A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Queensland Ballet, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane, April 1.

The second act of Liam Scarlett’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream begins with deliciously controlled chaos. At the behest of Oberon, lord of the forest and fairies, Puck has got busy with magic love dust. The result is instantaneous passion for whoever is first seen, complicated by Puck’s tendency to get things wrong. Mayhem ensues as pleasure-seeking mortals, their entourage of bumbling rustics and the fairies whose domain has been invaded dash about trying to make sense of things. Proper order has been disrupted and must be restored, but not before there has been an ample display of foolishness from all quarters.

Scarlett remains entirely faithful to Shakespeare’s comedy, apart from the unsurprising excision of Theseus’s Athenian court. Otherwise it’s all there. Oberon and his queen Titania squabble over a Changeling boy (amusingly clad in a purple onesie and clutching a storybook and a toy donkey), humans enter the forest at night and are captured by its mystery, and Titania is smitten with the low-born Bottom, who has unfortunately gained an ass’s head but is an absolute sweetheart.

Queensland Ballets Midsummer Nights Dream. Laura Hidalgo and Rian Thompson. Photo David Kelly HR

Rian Thompson and Laura Hidalgo in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Photo: David Kelly

Scarlett, not yet 30, is one of the most sought-after names in classical choreography with commissions from top-drawer companies including New York City Ballet, San Francisco Ballet, English National Ballet and his home base, London’s Royal Ballet. Queensland Ballet’s co-production with Royal New Zealand Ballet (which premiered the work last year) gives these smaller outfits entry into a rather exclusive club. It’s quite a coup and they have a delectable ballet to show for it – one that’s genuinely funny, frequently touching and outstandingly sensual in its movement and visual appeal.

Tracy Grant Lord’s set design provides Scarlett with a sumptuous playground, an ornate multi-level affair that evokes a dense tree canopy and allows the fairies to dart in and out of view, gorgeously bathed in Kendall Smith’s lighting. Puck is established as a creature of the air, spotted at first in a lofty hideaway (he has to shimmy down a pole to reach ground level) and Oberon as an autocrat who likes to survey his domain from on high and whose moods can alter the very atmosphere. When he is angry the stars take notice.

Grant Lord was responsible for the striking costumes too – adorably fluffy tutus in saturated colours for the fairies and sportif day wear for the mortals, who have come equipped with tents, torches, nets and the rustics for backup. They are on a fairy safari. Bless.

Queensland Ballets Midsummer Nights Dream. The Lovers and Rustics. Photo David Kelly

Lovers and rustics in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Photo: David Kelly

Scarlett fills the forest with rapturous choreography that eloquently describes story and music. (The first thing everyone says about Scarlett is that he is intensely musical.) With their busy arms and feet the fairies indeed look as if they can fly while their swooning (and at one point shivering) backs give a delicious hint of excitements to come. The language is unquestionably classical but Scarlett relaxes ballet’s upright lines with swirling, supple freedom in the upper body that contrasts happily with bright, sharp, ground-skimming footwork. The characters are thrilingly alert and alive. It’s not hard to feel the influence of the Royal Ballet’s founder choreographer, Frederick Ashton, although Scarlett has a confident voice of his own. He certainly hasn’t copied Ashton’s one-act The Dream but there is nevertheless a delicate Ashtonian quality in this ballet.

On opening night QB’s newest principal dancer, Victor Estevez – just 22 years old! – was expansive and commanding as Oberon and Laura Hidalgo’s Titania was light and airy when with Bottom and more sexually charged when with Oberon. The Act II pas deux in which the two make up after their quarrel is stunningly intimate – the sexy little shivers of Titania’s legs as she is entwined with Oberon say it all. Camilo Ramos was a bouncy, highly likeable Puck and Rian Thompson delightful as Bottom. Every fairy and rustic had his or her moment too. This is a ballet made for relatively small forces and a meaningful part for everyone.

Of course the mortals never manage to capture any fairies, those enticing supernatural beings whose presence is known and felt but remains invisible. On opening night Yanela Piñera, Shane Wuerthner, Clare Morehen and Vito Bernasconi were the four high-spirited lovers who leave the forest with their nets empty but their hearts full. Scarlett makes each of them individual and engaging.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is danced to the much-loved Mendelssohn incidental music for Shakespeare’s play, augmented with selections from other works by the composer to create a full-length ballet. Nigel Gaynor, who conducted Queensland Symphony Orchestra in a spirited performance, stitched it all together admirably. Gaynor and Scarlett chose music that would be, as Gaynor told me in New Zealand, “proportionate to the fairy world”. Oberon dances to the Hebrides Overture of 1830 and, as Gaynor pointed out, it first appeared on the same program as the Overture to a Midsummer Night’s Dream. “It belongs,” he said. Music from the Octet in E-Flat Major – written when Mendelssohn was only 16 – is fittingly given to Puck: Mendelssohn’s sister Fanny wrote of the scherzo that “one feels so near the world of spirits, carried away in the air”.

Gaynor, by the way, was RNZB’s music director when Dream was being created; he now holds the same position with QB. The man who had been QB’s music director and principal conductor from 2013-2015, Andrew Mogrelia, is currently guest conductor at The Australian Ballet, at the helm of most of the performances of Swan Lake. Small world.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream ends in Brisbane on April 16.

A version of this review appeared in The Australian on April 4.

Liam Scarlett’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream arrives in Brisbane

There wouldn’t be too many 29-year-old men who know exactly where they are going to be in five years. Not in a general sense, as in being pretty sure about being promoted, or settling down with a partner and children, but precisely, literally. As in a date, a place, a specific task. Liam Scarlett does.

We talked about this while sitting in a room at Royal New Zealand Ballet headquarters in Wellington, New Zealand, in the middle of last year. He was there to choreograph a new A Midsummer Night’s Dream and he was pondering his diary or, as he described it, “the little squares” that are increasingly mapping out his life way, way into the future. “It terrifies me sometimes. I was planning something for 2019 last night,” he said, sounding a little surprised. “I have no idea what else I’ll be doing in four years but this square says I’ll be doing this. And there’s something in 2020.” But in the ballet business it’s a fact of life that companies plan their programs three, four, even five years ahead “and there are things I don’t want to say no to” says Scarlett. “Opportunities come.”

Indeed they do. His rise has been swift and he’s making the most of it. It’s a good thing he likes travelling – “when you are in a foreign place you often feel the most at home with yourself” – because he is on the road a lot. The truth is that Scarlett feels intensely happy in the studio with dancers, wherever that may be. He’s rather shy and private, he says, but friends tell him he’s a totally different person when he’s working. “Because this is my passion, this is what I love.”

Midsummers Rehearsals. Liam Scarlett and Yanela Pinera. Photo Eduardo Vieira. 2016

Liam Scarlett rehearses Queensland Ballet’s Yanela Pinera. Photo: Eduardo Vieira

Making a ballet might take as little as five or six weeks. Making a career – well, that’s a different matter. With big organisations programming well into the future, he has to look ahead too and juggle an increasingly hectic schedule. The British choreographer is a man wanted simultaneously in two hemispheres. He would have liked to be in Brisbane this week when Queensland Ballet, co-producer with RNZB of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, opens its season of the ballet, but another big commitment called. Scarlett popped into Brisbane for a week at the beginning of March to work with the QB dancers and then it was back to his home company, The Royal Ballet, and the forthcoming Frankenstein. Scarlett’s full-length take on the Mary Shelley story, which will be danced to a newly commissioned score by American composer Lowell Liebermann, opens in London on May 4 and in 2017 at San Francisco Ballet, the co-producer.

It’s been only five or six years since Scarlett’s name started to get some buzz and already he has rocketed to the top of ballet companies’ wish lists. New York City Ballet, Miami City Ballet, San Francisco, Norwegian National Ballet, English National Ballet and of course the Royal all have works from him. (He was to have participated in Paris Opera Ballet’s new Nutcracker, just coming to the end of its run, as one of five choreographers creating a section each. Eventually there were three, not including Scarlett. One imagines he didn’t mind having less on his plate right now.)

Not everything has been greeted with unalloyed joy but the consensus is that he’s a major talent whose musicality and love for ballet’s traditions augur well. As early as 2010, eminent British critic Clement Crisp wrote in The Financial Times: “Scarlett’s dances are a continuing joy, musically apt, fresh, yet firmly placed in a classic tradition. I admire his happy command of this language, and there are moments that tell of already sure resource in making emotional and dynamic points.”

On a personal level, “He’s a complete dream to work with,” says distinguished New Zealand designer Tracy Grant Lord, part of the all-local New Zealand production team for Dream. “Man, he’s so good, he’s so good.”

There’s something sweetly old-fashioned about Scarlett, who readily admits to being “too honest and too vulnerable”. (He’s been smart, then, about steering clear of social media: he has a Twitter account but has sent only four tweets and the last of those was nearly two years ago.) He could well be forgiven for being a tiny bit pleased with himself but that doesn’t seem to be part of his make-up. When talking about the creative team for Frankenstein, made up of people with whom he collaborates frequently, Scarlett said: “Having worked with them so often there’s a responsibility now. I owe them a good piece and I want to make their work sing. They’re my colleagues but also my friends now. So there’s this thing of you want to make someone proud.”

Even if he says “it just happened”, meaning his choreographic career, and even if to the world at large he looks to have rocketed out of nowhere – nowhere being the lowly rank of first artist as a dancer at the Royal – Scarlett has spent almost all his life preparing for exactly this. In the short version, he was picked up by the world’s radar with a well-received mainstage work, the one-act Asphodel Meadows, for the Royal in 2010. That led to a commission from Miami City Ballet for 2012 and the floodgates opened. Ethan Stiefel, then artistic director of RNZB, was one of the smart ones who got in early. In fact, Scarlett says A Midsummer Night’s Dream was one of his earliest commissions. That particular little square in the diary was filled in more than three years ago. Once Scarlett had agreed to make the ballet for RNZB, QB artistic director Li Cunxin quickly came on board to share the production.

Tonia Looker and MacLean Hopper 01 photo by Stephen A'Court

Royal New Zealand Ballet’s Tonia Looker and MacLean Hopper as Titania and Oberon in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Photo: Stephen A’Court

The longer story starts 25 years ago in Ipswich in the south of England when Scarlett was four, an energetic lad sent off to ballet classes. Early on he started “arranging people on stage nicely” for things, as he told a British newspaper several years ago. He was good enough to be accepted into The Royal Ballet School at 11 and that’s where he really started arranging people nicely.

Students were encouraged to choreograph and learn an instrument (piano for Scarlett). It was the best foundation he could have had. Scarlett can read a score fluently, saying it’s not only helpful but a matter of respect to be able to talk to a conductor with that level of understanding. Steven McRae, an Australian-born principal dancer with The Royal Ballet, has had key roles in several new Scarlett works (he is also in the first cast of Frankenstein) and tells Review: “His attention to detail is remarkable. The way he creates movement that reflects the music gives you the sense that the music is in fact coming out of you.”

Scarlett won prizes and got noticed from the off. Successive RB artistic directors gave him opportunities before and after he joined the company in 2005. In 2012 he was named artist in residence at the Royal, a position created for him. Although he was still enjoying being on stage Scarlett decided to concentrate on choreography fully around that time, just after current RB artistic director Kevin O’Hare had commissioned the three-act Frankenstein. “And then I stopped dancing the next day, or something.“

Scarlett doesn’t mind a dark subject. When Stiefel first called him about making a work for RNZB they tossed around ideas for about half an hour before Stiefel brought up Shakespeare’s much-loved play. Scarlett laughed and said Stiefel wanted Dream from the start but worked up to it slowly “maybe because it involves fairies and my usual aesthetic doesn’t veer towards that”. This is true. Scarlett’s CV contains two ballets with titles that refer to the afterlife (Asphodel Meadows, Acheron); a ballet about artist Walter Sickert’s obsession with Jack the Ripper (Sweet Violets); a particularly dark version of Hansel and Gretel; and a take on W.H. Auden’s The Age of Anxiety.

Dark fantasies can come to life in the safety of theatrical performance, he said. “But I do love creating glorious and happy pieces too. I just think the whole spectrum of human emotion should be explored. I love making an audience feel something.”

Scarlett isn’t over-awed by the fact RB founding choreographer Frederick Ashton’s one-act version of Shakespeare’s play, The Dream, is one of the best-known ballets on the subject. He knows it intimately, of course, having danced in it as a lowly Rustic (“I would have loved to have done Bottom”). Scarlett felt there was plenty of room for his own ideas. “Shakespeare gives you this magical world where anything is possible. You have a basis, but you have carte blanche as well. And I am in New Zealand, which helps. I’m far away,” he joked. More seriously, he said that “in terms of Ashton I would never go near Chopin after A Month in the Country. It is a perfect ballet.”

Hayley Donnison as a fairy credit Stephen A'Court

RNZB’s Hayley Donnison in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Photo: Stephen A’Court

When the curtain rises on Scarlett’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream the night air is full of mystery and mischief. A flock of fairies dashes thither and yon, adorable in fluffy, richly coloured tutus and super-sized wings. Now you see them and now you don’t as they dart behind glowing flowers or are glimpsed up in the tree canopy, catching their rulers, Oberon and Titania, having a domestic over ownership of a little changeling boy. The keen-to-please Puck pops out of a hiding place high above the forest floor to start getting everything wrong on Oberon’s behalf and his exertions are complicated by a group of young people blundering about in the dark, intent on romance and excitement. “They’re on a fairy safari,” said Tracy Grant Lord with a huge smile.

Like Ashton, Scarlett uses Mendelssohn’s Incidental Music written for the play but needed to augment it to fill two acts of dance. Other Mendelssohn pieces were arranged and orchestrated by then RNZB music director Nigel Gaynor, who is now with QB, and woven into a score overflowing with luscious melodies. RNZB’s current artistic director Francesco Ventriglia (he inherited the ballet from Stiefel) commented that while Scarlett’s RB training means he has the Ashton in his DNA, “he’s got a strong enough voice to make it his own”.

Scarlett takes seriously the responsibility of following in the footsteps of Ashton and the RB’s other great choreographers, Kenneth MacMillan and Ninette de Valois. “I’m a very lucky boy. I know that and I don’t take that for granted. Whenever I go to new places I take the RB’s name with me.”

A connecting thread between them all is a profound belief in the power of storytelling. Vivid acting and intense musicality are two of the Royal’s defining qualities and they are central to Scarlett’s Dream, which vibrates with vivid characters. “The story is always such a huge part for me. The dancers will hopefully tell you I couldn’t care less whether they fall on their faces or if they don’t do two pirouettes, but if the narrative doesn’t come through, if the intention or the emotion doesn’t apparate somehow, then it’s futile.” Apparate? “I’m in the fairy world at the moment,” Scarlett said with much laughter. “Everything comes with a puff of smoke or a burst of glitter. That’s where my vocabulary’s been going with this. I can’t remember the number of times I’ve said ‘magic’ or ‘glisten for me’, or ‘fly’. Story is a big thing for me and a very personal thing.”

It doesn’t faze Scarlett to walk into a room full of dancers he’s never met, all of them looking at him to make something happen. “The apprehension has gone. When I was younger there was a certain naivety that covered that up. Now I love it. It’s my job in the studio to make sure everyone has a great time, a good creative process, a collaborative process as well. I work with all casts in the studio. I don’t have my first cast out the front. I will create equally on everyone. That’s very important.”

Dancers obviously appreciate his approach. According to Steven McRae, “Liam has the sensitivity to read his dancers, knowing when to push them, take them out of their comfort zones yet generate a level of trust that allows the dancers to put their complete faith in him.” Li described Scarlett as having a curious, open mind. “He’s also very daring. Not willing to be typecast in one style.” Lucy Green, an Australian who was one of RNZB’s Titanias, said she had never worked with anyone who had given so much to dancers in the studio. “When he demonstrates you can see what he wants straight away. I’ve seen him demonstrate pretty much every role in the ballet and he nails it every time. He’s so believable as a fairy, so believable as the heartbroken lover, and then as the donkey, and you go wow, you could do the whole show yourself. Not all choreographers are like that. I can absolutely see why he’s such a star.”

When about to make a work Scarlett relies first on instinct and the subconscious – to let the ideas percolate. “Once that title is circling in my head you leave it for a little bit and every so often something will pop in and you’ll jot it down, and you’ve got a notepad of key components of looks or ideas and little nuances. Then once that happens you really do have to sit down with a blank piece of paper and go, ‘Right! Let’s start’.

“You’re very aware this has to be made for a ballet company. With any full-length you want to include the whole company and make it for them. Being a dancer myself the wonderful thing is that I got to experience having full-lengths made on the company and it was such a great experience to be part of that. If you’re not made to feel part of that it can be a very difficult time.”

He doesn’t work with a dramaturge. “I have been criticised for that. But I’ve also worked with people who have worked with a dramaturge and equally [they’ve been criticised]. No, I run things by people. I always run things by my creative team, and it’s also that thing of when I get into a studio I like being able to explore how you can tell a story, so there has to be a certain kind of flexibility within that narrative. There’s that thing of if I want to do it, I will do it, and if I make a mistake then it’s my mistake that I will learn from eventually.”

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Queensland Ballet, Brisbane, April 1-16.

A version of this story first appeared in The Weekend Australian in October last year.

Thrills and spills: the year in dance

We’ll get to the year’s most interesting work and dancers shortly but 2015 was also notable for offstage developments, particularly at Australia’s three leading classical companies, The Australian Ballet, Queensland Ballet and West Australian Ballet. So let’s begin there.

OFFSTAGE

The national company

At The Australian Ballet, David McAllister became the company’s longest-serving artistic director, surpassing Maina Gielgud’s 14-year reign. McAllister took over in July 2001 after the relatively brief tenure of Ross Stretton, who cut his time at the AB short to go to the Royal Ballet in London. McAllister was named to the post while he was still dancing, although retirement followed swiftly. It was a huge leap of faith on the part of the AB board as he had had no leadership experience but it is now emphatically his company. Of the AB’s current roster of 68 dancers, only two were members of the company before 2001 and two joined in 2001.

In another big first, this year McAllister put himself forward to stage a new production of The Sleeping Beauty. He had previously staged only a handful of minor pieces. The production is thought to have cost about $2 million and in a dazzling feat of fundraising, about 70 per cent came from 2000 or so ballet-lovers giving sums ranging from $100 to $50,000 or more. Audiences flocked to it, several dancers in Sydney were given career-changing opportunities and despite reservations from some critics (including me) about some aspects of the production, it must be counted a significant success for McAllister and The Australian Ballet.

McAllister shows absolutely no sign of becoming jaded and it wouldn’t surprise one to see him celebrate his 20th anniversary in the job in 2021.

The state companies

Queensland Ballet was the real surprise package of the year from a backstage perspective, making the position of its high-profile CEO Anna Marsden redundant. The announcement was made on July 9 and was supposed to take effect from September 1 but Marsden was quickly out of the picture. On July 29 QB’s chair, Brett Clark, said in a statement the company would appoint an executive director, whose role would be to enable the vision of artistic director Li Cunxin and drive operations.  Dilshani Weerasinghe, previously the company’s development director, was announced as acting executive director but she was soon the board’s permanent choice.

I spoke at length to Clark in early December about the move, very shortly after the company’s announcement that the Queensland Government would give QB an extra $1.2 million annually (bringing its contribution to $2.7 million annually) to support an increase in dancer numbers (an additional eight by 2020), expansion of its headquarters, increased international touring and a greater number of performances. In 2016 QB will have 31 company members and seven young artists.

The announcement by Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk also contained news of a $5 million gift from the Melbourne-based Ian Potter Foundation, earmarked for improvements to the company’s facilities at the Thomas Dixon Centre in Brisbane’s West End.

Clark said negotiations regarding both announcements had been “a long work in progress”. He said specific goals were for QB to be seen as a “powerhouse in the Asia-Pacific region” and to perform more frequently in regional Queensland. Touring to Sydney and Melbourne was not on the cards. “I think the AB services Sydney and Melbourne extremely well. They’re an amazing company.”

Clark declined to speak about the working relationship between Li and Marsden. He said, however, it had become “apparent that for us to get agreed goals and visions, it needed to be an artistic director-led strategy”. He said an executive director can have input into strategy and vision but the core role is to support the board and the company, “and in the case of Queensland Ballet, the artistic director on his or her vision for the company”. He also said that “Dilshani reports through Li to the board”.

Clark acknowledged Marsden’s role in QB’s rapid growth since Li became artistic director in 2011. He also said: “We needed Li’s vision and strategy leading the way forward.”

Clark would not discuss what went on behind the scenes but the implication is clear. Although Marsden was a key player in QB’s revival of fortunes following the departure of previous artistic director François Klaus, a structure in which both CEO and artistic director reported to the board created tension. The board chose Li.

I approached Marsden but she did not wish to comment.

West Australian Ballet will also be under new management next year following the announcement on December 14 that its CEO, Steven Roth, will be leaving in February to work with Scottish Ballet. Roth joined WAB in 2007 when the company had 19 very unhappy dancers who were agitating for the right to strike over their pay and conditions. (Their accommodation in His Majesty’s Theatre, where the company mainly performs, was limited to one studio and cramped production and administration space.) The dancers prevailed: the West Australian Government upped its funding and WAB now has 32 company members and eight young artists. One of the great achievements of Roth’s tenure can be seen in WAB’s gleaming State Ballet Centre in the Perth suburb of Maylands; another is the increase in the company’s operating revenue from $3.2 million in 2007 to $10 million in 2015.

Interestingly, Roth goes to Glasgow-based Scottish Ballet, the country’s national company, as executive director. That company already has a CEO – Christopher Hampson, who is also the company’s artistic director. He added CEO duties earlier this year after the sudden departure of chief executive Cindy Sughrue. In June Scotland’s Herald newspaper reported: “Scottish Ballet will now also begin a search for an executive director who will sit on the national company’s board and report to Hampson, with a remit for ‘clear focus on strategic vision and commercial success’.”

The Herald also reported Scottish Ballet’s chairman, Norman Murray, as saying “the board had undertaken a review of how the company was run, with aid from consultants, and believed it should be ‘artistically led’.”

ONSTAGE – CLASSICAL AND CONTEMPORARY

There are, I admit, a lot of gaps: no 2015 Melbourne Festival, no 2015 Adelaide Festival, no 2015 Dance Massive (Melbourne), although I had already seen one or two things on that program. I mention this because I travelled a fair bit in 2015 but not to everywhere or everything. My list doesn’t leave these things out because there was nothing of note, but because I wasn’t there. Adelaide would have been my big chance to see – at long last – Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet but that is now impossible. Cedar Lake’s financial backer closed the company not long after Adelaide. At Melbourne I could have caught up with the latest work from Batsheva, which I’ve seen regularly at Australian arts festivals, but no.

And a work that I reviewed reasonably strictly on first seeing it makes the list for its daring and its dancers. While I have issues with some of the dramaturgy in The Australian Ballet’s new Sleeping Beauty it is nevertheless a considerable achievement that provided three artists with role debuts that saw each immediately promoted to the next rank.

The productions are in the order in which I saw them and the performers in alphabetical order. The list is heavily skewed towards ballet because that’s the way the year panned out for me.

The best of the best? A Sleeping Beauty double: Alexei Ratmansky’s back-to-Petipa production for American Ballet Theatre and La Scala; and Benedicte Bemet’s dazzling debut as Aurora for The Australian Ballet.

PRODUCTIONS

Nothing to Lose, Force Majeure, Sydney Festival, January

Force Majeure founder Kate Champion has now moved on, leaving the company in new hands. Nothing to Lose, made with activist Kelli Jean Drinkwater, was a great farewell piece. It put the following propositions on stage: that fat people should not hide away, that they should be heard, that they are entitled to make choices, that they may actually like the way they are, and, by god, they can and will dance.

Puncture, Legs on the Wall, FORM Dance Projects, Sydney Philharmonia Choirs, Sydney Festival, January

Puncture started with “Hello” and ended with “I love you”. Is there anything more life-affirming? Six couples collided, grappled, touched, fought, flew, supported, changed partners, argued and loved. Choreographer Kathryn Puie evoked the formalities of Elizabethan court dance, the uniformity of line dancing, the romance of the waltz, the zing of the tango, the group spirit of folk and much more, but ultimately the dance was about body against body, skin against skin; sometimes restrained, sometimes tender, sometimes wild.

Mozart Dances, Mark Morris Dance Group, Perth International Arts Festival, February

In this seemingly carefree work Morris offered principles of profound beauty, not in a didactic way but with simplicity and grace. In Mozart Dances men and women were equal, each was an individual, there was strength to be gained from one another and there was belief in the power of love and joy.

Quintett, Sydney Dance Company, Sydney, March

The first cast was more balletic, the second more ferocious in this thrilling, heart-catching William Forsythe work. Not many companies are allowed to do it; Sydney Dance Company did it proud.

Sydney Dance Company's Quintett featuring Chloe Leong and David Mack 1. Photo by Peter Greig

Chloe Leong and David Mack in Quintett. Photo: Peter Greig

The Sleeping Beauty, American Ballet Theatre, New York, May

Alexei Ratmansky’s production took us as nearly as possible back to what the original 1890 audience would have seen: super-lavish setting, strong mime and many intimate, modest details. The physicality looked startlingly different. Instead of height and bravura there was refinement and great charm. For both men and women there was a great deal of petit allegro; low, laser-sharp, extremely swift footwork that sparkled. It was as virtuosic, or more so, than today’s emphatic gestures and much more intricate and sophisticated.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, choreographed by Liam Scarlett, Royal New Zealand Ballet, Auckland, September

What a gorgeous production! Designed by New Zealander Tracy Grant Lord and choreographed by hotter-than-hot Brit Liam Scarlett, this co-pro between Royal New Zealand Ballet and Queensland Ballet was funny, sexy and ravishing to behold. Brisbane sees it in April.

Hayley Donnison as a fairy credit Stephen A'Court

Hayley Dennison in Liam Scarlett’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream for Royal New Zealand Ballet. Photo: Stephen A’Court

The Sleeping Beauty, The Australian Ballet, Melbourne and Sydney, September and December

Gabriela Tylesova’s design, which drank deeply of Baroque and rococo influences, was almost absurdly beautiful. Tylesova revelled in saturated colours, flounces upon ruffles, embellishments, beads, crystals and feathers. There were columns, chandeliers and romantic vistas. She created an eye-filling, mouth-watering fantasy world that threw out a huge challenge to David McAllister: match this if you can, buddy. Well, he asked for it. There have been a few rumblings about the design being oppressively opulent but this greatest of ballet scores can bear the weight. It invites and deserves a magnificent mise en scène. It also requires storytelling that can fill the space and amplify the music. It’s in the latter sphere that Beauty doesn’t fully succeed despite the involvement of Lucas Jervies, a choreographer and director working as McAllister’s sounding board and adviser. It was extremely cheering, though, to see many very fine performances through the ranks and exciting role debuts (see below).

Ochres, Bangarra Dance Theatre, Sydney, November

It was a joy to see Ochres revived at Carriageworks with a dynamic new generation of dancers. Not that it was exactly the work originally choreographed by Stephen Page and Bernadette Walong-Sene, nor should it be. Dance texts are particularly susceptible to change and Bangarra has developed greatly since the early 1990s. This revival was in the spirit of the original rather than a faithful dusting off of the old steps. The company called it a re-imagining and it looked wonderful. Bangarra has a unique aesthetic based on the connection with Indigenous ceremony and the land. It’s extraordinarily beautiful and invigorating.

Cinderella, choreographed by Jayne Smeulders, West Australian Ballet, Perth, December

How many full-length, mainstage classical ballets choreographed by women were there on Australian stages this year? Just the one I think, Jayne Smeulders’s Cinderella. She reworked her 2011 production to advantage and scored a huge hit with Perth audiences. See: it can be done.

Coppélia, choreographed by Maina Gielgud for Christine Walsh’s Australian Conservatoire of Ballet, Melbourne, December

There was quite a lot of new choreography and loads of rearranging but basically Gielgud’s production was a staging rather than a new work. But what a beauty. It was hard to believe this was a student production, so high were its standards. The young dancers were not just technically assured, they gave terrifically engaged and engaging performances, working seamlessly with the delightful guest artists from Tokyo Ballet, Maria Kawatani and Arata Miyagawa. Christine Walsh designed the many costumes, all of them splendid.

PERFORMANCES

Stella Abrera, Giselle, American Ballet Theatre, New York, May

Abrera’s warmth and simplicity informed every moment of her performance; there wasn’t a thing that didn’t feel genuine. The mad scene tore at the heart. As she loses her reason Giselle re-enacts the plucking of flower petals, which earlier had quieted her anxiety about Albrecht – he loves me, he loves me not, he loves me. Now there was no anticipation or light. Abrera shook her head piteously. He doesn’t love me. (Abrera was at that time an ABT soloist; she was promoted to principal – very belatedly in the opinion of many – at the end of June.)

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Veronica Part, Stella Abrera and Vladimir Shklyarov in Giselle. Photo: MIRA

Benedicte Bemet, debut as Aurora, The Australian Ballet, Sydney, December

Quite simply one of the most exciting nights in the theatre, ever. Bemet, just 21, had the dew and radiance of youth, purity and joy in her dancing and was beyond fearless. You know how you almost always get butterflies when Aurora nears those balances and promenades in the Rose Adagio? Not so here. Bemet was absolutely in the moment and so was her audience. The balances were extraordinary, the crowd went wild, and Bemet just went from strength to strength. She went on as a coryphée and shortly afterwards was promoted to soloist. To be honest, it wouldn’t have surprised me if David McAllister had bounded on to the stage to make her a principal artist on the spot. But she has plenty of time for that.

Brett Chynoweth, Puck in The Dream, debut as Prince Désiré, The Australian Ballet, Sydney, May and December

Chynoweth is one of The Australian Ballet’s finest male technicians – he is fast, sleek, has fabulous feet and exciting elevation. This, however, is not what makes him so interesting. He is a passionate, poetic man who connects deeply with his roles and therefore with the audience. As Désiré his longing for love was palpable, and earlier in the year his Puck was a marvel of pyrotechnics and other-worldly humour. He is now, rightfully, a senior artist.

Chynoweth Boud

Brett Chenoweth as Puck in The Dream. Photo: Daniel Boud

Alina Cojocaru, Aurora, Queensland Ballet, Brisbane, October

She radiated light and joy from a tiny body that gave the impression not only of being buoyed by the music but indivisible from it. Her dancing was brilliant, each moment etched with great precision, yet everything felt as if it were the inspiration of that moment. Most potent of all was her warm generosity, seen in abundant, open-hearted gestures and an intense gaze that encompassed the entire theatre.

Thaji Dias, Dancing for the Gods, Chitrasena Dance Company, Sydney Festival, January

I got my first, and so far only, view of Thaji Dias during this year’s Sydney Festival. She is a ravishing artist, dancing in the Kandyan style from Sri Lanka with megawatts of charisma. The dance was dramatic and seductive and Dias’s command of it exhilarating with her divinely articulated wrists, rippling shoulders, jaunty strides, the deepest and plushest plies and the liveliest eyes.

Sylvie Guillem, Life in Progress, Sydney, August

At 50 Guillem left the stage on her own terms with an intensely personal program that showed her as a peerless exponent of works by some of contemporary ballet’s biggest names. Not for Guillem a nostalgic look back to her storied classical career. She was known as the most daring, searching and original ballerina of her generation, one whose astounding physical gifts and ferocious individuality were a game-changer in the art. But that was then. Her farewell program celebrated Guillem in the here and now, with new and recent work.

Robyn Hendricks, debut in Symphonic Variations, debut as Aurora, The Australian Ballet, Sydney, April and December

Hendricks is something of a late bloomer but no less valuable for that. Her willowy body gives her a regal air and she also seems a little unknowable, qualities that of course make one intensely aware of her. She looked serenely beautiful in the first cast of Symphonic Variations; as Aurora she was a queen in the making: watchful, elegant, sophisticated and lusciously aware of her suitors. She was promoted to senior artist immediately after her debut.

The Dream - Symphonic Variations

Aka Kondo, Cristiano Martino, Robyn Hendricks and Amber Scott in Symphonic Variations. Photo: Daniel Boud

Xavier Le Roy, Self Untitled, Carriageworks, Sydney, November

Xavier Le Roy’s 1998 solo Self Unfinished had particular resonance at the time of viewing, days after the terrorist attacks on Paris, summoning thoughts of the fragility of life, the resilience of the human spirit, the truth that we exist only at this moment, right now, and that we are all in it together. He didn’t make a big thing of it, but Le Roy’s piece had a strong sense of erasing the invisible barrier between audience and performer. He intrigued, delighted and provoked during a performance of quite intimacy.

Natalia Osipova/Steven McRae, Giselle, American Ballet Theatre, New York, May

Osipova’s Giselle had London aflame last year and this year had the New York audience entranced and exhilarated. She tore through the ballet with a passion, leaping higher, turning more quickly and covering ground more voraciously than any other. Osipova is a risk-taking dancer. She fell heavily towards the end of her final solo and took several agonising seconds to recover enough to stand. She limped back to the centre and resumed dancing, finishing the ballet not only courageously but with melting beauty. The clarity and complexity of McRae’s acting was wonderful. He gave not just the broad picture but made every moment vivid, fresh, illuminating and dramatically coherent. His dancing, it goes without saying, was full of brilliance without being bombastic. But there was no more riveting moment than one of complete stillness, when Albrecht heard the distant horns of the Royal hunting party and understood the chaos to come.

CHOREOGRAPHY

Kristina Chan, Conform, Sydney Dance Company, Sydney, December

“I am interested in what it means to be a man in this modern day,” Chan wrote in the program note to Conform, part of the annual New Breed program. She has a sombre view. When we first saw her men – there was an all-male cast of eight – they visibly buckled under the weight of expectation. They were either desperately alone with their thoughts or they fell in with the majority, losing individuality but absorbing the power of the pack. Conform was beautifully structured, vibrated with repressed emotion and had a very strong, pulsating and often ominous score by James Brown. It should be a keeper.

Justin Peck, Rōdē,ō, New York City Ballet, May

We haven’t seen a step of Peck’s in Australia as far as I know and it’s about time someone did something about it. His Rōdē,ō: Four Dance Episodes, to the music of Aaron Copland, is wondrous. (Don’t ask me about the odd accents in the title; perhaps Peck wanted to differentiate it from Agnes de Mille’s 1942 Rodeo, to this music.) A piece for 15 men and one fabulous woman, it surprises, invigorates and enchants at every turn. Peck, still dancing as a soloist with New York City Ballet, has the magic touch. This apparently abstract ballet is packed with ideas, relationships and really zingy choreography. NYCB probably doesn’t want to let it go just yet because it premiered only in February this year, but can someone please beg?

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.