Playhouse Theatre, QPAC
May 27, 2018 at 2pm

★★★★☆ The Firebird

Queensland Ballet’s latest production Carmen & The Firebird features two works that are so far apart choreographically, dramatically and emotionally that you simply have to give them separate star ratings.

The program begins with Liam Scarlett’s ravishing production of The Firebird. The British choreographer, now 32, who has been Artist in Residence at The Royal Ballet in London since late 2012, joined QB as Artistic Associate in 2017. Brisbane audiences have so far seen his delightful A Midsummer Night’s Dream and a shorter work called No Man’s Land, created in 2014 for English National Ballet as part of its commemoration of World War I.

Jack Lister and Lucy Green in The Firebird. Photograph © David Kelly

Now comes his thrilling version of The Firebird, which premiered at the Norwegian Royal Ballet in 2013. Scarlett takes the famous work – first seen in 1910 at Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in Paris, with choreography by Michel Fokine to Stravinsky’s brilliant music – and gives it a fresh, modern twist.

Working with designer Jon Bausor and lighting designer James Farncombe, he sets the piece in a dark, nightmarish, Gothic world with a giant, bare tree standing to one side, its roots wrapped around an enormous egg. Later in the ballet, the tree not only rises to release the egg, but tilts onto its side. There is also a ridged structure at the back of the stage with an illuminated entrance.

The costuming uses a tight palette – red and black for the magical forces of the evil Koschei and the Firebird, and paler colours for the forces of good – grey and white for Prince Ivan and the Princess, and blue for the other captured women. Koschei has an alien-like look (somewhat reminiscent of Spiderman at times) with his tight red and black bodysuit, as well as a wonderful cloak that soars dramatically as he moves, while his black-clad servants have rat-like faces.

Jack Lister and Camilo Ramos in The Firebird. Photograph © David Kelly

Scarlett tells the story clearly, with strong, fluid, classical movement, which works hand-in-glove with the iconic music (arranged by Jonathan McPhee), which is given a wonderful reading by the Queensland Symphony Orchestra conducted by Nigel Gaynor. With a powerful structural arc, the 55-minute ballet mines plenty of emotion as it carries you through the folk-based tale. Scarlett creates some compelling pas de deux. The ballet opens with a tantalising confrontation between Koschei and the Firebird, as they flex their dark powers, taunting each other, with a sexual frisson to some of the intoxicating movement, and ends with the Firebird covering him as she emerges triumphant.

The pas de deux for Prince Ivan and the Princess, meanwhile, are beautiful and romantic. Scarlett also uses the ensemble well in a playful scene when the other entrapped women try to cheer up the Princess, and in the dramatic showdown at the end when the Firebird finally overcomes Koschei, allowing Prince Ivan and the Princess to destroy Koschei’s soul, hidden in the giant egg.

Scarlett has just opened a new Swan Lake for The Royal Ballet, which received rave reviews in London, so Bulgarian Kaloyan Boyadjiev came from the Norwegian Royal Ballet to stage the production – though Scarlett himself has clearly spent some time with the Company and was in the audience on Saturday. The dancers certainly did him proud at the Saturday matinee performance. Lucy Green captured the lovely spiky, fleet-footed, avian-inspired choreography for the Firebird, exulting in the character’s magical power and strength. Jack Lister exuded a malign intensity as Koschei, Camilo Ramos had a princely dignity as Ivan, and Lina Kim was a gentle, expressive Princess.

★★☆☆☆ Carmen

Carlos Acosta’s Carmen is much less successful. Based on Prosper Mérimée’s novella, which inspired Georges Bizet ‘s much-loved opera, the 60-minute ballet premiered at The Royal Ballet in 2015 as a co-production with Queensland Ballet and Texas Ballet Theater, where it received decidedly mixed reviews but apparently proved popular with audiences.

Acosta, who grew up in the slums of Havana and became a ballet superstar, dancing as a Principal Guest Artist with The Royal Ballet from 2003 to 2016, is clearly not as gifted a choreographer as a dancer, at least on the basis of this piece.

Camilo Ramos and Sophie Zoricic in Carmen. Photograph © David Kelly

Using an adaptation of music from the opera, arranged and orchestrated by Martin Yates, Carmen comes across as thin and one-dimensional, with little emotional depth or distinctively different movement for different characters. The ballet begins with Carmen surrounded by a group of men in a semi-circle of chairs who basically throw themselves at her, ripping off their shirts and then trousers, which just feels tawdry. Later a group of women throw themselves at Escamillo, with two of them having to be dragged back along the floor by another man. Another cheap, tacky image.

Acosta has focussed the ballet essentially on the love triangle between Carmen (Sophie Zoricic), Don José (Camilo Ramos) and Escamillo (Zhi Fang) cutting many elements from the story (there’s no Micaëla for example) but too many moments flash by without any genuine impact. Some story elements feel odd – when Don José has Carmen in a cell near the beginning, she is able to slide through the bars easily, for example, and ties him up then extricates herself with no trouble at all instead of seducing him to let her go as in the opera. There is some flamenco, some singing and a musclebound Bull (D’Arcy Brazier) who is a symbol of death, but little dramatic tension despite the huge potential in the story. A dramaturg might have helped. The dancers do what they can but it’s not enough. That said, many in the audience seemed to love it.

Carmen & The Firebird runs at the Playhouse, QPAC until June 3


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