60th Anniversary Gala. Queensland Ballet

5 March 2021. Playhouse, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane

The opening night of Queensland Ballet’s 60th Anniversary Gala began with film footage examining, briefly, aspects of the contributions made to the company by the five artistic directors who have led the company to date: Charles Lisner, founding director (1959-1974); Harry Haythorne (1975-1978); Harold Collins (1978-1997); François Klaus (1998-2012); and current director Li Cunxin (2013-present).

The brief film was followed by a grand défilé choreographed by Paul Boyd and featuring dancers of Queensland Ballet and its associated school, Queensland Ballet Academy. Boyd’s choreography showcased the dancers skilfully and beautifully and the défilé began with a truly charming introduction. While carrying out small, on the spot promenade movements, two pairs of very young dancers, one pair positioned at each side of the downstage area, introduced the first of the older dancers. Each of those four young people showed remarkable stage presence and suggested that Queensland Ballet Academy has its focus not just on technique but on how to maximise one’s presence onstage.

Closing moments of the grand défilé. Queensland Ballet 2021. Photo: © David Kelly

The following program was a varied one and to my eyes, while all seven works had a reason for being part of the celebration, some stood out a little more than others.

Charles Lisner’s charming Chopin pas de deux, which opened the main section of the Gala, was well performed by Yanela Piñera and Joe Chapman. Piñera danced with her usual style and panache and the two dancers were able to connect with each other beautifully. Chapman carried off the quite difficult lifts with strength and aplomb. It was great to see him back in Australia after his stint dancing in Canada, although there were times when his ‘in between’ movements were less smooth than I would have wished. One step needs to lead to another without it being noticeably ‘in between’, and this didn’t always happen with Chapman.

Yanela Pieñra-and-Joe Chapman- n Chopin pas de deux. Queensland Ballet 2021. Photo:© David-Kelly
Yanela Piñera and Joe Chapman in Chopin pas de deux. Queensland Ballet 2021. Photo: © David Kelly

Mia Heathcote and Victor Estévez gave a dramatic rendition of François Klaus’ Cloudland pas de deux. Heathcote continues to impress as a dramatic dancer. Jacqui Carroll’s Tavern Scene from her 1982 work Carmina Burana was also filled with drama and passion. The three solos, danced by Vito Bernasconi, Liam Geck, and Rian Thompson, were spectacular in the power and passion that emanated from the dancing. My particular bouquet went to Bernasconi—he attacked the choreography like a man possessed.

The absolute standout item was the Don Quixote pas de deux danced brilliantly by Neneka Yoshida and Camilo Ramos. These two dancers are so suited to each other in height and in their similar, outstanding technical abilities. Yoshida’s technique was faultless and, in particular, her balances throughout and her fouettés in the coda were astonishing. Similarly Ramos stunned with his turns and his elevation and jumps. But there was something else happening. I have never seen Kitri and Basilio engage with each other the way Yoshida and Ramos did. The way they looked at each other, Yoshida’s glances to Ramos in particular, seemed to indicate a burgeoning relationship, a knowingness. It was very exciting to watch.

Neneka Yoshida and Camilo Ramos in Don Quixote pas de deux. Queensland Ballet 2021. Photo: © David Kelly

Other items on the program were a pas de deux from Harold Collins’ Lady of the Camellias, the finale to Act II of Klaus’ The Little Mermaid, and the full-length (and it was SO long) Études by Harald Lander. With the exception of Carmina Burana, which not surprisingly was danced to recorded music, the dancers performed to music played by Queensland’s Chamber Orchestra, Camerata, with Nigel Gaynor conducting. I continue to admire the way Gaynor conducts for dance. The music is always a part of the whole, never seeking to dominate.

The strength of the program not only revolved around some great dancing in particular works, but also on the words of Li Cunxin in an opening speech from the stage and in the section of the opening footage in which he appeared. Li was himself a brilliant dancer (I can still see him in certain roles), but he is also an unsurpassed speaker. He is committed, he is persuasive, he is caring about the art form of dance, his thanks to those involved have an honesty to them, and he is determined to keep moving ahead. Li builds on what has gone before but in his hands Queensland Ballet has moved ahead in leaps and bounds.

Michelle Potter, 6 March 2021

Featured image: Neneka Yoshida and Camilo Ramos in Don Quixote pas de deux. Queensland Ballet 2021. Photo: © David Kelly

Libby-Rose Niederer in a moment from her 'Arohanui'

60 dancers: 60 stories. Queensland Ballet. Week 1

Art must prevail

In something of a pioneering move, Queensland Ballet has set up a project called 60 dancers: 60 stories to manage the COVID-19 situation. It is in part a fund raising move and a field requesting donations is present at various stages—and why not? The arts have been badly hit in more ways than one and 60 dancers: 60 stories is Queensland Ballet’s pledge to its dancers and other personnel to keep working as hard as possible to keep everyone employed for as long as possible—’to keep the magic alive’.

But the project also has a strong creative underpinning. In the company’s 60th year, Queensland Ballet has asked its 60 dancers to choreograph and film a short dance work (most are between 2 and 3 minutes) to screen to audiences. Each day in the month of June, two of these creations are being released via the company’s website. Week one has just finished and the variety, in terms of choreography, approach to the theme of love, filming techniques, use of music, pretty much everything, has been astonishing. ‘Art must prevail’ is part of the introductory text. And so it must, and does with this project.

I have truly enjoyed watching every one of the 14 works screened in the first week, although one work really stood out for me—Libby-Rose Niederer’s Arohanui. Niederer is a New Zealander by birth and initial training and joined Queensland Ballet in 2017 as a Jette Parker Young Artist. She is currently a Company Artist. In her introductory text to Arohanui she writes:

Aroha is Maori for ‘love’ and Arohanui loosely translates to ‘big love’ meaning beyond that for a person or community. This word describes how I feel towards nature, especially the wild beauty of my homeland Aotearoa. It reminds me to live life in gratefulness and with amazement for the natural world which brings me love and joy.

Arohanui takes place outdoors (as you might expect from Niederehr’s comments)—in a beautiful fern-filled forest, which you can see in the featured image to this post; on an isolated beach; in the entrance/exit to a large rock-cave; and amazingly on a stony stretch between land and water. Niederer’s performance is magic from the moment we see her unfold her leg to the side while using the trunk of a tree as a barre. Her body just flows along with the Puccini music she has chosen and every step is filled with joy and beauty.

I also enjoyed the camera work in Prelude danced by Lucy Green and Sam Packer to music composed and played by Peter Wilson. There were some lovely camera angles and fade-in/fade-out moments.

Lucy Green and Sam Packer in a moment from Prelude

Then there was a sophisticated piece, Caricias, from Yanela Piñera and Camilo Ramos and a rather jaunty work, En-counter, from Kohei Iwamoto and Isabella Swietlicki. But these are simply my preferences and I take nothing away from the artists of Queensland Ballet who have given so much.

If you log in to the website to watch, don’t miss the quite fascinating item I love to turn, which is inspired by Li Cunxin’s pirouette coaching classes. It begins with a dancer showing a very carefully prepared and executed single pirouette. Then follows a variety of turns, multiple turns, from several dancers finishing with Li demonstrating his ‘Unvingtuple’. But don’t switch off before you have read the concluding credits.

A moment from I love to turn

I’m looking forward to next week’s surprises. The link to ‘60 dancers: 60 stories’ is here.

Michelle Potter, 7 June 2020

Featured image: Libby-Rose Niederer in a moment from Arohanui

Libby-Rose Niederer in a moment from her 'Arohanui'
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

Dance diary. June 2019

  • Shona Dunlop MacTavish (1920-2019)

The death of Shona Dunlop MacTavish in Dunedin, New Zealand, on 18 June at the age of 99 sent me back to her autobiography, Leap of faith. It was published in 1997 and the early sections give a fascinating account of her schooldays in New Zealand and her time in Europe over four years beginning 1935. Those four years included her introduction to dance and in Leap of faith Dunlop MacTavish gives her thoughts on her early teachers, one of whom was Gertrud Bodenwieser. Of Bodenwieser and how her classes affected people, Dunlop MacTavish writes

Frau Gerty, as she was known by her students, was a small erect figure who, when not demonstrating, examined her class through an intimidating lorgnette … Although nervous at first, I began to relax and enjoy myself as it appeared she was taking little notice of me. Soon I was swept up with the rest of the class—a mass of whirling bodies with ecstatic faces.

The book continues through Dunlop MacTavish’s life in in South America on tour with Bodenwieser’s dancers; follows her experiences in Australia, China and Africa (the latter two with her missionary husband Donald MacTavish); and then moves on to the Philippines. The story then comes back to New Zealand and her home city of Dunedin where she set up a number of dance-related initiatives.

Dunlop MacTavish’s choreographic output was extensive and a list of her choreographies in Australia and New Zealand forms an appendix to Leap of faith. It is remarkable list. As one example, the first solo she created for herself was Two souls alas reside within my breast. Along with others of her early works, she danced it when her husband-to-be came to the Bodenwieser studio in Sydney to be introduced to her dancing. In her oral history interview for the National Library of Australia she explains the origin of the work:

I’d seen a young man in a nightclub with a very scarred face, beautiful on one side, all scarred on the other. It suddenly gave me the image of how many of us actually have two personalities. The title of the work was taken from some writing by Goethe. [Faust, First Part]

Shona Dunlop in a study for Two souls alas reside within my breast, c. 1945. Photo: Clifton Firth. From a card using material from the National Dance Archive of New Zealand

For more on the remarkable life of Shona Dunlop MacTavish, here is a link to an oral history interview I recorded with her for the National Library on 13 April 1998. It is available online both as audio and as a transcript. Leap of faith is also definitely worth a re-read.

  • Queen’s Birthday Honours list

Congratulations to Li Cunxin, Meryl Tankard and Régis Lansac, who were all recognised in the 2019 Queen’s birthday honours list. Li and Tankard received an AO, Lansac an OAM.

In a recent conversation with Patrick Harding-Irmer and Anca Frankenhaeuser I also heard that Robert Cohan, founding artistic director of London Contemporary Dance School and London Contemporary Dance Theatre, had also been honoured in England. Cohan influenced the careers of many Australian dancers and choreographers. He was knighted!

With regard to the Australian awards, Lansac’s work is not often acknowledged as much and as appropriately as it should be, so it is especially pleasing to see that he has been recognised. Below are a few of many photographs taken by Lansac that are part of a collection held in the National Library of Australia. His career has crossed boundaries as these images show. Here, too, is a link to an article that appeared in the now-defunct National Library of Australia News, which gives a little insight into Lansac’s early Australian collaborations and commissions. See also the tag Régis Lansac on this website.

Below left: Pierre Thibaudeau of Entr’acte Theatre in a solo performance, Sydney 1985. Below right: Richard Talonga of One Extra Company in Kai Tai Chan’s Midnight Moon, Sydney 1984.

Above left: Portrait of dancer Mary Duchesne, 1987. Above right: Tim Coldwell, Circus Oz, 1982. All photos: © Régis Lansac

  • Dancing under the southern skies

A new book by Valerie Lawson has just been published. I have not yet had time to read the copy I have but, flicking through the pages, there are some great photographs in it that, as far as I am aware, have never been published before. Lawson also sets the scene for what is (or rather what is not) contained in the book when she writes: ‘Dancing under the southern skies is not a detailed description of professional ballet performances in Australia—the dates, the theatres, the casts, the designers—although the detail is important and, one day, might become a dictionary of ballet.’ The next paragraph in the introduction explains what is included. But I will leave that for your further reading!

Further information is on the publisher’s site.

  • Press for June 2019

‘Vale Jonathan Taylor’, Dance Australia, June/July 2019, p. 13. PDF at this link

Michelle Potter, 30 June 2019

Please consider supporting my Australian Cultural Fund project to raise money to have hi-res images made for my book on the career of designer Kristian Fredrikson, which is heading towards publication. See the project, which closes on 30 July 2019, at this link. Donations are tax deductible. [Update 1 August 2019: Project closed]

Featured image: Evelyn Ippen, Bettina Vernon, Emmy Towsey and Shona Dunlop, Bodenwieser Ballet, Sydney c. 1939. Photo: Max Dupain

Dance diary. May 2019

  • David McAllister to retire

The news for May is headlined by the announcement that David McAllister, artistic director of the Australian Ballet since 2002, will retire at the end of 2020. McAllister has always been generous in situations that are about dance but fall outside performances. He launched, for example, two of my books, A Collector’s Book of Australian Dance and Dame Maggie Scott. A Life in Dance. In this month’s featured image (above) he is seen in the Chunky Move studios in Melbourne launching A Collector’s Book. The banner on the left shows an image that appears in the book, which was taken by Greg Barrett.

I have also enjoyed seeing McAllister at various conferences, including the first BOLD Festival held in Canberra in 2017.

Who will be the next director? The names that have been mentioned in the press so far (I have arranged them alphabetically by family name) include Leanne Benjamin, David Hallberg, Li Cunxin, Graeme Murphy, and Stanton Welch. One or two of them have declared they are not interested (not sure if I necessarily believe that). I have one or two others in my mind but I won’t mention them here! I do hope, however, that whoever survives the selection process and becomes McAllister’s successor will be someone who will be audacious in repertoire choices.

  • Shaun Parker and Company

In September 2010, dancer (and singer in the counter tenor mode) Shaun Parker registered a name: Shaun Parker and Company. Next year the company that bears that name will celebrate its 10th anniversary with, I believe, a special program.

The company has just recently returned from the Middle East and Austria where Parker’s most recent production, KING, was performed. In the meantime, Parker is now working on a new show for young people, IN THE ZONE, which will premiere in Sydney this coming September. It will feature street dancer Libby Montilla and the technology of AirSticks.

Scene from KING, Shaun Parker and Company, 2019. Photo: © Prudence Upton
  • Archibald Prize 2019

Among the finalists for the 2019 Archibald Prize, Australia’s well-known portrait prize hosted by the Art Gallery of New South Wales, was a portrait entitled Mao’s Last Dancer by Chinese-born artist Jun Chen. Chen, who is currently based in Brisbane, was commissioned last year by the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra to paint a portrait of Li Cunxin, artistic director of Queensland Ballet. It was one of twenty portraits commissioned to celebrate the Gallery’s twentieth anniversary. Chen followed up with a second portrait of Li and entered it for the Archibald Prize. While it didn’t take first place it was good to see a portrait of a dancer among the 2019 finalists. See all the finalists here.

Mao’s Last Dancer: Jun Chen’s portrait of Li Cunxin
  • Following new posts

I have had a number of requests recently asking how to join up to receive notification of new posts. Here’s how to do it:

1, Make a comment by going to the ‘Leave a reply’ form, which you will find at the end of every post.
2. Before hitting the ‘Post comment’ field, check the box that says ‘Notify me of new posts by email’. (Make sure you have also filled out your name and email address. A website address is not necessary).
3. After you have submitted the comment you will receive a follow-up email asking you to confirm. It will say ‘Confirm follow’. Once you have clicked on this field you should begin to receive notifications of new posts.

[UPDATE: A new ‘subscribe’ box is now on the home page just under the box that says ‘View Full Tag Cloud’].

Michelle Potter, 31 May 2019

Featured image: David McAllister launching A Collector’s Book of Australian Dance, Melbourne 2003. Photo: © Lynkushka

The Masters Series. Queensland Ballet

17 May 2019. Lyric Theatre, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane

One of the strongest aspects of Queensland Ballet’s programming at the moment is Li Cunxin’s masterful ability to curate an engrossing triple bill. This is no easy task, but it is something that has characterised the work of the best companies across the decades. The Masters Series, the current Queensland Ballet offering, is no exception. Li has put together an exceptional triple bill. It gives us George Balanchine’s Serenade, and Jiří Kylián’s Soldier’s Mass, both outstanding works from two of the world’s most respected choreographers. These two works are joined by a new work, The Shadows Behind Us, from American choreographer Trey McIntyre.

I have no hesitation in saying that, for me at least, Serenade, the first work of the evening, was the highlight. It was the first original work that Balanchine created in America, and it gives a foretaste of what his future works would be like—at least from a technical point of view. At times the spatial patterns Balanchine creates are so arresting that they seem to be the main feature of the work. He is a master of placing dancers on, and moving them around the stage.

But looking beyond the beautiful patterns, the steps that Balanchine asks of the dancers are complex— full of turns and fast footwork—and the dancers of Queensland Ballet rose to the occasion. Standout performances came from Yanela Piñera and Victor Estévez, who had the main pas de deux, and Lucy Green, Georgia Swan and Patricio Revé, who had soloist roles. The final few moments in which these dancers held the stage were quite moving. But the entire corps de ballet danced with thrilling technique throughout, and with a great feeling for the changing moods of the ballet.


(from top) Georgia Swan, Patricio Revé and Yanela Piñera in Serenade, Queensland Ballet, 2019. Photo: © Darren Thomas

The closing work was Kylián’s Soldiers’ Mass a work for 12 male dancers with choreography that is driving and relentless. The fascinating aspect of the work is the way in which Kylián manipulates the group. The dancers form into lines, break apart, regather, divide up again, leaping, falling, and partnering each other, and moving all the time to the very powerful 1939 composition by Bohuslav Martinu, Field Mass. Kylián’s work is a comment on war and the emotional toll it takes on those who are forced to engage in it. Emotion and drama surge throughout the work. Kohei Iwamoto was the star for me. Whether in his solos, or when he was dancing with his fellow soldiers, every inch of his body told the story. But then every dancer seemed totally committed.

Kohei Iwamoto in Soldiers’ Mass, Queensland Ballet, 2019. Photo: © Darren Thomas

In the middle, The Shadows Behind Us was, for me, the least successful work of the evening. Danced to songs by Jimmy Scott, it was brash and slick in an American idiom. Made on ten dancers, it consisted basically of six duets, including one between two men, in which relationships were played out. The set by Thomas Mika was a great addition to the work. It gave some kind of narrative element to the action. It consisted of a large white frame, or partial frame, in the downstage area, forming a kind of proscenium where the action was located. Behind it was a black void into which the dancers disappeared as they finished their duet (the shadows behind us). But I have to admit to finding the choreography quite stilted in many respects and some of the poses the men were asked to take seemed quite awkward.

Laura Hidalgo and Samuel Packer in The Shadows Behind Us, Queensland Ballet, 2019. Photo: © Darren Thomas

Despite my reservations about The Shadows Behind Us, The Masters Series was a great evening of dance, and a triple bill that fulfilled one’s expectations of the variety of dance that good mixed bills should contain.

Michelle Potter, 20 May 2019

Featured image: Lucy Green and dancers in Serenade, Queensland Ballet, 2019. Photo: © Darren Thomas

Robert O'Kell as Santa Claus, 2018

Dance diary. February 2019

  • Robert O’Kell

Do you recognise the Santa Claus in the featured image for this post? No? Well it’s Robert O’Kell, former dancer with the Australian Ballet, West Australian Ballet and several overseas companies, who each year delights children as Santa Claus in a department store in Victoria. Following a request from a former pupil of O’Kell, and with the generosity of one of O’Kell’s former dance partners, I was able to contact O’Kell and put his former student in touch with him. He also sent me some information about his career, including some Santa photos.

  • Australian Dance Awards

Earlier in February Ausdance National released the news that the Australian Dance Awards for 2019 have been cancelled. This is a hugely regrettable situation but one that reflects an overall reduction in support for dance, which has been building momentum for some time now. Read the media release at this link.

  • Oral histories

In February I had the pleasure of recording two more oral history interviews. I interviewed Li Cunxin in Brisbane for the National Library of Australia. We focused largely on his career in Australia, picking up where Mao’s Last Dancer finished.

Later, while in Wellington, I interviewed Jennifer Shennan for the Oral History Project of the National Dance Archive of New Zealand.

Jennifer Shennan Wellington 2019 Photo Michelle Potter
Jennifer Shennan, 2019. Photo: Michelle Potter

Both were fulfilling experiences in so many ways and what was recorded in both instances reflects the energy and determination of the people who push the boundaries of dance and whose achievements create our dance history.

Here is a link to the list of oral histories I have conducted for various organisations, now stretching back over more than three decades.

  • Press for February 2019

Critics’ survey 2018. Dance Australia, February–March 2019, pp. 38–40. Online link

‘A powerful yet wordless narrative inspired by dreams.’ Review of Christopher Samuel Carroll’s Icarus. The Canberra Times, 28 February 2019. Online only at this stage. [UPDATE: The print and digital version of this review appeared in The Canberra Times, 1 March 2019, p. 29 as ‘Dreams of flight from a world at war.’]

Michelle Potter, 28 February 2019

Mao’s Last Dancer. The Exhibition

Immigration Museum, Melbourne, until 8 October 2018

The story of Li Cunxin, current artistic director of Queensland Ballet, and his journey from China to the West, is well-known from Li’s autobiography Mao’s Last Dancer, published in 2003. But the Immigration Museum’s exhibition, subtitled ‘A Portrait of Li Cunxin’ also seen last year in Brisbane, adds very nicely to that story. In one exhibition case, for example, there is a handwritten document that is a draft of Mao’s Last Dancer. The ‘devices’ we use these days for drafting material for publication clearly were not as ubiquitous then as they are now.

But there are some very personal items in this exhibition and many are quite moving. In particular, there is a short film, around 8 minutes of footage, in which Li’s parents are interviewed about their son. They give their side of the story (in their language but translated with subtitles) including their thoughts on seeing Li performing in Nutcracker with Houston Ballet when they were first permitted to visit him. ‘But didn’t you get dizzy?’ his mother says talking about Li’s astonishing capacity for performing multiple (and I mean multiple) pirouettes. Three tiny folding stools are another memento from Li’s days in China. They were made by Li’s father for his family of nine to use around the small table at which they ate. It conjured up some quite lovely images of a family that seemed so closely knit in its poverty

There are also some beautiful photos of Li and his fellow artists, mainly from his days at Houston Ballet where he was mentored by artistic director Ben Stevenson. And another filmed segment gives us an insight into Stevenson’s thoughts on Li’s story.

Mary McKendry and Li Cunxin in the pas de deux from La Esmeralda. Houston Ballet, 1980s. Photographer not identified

But perhaps the section I enjoyed most was a compilation of footage from Li’s performances, again largely from Houston. While most of the footage was showing its age and was grainy and cloudy at times, what emerged was Li’s beautifully articulated movement and the wide range of choreography he performed. My favourite was a tiny section—no more than a few seconds— from the solo from Le Corsaire. It made me realise how lucky we were in Australia to have had Li performing with the Australian Ballet in the 1990s. Those were also the days when writers like me were welcomed into the classroom (with undying thanks to Maina Gielgud) and I recall Li staying on after class was officially finished and practising manège after manège of spectacular movement.

Portrait of Li Cunxin in Brisbane. Photo: © Eduardo Vieira

Everyone who visits this show will have his or her favourite items. Do go and have a look. It’s well worth a visit.

Michelle Potter, 31 August 2018

La Bayadère. Queensland Ballet

31 March 2018 (matinee), Playhouse, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane

Queensland Ballet’s La Bayadère is not the Bayadère you may have seen before. Choreographer Greg Horsman has reimagined the old story and created a new narrative set in India at the time of the British raj. The change is clear immediately one enters the theatre where a striking front cloth from designer Gary Harris is in place. It features a head and shoulders portrait of a young Queen Victoria, set against a background of two opposing armies and a sketchy map of parts of India.

The love triangle between Solor, Nikiya the temple dancer, and Gamzatti, which we know from the Makarova version, remains. But Gamzatti is now Edith, daughter of the Governor General of India in the British era. Edith kills Nikiya, danced by Lina Kim at this performance, in a fit of jealous rage. But she does it with a dagger rather than a snake concealed in a basket. The opium dream—the Kingdom of the Shades—also remains but is better contextualised. The last act is suitably dramatic, but without the almighty crash of the temple. Instead Solor, in a drunken state after a boisterous wedding celebration, strangles Edith on their marriage bed and is then shot by Edith’s military supporters. The love of Solor and Nikiya continues in an apotheosis.

The story is told well, in fact it is quite gripping, edge-of-the-seat material most of the time. It makes so much more sense to a contemporary audience, despite the odd occasion where I had to wonder whether there was a slight (unnecessary) pantomime element to the portrayal of the British raj. I also wondered about the Indian references in the choreography but I was assured Horsman had consulted and researched.

Artists of Queensland Ballet in 'La Bayadere', 2018. Photo: © David Kelly
Artists of Queensland Ballet in La Bayadère, 2018. Photo: © David Kelly

One of the best scenes to my mind was that in the opium den, which immediately preceded the drug-induced dream Solor has of the spirit(s) of Nikiya, which we know as the Kingdom of the Shades scene. The den was filled with an assortment of drug dealers and half-drugged customers, including Solor. It set the scene so well for what followed. We returned to the den as the dream of Solor faded and we watched as he was hunted down, found in the den (after efforts by the dealers to hide him failed) and brought back to the reality of his impending marriage to Edith. The golden full moon and star cloth of Harris’ set was instantly arresting and his tutus for the Shades—a half tutu with a choli-style top—made brilliant sense.

Neneka Yoshida in 'La Bayadere', Queensland Ballet, 2018. . Photo: © David Kelly
Neneka Yoshida in La Bayadère, Queensland Ballet, 2018. Photo: © David Kelly

The very best dancing on this occasion came from one of the newest members of Queensland Ballet, Suguru Otsuka, as the leading temple dancer in the final act. Choreographically his solo demanded some spectacular turns and leaps and was set so that the dancer appeared to be an Indian statue (of perhaps a Shiva figure) come to life. Otsuka gave a courageous, breathtaking performance and is definitely a dancer to watch.

I missed some of the dancing in the wedding scene because my attention was drawn frequently to the increasing drunkenness of Solor, who was danced by Kohei Iwamoto. While he danced and partnered well throughout the ballet, my eyes were so often on his acting at this stage as he dismissed advances by Edith and was consumed with his own issues.

This Bayadère was inspirational especially in the way the story was cleverly reimagined and so beautifully redesigned, but yet retained the essence of the storyline. I was at a performance where live music was not available but nevertheless, from the recording made by the Queensland Symphony Orchestra, it was clear that musical director Nigel Gaynor had done a great job with the score, adding Indian overtones by changing a major key to a minor one and by including some non-Western instruments.

The performance I attended also marked the last performance in a major role by company soloist Teri Crilly who is retiring from dancing and taking an administrative position with Queensland Ballet. She danced Edith at this performance and at the end of the show was farewelled onstage by Li Cunxin and the cast, and was given an exceptional ovation by the audience.

Michelle Potter, 2 April 2018

Featured image: Artists of Queensland Ballet in La Bayadère, 2018. Photo: © David Kelly

NOTE: Below is an image of Gary Harris’ frontcloth, taken from the program (and cropped slightly). This is not an official media image but the cloth was too striking to leave out.

Front cloth for La Bayadere, Queensland Ballet 2018. Design Gary Harris
The three 'Ghost Figures' from 'Ghost Dances'. Queensland Ballet, 2017. Photo: © David Kelly

RAW. A triple bill from Queensland Ballet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michelle Potter, 18 March 2017

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

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