The Bolshoi Ballet – Spartacus

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Last month Bec and I went to see a simulcast of the Bolshoi Ballet’s performance of Spartacus. Performed in Brisbane’s Lyric Theatre in the Queensland Performing Arts Centre at Southbank, the performance was streamed out to regional centres across Queensland, including Toowoomba, Cairns, Mt Isa, Gladstone and Bundaberg. Interestingly Brisbane is the only Australian stop on their tour – such a good reason for living in the Sunshine State. 

The Bolshoi Ballet is one of the best ballet companies in the world, so to see them perform is a truly memorable occasion. Founded in 1776, it is also one of the oldest ballet companies in the world. The word “bolshoi” actually means “big” or “grand” in russian, and when you see them perform, bolshoi is an apt label. Their performances are known for being bold, colourful, athletic, expressive, dramatic and intense and Spartacus lived up to that reputation. It was extremely athletic and emotionally dramatic. The two male lead dancers endurance and athletic prowess was incredible.

The story of Spartacus has spawned many adaptations – novels and movies, as well as ballet. Of course when you mention the word Spartacus, many people will immediately think of the 1960 film starring Kirk Douglas. I can remember seeing that film on television many years ago, however that film was based on the novel by Howard Fast. The ballet Spartacus tells a slightly different variation of the story.

Living from 111-71 BC, historians believe that Spartacus may have been a roman soldier, who “escaped”, but was then recaptured, and along with his wife, enslaved. Forced to fight as a gladiator, Spartacus led a slave uprising, known as the Third Servile War. While many survivors of the battle were publicly crucified, supposedly around 6,000, Spartacus is believed to have died on the battlefield.

The Ballet of Spartacus shows the ruthless arrogance of the Roman Empire as they invaded, enslaved people, forced them to fight as gladiators for their own perverse amusement, separated husbands and wives, and sexually abused women. The four main leads in the ballet, Spartacus, his wife Phrygia, the roman leader Crassus and his consort Aegina, were brilliant. The performance was not just incredibly technical and athletic, but also portrayed Spartacus’ anguish at the loss of his freedom, his joy when reunited with Phrygia and his courage in the final battle. His crucifixion at the end of the soldiers spears demonstrated some very inspired and dramatic choreography. The final moment though goes to Phrygia, as she defiantly declares that Spartacus’ name and sacrifice be remembered in the annals of history.  And so they are today.

After the performance, Bec and I declared that one day we would like to see the Bolshoi Ballet perform live. One of the benefits of the simulcast is that we had a variety of camera angles – views that even people in the Lyric theatre would not see. We saw close ups of the dancers and could see their emotional response as they literally poured everything into their performance. To see them perform live on the stage would be a once in a life time experience. The simulcast experience was amazing, despite some initial technical issues which fortunately got sorted pretty quickly. It’s probably not as good as being right there in the Lyric Theatre, but it was definitely the next best thing and it was a fantastic opportunity for people around the state of Queensland to see a performance by a world class ballet company – something which many regional people may never be able to experience otherwise. I think the state gov of QLD and QPAC really need to be commended for their determination to being the arts to the regions.

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Dangerous Liaisons

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On Friday night I went to see Queensland Ballet’s performance of Dangerous Liaisons at our local Empire Theatre as part of their regional tour for 2019. If you have read the book by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, first published in 1782, or seen the 1988 screen version starring Glenn Close and Michelle Pfeiffer, then you may remember that it is a scandalous tale of seduction, revenge and betrayal set in pre-revolutionary France. The blurb on the back of my penguin edition says…

“Depicting decadence and moral corruption in pre-revolutionary France, Dangerous Liaisons is one of the most scandalous and controversial novels in European literature. Two aristocrats embark on a sophisticated game of seduction and manipulation to bring amusement to their jaded existences. As their intrigues become more duplicitous and they find their human pawns responding in ways they could not have predicted, the consequences prove to be more serious, and deadly, than Merteuil and Valmont could have guessed.”

I read the book a few years ago, as it is listed on the 1001 List – 1001 Books to Read Before You Die – but I haven’t seen the movie. Classic books are not always an easy read for contemporary readers, especially when they are written in an epistolary form, that is, as a series of letters, which is the case for Dangerous Liaisons. It can also be a bit tricky keeping the various characters with their french names clearly sorted out in your head as you read. Some readers find the story deliciously wicked and others have lauded the way it delves into the dark side of humanity. I don’t quite remember my initial reaction which probably means that I need to read it again. It may be one of those books that gets better with each read.

“a classic tale of seduction and betrayal”

Dangerous Liaisons has been adapted a number of times for stage, opera, ballet and screen, but this particular version by Queensland Ballet was a world premiere when it opened in Brisbane in March of this year. It was promoted variously as a “classic tale of seduction and betrayal”, “a hedonistic tale of love, virtue and humanity” and an “evocative and vivid work that will scintillate audiences” (QLD Ballet). It was also stressed that it was a production for a mature audience. Well, they got that right. It was the raunchiest ballet that I have ever seen. 

Now I did know the story, and I did expect it to be somewhat risqué. But hey, it’s ballet. How provocative could it be?

It was an incredible performance. The period costumes were fantastic. The music fitted perfectly. It was brilliantly executed and the emotion portrayed by the dancers was outstanding. It was also provocative because it clearly depicted the licentious and morally corrupt behaviour of the french aristocracy. Some reviews, that I read post-performance, described the production as brave and sensual, some noted the literal depictions of libertine behaviour, while one likened it to a strip club.  

I think it is the story itself that sits uncomfortably and causes a sense of disquiet. It is not the licentious behaviour of the french aristocracy so much, who obviously had way too much time on their hands and seemed determined to have sex with anybody and everybody. I do hasten to add that it was not all members of the aristocracy who were so inclined. No, it is the deliberate seduction and corruption of a young, naive, virginal girl for the sordid amusement and vengeance of of the two central villains, without a single thought or care for the consequences. Remember, this is the 18th century and there is a clear double standard when it comes to sex and morality. In the wake of the “Me Too” movement and regular reporting of revenge porn, domestic violence, sexual assault and catfishing, it is this part of the story that causes discomfit.  Perhaps discomfit is not what we expect from ballet. Perhaps we expect Swan Lake: beautiful, graceful, romantic, tragic.

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Art has many different purposes. It entertains us. It educates. It challenges. I like to read books that I know will challenge and expand my horizons. I go to see some movies for the same reason. One of the most memorable films for me was “Cry Freedom” (1987).  Set in South Africa during  the late 1970s, it depicted the reality of apartheid. One of the things that was particularly memorable for me came when the audience exited the cinema –  in absolute silence. We were shocked, stunned, appalled by what we had seen. Challenged. So, if we can expect to be challenged by literature and by film, why not ballet?

If you explore the Queensland Ballet website, you will see their motto – Move Boldly. 

If you read their vision statement this is what you will see…

“Our dream and our endeavour is to connect people and dance across Queensland through a program of delightful, exciting and challenging work, collaborating with leading artists and organisations.”

I did find Dangerous Liaisons somewhat challenging. It reminds us that the oppression, degradation and humiliation of women has a very very long history. It shows us the depths to which humanity so often descends. It provokes deep thought and reflection about the way women continue to be treated, the double standards that are still applied today and the very important role that art plays in culture and society. 

I am glad that Queensland Ballet is a company that seeks to challenge as well as entertain. I appreciate their goal to bring ballet to those of us who live out in the regions and I hope they will continue to stage challenging works in the future.

A Night Out at the Theatre

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I really love old buildings. I love the detail in the architecture, the arched windows and the sense of character that I often find missing in contemporary buildings. Toowoomba is blessed to still have many of its historic buildings and I love wandering around the city streets, bemused at the way they sit juxtaposed to contemporary buildings, wondering about the people who helped build them or who used to work in them.

One of our favourite historic buildings is the Empire Theatre. It was opened on the 29th June 1911 and had the latest technology of that time to show the most exiting advent in entertainment – big screen movies! Sadly, much of the original theatre was destroyed by fire on 22 Feb 1933. Despite this devastating setback, the theatre was rebuilt and the two walls that were left standing after the fire were incorporated into the new design. Amazingly, the theatre was able to reopen at the end of the year on 27 Nov 1933. 

The Empire Theatre continued to be at the centre of Toowoomba’s cultural life for many years. Unfortunately, the lure of the television set and other entertainment led to the theatre’s closure in 1971. For a while it was used as a warehouse and then as a TAFE college and then sadly, it just fell into disrepair. Fortunately, this was not the end of the story.

Eventually the need for a performing arts centre resurfaced and the Empire Theatre was restored and reopened its doors on 28 June 1997. Today, the theatre blends contemporary technology with the architectural grandeur of its past, still retaining some of the features from both 1911 and 1933. One of the most outstanding features is the grand proscenium arch, which is possibly one of the last of its kind left in the southern hemisphere. The arch is back lit with a rainbow of colours and provides a stunning frame for centre stage.

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It still is the largest performing arts centre in regional Australia and hosts a variety of world class performers. You can read more about the Empire Theatre, it’s history and its cultural program here.

We have enjoyed seeing a number of ballet performances and musicals at the Empire Theatre. Last year we went to see a local production of Wicked and earlier this year we went to see the Pirates of Penzance. It was Bec’s first Gilbert and Sullivan musical, and she thoroughly enjoyed it. Not long ago the Empire Theatre was one of a number of locations around Australia that screened sessions from the Sydney Writer’s Festival free to members of the public and just recently Dan, Bec and I enjoyed the Queensland Ballet’s performance of Swan Lake.

There is something about the story of Swan Lake that fills our hearts with a blend of joy and sadness. If you only ever see one ballet in your life, it should be Swan Lake. The beauty and grace of the swans and the tragic ending of the doomed lovers always moves me to tears. Bec learned ballet for a few years when she was younger, so we have seen a few different ones – The Nutcracker, A Midsummer Dream and La Fille, Mal Gardée – but Swan Lake is always our favourite.

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