Flying high

Queensland Performing Arts Centre, June 26.

TREY McIntyre is a prolific American choreographer who has made more than 100 works – he is only 45 – and is widely known and admired in the US. When he announced last year he was closing his Trey McIntyre Project as a fulltime ensemble to concentrate on a broader range of cultural projects it was big news in the dance world. The company, wrote Marina Harss in The New York Times a year ago, had become “something almost unheard-of in the often beleaguered cultural landscape: a small, independent dance troupe that was a familiar name both at home in Boise, Idaho, and nationwide”. It was a “darling of festivals” and an “uncommon success”.

It’s unusual that success drives someone to pull back from the very thing that made them a success, but McIntyre wants to spend more time on film, photography and writing. That said, there are companies still wishing to stage his works and that circumstance brought him to Brisbane to oversee final rehearsals for Peter Pan, the 2002 work that was his first full-length ballet. It was certainly a belated introduction to Australia but a welcome one. Peter Pan was a big success on its premiere at Houston Ballet, other companies have taken it into their repertoire and Houston revived it in 2013.

Peter Pan leads the Darling children to Neverland. Photo: David Kelly

Peter Pan leads the Darling children to Neverland. Photo: David Kelly

Houston Ballet of course is what connects QB’s artistic director Li Cunxin and McIntyre. Li was a principal dancer there when McIntyre started choreographing as a 20-year-old during his first year with the company. In a program note McIntyre says Li and another Houston principal Mary McKendry – now Mary Li and a ballet mistress at QB – were “incredibly supportive and protective of me”. (Li doesn’t forget his old friends. Queensland Ballet’s Nutcracker and Cinderella are from the hand of Ben Stevenson, who was Li’s artistic director and father figure in Houston.)

It’s no surprise that the current season was almost completely sold out before it opened because that’s been the happy state of affairs at QB since Li took over the artistic directorship three years ago. Ticket buyers may have known nothing about this ballet apart from its name but they were prepared to take it on trust. They were right to. It’s a child-friendly work for the school holidays that has enough sophistication for an adult audience without losing the essential element of wonder.

At the time of making Peter Pan McIntyre was in his early 30s but still, as he writes in his program note, “basically just a kid”. That sense of himself as both boy and adult is absolutely crucial to Peter Pan, a story steeped in dualities. Sunlight and shadow, romance and adventure, fantasy and reality, spectacle and intimacy all have their place. The boy who would not grow up is also the Lost Boy who can’t grow up, bitter-sweet knowledge that anchors the sometimes unruly narrative and makes the final encounter between Peter and Wendy exceptionally affecting. He is in the air, poised to return to Neverland, and she is back in her rightful home, unable to fly and needing to stay. They must part. On opening night a technical glitch interrupted this touching scene (there had also been a spot of bother earlier) and the curtain had to be lowered for several minutes, but the emotional weight of the scene was present. I was sorry not to see the full radiance of Peter’s flying.

The story’s broader strokes would be easily comprehended by young viewers. Tinkerbell and a surprisingly sexy band of fairies flutter around the Darling children, who then fly off with wild-haired Peter into an exciting world where lissome mermaids frolic, pirates attack enthusiastically, dastardly Captain Hook masterminds the mayhem and a large croc makes several show-stealing appearances. McIntyre’s movement flows with happy ease between classically based choreography and energetic group shenanigans and his “just a kid” imagination lights up every scene.

And how astute to use music by Edward Elgar – an exact contemporary of Peter Pan’s creator J.M. Barrie – for the ballet’s score. Expressive, melodic selections from the British composer’s oeuvre provide abundant colour for dance and action along with a finely calibrated atmosphere of becoming modesty. The Queensland Symphony under Andrew Mogrelia sounded wonderful.

The vivid children’s-book designs by Thomas Boyd (sets), Jeanne Button (costumes) and Christina R. Giannelli (lighting) are a treat but ultimately McIntyre’s shiny-eyed affection for all his characters is the key to the production’s success. That’s not to say it’s perfect. McIntyre’s overall telling of the narrative is strong and clear but his story-ballet inexperience at the time of creation is evident in occasionally confusing or obscure detail, particularly in the framing scenes at the Darling home. There is also action involving Hook’s son James that requires a dip into the program for clarification, although at every moment this is a wonderful role.

McIntyre, however, is far from being alone in falling short in the area of drum-tight dramatic structure. Many, many seasoned makers of story ballets have made greater errors. (As to why this should be – well, that’s a long discussion to do with choreographers frequently acting as maker of steps, writer or co-writer of libretto, director and dramaturge all in one.)

QB is taking on a strikingly international look in the higher ranks and the opening performance gave audiences the chance to see the company’s newest principal artist, Laura Hidalgo, as a luscious Tinkerbell and recent Cuban recruits Camilo Ramos (soloist) and Yanela Piñera (principal) as Peter and Wendy. But there are entertaining parts for everyone in this sweet, effervescent ballet and among those who made a fine impression were young artist Liam Geck as timid, put-upon James Hook who finally finds his rightful place; company dancer Lina Kim as the littlest Darling, Michael; and company dancer Vito Bernasconi as a robustly commanding Hook.

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A version of this review appeared in The Australian on June 29.

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.