Queensland and West Australian ballet companies of one mind in 2020

Queensland Ballet announced its 2020 season in mid-September; West Australian Ballet in this past week. The nation’s leading state ballet companies are different in scale and usually in repertoire but their seasons next year have some striking similarities.

Oscar Valdes as Jonathan Harker and Matthew Lehmann as Young Dracula with the dancers of West Australian Ballet. Photo by Jon Green

Oscar Valdés (seated left) as Jonathan Harker and Matthew Lehmann (right) as Young Dracula in WAB’s Dracula, choreographed by Krzysztof Pastor. Photo: Jon Green

West Australian Ballet offers a repeat season of Krzysztof Pastor’s full-length Dracula in September 2020 after its big success with the Perth public last year. Queensland Ballet, a co-producer, will show it to Brisbane audiences for the first time in May. Both companies have programmed The Sleeping Beauty, with QB reprising Greg Horsman’s 2015 production and WAB premiering a version by Mexican choreographer Javier Torres created for Finnish National Ballet in 2012. Perth and Brisbane audiences will also see a traditional Nutcracker at year’s end. QB has established Ben Stevenson’s Nutcracker as an annual event while in Perth audiences see the ballet every other year. WAB’s current production was co-choreographed by former WAB principal artist Jayne Smeulders, WAB artistic director Aurélian Scannella and WAB principal ballet mistress and artistic associate Sandy Delasalle.

The similarities continue with each company staging a gala program for a number of performances. QB’s is to celebrate its 60th anniversary; WAB’s will feature highlights from its repertoire. In Perth the gala performances will be seen in repertory with The Nutcracker.

Queensland Ballet - The Sleeping Beauty - Carabosse with the Fairies. Photo David Kelly

Queensland Ballet in Greg Horsman’s The Sleeping Beauty. Photo: David Kelly

As always QB and WAB will offer choreographic development seasons – titled Synergy and Genesis respectively – and a contemporary program. WAB’s Ballet at the Quarry has been staged for nearly 30 years in the breathtaking open-air City Beach Quarry Amphitheatre while QB’s Bespoke is a relatively new and important addition to its programming, staged at Brisbane’s Powerhouse.

A splendid development for WAB is an extra annual contemporary program to be performed at Perth’s State Theatre Centre. Titled STATE, the inaugural season will feature the return of Garry Stewart’s Reincarnation, which premiered at Ballet at the Quarry this year. The piece sees WAB collaborate with Western Australia’s state contemporary dance company, Co:3.

Also on the program is Graeme Murphy’s beautiful Air and Other Invisible Forces, made for Sydney Dance Company in 1999. Part of the work will be staged during the 2020 Quarry season and it will be seen in full in STATE.

Dangerous Liaisons

Rian Thompson and Yanela Pinera in Liam Scarlett’s Dangerous Liaisons. Photo: David Kelly

In its 60th anniversary year QB, which started life as The Lisner Ballet in 1960, will present Shanghai Ballet in Derek Deane’s The Lady of the Camellias in March before starting its season proper with the gala program. Continuing to expand its footprint in Australia, QB will travel to Melbourne to stage Liam Scarlett’s Dangerous Liaisons, originally seen in Brisbane this year.

Under the artistic direction of Li Cunxin over the past eight years QB has grown remarkably in size. It now has 43 dancers, two apprentices and 12 young artists. The older WAB – founded in 1952 by Kira Bousloff – is significantly smaller with 29 dancers and six young artists.

A notable feature of both companies, however, is the enlivening presence of Cuban-trained dancers, including three of QB’s five principal artists – Victor Estévez, Camilo Ramos and Yanela Piñera. The six Cubans at WAB include Dayana Hardy Acuña, who was promoted to principal artist after dancing Giselle in September. In May this year she was the brightest presence in WAB’s staging of Greg Horsman’s dismal La Bayadère (another co-production with QB), in which she was the temple dancer Nikiya. After the retirement this year of Brooke Widdison-Jacobs the top rank at WAB was looking very slender indeed with only Chihiro Nomura and Matthew Lehmann remaining as principals. Hardy Acuña’s elevation is most welcome.

Dayana Hardy Acuna as Giselle with Guest Artist Kevin Jackson as Albrecht. Photo by Scott Dennis (3)

Dayana Hardy Acuña as Giselle with guest artist Kevin Jackson of The Australian Ballet as Albrecht in WAB’s 2019 production of Giselle. Photo: Scott Dennis

Giselle, West Australian Ballet

His Majesty’s Theatre, Perth, September 13 and 14.

Was there ever a man who said his life’s ambition was to dance Hilarion? Probably not. He is the spurned lover in Giselle, a gamekeeper who can’t match the allure of his rival, aristo-in-disguise Albrecht. Hilarion offers dead birds to Giselle’s mother to shore up his position; the experienced Albrecht blows sexy kisses and ingratiates himself with Giselle’s friends.

So yes, Albrecht has all the glamour but who Hilarion is, what he does and what he feels is vitally important to the progress and texture of the drama. The same goes for all other secondary figures. The detail is where a company can make this much-performed, much-loved work sing.

Polly Hilton as Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis with the dancers of West Australian Ballet in Giselle (2019) (2). Photo by Sergey Pevnev

Polly Hilton as Myrtha in West Australian Ballet’s Giselle. Photo: Sergey Pevnev

Aurélien Scannella and Sandy Delasalle’s staging for West Australian Ballet retains the usual scenic framework and much of the traditional choreography attributed to Coralli and Perrot, albeit with a few tweaks, while new touches to character and movement make the ballet WAB’s own. The production, first seen in 2014, looks lovely. Peter Cazalet’s design is appealingly modest in scale and Michael Rippon and Jon Buswell’s lighting a thing of beauty, particularly in the second act, which opens with a shaft of moonlight piercing the gloom of the forest where Giselle is buried.

A late injury to principal dancer Matthew Lehmann made changes to casting necessary, which may have accounted for the feeling that not every idea was expressed as convincingly as it could be. Nevertheless, those ideas were persuasive. It’s made abundantly clear, for instance, that Albrecht is deeply committed to Giselle, strengthening the moment when Giselle and Albrecht’s noble fiancée Bathilde realise they are talking about the same man. Hilarion stands by – Jesse Homes in the first cast judged it perfectly – hoping against hope that Giselle will acknowledge him as her betrothed.

Chihiro Nomura as Giselle and Oscar Valdes as Albrecht in Giselle (2019). Photo by Sergey Pevnev

Chihiro Nomura and Oscar Valdés as Giselle and Albrecht. Photo: Sergey Pevnev

In the first act the men of the ensemble are given more to do, including repeated double tours (tidier at the second performance than the first) and exuberant splits in the air that fit well with a day of harvest festival celebrations and it was good to see the Peasant Pas de Deux couple as an integral part of the community. Candice Adea and Julio Blanes did the honours at the first two performances with charm and ease.

In Act II there are interesting choices for Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis, who is less physically explosive than usual but no less in command with her eloquent balances on pointe. At the second performance Glenda Gardia Gomez was a sterner figure than Polly Hilton on opening night (Hilton had earlier appeared as a gracious, amused Bathilde) but with both there was a sense that Myrtha acts more from necessity than vindictiveness. The Leading Wilis at both performances were entrancing, with Mayume Noguromi and Claire Voss outstanding.

The soft, rounded romantic style – embodied marvellously by the WAB corps – is amplified by the first entrance of the Wilis in a swirling, circular group and at the end they shrink from the morning light in chilling fashion as Giselle greets the dawn with exultation. The restoration of a fugue that’s usually cut is intriguing but slightly problematic, delaying Giselle and Albrecht’s glorious pas de deux.

Alexa Tuzil as Giselle and Juan Carlos Osma as Albrecht in Giselle (2019) (2). Photo by Sergey Pevnev

Juan Carlos Osma and Alexa Tuzil in Giselle. Photo: Sergey Pevnev

In the first cast principal artist Chihiro Nomura was a sunny, delighted Giselle until her happiness was shattered. On Saturday corps member Alexa Tuzil’s peasant girl was a highly promising work in progress in the first act. Her second act was absolutely scorching: passionate, fearless and greatly moving in what was her role debut.

The respective Albrechts, Oscar Valdés and Juan Carlos Osma, are perhaps not the most natural actors but each was serviceable in Act I and wonderful in Act II. Both are Cuban and have a gorgeous combination of impeccable line and exciting power. Osma’s elevation is astonishing. (There is quite a Cuban contingent at WAB right now: soloists Valdés, Osma and Dayana Hardy Acuña; demi-soloist Blanes, who was so charming in the Peasant Pas; and corps members Glenda Garcia Gomez and Ana Gallardo Lobaina.)

In the pit the West Australian Symphony Orchestra was under the baton of Jessica Gethin, a rising conductor making her ballet debut. There were ups and downs on both nights. Gethin directed performances that had many pleasures but included a few issues with wayward horns and endings in which dancer and orchestra were not as one. At times in the second act she opted for tempos that were just the tiniest fraction too glacial.

The one true disappointment, though, was Giselle’s mother (Beth James), whose attitudes and motivations remained opaque when they weren’t confused. Not exactly disappointing but a bit puzzling was the inclusion of labradors in the hunting party, adorable though they may be. At the second performance one of them – I believe it was Treacle (there were three named on the cast sheet) – was situated well downstage and wagged his tail enthusiastically through the entire of the Peasant Pas. Well, it was good.

Ends September 28.

About last week … June 20-26

Sydney’s Hayes Theatre Co was the venue for another in the invaluable Neglected Musicals series (June 21). Rehearsal is minimal (a day only), there may be a sketchy set and a few props, and the actors – always very, very good – have books in hand. By some strange alchemy it always feels like a proper show. I’ve seen some beauties. Unfortunately Baby the Musical (1983) can’t be counted among them. We were told it was nominated for seven Tony awards but had the misfortune to be up against Sunday in the Park with George and La Cage aux Folles. Yes, well. I think it was kind of making up the category, as its competition included The Tap Dance Kid (I admit that’s a title entirely new to me) and Kander and Ebb’s The Rink, which did not meet with much critical favour and didn’t last a year (nor did Baby). Baby is little more than an extended skit really about three couples expecting a baby or hoping to. That’s it. Music is by David Shire, lyrics by Richard Maltby Jr and the book by Sybille Pearson. They’re not particularly scintillating except for the big women’s number I Want it All. That still works. The generous actors giving their all at the Hayes included Katrina Retallick, David Whitney (both fabulous) and the incredibly plucky Kate Maree Hoolihan who powered through a respiratory illness to keep the curtain up.

Next in Neglected Musicals (from August 3 for six performances) is Sammy Fain and Paul Francis Webster’s Calamity Jane, starring Virginia Gay. I’m absolutely up for that one.

Nederlands Dans Theater had one thing people could agree on during its brief Melbourne visit: the magnetism, authority and power of its dancers. Responses to the program (June 22) were more mixed. The evening opened and closed with works choreographed by NDT artistic director Paul Lightfoot and his associate Sol León that were long on visual glamour but rather shorter on emotional and visceral satisfaction.

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Crystal Pite’s Solo Echo. Photo: Rahi Rezvani

Sehnsucht (2009) was simultaneously overwrought and underdone. A man and a women played out a domestic drama in a small rotating box slightly elevated and set back – a kind of square tumble-drier with fixed table and chair and a window for escaping through. In front of them a solitary man emoted to Beethoven piano sonatas. In the second half a large ensemble was borne along by the majesty of Beethoven’s fifth symphony, although the connection between dance and music was tenuous. I couldn’t tell why this work in particular and not another one. One couldn’t deny, however, that Beethoven provided a thrillingly strong, familiar beat. The dancers looked marvelous, of course, although I did feel for Prince Credell, the solo man, who was forced to crouch at the front of the stage when Sehnsucht – the word suggests intense yearning – ended. The auditorium lights came up, he stayed, the audience stood about a bit and then he slowly unfurled himself.

Lightfoot/León’s Stop-Motion (2014), to music by Max Richter, had a similarly glossy air without convincing one that it meant anything other than generalised anguish. Too often the dancers stopped and posed either in arabesque or with legs held high to the side, either straight or with a bent knee. One admired the control, but admiring technical skill, particularly when invited to do so again and again, can get rather tiresome. Sehnsucht would have given the program a more striking ending but as Stop-Motion ends with quantities of flour being thrown about the stage, logistics demanded it closed the evening.

Thanks goodness for the central work (in all senses), Crystal Pite’s Solo Echo. There was a backdrop of falling snow, Brahms piano and cello sonatas, and an aching sense of need and loss. In the crepuscular light dancers swirled, slid and connected as if their lives depended on it. Breathtaking is an overused and frequently meaningless word of praise. Here it was entirely apposite. I wasn’t aware of myself, those around me, or of the need to breathe. Those dancers, that dance, that music, that experience filled every moment.

I won’t say too much about West Australian Ballet’s Genesis program (seen June 23) because I serve as a member of the company’s artistic review panel. The program gives WAB dancers a chance to develop their choreographic skills and is a vital part of the operation, as it is with Queensland Ballet’s Dance Dialogues. The Australian Ballet’s Bodytorque program seems to have disappeared, although this year two alumni, Alice Topp and Richard House, had work programmed as part of the AB’s mainstage season. At WAB just-retired principal artist Jayne Smeulders and soloist Andre Santos have made it to the mainstage via earlier workshops.

You will note I name two women, which is cause for rejoicing. One of the hot topics of conversation in classical dance is the scarcity – it’s close to complete absence – of female choreographers, although Crystal Pite is breaking through, as she deserves to. At WAB this year a gratifying number of women were represented: Polly Hilton, Florence Leroux-Coléno and Melissa Boniface stepped up to the plate alongside Santos, Christopher Hill, Adam Alzaim and Alessio Scognamiglio.

At the end of this year WAB stages a new Nutcracker co-choreographed by Smeulders, WAB artistic director Aurélien Scannella and ballet mistress Sandy Delasalle.

 

Ballet at the Quarry

Five by Night, West Australian Ballet, Perth, February 10

The Quarry Amphitheatre is one of the loveliest performing arts venues in the world. The former limestone quarry is situated in bushland with views of the city beyond and on a balmy night – and that’s pretty much expected in February – there is nothing finer than to sit on one of the terraced rows with a picnic and some delicious West Australian wine as the sun goes down.

(Idle thought: is the only good thing about Western Australia’s refusal to participate in daylight saving that Quarry performances can start at 8pm rather than 9pm?)

Not surprisingly, West Australian Ballet’s long-standing annual Quarry season is a perennial favourite with Perth audiences and indeed for many may be their only ballet experience of the year. So be it. The season is usually a sell-out or close to it and the relaxed atmosphere means a different kind of programming can be offered than that in WAB’s home theatre, His Majesty’s.

The amphitheatre celebrates its 30th anniversary in November this year and WAB has been with it pretty much all the way. It’s a valuable tradition.

Polly Hilton performing In Black in Five by Night Ballet at the Quarry. Photo Sergey Pevnev

Polly Hilton in Andre Santos’s In Black. Photo: Sergey Pevnev

This year there are five short works: two by David Dawson, whose work hasn’t been seen at WAB for 16 years; one by European-based Australian dancer and choreographer Craig Davidson; and two from WAB dancers. One of the latter pieces is a group effort, something that could seem a recipe for disaster but which in fact was light-hearted and enjoyable.

Soloist Andre Santos is responsible for the clear standout of the night, In Black. It’s an extension of a piece he made in 2014 for WAB’s choreographic development program Genesis and it’s tremendous fun, giving an ambitiously large group of dancers – 13 – a fizzingly fast workout. Despite his relative inexperience as a choreographer Santos has an excellent eye. His construction is sound as he confidently groups and regroups dancers to concentrate the eye on the whole, on smaller gatherings or on individuals. The fact that he has created his dance on eight women and five men tells something in itself: he understands the interest one can get from unequal numbers even in completely abstract work. And he would appear to be pragmatic. The truth is that WAB’s women are stronger at present as a group than the men. Why not use more of them?

Perhaps the most striking feature of In Black was its dynamics. Santos has dancers moving very quickly indeed to the beat – the music is a mixed bag of tracks by French composers René Aubry and Woodkid and Canadian dancer and composer Davidson Jaconello – and then he throws in a luxurious leg extension that stretches not only the body but time and rhythm too. And then the dancer is off again. It’s exhilarating.

In Black features a leading couple (Polly Hilton and Christian Luck on the night I attended), a trio of women (Sarah Hepburn, Kymberleigh Cowley and Vida Polokov) and four male-female couples (Florence Leroux-Coléno and Liam Green, Meg Parry and Adam Alzaim, Victoria Maughan and Alessio Scognamiglio, Phebe Sleeman and Jesse Homes).

Santos gives the women terrifically lively material and celebrates their attack. I loved that they are not manhandled endlessly and that he gives the four secondary men a punchy quartet in which they occasionally support one another. All the dancers were wonderful but Hilton has to be singled out for her leggy glamour and to-the-edge fearlessness.

In Black closed Five by Night in style. The title, by the way, is echoed in the costume design, also by Santos. He put the men in sleek tops and shorts and the women in elegant variations of little black dresses.

Earlier in the evening Hilton was also prominent in To the Pointe, choreographed by WAB dancers including Santos with Melissa Boniface, Victoria Maughan, Meg Parry, Jayne Smeulders and breakdancer and guest artist Pepito. To the Pointe isn’t a ballet for the ages but it is the kind of entertainment that suits the Quarry. In a mash-up of classical moves, gymnastics and street dance, Pepito wowed with virtuosic spins on head and shoulders and Smeulders amazed with super-fast backflips and a no-hands cartwheel. Smeulders is apparently to retire this year but looks as if she could continue for much longer. She turned 40 last year but is ageless.

Matthew Lehmann and Sandy Delasalle-Scannella performing On the Nature of Daylight in Five by Night Ballet at the Quarry. Photo Sergey Pevnev

Matthew Lehman and Sandy Delasalle in On the Nature of Daylight. Photo: Sergey Pevnev

David Dawson’s 5, to an arrangement by David Coleman of music by Adolphe Adam for Giselle (you’d be hard-pressed to recognise it), puts three women in the crispest of white tutus by Yumiko Takeshima and gives them two male supporters. It’s an energetic start to Five by Night, danced with exceptional verve, polish and poise at the performance I saw by the trio of Sarah Hepburn, Chihiro Nomura and Carina Roberts. It was the first appearance in their roles for twins Oliver and Matthew Edwardson, who needed to impose themselves rather more strongly and precisely on the classical material.

Dawson’s On the Nature of Daylight is a pas de deux for WAB ballet mistress Sandy Delasalle and principal artist Matthew Lehmann, who last year had a moment with Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s La Pluie. On the Nature of Daylight is notable for its difficult lifts, Max Richter score and Lehmann’s strong partnering of the elegant Delasalle but is more a pièce d’occasion than anything else.

Craig Davidson’s Ambiguous Content, for four couples (Florence Leroux-Coléno and Alessio Scognamiglio, Nikki Blain and Andrew Radak, Chihiro Nomura and Oliver Edwardson, Brook Widdison-Jacobs and Christopher Hill), is highly competent but generic neo-classical dance. Leroux-Coléno lit up the stage whenever she appeared – she is a wonderful artist – and Widdison-Jacobs looked sleek and refined, although also somewhat chilly and abstracted. She had reason to look distant, however, as she had the misfortune to be manipulated by one man, then two, then three. Why do (mostly male) choreographers insist on this tediousness?

Five by Night ends on February 27.

Disclosure: I am a member of West Australian Ballet’s artistic review panel, which makes independent reports to the WAB board on artistic matters.