Synergy, Queensland Ballet

Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Arts, Brisbane, June 28

Synergy is a small, unpretentious program that’s partly a place where emerging choreographers can test their capabilities and partly where Queensland Ballet’s Young Artists and members of its Pre-Professional year can get some stage time. Both these things are important aspects of QB’s remit but, at least in this year’s iteration, the focus is unclear.

Synergy 2019 puts new work by three highly experienced dance-makers alongside that of two neophytes and casts dancers from QB’s main company as the featured performers in three of the five works. That doesn’t exactly translate to boundless opportunity for the up-and-comers.

Queeensland Ballet

Camilo Ramos and Neneka Yoshida in Never, Stop Falling in Love. Photo: David Kelly

QB’s chief ballet master Greg Horsman is a man with extensive choreographic credits and his Never, Stop Falling in Love could easily pop up on a mainstage triple bill. It’s certainly more engaging than Trey McIntyre’s new The Shadows Behind Us that premiered recently in QB’s Masters Series. The works have some similarities, being danced to popular music interpreted by intriguing artists: jazz singer Jimmy Scott in the McIntyre; genre-hopping “little orchestra” Pink Martini for Horsman.

In Never, Stop Falling in Love three QB couples dance sultry duos while Young Artists weave in and out, promenading or dancing together as if it were a late summer’s evening on the boardwalk. Horsman’s theme of love – no more, no less – may not be earth-shattering but Never, Stop Falling in Love has plenty of charm and leaves a warm glow as it brings the evening to a close.

Queeensland Ballet

QB Young Artists in Magnetic Fields. Photo: David Kelly

Paul Knobloch’s Magnetic Fields, to the music of the seemingly ubiquitous Ludovico Einaudi, is a strong opener. Knobloch is a former dancer with The Australian Ballet, currently a ballet master with that company and has been making dances for more than a decade. Magnetic Fields is danced wonderfully by the 12 Young Artists who later backed up in Never, Stop Falling in Love but here they are the main game. Wearing close-fitting metallic bodysuits, they attract and repel one another, forming and reforming into ever-shifting huddles and lines. The work is entirely abstract but in several solos there’s a suggestion of the individual standing apart from the group, sometimes tentatively, sometimes forcefully.

Queeensland Ballet

Camilo Ramos and Lina Kim in The Cloud of Unknowing. Photo:David Kelly

The third professional choreographer is former Expressions Dance Company artistic director and former Australian Ballet resident choreographer Natalie Weir. Her pas de deux The Cloud of Unknowing, to music of the same name by Gerard Brophy, is another meditation on love, this time involving conflict. QB dancers Lina Kim and Camilo Ramos gave it their considerable all but it’s a forgettable piece with no compelling reason for being on the program.

Company dancer Lou Spichtig sparked the interest with a short narrative work performed by QB dancers Chiara Gonzalez, D’Arcy Brazier and Liam Geck. Spichtig based Demain dès L’Aube on a Victor Hugo poem she learned as a child so it has a lot of personal meaning for her, even if the work feels a little old-fashioned coming from the hands of such a young woman.

Hugo’s daughter made a marriage of which he didn’t approve, causing a deep rift between father and child. She died by drowning, something Hugo only learned about by reading a newspaper report. Spichtig lays out the story clearly, gracefully and with a good grasp of dramatic tension and structure. Her choice of music by Schnittke, Chopin and others is apt and her work quite unlike any others on the program. Spichtig is definitely worth encouraging.

Queeensland Ballet

Liam Geck, Chiara Gonzalez and D’Arcy Brazier in Demain dès L’Aube. Photo: David Kelly

Interestingly, the work that resonates most strongly happens to be by an emerging choreographer, QB dancer Pol Andrés Thió, and a 14-strong cast entirely drawn from the Pre-Professional Program. Thió describes Always in Flight as being “about how we experience art when we find meaning in it”. That concept isn’t easily discerned in the work, but never mind. It looks terrific and has a distinctive voice.

Always in Flight opens with two women in the most basic, unassertive costume imaginable: flesh-coloured leotards and tights that make the dancers look both innocent and vulnerable. Their interactions are physically simple but emotionally complicated – wary, perhaps, but supportive too as one lifts the other.

One woman seems cast as the outsider as men dressed in black flood the stage and other women join the group, they in loose trousers, their long hair flowing. Later everyone wears a long skirt and the lone woman is persuaded, briefly, to don one too. There is an enigmatic interlude in which we hear only the woman’s harsh breathing as she hunches her shoulders as if in distress, an image returned to at the end.

Queeensland Ballet

QB Pre-Professional Program dancers in Always in Flight. Photo: David Kelly

Thió’s handling of this large group is impressive. He has a good sense of ebb, flow and dynamics and the music by Moses Sumney, Hiatus Kayote and Aram Khachaturian is used effectively – not always the case when such different musicians are put alongside one another.

Synergy is performed without sets but with highly expert contributions from costume designers Noelene Hill and Fiona Holley and lighting  designers Cameron Goerg and Scott Chiverton.

Synergy ends July 6.

The Masters Series, Queensland Ballet

Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane, May 17 and 18 (matinee)

Old politicians are never the ones who die in battle, are they? Jiří Kylián’s Soldier’s Mass (1980) isn’t the only ballet to illustrate that poignant truth but it is one of the most affecting.

With Bohuslav Martinů’s anguished Field Mass (1939) ringing in their ears, 12 young men face war and their fears. They are seen at first swaying from side to side in front of a blue sky with a curved red horizon line (Kylián designed set and costumes). Here they stand, buffeted by fate and heading for a conclusion that is never in doubt.

QB Soldiers Mass. Photo Darren Thomas

Queensland Ballet in Soldier’s Mass. Photo: Darren Thomas

The distinction between the soldiers they are forced to be and the community they once were is constantly blurred as formal battle formations give way to group folk dances and gestures of tender support.

As the dance goes on the sky gradually, inevitably darkens. To the sound of martial trumpets, drums that crack like bullets and a stirring male choir, the men advance and retreat, gather and disperse. They fall then rise and fall again as death repeatedly takes its toll. Individuals emerge momentarily from the pack but are inexorably subsumed back into it. They can’t escape their destiny and you would need a heart of stone to remain unmoved.

Martinů, who was born in Czechoslovakia as was Kylián, wrote this music in 1939 after the Nazis invaded his homeland as an act of support for the Resistance. As Soldier’s Mass comes to its end, red light stains the men’s light-coloured shirts. They take their shirts off and throw them to the ground. They won’t be needing them anymore.

On opening night and at the next day’s matinee the Queensland Ballet men looked spent at the end of this wrenching half-hour, as well they may. They danced Soldier’s Mass with affecting seriousness and purpose, even if the commanding, weighty groundedness of Kylián’s style wasn’t entirely captured by everyone.

QB Serenade. Principal Artist Lucy Green (2)Photo Darren Thomas

Principal artist Lucy Green in Serenade. Photo: Darren Thomas

Soldier’s Mass closes QB’s triple bill. The women of the company (and a few men) open it with George Balanchine’s glorious Serenade, a love letter to the language and history of classical dance. Serenade (1935) is a balletomane’s dream with its references to Giselle, hints of Swan Lake and homage to Balanchine’s own Apollo, made in 1928. And has any other choreographer made fifth position of arms and feet look more radiant? (It’s a rhetorical question.)

Serenade was the first ballet Balanchine made in the US and is famous for its incorporation of errors made by his student cast – a late arrival, a fall. It was reworked several times to reach its current sublime form and is now unthinkable without the floaty, romantic Karinska costumes designed in 1952.

The QB women – 20 of them – were lustrous at both performances I saw, particularly Lucy Green as the Russian Girl in the first cast. The downside on opening night (fixed for the Saturday matinee) was a persistent buzz in the sound system that did no favours to the recording of Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings. There was, unfortunately, no live music for this program.

Serenade and Soldier’s Mass bookended American choreographer Trey McIntyre’s new The Shadows Behind Us, a minor work in which six glamorous couples enact romantic entanglements.

McIntyre’s busy vignettes mix ballet and ballroom and have lots of quirky moves and complicated, often awkward-looking partnering that may have looked more persuasive had there been a better fit between dance and music. It was a treat, though, to be introduced to American jazz singer Jimmy Scott (he died in 2014).

The Shadows Behind Us is set to half a dozen popular songs, given slow, torchy treatment by Scott, who had a condition that delayed his development, leaving him with a voice akin to that of a female alto. The selections include Unchained Melody, Our Day Will Come and, disconcertingly, Exodus, a song written for the film of that name about the founding of Israel.

QB Shadows Behind Us. David Power and Darcy Brazier. Photo Darren Thomas

David Power and D’Arcy Brazier in The Shadows Behind Us. Photo: Darren Thomas

A disconnect between song and dance can be artistically fruitful (as with Merce Cunningham and John Cage) but here the juxtaposition felt inert and immaterial. It made sense to read in the program that McIntyre “doesn’t really listen to the lyrics in pop songs”. The Shadows Behind Us may have been rather more memorable if he had a different view.

The best duo by far is that for two men to Sometimes I Feel like a Motherless Child, danced with a satisfying combination of power and grace by David Power and D’Arcy Brazier (at the first performance) and Pol Andrés Thió and Suguru Otsuka (at the matinee).

The work looks attractive, with its women in knee-length party frocks with voluminous underskirts and men in suits minus shirts.

The Masters Series ends May 25. This is an expanded version of a review that appeared in The Australian on May 20.

The Australian Ballet and Queensland Ballet reveal 2019 programs

Alice Topp was yesterday named The Australian Ballet’s fourth resident choreographer, joining Stephen Baynes and Stanton Welch, (both appointed in 1995) and Tim Harbour (2014). Topp, a coryphée with the company, is the second woman to be given the title following Natalie Weir. It’s been a long time between drinks: Weir held the post for several years from 2000.

TAB_Aurum_Alice Topp_Photo Kate Longely (5)

Alice Topp, The Australian Ballet’s new resident choreographer. Photo: Kate Longley

Topp was nurtured via TAB’s Bodytorque series, as was Harbour. The choreographic development program has, unfortunately, been put on the backburner after several years of diminishing numbers of performances and participants. Bodytorque was MIA this year and is nowhere in sight in TAB’s 2019 program, announced yesterday.

Still, the Topp appointment is extremely good news and the year’s two new productions are highly enticing – well, if you live in Sydney or Melbourne. Other cities will have to wait. Stanton Welch’s production of Sylvia (a co-production with Welch’s Houston Ballet) brings to the repertoire a ballet never before performed by TAB, and Graeme Murphy collaborates with brilliant designer Kim Carpenter on The Happy Prince, based on the Oscar Wilde story. The Happy Prince will feature a new score by Christopher Gordon.

TAB artistic director David McAllister said yesterday The Happy Prince would be a “beautiful, rich, whole of family experience”. In recent years TAB has put a great deal of energy into reaching young audiences, including offering child-friendly versions of the classics in performances that run for less than an hour. In 2019 the family audience will also be lured with repeats of Peter Wright’s The Nutcracker (Melbourne, Adelaide, Sydney) and Christopher Wheeldon’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (Brisbane, Melbourne).

Having been staged only in Melbourne last year, Topp’s latest work, Aurum, will be seen in Sydney in 2019 as part of the contemporary program Verve. With Topp’s appointment it’s now a resident choreographers’ triple bill: alongside Aurum is Baynes’s Constant Variants from 1997 and Harbour’s Filigree and Shadow(2015). Aurum is also slated to appear at New York’s Joyce Theatre in May.

TAB_Verve_Aurum_Kevin Jackson, Leanne Stojmenov_Photo Jeff Busby

Kevin Jackson and Leanne Stojmenov in Alice Topp’s Aurum. Photo: Jeff Busby

Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo will perform Jean-Christophe Maillot’s contemporary Swan Lake, LAC, as part of TAB’s 2019 season in Melbourne only.

Queensland Ballet has also just announced its 2019 season. The big news is the world premiere of artistic associate Liam Scarlett’s Dangerous Liaisons to the music of Saint-Saëns, co-produced with Texas Ballet Theater. Tracy Grant Lord will design, as she did so delightfully for Scarlett’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which QB co-produced with Royal New Zealand Ballet. (QB takes Dream to Melbourne next week.)

QB will bring back the Kenneth MacMillan Romeo and Juliet that was such a success for the company in 2014 and continues its annual Nutcracker tradition by restaging Ben Stevenson’s production for the seventh time.

A triple bill of ballets by George Balanchine, Jiří Kylián and Trey McIntyre and the very successful Bespoke program take care of contemporary ballet. Bespoke is where QB delivers a full evening of new choreography from experienced dance-makers – next year’s names are Lucy Guerin, Amy Hollingsworth and RNZB’s Loughlin Prior – while emerging choreographers will be seen in Synergy.

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.

Ends July 11. Limited availability.

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

Kusch joins the AB; Cubans come to Brisbane

AS I foreshadowed on December 15 on my Diary page, Queensland Ballet has lost one of its principal artists, Natasha Kusch, to The Australian Ballet. Kusch was with QB for less than 18 months after leaving the Vienna State Opera Ballet. She joins the AB as a senior artist. In a press statement released today the AB says Kusch will make her debut as Giselle when Maina Gielgud’s production opens in Melbourne in March.

Kusch is pictured here as Juliet with Australian superstar Steven McRae, who was a guest artist from the Royal Ballet when QB staged Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet last year.

Natasha Kusch and Steven McRae in Romeo and Juliet

Natasha Kusch and Steven McRae in Romeo and Juliet

There is significant movement at several of the country’s leading dance companies, but none more striking than at QB. It’s possible to interpret Kusch’s move as something that could create tension between QB’s artistic director Li Cunxin and the AB’s David McAllister (the two, of course, danced together at the AB) but it also points to how greatly Li has increased QB’s strength and visibility.

And Li was able to bury news of Kusch’s departure in an early-December press release. The big announcement he had to trumpet was the hiring of two dancers from the National Ballet of Cuba – premier Yanela Piñera and principal Camilo Ramos (the top two ranks at NBC).

As I wrote on my Diary page at the time, the pair, partners in life, join at the end of this month. Piñera joined NBC in 2005 and was promoted to premier dancer in 2011. She would have gained some knowledge of Brisbane when NBC visited in 2010. Unfortunately she wasn’t in the opening night cast of Don Quixote so I haven’t seen her dance live but there are, naturally, many clips on YouTube. It will be fascinating to see how the Cubans fit into the QB repertoire for next year – La Sylphide, Coppelia, Trey McIntyre’s Peter Pan and The Sleeping Beauty.

The QB press release said Piñera’s position would exist under Queensland Ballet’s International Guest Artist program, funded by the Jani Haenke Charitable Trust, but Li told me that Piñera will be a full-time principal – her position is not apparently like that of Huang Junshuang, who for two years was QB’s very welcome guest principal but not permanently with the company.

Further down the press release was news of comparable interest, the retirement of incredibly valuable principal Matthew Lawrence and long-serving soloist Nathan Scicluna. However, with the arrival of Piñera to join principals Hao Bin, Clare Morehen and Meng Ningning and with Ramos joining soloists Lisa Edwards and Shane Wuerthner (an American who joined QB last year), the senior ranks are close to full strength.

West Australian Ballet is seeking a new senior man after the announcement that soloist Daniel Roberts has joined Sydney Dance Company, where there have been extensive changes in the 16-member troupe. Chloe Leong, Josephine Weise and Sam Young-Wright have also joined and former member Richard Cilli has returned. Leaving are Chen Wen, Tom Bradley and Jessica Thompson, while Chris Aubrey is taken a year’s sabbatical. Company member Petros Treklis joined only last year.

Lee Johnston is SDC’s new rehearsal director.

Bangarra Dance Theatre also announced the return of two former dancers who left last year but are now back in the fold – and it’s very good news. Deborah Brown and Daniel Riley, both of whom also choreograph, are back with the company.

The AB also has three new junior dancers, coryphée Nicola Curry, who was formerly with American Ballet Theatre, and corps members Shaun Andrews and Callum Linnane, who are Australian Ballet School graduates.

West Australian Ballet opens its 2015 season with Zip Zap Zoom: Ballet at the Quarry, Perth, from February 6; The Australian Ballet’s 2015 season starts in Sydney with Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake from February 20 and Giselle opens in Melbourne on March 13; Sydney Dance Company opens Frame of Mind in Sydney on March 6; Queensland Ballet’s La Sylphide opens in Brisbane on March 20; Bangarra’s Lore opens in Sydney on June 11 and before then the company works on a film of Spear, based onStephen Page’s wonderful 2000 work of that name, which will premiere at the Adelaide Film Festival in October.