Queensland Ballet has today announced that artistic director Li Cunxin has renewed his contract for a further three years from 2022. This is excellent news as Li’s directorship has been one of the great success stories of dance in Australia. Queensland Ballet is now an exceptional company with an exciting repertoire and, in addition, the company has expanded its reach beyond Brisbane, and has now also developed a first class training academy at Kelvin Grove State College.
Watching Li take a rehearsal gives a clear picture of his commitment to his role and his unquenchable thirst to achieve only the best. He has a strong team of teaching and administrative staff behind him, a resident choreographer in Natalie Weir, with Jack Lister as associate choreographer, and an outstanding musical director in Nigel Gaynor. It’s a company with everything to offer.
This announcement came at the same time as Queensland Ballet announced its 2022 season. Two programs, The Sleeping Beauty and a double bill of Rooster and B-Sides, will be performed on the Gold Coast where Queensland Ballet has set up a new home. In Brisbane four programs will be performed at the Queensland Performing Arts Centre (QPAC)—Giselle in April (following a regional tour in March); a triple bill entitled Li’s Choice in June; Kenneth MacMillan’s Manon in September/October; and The Nutcracker in December. The company will also perform at the Thomas Dixon Centre with Peter and the Wolf slated for June/July; Bespoke, the annual program of new choreography, for July; and Queensland Ballet Academy Gala for August. Full details of the season are set out in this link. Information about three performances of Manon featuring Li and Mary Li can also be found there!
If I had to choose just one program to see in 2022 it would be Li’s Choice. Natalie’s Weir’s work We who are left is a moving, beautifully structured and choreographed work first seen in 2016, which I have wanted to see again for a while. It will share the program with Greg Horsman’s Glass Concerto and Kenneth MacMillan’s Elite Syncopations. A decidedly mixed triple bill. Read my review of We who are left at this link.
Let’s hope that in 2022 the Queensland Government will allow those of us who live outside that state (and who have been double-vaccinated and are happy to wear masks and engage in social distancing etc, etc) to enter Queensland to see a show or two.
In December 2002 I wrote an article, at the request of Bruce Marriott, for ballet.co magazine (now no longer available) to coincide, if I remember correctly, with a conference of artistic directors held in the United Kingdom somewhere (perhaps London?). I think the commission came because David McAllister, then quite new in the role of artistic director of the Australian Ballet, was attending. As with many of my other articles and reviews for ballet.co, I thought it had disappeared from my computer files and I had not made a print out. But just recently it appeared when I was searching with the term ‘Nutcracker’ for another thought-to-be lost file. So I am posting it here and welcome comments from a 2018 perspective.
As artistic directors of some of the world’s best-known ballet companies meet to discuss the issue of globalisation, I am reminded of a now well-known debate that emerged in Australia in the 1960s and the 1970s. It concerned the nature of the country’s cultural development. Two camps sprang up: one centred on the idea of the tyranny of distance, the other on the notion that from the deserts the prophets come. Those who spoke for the tyranny of distance believed that Australia was a cultural desert isolated from the great centres of civilisation, especially from the so-called mother country of Great Britain. Those on the other side believed that Australians did not need to rely on their colonists for what they required to nourish their souls—in the midst of their isolation they could have their own uniquely beautiful culture that could define them, equally uniquely, as Australian. This group took as a catch cry some lines from a poem written by renowned Australian poet A. D. Hope in 1960:
Hoping, if still from the deserts the prophets come Such savage and scarlet as no green hills dare Springs in that waste.
The debate is historically interesting, and the discussion generated two of the best-known period books on Australian culture and identity: Geoffrey Blainey’s The Tyranny of Distance and Geoffrey Serle’s From the Deserts the Prophets Come (later, in an attempt to popularise, or globalise perhaps, the Serle book was renamed The Creative Spirit in Australia).
Advances in technology of various kinds have, of course, made the idea of the tyranny of distance pretty much an obsolete concept. Globalisation, however, is clearly with us: it is part of the fabric of our contemporary existence. It has permeated every aspect of the way we live and operate in the twenty-first century. And while many of the inhabitants of the northern hemisphere may still think of Australia as out of scope, few Australians (thankfully) now believe that distance hampers their ability to interact with the rest of the world. So where does this leave the individualism that we rightly prize so highly? What do we do with the savage and scarlet that has so flamboyantly grown? Or even with the green hills if we are on the other side of the world? Do we sit back and allow globalisation to turn what is unique about our individual dance cultures into something bland and universal? Or do we embrace culturalism, accepting that, while communications may have changed the way we operate in the world, our individual cultures cannot develop in a similar way? Do we sit in our theatres from London to Sydney, from New York to Melbourne, all seeing the same works: a Giselle respectfully produced, Manon, a couple of items from Balanchine, The Merry Widow and so on. Or do we each go for something culturally specific (a Murphy Nutcracker, an Ashton work from the early repertoire), and for individualistic reworkings of the tried and true (a Guillem Giselle, a Murphy Swan Lake)? Is one way the only way? The right way? The wrong way?
Neither bowing to globalisation nor strictly adhering to culturalism is the answer. Culturalism smacks of attitudes of superiority and cultural elitism—my culture is better than yours. It closes the mind to innovation and change. It indulges in smugness and name calling (the vile expression ‘Eurotrash’, beloved by one particular British critic, springs immediately to mind). It is a stultifying attitude. On the other hand, globalisation removes what we value about ourselves as individuals in unique cultures, what our specific histories have created and asked us to cherish. But defiantly, ballet is perfectly able to accommodate itself within a global society without losing anything. Ballet isn’t dying. It isn’t even at the crossroads as it encounters globalisation. Ballet is like a sponge. It can soak up change: it has been doing so for centuries. It can absorb new vocabulary. It can keep renewing itself from what it absorbs. It has to be able to operate in this way because it is a living, breathing art form. Even the most superficial glance at photographs of acclaimed dancers in the same role taken over several decades, in Giselle for example, makes it very clear that while we may want Giselle to stay the same—the past is very comforting—it can’t and hasn’t and won’t. In fifty years time dancers won’t want to dance Giselle like Alina Cojocaru (hard as that idea may be to comprehend at the moment).
In the twenty-first century the ballet-going public is entitled to green hills sprinkled liberally with some savage and scarlet (and I mean this more widely, more figuratively, than simply British works sprinkled with Australian ones). Dancers are, for their growth as artists, entitled to experience the work of choreographers outside their immediate, culturally-specific environment. Choreographers are entitled to wonder (and experience) how their works might look when danced by dancers trained outside the choreographer’s home country: the great ones do (and have) and are open and generous about the experience, as any dancer from the Australian Ballet who has worked with Jiří Kylián on any work from the Australian Ballet’s Kylián repertoire will tell you. Critics need to open-minded enough to embrace change and innovation while caring about the past. And artistic directors need to understand it all! The artistic director of a truly great company needs courage, intelligence and drive. Courage not to be swayed from his or her vision. Intelligence to have a vision that looks both forward and in a lateral direction and, going hand-in-hand, intelligence to understand that looking in this manner and direction is not a denial of the past. Drive to put the vision into practice.
Globalisation is a much-maligned concept. It doesn’t have to exclude anything really. But to react to globalisation uncritically, and to allow it to dictate to us is the problem. To do this is to lack courage, intelligence and drive. That we can see new works and restagings of old ones from London to Sydney, New York to Melbourne is a gift of globalisation. If we wish to deny that gift by insisting on culturalism it is a measure of an inability to exist in a global culture, in today’s culture, and a pitifully conservative attitude. But one thing is certain, whatever the response of individual people ballet will keep moving forward. It will never fall victim to a narrow culturalism. Only people will do that. Let’s hope that the new breed of artistic directors understands.
Michelle Potter, December 2002, reposted 14 June 2018
19 April 2018 (matinee), Royal Opera House, London
The first thing that struck me as the curtain went up on the Royal Ballet’s Manon, and as the action began, was how full of life the crowd scenes were. No matter which character one watched there was always strong acting. And having been brought up, as it were, on the Australian Ballet’s production of Manon, which has designs by Peter Farmer, it was a delightful change to see Nicholas Georgiadis’ work. His set is so functional and yet so evocative and his range of costumes for the variety of folk who inhabit the opening scene is eye-catching to say the least.
As the action proceeded, however, there were ups and downs. Bennet Gartside as Monsieur G.M, and Nehemiah Kish as Des Grieux were both strong performers, technically and as actors, and their strengths continued beyond Act I. I didn’t get quite the same feeling, however, from Melissa Hamilton as Manon. I couldn’t quite figure out whether she was stringing Des Grieux along. Had she really fallen for him as he had for her? I wanted to feel a few goose bumps in their various pas de deux but didn’t. Hamilton was better at being distant with Monsieur G.M than intimate with Des Grieux.
There were times, however, when I admired Hamilton’s beautifully fluid arms, especially in her Act II solo and dance with the men at the party given by Monsieur G. M. Then she brought an attractive Eastern look and feel to her dancing. It was also in Act II that Georgidas’ costumes really shone with their range of russet colours set off by black highlights. Valentino Zucchetti as Lescaut, Manon’s brother, also stood out across the acts in which he was involved. His drunken solo and dance with his friends deserved applause. Act III continued the strength of the first two acts in terms of acting with Gary Avis a cold and nasty gaoler.
I left the theatre after this performance having been swept along by the clarity of the storyline. I wish, however, that Manon had made it a little easier for me to have been swept along by her plight. It would have made the show much more powerful.
12 April 2014 (matinee) and 19 April 2014 (evening), Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House
Having an Australian Ballet subscription ticket to a mid season matinee in Sydney has its benefits. Since most shows open in Melbourne by the time any show reaches Sydney early problems have usually been fixed. It is often an occasion too to see younger artists in major roles. I have a very clear memory of seeing Madeleine Eastoe (several years ago now) making her debut in Romeo and Juliet. A wonderful performance.
However, it often also means that I get a lack lustre performance as the season winds to an end. Such was the case with the first performance of Kenneth MacMillan’s Manon I saw this season. Leanne Stojmenov and Daniel Gaudiello danced well enough but struggled, I thought, with a cast that for the most part didn’t seem the slightest bit involved.
The second show I saw, however, made up for it all. My thoughts on this performance, which featured guest artists Alina Cojocaru and Johan Kobborg as Manon and des Grieux respectively, appear on DanceTabs at this link.
The Australian Ballet recently announced its season for 2014. The inclusion of Stanton Welch’s production of La Bayadère, made for Houston Ballet in 2010, seems to have caused the biggest stir in the press with reports that live snakes and a snake wrangler will make an appearance. Reptiles and their handlers aside, it is certainly a step in an interesting direction to have a new work from Welch (new to Australia anyway) on the program given that he has continued to hold the post of a resident choreographer while also being artistic director of Houston Ballet since 2003.
Although I was not overly impressed with Welch’s recent Rite of Spring, I look forward to seeing this full-length Bayadère and hope that he has tightened up the story a little. ‘La Bayadère is a recurring problem’, as American Dance Magazine noted not so long ago.
But for me the most interesting program on the 2014 list is a mixed bill entitled Chroma. It includes Wayne McGregor’s Chroma, an exciting work made on the Royal Ballet in 2006. I loved its minimalism and its collaborative aesthetic when I saw it a couple of years ago. The Chroma program also includes two short pieces by Jiri Kylian, Petite Mort and Sechs Tänze.
The Australian Ballet showed these two Kylian pieces in 2005 and who can forget those wonderfully fluid duets from Petite Mort, not to mention the fencing foils that the men manipulate in the opening sequences, or those roll-along, black ballgowns! It’s hard to forget Sechs Tänze too, a curiously playful work in which the dancers wear costumes designed by Kylian, which he calls ‘Mozartian underwear’. This program also includes a new work by Stephen Baynes.
A second mixed bill entitled Imperial Suite consists of George Balanchine’s Ballet Imperial and Serge Lifar’s Suite en blanc. The season also includes Kenneth MacMillan’s Manon, which we have seen so many times in Australia, and Peter Wright’s The Nutcracker.
I am looking forward to an exciting season in 2014 although I’d rather something other than Manon as a third evening length work.
Michelle Potter, 6 September 2013
Here is a is a link to a Houston Ballet preview of Welch’s Bayadère. Watch out for a variation from the Kingdom of the Shades scene danced by Nozomi Iijima. It comes towards the end of the four minute preview.
Featured image: Natasha Kusen and Andrew Killian in Petite Mort. Photo: Paul Scala. Courtesy the Australian Ballet
The ticket said ‘Darcey and Rafael in conversation’. The menu cover said ‘Dance—collaboration, creativity and choreography’. A tall order? This luncheon event associated with the National Gallery of Australia’s current exhibition Ballets Russes: the art of costume featured former Royal Ballet star Darcey Bussell, now living with her family in Sydney, and Rafael Bonachela, artistic director of the revamped Sydney Dance Company. So what happened?
Well, about 200 people gathered in Gandel Hall, the Gallery’s new-ish public event space. Seated at round tables accommodating nine or ten people per table, we started with a main course, a most acceptable meal given that it clearly needed to be prepared in advance. Then, as dessert was brought in, Darcey and Rafael, made their way to the stage and, seated in armchairs, began to talk about dance. So far fairly predictable. Things began to get interesting as dance became the focus.
Some footage was shown. We saw the amazing Ms Bussell, with those incredibly articulate arms and legs not to mention face and entire body, in excerpts from Christopher Wheeldon’s Tryst, which Australian audiences were lucky enough to see when Ross Stretton brought the Royal Ballet to Australia in 2001, then in parts of the Black Swan pas de deux from Swan Lake Act III, and finally in the last pas de deux from Manon. Footage of Bonachela’s recent works followed, including segments from We Unfold and 6 Breaths.
The conversation centred for a while on the similarities between classical and contemporary dance in terms of the athleticism required by dancers whatever style they are performing, and on the nature of collaboration. Bonachela stressed his aesthetic of commissioning artistic collaborators to produce new work and outlined the importance of moving the art form forward through the creation of new work. Bussell introduced a certain degree of humour as she recounted the trials of rehearsal and the pitfalls (and pleasures) of performance. They both showed a beautifully human side of themselves.
But perhaps the most interesting moments came when the floor was opened up to questions. For me there were three particularly provocative questions. The first concerned narrative in contemporary dance. Did it exist? And was its lack (or apparent lack outside of ballet) what differentiated contemporary dance from ballet? Bonachela’s answer was beautifully phrased. ‘I believe’, he said ‘that the body has a narrative and I am interested in finding it through my choreography. I want to engage with the audience in an emotional way. I am interested in ideas and think the body is a strong communicative tool.’ He did add however, tongue in cheek, that perhaps he would wake up tomorrow and want to make a narrative work!
The second question of particular interest to me concerned the Australian Ballet and its now apparently entrenched decision not to perform in Canberra. How, asked the audience member posing the question, do we continue to engage with ballet when the flagship company denies Canberra audiences the opportunity to see Australian Ballet performances other than by spending large amounts of money to travel out of Canberra? Bussell rightly outlined the various problems associated with touring especially by major companies. But because she may not be aware of the situation, she didn’t mention the Australian Ballet’s apparent problems with the size and nature of the Canberra Theatre’s stage, nor its perceived issues with the Canberra Symphony Orchestra. But she did say that in the end it is up to us, the people of Canberra, to make it known that we do constitute an audience for ballet and that we want to see performances by the main company, not only those of the Dancers Company or specially contrived one-off events. Well, I’m not sure that any movement from the people would have the slightest effect.
And the third question of particular interest to me concerned the difference in physicality between the dancers of the Ballets Russes era and those of today. It is clear from watching old footage from the 1930s that the dancers who came to Australia between 1936 and 1940 were different in musculature, in technique and in the performance values they brought to the stage. But probably the luncheon conversation was not the forum in which to elaborate on the various changes we see in the way dancers look and perform today. The responses petered out a little. Another occasion perhaps?
The National Gallery of Australia has provided some inspiring events associated with its Ballet Russes exhibition. This was one of them. May there be more events where an audience feels free to ask and comment in the way it did at this event.