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.