Wednesday 12 August 2015

A dream realized: the Queensland Ballet in London

Queensland Ballet, La Sylphide, Coliseum 8 Aug 2915 19:30

Jane Lambert and Gita Mistry

In their Annual Report for the year ended 31 Dec 2010 the directors of the Queensland Ballet wrote:
"Our dream
By 2013, Queensland Ballet will be recognised, not only in Queensland but throughout Australia and also overseas, for:
  • creating and presenting a broad repertoire of quality work which ranges from the great classics, through contemporary dance, new ‘story’ ballets, and works for children 
  • exciting and challenging both dancers and audiences 
  • developing choreographers
  • training dancers to a consistently high standard in classical ballet technique, and developing that technique through excellent coaching and creative artistic development
  • having a strong and coherent artistic team led by a strong Artistic Director and Chief Choreographer
  • best practice in company management."
Their season at the Coliseum which ended last Saturday shows just how far that dream has come true. Much of the credit for their success is due to their artistic director, Li-Cunxin who combines business acumen with artistic genius.

The Queensland Ballet is not a large company. it has 23 dancers according to Wikipedia (though I have counted rather more on its website) but it stages full length classics like The Sleeping Beauty, Coppelia and The Nutcracker as well as contemporary works. It is based in Australia's third largest city and it must compete for attention and to some extent audiences with the Australian Ballet in Melbourne and Sydney and the West Australian Ballet in Perth. To bring La Sylphide to one of the world's two alpha ++ cities which hosts two of the world's greatest ballet companies and sees most of the rest periodically was extremely ambitious. Some would say recklessly so.  In our view the Queensland Ballet carried off this enterprise magnificently.

The company did not choose the easiest work for its début in England.  La Sylphide is not performed very often in the UK. The last performance by the Royal Ballet was in 2012 (see La Sylphide 7 Aug 2015). Why that should be is not clear because it is a lot more credible than say Giselle. James on the day before his wedding is distracted by the image of a sylph which he follows into the woods. Well men do that.  He is not very nice to an old lady who tries to warm herself by the fire. There are no trysts beyond the grave and the ladies in white are much less offensive than the wilis. From a feminist perspective  the outcome of the ballet is satisfying. Effie is rescued from a disastrous marriage with an utter prat. Gurn is much more likely to look after her properly.  Also in the last scene James is taught some manners. if you treat the sylph and the poisoned scarf as a figment of James's lurid imagination the story makes perfect sense today.

The version that Queensland Ballet brought to London was created by Peter Schaufuss for what is now the English Festival Ballet in 1979. It is still remembered by a lot of people. When Li-Cunxin spoke to the London Ballet Circle on 3 Aug 2015 Gerald Dowler asked how many members of the audience remembered that production. It was surprising how many hands sprang up (see Li-Cunxin at London Ballet Circle 5 Aug 2015).  Not everybody liked that version at the time, particularly not in Denmark. The better known and more popular version is Johan Koburg's.

To appreciate this ballet you have to put yourself in the mind of the 19th century theatre goer. This was one of the first works (if not the first) in which a ballerina rose on pointe as part of the choreography.  The stage would have been lit not by electricity but by gas or flickering candle. The impression on the audience must have been almost magical.  Something of that magic was wrought by Yanela Piñera who reminded me of Carla Fracci who enchanted me when I saw her dance the sylph nearly half a century ago.  She was accompanied - I won't say partnered because there is no pas de deux as such - by Peter Shcaufuss's son Luke as James. It was great to see Greg Horsman and Mary Li  (nee McKendry) again. They are both well known in England.  Horsman danced Madge and Li Anne, James's mother. Mia Heathcote was a delightful Effie. I particularly liked her first dance with the foot flexing.  Vito Bernasconi was a worthy Gurn.

There is a lot of drama in this ballet as well as a fair measure of levity. It was also colourful David Walker's sets and costumes were gorgeous. Steen Bjarke's lighting was the next best thing in the 21st century to gaslight. I have only one niggle and that's the dancing with folded arms. It's not Schaufuss's fault. Bournonville is unlikely ever to have seen Scottish country dancing which explains why the the reels look as though they came out of Hungary. It would be nice if a modern choreographer or a producer made those dances look a little bit more Scottish.

The audience on Saturday night loved the show. A phalanx in the centre stalls actually gave the company a standing ovation though I think these may have been the company's supporters from Brisbane. The Queensland Ballet now has fans on the other side of the world.  It can return to Australia well satisfied with its season in London.

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