In any field, what cements enduring success and stature is consistency. Queensland Ballet has been on an upward trajectory since Li Cunxin’s artistic directorship commenced in 2013, and it has now become a dance company that audiences can count on to reliably deliver high quality each season in traditional or contemporary programs. Of course, tastes may differ as to individual works, but the standard of the dancing across the ranks and presentation have become uniformly first-class. For audiences, it is readily filling the void left by the Australian Ballet’s infrequent Brisbane visits.
Li has forged that calibre by setting diverse and interesting programming, from classics to commissions, which have challenged his company to step up across the board. Hot on the heels of the smouldering world premiere Dangerous Liaisons – which relied as much on dramatic storytelling ability as sex appeal – comes another season leaving nowhere to hide, for vastly different reasons.
Queensland Ballet in Serenade. Photograph © Darren Thomas
For a start, The Masters Series’ triple bill of contrasting styles eschews set pieces and narratives. Bookending another world first are testing tributes created by choreographic giants of distinctive legacies; their programming together provides not only an interesting visual juxtaposition, but also a philosophical one. Serenade celebrates the ballerina and a feminine ideal, with ethereal delicate elegance and purity, while Soldier’s Mass puts the male dancer front and centre to solemnly reflect on the wretched waste of war.
The company first tackled the challenge of George Balanchine’s Serenade in 2014, and while the result was creditable, this occasion is wholly satisfying. The work’s luminous vision of loveliness appears deceptively simple, but typically for Balanchine, the reality is far more complex.
Set to Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings, the ballet’s streamlined aesthetic of geometry and equations requires pinpoint precision in timing and line. These technique-exposing demands previously found the corps de ballet lacking in places; five years’ further development and greater depth see them fully met, providing a perfect framework for poised featured artists in solos and small groups.
Men are merely support for the 20 women in multi-faceted choreography that captures various guises and spirits of the ballerina throughout the art form’s history, inverting famous tropes and glorifying her power as muse, culminating in a final exalted image.
Soldier’s Mass. Photograph © Darren Thomas
Soldier’s Mass is timeless for a sadder reason. Former Nederlands Dans Theater artistic director Jiří Kylián plays on the connotations of parallel terms to create a wrenching counterpoint: 12 able-bodied young men appear on the stage en masse, backs turned to us, faceless conscripts contemplating the theatre of war. Their accompaniment is the choral mass of Kylián’s Czech countryman Bohuslav Martinů, written to rally defiance of the Nazis in 1939. Its powerful mix of voices and military fanfares conjures a dread mood pitting humanity with doom. The choreographer’s innate connection to the score and its text is evident in the movement’s expression, which not only portrays the military experience, but also captures the accompanying gamut of raw emotions.
As the soldiers execute marches and drills, dives and rolls, powerful jumps and lifts in confronting their fate, there remains an inescapable echo – the physical freedom that belongs to the male dancers depicting them.
The work’s most searing moments come not from steps but static unison. Courageous soul-baring vulnerability unites music, characters and performers in an urgent and desperate plea, together voicing a prayer for salvation. The backs that belied nothing in the opening become a canvas of seeping feelings, before the shirts bearing them must be stripped off. While at times the group dancing wasn’t quite uniform, it’s the message underpinning Soldier’s Mass that has the most lasting impact.
Sitting comfortably between these contrasting representations is something more immediate and contemporary in theme, created on QB’s artists by Trey McIntyre and inspired by American torch singer Jimmy Scott.
Laura Hildago and D’Arcy Brazier in The Shadows Behind Us. Photograph © Darren Thomas
A genetic condition left Scott pre-pubescent with an intriguing androgynous voice and an aching delivery. His unique gifts were largely uncelebrated until late in his life, and one can’t help but feel he would have had a vastly different career had he been born this century instead of in 1925. Responding to the yearning in Scott’s storytelling, McIntyre pondered the challenges the diminutive singer faced in struggling to connect – and how we all face that same challenge in our own way.
Like the program’s other two works, The Shadows Behind Us features a balanced marriage of movement, music and design. Its striking set, costume and lighting design of gold-tinged monochromes create an immersive and enigmatic landscape that entrances.
The stories of six couples are played out in a song each, the choreography registering as a natural and intimate mix of balletic, social and gestural responses to lyrics and tone. All have lovely moments of genuine connection. Packing the biggest emotional punch is David Power and D’Arcy Brazier’s angst-ridden duo to Sometimes I Feel like a Motherless Child, while the familiarity of Unchained Melody brings an extra intensity to Laura Hidalgo and Samuel Packer’s pas de deux.
Unifying all three works is dance’s facility to connect us with the essence of our humanity.
The Master Series plays in the Playhouse Theatre, QPAC until May 25