Swan Lake, Queensland Ballet

Queensland Performing Arts Centre, May 5.

Queensland Ballet’s Swan Lake had a 42nd Street quality on opening night as junior company member Joel Woellner was chosen to dance Prince Siegfried alongside the seasoned Odette-Odile of QB principal artist – and former top-ranked star at the National Ballet of Cuba – Yanela Piñera.

Piñera has presence in spades and technical prowess to burn. She laid out her credentials within seconds of taking to the stage with a pure, extended balance on pointe that was an eloquent expression of the Swan Queen’s sorrow and entrapment. As the imposter Odile she decorated the treacherous (for some; not her) fouette sequence with triple pirouettes and gave a magisterial account of her solo.

Qld Ballet

Yanela Piñera and Joel Woellner in Ben Stevenson’s Swan Lake. Photo: David Kelly

Piñera nailed the big effects that seem to be a Cuban birthright, including sky-high extensions and Odile’s don’t-mess-with-me grand pirouettes in Act 3 but it was the delicate detail that lingered. Odette’s tiny flutters of foot against ankle in Act II were exquisite.

Woellner was going out a courageous youngster but had to come back a star, or at least as close to one as possible in a nearly impossible assignment. The desperate, deep-seated passion that should drive Siegfried eluded him, resulting in a muted relationship with Odette. There was, nevertheless, gleaming beauty in almost all his dancing. Double tours were plush and precisely landed and lovely air turns finished in stretched, poised arabesques. It was impressive to see how much value he gave each moment, never smudging or cutting steps short. Woellner is not yet a fully-fledged prince but is a hugely promising princeling.

Qld Ballet

Joel Woellner as Prince Siegfried in Swan Lake. Photo: David Kelly

For the first Swan Lake of his tenure as QB artistic director, Li not surprisingly chose Ben Stevenson’s 1985 version made for Houston Ballet. It makes sense for the size of the company – currently at 32 permanent members and 10 Young Artists – and Li knows the production well, having danced in it in those early days. One can also never underestimate the affection and loyalty Li has for Stevenson, now in his early 80s. Stevenson was responsible for Li’s American career and therefore in a sense all that followed.

It’s a conventional production based on the 1895 Petipa-Ivanov version. Stevenson retains some of the best-known choreography, although much is new. The 1985 designs by David Walker placed Stevenson’s ballet in the late 19th century but for this incarnation QB has borrowed Kristian Fredrikson’s luxuriant Renaissance-tinged designs made for Russell Kerr’s Royal New Zealand Ballet version in 1996.

The beating heart of Swan Lake is the first lakeside act in which Siegfried comes across Odette and her retinue of swan maidens, here a corps of 24 that sensibly incorporates the two Big Swans and four Cygnets. It’s a significant number for a company of QB’s size and was augmented by Queensland Ballet Academy pre-professional students. The teaching is clearly excellent. The corps as a whole looked beautifully schooled and had the strength-in-unity power that makes Act 2 so captivating. (And these dancers have to be strong: Lucy Green, newly appointed soloist at QB, on opening night danced in the Act 1 pas de trois, was a Cygnet in Act 2 and the Spanish Princess in Act 3. This was the night before her Odette-Odile.)

Qld Ballet

Lucy Green, Neneka Yoshida, Lina Kim and Teri Crilly. Photo: David Kelly

Different details in storytelling mean the fit isn’t always exact between Stephenson’s vision of the ballet and Fredrikson’s designs. The white acts looked wonderful, of course, but in the first and fourth acts it wasn’t always easy to get a grip on all-important distinctions of rank. It was surprising in this respect to see the Queen arrive without a suitable entourage to Siegfried’s coming-of-age celebration, symbolically set in a thick glade through which there’s a glimpse of decaying grandeur.

In Act 3, when foreign princesses are presented to Siegfried so he can choose a bride, the princesses lead the national dance of the country they represent. At RNZB the princesses wore distinctive, decorative tutus; here they are dressed similarly to all the other women in their troupe and dance like entertainers, some friskily showing quite a lot of leg and behaving quite unregally.

Stevenson trims the action significantly, for good and bad. Act 1 is enjoyably fast-paced while shortened Acts 3 and 4 elide with dramatically convincing sleight of hand. I was less convinced by the transition from Acts 1 to 2, in which the Prince dances his yearning solo while his mother (Zenia Tátcheva) pressures – no, harangues – him about the weighty responsibilities of State he must take on. It rather spoils the mood.

With the production coming in at under two hours of dancing, Tchaikovsky’s music at times sounds chopped back to its detriment although at the opening the Queensland Symphony Orchestra under QB music director Nigel Gaynor delivered a sympathetic account of what is there. Concertmaster Warwick Adeney’s violin solos in Act II and III were sublime.

Qld Ballet

Lina Kim and Victor Estévez in Act 1 of Swan Lake. Photo: David Kelly

Stevenson’s choice of music for Siegfried and Odette’s final pas de deux in Act 4 comes from left field. Tchaikovsky died in 1893 and Riccardo Drigo had a hand in arranging music for the 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.

Lucy Green, RNZB, in profile

WHEN Lucy Green stepped on to the stage at Wellington’s St James Theatre on July 21 it was in front of the toughest crowd imaginable. Dancers from every era of Royal New Zealand Ballet’s history were in town for the company’s 60th anniversary celebrations and they’d come en masse to a special matinee performance of Swan Lake. They would see a 22-year-old Australian who had made her debut in the double role of Odette-Odile only two days before. Many pairs of expert eyes would be assessing her every move.

Lucy Green as Odette. Photo: Evan Li

Lucy Green as Odette. Photo: Evan Li

That’s not all. There were also television cameras in the wings, filming for the third series of the reality show about RNZB, The Secret Lives of Dancers, and those cameras weren’t around just to capture what used to be called Kodak moments. Green has been prominent in the first two series and knows only too well that drama and conflict are considered more entertaining, and that filming is stressful. It’s also relevant that last week Green was alternating with RNZB’s stellar principal guest artist Gillian Murphy, she of American Ballet Theatre fame and one of Swan Lake’s great exponents.

These are circumstances to test any performer’s mettle but brutal as they may be, they sort out the women from the girls; the winners from the losers. By ballet’s end Green had won through. She had shown what RNZB’s artistic director, former American Ballet Theatre principal dancer Ethan Stiefel, calls her ability to “continually rise to the occasion”.

Clutching flowers, she beamed as cheers rang around the theatre and Stiefel said from the stage: “I couldn’t have picked a better group of people to put before six decades of alumni. I’m proud to work with all of you.”

Green is a quietly poised, thoughtful and modest young woman, aware of her good fortune and grateful for it. “I never, ever thought that I would ever get the opportunity and especially not at this age. It’s a role I never dared to think I would do,” she says. She has form, however. Also on her CV after just three years with RNZB is Giselle, which she danced on the company’s recent tour to China, and last year’s Cinderella.

She is talented, a rising star, no doubt about it. But the thing everyone mentions about Green – the unromantic but necessary part of the equation – is that she has worked indefatigably for her success. This is the less thrilling but more truthful secret life of the dancer.

The story started at Australia Street Infants School, in Sydney’s Newtown. “It was quite a radical school at the time,” says Green’s mother, Bridget. “The parents got together and decided contact sport was a no-no. They employed a dance teacher.” Lucy was entranced from the start. “She was with Miss Jenny, who she adored and who imbued a passion for dance. Lucy asked me if she could go to after-school classes in the school hall. She never looked back. She decided that was it. She was a dancer.”

Jenny Eldridge (“Miss Jenny”) says Lucy “focused, listened and concentrated from the word go. She was a beautiful child to teach.” Many years later Eldridge saw Green compete at the City of Sydney Eisteddford, in a solo from Giselle, and “the thing that captured me about her was that she was dancing from her heart”.

After the Green family moved to Melbourne Lucy studied at the National Theatre Ballet School under Beverly Jane Fry’s directorship. There she came to understand what aiming for a life in ballet demands: not just liking it or wanting it, but the effort it takes. After that epiphany she took every class possible, says her mother. “That’s the key to Lucy. She’s serious and she works hard.” Green successfully auditioned for the Australian Ballet School but chose the Victorian College of the Arts Secondary School. “She saw Maggie Lorraine as a mentor and she knew that she’d made the right decision,” says her mother. Lorraine was Green’s teacher at VCASS for four years and also mentions the hard graft: Green “didn’t have an easy body to work with. She virtually resculpted her body.”

At one point Green would have liked to join the Australian Ballet. The offer, however, came from across the Tasman. “From day one when she auditioned, straight away … we had to have her. She shone,” says Greg Horsman, formerly ballet master with RNZB and now with Queensland Ballet. “She’s very musical, she’s very co-ordinated and she has amazing turns. And she’s intelligent. You can give her a correction and she takes it on board right away. I loved working with her.”

Green found out she was being considered for Odette only eight weeks before her Swan Lake debut, having just returned from a three-week European holiday with her boyfriend, Rory Fairweather-Neylan, also a dancer with RNZB. It wasn’t the best preparation, she acknowledges, having not been able to take regular classes, but at least there was an eight-week rehearsal period ahead. The production being revived was that created by former RNZB artistic Russell Kerr, with designs by Kristian Fredrikson.

Lucy Green as Odile with Kohei Iwamoto. Photo: Evan Li

Lucy Green as Odile with Kohei Iwamoto. Photo: Evan Li

As is the way with dance companies, the news was relayed via a list on the company noticeboard that had names, in alphabetical order, alongside various roles. Green was down to learn Odette-Odile as were three other company members. “We had no warning. It just went up one day, this is what you’re learning.” The fifth name on the list was Murphy’s. Engaged to Stiefel, Murphy spends a significant amount of time at RNZB. She is also one of Green’s great inspirations.

“She is the perfect embodiment of the white and the black,” Green says. “She really makes you believe she is a swan in the white acts … the delicacy of her arms and her hands. It’s like they are actually wings. Everything she does comes from the heart. As Odile she’s completely the opposite. The eyes are so powerful, she commands everyone to look at her and she owns the stage. I’ve loved watching her and studying her. But you have to be careful – you don’t want to be a cheap copy of something someone’s already been.”

Obviously Murphy would be getting performances. As for the rest of them, “you could be an understudy or you could be doing it. You don’t know.”

Throughout the rehearsal period Green was getting a lot of coaching – unusually not from a former Odette but from Stiefel and ballet master Martin Vedel. “But we didn’t learn who was doing what when” until about two and a half weeks before opening. “There was always the hope, I guess. It’s a small company [34 dancers], so it was more likely than being in a big company of course. I had had a lot of encouragement about the roles I’d done previously so I was quite hopeful, but you never want to get your hopes up too much.

“People know any roles can be up for grabs by anyone. There’s a lot of disappointment sometimes when someone doesn’t get something they want, but I do find here people are so supportive that they tend to put aside their disappointments. That’s something that I really felt [at the first performance], the energy I got from everyone, even those who might want to be doing the role I’m doing.”

Being far from the major ballet centres meant Green had to go to YouTube to see how others approach the role. “I remember watching these long, beautiful dancers with long classical lines, their legs go on forever, their arms are just like wings. I never thought I’d have those qualities. But yeah, here I am, and I’ve done it. I can’t believe it.” And while she was able to have only one orchestral rehearsal, she found Tchaikovsky’s music inspiring. “It’s got all the emotion and all the qualities you need,” she says.

Then there’s all that work. “You’ve got to put in a lot yourself. You’ve got to make the corrections sit with your body and feel right. One of the main concerns with me dancing the role was everything was quite small to begin with. I didn’t have the expansiveness, the full breadth of movement. I could feel it, but when you see yourself [some rehearsals were filmed] you can see what [coaches are] talking about and better apply what they are saying.’’

Another help was dancing with Japanese-born, Australian Ballet School-trained Kohei Iwamoto, 23, as Siegfried. (“He’s another nice dancer with huge potential,” says Horsman.) Iwamoto has partnered Green before, notably in Giselle, and it’s “a really good partnership. When I go out there and I see him I feel really comfortable and I trust him. It’s really nice.’’

In a company of this size it’s not all Odette and Giselle, however: Green dances secondary roles too and gets few performances off. She dreams in the future of Juliet and Kenneth MacMillan’s Manon and of perhaps dancing in Europe, but in the immediate future, after Swan Lake, lies the biennial Tutus on Tour program that splits the company and takes ballet to small NZ centres where “you have one dressing room for 16 dancers, and you’re sharing a bathroom with the audience”.

It’s a blast, she says. “It’s kind of crazy but you get this close group of dancers and everyone supports each other. It’s an intense workload but somehow we manage to pull it off.”

Swan Lake continues at various NZ centres until September 1.

This is a slightly extended version of a profile that first appeared in The Australian on July 25.

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.