Jann Parry on the award winning Peter Schaufuss La Sylphide, not seen in the UK in decades, and Li Cunxin’s Queensland Ballet who are bringing it to London this summer. Includes an interview with Cunxin…
It has been over 35 years since Peter Schaufuss first mounted his production of August Bournonville’s La Sylphide for London Festival Ballet. He was still a dancer with the company in 1979, yet to become its artistic director and change its name to English National Ballet. The production earned the company an Olivier and an Evening Standard Award, and was screened by BBC2 a year later with Schaufuss and Eva Evdokimova in the leading roles.
Now La Sylphide is about to return to the Coliseum in August, brought by Queensland Ballet from Australia with two of Schaufuss’s children in the cast. Two of the original Festival Ballet cast, Mary McKendry (now Mary Li) and Janette Mulligan (both ballet mistresses with Queensland Ballet) will be appearing as the witch, Madge, as will Greg Horsman, also familiar from his time at ENB, and other companies and schools.
When I visited the company at its headquarters in Brisbane in February, I was delighted to recognise these former dancers as they took rehearsals for La Sylphide’s opening season at the Queensland Performing Arts Centre in the city. Janette Mulligan (mother of Tara Schaufuss) was standing on a chair, drilling the corps in the Scottish reel that celebrates the hero James’s engagement to his sweetheart, Effie. In this production, the reel is a complex set of manoeuvres involving villagers, children, the fiancés and the sylphide. Mary Li was sorting out the sylph’s entry, while her husband, QB’s artistic director, Li Cunxin, assisted James.
Cunxin had danced the role of James with Houston Ballet, after its director, Ben Stevenson, had enabled him to leave Chairman Mao’s China. Cunxin’s riveting autobiography, Mao’s Last Dancer, tells how he was selected from an impoverished rural background at the age of 11 to train as a ballet dancer at the Beijing Dance Academy. He seized his chance of freedom in the United States, dancing as a principal with Houston Ballet, travelling widely as a star dancer and ending up in Australia with Mary and their three children. His remarkable career was made into a feature film in 2009 with Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Chi Cao as himself. (For some reason, the film was never distributed in the UK.)
When Cunxin retired from dancing with The Australian Ballet in 1999, he retrained as a stockbroker. He did well in the financial market, helping to support his family of six brothers back in China, while retaining his love of ballet. He was on the Board of The Australian Ballet for six years, and on the Australian Council for the Arts. Then a headhunter persuaded him to become Queensland Ballet’s fourth artistic director in 2013.
Mary told him the timing was right for him to get involved with dancers again, using his experience to make artistic decision instead of just financial ones. ‘I still have the passion to make a meaningful difference in the ballet world, and I can bring my financial understanding in running a company’, he says. ‘It needs the same kind of discipline. I was used to analysing business companies in order to advise clients on investing their money: what are my risks, how can I mitigate them without damaging the company’s funds. I’m aware that governments are never going to increase funding for the arts – if anything, they’ll reduce it – so you have to be able to speak business language to philanthropists and civic sponsors.’
He found that being a board member had not been enough. ‘I want to develop dancers and audiences, raise standards and develop a dramatic, classically-based repertoire that excites people. So I’m investing in training programmes here in Queensland and forming partnerships with other ballet companies to share resources and productions.’ The examples he gives are acquiring Liam Scarlett’s Lest We Forget from ENB and Scarlett’s forthcoming A Midsummer Night’s Dream for Royal New Zealand Ballet in 2017; Greg Horsman’s Coppélia, originally for West Australian Ballet and his The Sleeping Beauty for RNZ; Ben Stevenson’s The Nutcracker for Houston Ballet. For QB’s La Sylphide, the sets and costumes, designed by David Walker in 1979, have been supplied by Schaufuss from one of his many productions.
The company Cunxin inherited from his predecessor, François Klaus, consisted of only 26 dancers, now 30, a number he hopes to increase to 36, with eight young apprentices on a Jette Parker scheme. Limited numbers mean that Cunxin casts veteran ex-dancers in roles that require gravitas. The company performed Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet in 2014 with retired dancers in senior roles, and sets and costumes borrowed from Birmingham Royal Ballet. Guest artists Tamara Rojo, Carlos Acosta and Steven McRae performed in partnerships with QB’s own dancers, breaking box office records in Brisbane.
A measure of Cunxin’s success as director since 2013 is that audience support is now enthusiastic, with productions selling out in advance: the subscription list has risen from 1,700 to 7,000 this year, with A$4 million raised in sponsorship. The expensive trip to London is being supported by private donors, the Australian government and British Gas (which has investments in Queensland). This will be the first time in its 55 years that Queensland Ballet has performed in Britain, coincidentally on the 200th birthday anniversary of La Sylphide’s Danish composer, Herman Løvenskjold.
Schaufuss’s production is on a much larger scale than the traditional Royal Danish Ballet version on which it is based, as is Johan Kobborg’s version for our Royal Ballet. James lives in a baronial hall instead of a farmhouse; the pastoral woods in which the sylphs dance have become a forest. Schaufuss has restored 18 minutes of Løvenskjold’s music, adding a solo for James in Act I and the visitation of the Sylphide during the reel, unseen by anyone except James. Though the dancing style should be close to the Bournonville original, with its buoyant jumps and modest finishes in place of Russian flourishes, the role of James in this version used to show off Schaufuss’s virtuoso technique in his prime.
His son Luke (whose mother is Zara Deakin) joined the Royal Danish Ballet at 17, like his father and grandfather, Frank, before him. Luke switched to Birmingham Royal Ballet in 2013, where he is in the corps, and guested as James in Queensland Ballet’s first Brisbane season of La Sylphide. He shares the role in London with two Chinese-trained principal dancers, Hao Bin and Qi Huan. Cunxin persuaded the latter out of retirement from the Royal New Zealand Ballet.
The role of the Sylphide will be taken by QB dancers Clare Morehen, Sarah Thomson and Tara Schaufuss (at the Saturday matinee), as well as by former National Ballet of Cuba principal Yanela Piñera. Coliseum performances will be conducted by Andrew Mogrelia, the company’s music director, with BRB’s Royal Ballet Sinfonia orchestra.
When I watched early rehearsals in the red-brick Thomas Dixon Centre, a former shoe factory in downtown Brisbane, dancers were replacing each other in Highland Reel formations beneath whirring ceiling fans in the Australian heat. Many of them have to learn several roles and different placings within the corps, since there isn’t a strict hierarchy between junior artists, soloists and principals. Confusions were being rapidly sorted out by Mulligan, Li (McKendry), Horsman and Cunxin, so actively hands-on that it was hard to believe he had spent 12 years in a businessman’s suit. He says: ‘I need them all to be versatile, with lots of opportunities to dance, since we do over a hundred performances a year. I don’t want anyone to get stuck in the corps for four years before they try solo roles, or leave us to go to bigger companies. Their future should be here.’
What of his future? Cunxin is on a four-year contract as artistic director, but his ambitions will take longer to fulfil. ‘Maybe eight or ten years to place the company in a strong position,’ he estimates. As well as an extensive repertoire of full-length classical ballets and mixed bills of contemporary works, he wants to establish a sizeable endowment to prepare for the future. ‘We must have a financial cushion in case we have a bad box-office year or there’s a recession. Queensland’s industry is growing fast and people are richer, but prices rise and the ballet company receives less state support than the opera, theatre or orchestra.’
Cunxin may be hard-headed as a financial negotiator, but he’s a charmer in person, as his autobiography suggests, with an impressive career behind him as a performer. Watch him demonstrate moves to a young dancer or take the place of a principal as partner and you can still see what a joy he was, and is. He and his company are looking forward to the risk of presenting themselves before a London public of balletomanes and summer tourists in August, before festival goers head up north to Edinburgh.