★★★★★ A celebration of the glitz and glamour of the 1920s and ’30s.

Lyric Theatre, Brisbane
May 28, 2016

Queensland Ballet celebrates the glitz and glamour of the 1920s and ’30s in style with Strictly Gershwin. First produced and performed by the English National Ballet in 2008, the ballet is a stunning tribute to the Gershwin brothers’ memorable music and the sparkling age of Hollywood musicals. Queensland Ballet continues to prove their mettle as a versatile and continuously evolving company with this spectacular performance. 

The music of George and Ira Gershwin is some of the most memorable of Broadway and Hollywood, inciting nostalgia for a golden age of American music. The brothers’ musical comedy Of Thee I Sing was the first musical to win a Pulitzer Prize, and George’s famous composition Rhapsody in Blue opened a new era of American music.

Choreographer and director Derek Deane has created a multi-layered, textural production that keeps audiences transfixed with its variety. Deane’s choreography is a seamless, brilliant blend of classical ballet and the distinct moves of the ’20s and ’30s. Have you ever seen someone perform the Charleston en pointe? You’ll see it in Strictly Gershwin (and it’s very impressive!). The choreography is complex, often fast-paced, including many difficult, beautiful lifts, and the Queensland Ballet dancers more than rose to the challenge. The ballet begins with a glitzy opening number, followed immediately by a soft love song, and then a scintillating, upbeat tap dance. Filled with exciting heights and soft, floating lows, it is unsurprising that the performance finished to a standing ovation.

In an exciting and unusual twist, the entire Queensland Symphony Orchestra was onstage alongside the dancers, enthusiastically conducted by Gareth Valentine. Valentine, who is also the musical supervisor and arranger for the production, is a brilliant entertainer in his own right, dancing and interacting with the audience even as he conducted. Guest pianist Daniel Le was met with rapturous applause for his artistry as he performed Rhapsody in Blue beneath a spotlight. Having QSO so visible to the audience, when they are often barely discernable in the orchestra pit, really added an extra dimension to the performance and allowed for a fuller appreciation of the music as well as the dancing.

Guest vocalists Rachael Beck, Michael Falzon, Alexandra Flood and Luke Kennedy added yet another element to the performance. The vocalists performed well-known tunes including A Foggy Day and But Not For Me alone on stage, allowing the audience to truly focus on and appreciate their skill. At other times they performed in a spotlight as accompaniment to a dancing duet. These vocals-only pieces, as well as some instrumental-only pieces, allowed time for the dancers to change their elaborate costumes between dances.

The costumes, designed by award-winner Roberta Guidi di Bagno, were an attraction in their own right. Drawing from the styles of the era and adding a touch of balletic flair and functionality, the result is an exciting mixture of flowing, flouncing skirts, sparkling sequins, a whole lot of velvet, and even some Tricolore moustaches! Complementing the costumes were Broadway-inspired lights designed by Howard Harrison, including a star net glittering behind QSO. Above the heads of the orchestra, an enormous screen alternated between images of the stars in the sky and the stars of the silver screen – iconic performers like Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, as well as the Gershwin brothers themselves.

Several former Principal Dancers of the Queensland Ballet also returned to the stage for Strictly Gershwin. Christian Tátchev partnered Vanessa Morelli in the memorable Shall We Dance? and Rachael Walsh joined other guest artists Kris Kerr and Bill Simpson to delight audiences with their flawless tap dancing – not a single beat was out of place. 

An American in Paris was a distinct highlight of the evening – a kaleidoscopic collection of dance styles, costumes and characters that evoke the city of love. Joel Woellner danced as the young American man exploring the bustling streets of Paris and Laura Hidalgo characterised the elusive, beautiful woman who captures his heart. Their partner work was very strong, and both danced expressively. Teri Crilly’s dancing bordered on gymnastics as she was lifted and stretched in many directions, stunning in an Eiffel Tower-styled tutu. Dancers in Moulin Rouge themed costumes also made audiences yearn for the imagined romance of the far-off French capital.

Principal dancer Clare Morehen’s footwork is always impeccable, and no less so in the more contemporary pieces that she performs in Strictly Gershwin. Her duet with Vito Bernasconi, in particular, had palpable chemistry and technical precision, as well as emotional depth of character. By contrast, Principal Yanela Piñera was oddly rigid in both her opening partnership with Camilo Ramos, and again for Rhapsody in Blue as she danced with Victor Estevez. Alexander Idaszak had gorgeous control in his allegro, but his partner work was not equally enchanting. Mia Heathcote glittered in her duet with Ramos, set to a haunting rendition of Summertime, and Eleanor Freeman sizzled with Jack Lister in their American tango-inspired piece, danced very precisely to It Ain’t Necessarily So.

Lina Kim continues to shine among the Company Dancers, throwing herself into ’30s swing with the same energy, skill and joy that she consistently brings to her classical work. Her duet with Rian Thompson, in particular, to Gershwin’s Someone To Watch Over Me was seemingly effortless. The corps de ballet – comprising Company Dancers, Jette Parker Young Artists and dancers from Queensland Ballet’s Pre-Professional Programme – was perfectly synchronised throughout the whole performance. The company as a whole continues to dance from strength to strength.

Strictly Gershwin is Queensland Ballet as you have never seen them – but you will leave wishing you could see it all over again. 

The Queensland Ballet performs Strictly Gershwin until June 11


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