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.
Today, 25 April 2020, I watched Royal New Zealand Ballet’s streaming ofAndrew Simmons’ Dear Horizon and Neil Ieremia’s Passchendaele, two works that reflected on the Anzac spirit. In these days of ‘digital stages’, ‘digital seasons’ and the like, I wondered why nothing similar had happened in Australia. Or did something escape my attention?
I have to admit to wondering what could have been streamed in Australia. For a start, in 2016 Queensland Ballet programmed an exceptional triple bill of three works under the title Lest we forget. Two were by non Australian choreographers and neither of them was exactly right for the occasion. But one was Natalie Weir’s We who are left. It would have been perfect. As my review of We who are left was published on the London-based site, Dancetabs, I am reproducing the text here for those who may not have seen the Dancetabs review.
Natalie Weir’s Lest we forget. Queensland Ballet, July 2016(review first published on Dancetabs, 31 July 2016)
It was, I believe, Agnes de Mille who exhorted choreographers to aim to make an impact in the first 30 seconds of their works if they wanted to harness the interest of an audience. Choreographer Natalie Weir did exactly that in Queensland Ballet’s triple bill program, Lest We Forget, a program honouring the ANZAC soldiers of World War I. Weir’s work, We who are left, begins in darkness. One by one five male dancers are revealed, standing in individual pools of light. As we watch each man is joined by a woman and we can almost hear the women shouting ‘Don’t leave me’, ‘Stay’, ‘I love you’ as they throw themselves into the arms of their partners, cling to them, and reluctantly tear themselves away as their partners ready themselves to leave for the war zone. Instant emotional involvement is the only possible reaction. The five couples then lead us on a journey of parting, fighting, death, survival, longing, and memories of what was and what might have been.
Choreographically the work is outstanding throughout. After the strongly emotional opening scene, the men engage in their war activities. At first their movements have a quality of military precision to them. But as this section proceeds they throw themselves around the performing space in athletic leaps as they become more and more bound up in the process of war. Then, dramatically, an upstage screen lifts and four of the five men walk slowly backwards into the grey recesses that are revealed. The screen descends and just a single soldier, ‘The man who lived’ danced by Jack Lister, remains onstage. A lyrical pas de deux between Lina Kim and Camilo Ramos follows. It is a duet recalling memories of past times and is filled with Weir’s signature pas de deux style in which bodies tip, dive, twist and wrap around each other.
Perhaps the choreographic highlight, however, comes at the moment when Clare Morehen, ‘She who was left’, stands onstage with a pair of soldier’s boots in front of her. She dances around them, sometimes with sharp pique-style movements that suggest agony, sometimes with extended legs and stretched arms that suggest a range of other emotions. Then, surprisingly, she is joined by her man, Shane Wuerthner. They dance together but separately. Morehen stretches out to him but they never touch. They kiss but their lips never meet. He lies on the floor and she steps over him crisscrossing her way along the body. They are astonishing moments and present a totally different take on memory from what we saw from Kim and Ramos. Later, the other four women enter with pairs of boots and poignantly place them on the floor. But nothing can equal the dream-like moments we spend with Morehen and Wuerthner.
The work is danced to selections from Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem Opus 66 and Weir has chosen largely from those sections of the score that include the spoken word in the form of poetry by Wilfred Owen. The score pounds relentlessly and adds a separate level of drama to the overall work. David Walters lighting design is spectacular throughout beginning with that striking downlighting in the opening moments, through to brooding lighting washing across the stage as the men find themselves in the act of war, and on to further pools of light highlighting the women as they survey the empty boots of those who did not return. Costumes by Noelene Hill are perfectly of the period and neutral in their colours.
We who are left has an innate simplicity—five couples, five sets of boots, basically a grey colour scheme. That’s about it on an obvious level. Yet it is masterful in its ability to communicate general thoughts about the effects of war, while at the same time conveying a sense of individuality. It is like a dagger in the heart with its theatricality, its choreographic sensibility, and its dramatic power. It is nothing less than a knockout.
Then there’s Stephen Baynes’ 1914 made for the Australian Ballet way back in 1998. One of my ongoing gripes is that 1914 has never been revived. I am told by some that it ‘had problems’, but I thought it was an exceptional work. In 1998 I was writing for Dance Australia and my review appeared there. Here is what I wrote of this work.
Stephen Baynes’ 1914. The Australian Ballet, April 1998(review first published in Dance Australia, June/July 1998)
Stephen Baynes’ new work, 1914, opened with many expectations riding on it. It was Baynes’ first evening-length work, his first narrative ballet and the first time he had taken a novel, David Malouf’s Fly away Peter, as specific inspiration. But most of all, it was a major Australian work: the Australian Ballet’s first ever full-length work with choreography, score and design all commissioned from Australian artists.
As a collaboration, 1914 achieves much. On the most obvious level, the ballet (and the book) follows a simple narrative centring on the lives of three Australians, Jim Saddler, Imogen Harcourt and Ashley Crowther. Jim and Ashley enlist and go to France to fight in the Great War and the lives of the three are torn apart and changed forever. But the collaborative team of Baynes, Graeme Koehne (composer), Andrew Carter (set and lighting designer) and Anna French (costume designer), have added to the simple story something of the poetic and impressionistic qualities of Fly away Peter. Through the contributions of this creative team the story becomes a journey from light to dark and, finally, back to light again with Imogen, who is left alone in the final moments of the ballet to resolve her—and our—feelings of loss and grief.
In his choreographic definition of the characters, Baynes’ greatest success is with Jim, whose movements are both unaffected and expansive. Especially in the first solo, with its emphasis on clean lines and movements that highlight an open chest and outstretched arms, Jim emerges as laconic but free-spirited. On opening night Steven Heathcote interpreted this choreography with a total lack of pretension. Damien Welch and Joshua Consandine performed the role of Jim later in the season but, while they both danced with style, neither had the combination of maturity and un-selfconsciousness that made Heathcote’s interpretation so satisfying.
Imogen is probably the most difficult role in the ballet. She must be the down-to-earth photographer whose relationship with Jim is based purely on a shared interest in birds; the dream figure who appears to Jim in France; and the solitary woman whose emotions must carry the ballet to a close. Her final solo requires a strong sense of balance and is full of steps that seem to twist and turn in on themselves, as she works to come to grips with Jim’s death. On opening night Lisa Bolte was clearly in control technically and brought a deep honesty to the role. In other casts Miranda Coney and Vick Attard both contributed individualistic interpretations and Attard, especially, was emotionally convincing in the final solo. But both Attard and Coney sometimes seemed to move with a kind of lightness and affectation that is at odds with the character of Imogen.
The English-educated Ashley is defined largely through other people—his cultivated friends who visit Jim who works for him and the soldiers he commands. Neither Adrian Burnett, Matthew Trent nor David McAllister seemed able to transform him into anything other than a distant and insubstantial figure. Marc Cassidy, on the other hand, brought life to one of the Australian soldiers in France brilliantly—a larrikin gambler and smoker who was clearly based on Malouf’s character, Clancy.
As an Australian work, 1914 is profoundly moving. Without being facile, there is a simplicity in the choreography that reflects the qualities of openness and directness, perhaps even naivety. There are times too when the sense of Australian sound, light and colour is overwhelmingly beautiful. Carter is the star of the creative team here—his abstractions of the landscape into a few trees, a couple of sand dunes and a patch of sky is awesome.
As a theatrical work, 1914 makes demands on a ballet audience. Probably the most affecting moment in the work has no dancing. When the scene changes from France to Australia following Jim’s death for the resolution of the ballet, all the audience has, for what seems like quite a long time, are changes of lighting, visual imagery and musical theme. But those moments are intensely enriching. Baynes and his team have made a quietly impressive work that asks the audience to see that emotions can be evoked through stillness, sound and visual imagery as well as movement.
The Dinner Party has had a couple of manifestations. Choreographed by Natalie Weir for Expressions Dance Company, it was shown in 2015 as The Host. I suspect, however, that the inspiration for it can be traced back much further to 1989 when Janet Karin commissioned Weir to make a short work for the National Capital Dancers, which was also called The Host. The current production, which opened in Brisbane in May and is now on a national/regional tour, is probably somewhat different in impact from the 2015 showing, given that Weir no longer directs Expressions. The company is now under the directorship of Amy Hollingsworth and her dancers are a quite different group, which definitely adds a new feel to the company.
I was a little taken aback by The Dinner Party. The storyline, or theme, explores the manipulative side of human beings. The character of the Host (Jake McLarnon) attempts to wield power over his four guests, although not all of them wish to be manipulated. The work thus lends itself to a choreographic display of power, and power is what we get. One of Weir’s strengths as a choreographer has always been an ability to combine movement in unexpected ways, especially in duets or with other small combinations of dancers. We saw those unexpected movement combinations in The Dinner Party, not only between dancers but also between dancers and the table and chairs that made up the set. There was a lot that was acrobatic, hugely energetic, and definitely powerful.
It was a thrill to see Bernhard Knauer, whose work with Sydney Dance Company I had admired over several years before he moved on. He played the role of the Rival and his solo on the table, and his duet with McLarnon towards the end of the work, were highlights.
But overall I was taken aback because for me the exploration of the human psyche through choreographed interpersonal relations between the cast members seemed, in the end, to be the least important part of the work. There seemed just to be a lot of gymnastic-type dancing around or on a table, which didn’t advance the theme. I did, however, enjoy the costumes by Gail Sorronda, which captured the intrinsic qualities of each of the characters, and the lighting by Ben Hughes, which cast great light and shadow at appropriate times.
Michelle Potter, 22 June 2019
Afterthought: it would have been helpful had there been a cast list (at least) somewhere in the theatre foyer, if no handout was being offered. The program was available online (with a character listed who did not appear in Queanbeyan), which I looked up after the show. But not everyone goes to the company’s website prior to or after the show.
May 2017 be a very happy and productive new year for all. My thanks to all those who have logged on to my site during 2016, and special thanks to those who have made comments throughout the year, or made contact in other ways.
My Canberra dance picks for 2016 have already been published by The Canberra Times, and posted, with additional comments, at this link.My ‘best of’ reaching beyond, but including Canberra will appear as part of the annual Critics’ Survey in Dance Australia in the February/March issue.
Perhaps more than anything in 2016 I have been impressed and encouraged by Queensland Ballet—great programming, wonderful dancing, a company on the move. For me, QB’s production of Liam Scarlett’s A Midsummer Night’s Dreamwas the 2016 standout across the board. But the company also gave us the fabulously glamorous Strictly Gershwin; the mixed bill Lest We Forget, which included Natalie Weir’s haunting We who are left; and, of course, the warmth and comfort of an old favourite in the Ben Stevenson production of The Nutcracker. I look forward to more from this vibrant company in 2017.
On course 2016. QL2 Dance
The On course program has become an annual December event for QL2 Dance. The program offers students taking tertiary dance courses from across Australia to come to Canberra to choreography, collaborate, perform and be mentored. This year, the tenth year of the initiative, nine short new works made up the program.
It was an evening of occasional promise but overall a very mixed bag. Probably the most interesting part of the evening was a question that came from an audience member at the Q & A that followed the showing. A gentleman began his question with the words ‘I am a scientist.’ He then proceeded to ask (with apologies to the gentleman as I am not able to quote him exactly) whether the choreographers aimed to make work that was understandable, and whether they thought of the audience as they created. A long-ish reply ensued with several choreographers making comments, which largely focused on the fact that the choreographers thought more about giving expression to their ideas rather than whether it was understandable to the audience.
What surprised me most of all was that the initial, and perhaps most forceful response, came from Oonagh Slater, currently a tertiary student at the Victorian College of the Arts and a former performer with QL2. Her solo work was probably the most easily understood of any of the works, despite the title the body series: (corporeality) a progression and despite her comments about not making work with the audience in mind. It was strongly visual and could be easily read as an abstract work about shape, colour, form and space.
The episode made me wonder whether young choreographers need better mentoring/teaching? And hats off to the scientist who (I assume) wanted to be able to understand what he was seeing. Why go to a performance otherwise?
Press for December 2016
‘A modern take on traditional thrills.’ Review of Circus 1903. The Canberra Times, 6 December 2016, p. 18. Online version
‘In step with youth.’ Feature on Ruth Osborne and her award of a 2017 Churchill Fellowship. The Canberra Times—Panorama, 17 December 2016, p. 11. Online version
‘Rich variety sign of more exciting times.’ Top Canberra dance picks for 2016. The Canberra Times, 27 December 2016, p. 18. Online version
29 July 2016, Playhouse, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane
My review of Queensland Ballet’s triple bill, Lest we forget, has been published on DanceTabs at this link.
One aspect of the production I didn’t mention on DanceTabs was the lovely piece of Americana on the cast sheet. The dancers in Company B were referred to not by first name and surname but with the surname preceded by Ms. or Mr. as in:
‘Pennsylvania Polka’ Ms. Crilly & Mr. Thompson.
I recall being asked by a former principal of the Australian Ballet if I could refer to her in this way in reviews. I had to decline as it is not the Australian way. But I loved that the format was used in Paul Taylor’s very American work. Or should I say Mr. Taylor’s very American work?.
In Jane Albert’s interview with Alice Topp and Richard House in the printed program, Topp speaks of her hopes for the future. She says: ‘…my ultimate dream would be to become [the first female] resident choreographer of The Australian Ballet.’ It isn’t clear who actually said or inserted the bit in square brackets but it’s not correct. The honour of being the first female resident choreographer of the Australian Ballet is already taken. It belongs to Natalie Weir who was resident choreographer during the directorship of Ross Stretton.
Looking back to 2010, when I last saw Balanchine’s Symphony in C, I can’t believe I was so lucky to see the cast I did. My review of that performance is at this link.
Looking back even earlier, I was also lucky way to see the Diana and Acteon pas de deux when it was first performed by the Australian Ballet in 1964. It featured Rudolf Nureyev and Lupe Serrano! The photographer Walter Stringer captured a few images of Nureyev and Serrano from the wings.
9 October 2015, Queanbeyan Performing Arts Centre, Queanbeyan
This text is a slightly expanded version of my review, which appeared in The Canberra Times on 13 October 2015. A link to the online version of the review is at the end of this post.
Natalie Weir’s Carmen Sweet for Expressions Dance Company is simply sensational. Made for just six dancers with stunning, minimal design and powerful lighting, it demonstrates very clearly that less is more.
Carmen Sweet follows the familiar story of Carmen as we know it from the opera, at least in essence. Two men vie for Carmen’s love. She plays with the power she wields over them before one kills her. But in typical fashion, Weir has directed the story to accommodate her tiny company, and has taken a psychological look at the personality of Carmen. We encounter three Carmens, a young, flirtatious Carmen (Rebecca Hall), a sensual, fiery Carmen (Michelle Barnett) and a mature, knowing Carmen (Elise May). But that they are three shades of the one character is made clear in some exceptional choreography. Especially memorable is the scene where Carmen moves her affections from Don José, the soldier (Jack Ziesing), to that of Escamillo, the matador (Benjamin Chapman). Weir has choreographed this moment as a kind of ballroom dance for five people dancing as one. The three Carmens form the middle of the group with a man at each end. With changes of direction that are quite hypnotic, the leadership of the dance moves back and forth from Don José to Escamillo.
As the Fortune Teller who warns Carmen of her impending death at the hands of Don José, Daryl Brandwood gave a powerful performance. His expressive body curved and curled as he stalked around the older Carmen. He took her head in his hands and turned her gaze towards her younger counterpart, forcing her to watch as the impending murder was played out. And the final moment in this scene was set up on the diagonal for maximum theatrical impact. Our eyes were drawn back and forth from the demands of the Fortune Teller upstage, to prefigured death downstage as Ziesing hovered over the body of Carmen.
The final scene is also choreographed on the diagonal and gives us another look at the three Carmens as one. Shrouded in moody lighting (Ben Hughes and Amelia Davis), one by one the three women fall smoothly onto the sofa, which has been moved downstage, each one not quite covering the other. Upstage the murderer, Don José, is a tense and lonely figure, his empty hands stretched forward. It is a startling image that again invites us to cast our eyes from one grouping to the other.
Weir has skilfully used the Rodion Shchedrin score, which is an arrangement for strings and percussion of extracts from music by Georges Bizet. She has, of course, used well-known melodies to identify the various characters. Escamillo, for example, enters to the familiar music that accompanies the Toreador Song in Bizet’s opera. But Weir’s skill is also noticeable in the way her choreography matches Shchedrin’s percussive sounds, exemplified especially in the last solo by the sensual Carmen where her pizzicato-style movements match beautifully with the notes.
Bill Haycock’s minimal but dramatic use of colour added extra strength to what was an exceptional piece of theatre. A single, red Salvador Dali ‘lip’ sofa was all that we needed to set the scene of passion and revenge, and the dancers used it to accommodate their outbursts of fiery behaviour. Haycock’s costumes for the three Carmens continued the theatricality. The older Carmen flounced seductively in a long-ish black, flamenco-styled dress, while the younger Carmens wore shorter, sexy red numbers.
And a big bouquet to the six local dancers, each carrying a single red rose, who accompanied Escamillo’s entrance. They performed with all the aplomb of the professionals with whom they shared the stage.
9 October 2015, Queanbeyan Performing Arts Centre, Queanbeyan
‘Natalie Weir’s Carmen Sweet for Expressions Dance Company is simply sensational.’ So begins my review for The Canberra Times to be published shortly. The text and a link to the online review will appear in due course. [See this link]
In the meantime, I can only say that, after a Sleeping Beauty from the Australian Ballet that was so over-designed that the dancers seemed secondary, and after Lord of the Dance: Dangerous Games that used every technological trick in the book throughout the evening, Expressions Dance Company finally (and rightly) made dance look as though it was the centrepiece of the evening. Natalie Weir, her collaborators, and her tiny team of six dancers, deserve the utmost praise for their courage, their exceptional skills, their well-considered focus on what constitutes the danced performance, and their intelligent understanding of the art of collaboration.
Thank you. I am humbled before you. To be continued …
Natalie’s Weir’s Carmen Sweet already has an enviable performance history. It began as a commission from the Queensland Symphony Orchestra to provide a dance work to Rodion Shchedrin’s 1967 score, Carmen Suite, which was to be performed as part of the QSO’s 2012 season. Weir says she was especially interested in taking on the commission because she would have to consider making something to suit an audience that was not specifically a dance one.
‘Our audiences have been growing,’ Weir says, ‘but at Expressions we are still working hard to make our repertoire accessible and to grow an even stronger audience base.’
Carmen Sweet‘ssuccess with QSO audiences was such that Weir decided to develop her work a little further and to present it as a piece for her Expressions Dance Company.
Since then Carmen Sweet has toured to the Noosa Long Weekend Festival and Singapore Dance Theatre’s Ballet Under the Stars event in 2013, and has had seasons in Brisbane and across regional Queensland. Now Weir’s dancers are embarking on a ten week tour to seventeen different venues across New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia. And Canberra audiences just have to slip over the border to Queanbeyan to catch it.
‘I made it especially for touring,’ Weir says. ‘We had such success when we toured R & J. It was accessible in that it told a story and yet it was still a contemporary dance work. It provided audiences with a link between classical ballet and some of the more abstract contemporary works being seen in Australia at the moment. Carmen Sweet falls into a similar category.’
The work is made for six dancers. Although Weir essentially remains true to the Carmen story as we know it from the opera, in Carmen Sweet we see Carmen in three different guises, at three different eras in her life: the matriarchal, knowledgeable Carmen, danced by Elise May; the unattainable Carmen danced by Michelle Barnett; and the young, flirtatious Carmen from Rebecca Hall. Jack Ziesing dances the soldier, Don José, who falls in love with Carmen; Benjamin Chapman plays Escamillo, the matador who steals Carmen’s heart; and Daryl Brandwood is the Fortune Teller who warns Carmen of her death.
There is also what Weir refers to as ‘a community section’. Ten young dancers from each region will be selected to join the cast as the entourage of Escamillo. In a tongue-in-cheek reference to a popular television show each of these dancers will carry a single rose.
‘It’s a bit of a romp,’ says Weir, although others have described Carmen Sweet as a tale of love, lust and revenge. But we can be sure of exciting and dramatic choreography—Weir is renowned for it; an unusual and thought-provoking take on a well-known story—again a characteristic feature of Weir’s work; and some fabulous design from Bill Haycock, a long-time collaborator with Weir. It is the last chance, too, to see Daryl Brandwood, who will be retiring from Expressions at the end of this season.
21 August 2015, Playhouse, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane
Natalie Weir can always be relied upon to present works with highly physical choreography and with design that is usually minimal but always effective. Her most recent production for Expressions Dance Company, 7 Deadly Sins, is no exception. The choreography is powerful and sometimes turbulent, the lighting by David Walters is dramatic, and the design by Bill Haycock is in some cases lush and sumptuous, in others totally stripped back. A bold, commissioned score from Darrin Verhagen completes the collaboration.
Weir has set out to examine human nature through an exploration those ‘vices’ that, since early Christian times, have been classified as ‘deadly sins’—sloth, greed, gluttony, lust, envy, pride and wrath. Each sin makes an appearance by emerging from a box—each box is uniquely shaped and accommodates the dancer in a different position. Initially the sins wear a gorgeously designed costume created by Haycock from a range of fabrics, mostly gold and black in colour, with metallic and bejewelled highlights. These costumes look fabulously dramatic as the sins emerge from their boxes. But each sin quickly discards his or her luxurious outer garment in order to represent the sin in a physical manner. An eighth character, the Man, has a role that is a little unclear, although he interacts with the sins throughout and gives the piece, which really has no leading character, a kind of coherence.
The standout sins for me were Pride, danced with exceptional stage presence by Benjamin Chapman, and Wrath, strongly, even wrathfully, performed by Michelle Barnett. There was absolutely no doubt about which sin they represented. The body said it all. I also admired Daryl Brandwood as Greed, not only for his articulate dancing, but also because his vast performing experience made his interpretation a multi-faceted one. In fact, the choreographic highlight for me was a duet between Brandwood and Chapman in which their characters seemed to be competing for dominance. And remarkably this competitive sparring took place inside, on top of, and around one of the boxes. The duet was a powerful display and something of a tour de force with the tall, narrow box tilting alarmingly at times. It was, nevertheless, beautifully manipulated and managed by the dancers.
This is an interesting work from Weir who most often deals with storytelling in which people are at the centre of the work. With 7 Deadly Sins we are, on the other hand, looking at a collection of temperaments or intangible ideas. Perhaps the weakest aspect of the show was that not all the dancers were able to portray these non-human characters so easily. Or at least not able to make an instant impact. As a result, in some cases I found myself wondering for a few minutes which sin was being portrayed. I am often reminded of Agnes de Mille who maintained that a dancer had just 30 seconds after making an entrance to also make an impact in order to keep the audience’s attention.