Queensland Ballet: 'Carmen' and 'The Firebird'

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QB The Firebird 2018

The Playhouse, QPAC
May 25

Queensland Ballet’s (QB) double bill promised much, but instead delivered an unevenly matched pair of one act works. Liam Scarlett, the current wunderkind of British choreographers and QB Artistic Associate, gave us a thrilling interpretation of the folk tale, The Firebird, but Carmen, choreographed by the charismatic former Royal Ballet Principal, Carlos Acosta, failed to meet expectations in this double act.

A co-production between QB, the Royal Ballet, and Texas Ballet Theatre, Carmen suffers from lack of choreographic and dramatic clarity. Acosta simplifies the plot to its key elements, which should work well, but then throws a confusion of dance styles and dramatic elements into the mix, which instead bewilders.

Thus we have a raunchy opening number, which seems to borrow from both Bejart’s Bolero and The Full Monty, followed by a mix of Spanish, contemporary and classical styles, which do nothing to support the narrative’s development. The group numbers, sometimes with percussive clapping and stamping, are also thinly constructed and unconvincing.

However, the set by Tim Hatley is striking – a giant circle of flaming red, with a solid red reflection of it on the floor of the stage. And the dancers gave the work their best shot. Yanela Piñera was a sultry, sexy Carmen, convincing in her seduction of Don José (Victor Estévez), who gave a moving interpretation of the hapless guard.

QB Carmen 2018

Alexander Idaszak as Escamillo exuded enough sizzle to make his erotic duet with Piñera convincing, while Vito Bernasconi, wearing a helmet of cattle horns, was imposing as the muscular Bull/Fate character. This character, however, is yet another puzzling addition to the mix.

The Firebird comes courtesy of the Norwegian National Opera and Ballet, where it premiered in 2013. Remaining faithful to the intention of Fokine’s 1910 original ballet, Scarlett has skilfully crafted a modern, electrifying take on the tale.

In a clear evocation of Balanchine’s entreaty to “See the music, hear the dance,” he draws even more dramatic colour and texture from the scintillating Stravinsky score with movement that positively sings, delivering the story with power and conviction.

The setting (Jon Bausor) is quite magnificent and almost operatic in scale. Functioning on several levels, it is centred on an enormous knarled silver tree, its twisted roots becoming claw-like as it rises later in the work to reveal the egg containing Köschei’s soul. Lighting by James Farncombe, in eerie monochromatic shafts, cuts into the haze-filled space, creating mystery and menace.

Laura Hidalgo gave a formidable, captivating performance as the Firebird. Her sharp, crisply articulated footwork and wonderfully expressive arms and back effortlessly conveyed notions of mystical, bird-like power. Her pas de deux with the immortal Köschei (Rian Thompson) suggested a complexity to their struggle for dominance. Their final athletic and enthralling duet was almost sensual.

Scarlett describes Köschei as a sort of young humanoid thug, and Thompson, in a sweeping red and black cloak, embraced this thuggery in a powerful interpretation of evil dominance. His acolytes are similarly twisted, all in black, and with silver, skull-like masks.

Mia Heathcote, in the purest of white, played the Princess with charm and conviction, the wide bronze band on her wrist a simple but clear signifier of her enslavement to Köschei. Her fellow maidens, in long, pale-green, Grecian-styled tunics, danced almost as a chorus to her laments.

Joel Woellner showed his usual princely demeanour as the warrior hero, Prince Ivan, in a performance that commanded the stage, while his battle with Köschei resonated of modern day gang violence. This conflict between the forces of good and evil sweeps the whole company of dancers to an enthralling climax.

The Queensland Symphony Orchestra under Nigel Gaynor, were equal partners here in creating this theatre magic.

– Denise Richardson

'Carmen' and 'The Firebird' continues until June 3.

Photos: Top: Lucy Green as the Firebird. Middle: Camilo Ramos and Sophie Zoricic in Carmen.

Photos by David Kelly.

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