Romeo and Juliet, Queensland Ballet

Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane, August 28.

When Queensland Ballet staged Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet in 2014 the then-small company took a huge risk, although one mitigated by bringing in superstars Carlos Acosta, Tamara Rojo and Steven McRae to partner QB principal artists. The gamble paid off. The season was a record-breaking success and, more importantly, the company looked terrific from top to bottom, right down to the extras and students needed to animate MacMillan’s sprawling canvas and Prokofiev’s richly coloured score.

QB Romeo and Juliet

Joel Woellner, Steven Heathcote, Vito Bernasconi and Queensland Ballet artists in Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet. Photo: David Kelly

This time around there were no visiting luminaries and, on opening night, a risk of a different kind. Playing the doomed young lovers were dancers plucked from the lower end of QB’s ranks, 24-year-old soloist Mia Heathcote and company artist Patricio Revé, 21. (Both were promoted onstage at the end of the performance.)

Revé, who joined the company only last year, has the marvellous combination of dash and silkiness that seems to be the birthright of male Cuban dancers. Heathcote is a luminous beauty whose dancing has gorgeous breadth and fullness. They looked wonderful together but needed to find a greater sense of rapture and abandon in the ravishing series of pas de deux around which MacMillan built the ballet. Romeo and Juliet have a truly dangerous relationship and it felt too careful.

QB Romeo and Juliet

Mia Heathcote and Patricio Revé in Romeo and Juliet. Photo: David Kelly

The production around them pulsated with life and in the pit the Queensland Symphony Orchestra played a blinder with its music director Alondra de la Parra at the helm. Bravi to the brass in particular. It was piquant casting to have former Australian Ballet principal artist Steven Heathcote – Mia’s father – as Lord Capulet. He’s lost none of his stage presence. Nor has former QB principal Rachael Walsh mislaid hers. She reprised her searing Lady Capulet, shedding any vestige of propriety as she keened over the body of her dead kinsman Tybalt, again given glowering charisma by Vito Bernasconi. Kohei Iwamoto was a charming, slightly underpowered Mercutio and Joel Woellner as good as it’s possible to be in the thankless role of Paris.

Romeo and Juliet (1965) was MacMillan’s first three-act ballet but he seemed to know instinctively how to fill a stage excitingly and make a world. Everywhere you look there are people fighting, dancing, plotting, chatting and flirting. The big set-piece scenes of quarrelling clans in the marketplace and the Capulets’ lavish ball are as good as it gets in narrative ballet. And then there are the smaller moments that underscore the tragedy to come – Juliet playing with her nurse and her doll; Juliet and Romeo coming face to face in the ballroom and time standing still. This is where Heathcote and Revé were most affecting.

Heathcote has been one to watch from her earliest days with QB. She has always thrown herself heart and soul into her dancing and often looked passionate but slightly unruly. In some ways her first Juliet showed something of the reverse: the dancing was splendid but the emotions more reined in. The right balance will surely come as Heathcote takes on other challenging roles in big ballets. She is absolutely a star in the making.

A version of this review first appeared in The Australian on August 30.

Character building: dance isn’t only for the young

The received wisdom is that ballet is strictly a young person’s game. When a classical dancer gets near or just beyond 40 there is much marveling at their longevity and conjecture about what they will do when they retire. There are always exceptions, of course. Think of the wondrous Alessandra Ferri, who on June 23 danced Juliet for American Ballet Theatre at the age of 53 (in the MacMillan version). Leanne Benjamin, long-serving Australian-born principal at the Royal Ballet, retired at 48 still looking spectacular.

And there is another, much larger, cohort of mature dancers whose contribution is great but less remarked upon. They are kings and queens; mothers, fathers and grandparents; attendants at court, kindly godmothers, clog-dancing widows, bad fairies and more. They bring experience, authority, wisdom and texture to the stage – not to mention sparing the audience the unpleasing sight of vigorous 20-somethings giving us their old-person acting. The character dancer is an essential part of any company.

Colin Peasley in Swan Lake Paris 2008 Photo Lisa Tomasetti 006

Colin Peasley ready to take the stage in Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

“Once a dancer, always a dancer,” says David McAllister, artistic director of The Australian Ballet, who has in front of him one of the great examples in the business. When the AB opens its London tour on July 13 with Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake, the role of the Lord Admiral will be taken – as usual – by Colin Peasley. Peasley, a founding member of the AB in 1962, will be 82 before the year is out (he celebrated his 80th birthday in the US while on tour with the AB in 2014). His role is not extensive but you know what they say: there are no small parts, only small actors. McAllister was a principal artist with the AB before becoming artistic director and says: “I remember as a young performer learning so much from watching people like Colin.” Young performers also need to watch out: an expertly judged cameo can shine far more brightly than a larger routine performance.

Li Cunxin, artistic director of Queensland Ballet (and also a former AB principal) says story ballets need experienced older artists to add depth and weight to the production. “No matter how brilliant young dancers are, they haven’t lived the ups and downs, the heart-breaking moments. The way you walk, the way you look at a person, the subtlety, is very hard to teach. “Furthermore, to have those marvelous dancers is such a great inspiration for the younger members of the company. Dancers are such visual learners so to have someone like that in front of you – it makes a huge difference.” McAllister agrees. It is invaluable for “all the company to witness that theatrical craft at such close range”.

Li invited Steven Heathcote to dance Lord Capulet when QB staged the MacMillan Romeo and Juliet in 2014. Heathcote was the AB’s alpha male principal artist for many years and is now a ballet master and regional touring associate for the national company. He also performs character roles for the AB and was most recently seen on stage in Stephen Baynes’s Swan Lake, bringing his considerable charisma to the role of the Lord Chancellor.

Rachael Walsh unforgettably made Lady Capulet in the QB Romeo and Juliet her final role before retiring as a principal dancer and taking the position of corporate partnerships manager at the company. Heathcote and Walsh are “fabulous artists, truly rare”, says Li. Walsh is now listed as one of QB’s character artists, alongside veteran Paul Boyd, members of the ballet staff and others.

QB-Paul Boyd-Catalabutte

Paul Boyd as Catalabutte in Greg Horsman’s The Sleeping Beauty for Queensland Ballet

Other former AB principal artists seguing into character roles include Lisa Bolte (now working in philanthropy for the AB), who recently appeared as the Queen in the Baynes Swan Lake, and Lynette Wills. Wills created the role of the Godmother in Alexei Ratmansky’s Cinderella in 2013 and Carabosse in McAllister’s The Sleeping Beauty last year, these performances an adjunct to her frequent credits as a ballet photographer. In Sydney former Royal Ballet first soloist Gillian Revie was a memorable Carabosse in the McAllister production.

Bolte and Wills may be somewhat older than most of the dancers on stage but they are positively teenaged by comparison with some. “I think of Sir Robert Helpmann in Checkmate, Dame Margaret Scott in Nutcracker: The Story of Clara and pretty much every role that Colin Peasley does,” says McAllister. The Red King in Checkmate was Helpmann’s final role. He died in 1986 at the age of 77 only two months after he was last on stage. Scott was in her late 70s when she last danced in the Murphy Nutcracker – and dance she did, including a highly physical encounter with giant rats in a dream sequence.

AB-Lisa Bolte-Swan Lake

Lisa Bolte as the Queen in Stephen Baynes’s Swan Lake for The Australian Ballet

Peasley had more than 6000 performances under his belt when he formally retired in 2012 but in his farewell interviews flagged that he wouldn’t be averse to accepting further invitations to appear. I asked him then about the legendary Freddie Franklin, who died at 98 in 2013 and who had appeared as the Tutor in Swan Lake for American Ballet Theatre when he was 94. Peasley seemed inclined to want to match or better that. You’d be mad to bet against it.

Daring smoke-and-mirrors act

Queensland Ballet, Playhouse, QPAC, Brisbane, August 1.

ONE masterwork, a party piece and two relatively new dances that look far better than they are provide an entertaining but creatively uneven program at Queensland Ballet. Very much on the plus side is that the company looks energised despite the rigours of the Romeo and Juliet season that ended only four weeks ago. Very much on the down side is that Flourish, as this quadruple bill is titled, is performed without live music. Everyone is ill-served: Tchaikovsky, Cesare Pugni, Philip Glass, Ravel, the audience and particularly the dancers.

Katherine Rooke (top), Emilio Pavan and Meng Ningning in Serenade. Photo: David Kelly

Katherine Rooke (top), Emilio Pavan and Meng Ningning in Serenade. Photo: David Kelly

It’s not that QB is penny-pinching in this regard. It’s that the company has ambitions it can’t entirely afford at the moment. Mind you, it’s not clear who could play for QB at this time of the year. On the last night of Flourish (August 9), Queensland Symphony Orchestra is in the Concert Hall at QPAC playing Berlioz, Sibelius and a world premiere of a commissioned score, Gordon Hamilton’s Ghosts in the Orchestra. QB has also worked several times with the chamber orchestra Camerata of St John’s, which at present is in Townsville for that city’s annual chamber music festival.

Nevertheless, QB is charging forward in a way one has to admire even while wincing at George Balanchine’s Serenade – the masterwork of the evening – being performed to a recording. It didn’t help that the sound system emitted a nasty burst of static at one point. Rather ironically, on August 1, while QB was dancing to Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings, up in Townsville the Camerata was also playing Serenade for Strings, although this one by Dvorak. The Tchaikovsky would have been too, too cruel.

Serenade (1934) is the first Balanchine to be acquired by QB and the company acquitted itself well. On opening night Meng Ningning, whose triumph as Juliet seems to have released her, was a romantic, eloquent Waltz Girl and Lina Kim’s Russian Girl was poised and distinguished by pillowy elevation. Katherine Rooke started a little nervously as the Dark Angel but there is promise in those sometimes unruly, coltish limbs. The large ensemble of women, filled out with Young Artists and Pre-Professional Program dancers, was not entirely as one stylistically (Balanchine mastery is not achieved in a moment) but their commitment was total. Matthew Lawrence and Emilio Pavan were strong and sensitive in support.

After Serenade came Flourish’s party piece, the grand pas de deux from La Esmeralda (to Pugni’s music), choreographed by Ben Stevenson after Petipa. It gave long-serving QB dancer Teri Crilly a much-deserved chance to shine alongside diminutive but powerful guest artist Dmitry Zagrebin from Moscow’s Stanislavsky Ballet. The two were a lovely match – sunny, flirty and carrying off the technical fireworks with self-possession without being self-regarding. Utterly charming.

Nils Christe’s Short Dialogues (created for QB in 2011 to the music of Glass) and Nicolo Fonte’s Bolero (2008), to the famous Ravel score, are negligible works in the glossy, sexy, crowd-pleasing vein. The choreographers are both big names in the field but both have better works in their portfolio. I would have been very pleased, for instance, to see again Christe’s Fearful Symmetries, staged at QB in 2010.

Short Dialogues has three couples entering and leaving the stage through gloom and haze – the process is reminiscent of Twyla Tharp’s In the Upper Room – in a manner that appears meaningful about relationships but has little to say. Clare Morehen with Keian Langdon, Lina Kim with Matthew Lawrence and Meng Ningning with Alexander Idaszak looked wonderful but the work failed to register with me. (Kim, incidentally, impresses more and more with each outing.)

Bolero is surprisingly blank despite the propulsive music and, again, splendid dancing. Clare Morehen (in both works) and Natasha Kusch (Bolero) were magnetic and it was a treat to see former QB principal artist Langdon return as a guest for Short Dialogues.

Indeed, guests were absolutely necessary on the night, an indication of QB artistic director Li Cunxin’s daring smoke-and-mirrors act. He wants to present work that needs many more dancers than QB has at the moment. The MacMillan Romeo and Juliet showed that in the most emphatic way, but Flourish also sends the message, albeit a little more quietly. Li wants to show what is possible and he is pushing very hard to make the case.

Serenade needs 20 women. With the retirement of principal Rachael Walsh at the end of the Romeo and Juliet season there are only 25 full company members and eight Young Artists, of whom 18 are women. Hence the use of Pre-Professional Program dancers – that is, students – in Serenade. (Incidentallly, Walsh was repetiteur on Short Dialogues, so she has already started the next phase of her career.)

In addition, there is a shortage of senior men, which is why there were no fewer than three male guest artists at the Flourish opening – Zagrebin, Langdon and Idaszak, back after a short stint with Royal New Zealand Ballet, and working as a guest with QB, his former company. QB’s international guest principal Huang Junshuang is not in the country at the moment and principal Hao Bin is injured. That leaves Matthew Lawrence to fly the flag for the company’s principal men.

The margin of error is tiny. Lawrence will need to keep very fit.

Flourish ends August 9.

Affecting ardour

Queensland Ballet, Lyric Theatre, Brisbane, June 27

KENNETH MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet is big in every way. At street level testosterone-fuelled gangs jostle and fight in the marketplace, revelling in their ancient grudge, as Shakespeare called it. Inside the great house of Lord Capulet the tumult is even greater, but is within the hearts of young lovers from different sides of the divide. Passion, sweat, blood and grief saturate Verona.

From its opening moments the ballet is one headlong rush to tragedy. MacMillan’s choreography, nearly 50 years old but still thrillingly immediate, blazes with energy and is swept along by the vivid drama of Prokofiev’s score.

Tamara Rojo in Queensland Ballet's Romeo and Juliet. Photo: David Kelly

Tamara Rojo in Queensland Ballet’s Romeo and Juliet. Photo: David Kelly

The forces required to do the production justice are immense and are normally found within companies two or three times the size of Queensland Ballet – the Royal Ballet, where it originated; American Ballet Theatre; La Scala; Birmingham Royal Ballet. QB is small, with a company of just 27. And yet, with a display of will breathtaking in its ambition and lavish in its provision of stellar guest artists, QB has brought it to Brisbane with affecting ardour.

Friday’s opening was crowned by the exceptional Juliet of guest Tamara Rojo, but that was to be expected. Rojo, prima ballerina of English National Ballet and its artistic director too, was entrancing at every moment as conflicting emotions flashed across her face and intense feelings through her eloquent body, each one legible and theatrically potent. She made every moment appear as if freshly experienced and newly thought and it simply defies belief that Rojo is 40. She makes you believe in the cosseted young girl who needs her Nurse, loves her doll and is both a little bit curious about and strongly resistant to the attentions of Paris. Her skittering little circle of bourees around Paris (stern, reticent Hao Bin) was delightful: a circumnavigation to see what she thought of him, which wasn’t much.

But the idea of love had been put into her head, and when she saw Romeo, any notion that she may have come around to Paris was futile.

QB’s artistic director Li Cunxin has paired his international guests – the others are Steven McRae and Carlos Acosta  – with QB principals. Rojo’s Romeo was Matthew Lawrence, who took some time to disappear into the role. He appeared more distanced from events than Rojo, a mature presence rather than a youth giddily in love, and therefore less touching in the earlier scenes, but his all-stops-out tomb scene with the apparently lifeless Juliet was tremendous. The great balcony pas de deux of the first act wasn’t entirely seamless, perhaps as a result of limited rehearsal time – a reason that could possibly also be applied to the trio for Romeo, Mercutio and Benvolio in the first act, which was scrappy and failed to fizz.

Also failing to fizz initially was the Queensland Symphony Orchestra conducted by Andrew Mogrelia, but after a safe and stolid start the QSO got back into the game decisively after the first interval to give a cracking performance that matched the grandeur of Paul Andrews’s glowing design. The strings that usher in the ballet’s final scene were particularly ravishing.

There were fine performances from former Australian Ballet principal artist Steven Heathcote as a magisterial Lord Capulet and current AB principal Daniel Gaudiello as the witty, razor-sharp Mercutio. Far less able to be predicted was the showing by young QB men in two key roles, Vito Bernasconi as “Prince of Cats” Tybalt and Rian Thompson as Romeo’s friend Benvolio. Thompson’s never faltering watchfulness commanded attention and Bernasconi, who graduated from the Australian Ballet School only in 2012, has stage presence to burn.

Of the QB women, principal Rachael Walsh was super-luxury casting as Lady Capulet and Eleanor Freeman, Meng Ningning and Sophie Zoricic roamed the stage avidly as women of lusty appetites.

Filling out crowd scenes and a few small ensemble roles for this performance and for the rest of the season are young artists, pre-professional program dancers and senior students – a fair number but not really quite enough of them, as in the ballroom scene QB can field only 12 couples rather than the 16 the Royal Ballet can easily summon. The stage did look a little under-populated at this point but otherwise the ensemble was splendid, and its part in the creation of the ballet’s teeming world crucial.

The relative inexperience of these dancers was the greatest risk for this Romeo and Juliet but their unwavering engagement on Friday night was in some ways the greatest achievement.

Coming later in the week: the cast led by QB principals Hao Bin and Meng Ningning (July 1); and Steven McRae (July 2) and Carlos Acosta (July 3).

Romeo and Juliet ends on July 5.

A version of this review appeared in The Australian on June 30.

Li Cunxin and Queensland Ballet, one year on

LI Cunxin arrived at Queensland Ballet as artistic director-designate on July 16, 2012. He took full control of the company’s reins this year and has made significant changes already with more in store. When I was in Brisbane to review QB’s Giselle, which closes this weekend, I took the opportunity to talk to Li about his goals and plans. At the June 21 opening performance, less than 24 hours before, Li had to tackle one of the most difficult issues any artistic director faces. His first cast Giselle, Meng Ningning, had injured her foot during the first act and at interval Li was told he urgently needed to go backstage. After an only slightly longer interval than advertised, Li made an announcement from the stage that Act II would be danced by Rachael Walsh and Matthew Lawrence.

What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Queensland Ballet artistic director Li Cunxin

Queensland Ballet artistic director Li Cunxin. Photo: Christian Aas

AS a director it’s your worst nightmare when they said at interval, Ningning is in tears, please come back. She says to me she can’t feel her foot. She doesn’t know if she can go on. I asked her to rate her pain out of 10. Eight or nine she says, tears pouring down her face. But she says she’ll go on if I want her to. I say, “No, no!”

I’m lucky as a director to have two alternative couples [Walsh and Lawrence; Clare Morehen and Alexander Idaszak, who was scheduled to make his Brisbane debut as Albrecht the next day]. Rachael was in the audience, and we had to stop her going into the intermission reception [Li laughs]. I did consider Alex and Clare because they were made up and warmed up [Idaszak had danced in the peasant pas de huit; Morehen played the role of Bathilde; Lawrence had appeared as the Duke of Courland], but I really felt that for Alex it was already an enormous ask for him to go on today [at the June 22 Saturday matinee]. Often you can destroy a young dancer’s confidence, destroy their careers by pushing them too far. In my heart, when I sat there and closed my eyes, [I asked], what is the right thing, what is the best experience you can give to the audience?

Clare Morehen and Alexander Idaszak. Photo: Daivd Kelly

Clare Morehen and Alexander Idaszak. Photo: Daivd Kelly

Alex is 20 [Li smiles like an indulgent father]. He has an innate noble quality. He’s a very natural partner and a very elegant dancer. Wonderful form. It’s always a big step for a director to give someone who is first year out of [the Australian Ballet School] and give them such an opportunity, but I was the beneficiary of such opportunities. When you have that kind of talent you have to give them opportunities when they arise. It wasn’t intended to be, because one of our top principals, Hao Bin, had a wrist surgery, he had a chipped bone. So I thought, well, you know, [for Idaszak] that’s the kind of opportunity you dream to have. The other thing is, it really sends a very clear message to all dancers that if you work hard, the opportunities will be there. It takes enormous faith and trust from a director to give opportunities like that, but I think it’s very important to do that.

My goals were, at the very beginning, I want to get the right team together. The team is key to realising the vision – the artistic team, the music, the production, the wardrobe, closely under my supervision. All these key people have to be right to allow me to reach the artistic goal. I think we’ve done very well to have the calibre of teachers and coaches to allow the dancers to reach their potential – to challenge them, to push them, to help them improve on a daily basis, and to have that innate understanding and knowledge [of classical ballet]. Classical ballets are the most difficult to do well. The most challenging. I really think we have that team.

Also we have to be able to – it’s not a one-year thing – we have to have a vibrant, talented and exciting group of dancers. I think we’re nearly there. I would never say we are there, because there’s continual improvement, continual fine-tuning.

There was a significant turnover in dancers after Li arrived.

IT was very much dependent on what I was going to find in the audition process. I wasn’t sure about what calibre of talent I was going to find. In particular there were ABS graduates of really good quality, good standard, so I felt it was an opportunity for QB. [This gave him a very junior company; about half the dancers are in their first professional job.]

Matthew Lawrence as Albrecht. Photo: David Kelly

Matthew Lawrence as Albrecht. Photo: David Kelly

It’s an enormous challenge. I felt there were two ways to go about adding experience. Obviously the knowledgeable and experienced artistic staff is one important element; the other was to balance it out with experienced dancers. So Matt Lawrence for us was a godsend addition [the former Australian Ballet principal dancer was subsequently a principal at Birmingham Royal Ballet, which he left to join QB]. Then we also have Huang [Junshuang] from the US [where he danced with Houston Ballet], He’s a phenomenal dancer. Absolutely phenomenal. His skill set is really way up there in the international standard. So we have him and Matt and also Hao Bin, three male dancers at the top, coupled with three female experienced dancers, Ningning, Rachel and Clare. So we’ve got three star couples to lead. The middle rank, the soloist rank, is what I want to be able to bring up.

Li recently promoted Lisa Edwards to soloist and she was first cast Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis in Giselle.

SHE is fabulous. I couldn’t have asked any more from that girl, in every area. Leadership, commitment, the care for her dancing, anything you ask her. Clare had a hip injury so I had to rest her for a couple of days and I wanted her partner, Alex, to keep working, so I asked Lisa to step in. She knew everything. She knew every step. She’s thriving. She’s the happiest. A happy dancer is a good dancer.

If Ningning doesn’t come back [Edwards] would be a very logical person to give the opportunity [to dance Giselle]. [This indeed happened; Edwards danced two performances with Huang. Morehen was also given a performance with Huang.]

I really think as a dancer you want to do different things. You can’t be just typecast as the prince. That’s not my company. My company has to be versatile. Huang was Albrecht last night and Hilarion today. I think it’s fabulous. As they mature they take these kinds of experiences with them and it makes them better artists at the end. Matt Lawrence did [the non-dancing role of] the Duke last night. He was fabulous as the Duke. He did Ugly Sister in Cinderella [QB’s first major production this year]. It’s wonderful to have that humility and that willingness to give it a go rather than, ‘’I’m a star’’. I don’t want that kind of company.

Li’s fund-raising skills have been in early evidence.

MY goal was to be able to have as many performances to live music as possible. When we announced the [2013] season we did not have the funding [for live music for Giselle]. I really struggled with myself. I thought, I cannot let the audience see this ballet with taped music. I cannot let my dancers dance this ballet with taped music. On tour, it’s a different story. It’s hard to take an orchestra [QB performed a pre-Brisbane regional Queensland tour]. But I felt it would take a lot of the magic away [from the main season] so I’m so pleased we found the generosity and the support for this. [Private money was raised so QB could engage St John’s Camerata to play for Giselle.]

I went to these two dear friends of ours from Melbourne, Bruce Parncutt and Robin Campbell, and they said, ‘’we will support you’’. They love the music, they love the ballet, but they really gave me a challenge: “You need to find Queensland-based support. You need to match what [we] give you. So  Philip Bacon, who is a very generous soul, he came forward and said, ‘’I see your vision’’.  He’s passionate about music. It’s a nice fit.

QB, it would appear, has attracted a lot of new money this year, although Li will not elaborate.

I WOULD like to keep that to ourselves for the time being. Let’s say it’s substantial. The government money is really static. But definitely our box office is hitting incredible strides. We’re adding 10 extra shows this year throughout the season, including the Dance Dialogues. But we are definitely on target to sell out all the main seasons. Even with the 10 extra shows. That’s absolutely unprecedented. It’s thrilling. It’s thrilling for our dancers to perform to full houses, to sold-out houses, and for the audiences when they place that kind of faith and enthusiasm in you. But you have to give them quality. [The Giselle season was extended from nine to 12 performances and is sold out.]

A goal was to focus on quality sets and costumes. I really felt particularly for story ballets, and even for contemporary ballets, you’ve got to do it with taste and quality. So again we found these really generous donors to allow us to have a brand new Cinderella, Gerry and Valerie Ryan from Melbourne. Their reason was simple. They said, we didn’t make our money just in Victoria. We made our money nationwide. So this is something we’d like to give to Queensland. They wanted to help me with my vision too.

Another goal was on the business side, the admin side. From marketing to PR to development to education to finance. Every aspect of the company would really have to work together to share the same vision, to strive towards the same goal. Everybody has really risen to the challenge. It’s a paradigm shift in people’s minds. I saw people in development, reception, greeting [guests] on opening night with generosity. I was proud, not only did the dancers shine on stage but the whole organisation took pride in what they did.

Dancer numbers are, not surprisingly for a company of this size and ambition, a concern.

I WOULD like to have more. We have 27 now. We will have 28 by August, so we have one more dancer coming. I can’t talk about it now. Somebody who’s fantastic. We have about 20 pre-professional dancers. This year they are really fantastic. They are a good foundation to build upon. My aspiration from day one, I thought 35 dancers is our goal. That’s the ideal number for us. It will probably take us a few years to get there, but 35, plus around 20 pre-professionals, that gives us 55. Then we can do any size ballets.

At the moment 27 – we do need a few more. We don’t have much room for error. Injuries always happen with this many performances. We work our dancers really hard. [For this reason, at this stage QB does not announce casting ahead of performances. Its small numbers and the casting of dancers in multiple roles can mean, and allow, significant re-arrangements at short notice.]

A way to increase numbers is with guest artists. For the Giselle season the Australian Ballet principal artist Daniel Gaudiello was invited to dance two performances with Rachael Walsh.

I’M really gung-ho about artist exchanges. I think it’s very important. Daniel really wants to work with us. It’s a natural fit. He’s a graduate of QDSE [Queensland Dance School of Excellence] and the pre-professional program. He’s a Queenslander. This is a wonderful connection for him to still have. We can give him … [Li pauses]. He hasn’t danced Albrecht before. He’s very excited.

I’m very picky about who I have dancing with the company, so not just anybody can come in. I’m open about collaboration, but it has to be the right fit. We have three beautiful principal couples, so I want to give our dancers the opportunity first. But Daniel is quite unique in his relationship with Queensland Ballet. I think he and Rachael will be just magic. There’s already wonderful chemistry.

Next year Tamara Rojo, artistic director and prima ballerina of English National Ballet, and the Royal Ballet’s Carlos Acosta, will be guest artists when QB stages Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet – but they will not dancing together.

YOU cannot sentence a smaller company to always do smaller ballets. It’s not fair. We’re going to do this in a very innovative way. I convinced Lady Deborah MacMillan that we are going to do a very high quality production. To have stars like Tamara and Carlos to appear with our own principal dancers, for them to agree to it, was very generous. But they see my vision. It [would be] easy for me to say, you two dance together, you know each other … My idea was always, I want them to dance with our stars. Because that experience will be with our dancers forever. That knowledge is going to carry them for the rest of their lives. To watch Tamara and Carlos dancing [together], it’s not the same.

There are also negotiations with ENB on other collaborations. Can he talk about the exact nature of the relationship?

I CAN’T! But I would like to say I’m so excited. Tamara and I have really built a wonderful rapport and relationship. We share a similar vision and we see it as so important for companies to collaborate. Artist exchanges, coach exchanges, production collaborations. Those are the areas. The reason I can’t tell you is that we still have ongoing discussions. We definitely have a partnership, but on what scale, exactly what will happen, to what extent, we are still in discussions. I would like to stress, ENB will not be the only one. We will be collaborating with other international companies as well. I would like to think we will have a few really closely aligned international partners in the future. It’s exciting. I truly believe in collaboration, in partnership. It will be of enormous mutual benefit.

Could I add another goal? Both [QB chief executive] Anna Marsden and I said on day one we really want to make QB’s image very appealing. I want the company to feel there is a whole refreshed approach, with sex appeal on stage and offstage. I want to be fashionable. I want to say we do quality, but interesting works. That aspiration has permeated to every aspect of the organisation, not just on stage. We are definitely hitting that goal too.

Li Cunxin with senior Queensland Ballet dancers. Photo: Alexia Sinclair

Li Cunxin with senior Queensland Ballet dancers. Photo: Alexia Sinclair

I’m very happy. I am truly proud of how our dancers have performed. To be totally honest, the company is very young. For us to do these full-length story-telling productions – it takes the Royal Ballet and the Bolshoi and ABT [American Ballet Theatre] with 90 to 250 dancers to do these ballets, so for us it’s very ambitious.  Our company has done them very well. There’s always a way to improve. There’s always more experience needed, [but] so there is at ABT, so there is at the Bolshoi. They will never say, that is perfect.

I’ve only taken over total charge since January. Before then I was doing a lot of planning and preparation work and assembling a new team. So it’s really only six months.

Does he ever think he has ambitions for the company that are too great?

Never. No, never.

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.

Cinderella

Queensland Ballet, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, April 5

QUEENSLAND Ballet’s ambitious Cinderella has much to say about what new artistic director Li Cunxin wants for his company and a little something to say about Li himself.

Meng Ningning and Hao Bin in Cinderella. Photo David Kelly

Meng Ningning and Hao Bin in Cinderella. Photo David Kelly

Li’s story is well known. He was plucked from deepest obscurity in rural China to be trained in ballet and then defected to the West. There he was taken under the wing of Ben Stevenson at Houston Ballet where one of the first productions he saw – Li says it was the first that touched him – was Stevenson’s Cinderella, a story ballet created in 1970 in the classical style.

Li wants to make that style the bedrock of his QB and doubtless he can identify with a rags-to-riches transformation set in train by magical intervention. Cinderella is therefore a touching choice for QB’s first mainstage production under Li’s direction and has the advantage of being something of a rarity: a full-length romantic piece with instant name recognition that hasn’t been done to death.

Brisbane has bought into it with gusto: the extended season is sold out and a vast store of goodwill for Li was evident on opening night. The production was greeted with a standing ovation, and Li seems to have secured corporate and private funding on a new level for QB’s work. The Queensland Premier, Campbell Newman, was in the first-night audience, as were four government ministers. Important friends travelled to Brisbane for the occasion.

Sounding uncharacteristically nervous, Li spoke to the audience on April 5 before the curtain went up at Queensland Performing Arts Centre’s Playhouse and said – to mighty cheers – that Cinderella had broken a 53-year sales record. He added that he wanted to tour this production around Australia and internationally. On a personal note, he said that Ben Stevenson had made him what he became.

It was, therefore, an incredibly highly charged evening for Li, who would have been thrilled with the reception. The opening night audience lustily acclaimed a production that the company has invested so much in, financially and emotionally.

Yu Hui as the Jester in Ben Stevenson's Cinderella. Photo: David Kelly

Yu Hui as the Jester in Ben Stevenson’s Cinderella. Photo: David Kelly

QB commissioned lovely new sets and costumes (by Thomas Boyd and Tracy Grant Lord respectively) for Stevenson’s production and it looks pretty as a picture book. The interior of the cheerless home where Cinderella lives with her dysfunctional family dissolves swiftly into the light and airy realm of the Fairy Godmother. The Prince’s ballroom is perhaps somewhat less opulent than possible, but serviceable.

Underneath the attractive makeover, however, are several disappointing flaws. The story-telling is often perfunctory and sometimes muddled and a lumpy structure makes room for lengthy swaths of dance but rushes over key matters of character and nuance. As with Frederick Ashton’s influential version of the ballet, Cinderella’s step-sisters are played, panto-style, by men. As in Ashton’s version they are the most vividly realised and memorable figures, diverting attention from what should surely be the unwavering impulse and glowing centre of the work: to celebrate virtue. The balance is out of kilter. (When Cinderella, at the ball, gives her orange to a step-sister who has missed out, the emphasis in this production isn’t on the generous gesture but rather the comedy of the step-sister’s dimness at sort-of but not quite recognising Cinderella in this setting.)

Not only that, if one is to acknowledge the primacy of virtue, there must be darkness to overcome. Prokofiev’s wonderful score explicitly says that, but Stevenson – as Ashton before him – chose to underplay that conflict. The pain of the lost mother registers only fleetingly, the step-mother is a cardboard figure and the father is Mr Cellophane.

Towards the end of the first act there is a series of dances depicting the seasons, each designed to have a very particular flavour, although in Stevenson’s choregraphy there isn’t quite enough differentiation. Why does the Fairy Godmother introduce fairies who illustrate the seasons to Cinderella? Surely it is to show her the passage of time in action, as time is crucial to this story. But more than that, it speaks of mortality. Not for nothing do the dances start with Spring, the season of life-giving, and end with Winter. Well, it should be not for nothing.

On opening Cinderella’s step-sisters were danced by new principal artist Matthew Lawrence and guest Paul Boyd. They were sweetly silly and self-regarding rather than vicious, which is presumably why Cinderella felt free to whack them around a bit with her broom. So it was a huge mystery why Cinders should shortly after be presented as a reluctant, almost cowering figure when the Prince came calling with the shoe; a shoe that matched the one she pulled from her skirt pocket with some radiance not moments before. The sisters’ and step-mother’s capitulation to Cinderella at that point was thrown away, just one example of how the production skates over the darker threads of the tale for a generalised feel-good display.

At the first performance the main pleasure came from two sources, the music and the luxurious quality of dancing from the leads. QB’s music director and chief conductor Andrew Mogrelia presided over a reduced Queensland Symphony that sounded anything but diminished in the Playhouse’s small pit. The score, lovingly played, repays close attention. Onstage, Clare Morehen (Fairy Godmother) radiated calm, grace and benevolence while Yu Hui gave the Jester’s generic acrobatics real sparkle and charm. He made light work of all those turns with tucked legs, high-flying splits, cartwheels and jauntily angled arms and legs.

Meng Ningning (Cinderella) and Hao Bin (the Prince) are QB’s reigning classicists and their purity of line, unmannered style and understated assurance are undoubtedly Li’s desired benchmark for the company. Both were trained in Beijing, as Li was so many years ago. Hao is a danseur noble who, in Cinderella, has nothing to do but look aristocratic. An easy task for this handsome, elegant man. Meng was more comfortable in the serene set pieces in the ballroom than when trying to make sense of Cinderella’s nature and feelings, for which it’s hard to blame her. Meng looked ethereal in her glittering pink tutu and danced impeccably.

Li, by the way, isn’t stacking QB with Chinese dancers even if his predilection is for their style of performance. Meng and Hao were hired by his predecessor, Francois Klaus, as was Yu, who was initially trained in China and then at New Zealand School of Dance. The new position of guest international principal is this year held by Huang Junshuang, who was trained in Shanghai and danced with Guangzhou Ballet Company, but was also a principal artist with Houston Ballet.

Those who watch QB closely will know that the present company line-up is significantly different from last year’s. There has been a big turnover: of the QB’s 27 permanent dancers, 11 are new this year. Of that 11, no fewer than nine came to QB straight from training. In other words, fully one third of the company is as junior as they come. A further five dancers joined the company in 2011 after being trainees, so Li has the opportunity to shape these young men and women in exactly the way he wants.

This situation puts a big workload on the senior dancers, but such is the way of smaller companies. (By comparison the Australian Ballet currently has 70 dancers on its roster.) There are three principal casts for Cinderella, but that doesn’t mean too many nights off for the top-ranked dancers. Lawrence and Hao are both cast as the Prince and Tall Stepsister and Hao is also listed as appearing in the small role of Father; each Cinderella – Meng, Rachael Walsh and Clare Morehen – has a second role. Yu, a soloist, is also cast as Short Stepsister. QB’s only other soloist, Nathan Scicluna, is second-cast Short Stepsister but was spotted on opening night filling out the ranks of dancers at the Prince’s second-act ball.

The corps was augmented with students from QB’s Pre-Professional Program, Junior Program and Queensland Dance School of Excellence, and it did one’s heart good to see the glowing pride on the faces of the young girls who appeared briefly as attendants at the union of Cinderella to her Prince.

It was also heartening to get the sense that the Brisbane audience was personally invested in the production and the company. I haven’t seen a more excited and proud set of people at the ballet – any ballet – for a very long time.

The Queensland Ballet’s Cinderella continues until April 20.

This is an extended version of a review that appeared in The Australian on April 8.