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Fractured Identity

A world premiere by Cathy Marston had been a major draw card for the Queensland Ballet's new triple bill, however, there was a reverence to the evening that no one could have predicted. This performance of “Trilogy” came a day after artistic director Li Cunxin announced his retirement at the end of the year due to ill health. It was a bittersweet preface to the evening. I was not alone in cherishing “Trilogy” with a newfound respect for what both Li and his wife Mary (company ballet mistress, who is also retiring) have done for the company over the past eleven years. 

Performance

Queensland Ballet: “A Brief Nostalgia,” “Rooster,” “My Brilliant Career”

Place

Playhouse, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane, June 21, 2023

Words

Madelyn Coupe

Mia Heathcote, Victor Estévez, and Laura Tosar in “My Brilliant Career” by Cathy Marsten. Photograph by David Kelly

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The evening began with Lister’s “A Brief Nostalgia”—an abstract work that experiments with the lingering effects of memory. Part classical, part Scandi-noir in style, Lister created a world that was atmospheric and cinematic. Everything was dark; from the costumes shaded in various greys to set walls that seemed to encroach on the dancers. The stage was a veritable black hole that drew your gaze. The emphasis of “A Brief Nostalgia,” however, didn’t lie with the individuality of the dancer but on their uniformity with one another; the shadows their bodies made on the wall, the emotions they portrayed together. Only at the last moment could you see their faces as they stepped out into the light for the curtain call. 

Queensland Ballet in “A Brief Nostalgia” by Jack Lister. Photograph by David Kelly

Where “A Brief Nostalgia” stripped the dancers of their individuality, “Rooster” by Christopher Bruce, provided space for personalities to shine. Set to music by the Rolling Stones, the work pays homage to the sixties and seventies, when much of this music was recorded. The rock ’n roll tracks were an audience favourite, so too, was the iconic rooster walk that the male dancers played with onstage. Brazier and Liam Geck appeared to have the most fun with this cockerel quirk. There were a few segments that sat a little awkwardly—the childhood. It’s always difficult when adult-coded bodies are tasked to perform as children especially when the costumes and mise-en-scène continued to reflect the adult world. Compared to Lister’s fluid moves, “Rooster” appeared a little stilted; but as a palette cleanser between two more emotional works, it was very entertaining. 

 

Queensland Ballet in “Rooster” by Christopher Bruce. Photograph by David Kelly

“My Brilliant Career” is the latest of Marsten’s literary adaptations for the ballet stage. Miles Franklin’s cherished novel from 1901 tells the story of Sybylla Melvyn, a young Australian woman torn between her quiet rural family home and the new world glamour of her grandmother’s estate. Not only is this the first Marston ballet staged by an Australian company, but the piece was also commissioned for and created on the Queensland Ballet dancers (and considering Marston’s skyrocketing reputation, this is a justified coup). 

Marston’s choreography was poetry in motion—“My Brilliant Career” is one of the best new works Queensland Ballet has staged to date. She leant into the complexities of the story and made some brilliant dramaturgical decisions. The most astonishing one being the fracturing of the main character. There is a duality to Sybylla, one that Marston explicitly encouraged. Sybylla doesn’t know whether to lean into the new expectations and male attention placed upon her, or to rebel against it and return home. Instead of confining these emotions to one body, Marston split Sybylla into two. Mia Heathcote was Syb; the version that wanted to embrace the romantic and sophisticated ideals her new life offered, while Laura Tosar was Bylla; the one that questioned this change and resisted efforts to control her. Together, the women showed the full capacity of Sybylla’s character. They were two parts of one whole—a beautiful collaboration. 

Mia Heathcote and Laura Tosa as Sybylla in “My Brilliant Career.” Photograph by Cathy Marsten

We first saw Heathcote and Tosar on the family farm. In the beginning, the differences between the two were inconceivable: same plain dress, same hairstyle, same movements. They look after their siblings, dance with their mother (Sophie Zoricic) and put up with their alcoholic father (Alexander Idaszak). Only after Sybylla accepts her grandmother’s invitation to stay at her estate do the pair diverge. As Syb conforms to the refined ideal of her grandmother’s world, her physicality changes—flexed feet become pointed, flat shoes become pointe shoes. The humble and endearing qualities of Bylla are drowned out by the weight of expectation. Heathcote embraces the change, leaping naïvely into a world where she doesn’t understand the rules. Tosar, by contrast, is cautious. She follows Heathcote but she never lets herself be fully swept away.  

Victor Estévez and Mia Heathcote in “My Brilliant Career” by Cathy Marsten. Photograph by David Kelly

What follows is a brief but romantic moment in time. Sybylla falls in love with Harry Beecham, the dashing local landowner danced by Victor Estévez. The trio danced the most harmonious pas de trois I have seen. There were moments where you forgot Heathcote and Tosar were two separate people because their movements seamlessly bended into one another. There was also no one better suited for the role of Beecham than Estévez. He brought the perfect level of refined charm and was a brilliant partner for the women. 

There is a love story at the heart of “My Brilliant Career,” and it has nothing to do with a man. This ballet centred around Heathcote and Tosar—how they fight, and dream, and love. It shows every facet of Sybylla’s character and emphasises that it is her duality that makes her whole. 

Mia Heathcote and Laura Tosar in “My Brilliant Career” by Cathy Marsten. Photograph by David Kelly

Madelyn Coupe


comments

Olwen

What did you intend to mean by saying “the differences between the two were ‘inconceivable’”? unmistakeable?

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