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

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.

Jack Lister in 'We who are left'. Queensland ballet, 2016. Photo: David Kelly

Lest we forget. Queensland Ballet

29 July 2016, Playhouse, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane

My review of Queensland Ballet’s triple bill, Lest we forget, has been published on DanceTabs at this link.

One aspect of the production I didn’t mention on DanceTabs was the lovely piece of Americana on the cast sheet. The dancers in Company B were referred to not by first name and surname but with the surname preceded by Ms. or Mr. as in:

‘Pennsylvania Polka’        Ms. Crilly & Mr. Thompson.

Artists of Queensland ballet in Paul Taylor's 'Company B', 2016. Photo: David Kelly

Artists of Queensland ballet in Paul Taylor’s Company B, 2016. Photo: © David Kelly

I recall being asked by a former principal of the Australian Ballet if I could refer to her in this way in reviews. I had to decline as it is not the Australian way. But I loved that the format was used in Paul Taylor’s very American work. Or should I say Mr. Taylor’s very American work?.

Michelle Potter, 31 July 2016

Featured image: Jack Lister in Natalie Weir’s We who are left. Queensland Ballet, 2016. Photo: © David Kelly

The Peasant Prince. Monkey Baa Theatre Company

4 June 2016, Playhouse, Canberra Theatre Centre

In 2003 the story of Li Cunxin’s remarkable journey from a village in Shandong province in rural China to the world stage was published as Mao’s last dancer. The story was subsequently made into a film and then written as a children’s book, The Peasant Prince. Now it has become a theatre work for children presented, astonishingly, by a cast of just four from Monkey Baa Theatre Company.

The show begins with John Gomes Goodway, who plays Li, standing on stage waiting for the curtain to go up on his performance as the Nutcracker Prince in a Houston Ballet production of Nutcracker (and of course Li, now artistic director of Queensland Ballet, made his debut outside of China with Houston Ballet). It then flashes back to his childhood, his selection by an official sent by Madame Mao to join a dance academy in Beijing, his training, his homesickness, his determination to keep moving forward, his eventual invitation to visit Houston Ballet for a residency, and finally his decision to remain in the West. It returns in the closing scene to the opening and the moment when Li, watched by his parents, takes the stage in Nutcracker.

From a dance perspective, the choreography by Danielle Micich (called ‘Movement Director’ on the printed program), is beautifully conceived for a young audience. My almost-six-year old companion could recognise some of the ballet movements she is taught in her beginners’ class, for example. But it is also developed enough for an older audience to enjoy, especially for the way in which an exercise barre is used to indicate the passing of time, and for the expertise of the cast who move from one character to another with apparent ease.

I’m not sure how much of the political context (necessary for the unfolding of the story of course)—that is the constant praise of Chairman Mao and his policies along with the critical comments about America—was understood by younger children. And the scene where officials from the Chinese Embassy in the US tried to make sure that Li did not stay in the West was rough and a little scary for some. Some explanation beforehand by parents/grandparents is probably necessary if their charges have not read the book.

But in essence The Peasant Prince was an engaging show, beautifully staged with minimum fuss.

Michelle Potter, 15 June 2016

Featured image: John Gomes Goodway (centre) as Li Cunxin, with Jenevieve Chang as the school teacher and Edric Hong as a Chairman Mao official. Photo: © Heidrun Lohr

‘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

 

 

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

Gary Harris. Man of the theatre

On my recent visit to Brisbane to catch a performance of Greg Horsman’s Sleeping Beauty by Queensland Ballet, I was especially taken by the designs of Gary Harris. In particular, I loved his sets with their sweeping sense of space, which is clearly evident in the image below from the Queensland Ballet season.

Yanela Pinere as Aurora 'The Sleeping Beauty', Queensland ballet, 2015. Photo: David Kelly

 Yanela Piñera as Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty, Queensland Ballet, 2015. Photo: © David Kelly

I recall talking to Harris, over ten years ago now, while he was artistic director of Royal New Zealand Ballet and I recently came across the text of the article based on that interview. I wrote it for ballet.co in the UK, where it was published online in May 2003. As my ballet.co articles are not presently available online due to a server change, and also because I only recently found the text of the ballet.co article, which I thought was lost, I am re-publishing it below.

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‘Oh he’s wearing a shirt with Mambo written all over it today,’ the theatre usher tells me as I wait in the foyer of the Princess Theatre in Launceston, Tasmania. Gary Harris, artistic director of Royal New Zealand Ballet, is running late (or has forgotten our appointment?). He arrives, Mambo clothes and all, full of apologies. It’s the final day of performances for the sixteen dancers of Royal New Zealand Ballet who are on tour to Tasmania for the biennial festival, Ten Days on the Island. It’s just a short season, four performances in three days—3–5 April 2003. The rest of the company, another sixteen dancers, is touring back home in New Zealand. We find time for our interview over a meal between the late afternoon matinee and the evening show.

London-born Harris, a warm and engaging man, first visited New Zealand in 1996 as guest teacher for Royal New Zealand Ballet and kept returning over the next few years. In 2001 he was appointed artistic director of  the company and is full of enthusiasm for his job and his dancers.

‘I loved the honesty I found amongst the New Zealand dancers,’ he explains. ‘They are so versatile too. They work beautifully with what they’ve got and respond to the space they’re in. I want the company to keep that honesty and to have a real understanding of the rules of classical ballet and of correctness of presentation.’

Watching his dancers in the repertoire they have brought to Tasmania—a mixed bill comprising four works—there is certainly a distinctive quality to the way they move. Dancing on the tiny stage of the Princess Theatre is not an enviable task. There’s not much space to fling oneself around and Harris’ staging of Paquita Variations, the opening work on the program, perhaps suffers most. The formal quality of its choreography, which Harris based on that of Petipa for the original Paquita of 1846, really needs a bigger stage to do it justice. But the delicious freedom that the dancers have in the upper body makes up for the feeling that things are a bit cramped. The sense of the body moving through rather than in space is also quite noticeable, as is the turn-out of the feet and legs. There is real teaching going on behind the scenes of this company.

‘I really like teaching,’ Harris says. ‘And I love getting together with the dancers for the process of rehearsing. The New Zealand dancers here are very responsive and I love getting an energetic atmosphere going.’

In addition to showing the classical strengths of the Royal New Zealand dancers, Paquita Variations shows up Harris’s talents as a designer. The costumes are his design, with the women’s tutus inspired, he says, by a Degas sculpture of which he is very fond. The softness of the skirts is beguiling. A blouse-like top and a corset-like bodice, which fits closely from the top of the rib cage to the hips, completes what is a beautifully old-fashioned costume. Harris says he loved to draw as a child and also mentions that his father made him a play theatre, complete with working lights. So his wide-ranging involvement in all aspects of getting a show on stage is something he accepts as a perfectly normal part of an artistic director’s life.

Harris’s international connections are clearly evident in the company’s repertoire, although he is quick to mention that nurturing New Zealand artists is part of his plan. Nevertheless in Launceston, along with Paquita Variations, the company danced two works by Mark Baldwin, Melting Moments and FrENZy, and one by Javier de Frutos, Milagros.

The de Frutos piece, a commissioned work and de Frutos’ first for Royal New Zealand Ballet is the surprise package. Milagros takes its name from the Spanish word used to describe both miracles and votive offerings, and the work is danced to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring recorded on a piano roll. Played on a pianola the music sounds distorted and lacks the orchestral colour that the ear expects. But the drama is still there, the rhythms are still frenetic and the new and unexpected sound sets the scene for a work that is far from ordinary. Both the men and women wear long white skirts that swirl and swing with the motion of the dancers. On top both sexes wear flimsy, white, straight-cut shirts with long, loose sleeves. On the back of each shirt, quite hard to see but definitely there, is a number. The costumes, designed by de Frutos, give a clue to the piece. There is uniformity yet diversity. There is calmness and purity yet an eddy within.

Dancers of Royal New Zealand ballet in 'Milagros'. Photo: Bill Cooper

Dancers of Royal New Zealand Ballet in Milagros. Photo: © Bill Cooper

Choreographically de Frutos juxtaposes highly sculpted sequences—long lines of dancers, clear circular formations for example—with phrases that appear to be wildly individualistic. This dualism is accompanied by other sets of opposites. Some movements flow expressively, others look quite stilted. At times the dancers react with restraint to their colleagues; at other times they appear to be absolutely fired with passion. The light changes back and forth from a stark white to a soft gold. The work also has a few unusual phrases of movement that keep occurring and remain in the memory afterwards. There is a limping step. There is another where the dancers thrust the chest out, fling the head and one arm back and move purposefully forward by transferring the weight on and off one heel. And another where a woman in a deep plié in second position with hands on hips propels herself in a circle, again using the heels to give the momentum. Sometimes dancers make their exit by walking on their knees as if doing penance. It’s absolutely mesmersing choreography.

Milagros on the one hand discomposes the viewer. It never answers the questions that it seems to present. It suggests both vodoo activities as well as organised religion. But it is also an incredibly satisfying piece that speaks to the viewer on an intuitive level. There is something inevitable about the way it unfolds and something fulfilling about its unexpectedness.

The two Baldwin pieces look a little tame by comparison. While Melting Moments is a lyrical and seamless duet, a serious piece, first made for New Zealand’s Limbs Dance Company in 1980, its vocabulary seems dated, almost contrived, by comparison with the de Frutos work. FrENZy on the other hand is great fun. Danced to a selection of top of the pops songs from the band Split Enz, it was first performed by the Royal New Zealand Ballet in 2001. It has a contemporary edge that recalls, without appropriating, the vocabulary of William Forsythe. There’s lots of movement that’s upside down, off centre, racy. There’s lots of glamour, lots that’s out there and in your face. It’s a real crowd pleaser. How often does a contemporary ballet have an audience whistling and shouting with enjoyment at the end? Twyla Tharp’s In the Upper Room has that effect and so does Baldwin’s FrENZy.

Royal New Zealand Ballet has lots to offer, not the least of which is its own, unique repertoire. Its dancers are unpretentious, technically capable and move with a real freedom. It’s history is fascinating too. The company is fifty years old this year having been founded in 1953 by Poul Gnatt who trained at the Royal Danish Ballet School and was a principal with the Royal Danish Ballet. Gnatt is also fondly remembered in Australia as a principal with the Borovansky Ballet and as a teacher in the 1960s at the Australian Ballet School.

Christopher Hampson’s Romeo and Juliet is Royal New Zealand Ballet’s next work. It opens in Wellington on 6 June 2003. And the company has been invited to appear at Sadler’s Wells next year. Plans for a five week tour include visits to Manchester, Edinburgh and Glasgow. Next year Adrian Burnett, a New Zealander by birth who is currently a senior artist with the Australian Ballet, will be making a work for the company. And Harris mutters about wanting a Nutcracker in there somewhere. He wants a repertoire that is solid but that also challenges and educates and he’s well on the way to having it.

Michelle Potter, 4 November 2015
(originally published in the May 2003 edition of ballet.co magazine)

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

An Australasian affair …

There was one empty seat in the front row at the Royal New Zealand Ballet’s inaugural Harry Haythorne choreographic awards last weekend…odd since a good view in a studio setting is always at a premium and the house was otherwise full to overflowing. Perhaps Harry was playing ‘the angel at the table’—occupying that seat to keep a keen eye on proceedings, pleased to see that his encouragement of emerging choreographers is being remembered, and that today’s young dancers who never met him can nevertheless tell what kind of initiative he brought to his term as artistic director here, 1981–1992. Let’s cheat Death awhile.

Harry Haythorne

A small group of Harry’s colleagues and friends had met to plan these awards, the idea and koha for which grew from the spirited party held in his memory back in January, in tandem with the festive gathering in Melbourne. It’s interesting to ponder on the New Zealand and Australian inter-twinings in our company over decades. Harry for starters, himself Australian through and through, yet we think of him as a New Zealander emeritus. Australian Mark Keyworth as company manager, navigated with him.

Promising young choreographer Loughlan Prior won both the panel’s and the people’s award, with the striking imagery of his work, Eve, set to song and spoken poetry. Loughlan was born in Melbourne though did later training in New Zealand.

'Eve' by Louhglan Prior

William Fitzgerald and Laura Saxon Jones in Eve by Loughlan Prior, 2015. Photo: © Evan Li

On present membership, over one third of the RNZB dancers are from Australia, and/or trained there, so more threads are in the weave. Cast a thought back to the middle decades of the 20th century, when the Borovansky Ballet’s regular tours were so welcome here. It was their 1952 tour that brought dancer Poul Gnatt, who looked around, hunched that New Zealand might like a ballet company, returned to found one the following year—and the rest is history.

Peggy van Praagh was involved in staging several productions for New Zealand Ballet in early years here, not least Tudor’s Judgment of Paris. She and Russell Kerr arranged for dancer exchanges between Australian and New Zealand companies, and also masterminded two landmark fortnight-long residential courses of dance appreciation at University of Armidale in NSW. Both schemes should have continued ever since. I still treasure my notebooks from things we saw and heard there in 1967 and 1969—from van Praagh, Algeranoff, Beth Dean, Marilyn Jones, Garth Welch, Karl Welander, Keith Bain, Eric Westbrook—films of Martha Graham and of Jose Limon—good things that last, seeding an awareness of dance for a lifetime.

Many here have wished that we might have seen more of Graeme Murphy’s choreography in New Zealand over the years. There was his searingly memorable Orpheus, commissioned by Harry for the Stravinsky Celebration season in 1982. Sydney Dance Company brought the greatly admired Some Rooms to the first Arts Festival here, and Shining followed soon after that. Then Matz Skoog in 1997 brought Murphy’s quietly powerful The Protecting Veil, a work that suited our company particularly well…but we could have done and seen so much more of his remarkable oeuvre. Harry brought Jonathan Taylor’s impressive Hamlet, and ‘Tis Goodly Sport—suiting our company so well. Kristian Fredrikson, local boy made good, began his training here in Wellington, and continued to design and dress so many memorable productions on both sides of the Tasman, adding to the ties that bind. RNZB have also toured a number of seasons in Australia over the years.

But with the brand new ballet from Liam Scarlett, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, pioneering as a co-production with Queensland Ballet, there’s an inspired possibility of further exchanges within the choreographic repertoire, with rich benefits for those two companies and their audiences on both sides of the Tasman. Directors Li Cunxin in Queensland and Francesco Ventriglia in Wellington will no doubt be already thinking ahead. They could be onto a winner here. I’m just going to see one more performance of this scintillating faerie ballet shortly, and will then write about it. It’s quite on the cards that many who were so enchanted by the premiere season here will want to travel to Queensland next year to catch it on the rebound. Nothing wrong with falling in love again. I’m sure Harry would agree.

 Jennifer Shennan, 15 September 2015

Featured image: Harry Haythorne as Father Winter in Cinderella. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 1991. Photographer not known

Waangenga Blanco in 'Patyegarang', Bangarra Dance Theatre, 2014. Photo: Greg Barrett

Australian Dance Awards 2015

12 September 2015, Her Majesty’s Theatre, Adelaide

For the first time in its history, the Australian Dance Awards ceremony was held in Adelaide, a fitting location given that 2015 marks the 50th anniversary of the Adelaide-based Australian Dance Theatre. The recipients of awards this year represented a cross-section of Australian dance styles and performers, as did the program of entertainment that accompanied the awards.

The much-anticipated awards for Outstanding Achievement by a Female Dancer and Outstanding Achievement by a Male Dancer were won by Lucinda Dunn, just recently retired from the Australian Ballet, for her performance in Manon, and Bangarra Dance Theatre’s Waangenga Blanco for his role in Stephen Page’s Patygerang.

Lucinda Dunn & Adam Bull in 'Manon', the Australian Ballet 2014.

Lucinda Dunn & Adam Bull in Manon, the Australian Ballet 2014.

Queensland Ballet walked away with outstanding performance by a company for its production of Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet.

Marilyn Jones and Dr Elizabeth Cameron Dalman were formally inducted into the Hall of Fame for their distinguished contributions to dance in Australia and internationally, and Marilyn Rowe was the recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award. The Ausdance Peggy van Praagh Choreographic Fellowship, a bequest from the first director of the Australian Ballet, Dame Peggy van Praagh, was made to Lina Limosani.

From a very personal point of view I was thrilled to see photographer Jeff Busby take out the award for Services to Dance. I have used so many Jeff Busby photographs throughout my career as a dance writer for a wide variety of outlets in Australia and overseas, and he has always been incredibly generous with his permissions. A well-deserved award.

The full list of winners is available on the Australian Dance Awards website.

The awards night always includes a series of short performances and snatches of film. The 2015 ceremony was distinguished, I thought, by a brief excerpt from Garry Stewart’s Birdbrain, the first full-length work Stewart made as artistic director of Australian Dance Theatre. While we are now somewhat used to the extreme physicality that characterises much contemporary dance in 2015, and Stewart’s vocabulary in particular, looking at the vocabulary of Birdbrain I was stunned that Stewart had made such a work 15 years ago. There is a whisper that it may be revived next year.

In something of a jaw-dropping juxtaposition, current ADT dancers Kimball Wong and Lonii Garnons-Williams performed ‘Moon Woman’ from Creation, Elizabeth Dalman’s 1970 work for ADT. What a difference 45 years of choreographic development makes, although Dalman’s slow, controlled movement language, redolent of American dance of the 1960s, was carefully realised by Wong and Garnons-Williams.

I also enjoyed the extract from Leigh Warren’s Mayakovsky performed by students of the BA dance program at the Adelaide College of the Arts. Danced to Luciano Berio’s Sinfonia of 1968, it was reflective and soul-searching dancing.

Nominations for next year’s awards can be made now. For information on the process see the Australian Dance Awards website.

ADA 2015 logo

Michelle Potter, 16 September 2015

Featured image: Waangenga Blanco in Patyegarang, Bangarra Dance Theatre, 2014. Photo: © Greg Barrett