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

 

 

‘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