Green has accepted a position with Queensland Ballet for 2017 and RNZB’s former music director Nigel Gaynor, who was hired by Ventriglia’s predecessor Ethan Stiefel, is now QB’s music director. These gains by QB could easily be explained by Li Cunxin’s voracious eye for talent – as in the Liam Scarlett coup (QB and RNZB share Scarlett’s lovely Midsummer Night’s Dream so there’s a close connection).

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Queensland Ballet’s Rian Thompson and Laura Hidalgo in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Photo: David Kelly

The biggest disappointment of the year is the AB’s lack of commitment to developing new choreographers. It’s true that Bodytorque, which started in 2004, needed a fresh look, but it’s become the incredible shrinking show, offering less and less each year. The name is no longer used at all and the amount of new work from developing choreographers is minuscule.

Bodytorque was last seen in its familiar form in 2013 – six new or relatively inexperienced choreographers made works that were seen in a short special season at what is now the Roslyn Packer Theatre in Sydney. In 2014 Bodytorque went to Melbourne and featured five works, including a piece by newly minted resident choreographer Tim Harbour. The other four dance-makers included Alice Topp (her fourth year at Bodytorque) and Richard House (with his second piece).

In 2015 the name still lingered but the program had dwindled to the creation of just one work, House’s From Something, to Nothing, shown once in Sydney and once in Melbourne as a “pop-up” event called Bodytorque Up Late. This took place after performances of mainstage repertoire, once in Sydney and once in Melbourne. The audience could stay to watch for free if it wished. Or not.

In 2016 it was clear favour had fallen on Topp and House, which is fair enough. Both, but particularly Topp, are worth persevering with. This time their new works, each of about 10 minutes in length, were programmed as part of a group of divertissements that acted as a curtain-raiser to Balanchine’s Symphony in C, which gave the whole evening its name.

And for 2017? Those two pieces will be seen again, this time in Melbourne when that city gets Symphony in C. So – let’s add up the minutes. In the three years from 2015-2017, there will have been a bit under 40 minutes in total of new choreography from developing choreographers.

It’s possible AB artistic director David McAllister has big plans for Topp, or House, or both. After all, Harbour was developed via a series of Bodytorque commissions. But Harbour emerged from a quite a large pack. The window of opportunity has now narrowed excessively – and depressingly.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Queensland Ballet, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane, April 1.

The second act of Liam Scarlett’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream begins with deliciously controlled chaos. At the behest of Oberon, lord of the forest and fairies, Puck has got busy with magic love dust. The result is instantaneous passion for whoever is first seen, complicated by Puck’s tendency to get things wrong. Mayhem ensues as pleasure-seeking mortals, their entourage of bumbling rustics and the fairies whose domain has been invaded dash about trying to make sense of things. Proper order has been disrupted and must be restored, but not before there has been an ample display of foolishness from all quarters.

Scarlett remains entirely faithful to Shakespeare’s comedy, apart from the unsurprising excision of Theseus’s Athenian court. Otherwise it’s all there. Oberon and his queen Titania squabble over a Changeling boy (amusingly clad in a purple onesie and clutching a storybook and a toy donkey), humans enter the forest at night and are captured by its mystery, and Titania is smitten with the low-born Bottom, who has unfortunately gained an ass’s head but is an absolute sweetheart.

Queensland Ballets Midsummer Nights Dream. Laura Hidalgo and Rian Thompson. Photo David Kelly HR

Rian Thompson and Laura Hidalgo in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Photo: David Kelly

Scarlett, not yet 30, is one of the most sought-after names in classical choreography with commissions from top-drawer companies including New York City Ballet, San Francisco Ballet, English National Ballet and his home base, London’s Royal Ballet. Queensland Ballet’s co-production with Royal New Zealand Ballet (which premiered the work last year) gives these smaller outfits entry into a rather exclusive club. It’s quite a coup and they have a delectable ballet to show for it – one that’s genuinely funny, frequently touching and outstandingly sensual in its movement and visual appeal.

Tracy Grant Lord’s set design provides Scarlett with a sumptuous playground, an ornate multi-level affair that evokes a dense tree canopy and allows the fairies to dart in and out of view, gorgeously bathed in Kendall Smith’s lighting. Puck is established as a creature of the air, spotted at first in a lofty hideaway (he has to shimmy down a pole to reach ground level) and Oberon as an autocrat who likes to survey his domain from on high and whose moods can alter the very atmosphere. When he is angry the stars take notice.

Grant Lord was responsible for the striking costumes too – adorably fluffy tutus in saturated colours for the fairies and sportif day wear for the mortals, who have come equipped with tents, torches, nets and the rustics for backup. They are on a fairy safari. Bless.

Queensland Ballets Midsummer Nights Dream. The Lovers and Rustics. Photo David Kelly

Lovers and rustics in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Photo: David Kelly

Scarlett fills the forest with rapturous choreography that eloquently describes story and music. (The first thing everyone says about Scarlett is that he is intensely musical.) With their busy arms and feet the fairies indeed look as if they can fly while their swooning (and at one point shivering) backs give a delicious hint of excitements to come. The language is unquestionably classical but Scarlett relaxes ballet’s upright lines with swirling, supple freedom in the upper body that contrasts happily with bright, sharp, ground-skimming footwork. The characters are thrilingly alert and alive. It’s not hard to feel the influence of the Royal Ballet’s founder choreographer, Frederick Ashton, although Scarlett has a confident voice of his own. He certainly hasn’t copied Ashton’s one-act The Dream but there is nevertheless a delicate Ashtonian quality in this ballet.

On opening night QB’s newest principal dancer, Victor Estevez – just 22 years old! – was expansive and commanding as Oberon and Laura Hidalgo’s Titania was light and airy when with Bottom and more sexually charged when with Oberon. The Act II pas deux in which the two make up after their quarrel is stunningly intimate – the sexy little shivers of Titania’s legs as she is entwined with Oberon say it all. Camilo Ramos was a bouncy, highly likeable Puck and Rian Thompson delightful as Bottom. Every fairy and rustic had his or her moment too. This is a ballet made for relatively small forces and a meaningful part for everyone.

Of course the mortals never manage to capture any fairies, those enticing supernatural beings whose presence is known and felt but remains invisible. On opening night Yanela Piñera, Shane Wuerthner, Clare Morehen and Vito Bernasconi were the four high-spirited lovers who leave the forest with their nets empty but their hearts full. Scarlett makes each of them individual and engaging.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is danced to the much-loved Mendelssohn incidental music for Shakespeare’s play, augmented with selections from other works by the composer to create a full-length ballet. Nigel Gaynor, who conducted Queensland Symphony Orchestra in a spirited performance, stitched it all together admirably. Gaynor and Scarlett chose music that would be, as Gaynor told me in New Zealand, “proportionate to the fairy world”. Oberon dances to the Hebrides Overture of 1830 and, as Gaynor pointed out, it first appeared on the same program as the Overture to a Midsummer Night’s Dream. “It belongs,” he said. Music from the Octet in E-Flat Major – written when Mendelssohn was only 16 – is fittingly given to Puck: Mendelssohn’s sister Fanny wrote of the scherzo that “one feels so near the world of spirits, carried away in the air”.

Gaynor, by the way, was RNZB’s music director when Dream was being created; he now holds the same position with QB. The man who had been QB’s music director and principal conductor from 2013-2015, Andrew Mogrelia, is currently guest conductor at The Australian Ballet, at the helm of most of the performances of Swan Lake. Small world.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream ends in Brisbane on April 16.

A version of this review appeared in The Australian on April 4.

Liam Scarlett’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream arrives in Brisbane

There wouldn’t be too many 29-year-old men who know exactly where they are going to be in five years. Not in a general sense, as in being pretty sure about being promoted, or settling down with a partner and children, but precisely, literally. As in a date, a place, a specific task. Liam Scarlett does.

We talked about this while sitting in a room at Royal New Zealand Ballet headquarters in Wellington, New Zealand, in the middle of last year. He was there to choreograph a new A Midsummer Night’s Dream and he was pondering his diary or, as he described it, “the little squares” that are increasingly mapping out his life way, way into the future. “It terrifies me sometimes. I was planning something for 2019 last night,” he said, sounding a little surprised. “I have no idea what else I’ll be doing in four years but this square says I’ll be doing this. And there’s something in 2020.” But in the ballet business it’s a fact of life that companies plan their programs three, four, even five years ahead “and there are things I don’t want to say no to” says Scarlett. “Opportunities come.”

Indeed they do. His rise has been swift and he’s making the most of it. It’s a good thing he likes travelling – “when you are in a foreign place you often feel the most at home with yourself” – because he is on the road a lot. The truth is that Scarlett feels intensely happy in the studio with dancers, wherever that may be. He’s rather shy and private, he says, but friends tell him he’s a totally different person when he’s working. “Because this is my passion, this is what I love.”

Midsummers Rehearsals. Liam Scarlett and Yanela Pinera. Photo Eduardo Vieira. 2016

Liam Scarlett rehearses Queensland Ballet’s Yanela Pinera. Photo: Eduardo Vieira

Making a ballet might take as little as five or six weeks. Making a career – well, that’s a different matter. With big organisations programming well into the future, he has to look ahead too and juggle an increasingly hectic schedule. The British choreographer is a man wanted simultaneously in two hemispheres. He would have liked to be in Brisbane this week when Queensland Ballet, co-producer with RNZB of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, opens its season of the ballet, but another big commitment called. Scarlett popped into Brisbane for a week at the beginning of March to work with the QB dancers and then it was back to his home company, The Royal Ballet, and the forthcoming Frankenstein. Scarlett’s full-length take on the Mary Shelley story, which will be danced to a newly commissioned score by American composer Lowell Liebermann, opens in London on May 4 and in 2017 at San Francisco Ballet, the co-producer.

It’s been only five or six years since Scarlett’s name started to get some buzz and already he has rocketed to the top of ballet companies’ wish lists. New York City Ballet, Miami City Ballet, San Francisco, Norwegian National Ballet, English National Ballet and of course the Royal all have works from him. (He was to have participated in Paris Opera Ballet’s new Nutcracker, just coming to the end of its run, as one of five choreographers creating a section each. Eventually there were three, not including Scarlett. One imagines he didn’t mind having less on his plate right now.)

Not everything has been greeted with unalloyed joy but the consensus is that he’s a major talent whose musicality and love for ballet’s traditions augur well. As early as 2010, eminent British critic Clement Crisp wrote in The Financial Times: “Scarlett’s dances are a continuing joy, musically apt, fresh, yet firmly placed in a classic tradition. I admire his happy command of this language, and there are moments that tell of already sure resource in making emotional and dynamic points.”

On a personal level, “He’s a complete dream to work with,” says distinguished New Zealand designer Tracy Grant Lord, part of the all-local New Zealand production team for Dream. “Man, he’s so good, he’s so good.”

There’s something sweetly old-fashioned about Scarlett, who readily admits to being “too honest and too vulnerable”. (He’s been smart, then, about steering clear of social media: he has a Twitter account but has sent only four tweets and the last of those was nearly two years ago.) He could well be forgiven for being a tiny bit pleased with himself but that doesn’t seem to be part of his make-up. When talking about the creative team for Frankenstein, made up of people with whom he collaborates frequently, Scarlett said: “Having worked with them so often there’s a responsibility now. I owe them a good piece and I want to make their work sing. They’re my colleagues but also my friends now. So there’s this thing of you want to make someone proud.”

Even if he says “it just happened”, meaning his choreographic career, and even if to the world at large he looks to have rocketed out of nowhere – nowhere being the lowly rank of first artist as a dancer at the Royal – Scarlett has spent almost all his life preparing for exactly this. In the short version, he was picked up by the world’s radar with a well-received mainstage work, the one-act Asphodel Meadows, for the Royal in 2010. That led to a commission from Miami City Ballet for 2012 and the floodgates opened. Ethan Stiefel, then artistic director of RNZB, was one of the smart ones who got in early. In fact, Scarlett says A Midsummer Night’s Dream was one of his earliest commissions. That particular little square in the diary was filled in more than three years ago. Once Scarlett had agreed to make the ballet for RNZB, QB artistic director Li Cunxin quickly came on board to share the production.

Tonia Looker and MacLean Hopper 01 photo by Stephen A'Court

Royal New Zealand Ballet’s Tonia Looker and MacLean Hopper as Titania and Oberon in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Photo: Stephen A’Court

The longer story starts 25 years ago in Ipswich in the south of England when Scarlett was four, an energetic lad sent off to ballet classes. Early on he started “arranging people on stage nicely” for things, as he told a British newspaper several years ago. He was good enough to be accepted into The Royal Ballet School at 11 and that’s where he really started arranging people nicely.

Students were encouraged to choreograph and learn an instrument (piano for Scarlett). It was the best foundation he could have had. Scarlett can read a score fluently, saying it’s not only helpful but a matter of respect to be able to talk to a conductor with that level of understanding. Steven McRae, an Australian-born principal dancer with The Royal Ballet, has had key roles in several new Scarlett works (he is also in the first cast of Frankenstein) and tells Review: “His attention to detail is remarkable. The way he creates movement that reflects the music gives you the sense that the music is in fact coming out of you.”

Scarlett won prizes and got noticed from the off. Successive RB artistic directors gave him opportunities before and after he joined the company in 2005. In 2012 he was named artist in residence at the Royal, a position created for him. Although he was still enjoying being on stage Scarlett decided to concentrate on choreography fully around that time, just after current RB artistic director Kevin O’Hare had commissioned the three-act Frankenstein. “And then I stopped dancing the next day, or something.“

Scarlett doesn’t mind a dark subject. When Stiefel first called him about making a work for RNZB they tossed around ideas for about half an hour before Stiefel brought up Shakespeare’s much-loved play. Scarlett laughed and said Stiefel wanted Dream from the start but worked up to it slowly “maybe because it involves fairies and my usual aesthetic doesn’t veer towards that”. This is true. Scarlett’s CV contains two ballets with titles that refer to the afterlife (Asphodel Meadows, Acheron); a ballet about artist Walter Sickert’s obsession with Jack the Ripper (Sweet Violets); a particularly dark version of Hansel and Gretel; and a take on W.H. Auden’s The Age of Anxiety.

Dark fantasies can come to life in the safety of theatrical performance, he said. “But I do love creating glorious and happy pieces too. I just think the whole spectrum of human emotion should be explored. I love making an audience feel something.”

Scarlett isn’t over-awed by the fact RB founding choreographer Frederick Ashton’s one-act version of Shakespeare’s play, The Dream, is one of the best-known ballets on the subject. He knows it intimately, of course, having danced in it as a lowly Rustic (“I would have loved to have done Bottom”). Scarlett felt there was plenty of room for his own ideas. “Shakespeare gives you this magical world where anything is possible. You have a basis, but you have carte blanche as well. And I am in New Zealand, which helps. I’m far away,” he joked. More seriously, he said that “in terms of Ashton I would never go near Chopin after A Month in the Country. It is a perfect ballet.”

Hayley Donnison as a fairy credit Stephen A'Court

RNZB’s Hayley Donnison in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Photo: Stephen A’Court

When the curtain rises on Scarlett’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream the night air is full of mystery and mischief. A flock of fairies dashes thither and yon, adorable in fluffy, richly coloured tutus and super-sized wings. Now you see them and now you don’t as they dart behind glowing flowers or are glimpsed up in the tree canopy, catching their rulers, Oberon and Titania, having a domestic over ownership of a little changeling boy. The keen-to-please Puck pops out of a hiding place high above the forest floor to start getting everything wrong on Oberon’s behalf and his exertions are complicated by a group of young people blundering about in the dark, intent on romance and excitement. “They’re on a fairy safari,” said Tracy Grant Lord with a huge smile.

Like Ashton, Scarlett uses Mendelssohn’s Incidental Music written for the play but needed to augment it to fill two acts of dance. Other Mendelssohn pieces were arranged and orchestrated by then RNZB music director Nigel Gaynor, who is now with QB, and woven into a score overflowing with luscious melodies. RNZB’s current artistic director Francesco Ventriglia (he inherited the ballet from Stiefel) commented that while Scarlett’s RB training means he has the Ashton in his DNA, “he’s got a strong enough voice to make it his own”.

Scarlett takes seriously the responsibility of following in the footsteps of Ashton and the RB’s other great choreographers, Kenneth MacMillan and Ninette de Valois. “I’m a very lucky boy. I know that and I don’t take that for granted. Whenever I go to new places I take the RB’s name with me.”

A connecting thread between them all is a profound belief in the power of storytelling. Vivid acting and intense musicality are two of the Royal’s defining qualities and they are central to Scarlett’s Dream, which vibrates with vivid characters. “The story is always such a huge part for me. The dancers will hopefully tell you I couldn’t care less whether they fall on their faces or if they don’t do two pirouettes, but if the narrative doesn’t come through, if the intention or the emotion doesn’t apparate somehow, then it’s futile.” Apparate? “I’m in the fairy world at the moment,” Scarlett said with much laughter. “Everything comes with a puff of smoke or a burst of glitter. That’s where my vocabulary’s been going with this. I can’t remember the number of times I’ve said ‘magic’ or ‘glisten for me’, or ‘fly’. Story is a big thing for me and a very personal thing.”

It doesn’t faze Scarlett to walk into a room full of dancers he’s never met, all of them looking at him to make something happen. “The apprehension has gone. When I was younger there was a certain naivety that covered that up. Now I love it. It’s my job in the studio to make sure everyone has a great time, a good creative process, a collaborative process as well. I work with all casts in the studio. I don’t have my first cast out the front. I will create equally on everyone. That’s very important.”

Dancers obviously appreciate his approach. According to Steven McRae, “Liam has the sensitivity to read his dancers, knowing when to push them, take them out of their comfort zones yet generate a level of trust that allows the dancers to put their complete faith in him.” Li described Scarlett as having a curious, open mind. “He’s also very daring. Not willing to be typecast in one style.” Lucy Green, an Australian who was one of RNZB’s Titanias, said she had never worked with anyone who had given so much to dancers in the studio. “When he demonstrates you can see what he wants straight away. I’ve seen him demonstrate pretty much every role in the ballet and he nails it every time. He’s so believable as a fairy, so believable as the heartbroken lover, and then as the donkey, and you go wow, you could do the whole show yourself. Not all choreographers are like that. I can absolutely see why he’s such a star.”

When about to make a work Scarlett relies first on instinct and the subconscious – to let the ideas percolate. “Once that title is circling in my head you leave it for a little bit and every so often something will pop in and you’ll jot it down, and you’ve got a notepad of key components of looks or ideas and little nuances. Then once that happens you really do have to sit down with a blank piece of paper and go, ‘Right! Let’s start’.

“You’re very aware this has to be made for a ballet company. With any full-length you want to include the whole company and make it for them. Being a dancer myself the wonderful thing is that I got to experience having full-lengths made on the company and it was such a great experience to be part of that. If you’re not made to feel part of that it can be a very difficult time.”

He doesn’t work with a dramaturge. “I have been criticised for that. But I’ve also worked with people who have worked with a dramaturge and equally [they’ve been criticised]. No, I run things by people. I always run things by my creative team, and it’s also that thing of when I get into a studio I like being able to explore how you can tell a story, so there has to be a certain kind of flexibility within that narrative. There’s that thing of if I want to do it, I will do it, and if I make a mistake then it’s my mistake that I will learn from eventually.”

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Queensland Ballet, Brisbane, April 1-16.

A version of this story first appeared in The Weekend Australian in October last year.

Queensland Ballet’s The Sleeping Beauty

Lyric Theatre, Brisbane, October 23 and October 24

It is something of an understatement to say Greg Horsman knows The Sleeping Beauty well. Not only was it the first ballet he saw, the one that made him want to be a dancer, it was a key role for him. Among the stages on which he performed as Prince Désiré are the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden and St Petersburg’s Mariinsky, where The Sleeping Beauty was brought to life in 1888.

Now ballet master at Queensland Ballet, Horsman has revived the production he created in 2011 for Royal New Zealand Ballet, a company of similar size to QB (he was ballet master there before coming to QB). This Sleeping Beauty isn’t one for the purists given the changes Horsman has made to what is considered the usual text, but it is a highly attractive and satisfying one. The production has an appealing human scale without sacrificing any of its fairy tale magic. The broad strokes of the familiar legend are there, shaped into a narrative that Horsman fills out with many original, felicitous details. It’s not a hugely grand Sleeping Beauty but one that beguiles with its unfailingly clear storytelling – there is quite a lot of mime, all of it instantly legible – and wonderful concentration on character rather than effects.

Alina Cojocaru and Chi Cao in The Sleeping Beauty. Photo: David Kelly

Alina Cojocaru and Chi Cao in The Sleeping Beauty. Photo: David Kelly

Horsman makes a virtue of transforming the ballet for medium-sized forces (QB has 31 dancers at present and eight young artists). The ballet has only one interval and a very brief pause between acts II and III, Horsman excises and conflates characters stylishly, gracefully interweaves the fairies from the Prologue throughout the action, builds up the wicked fairy Carabosse’s role enjoyably and keeps pomp to a minimum. It might seem odd to describe The Sleeping Beauty – the ultimate achievement in Russian Imperial-era ballet – as an intimate experience, but that’s how it felt.

Horsman’s first surprise comes early. The curtain rises on Catalabutte fussing around with the invitations to Aurora’s christening and, guess what? He’s a cat. You shake your head for a moment and then think, well, why not? This isn’t a palace unacquainted with non-humans, as the influx of fairies, sparkling emissaries from the supernatural realm, indicates. It’s lovely how the latter keep turning up, all bright and full of good cheer, to keep an eye on things. Their recurring presence gives the ballet a strong spine.

In a lively piece of characterisation Carabosse is presented as an impossibly glamorous contemporary of the good fairies, the kind of young woman who would have led the pack of mean girls at high school and graduated from university with a higher degree in viciousness. Clare Morehen at the first performance and Eleanor Freeman at the second invested Carabosse with super-model confidence and glossiness with their high-flying jetés and insolent stares. I particularly liked the link-up with the good fairies, all of them holding hands and dancing in unison, as perhaps they once all did in happier days. Carabosse also has quite a trick up her sleeve for later, when the prince fights his way to the sleeping Aurora.

Clare Morehen (centre) as Carabosse. Photo: David Kelly

Clare Morehen (centre) as Carabosse. Photo: David Kelly

I was constantly taken with how carefully Horsman makes sure the world he creates is consistent in tone throughout. The garland dance, for example, is a relaxed affair for a group of young palace gardeners and their girls rather than the entire village putting on a formal show for Aurora’s 16th birthday. The hunt scene is for Prince Désiré, two friends and his tutor only. The Act III wedding dispenses with all the usual fairy tale characters except the cats – yes, that would be Catalabutte and his wife, Lady Florine – and Bluebirds, who arrive in a cage as a wedding gift and are, of course, catnip to Catalabutte, much to the audience’s delight.

It was striking how fresh, individual and lively everyone was, in particular the zesty women. New QB principal, Argentinian-born Laura Hidalgo, was a luscious Bluebird and I would very much like to see her Aurora. At the second performance junior soloist Teri Crilly enchanted with her sparky, darting Bluebird (she was, not surprisingly, in the first cast as the fairy who bestows the gift of Song on Aurora). All the fairies distinguished themselves but special mention goes to soloist Lisa Edwards, the fairy of Beauty in the first cast and fairy of Grace in the second. She has a very appealing aura of calm and mystery.

All Horsman’s inventions sit easily around the traditional set pieces for Aurora, danced on opening night by guest artist Alina Cojocaru. Formerly with The Royal Ballet and now with English National Ballet, Cojocaru is widely considered to be the Aurora of her generation. She radiates light and joy from a tiny body that gives the impression not only of being buoyed by the music but indivisible from it. Her dancing is brilliant, each moment etched with great precision, yet everything feels as if it is the inspiration of that moment. Most potent of all is her warm generosity, seen in abundant, open-hearted gestures and an intense gaze that encompasses the entire theatre. She is an extraordinary artist.

Chi Cao and Alina Cojocaru. Photo: David Kelly

Chi Cao and Alina Cojocaru. Photo: David Kelly

At the second performance QB’s glamorous principal artist Yanela Piñera, formerly with the National Ballet of Cuba, danced Aurora with a similarly bounteous engagement with the audience. I would venture she isn’t perhaps entirely a natural Aurora temperamentally speaking – Piñera has a very sophisticated quality – so Act III was a better fit for her than Act I, although her dancing is very fine indeed. She can achieve a triple pirouette with the lightest of touches, unrushed and unshowy, as a demonstration of delight and wonder rather than display of technique.

Queensland Ballet principal Yanela Pinera as Aurora. Photo: David Kelly

Queensland Ballet principal Yanela Pinera as Aurora. Photo: David Kelly

Guest artist Chi Cao, from Birmingham Royal Ballet, partnered Cojocaru elegantly, although at the second performance I found QB principal Hao Bin a more ardent prince who made more of the awakening kiss, which is given pride of place – far from always being the case – in Gary Harris’s extremely effective set. There are intimations of soaring Gothic arches, a storybook forest for the vision scene and a moveable gazebo that enables the kiss to have the dramatic impact it often lacks. A pity, though, about the very loud clunking when it’s moved about.

QB’s music director-designate Nigel Gaynor conducted the Queensland Symphony Orchestra in a sumptuous performance of Tchaikovsky’s greatest ballet score. The QSO’s playing made one wish we were hearing the whole score, but of course we weren’t. It was cut – but then it always is. Companies always want to bring the ballet in at three hours or less and Horsman, by having only one interval instead of two, manages a brisk two and a half hours.

So Horsman makes the usual nips and tucks (the hunt scene, entr’actes, Act III jewel variations), which isn’t much of a surprise. But his most surprising cut isn’t really to do with length; it’s about that coherent world view for the ballet. Except for a tantalising bar or two, the blazing, magisterial, hymn-like processional on which the ballet usually ends is gone, replaced by music associated with the Lilac Fairy. The usual salute to the splendour of the monarchy – and its continuation through the union of Aurora and Désiré – gives way to a couple in love being blessed by the Lilac Fairy, also called the fairy of Wisdom.

As I say, human scale.

Queensland Ballet’s The Sleeping Beauty ends on October 31.

Swan Lake, RNZB, change of cast

St James Theatre, Wellington, July 19

A SECOND viewing of Russell Kerr’s Swan Lake for Royal New Zealand Ballet introduced two new young leads and further illuminated its strengths and a few weaknesses.

Last night the mature, high-octane opening night pairing of Gillian Murphy and Pacific Northwest Ballet guest Karel Cruz gave way to the sweet anguish of youth with Lucy Green and Kohei Iwamoto, both members of RNZB since joining in 2010. Both were trained in Melbourne, Green at the Victorian College of the Arts and Iwamoto at the Australian Ballet School.

In the short time they have been at RNZB Green and Iwamoto have formed a fruitful partnership, dancing together in the lead roles in Giselle (by RNZB artistic director Ethan Stiefel and Johan Kobborg) and in Stiefel’s Bier Halle, and they are a good match. Their ease together shows up in many little details of timing that add so much to add texture and meaning to a moment. Take, for instance, the Act II mime in which Siegfried precipitately wants to tell Odette he will save her. Iwamoto has started to stretch his hand high above his head with fingers pointed, ballet speak for “I promise you”, but it’s too soon for Green’s fearful Odette, who understands the dangers much better than Siegfried does. Just at the right moment she pulls his arm back. It’s these split-second moments that make a gesture seem naturally impelled by the drama rather than dutifully learned.

Green is only 22 and her art is not one of grandeur but of touching emotional openness. There was anxiety and uncertainty at her first meeting with Siegfried, and deep anguish near the end when Siegfried returns to the lake after his betrayal of Odette. Green’s gestures and expression of forgiveness had a most affecting tenderness.

As Odile Green doesn’t have, or at least not yet, a way of being entirely convincing as a heartless and duplicitous siren although she handled the choreography with aplomb. And it was lovely to see her reaction when Rothbart gives her some whispered tips about how to reel Siegfried in. Odile starts to mimic some of Odette’s signature movements and Green’s face lit up. It was probably too big a gear shift, but also a reminder of just how many tiny choices, adjustments and decisions go in to making a seamless performance.

Iwamoto has a lovely clean line, impressive elevation and he partners nobly, although he can sometimes let the tension of performance show too clearly in his expression. His Siegfried is particularly young, the kind of man who really is extremely happy with his birthday gift of a crossbow and who is pretty easy game for Rothbart. One of the weaknesses of Kerr’s production, one I referred to in yesterday’s report, makes Siegfried look pretty hapless, and Iwamoto wasn’t able to overcome the inherent problems. The opening of Act III, in which various princesses present themselves as prospective brides, lacks a strong sense of shape and purpose. Who is presenting these women? Have they just turned up with their girlfriends? Do their predominantly black tutus mean they are somehow aligned with Odile and therefore Rothbart, who enters a little bit later? There are possibilities there simply not addressed.

The other problem is with the ending. If you miss the all too brief moment in which Odette indicates to Siegfried that they must kill themselves you might think the power of love had vanquished Rothbart and we were in for a Soviet-style happy ending. In the tussles with Rothbart there’s plenty of time for a more detailed and therefore affecting journey towards the lovers’ fate.

Elsewhere, the second cast pas de trois cast of Mayu Tanigaito, Ginny Gan and Jacob Chown was extremely attractive, with Tanigaito’s buoyancy and elevation a particular delight. Dimitri Kleioris made an impact as Rothbart, and again the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Nigel Gaynor added immeasurably to the occasion.

Next week RNZB adds another cast to the mix, with Abigail Boyle and Qi Huan. I regret I won’t be able to stay to see them.

Swan Lake, Royal New Zealand Ballet

St James Theatre, Wellington, July 18

TO mark its 60th anniversary – the first public performance was on June 30, 1953 – Royal New Zealand Ballet is offering graceful tribute to its oldest surviving former artistic director, Russell Kerr, by reviving the Swan Lake he made for the company in 1996. (Company founder Poul Gnatt died in 1995; Kerr led the company from 1962 to 1968 and had previously been heavily involved with it.)

Kerr, now 83 and a little frail, was able to oversee the final days of rehearsal and was given a mighty reception when he took the stage at the end of the first performance in Wellington. It was heart-warming to see him acknowledge the dancers rather than soak in the adulation. Sentiment alone, of course, won’t get a work to the stage. Kerr’s is a faithful rendering of the perennial favourite, made to suit small forces without losing the ballet’s essential grandeur. The fact that it was designed by the late, great Kristian Fredrikson is a huge plus, and in this season the contribution of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra is a further bonus. On opening night Tchaikovsky’s score was played with brilliance, passion and unerring feel for the romantic pulse of the work. Nigel Gaynor, RNZB’s newly appointed music director and widely experienced in dance, was at the helm for this stunning performance. A sidelight: that the NZSO sounds in such top form reflects most happily on its music director, Pietari Inkinen, the young Finn who has stepped into the breach and will conduct The Ring for Opera Australia in November and December.

To these blessings it was possible last night to add the ingredient that really rocked the house – the glamour of first night stars Gillian Murphy and Karel Cruz. Being engaged to RNZB artistic director Ethan Stiefel makes Murphy a Wellingtonian by adoption and she spends a significant part of each year with RNZB as principal guest artist when she is not fulfilling her commitments as one of American Ballet Theatre’s starriest ballerinas. So the production had a big head start right there. Murphy’s partner was Karel Cruz, a guest from Pacific Northwest Ballet of great elegance who may not have been given a huge amount to do but did it with impeccable grace, manly charm and exquisite princely bearing. His double tours with impeccable fifths on landing and plush plie were a fine reminder of how they should be done. Not surprisingly, Wellington was quite agog today with his beauty.

In the first act Siegfried is being feted by the local peasantry in a lovely glade in the castle grounds and takes part in a little light dancing with a group of the men. Girls do charming things with garlands of flowers and the pas de trois emerges more organically from the Prince’s birthday activity than it often does. On opening night the trio of Lucy Green, Tonia Looker and Arata Miyagawa – the young Japanese dancer is a real find – did the honours with refreshingly modest manners. Rory Fairweather-Neylan bounced around indefatigably in the thankless (and, I think, regrettable) role of the Jester, all split leaps and mugging in the usual way. But Fairweather-Neylan was less objectionable than many a Jester, so good work there.

I liked the touch of peasant couples greeting the Queen and indicating their love for one another, which reminds one of Siegfried’s need to find a bride. Cruz could have appeared a little more melancholy about the unwanted pressure, given that we need Siegfried’s dissatisfaction to give Act I some dramatic backbone. Once we got lakeside and Cruz was in Murphy’s thrall, however, the necessary tension emerged. Murphy’s Swan Queen is no victim despite her entrapment. She is forceful and regal. When she tells Siegfried that they are at a lake filled with tears of sorrow, her mime is large and emphatic. She needs him to fall in love with her so she can be released, but she needs to explore love too, which she does in the adagio at the centre of the second act. She is far from passive.

The strength of her reading is both in the way the role of Odette is expressed physically and in the way it connects inexorably with the doppleganger Odile: you can see how Siegfried could be tricked. In the triumphant Act III fouette sequence Murphy threw in arms en couronne (held overhead), a glittering trace of the movement of swans’ wings brought into play. It was thrilling and it had the crowd roaring, but it was also dramatically convincing.

While basing his choreography on Petipa and Ivanov, Kerr had to work around a much smaller body of dancers than most companies would use for Swan Lake and has rung many changes. RNZB fields a corps of 16 swans but that cleverly includes the four cygnets and the two big swans, who melt in and out of the group. It is an entirely agreeable solution. I am less certain about the presentation of the princesses vying for Siegfried’s hand. They get rather lost in the whirl of activity, although last night looked absolutely divine in Fredrikson’s ornate tutus. Blingy, but very attractively so.

The ballet’s ending is smudged too. Odette and Siegfried hasten off, one assumes to free themselves via death, but perhaps not. Another viewing tonight will clarify, I trust. Whatever the detail, the moment lacks impact. The offset, though, is a final image of the swans’ corp in a lovely diagonal saluting the coming morning and their freedom.

Murphy and Cruz have further performances together tomorrow (July 20), and July 25 and 27. Tonight young Australian dancer Lucy Green appears as Odette-Odile. More on that tomorrow.