In November the Canberra Critics’ Circle announced its awards for 2023. This year five dance awards were presented:
Ruth Osborne, outgoing director of QL2 Dance, which Osborne has led since 1999. Osborne’s award recognised in particular her outstanding input into James Batchelor’s production Shortcuts to Familiar Places, which was presented at Canberra’s Playhouse in April 2023. My review of Shortcuts is at this link.
Natsuko Yonezwa and Itazura Co for the film Kiku. Kiku and its accompanying documentary explored dance and the ageing body through the experiences of six Canberra women. My review is at this link.
Australian Dance Party for Culture Cruise. Culture cruise gave those who joined the cruise an innovative experience over land and water, which fused the performing arts, fine dining and Canberra’s cultural institutions. Read my review at this link.
Gretel Burgess for A Stroke of Luck. A Stroke of Luck gave Gretel Burgess the opportunity to produce and direct her lived experience as a stroke survivor. Bill Stephens’ review is at this link.
Caitlin Schilg for her choreography for the Canberra Philharmonic Society Production of Cats. Caitlin Schilg drew on a diverse range of dance styles to create a series of brilliantly staged production numbers for the musical Cats. Read a review by Bill Stephens at this link.
Oral history interview with Alice Topp
In November I had the pleasure, and honour, of recording an oral history interview for the National Library of Australia with Alice Topp, outgoing resident choreographer with the Australian Ballet.
Alice was most forthcoming about her life and career to date and the interview contains some detailed material about her choreographic process and the establishment of Project Animo, her joint initiative with lighting designer Jon Buswell. The interview is currently undergoing accessioning but cataloguing details will be available in due course.
For more about Alice Topp on this website follow this link.
News from Queensland Ballet
Queensland Ballet has announced details of changes to its line-up of dancers for 2024 including the news that principal dancers Mia Heathcote and Victor Estévez will leave the company at the end of 2023 to join the Australian Ballet in 2024. Heathcote and Estévez have made a remarkable contribution to Queensland Ballet over the past several years. Each has given me much pleasure (Heathcote from as far back as 2013 before she even joined Queensland Ballet) and I hope they will be given every opportunity with the Australian Ballet.
In other news from Queensland Ballet, the company recently announced the establishment of the Van Norton Li Community Health Institute with the goal of sustaining and expanding its Dance Health programs across socioeconomic, age and geographic boundaries and all abilities. For more about the program, including information about the donors to this project, follow this link.
15 November 2023 (matinee). Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House
This double bill of works by Frederick Ashton was an entertaining two hours of ballet. I enjoyed in particular the opening work, Marguerite and Armand, for its episodic structure that gave a strong focus to specific moments of love between Marguerite and Armand, and later the moment of Marguerite’s death from tuberculosis. I enjoyed too the minimal set and its semi-circular nature (design Cecil Beaton) that went well with the general structure of the work.
Valerie Tereschenko danced nicely as Marguerite and made her characterisation reasonably clear. But Maxim Zenin as Armand didn’t offer quite enough of Armand’s emotional state to make his character stand out. So the partnership was not as powerful as it needs to be in this work.
Unfortunately (or fortunately for me), I clearly remember Sylvie Guillem dancing the female lead in Marguerite and Armand in Sydney and Melbourne way back in 2002 when the Royal Ballet, then under the direction of Ross Stretton, visited from London.* More recently (2018) I also saw Alessandra Ferri and Federico Bonelli give a stunning performance with the Royal Ballet in London. So I had high expectations, which I’m sad to say weren’t met. I get the feeling that the Australia Ballet currently concentrates more on technical action at the expense of the need for a powerful dramatic essence.
As for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Bendicte Bemet as Titania and Joseph Caley as Oberon danced well but again I felt they lacked strength of characterisation. Were they King and Queen? Did they rule over the Fairies? Were they really arguing over the Changeling? And so on.
Of the other characters, Bottom (Luke Marchant) dancing on pointe is always a highlight in the Ashton production and Marchant looked very comfortable as he hopped and skipped around on pointe. But again he needed stronger characterisation, especially after he had returned to his role as a Rustic and tried to remember what had happened while under the spell cast on him by Puck.
Unfortunately (again) in terms of how I saw the Ashton production and the Australian Ballet’s performance of it, I had just seen Liam Scarlett’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream performed by Queensland Ballet. Scarlett’s take on the story has so much more to offer than does the Ashton production. And in performing it the dancers of Queensland Ballet demonstrated not only their truly exceptional technical and production values but also the manner in which they have been coached to inhabit a role. It was completely engaging rather than simply entertaining.
While I can say the Australian Ballet’s season of the two Ashton works was entertaining, it did leave me a little cold. I hope there might be more focus soon on dramatic and emotional input. Please!
*The Australian Ballet’s website mentions that Marguerite and Armand is having its premiere season in Australia. It might be the premiere for the Australian Ballet, but it’s not the premiere for Australia, the country.
I was lucky enough to have the chance to see Liam Scarlett’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream a second time in Canberra. I especially wanted to see the cast that was not dancing on opening night. Mia Heathcote and Alexander Idaszak took on the roles of Titania and Oberon at the second performance I saw, although I hesitate to call them the ‘second cast’ as they were simply a different cast from the opening night.
Everything I previously wrote about the production itself stands for this second review—fabulous set and costumes, gorgeous lighting, great dancing by the Rustics and Fairies. And the rest. But there were some highlights for me from this cast and these highlights are the focal point for this second post.
Mia Heathcote and Alexander Idaszak as Titania and Oberon.
I admired immensely not just the dancing by Mia Heathcote as Titania and Alexander Idaszak as Oberon, as exceptional as it was throughout, but also the connection that was set up between them. It ranged from the competitiveness they created in the early stages of the work as they argued about who ‘owned’ the changeling child, to love and attraction for each other in the final moments of the work as the issues were resolved. There were of course many other emotions in between the two mentioned but the connections, whatever emotion was in play, were strongly established and always very clear.
The final pas de deux between them was quite astonishing technically, especially in the performance of Scarlett’s surprising and beautiful lifts in which Titania’s body swirled constantly around Oberon’s. I was especially moved too by Idaszak’s lyrical use of every part of his body to enhance the choreography. He was just just magnificent.
Vito Bernasconi as Bottom
Vito Bernasconi was a fascinating Bottom. He made the change from Rustic to Bottom and back again very clear in a physical way and we were in no doubt about his confusion as he tried to understand what had happened to him when, under the spell cast on him by Puck, he engaged with Titania.
Neneka Yoshida and Rian Thompson as Hermia and Lysander
Neneka Yoshida and Rian Thompson made a charming couple as Hermia and Lysander. I was especially taken by Yoshida’s beautiful performing presence and her very easy style of moving and execution of Scarlett’s choreography. And she had a very attentive partner in Thompson. They were such a pleasure to watch.
Liam Scarlett’s Midsummer Night’s Dream is a work that engages the audience from beginning to end. As happened on opening night, at the Saturday matinee there was not just applause but laughter and cheering at every opportunity.
Unfortunately there are no photos from the Canberra production that I can add to this post. The ones sent to media from the Canberra Theatre Centre were from a production in Cairns where the cast was not quite the same!
After all the drama surrounding the life of choreographer Liam Scarlett, leading to his death by suicide in April 2021, what a thrill it was to see a restaging of his exceptional work, A Midsummer Night’s Dream—a joint production between Queensland Ballet and Royal New Zealand Ballet. It was first seen in New Zealand in 2015 and then in Brisbane in 2016. How lucky we are that Li Cunxin has seen fit to have it staged again by Queensland Ballet.
Scarlett’s work, somewhat rearranged from the play of the same name by William Shakespeare, juxtaposes two worlds—that of a fairy realm led by Oberon and Titania as King and Queen, who are squabbling over a changeling child; and a mortal world inhabited by rustics and a group of ‘explorers’ (so to speak) who enter a forest clearing inhabited by the fairies. The love lives of the ‘explorers’ become a little muddled when Oberon’s apprentice, Puck, receives instructions from Oberon to help with his squabble with Titania.
The forest setting is spectacularly designed by Tracy Lord Grant with strings of lights, stylised flora, a bridge among the tree tops, exotic tent-style dwellings for the fairy folk, and then some down-to-earth tents for the explorers. She is also responsible for the remarkable and beautifully coloured costumes. The work is lit with style by Kendall Smith.
Scarlett’s choreography is quite individualistic. It is beautifully musical with individual steps that are sometimes so small and fast that it is almost ‘blink and you miss them’. Then he invents lifts that are unlike anything we have seen before; he combines turns and jumps in unusual ways; he creates group movements that seem just perfect for the moment; and his choreography always matches the nature of the characters in the work. On this last mentioned issue, the group choreography for the rustics is a perfect example—it is, well, just rustically unsophisticated!
The dancers of Queensland Ballet danced brilliantly, as we have come to expect these days. Victor Estévez was a rather solemn Oberon but I loved seeing him lurking in the background (often on the treetop bridge) keeping an eye on what Puck was doing. Lucy Green handled the role of Titania with ease and the pas de deux between her and Estévez at the end of the work, when their differences had been resolved, was full of love and even a bit of sexiness. The four ‘explorers’, Mia Heathcote as Hermia, Alexander Idaszak as Lysander, Georgia Swan as Helena and Vito Bernasconi as Demetrius, engaged our attention throughout, while Rian Thompson as Bottom was memorable especially after the spell linking him and Titania had been broken and he struggled (choreographically) to understand what had happened.
While it is a hard task to single out individual performers in a show where the standard of performance is so high, Kohei Iwamato as Puck needs a special mention. Apart from the fact that he danced with spectacular leaps, great turns and detailed choreographic focus, the facial and physical expression that he used to give depth to his character was remarkable. I also found Georgia Swan truly engaging as the slightly crazy Helena. There was a lovely moment, after she and Demetrius had come together, when Demetrius took out a pair of glasses to show Helena that he too wore glasses.
This was my second look at Scarlett’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream after seeing it in Brisbane in 2016. As often happens with dance productions, the second viewing brought out things that I hadn’t noticed to such an extent the first time. Apart from the comic angle which hadn’t seemed so obvious before, I was entranced by the way every single character had an individuality, even when dancing as a group. The fairies and the rustics brought this out really well.
A truly unmissable show and I look forward to another viewing.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream continues at the Canberra Theatre until Saturday 28 October. If you miss it in Canberra, it is part of Queensland Ballet’s 2024 season and plays at Queensland Performing Arts Centre’s Playhouse from 12–27 April. See this link for more information about that 2024 season. It will also be restaged by Royal New Zealand Ballet 24 October–14 December beginning in Wellington. See this link. Update: Here is a link to my second viewing in Canberra.
Michelle Potter, 26 October 2023
Postscript: At the post performance event following the opening night of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Canberra both Alex Budd, director of the Canberra Theatre Centre, and Li Cunxin mentioned in their speeches the move currently underway to build a new and enlarged theatre space for the Canberra Theatre Centre. Both spoke of the size of the current main stage and the difficulties associated with staging some performances on it. The size of the Canberra stage has been an issue for some time now and a new stage is a terrific development. But I have to say that Li Cunxin managed to fit Midsummer onto the current stage just brilliantly even though he admitted there had to be some adjustments. He said when asked that he never says ‘No I can’t do it.’ He always finds a way. Well that’s Li. He succeeds where others can’t be bothered trying.
Li also seized the opportunity to speak about another important issue—government funding for Queensland Ballet, which he says is minimal compared to funding for other major dance companies in Australia. This is a situation that needs to be changed. Under Li Cunxin and Mary Li the company has grown in size; has become more adventurous than ever; has built new and hugely responsive audiences; has brought major sponsors on board, has built a new home for Queensland Ballet (including a theatre), and now the company has a standard of performance that is hard to beat anywhere. That it has been unable to garner funding that recognises its place as a world class company is outrageous. We need to lobby those who are in a position to bring about change.
Queensland Ballet has unveiled its plans for 2024 and those plans suggest that the year will be a magnificent parting gift to audiences from outgoing artistic director Li Cunxin AO. The works come from a range of choreographers, including Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, Ben Stevenson and Liam Scarlett, along with the company’s own Greg Horsman and Matthew Lawrence and a number of other Australian artists, including Jack Lister and Wakka Wakka/Kombumerri choreographer Katina Olsen.
Perhaps the most intriguing work in the season is Coco Chanel. The Life of a Fashion Icon, intriguing perhaps because its choreographer, Belgian-Columbian Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, is not so well-known in Australia, despite the fact that she has worked for a myriad of companies in the northern hemisphere. It will be seen in Brisbane from 4–19 October and is described by Queensland Ballet as ‘transporting audiences back to Jazz Age Paris’ and as ‘a full length narrative ballet steeped in realism and beauty.’
Li Cunxin remarks that he has been an admirer of Ochao’s work for some time. He has seen her works in many situations and on many companies and especially recalls being thrilled watching one of her productions in rehearsal in Cuba on a visit there a few years ago. At my suggestion that Chanel was often a controversial figure, he says, ‘I am familiar with how Annabelle shapes and layers her works and Coco Chanel explores more than Chanel’s career as a fashion designer. But it does not glorify her work and is more a reflection of the times in which she lived.’ Li also admires her approach to collaboration saying, ‘She is daring when it comes to collaboration and is always seeking new talent in different areas.’
Coco Chanel is a joint production between Queensland Ballet, Hong Kong Ballet and Atlanta Ballet. Others of the 2024 offerings are also joint productions, including a much-anticipated revival of Liam Scarlett’s astonishing and truly beautiful production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (12–27 April), ‘brimming with mischief and mayhem’ as the media release rightly says; and Greg Horsman’s Australianised production of Coppélia (7–22 June).
Li is enthusiastic about the advantages of of joint productions. ‘It’s a win/win situation,’ he says. ‘It is a sharing of costs and it also develops the spirit of collaboration with artists being exposed to different practices, different approaches.’
Horsman’s production of Coppélia was first staged in 2014 and is a joint production with West Australian Ballet. I didn’t see it in 2014 but Li tells me it is an innovative work that connects to Australia’s migrant history. Set in Hahndorf, South Australia, in the late 19th century, it tells the story of a German migrant—he represents Dr Coppélius—who has lost his daughter on the boat trip from Europe and who tries to recreate her in Australia. But, Li tells me, ‘Greg is respectful to the Coppélia we all know and keeps a number of the classical parts of the original choreography.’
Queensland Ballet’s seventh Bespoke season will take place 25 July–3 August and will comprise works by Katina Olsen, Milena Sidorova (a Ukrainian-Dutch choreographer), and Jack Lister, while the company’s Queensland Ballet on tour will be expanded to include Queensland Ballet at home. The ‘at home’ season is a new initiative given that the company now has its own home in the Talbot Theatre. It will feature a work by the current ballet master, Matthew Lawrence, with the somewhat surprising title of Tchaikovsky Mash. Lawrence’s work was first shown at the Noosa Alive Festival 2023 and Li speaks enthusiastically about it saying that Lawrence has creative ideas and is very musical. The ‘at home’ show will include Ben Stevenson’s Three Preludes, the pas de deux from Le Corsaire and Horsman’s A Rhapsody in Motion.
The year will conclude with the Christmas favourite Ben Stevenson’s The Nutcracker. But as a bonus extra Queensland Ballet is presenting Derek Deane’s The Lady of the Camellias performed by Shanghai Ballet in Brisbane 5–8 December.
Li’s replacement as artistic director has not yet been announced but the news of who it will be is likely to be known in the not too distant future. Of the future of Queensland Ballet Li has remarked: ‘I look forward to witnessing the journey of this aspirational company as it continues to share the beauty of dance with as many people as possible throughout Queensland and beyond.’
Digital screening, September–October (filmed on 29 September 2023 during the Melbourne season of Swan Lake)
I am not a huge fan of this latest production of Swan Lake from the Australian Ballet—a version directed by artistic director David Hallberg but based on the 1970s production by Anne Woolliams with dramaturgy and a little extra choreography from Lucas Jervies.
On a positive note, the corps de ballet of 26 swans danced as a group with exceptional precision. Whether they were making and holding a line, a circle, a V-shape as in the opening to Act IV, or any other shape for that matter, their groupings were beautifully precise. And their dancing was in unison to the extent that, for example, they usually managed to lift their legs in arabesque to the same height as each other, and execute other steps with amazing togetherness. The four little swans—Evie Ferris, Jill Ogai, Aya Watanabe and Yuumi Yamada—stood out with regard to this unison and precision. It was pure perfection.
Then there were the costumes by Mara Blumenfeld. They were exceptional in design, colour and cut. I especially admired the costumes for the character dances, and the very elegant black and white striped suit worn by von Rothbart in ACT III, befitting a Baron I thought.
But that’s about all the positivity I can muster.
I found the production quite lacking in emotional content. While in his between-acts spiel on this streaming platform Hallberg made much of the partnership between Benedicte Bemet as Odette/Odile and Joseph Caley as Prince Siegfried, and while technically they danced well both separately and together, I could not feel or see any passion, or even affection, between them. And there was certainly no changing emotion visible as the situation between them changed. Ballet is a wordless art but when there is a narrative, as there definitely is in Swan Lake, the story has to be clear and prominent enough in a physical sense for the audience to see and understand the narrative, even if, as in the case of Swan Lake, so many of us have seen it so many times that we have a clear idea already about the storyline. Clarity of narrative and the changing of emotions can be achieved by a simple movement of the head, a lift of the arm that is different from what went before, or something quite simple. But it has to be a physical change that we as the audience can notice and feel, not just a thought in the dancer’s head.
Then I was taken aback by the character dances in Act III. There were three (one each from Spain, Hungary and Italy) rather than the more usual four and they were danced largely without any of the passion that characterises national dancing. Everything seemed to be angled towards a perfect, balletic technique—mostly with the frame of the body held erect and little expression in a physical sense or even through facial expression. Character dances are full of physical expression and theatricality growing from a pride by the characters (as played by the dancers) in a particular heritage.
Perhaps my dislike of this Swan Lake reflects a remark made by Lucas Jervies when speaking to Hallberg and Livinia Nixon in the conversations between acts as part of the streaming. Jervies mentioned that Hallberg asked for the production to be ‘boiled down and refined’, and Hallberg confirmed that this was his aim. The ‘boiling down’ just took everything away. A strong (refined?) focus on technique and little else doesn’t make a theatrical production. At least not for me.
I have a subscription ticket to see this Swan Lake in Sydney towards the end of the season there. Perhaps I will feel differently then?
Canberra Dance Theatre (CDT) is about to celebrate its 45th birthday and part of its celebrations will take place in Civic Square in Canberra City on 15 October. Amongst other activities, CDT is staging a Great Big Community Dance at 2:15 that afternoon. The media release says: ‘There’s no need to learn our fabulous dance first. Simply join the group, check out who the leaders are and follow along. It’s all about participating, connecting with others, sharing a joyful experience and having a great time.’
The Canberra drumming ensemble Tanamasi will be playing live music and the community dance has been choreographed by Gretel Burgess, Max Burgess, Rachael Hilton, Levi Szabo and Jacqui Simmonds.
Canberra Dance Theatre grew out of the National University Dance Ensemble (NUDE), established by Graham Farquhar in 1970. In 1977 it became Canberra Dance Theatre and was under the leadership of Diana Shohet, Lorna Marshall and Graham Farquhar. Its artistic directors since then have been:
Dr Stephanie Burridge (1978–2001)
Amalia Hordern (2002–2006)
Megan Millband (2007–2009)
Liz Lea (2010–2016)
Jacqui Simmonds (2020–current and Artistic Coordinator from 2018-2019)
The company has had a remarkable history of collaboration over its 45 years and has included collaborations with Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Dance Theatre Student Ensemble, Mirramu Dance Company as led by Elizabeth Cameron Dalman, and a list of individual artists too long to mention but who include Phillip Adams, Jennifer Barry, Julia Cotton, Patrick Harding-Irmer, Russell Page, Paul Saliba, Cheryl Stock, and Jade Dewi Tyas Tunggal.
CDT is also the home of the GOLDS, Canberra’s much admired group of dancers over the age of 55.
Jack Riley and Nikki Tarling
Once again a portrait of dancer Jack Riley, this time with fellow dancer Nikki Tarling, has made it to the finals of the Art Gallery of New South Wales’ prestigious prize, the Archibald. The portrait, reproduced below, is by artist Marcus Wills. Read a little more about it here.
Jack Riley was the subject of another portrait, also by Marcus Wills, which reached the finals of the Archibald in 2020. See this link.
Ron Barassi (1936–2023)
I don’t usually write about football or football players on this site, but Ron Barassi, Australian Rules footballer, coach and mentor, is an exception. Barassi died on 16 September 2023 aged 87. His connection with dance goes back to the 1960s when he was responsible for input into Robert Helpmann’s then iconic creation The Display. Barassi was called in to ensure that the male dancers in the ballet, who were passing a football amongst each other, were doing so correctly. Barassi is recorded as saying: In 1964 I had the great pleasure of coming to know Robert Helpmann through my involvement on his ballet ‘The Display’. In the dance there was quite a lot of football played and Robert asked me to attend rehearsals and advise the ballet dancers on the correct ways of playing Victorian Rules. I did so and although the dancers were impressively athletic, I immediately noticed that they were throwing the football around the room like rugby players. I told Robert this and he was absolutely mortified. From there he worked solidly to get every detail right, as his demand for excellence and accuracy was uncompromising.
Further discussion of various aspects of The Display are at this link.
I bought myself a Bangarra YES T-shirt ahead of the forthcoming referendum on the Voice to Parliament. It was quite expensive as T-shirts go but 50% of the profits from the sales will be donated to the Mangkaja Arts Resource Centre in Fitzroy Crossing, Western Australia. The T-shirt features artwork by Lynley Nargoodah and I can attest to the quality of the product and the beauty of the artwork that adorns the word YES. I think the supply is almost sold out but check here where there is more information about the design.
More on Strictly Gershwin
To close this months dance diary here is another photo from Queensland Ballet’s fabulous Strictly Gershwin, which I can’t get out of my mind! Read my review here.
28 September 2023. Lyric Theatre, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane
From the brilliant performances by the dancers—in ballet, tap, ballroom and other forms—to the exciting and emotionally moving sound of the orchestra and singers (all onstage); from the lighting that made the whole look as if being performed within a second proscenium, to the background screen featuring assorted references to the Gershwin era, Strictly Gershwin was probably the most thrillingly presented and spectacularly performed show I have seen this year
Choreographed by Derek Deane in 2008 for English National Ballet and first presented by Queensland Ballet in 2016, Strictly Gershwin pays tribute to brothers George and Ira Gershwin and their contribution to the ‘big band’ era of the 1930s. In his program notes Deane remarks on the pleasure he experienced in being able to create the work: ‘I was free from the restrictions of the purely classical ballets and was able to experiment more choreographically with all the different dance styles in the production.’ And it is partly this diversity of dance styles that makes the production so fascinating.
Deane does, however, admit to including ‘two complete small ballets’ in the total show, one of which, Rhapsody in Blue, provided two highlights for me. Rhapsody in Blue opened part two of the production, ‘Gershwin in Hollywood’. Rhapsody was made for three couples and a corps de ballet and I was especially impressed with the women in the corps whose beautifully held upper bodies, tilted back slightly when they were in a kneeling position, and their ability to dance almost perfectly together, was outstanding. But the absolute standout dancer was the leading male dancer in Rhapsody, Patricio Revé. He partnered Neneka Yoshida and, whether in his partnering or in his solo work, he was absolutely committed to making every move full of meaning and emotion. The variety of his physical and facial expressions throughout was exceptional and it was hard to take my eyes off him.
But of course there were many other highlights. The two tap dancers, Kris Kerr and Bill Simpson, who also appeared with Queensland Ballet in 2016, were as amazing as ever and their performance with Rachael Walsh and ten other dancers in Oh, Lady be Good was another highlight.
I have to mention, too, Lina Kim and Rian Thompson who danced so well together in Someone to Watch Over Me (as they also did in 2016). Their lyricism throughout and the beautiful lifts they performed, unexpectedly different from what we might be used to seeing, made watching them such a pleasure and, with the added singing of Nina Korbe standing at the side of the stage, it was a special collaborative section.
So many other special moments: Mia Heathcote throughout, Georgia Swan and Vito Bernasconi in Shall We Dance?, Yanela Piñera and Camilo Ramos (also from the 2016 cast) in the sexy It Ain’t Necessarily So, and so many others…
The music for Strictly Gershwin was played by Queensland Symphony Orchestra with a solo piano section in Rhapsody in Blue from guest artist Daniel Le. The costumes, every one of which was eye-catching to put it mildly, were by Roberta Guidi di Bagno and Howard Harrison’s original lighting was revived by Cameron Goerg and Ben Hughes. Then there was the conductor, Michael England, who often danced along himself (while still conducting). What a show! How lucky we were to be able to see it again!
Li Cunxin AO, shortly to retire as artistic director of Queensland Ballet, has been honoured by the Lord Mayor of Brisbane, Adrian Schrinner, with Keys to the City for his exceptional contribution to the arts in Brisbane. It would be hard to think of a more deserving recipient. Li has completely transformed Queensland Ballet since he took over the directorship of the company almost eleven years ago. For me it is a truly remarkable organisation and I regularly come away from performances full of admiration, pleasure, even astonishment sometimes, at what the company puts before us. Nor can I fail to be impressed by the repertoire that we have seen over the past ten years, which often reflects Li’s early career in the United States, or connections he has made elsewhere in Europe, but which also includes plenty of examples of new work from Australia choreographers—Greg Horsman, Jack Lister, Natalie Weir and others.
An excerpt from the City of Brisbane media release reads:
Lord Mayor Adrian Schrinner said Li had left an indelible mark on Brisbane’s arts scene and his achievements would be celebrated at a ceremony later this month.
“Li has extended the dignity, grace and elegance of ballet into every aspect of his life,” Cr Schrinner said.
“Like me, I’m sure many people were saddened to hear of Li’s retirement after 11 years at the helm of Queensland Ballet.
“On behalf of Brisbane, I feel it’s appropriate to acknowledge the talent, passion and vision that has enriched our creative scene and inspired generations of dancers.”
Among his long list of national and international achievements, Li has been pivotal in the growth of the Queensland Ballet, doubling the ensemble, creating a world-class Academy at Kelvin Grove State College and a home for ballet and the arts at the Thomas Dixon Centre in West End.
“For many years, we’ve enjoyed the great privilege of witnessing Li’s achievements come to life both on and off the stage,” Cr Schrinner said.
“The Keys to the City are awarded to those who embody the ideals of Brisbane, and few people have had such a significant and enduring impact on Brisbane’s art scene.
“I can’t think of a more worthy recipient of the Keys to the City.”
“As the curtain closes on this chapter of his life, I thank Li for a lifetime of artistic excellence. It has been a true privilege to watch.”
The full release can be read at this link. See also this tag for more about Li on this website.
Of course, there is still plenty to look forward to ‘before the curtain closes’. I am especially looking forward to the return of Strictly Gershwin, which opens later in September in Brisbane and to a revival of Liam Scarlett’s highly rewarding production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which Queensland Ballet is bringing to Canberra in October.
I also have many fond memories of seeing Li perform while he was with the Australian Ballet. Standing out from those performances for me is Li’s dancing in Jiří Kylián’s Sinfonietta, which was part of a 1997 triple bill called Quantum Leaps. I can still see that stunning entrance he made at the very beginning of the work. ‘His impressive soaring entrance’ and ‘His enthralling jumps and and superbly controlled turns’, I wrote in a review for Dance Australia. He was a brilliant dancer!
It was also a great experience to see the exhibition Mao’s Last Dancer the Exhibition: A Portrait of Li Cunxin, which opened in Brisbane but was also seen elsewhere (Melbourne in 2018 when I saw it). In that exhibition Li’s career was shown through a variety of items and it was also a rare look at his early life.
Keys to the City, a terrific initiative from Brisbane’s Lord Mayor!
27 July 2023. Talbot Theatre, Thomas Dixon Centre, Brisbane
It would be hard to find a performance more thrilling, more emotionally driven, more technically fascinating than the sixth production from Queensland Ballet under the banner Bespoke. Made up of works from Remi Wörtmeyer, Paul Boyd and Natalie Weir, this program was rightly advertised as ‘compelling, challenging and always thought provoking’.
The evening began with Wörtmeyer’s Miroirs (Mirrors in French) danced by 10 dancers to piano music of the same name by Maurice Ravel. It was played onstage on this occasion by Daniel Le. Choreographically, Miroirs was an interesting combination of classical vocabulary and more contemporary style movement. The classical sections were nicely structured in a spatial sense with dancers creating a range of unexpected groupings. On the whole it was a relatively fast-paced work and often surprising in the strong imagery that emerged from partnering.
The more contemporary movement was often quite grounded and for me these sections didn’t work so well, or at least didn’t blend easily with the more classically-based sections. The work ended with a pas de deux danced by Mia Heathcote and Victor Estévez. It was a quiet ending compared with the speed and action of the first and much longer section and, despite excellent dancing from Heathcote and Estévez, the ending felt somewhat out of place.
Wörtmeyer was responsible for the attractive costumes and set design. His set consisted of nicely arranged strings of light and reminded me of a deconstructed chandelier. His costumes were simple, close-fitting tights and tops but were made elegant with the addition of small, silver decorative elements at the waist and elsewhere on the costumes.
Second on the program was Tartan choreographed by Paul Boyd to an assorted collection of sound, from a rendition of Donald where’s your trousers? to music from the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards! The work tells the story of an elderly Scottish gentleman, played by former Queensland Ballet dancer Graeme Collins, who relives his past and imagines the people he grew up with return to his house and interact once more with him.
Tartan was choreographed in spectacular fashion to combine traditional Scottish steps with ballet and contemporary movement. I especially loved the way Boyd often combined, or intertwined, two varieties of fifth position of the arms, one strictly classical, one with fingers held in a Scottish manner. But here was much more than that, including the bends of the body in a reverence with torso stretched forward and spine parallel to the floor; pointe work for the girls on occasions; lots of pliés in second position; the fast, definitive moves of the feet close to the ankles; and so on. Then there were the surprising moments when the dancers appeared (like ghosts?) from under and inside a box-like table to the hilarious scene, led by Josh Fagan, accompanying Donald where’s your trousers?
The dancers, all from Queensland Ballet’s Jette Parker Young Artist Program, performed with huge commitment and skill. Apart from their actual technique I loved the way they projected their presence out to the audience. It was an absolute joy to watch them and, If their performance is anything to go by, the future of Queensland Ballet is assured.
Natalie Weir’s Four last songs closed the program and, for me at least, it was the highlight. I have long admired Weir’s choreography, on the one hand for the emotive qualities with which her works are always imbued—We who are left made for Queensland Ballet in 2016 (restaged 2022) instantly springs to mind—but also for the way in which she has always used partnering to display choreographic possibilities. Both those qualities were apparent to an exceptional degree in Four last songs.
Weir’s Four last songs used the composition of the same name by Richard Strauss to tell a story about life and death with a strong sense of a life that is lived to the full before, inevitably, death arrives. The work was led by Lucy Green and Patricio Revé and I admired the way Weir had set choreography in the early stages that was joyful—Green’s little skipping-like movements shorty after her first entrance for example—but which gave way to something slower as age progressed. The work concluded with strong movement that was actually beautifully uplifting as the inevitability of the end of life was accepted.
The work of Green and Revé was mirrored by four couples representing, on the surface, four seasons, but those seasons also reflected four stages of life. The dancing of the four couples showed Weir’s long standing interest in partnering and ranged from beautifully swirling lifts to slower, less extravagant but still quite spectacular ones as life progressed. As for the four men, Weir tells us in her notes that they represent ‘one man, a thread of humanity’. There was one stage when the four men held sway with a magnificent series of entrances and exits interspersed with spectacular jumps. It was extraordinary dancing from all the dancers.
I have often wondered how Weir manages to imbue her work with the emotion that we always feel when watching it. It is of course partly the dancers’ ability and the coaching they receive to act out the scenario. But it is also Weir’s choreographic ability to create movement that tells the story. Those little early skipping movements from Green, for example. Then there were those beautiful swirling lifts that told so much about life, including the lifts performed by Callum Mackie and Lina Kim who performed as Autumn or a late stage of life in which more sleep was apparent. Kim’s body was often held parallel to the ground as if her body was still sleeping while being lifted. And more. Four last songs was a stunning work from Weir.