Love and loss, glitter and glamour as Queensland Ballet mixes the bill

Chandeliers, tutus, tiaras and twinkling stars.

We know what this means. Russian grandeur with a touch of Balanchine sizzle. Sparkling soloists, glamour and glitz.

Well, yes and no in the case of Verdi Variations, the finale to Queensland Ballet’s new mixed bill.

Greg Horsman’s ballet has all the hallmarks of a Balanchine homage to Petipa, but – expect the unexpected.

Horsman has taken the Balanchine prototype and given it a tweak. The dancers are dressed in the formal evening wear of classical ballet. They whizz through intricate steps turns and tricks while making fun of ballet mannerisms and the subtle, or not so subtle, fight for the spotlight.

Verdi Variations could have stumbled and fallen onto its faux-elegant face, but Horsman and his dancers, knew when to ramp it up and when to pull back.

Partnering guest artist Jenna Roberts, a principal at Birmingham Royal Ballet, Matthew Lawrence knew the drill from the start. His face said it all. Let’s see. Walk on stage, strike a danseur pose, and…oh, well, the hell with it!

His manner hovered somewhere between haughter, pride and confusion yet his technique remained anchored and calm as he navigated the partnering skills and tricks required for princely roles.

In this balletic dance-off the 11 dancers in Verdi Variations pushed and gently shoved their way downstage, demanding their moment of glory, yet all the time maintaining the momentum of Horsman’s demanding choreography.

Yu Hui was charming as the nerdy guy who is always more than ready for his own fireworks display of leaps and turns but is upstaged before he can begin by a more pushy competitor.

Jenna Roberts claimed the stage in the ballerina role, chasing the spotlight, but demonstrating, all the while, a beautiful line and pointe work. She summed up the umbrella title for this mixed bill, Elegance.

(Roberts, and the American dancer, Carolyn Judson, came to the rescue for this season after Queensland Ballet principals Rachael Walsh and Meng Ningning and soloist, Lisa Edwards, all became injured and were unable to dance).

Horsman choreographed Verdi Variations for the Royal New Zealand Ballet in 2011 when Gary Harris was still the artistic director. Harris was the original designer of the ballet that has travelled to Australia with Horsman, who is now ballet master at Queensland Ballet.

Verdi Variations was preceded by three works that represented some past and present connections of Li Cunxin, the artistic director of the Queensland Ballet.

First among equals of these links is Ben Stevenson, Li’s mentor at the Houston Ballet when he first moved from China to the United States.

Stevenson’s Three Preludes was the third work in the Elegance program and was danced by guest artist, Carolyn Judson, who trained at Houston Ballet’s Ben Stevenson Academy and is now a principal of Texas Ballet Theatre, where Stevenson is artistic director.

The opening work of the Elegance bill was Ershter Vals, choreographed by Ma Cong, former principal dancer with the National Ballet of China who made the transition to the US in the same way as Li.

Ma Cong moved to Oklahoma in 1999 where he was a principal dancer of Tulsa Ballet until this year.

Ershter Vals (First Waltz) begins in silence, with four couples facing one another against an orange, dappled backdrop.

But the silence soon gives way to the compelling music of Klezroym, an Italian band that plays the Jewish traditional music of klezmer, Jewish folk music that sounds like an amalgam of tango and jazz, but with a plaintive air.

The choreography, a blend of contemporary and European folk dance, fan kicks and floor drags, shows traces of the early works of Jiri Kylian and Nacho Duato as do the flowing, below-the-calf length dresses for the women and the flexed feet and deep plies in seconde position of all the dancers.

There’s a difference though. Ma Cong punctuates his grounded choreography with remarkable airborne moments for the women and these lifts take the work to another dimension, literally.

Ershter Vals refers to the title of the piece at the end, when to the last of the four (recorded songs) the couples waltz together as they appear to find the freedom from the entrapment they show at the silent beginning.

Noelene Hill, resident designer at Queensland Ballet for a decade, designed the costumes for all the works in Elegance but in the case of Ershter Vals, she stayed close to the original design concept of the ballet when it was first presented a few years ago in the United States.

The dresses for the women, in shades of sunset yellow and melon, were especially flattering and appealing but just how they relate to the narrative, described in program notes as inspired partly by Hollywood films about the Second World War and partly by music originating in the Jewish ghettos at the time is unclear.

Sweet Beginnings, choreographed by Gareth Belling, and the second work of Elegance, was the only premiere of the evening.

Belling’s choice of music, Vivaldi’s Summer from The Four Seasons, underpins his narrative, the storm that always seems to lie ahead in life, or in a specific relationship, even on the sunniest days.

Belling describes his concept as “the history of a relationship after witnessing its conclusion”.

Belling’s long-time collaborator, the string quartet, Collusion, led by violinist, Benjamin Greaves, played on stage, giving a depth to the work, visually and aurally.

Matthew Lawrence and Lina Kim carried this work (two other couples seemed more representative of their shadows), with Lawrence a strong partner for Kim whose highly arched back was so expressive that it sseemed to speak for both her anguish and happiness.

A musician returned to the stage for Ben Stevenson’s Three Preludes. But what a musician.

Three Preludes is a pas de trois for two dancers and one pianist and this time the pianist was Emma Lippa, a legend in the ballet world as an accompanist for the Bolshoi Ballet and the Australian Ballet.

Her sensitive accord with the dancers was apparent throughout her playing of three Rachmaninoff preludes and her curtain call, flanked by the dancers Huang Junshuang and Carolyn Judson was a mini ballet in itself.

Like Jerome Robbins’ Afternoon of a Faun, Three Preludes is a ballet studio romance, but the former ends with a kind of shrug while Three Preludes ends with joy as the couple move from a wary flirtation to passion.

The choreography is extremely demanding for the man, who must lift, catch and support the ballerina throughout, a relationship clear from the start as she balances and swoops under the ballet barre that is their first meeting place.

Guest artist Huang Junshuang was an outstanding partner, in his phrasing, subtlety and strength through the long series of lifts and throws and supported pirouettes.

Judson played her role as that of a real young woman, not as a distant ballerina, but her performance was less nuanced than Huang Junshuang’s, ranging only from the initial concern shown on her face to a broad and fixed smile as she indicated her happiness.

Her facial expression at times overtook the subtlety of the building romance, so that at times, Three Preludes became more her story rather than the couple’s story.

The very short season of Elegance ended on 5 August. I hope that the QB stages more mixed bills and attracts a local audience that’s eager to see new works and not just the blockbusters of the classical repertoire.

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Queensland Ballet's  Elegance, Matthew Lawrence and Jenna Roberts in Greg Horsmans' Verdi Variations, photo © David Kelly

Queensland Ballet’s Elegance, Matthew Lawrence and Jenna Roberts in Greg Horsmans’ Verdi Variations, photo © David Kelly

Jenna Roberts in Greg Horsmans' Verdi Variations, photo © David Kelly

Jenna Roberts in Greg Horsmans’ Verdi Variations, photo © David Kelly

Mia Thompson, Eleanor Thompson and Teri Crilly in Ma Cong's Ershter Vals, photo © David Kelly

Mia Thompson, Eleanor Thompson and Teri Crilly in Ma Cong’s Ershter Vals, photo © David Kelly

Ma Cong's Ershter Vals, photo © David Kelly

Ma Cong’s Ershter Vals, photo © David Kelly

Carolyn Judson and Huang Junshuang in Ben Stevenson's Three Preludes, photo © David Kelly

Carolyn Judson and Huang Junshuang in Ben Stevenson’s Three Preludes, photo © David Kelly

Carolyn Judson and Huang Junshuang in Ben Stevenson's Three Preludes,  photo © David Kelly

Carolyn Judson and Huang Junshuang in Ben Stevenson’s Three Preludes, photo © David Kelly

Matthew Lawrence and Lina Kim in Gareth Belling's Sweet Beginnings, photo ©  David Kelly

Matthew Lawrence and Lina Kim in Gareth Belling’s Sweet Beginnings, photo © David Kelly