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Dazzling Starlet

From the moment the curtain rose, Queensland Ballet’s “Strictly Gershwin” dazzled. Choreographed by Derek Deane and adapted by Gareth Valentine, the production pays homage to the musical legacy of George and Ira Gershwin in the most romantic way possible. A medley of dance and musical genres, it features a variety of ballet, tap, and ballroom dance alongside four vocalists and an orchestra. The golden age of American song was presented on the Brisbane stage.

Performance

Queensland Ballet: “Strictly Gershwin” 

Place

Lyric Theatre, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane, Australia, September 23, 2023

Words

Madelyn Coupe

Queensland Ballet in “Strictly Gershwin” by Derek Deane. Photograph by David Kelly

Act One transported you to Broadway and the blinding lights of New York City. It relished, most ardently, in the pre-war splendour of the 1920’s. From ragtime to jazz and everything in between, the best of the Gershwin brother’s catalogue was revived here. It began with an overture before moving on to the more notable feature songs. Georgia Swan and Vito Bernasconi were effervescent in “Shall We Dance?” So, too, were Lina Kim and Rian Thompson in “Someone to Watch Over Me”—the pair accompanied by vocalist Nina Korbe, whose lilting melody added to the splendour of the piece. 

A clear highlight was “Fascinatin’ Rhythm” which introduced the tapping talents of Bill Simpson and Kris Kerr. The men were fast, their movements (and feet) even faster. They flowed in and out of syncopated phrases with such ease, reminding the audience of how much joy and pure fun tap can be. Due to the orchestra being onstage, the shoes were mic’d so that every sound could be heard; however, there was an odd echo that occurred between the analogue and digital sounds. In the louder moments, it wasn’t noticeable; only when the music died down to showcase the tap could you hear the digital echo overlayed on top of the analogue sound.

Queensland Ballet in “Strictly Gershwin” by Derek Deane. Photograph by David Kelly

The shining lights of the city reflected in the sparkling costumes; its nocturnal nature echoed in the everchanging bodies onstage. Flashes of champagne, sapphire blue, and sunset red engulfed the space. Our time on Broadway concluded with Gershwin’s “An American in Paris”—a visual (if somewhat lengthy) spectacle. Mia Heathcote and Joel Woellner shone as the lead couple, lovers determined to find one another amongst the chaos of Paris. They wove around a cacophony of characters: Moulin Rouge dancers, a painter and his muse, meddling mimes, and a personified Eifel Tower. Despite it being a vibrant end to the act, you did feel the length of the piece. Separating “An American in Paris” so that it stands alone as a singular act may help with the consumability of the work. The production would still transport audiences from city to city, just that Paris would be a more notable stop along the way. 

For Act Two, we were in Hollywood—the glamour of the silver screen romanticised onstage. It started with a moody bang, “Rhapsody in Blue” was a clear favourite of the audience. Neneka Yoshida and Patricio Revé sparkled as the lead dancers. Yoshida’s trademark precision was matched well by Revé dashing support. The dance also offered the audience a principal feast—it didn’t just feature one leading couple but three. It was a delight to see Heathcote and Woellner, plus Lucy Green and the newly promoted Alexander Idaszak, dance onstage next to each other. A treat not commonly experienced. 

Queensland Ballet in “Strictly Gershwin” by Derek Deane. Photograph by David Kelly

A personal favourite was “Oh, Lady Be Good” which, alongside Simpson and Kerr, saw the return of company superstar Rachael Walsh. Even though it has been eight years since her retirement, Walsh still appears to be the darling of Queensland Ballet. She dazzled as if she had never left the stage. This piece also highlighted the versatility of the dancers—it was a joy to see that so many could tap dance and do it so well. When “Strictly Gershwin” was first staged, the company hired a number of external artists for the tap scenes. So, the assumption was that this would happen again for the revival. Wonderfully, though, when the scene came, it only featured company dancers. It provided the space for them to show their talents, and the audience revelled in the tapping might. 

As the penultimate end to Cunxin’s tenure, “Strictly Gershwin” was a delight to consume—both the spectacular and small moments. The groove of conductor Michael England as he led the orchestra through an interlude; the swirl of Yoshida’s tutu in “Rhapsody in Blue”. The production is a reminder of how enjoyable ballet can be, even when it’s just simple and fun. 

Madelyn Coupe


Madelyn is a Dramaturg and former dancer based in Brisbane. She holds a BA (Honours) in Drama and is currently undertaking postgraduate study specialising in Classical Ballet Dramaturgy.

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Cameron Grant

Gee, was there a pianist in Rhapsody in Blue?

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