‘La Fille mal gardée.’ Queensland Ballet

9 August 2017. Playhouse, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

It is always refreshing to see a different version of a well-known work. And so it was with Queensland Ballet’s La Fille mal gardée. The version that is well-known to many Australian dance-goers is by Frederick Ashton, which Ashton made for the Royal Ballet in 1960, and which has been in the repertoire of the Australian Ballet since 1967 (although it hasn’t been shown for several years). On the other hand, Queensland Ballet, in a co-production with West Australian Ballet, staged a relatively new version by French-born, freelance choreographer Marc Ribaud, which he made in 2000 for the Nice Opera Ballet.

Ribaud has retained the basic narrative. It follows the story of Lise and Colas who wish to marry, but whose wishes are thwarted by Lise’s mother, the Widow Simone—she would prefer that Lise marry the eccentric and wealthy Alain whose greatest love is for his umbrella. But the overall tone of Ribaud’s Fille, which is set in the south of France in the 1950s, is quite different from that in the Ashton work. The choreography for Ribaud’s work is classically based but is boisterous and full of fast-paced dancing. It seems to fill the stage in an entirely different way from Ashton’s work, which seems very English in its rather gentle and considered choreographic approach. Ribaud’s Fille, at least with the cast I saw, also has strong overtones of slapstick. While Ashton gives us references to pantomime, his are much more restrained. Perhaps more subtle?

Ribaud has also retained some audience favourites from the Ashton version, albeit with changes. The famous clog dance is there although the Widow is accompanied by four village lads who tap away beside her as she goes through her clog routine. The chicken dance is also there but in a variant form. There are no dancers dressed in chicken outfits, just four male friends of Colas and Lise, dressed in jeans and giving us chicken-like gestures—chins poking forward as they move, hands with fingers spread to represent a chicken’s comb and so on. It was hilarious and very clever.

As Lise, Lina Kim with her smooth and lyrical technique was absolutely charming—it was her first performance in the role too. She showed such a variety of emotion, depending on who else was involved at any one time, and her mime scene in the last act, when she imagines what might be should she marry Colas, was just gorgeous, as was her later embarrassment when she thought Colas had seen her. Shane Wuerthner was an ardent Colas and in the opening pas de deux set the scene beautifully for what was to follow. I was impressed, in fact, with all Ribaud’s pas de deux, which often reminded me of the style of Bournonville as so often Lise and Colas danced side by side in a complementary manner rather than the man having a more supportive role. That is not to say, of course, that there were no lifts and, in fact, when they occurred they varied from soaring lifts to shapes, often with upturned feet, in which Lise’s body wrapped round or curled up to that of Colas.

Despite a little trouble with his umbrella (it broke) and his hat, Ze Wu gave a strong performance as Alain and I look forward to seeing more of him in the future—his technical range looks prodigious. The umbrella and hat problems were beautifully and professionally handled by the cast, to the extent that the Widow Simone adopted the broken umbrella and stroked it lovingly! Joel Woellner as the Widow was totally outrageous. He was the slapstick hero(ine) and milked the audience at every opportunity. And of course the audience loved it and responded with laughter and cheers. And I enjoyed that Lina Kim gave back the way she did every time she was scolded.

Costumes by Lexi De Silva, sets by Richard Roberts and lighting by Jon Buswell provided a great background for the dancers of Queensland Ballet. Music was performed by Camerata—Queensland’s Chamber Orchestra and conducted with his usual skill by Nigel Gaynor. This Fille is a little gem and Queensland Ballet continues to show what a terrific company it has become. Bouquets to all.

(I have no images of the cast I saw, unfortunately. But below are some from another cast.)

Jack Lister as the Widow Simone and Camilo Ramos as Alain in 'La Fille mal gardee. Photo: David Kelly
Victor Estevez as Colas in La Fille mal gardee. Queensland ballet 2017. Photo: David Kelly

 

Artists of Queensland Ballet in 'La Fille mal gardee', 2017. Photo: © David Kelly

Artists of Queensland Ballet in La Fille mal gardée, 2017. Photos: © David Kelly

Michelle Potter, 12 August 2017

Featured image: Artists of Queensland Ballet in La Fille mal gardée, 2017. Photo: © David Kelly

Yanela Pinera and Alexander Idaszak as the Sugar Plum Fairy and the Prince in 'The Nutcracker', Queensland Ballet, 2016. Photo: © David James McCarthy

‘The Nutcracker’. Queensland Ballet

23 November 2016, Canberra Theatre

Below is an expanded version of my Canberra Times review of Queensland Ballet’s Nutcracker.

Across the world The Nutcracker is the quintessential Christmas experience. Children grow up knowing the story of Clara, and the Nutcracker Prince who takes her on a journey through a snowy forest to the Kingdom of Sweets. Those children (and their parents) look forward throughout the year to its annual return. It used to be a wonderful Christmas experience enjoyed each year by Australian dance audiences too, but that was long ago. Now we have occasional productions but none of the annual excitement. Recently, however, under the energetic and committed direction of artistic director, Li Cunxin, Queensland Ballet has begun to bring back the annual tradition of a Nutcracker Christmas. This year Canberra has been included as part of Queensland Ballet’s season. How lucky we are.

Every Nutcracker has its own character and every production has slight differences in how the story unfolds. Queensland Ballet’s production is by American-based choreographer Ben Stevenson, who currently directs Texas Ballet Theater in Fort Worth. It was Stevenson who, while directing Houston Ballet from 1976–2003, gave Li the chance to dance in the West when, while visiting Beijing, he offered Li a scholarship to appear in Houston. Since then Li has gone on from a major career as a dancer, including as a principal with the Australian Ballet, to his present position with Queensland Ballet.

Stevenson’s Nutcracker has a warm and homely atmosphere to its opening scenes. Children cross the stage in excitement and anticipation. Some drag their parents behind them. Some ride a sled. Some older people slip on the icy surface. They enter a house, complete with sparkling Christmas tree, where young and old mingle, laugh, eat and drink, dance, play (and have the odd argument), and exchange presents. Clara, youthfully and prettily danced by Mia Heathcote, is given a nutcracker doll by a mysterious visitor, Dr Drosselmeyer (Shane Wuerthner), and the story revolves around this toy. There is a strong comic element to the party scene, and there are more elderly characters than is often the case. Thomas Boyd’s set has a charmingly unpretentious and hospitable quality to it. It all makes for a genial gathering.

Mia Heathcote as Clara in 'The Nutcracker', Queensland Ballet, 2016. Photo: © David James McCarthy

Mia Heathcote as Clara in The Nutcracker, Queensland Ballet, 2016. Photo: © David James McCarthy

When the party is over and the guests have departed Clara is woken from her sleep by giant mice who attack her. A fight ensues and Clara kills the King Rat (Rian Thompson) with her shoe before her nutcracker toy is transformed into the Prince (Alexander Idaszak) and the journey to the Kingdom of Sweets begins. When she arrives, Clara is entertained by the inhabitants of the Kingdom, from the pastry cooks to the Sugar Plum Fairy (Yanela Piñera). Finally we find Clara and her toy nutcracker back at home. And we wonder if we, and Clara, have been dreaming?

Queensland Ballet tells the story clearly and smartly and the company dances this Nutcracker to perfection. The corps de ballet shone at every moment whether as snowflakes, life-sized toy soldiers, flowers, or other characters. The snowflakes were dazzling and the Snow Queen (Laura Hidalgo) danced an exceptional pas de deux with the Prince. Hidalgo had such a lyrical quality to her movement, and a beautifully fluid upper body. Every single movement was impressively defined, so much so that she looked as though she was dancing in slow motion. She was attentively partnered by Idaszak, who danced strongly but somehow gently and softly as well. But the flowers in the second act Waltz of the Flowers just amazed me with a series of pretty much perfect double pirouettes, moving across the stage in twos and performing in canon. They were led beautifully by Teri Crilly and Camilo Ramos. And everyone looked as though they loved dancing—no ‘pasted on’ smiles here. Wonderful to see.

Of the other divertissements in the Kingdom of Sweets it was quite special to see Mother Ginger (Liam Geck). This variation rarely appears in other productions but is a delightful sequence in which several children appear from beneath the huge, hooped skirt of a very tall, motherly (if somewhat outrageous) figure. The Mirlitons remained as a pas de trois but danced, instead of the usual three ladies, by two ladies and a man (Tara Schaufuss, Neneka Yoshida and Zhi Fang). The Chinese Dance (D’Arcy Brazier and Zuquan Kou) had an unusual martial arts twist; Spanish was a pas de six with the dancers dressed (by Desmond Heeley) in stunning red and black outfits; and the Russian was a solo for Vito Bernasconi. The audience favourite, however, was the Arabian Dance with Lina Kim and Joel Woellner. Their sinuous pas de deux was highlighted by a fabulous lift with Kim upside down in splits being tilted backwards while in the air.

And the choreographic highlight, the pas de deux and variations of the Sugar Plum Fairy and the Prince, was worth waiting for. I have admired Yanela Piñera in other recent Queensland Ballet productions and, as the Sugar Plum Fairy, she again showed her clean, strong technique. This time I especially admired her lovely little twists of the neck and a beautifully executed double turn in attitude that was done as a supported finger turn. She was partnered by Idaszak as the Prince, who once again was a most attentive partner.

There were so many charming, memorable moments, but in the end this evening stood out as a heart-warming performance of a much-loved ballet by a company that in recent years has gone from strength to strength. Despite funding issues, mentioned by Li Cunxin in his post-performance speech, Queensland Ballet stands tall and proud as a company that cares about the art form and its future. May they return many times to Canberra. We are ready and waiting.

Disclaimer: I had two family members in the children’s cast of Queensland Ballet’s Nutcracker.

Michelle Potter, 25 November 2016

Featured image: Yanela Piñera and Alexander Idaszak as the Sugar Plum Fairy and the Prince in The Nutcracker, Queensland Ballet, 2016. Photo: © David James McCarthy

Yanela Pinera and Alexander Idaszak as the Sugar Plum Fairy and the Prince in 'The Nutcracker', Queensland Ballet, 2016. Photo: © David James McCarthy

On a personal note: I was (rightly) required by The Canberra Times to include a disclaimer to my review as I had two grandsons performing in the children’s cast. But I have to say that I am thrilled that these two young boys will grow up knowing the excitement of The Nutcracker as a Christmas ballet, and knowing the full ballet rather than a version downsized for children!

The online Canberra Times review is at this link.

‘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