Carmen & The Firebird, Queensland Ballet

Queensland Performing Arts Centre, May 26.

You win some and you lose some.

Queensland Ballet is a co-producer of Carlos Acosta’s Carmen with The Royal Ballet and Texas Ballet Theater, which means QB’s name is attached to it forever. I doubt I’ve seen a worse ballet from reputable companies in more than 40 years.

I’m not exaggerating, nor do I say it frivolously. Carmen should never have passed muster at the RB. This is where I should say I can’t understand how it happened, but unfortunately it’s all too common to see serious ballet companies fail to save choreographers from themselves. Mostly the results aren’t quite as bad as Carmen but ballet is littered with the corpses of narrative works whose condition didn’t have to be terminal.

On a brighter note for QB, Liam Scarlett’s Firebird, made for Norwegian National Ballet in 2013, is a brilliant interpretation of Stravinsky’s glittering, gleaming, intoxicating score. Scarlett’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is also in the QB repertory and with the addition of Firebird the company has the choreographer’s two most successful new narrative ballets. (I don’t include Scarlett’s staging of Swan Lake – by all reports a huge success – for the RB this month given its firm foundation in the Petipa-Ivanov 1895 version.)

QB The Firebird 2018. Principal Artist Lucy Green. Photo David Kelly

Lucy Green in the title role of Liam Scarlett’s The Firebird. Photo: David Kelly

Scarlett, who is 32, has a youthful, contemporary sensibility that gives Firebird a modern edge while remaining true to the mythic elements of Mikhail Fokine’s original 1910 work for the Ballets Russes.

It looks wonderful, with a monumental set by Jon Bausor, bathed in James Farncombe’s painterly light. In the shadow of a vast tree with claw-like roots, the magical Firebird (Lucy Green at the performance I attended) and wicked sorcerer Koschei (Jack Lister) battle for supremacy, equal in force of will and with a palpable erotic charge between them. She tempts him with a golden apple and strokes his face; he embraces her with ardour. It may well be a game they’ve played for aeons. Then the wandering Prince Ivan (Camilo Ramos) finds his way into their realm and the Firebird finds him interesting. She dances with him, but not as a frightened captive. She dazzles and teases, whispering in his ear as she lets him have one of her precious feathers.

Scarlett effectively contrasts the Firebird’s strength and exoticism with the innocence and playfulness of the young women enslaved by Koschei. Among them is a Princess (Lina Kim), who is tender, curious and alert. Kim and Ramos glowed in their romantic, silken pas de deux and – how delightful! – the Princess is the one who gets to destroy the egg containing Koschei’s soul.

QB The Firebird 2018. Company Artist Jack Lister and Artists of the Queensland Ballet. Photo David Kelly

Jack Lister (top) as Koschei in The Firebird. Photo: David Kelly

The end of Koschei’s malign rule means the Princess is free to leave with Ivan although Scarlett – unlike Fokine – is less interested in the happy couple than in the representatives of light and darkness. The lovers quietly disappear and the Firebird exults in her power, although not before paying respect to the dead Koschei in one of Scarlett’s many perceptive details.

Scarlett’s success with narrative ballets has been somewhat patchy but Stravinsky’s music and the original libretto give him the best of roadmaps. Scarlett uses the 50-minute version of the score from 1910, played blazingly by the Queensland Symphony Orchestra with Nigel Gaynor at the helm. Jonathan McPhee’s arrangement is for orchestral forces rather smaller than those asked for by Stravinsky – he wrote for quadruple woodwinds and three harps – but it gets the job done impressively.

Other choreographers of this much-visited work have chosen Stravinsky’s shorter 1945 suite (Balanchine in 1949; the 2009 Graeme Murphy recently revived by The Australian Ballet) but the suites were arranged for concert performance and for dramatic impact it’s hard to go past Stravinsky’s first thoughts.

The cast I saw at the first Saturday matinee was testament to the strong ensemble built by Li Cunxin in his six years as artistic director. Performances were vividly realised all round and Green’s mesmerising Firebird was deservedly greeted with a huge ovation. While his dance is made entirely within the classical idiom, Scarlett gives his Firebird – the Princess too – qualities of independence and authority so often missing on the classical stage. This is particularly welcome in light of how women appear in Carmen although, to be fair, Acosta doesn’t do the men any favours either.

QB Carmen 2018. Principal Artist Camilo Ramos and Company Artist Sophie Zoricic 5. Photo David Kelly

Camilo Ramos and Sophie Zoricic in Carlos Acosta’s Carmen. Photo: David Kelly

There are problems with Carmen just about everywhere you look. The storytelling is incoherent, skating over the top of anything that might give insights into Carmen’s character. She’s a sex-mad cipher. Don José (Camilo Ramos, backing up after his Prince Ivan earlier) is similarly superficial, just weaker, and therefore deeply uninteresting. Escamillo is there to toss off a whole lot of ballet tricks. There is no Micaëla, no Frasquita, no Mercedes, no context.

What else? Too frequently there’s no apparent relationship between the music (chiefly an arrangement of bits from Bizet’s opera) and the steps performed to that music. A tavern scene veers off into ersatz flamenco territory, indifferently done. Every now and again a man wearing preposterous bulls’ horns and a bit of bondage appears in the background to represent Fate.

Most problematic is the piece’s depiction of desire. Desire can be many things, not just sexual, and in Bizet’s opera it’s Carmen’s burning need to be free. That desire was dangerous for a woman then and still is. Carmen is murdered for her courage, not that this ballet makes you think about it or care. She’s just someone who dances in her underwear and rolls around the floor locking lips with her lovers.

Carmen is at one point surrounded by men who slap the floor vigorously and proceed to strip. It looked to me like nothing less than preparation for gang rape but also looked so ludicrous (think male strippers at a hens’ night) that the audience roared. Ghastly. I think we can safely say that at this point, as at others, there had been insufficient thought given to meaning and tone.

I felt very sorry for the Carmen I saw, Sophie Zoricic, to whom I send condolences. It was a big chance for her and she gave her all. That said, I suspect Carmen could have only the slightest chance of squeaking past the post if stocked with the biggest stars. Acosta danced both Don José and Escamillo during the London premiere season in 2015 and the RB’s most lustrous female principal, Marianela Nuñez, was the first Carmen.

Acosta is, of course, a relatively inexperienced choreographer while having been one of the RB’s most durable stars. Obviously the company wanted to please him. It should have helped him.

QB is on much safer ground with Scarlett. The young Englishman has a deal with the company to present one of his works annually for four years. The artistic associate arrangement started last year with the one-act No Man’s Land, originally made for English National Ballet. (His delectable Dream, a co-production with Royal New Zealand Ballet, was made in 2015 and isn’t counted.)

That leaves two more works to come. Scarlett’s international demand means it’s too much to hope that both would be new creations but I’m told there will certainly be one ballet made on the QB dancers.

Carmen & The Firebird ends in Brisbane on June 3.

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.

Elegance, Queensland Ballet

Queensland Performing Arts Centre, August 2

EMMA Lippa is one of Australian ballet’s hidden treasures. She developed her formidable skills as an accompanist at the Bolshoi Ballet then used her gifts for two decades at the Australian Ballet. Lippa has retired from the AB but not from the piano or from ballet, as Queensland Ballet audiences were privileged to see at some performances of Elegance (her role was shared with QB company pianist Kylie Foster, who unfortunately I wasn’t able to hear).

Lippa’s musicality underpinned the most successful of the four pieces making up QB’s Elegance program, Ben Stevenson’s Three Preludes, choreographed in 1969 to the music of Rachmaninoff. Two dancers are first seen on either side of a ballet barre, at times reflecting each other’s movements as if they are taking daily class. This isn’t a new idea for dance but Stevenson’s take on it is beguiling. He sensitively creates an atmosphere in which boundaries dissolve. Two private, individual worlds melt into one as, slowly, an intimate relationship develops.

Carolyn Judson and Huang Junshuang in Three Preludes. Photo: David Kelly

Carolyn Judson and Huang Junshuang in Three Preludes. Photo: David Kelly

This restrained, glowing ballet is about love, but also can’t help but be about a love for ballet and music. In a short Russian documentary about her career, Lippa says a ballet accompanist “has to breathe with the ballet”, and this she did in eloquent, memorable readings of the Rachmaninoff.

American guest artist Carolyn Judson was alert and responsive while maintaining the work’s introspective quality, although she tended to smile rather too brightly. At times it was hard to concentrate on her, however, given the incredibly potent stage presence of QB’s international guest principal Huang Junshuang. He is tall, powerful, glamorous and a splendid partner. The man’s choreography is supportive – Junshuang leaves the floor only once for a low jete – as he tenderly looks after the woman, who is free to fly with the knowledge she will be completely safe.

Elegance opened with Ma Cong’s Ershter Vals (First Waltz), an attractive, folk-inflected piece for four couples that reminded me strongly of Nacho Duato’s Jardi Tancat. Ma Cong was born in China and danced with National Ballet of China and Tulsa Ballet before retiring recently to concentrate on choreography. He is now resident choreographer for the Tulsa company, but Ershter Vals, his most widely seen work, was made for Richmond Ballet in 2010.

Ershter Vals is danced to a selection of compositions by Italian group Klezroym, whose approach has been described as “new Jewish music”. In his dance piece Ma intends references to Jewish dispossession – the silent opening gives an atmosphere of unease and at times the women cover their faces as if they cannot bear to see – but Ma is more concerned with joy and resilience, seen in the constant and vibrant stream of action and interaction between individuals and groups.

Queensland Ballet in Ma Cong's Ershter Vals. Photo: David Kelly

Queensland Ballet in Ma Cong’s Ershter Vals. Photo: David Kelly

The women (Sophie Zoricic, Eleanor Freeman, Mia Thompson and Teri Crilly on Friday night) looked lovely in the flow and sweep of the movement, in which highly expressive, swirling backs were important. The men (Nathan Scicluna, Joseph Stewart, Vito Bernasconi and Rian Thompson) seemed less comfortable with releasing their emotions and the repression of abandon detracted from the work’s undertow of loss. They were mostly too careful, although the spirit of the piece started working its spell towards the end, with Bernasconi particularly catching the eye.

Former QB dancer Gareth Belling’s Sweet Beginnings, to Vivaldi’s over-used Summer from The Four Seasons, was a disappointingly bland outing for three couples. The piece means to chart the life of a relationship in retrospect (a difficult idea to convey even for the most experienced of choreographers) but had little emotional heft. Belling uses classical vocabulary confidently enough but structurally Sweet Beginnings felt less assured, with the connection between the main couple and the two secondary couples failing to express as much as Belling does in his program note. Noelene Hill designed extremely pretty, long floaty skirts for the women but put the men into particularly ugly loose pants and tops that looked all the world like builders’ singlets. Principal artist Matthew Lawrence was definitely not seen to advantage.

Lina Kim and Matthew Lawrence in Sweet Beginnings. Photo: David Kelly

Lina Kim and Matthew Lawrence in Sweet Beginnings. Photo: David Kelly

It was good to have Vivaldi played live by the quartet Collusion, although intonation was an issue at several points.

On Friday Lina Kim’s vivid commitment was the main attraction of Sweet Beginnings and she also stood out in the upbeat closing work, Greg Horsman’s Verdi Variations. This tutu-fest is an often uneasy mix of humour and high classicism as former Australian Ballet and English National Ballet principal dancer Horsman simultaneously celebrates and sends up the art of which he was such a celebrated exponent. I certainly laughed, but didn’t like myself for it. The “isn’t ballet a funny old thing” approach diminishes the art to my mind. It’s not that there can’t be comedy in ballet, but when ballet itself is the butt of the joke it seems a bit self-defeating. The audience seemed to have lots of fun, despite their being rather too much untidy execution.

Among the pratfalls on Friday one could enjoy Yu Hui’s exuberant elevation and neat entrechats and guest artist Jenna Roberts’s calm assurance, gained from her Royal Ballet School training.

Matthew Lawrence and Jenna Roberts in Verdi Variations. Photo: David Kelly

Matthew Lawrence and Jenna Roberts in Verdi Variations. Photo: David Kelly

A native of Newcastle, NSW, Roberts is a principal dancer with Birmingham Royal Ballet who was making her professional debut in Australia on Friday. Verdi Variations, while a trifle, gave opportunities to enjoy her beautiful placement, unshowy but complete command of the stage and a most becoming understated radiance. Lawrence, who is Roberts’s former BRB colleague, partnered her with his usual grace, as he did with Lim in Sweet Beginnings, and his solo work was clean and assertive.

The season was brief – only five performances – but that was one more than had been intended, continuing QB’s happy situation of having to increase the number of performances of each of its programs this year.

The heavy workload for this relatively small company is, however, taking its toll. QB did not field any of its three principal women in Elegance nor was Hao Bin back on stage after an injury took him out of Giselle. The newly named soloist Lisa Edwards was also nowhere to be seen as she was also on the injury list.

Such situations, of course, give opportunities to more junior dancers (and to guest artists). QB has a large number of relatively inexperienced young men and women for whom stage time and exposure is necessary for their development. It was lovely to see Lina Kim shine. Overall, however, in Elegance only Three Preludes was a truly satisfying experience. Mature artistry will always trump eagerness.

This is an extended version of a review that appeared in The Australian on August 5.