The three 'Ghost Figures' from 'Ghost Dances'. Queensland Ballet, 2017. Photo: © David Kelly

‘RAW.’ A triple bill from Queensland Ballet

17 March 2017, Playhouse, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane

One of the most refreshing aspects of Queensland Ballet’s current vision is contained in its repertoire. If Li Cunxin can’t always give us a live musical accompaniment, as was the case with the RAW program, he will always present us, especially in a triple bill, with a program that is provocative or filled with choreography that demands attention in some way.

RAW began with Liam Scarlett’s No Man’s Land, a work made in 2014 to commemorate the centenary of World War I. It was created on English National Ballet and my review of ENB’s production is at this link. The work was very nicely staged on Queensland Ballet by Yohei Sasaki, ENB’s repetiteur. It is a beautifully conceived, designed, lit, and choreographed work, and all the best qualities I recall from my previous experience had transferred well to Queensland Ballet.

This time, with the benefit of having seen the work already, I particularly noticed the group sections from both men and women. I was especially admiring of the swirling, breathtaking lifts, often with airborne elements, during a pas de six between three of the women and their partners; the subsequent pas de deux each of the pairs then executed; and the subtle and moving way the women parted from their men at the end of each pas de deux.

Victor Estevez and Mia Heathcote in 'No Man's Land'. Queensland Ballet, 2017. Photo: © David Kelly

Victor Estevez and Mia Heathcote in a pas de deux from No Man’s Land. Queensland Ballet, 2017. Photo: © David Kelly

There was also more emotion than I remembered from the previous occasion in the way the women sat, at times, on the raised area of the set as the men engaged in war activities on the lower space. It was the remarkable Mia Heathcote who drew my attention to this quietly dramatic aspect of the work. There she sat, scrunched over, feeling the pain throughout her body, and making me feel the pain as well.

If No Man’s Land opened the program with a flourish, Christopher Bruce’s Ghost Dances closed it with equal strength. It probably has extra resonance for those of a certain age who recall the once ubiquitous sound of the haunting music of the Andes, and Chile in particular, played by Inti-Illimani. Ghost Dances, made by Bruce originally in 1981, is set to this music. But this is not to detract from the work’s inherent political message concerning the effects of political coups on the population of the country involved, specifically in this case the 1973 coup d’état in which Augusto Pinochet came to power in Chile.

Sophie Zoricic and Liam Geck in Ghost Dances. Queensland Ballet, 2017. Photo: © David Kelly

Bruce’s choreography is somewhat eccentric, although it fits the music beautifully. And, to their credit, the dancers of Queensland Ballet managed with aplomb the tilts and bends of the body and sometimes the head and neck, the upturned feet, and the ever-flowing movement. The three ghost figures wove their way, insidiously, into the popular dancing. Their presence was powerful and meaningful and the exit of the ‘common folk’ at the end, leaving the ghost figures alone on stage, was stark but expected.

In between these two moving and powerful works was Greg Horsman’s Glass Concerto, which Horsman has been working on in stages over a number of years. There were some outstanding technical fireworks, especially in the third movement with very fast chaîné turns from all involved, and some spectacular jumps as well. But the opening movement reminded me rather too much of Twyla Tharp’s In the Upper Room as the dancers disappeared into upstage fog, and I longed for more fluidity in the choreography.

Yanela Pinera in 'Glass Concerto. Queensland Ballet, 2017. Photo: David Kelly

Yanela Piñera in Glass Concerto. Queensland Ballet, 2017. Photo: © David Kelly

Michelle Potter, 18 March 2017

Featured image: The three ‘Ghost Figures’ from Ghost Dances, Queensland Ballet. Photo: © David Kelly

Happy New Year

Dance diary. December 2016

  • Happy New Year

May 2017 be a very happy and productive new year for all. My thanks to all those who have logged on to my site during 2016, and special thanks to those who have made comments throughout the year, or made contact in other ways.

My Canberra dance picks for 2016 have already been published by The Canberra Times, and posted, with additional comments, at this link. My ‘best of’ reaching beyond, but including Canberra will appear as part of the annual Critics’ Survey in Dance Australia in the February/March issue.

Perhaps more than anything in 2016 I have been impressed and encouraged by Queensland Ballet—great programming, wonderful dancing, a company on the move. For me, QB’s production of Liam Scarlett’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream was the 2016 standout across the board. But the company also gave us the fabulously glamorous Strictly Gershwinthe mixed bill Lest We Forget, which included Natalie Weir’s haunting We who are left; and, of course, the warmth and comfort of an old favourite in the Ben Stevenson production of The Nutcracker. I look forward to more from this vibrant company in 2017.

Clare Morehen in Natalie Weir's We who are left. Queensland Ballet, 2016. Photo: © David Kelly

Clare Morehen in Natalie Weir’s We who are left. Queensland Ballet, 2016. Photo: © David Kelly

  • On course 2016. QL2 Dance

The On course program has become an annual December event for QL2 Dance. The program offers students taking tertiary dance courses from across Australia to come to Canberra to choreography, collaborate, perform and be mentored. This year, the tenth year of the initiative, nine short new works made up the program.

It was an evening of occasional promise but overall a very mixed bag. Probably the most interesting part of the evening was a question that came from an audience member at the Q & A that followed the showing. A gentleman began his question with the words ‘I am a scientist.’ He then proceeded to ask (with apologies to the gentleman as I am not able to quote him exactly) whether the choreographers aimed to make work that was understandable, and whether they thought of the audience as they created. A long-ish reply ensued with several choreographers making comments, which largely focused on the fact that the choreographers thought more about giving expression to their ideas rather than whether it was understandable to the audience.

What surprised me most of all was that the initial, and perhaps most forceful response, came from Oonagh Slater, currently a tertiary student at the Victorian College of the Arts and a former performer with QL2.  Her solo work was probably the most easily understood of any of the works, despite the title the body series: (corporeality) a progression and despite her comments about not making work with the audience in mind. It was strongly visual and could be easily read as an abstract work about shape, colour, form and space.

Oonagh Slater in her solo work work forOn course, 2016. Photo Lorna Sim

Oonagh Slater in her solo work work for On course, 2016. Photo: © Lorna Sim

The episode made me wonder whether young choreographers need better mentoring/teaching? And hats off to the scientist who (I assume) wanted to be able to understand what he was seeing. Why go to a performance otherwise?

  • Press for December 2016

‘A modern take on traditional thrills.’ Review of Circus 1903. The Canberra Times, 6 December 2016, p. 18. Online version

‘In step with youth.’ Feature on Ruth Osborne and her award of a 2017 Churchill Fellowship. The Canberra Times—Panorama, 17 December 2016, p. 11. Online version

‘Rich variety sign of more exciting times.’ Top Canberra dance picks for 2016. The Canberra Times, 27 December 2016, p. 18. Online version

Michelle Potter, 31 December 2016

‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’. Royal New Zealand Ballet

27 November 2016, St.James Theatre, Wellington

Reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

Truly, madly, deeply

If I were to list all the good things about this pedigree production, it would amount to a catalogue of joy. And what would be wrong with that?

Ethan Stiefel, previous artistic director of RNZB, certainly knew what he was about when he invited Liam Scarlett to choreograph this full-length work, and negotiated a co-production with Queensland Ballet. By all accounts that collaboration has worked very well, so might set a happy precedent for future co-productions. All those in favour…? The work only premiered last year yet is already a classic.

Nigel Gaynor, at the time Musical Director at RNZB, found close rapport with Scarlett and made a wondrous extension of Mendelssohn’s one act incidental music into a two acter by drawing on other of his numerous compositions. With motifs for many characters ingeniously set for string, woodwind and brass sections, plus of course the quijada (jawbone of an ass), Gaynor creates a seamless accompaniment. He also returns to conducts the excellent Orchestra Wellington. This is ballet musicianship at its best.

Tracy Grant Lord as set and costume designer has always known how to make this company look good (witness Cinderella and Romeo & Juliet). With Kendall Smith’s inspired lighting, the ballet grows from a swirl of smoke on a front cloth into a midnight blue faerie world of phosphorescent glowworms, moonlight, madness, mayhem and enchantment.

Liam Scarlett has made a brilliant distillation of the play, missing not a trick by slanting all the poetry into different characters’ experiences of love, true, mad and deep. This is a young but obviously hugely talented choreographer. And then, O my, there’s the dancing…

Qi Huan, former leading dancer has returned (again) from ‘retirement’ to play Oberon, bringing a maturity in his interpretation of a complex character, powerful, proud, duplicit, scheming, sometimes roving into the human world, yet ultimately forgiving (maybe). You hear his every thought as it motivates his every gesture, charging the role with real theatrical power that makes Oberon the central role to the entire ballet in a way new since the premiere season last year.

Tonia Looker is a gorgeous, romantic Titania, quick to claim the Changeling child, swift to fall in love. Her adoration of Bottom the Ass is quite something to behold. The band of ten Fairies shimmering and quivering in spiky blue tutus are as mercurial as the creatures they evoke. Harry Skinner gets maximum comic mileage from his doltish Bottom and creates an endearingly entertaining Ass that invites empathy for this ambiguous role. Shaun Kelly as the dazzling irrepressible Puck is stunning in his role of wicked mischief-maker. You wouldn’t trust him with your grandmother’s thimble. The Lovers are played with great spirit—by Kirby Selchow and Joseph Skelton, with some deeply lyrical dancing, and by Abigail Boyle and Paul Mathews, masters of comic timing. The Rustics are a hoot and they know it.

Shaun Kelly as Puck in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Royal New Zealand Ballet. Photo: Evan Li

Shaun Kelly as Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Royal New Zealand Ballet. Photo: © Evan Li

When all the mayhem is at its wildest, with Puck quaking at Oberon’s wrath, the entire cast of mis-matched lovers—jilted, unrequited, confused, and with the mad rustics in tow—charge on a diagonal across the stage in a comic moment of cartoon art that captures the complexities of the entire plot into a 30 seconds drive-by stroke of choreographic genius. The audience erupts in delight, and Shakespeare the librettist would have been well pleased.

The Changeling child in a onesie, with his toy donkey and bedtime storybook, bookends the whole glorious ballet, winching it in quite close to the world where you and I know of parents who quarrel over who ‘owns’ a child, or who ‘loves’ him more, and where he should live. It is ultimately Scarlett’s triumph to delve into the mystery and chemistry of where love comes from, its turns and tricks and travails that never run smooth, and to flow the faerie in and out of the human world. Take care in shady places. Puck is probably lurking.

There are many warps and wefts of New Zealand and Australia that weave the dancers from the two countries together, and the more you look the more you find. Lucy Green, in a few hours time, will dance Titania in her last performance with RNZB, before returning to Australia to join Queensland Ballet. We’ll be so sad to lose this beautiful dancer, but surely glad that we had such memorable performances from her these past years. Perhaps we’ll charge Puck to steal away her passport?

Lucy Green as Titiania in 'A Midsummer Night's Dream'. Royal New Zealand Ballet. Photo Evan Li

Lucy Green as Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Royal New Zealand Ballet. Photo: © Evan Li

 *********************************

There’s an on-stage class to watch before a performance. Thoroughbreds flexing.

There’s a Q&A session with dancers after a matinee; a pre-performance talk on the music; usually a forum a fortnight before; workshops where children learn the moves for the first 32 bars of Bottom the Ass. There’s a solid printed program, plus  complimentary cast sheets. There’s a production team out back, with highest production values that put numerous tired ‘imperial’ visiting ballet companies well into the shade.  The indomitable Friends are selling subs and t-shirts in the intervals, since that’s what Poul Gnatt told them to do in 1953. A mix of Oberon and Puck, that man. All this amounts to RNZB being the best little ballet company on Earth. (The best big company, for my money, is Hamburg Ballet. What’s yours?)

Only the St.James theatre wine-bar seems not to know how to uncork bureaucracy and pour a glass of bubbly for the happy punters. Another job for Puck perhaps?

Jennifer Shennan, 28 November 2016

Featured image: Tonia Looker as Titania and Harry Skinner as Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Royal New Zealand Ballet (2015 season). Photo: © Stephen A’Court

Tonia Looker as Titanaia and Harry Skinner as Bottom in 'A Midsummer Night's Dream'. Royal New Zealand Ballet. Photo: ©Stephen A’'Court

‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’. Queensland Ballet

16 April 2016, Playhouse, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane

Liam Scarlett’s version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream for Queensland Ballet is nothing short of sensational. Design (Tracy Grant Lord), lighting (Kendall Smith), and Scarlett’s choreography all contribute to a show that begins beautifully as fairies dust down the scenery, light up the forest glade, and generally prepare the setting for what is to follow. And what follows holds the attention completely until the final moments.

Choreographically the work is full of surprises. Nothing seems predictable, not even the several pas de deux scattered throughout the work: Scarlett creates lifts, for example, that are fluid, dramatic, and visually exciting. Beyond the pas de deux arms flutter, feet move quickly, jumps and turns are fast-paced and every choreographic moment is wonderfully attuned to the Mendelssohn score, carefully crafted by Nigel Gaynor from several of Mendelssohn’s compositions.

Yanela Pinera as Titania, Queensland Ballet

Yanela Piñera as Titania, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Queensland Ballet 2016. Photo: © David Kelly

The storyline is also full of surprises. Why do those lovers, Hermia and Lysander, Helena and Demetrius, find themselves in a forest? Because they are out on a scientific expedition of course! Scarlett has them setting up tents, reading maps and carrying magnifying glasses and butterfly nets. And in their endeavours they are assisted by a group of local rustics, wonderfully dressed by Tracy Grant Lord in an assortment of working clothes, including some hilarious headgear.

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

The Lovers and the Rustics, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Queensland Ballet 2016. Photo: © David Kelly

As for Queensland Ballet, it just goes from strength to strength. The corps de ballet of fairies and rustics had been beautifully rehearsed and did themselves proud. Yanela Piñera as Titania, Camilo Ramos as Oberon and David Power as Puck kept the story moving along. Lina Kim as Hermia was a delight, even when angry with Lysander (Joel Woellner), and Eleanor Freeman as the bespectacled Helena drew out the best of Scarlett’s choreographic humour in all her dealings with Demetrius (Jack Lister). Vito Bernasconi’s performance as Bottom was engaging and Scarlett prepared us well, giving this particular rustic a bumbling manner from the beginning.

It is hard to single out individual moments and people from such a strong and entrancing work but I especially admired:

  • Mia Heathcote as the fairy Mustard Seed. She was vibrant, funny, and engaging. She danced surely and beautifully in a technical sense, and had really thought out an individualistic interpretation of this role. It was hard to take one’s eyes off her when she was onstage.
  •  The relationship between Oberon and Puck. This relationship was a much stronger and a more personal one than in other balletic productions of this Shakespearean tale (at least ones that I have seen). It was partly, no doubt, a result of Scarlett’s vision for the ballet, and how he made the relationship unfold through the choreography and mime, but it was also given a strong performance by Ramos and Power.

David Power as Puck and Camilo Ramos as Oberon, 'A Midsummer Night's Dream', Queensland Ballet 2016. Photo: David Kelly

David Power as Puck and Camilo Ramos as Oberon, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Queensland Ballet 2016. Photo: © David Kelly

  •  The Changeling Boy. The child over which Titania and Oberon quarrel in the early part of the ballet was not, in this production, a little Indian prince, or anyone of unusual background as is often the case, but a regular little person wearing a purple onesie with a bedtime storybook and a soft donkey toy (yes, donkey—a wonderful early reference to Bottom).
  •  The multi-level setting. Tracy Grant Lord’s setting is an absolute delight. With its suspended bridge going almost the width of the stage, and its gorgeous little canopied spaces, it allowed characters to appear in, on and from many corners of the stage.
  •  The sexy bits. Scarlett brilliantly added little sexy touches here and there. In particular there was a gorgeous moment in the pas de deux of reconciliation between Oberon and Titania where he ran his hand along her extended leg and she followed that movement with a little shake of the lower part of the leg. A frisson of excitement. Wonderful. And there were others.

Liam Scarlett’s Midsummer Night’s Dream is a co-production between Queensland Ballet and Royal New Zealand Ballet. A winner!

Michelle Potter, 18 April 2016

‘Lest we forget’. English National Ballet

5 April 2014 (matinee), Barbican Theatre, London

Tamara Rojo’s recent mixed bill program, Lest we forget for English National Ballet, was created to commemorate the centenary of the outbreak of World War I in 1914. Having spent the ten days preceding my viewing of Lest we forget researching Ballet Rambert’s wartime experiences as a touring company during World War II, I was very curious to see what this program had to offer. Unfortunately I had to leave without seeing the full program (I didn’t want to miss my plane back to Australia!). However I was particularly pleased that I didn’t miss No Man’s Land, a commissioned ballet from Liam Scarlett, whose work I have never seen before, and whose Serpent will be seen in Sydney in May as part of the program being brought to Australia by BalletBoyz.

Scene-from-Liam-Scarlett's 'No Mans' Land'.Photo © Dave Morgan

Scene from Liam Scarlett’s No Man’s Land. English National Ballet. Photo © Dave Morgan

Scarlett was moved to create a work that showed how men and women were involved in the war effort and how they related to each other and amongst themselves. A multilevel set (design Jon Bausor) had the women on a raised platform at the back of the stage where they carried out their work in factories making ammunition, explosives and other items. The men occupied the front of stage, the trenches of war, and a ramp linked the two areas. Evocatively lit by Paul Keogan, the work took place in what seemed like the shadow of the past. Although there was a simple storyline of men leaving the women behind as they went off to fight, with only six of the seven returning at the end, the lighting made it seem as though we were watching not a story but a series of hazy vignettes from the past.

I found the choreography, created on seven couples, sometimes complex and acrobatic with the highlight the concluding pas de deux between Tamara Rojo and Esteban Berlanga as her ghostly partner, the man who did not return. Rojo’s body language before the pas de deux even began told it all—the sorrow, the loss, the longing. The three pas de deux that took place in the battlefield area were also powerful. I especially admired that between Ksenia Ovsyanick and Laurent Liotardo with its anguished, flying bodies.

But some of the most hypnotic material was really very simple. The touch of a hand on the face as the men left for the battlefield; the women wrapping their arms over the shoulders of the men, simulating the straps of a burdensome backpack; the toss of dust in the air by the women as they worked at their factory benches, for example. Strong imagery works wonders especially when it contrasts with more complex movements as the men face their battles. Music was an arranged and orchestrated selection of material from Liszt’s Harmonies poétiques et réligieuses.

Second Breath from Russell Maliphant relied on the visual power of strong and ever-changing groupings of the cast of 20. The work was danced to a background score by Andy Cowton drawn from material in the Imperial War Museum. It was basically an audio compilation of voices reciting the numbers of the dead. Quite chilling material to juxtapose against those beautiful, spiralling groups of bodies. The other work that I was able to see on the program was something of an oddity, unrelated it seemed to me to the theme of war—a restaging of George Williamson’s reinvention of Firebird. Unfortunately I had to miss Akram Khan’s Dust,

A persistent thought occupied my mind as I thought about the program. I kept wondering if the Australian Ballet had considered bringing back Stephen Baynes’ 1914, with its original score by Graeme Koehne and those outstanding designs by Anna French? Although it seems not to have been a favourite with many, I really liked it and what a cast it had with Steven Heathcote and Lisa Bolte in the leading roles. I would love to see it again, perhaps with revisions that Baynes might like to make? It might have been more fitting for the 2014 Australian Ballet season than, say, Manon (of which more later).

Michelle Potter, 15 April 2014