‘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

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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

‘The Sleeping Beauty’. Queensland Ballet

24 October 2015 (matinee), Lyric Theatre, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane

After my Australian Ballet brush with Beauty I was longing to see another production and so took a flying visit to Brisbane to see what Greg Horsman had done with this classic of the ballet repertoire. Horsman’s Sleeping Beauty was originally made for the Royal New Zealand Ballet in 2011 and is being performed for the first time in Australia by Queensland Ballet. I did not see the international stars who have been engaged as special guests for the season, which did not bother me as it was the production that particularly interested me.

The Fairies and their Cavaliers in Queensland Ballet's 'Sleeping Beauty', 2015

The Fairies and their Cavaliers in Queensland Ballet’s Sleeping Beauty, 2015

Horsman has made some small changes to the story, some of which may well be as a result of working with a medium-sized company in both New Zealand and Queensland. Perhaps the most startling change is that Catalabutte, assistant to the King, and Catalabutte’s wife, Lady Florine, are cats. This at first is a shock. But they are so beautifully, and at times humorously, worked into the story—their dance together in the last act takes the place of Puss and Boots and the White Cat—that suspending disbelief is easy. Jack Lister as Catalabutte made a strong impression throughout, but especially as he pursued the Bluebird in the wedding scene.

There is also quite a lot of mime as explanation of the story. This is not an innovation, of course, but unless well done mime passages tend to get lost in translation as it were. The dancers of Queensland Ballet have, however, been well coached in this aspect of the ballet and they have an expansive quality to their gestures. Everything is perfectly clear. Nothing drags along.

The dancing itself had some ups and downs. The corps de ballet worked nicely together for the most part and Teri Crilly and Camilo Ramos stood out as the lead couple in what is usually the Garland Dance (although in this production there were no garlands). Ramos, who has a wonderful stage presence as well as a stellar technique, also danced strongly as one of the Prince’s friends in Act II. The fairies, too, danced nicely throughout, although my eyes kept turning to the Orange Fairy of Grace danced by Lisa Edwards. I loved the charm with which she performed and the delicious fluidity of her movement. She shone.

I found Yalenda Piñera, Queensland Ballet’s 2015 guest principal artist, very engaging as Aurora. Piñera handled the rose adagio and the final grand pas de deux with strength and attack, but what really stood out was her joyful presence throughout. She involved herself in everything, and with everyone. She smiled, made eye contact, and used her head and arms beautifully. It was a real pleasure watching her.

Hao Bin as the Prince did not, however, always live up to my expectations. I enjoyed his acting at the start of Act II where he kept himself apart from his friends in the forest as he pondered the lack of love in his life. But once he started dancing I found him a little wooden. I wished he would move his upper body with more fluidity and use his feet more strongly.

Gary Harris’ sets are gorgeous. His interiors recall Gothic architecture with its emphasis on soaring space; his exteriors are airy, beautiful places in which the story can unfold; and the final scene with its starry background provides an especially elegant setting for the wedding of Aurora and the Prince. His work was evocatively lit by Jon Buswell.

The jarring elements for me in Harris’ design input were the costumes for the two Bluebirds, although perhaps it was the very heavy eye make-up they wore that made the costumes seem over the top compard with the general elegance of the last scene. Teri Crilly was a lovely female bluebird. Whether listening, fluttering her hands, or simply executing a step, everything was performed cleanly and with great style. Her partner, Zhi Fang, seemed very nervous and so did not really show himself to advantage.

Nigel Gaynor conducted a vibrant Queensland Symphony Orchestra where tempi, volume and orchestral colour contributed to the unfolding of the story and to the development of the characters in the ballet. The orchestra added an extra emotional layer to the performance and it was such a pleasure to be hearing this kind of collaboration between music and dance. From 2016 Gaynor will take up the position of principal conductor and music director of Queensland Ballet.

I came away from this Queensland Ballet performance loving the passion that the dancers put into their performance, despite the odd stumble or other mishap. But most of all I came away thrilled that the collaborative elements of music and design were working to enhance the dance, rather than ignoring it or trying to outdo it.

Michelle Potter, 25 October 2015