Dance diary. June 2021

  • Queensland Ballet’s Joel Woellner promoted to principal

It was a thrill to hear that Queensland Ballet’s Joel Woellner has been promoted to principal artist. I have long admired Woellner’s dancing and especially remember his performance as the Widow Simone in Queensland Ballet’s production of Marc Ribaud’s La Fille mal gardée. After watching that show in 2017, I wrote:

Joel Woellner as the Widow was totally outrageous. He was the slapstick hero(ine) and milked the audience at every opportunity. And of course the audience loved it and responded with laughter and cheers.

I look forward to seeing him in other leading roles at some stage soon (perhaps princely roles as I didn’t see him as the Prince in the recent Sleeping Beauty). In the meantime, in the image below he is on the left as Paris in Romeo and Juliet in 2019.

Steven Heathcote (centre) as Lord Capulet with Joel Woellner (left) as Paris and Vito Bernasconi (right) as Tybalt in 'Romeo and Juliet'. Queensland Ballet, 2019. Photo: © David Kelly
Steven Heathcote (centre) as Lord Capulet with Joel Woellner (left) as Paris and Vito Bernasconi (right) as Tybalt in Romeo and Juliet. Queensland Ballet, 2019. Photo: © David Kelly

  • Adroit. Clever or skilful in using the hands. Houston Ballet

Stanton Welch continues to make work that keeps in mind that we are still in the middle of a pandemic. That work includes short films and, in an interview with Houstonia Magazine earlier this month, Welch remarked:

Film is a unique experience. It’s also extraordinarily disjointed. Usually, you run something for an hour, half an hour. This you run something for 12 seconds, 35 seconds. And then you shut down the entire shoot, you move, and relight. And you add Covid problems to all of that.

I especially admired a recent short film shot in the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston called Adroit. Clever or skilful in using the hands. The dancers were indeed adroit and their Mozartian costumes were quite beautiful. But what was particularly pleasing was the way Welch used the space of the Gallery. His dancers did not just dance in the space but through it and it was constantly surprising to be confronted by new art as the dancers moved through doorways and around corners. Adroit made me want to visit Houston.

Adroit also reminded me of Life is a work of art, Liz Lea’s production for Canberra’s GOLD company and performed in the National Gallery of Australia. It was never filmed (as far as I know) but some scenes used the space of the Gallery as beautifully as did Welch and his team in Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts. In particular with Life is a work of art, I recall a section called ‘A gentle spirit’, which was somewhat different from Adroit in that we, the audience, moved through the space rather than watch the dancer do so. But the emotional attractiveness was similar.

  • Patrick McIntyre, the National Film and Sound Archive’s new chief executive officer.

The National Film and Sound Archive has announced the appointment of a new chief executive officer, Patrick McIntyre. Although McIntyre is moving on from Sydney Theatre Company, where he was executive director for 11 years, I remember him in particular for his role with the Australian Ballet where he was associate executive director (perhaps associate general manager in those days?) for several years. That was a time when I had quite strong connections with the Australian Ballet (thank you Maina Gielgud and Ian McRae) and so also spoke to McIntyre at various times.

Patrick McIntyre. Photo: Sydney Theatre Company and Nic Walker

Given his connections with dance in Australia (he also worked for a while with Sydney Dance Company), perhaps we can hope that he will take a particular interest in the exceptional dance material that is housed in the NFSA? That material includes footage from productions by the Bodenwieser Ballet; Ballet Rambert; the Australian Ballet; Sydney Dance Company (under Graeme Murphy); Australian Dance Theatre (especially under Jonathan Taylor and Leigh Warren); Danceworks (under Nanette Hassall); Queensland Ballet (especially works from the time of directors Charles Lisner and Harry Haythorne); extraordinary Ballet Russes material filmed by Dr Joseph Ringland Anderson and Dr Ewan Murray-Will; dance documentaries including examples of the work of outstanding film directors Don Featherstone and Michelle Mahrer, and even three documentaries that I had a hand in putting together in association with Sally Jackson; filmed interviews with choreographers, dancers and directors; filmed news items; and much more. There is unlimited scope for a research project to produce an exhaustive list of the Archive’s dance material for potential use by future researchers.

In the meantime the appointment of McIntyre, whose experience with cultural organisations is wide, seems an excellent one.

Michelle Potter, 30 June 2021

Featured image: Portrait of Joel Woellner, Queensland Ballet 2021. Photo: © David Kelly

The Sleeping Beauty. Queensland Ballet (2021)

4 June 2021. Lyric Theatre, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane

I last saw Greg Horsman’s production of The Sleeping Beauty for Queensland Ballet (originally made for Royal New Zealand Ballet) back in 2015. Then I made a flying, unanticipated trip to Brisbane because I needed to see a different version from the one created by David McAllister for the Australian Ballet. I disliked the McAllister production, which was not about Aurora to my eyes, and in which everything was overpowered by the design elements. I came away from that initial Brisbane experience much more satisfied that Aurora had a role in the ballet, and that the collaborative elements worked with each other to create a whole without one element dominating all.

Having all that out of my system, this time I was able to concentrate on other aspects of the production. Horsman has reimagined certain parts of the storyline and, while this is now a relatively commonplace procedure, it has to be done really well and with a sound reason for changing things. The main issue for me was making Carabosse too much like the other fairies. She wore the same style tutu as the others (except it was black and had transparent sleeves). But sometimes she danced together with the other fairies and somehow, despite representing the spirit of evil, she seemed to recede into the background as a major player in the narrative. The role was performed quite nicely, technically speaking, by Georgia Swan but I wanted a Carabosse who stood apart, strongly, from the others. It just didn’t happen.

Carabosse (centre) and the Fairies in The Sleeping Beauty. Queensland Ballet, 2021. Photo: © David Kelly

The leading roles of Aurora and the Prince were danced by Neneka Yoshida and Victor Estévez. Yoshida danced pretty much faultlessly but didn’t seem to be as involved in her role as I have seen from her on previous occasions. On the other hand, Estévez was not only a strong performer in a technical sense (his entrance at the beginning of the second act—the Prince’s hunting party—was spectacular and drew applause), but he had the carriage and demeanour of a prince at every moment.

Neneka Yoshida and Victor Estévez in The Sleeping Beauty. Queensland Ballet 2021. Photo: © David Kelly

Lucy Green and Kohei Iwamato were the Bluebirds for this performance. While Green and Iwamoto performed beautifully in terms of technique—and all those beats, including the series of brisés volés, need strong techniques—I was disappointed (and I often am). The story behind the Bluebird section is that he is teaching her how to fly and that she is listening to him. This backstory rarely comes across and it didn’t on this opening night. It was a shame about Iwamato’s costume, too. It had a very high neckline that practically removed his neck from sight.

Lucy Green and Kohei Iwamato as the Bluebirds in The Sleeping Beauty. Queensland Ballet 2021. Photo: © David Kelly

The highlight of the evening for me was the Prince’s hunting party scene. Estévez I have mentioned. His friends, danced by David Power and Joel Woellner, and Gallifron the Prince’s tutor, a role taken by Vito Bernasconi, brought light and shade, some amusement, and good dancing and acting to the scene.

Choreographically Horsman has kept much of what we think of as the original movements, especially in the various pas de deux and solos. But where he has made choreographic changes there is little excitement. Much is predictable. Lots of arabesques. Lots of retiré relevé type movements.

So, all in all I found the production and the performance somewhat disappointing. In fact I began to wonder about remakes of well-known classics. While there will always be changes of one sort or another to any ballet, it takes an exceptional choreographer to do a remake. Those who succeed usually bring a completely new work to the stage. Liam Scarlett did it with his Midsummer Night’s Dream. Graeme Murphy has done it on several occasions. I thought Horsman did it (almost) with his Bayadère, despite the fact that there were certain issues associated in some minds with current thoughts re political correctness.

But this Sleeping Beauty was not a remake, just the same story with a few elements added, a few removed, and some changes to the way the story unfolded. It made me long for someone to do something completely new, or to revive an old fashioned production! Seeing it in 2015 was just a relief after the McAllister production. In 2021 perhaps my reservations were a result of having watched the Royal Ballet’s recent streaming of its hugely engaging presentation of the Ninette de Valois Beauty of 1946?

Michelle Potter, 7 June 2021

Featured image: Serena Green, Laura Tosar, Chiara Gonzalez and Mia Heathcote as the Fairies in The Sleeping Beauty. Queensland Ballet, 2021. Photo: © David Kelly

Mia Heathcote and Patricio Revé in 'Romeo and Juliet'. Queensland Ballet 2019. Photo: © David Kelly

Romeo and Juliet. Queensland Ballet

28 August 2019. Lyric Theatre, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane

With its production of Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet, Queensland Ballet once again displayed its constantly growing position as one of Australia’s leading dance companies. This Romeo and Juliet, for which the premiere dates back over 50 years to 1965, was first performed by Queensland Ballet in 2014 when the cast included several international guest artists. In 2019 the cast was home grown. The night really belonged, however, to Mia Heathcote as Juliet and Patricio Revé as Romeo. Both were promoted onstage at the conclusion of the performance.

The Heathcote/Revé partnership was an engaging one throughout. They shone in the several pas de deux on which the MacMillan production centres, and both provided us with believable interpretations of the characters they represented. Mia Heathcote’s confidence onstage and her ability to maintain her characterisation (and technique) throughout what is a long ballet with many changes of location, not to mention changes of emotional mood, was admirable. Revé clearly has many talents, although I suspect he probably needs a little more time before he has the stage presence that will match his technique.

Steven Heathcote (centre) as Lord Capulet with Joel Woellner (left) as Paris and Vito Bernasconi (right) as Tybalt in 'Romeo and Juliet'. Queensland Ballet, 2019. Photo: © David Kelly
Steven Heathcote (centre) as Lord Capulet with Joel Woellner (left) as Paris and Vito Bernasconi (right) as Tybalt in ‘Romeo and Juliet’. Queensland Ballet, 2019. Photo: © David Kelly

I loved the group scenes in this production, all of which were imbued with great energy and so much interaction between all those on stage. Particularly impressive was the Capulet Ball, led magnificently by Steven Heathcote, guesting on this occasion from the Australian Ballet. There was just a touch of pride in the way he held his chest and turned his head that told us he was in charge. He maintained that dominance, a calm but obvious dominance, throughout, whether he was dismissing Tybalt’s attempts to remove Romeo from the ballroom, or demanding later that Juliet marry Paris. The ball scene was also distinguished by MacMillan’s beautiful choreographic approach in which the guests all danced with a slight tilt to the body. So appropriate to the era in which the ballet takes place.

The several fight scenes, staged by Gary Harris, were dramatic and spirited and, in the earliest of those scenes, the whole stage was abuzz with fiery action. The death of Mercutio at the hands of Tybalt was equally as dramatic with Kohei Iwamoto performing strongly throughout as Mercutio.

(right) Kohei Iwamoto as Mercutio with Vito Bernasconi as Tybalt in 'Romeo and Juliet'. Queensland Ballet, 2019. Photo: © David Kelly
(right) Kohei Iwamoto as Mercutio with Vito Bernasconi as Tybalt in Romeo and Juliet. Queensland Ballet, 2019. Photo: © David Kelly

I was entranced too by a dancer (unnamed) playing the part of a disabled old man in the market place. Mostly he was high up on a kind of balcony that surrounded the market square but he was so involved with what was happening below that it was often hard to take one’s eyes away from him to watch the main action.

What confused me slightly (and probably only because I had not so long ago seen London’s Royal Ballet perform the MacMillan Romeo and Juliet) were the designs used by Queensland Ballet. I was, I have to admit, expecting the Georgiadis designs, which I admired greatly) but it turned out that Queensland Ballet has what Li Cunxin calls the ‘touring’ designs, which were rented from a company in Uruguay and are by Paul Andrews. For me they couldn’t match those of Georgiadis, although I admired Juliet’s bedroom with its red/orange drapes and its religious icon/prayer point in one corner. The costumes for the musicians who accompany the wedding procession in the market place were also impressive. They spun out beautifully during turning movements.

All in all though, another wonderful show from Queensland Ballet.

Michelle Potter, 30 August 2019

Featured image: Mia Heathcote and Patricio Revé in Romeo and Juliet. Queensland Ballet, 2019. Photo: © David Kelly

Mia Heathcote and Patricio Revé in 'Romeo and Juliet'. Queensland Ballet 2019. Photo: © David Kelly
Liam Geck as the Jester in ‘Cinderella’ Queensland Ballet, 2018. Photo:David Kelly

Cinderella. Queensland Ballet

7 September 2018. Lyric Theatre, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane

Ben Stevenson’s Cinderella, which Queensland Ballet performed in its latest season, was first made in 1970, almost 50 years ago. I’m afraid it is showing its age a little. While Queensland Ballet’s dancers go from strength to strength every time I see them, I think they need something more powerful to dance than this Cinderella. Perhaps there is an issue here too in that Alexi Ratmansky’s Cinderella, in which the story has been given a new touch, has had several showings in Australia recently and is due to be seen in Sydney again shortly.

Having had my first professional engagements in pantomime, it was interesting, however, to see the way Stevenson built the Stepsisters (Vito Bernasconi and Camilo Ramos) into the show—outrageous behaviour, over the top costumes, pratfalls everywhere, and of course the roles taken by men. But this kind of acting/dancing belongs to the 1960s (and earlier) when it was a panto tradition. We have moved on a little.

Vito Bernasconi as a Stepsister in Cinderella. Queensland Ballet, 2018. Photo: David Kelly
Vito Bernasconi as a Stepsister in Cinderella. Queensland Ballet, 2018. Photo: © David Kelly

But on the whole the ballet was nicely danced. Liam Geck as the Jester in the ball scene was outstanding but, again, a jester is such an old-fashioned tradition, this time from Russia. So while his performance was spectacular it was frustrating that there was a jester in there. Why?

All the fairies, Spring (Lina Kim), Summer (Mia Heathcote), Autumn (Neneka Yoshida) and Winter (Georgia Swan), acquitted themselves beautifully, as did Yanela Piñera as Cinderella. Joel Woellner was a very traditional Prince.

Yanela Piñera as Cinderella. Queensland Ballet, 2018. Photo: © David Kelly

This Cinderella is not my favourite ballet. But it did please most of the people in the audience.

Michelle Potter, 12 September 2018

Featured image: Liam Geck as the Jester in Cinderella. Queensland Ballet, 2018. Photo: © David Kelly

Liam Geck as the Jester in ‘Cinderella’ Queensland Ballet, 2018. Photo:David Kelly

La Fille mal gardée. Queensland Ballet

9 August 2017. Playhouse, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michelle Potter, 12 August 2017

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

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

Featured image: Promotional image for Strictly Gershwin. Queensland Ballet, 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