‘Strictly Gershwin’. Queensland Ballet

27 May 2016, Lyric Theatre, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane

Derek Deane made his Strictly Gershwin for English National Ballet in 2008 when it was shown in London’s cavernous Royal Albert Hall. I have to admit I wondered how it would look on Queensland Ballet in the rather more confined space of Brisbane’s Lyric Theatre. Well I need not have worried. It looked spectacular!

Strictly Gershwin is a show in the true sense of the word—an impressive spectacle. It highlights all kinds of dance from ballet to tap to the charleston. It has an onstage jazz orchestra, largely consisting of musicians from Queensland Symphony Orchestra conducted by a very charismatic Gareth Valentine, and musically it is enhanced by the presence of some outstanding vocalists. It has eye-catching, Hollywood-style lighting and razzle dazzle costumes. And Queensland Ballet is augmented by special guest dancers, a corps of tap dancers and a larger corps of pre-professional dancers. It was some feat to bring this show together. The stage looked a little crowded only occasionally, and a few opening night problems and fumbles will, I am sure, be ironed out in later performances. The audience reaction was loud and appreciative throughout, especially for lead tappers, Kris Kerr and Bill Simpson, with a standing ovation for all at the end.

As the name implies, the show celebrated the music and lyrics of George and Ira Gershwin, from works made for film and musicals to concert hall compositions. The fun begins with the overture in which Valentine displays his dancing skills in addition to his skills with the baton. But the big number from the first half of the program for me was ‘Shall we dance?’ which, with its glamorous black, white and sparkling silver costumes, and its images of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers that are flashed onto an upstage screen, reminded us of those great Hollywood movies of the 1930s. Led by Clare Morehen and Christian Tátchev, it was distinguished by a wonderful range of choreography from quite formal ballroom-style partnering and poses to fast jitterbug moves. What a versatile company of dancers we saw.

In the second half the standout number for me was another big one, ‘Oh, lady be good’, featuring tappers Kerr and Simpson along with Rachael Walsh making a return appearance with Queensland Ballet. They were joined by a guest corps of tap dancers and each and every dancer shone, sparkled and smiled from beginning to end. Such a pleasure to watch.

Overall, my pick of the dancers on this occasion was Lina Kim, beautifully fluid and partnered strongly by Rian Thompson in ‘Someone to watch over me’. She appeared at other times in less featured roles throughout the evening and showed off some fabulous footwork and dancing that carried me away with pleasure as I watched her joyous dancing. I was also swept away by the tango-esque choreography of ‘It ain’t necessarily so’ danced by Yanela Piñera and Camilo Ramos, both perfectly cast to bring a slinky sexuality to the choreography. Then there was Mia Heathcote and Shane Wuerthner in an apache-style duet to music from ‘An American in Paris’. Gorgeous choreography here too especially those subtle changes to the placement of the legs as Heathcote was lifted, turned, lowered and twisted by Wuerthner.

Perhaps the one section that seemed a little messy was the Paris scene. It showed off such a range of characters—people riding bikes, nuns, circus people, characters on roller skates, the full gamut of Parisian characters—that the stage seemed overpopulated to me. Perhaps this was where the Albert Hall was needed? But Strictly Gershwin is a fabulous show, filled with great music and dancing, and an event to be enjoyed rather than analysed. Definitely a major coup for Queensland Ballet.

Michelle Potter, 29 May 2016

 

 

International Gala 2011. Queensland Ballet

Asaf Messerer’s brief pas de deux, Spring Waters, was first seen in Australia around five decades ago when the Bolshoi Ballet visited the country. Then it was the most technically exciting pas de deux most people had ever seen. Now those high lifts with the man using just one arm to hold his partner aloft, and the sight of a female dancer throwing herself through the air into the arms of her partner, are not so rare. But Spring Waters remains a delight and its inclusion on the Queensland Ballet’s 2011 International Gala was something of a treat. Despite having to perform it to what sounded like an ancient recording, two of the guests artists who joined the dancers of Queensland Ballet for the gala, Ambra Vallo and Tyrone Singleton from Birmingham Royal Ballet, danced it with just the right sense of youthfulness and joy.

Vallo and Singleton also danced the pas de deux from Frederick Ashton’s Two Pigeons. This charming yet elegant pas de deux was a reminder that choreographers whose voice is distinctive are rare and precious. It was a joy to watch Ashton’s placement of the two dancers in relation to each other, often in unexpected but always harmonious juxtapositions.

Other works on the program were not so well served by international performers, or by their choreographers. Two very youthful dancers from Singapore Dance Theatre made a brave effort with the final pas de deux from The Sleeping Beauty. Kenya Nakamura as the Prince was inflexible in the upper body and very nervous. It meant that his performance was stilted and wooden. His partner, Tomoko Takahashi, had a lovely smile and was technically capable of executing the steps, but her performance suffered from inadequate partnering.

Two dancers from Berlin’s Staatsballett, Krasina Pavlova and Rainer Krenstetter, each had a solo on the program, although Krenstetter’s solo, Barocco by Renato Zanella, was little more than a series of poses. They also danced together in Grand pas classique, choreographed by Victor Gsovsky. Their performance in this pas de deux with variations in the traditional manner needed much more vivacity than we were given. I think both dancers needed to be reminded that dance happens with the human body and thus is inherently sexy (if not necessarily overtly sexual), especially if it is a pas de deux. There was little engagement between Krenstretter and Pavlova in Grand pas classique, and little engagement with the audience other than an occasional, unwarranted look of triumph on completion of certain steps. A great disappointment.

Probably the most interesting, and certainly the most anticipated work on the program was Nils Christe’s Short Dialogues, a new work for three couples. Set to music by Philip Glass, Christe’s choreography is ‘of the moment’. Bodies wrap around bodies and stretch into seemingly impossible positions, Visually it is often hard to disentangle one body from another. The work was expertly performed by Clare Morehen and Keian Langdon, Meng Ningning and Hao Bin formerly of the National Ballet of China but now dancing with Queensland Ballet, and Rachael Walsh and Christian Tátchev. And while the choreography and its performance were impressive, what made this work really stand out for me was the lighting design by David Walters. It gave the work an almost liquid quality: Short Dialogues seemed to pass before our eyes like an unexpected breeze—here one minute, gone the next.

At this International Gala the strongest performers were rarely the international guests but rather the dancers of Queensland Ballet. Apart from the execution of Christe’s slick, contemporary choreography, they also showed their theatricality in François Klaus’ Overture and Finale. His choreography for the opening and closing sequences of the gala had overtones of a contemporary commedia dell’arte and the dancers responded in a manner that was beautifully playful and slightly humorous. Noelene Hill’s pert red and orange costumes, including the cheeky frill on the women’s costume and the equally cheeky short shorts that were part of the men’s outfit, were perfect in carrying through the style.

The dancers carried their ability to move between diverse choreographic styles into Rosetta Cook’s homage to the tango, Hall of Flame, a work dedicated to former artistic director of Queensland Ballet, Harold Collins, who died just a week before the gala. I especially admired Kathleen Doody in Hall of Flame. She gave a cool, sophisticated reading of her character in a slightly over-long work that required cameo performances from each dancer.

Galas are always touch and go events. Unless the performers and the choreography are exceptional, and this was not always the case with this gala, such occasions are inevitably beset with problems of uneven quality and interest, as was the case.

Michelle Potter, 8 August 2011