Red was the colour in Queensland Ballet’s latest double bill: Liam Scarlett’s The Firebird and Carlos Acosta’s Carmen.

The Firebird is interesting for the emotional complexity of the Firebird and Koschei. In Scarlett’s world, they are arch-enemies battling for dominance, but are irresistibly drawn to each other. Their opening pas de deux is as much about connection and desire as combat, and the final scene, where the Firebird carries the dead Koschei’s cloak onstage to tenderly cover his body, is truly moving.

Camilo Ramos and Lucy Green in Scarlett's <i>The Firebird</i> © David Kelly
Camilo Ramos and Lucy Green in Scarlett's The Firebird
© David Kelly

Neneka Yoshida was strong in the title role, dancing with reassurance and a satisfyingly avian sharpness. She was ably-partnered by Vito Bernasconi’s Koschei, who initially seemed hampered by his cloak but, once allowed to cast it off, became a convincingly cunning villain.

David Power and Lucy Green were endearing as Prince Ivan and the Princess, breathing warmth into roles that could easily have lapsed into the standard prince-meets-princess pairing. Power’s partnering could have been smoother, but his dramatisation compensated to make him a likeable prince.

The production elements were also interesting, but less coherent. Koschei – with red and black face paint, bodysuit, and cloak – looked awfully like Darth Maul from Star Wars, flanked by soldiers of Mordor and gothic Victorian ladies. There was something of Spartacus in the Firebird’s red plume and gold tutu, the Prince was in the usual European courtly getup but made his entrance by clambering out of what looked like a 1930s aluminium plane wreck, and the Princess and her retinue were part-Rhine maiden, part-Grecian oracle. This costuming mash-up distracted from the overall set design, which was wonderfully atmospheric and featured a huge, wintry tree that lifted to reveal roots outstretched like an ominous hand. The lighting was also impressive. At times resembling shafts of cold steel (Koschei) or rays of molten gold (the Firebird), it illumined the dancers against an inky black backdrop. I was reminded of Caravaggio’s chiaroscuro.

The performance ended strongly to warm audience applause, with Yoshida alone on stage, ably-carrying the Firebird’s final triumph.

Camilo Ramos and Sophie Zoricic in Acosta's <i>Carmen</i> © David Kelly
Camilo Ramos and Sophie Zoricic in Acosta's Carmen
© David Kelly

Carmen (with Lina Kim in the title role) was profoundly problematic. Acosta’s foray into choreography is part of an interesting trend of ballet stars who explore the boundaries between dancer, director, and choreographer; but in this case commentators have noted the stylistic patchiness of the work. This Carmen involved a fair bit of ballet, a dash of flamenco, overblown Broadway gesturing, traces of street dance, some chair dancing, even more table dancing, and an unnecessary amount of Full Monty-style stripping (“at least it was gender equal”, my non-dancer guest wryly observed). The end result was a ballet that seemed to not know what it wanted to be.

The choreography was further hampered by a highly unsatisfying score. I have written before about the challenges of adapting opera to ballet, and this piece was an example of a transplant that didn’t quite survive the operation. Bizet’s taut, stirring score and legendary arias were somehow reduced to a thin, unwieldy orchestration, spliced by mismatching add-ons (some Spanish guitar and a bass so amplified that I initially thought it was electronica), and cuts that jarred the narrative or showed strange disregard for the original. The most obvious example was the use of the aria Je dis que rien ne m'épouvante, which in the opera is a prayer uttered by the frightened Micaela, but in this adaptation became background music for a bedroom scene. This was all a pity given the richness of Bizet’s source material.

More perplexing still was the anaemic portrayal of Carmen herself, and I couldn’t help wondering if Kim was frankly uncomfortable in the role. There are hundreds of fascinating ways to interpret Bizet’s famously dramatic heroine, but at the very least, to be broadly workable, she requires some level of sensuality. This characterisation is usually fairly accessible for danced Carmens (compared to operatic or instrumental Carmens) due to the physical expression inherent to the form. But even this bare minimum was awkwardly absent, with a bloodless heroine who seemed reluctant to even look at or touch her partners, let alone seduce them into murderous passion.

Victor Estévez as Escamillo was the best thing about this production, demonstrating a velvety magnetism and effortless tours. I only wished he was on stage longer. Kohei Iwamoto also deserves mention for his earnest José.

Of particular note in both The Firebird and Carmen were the youthful corps, who displayed freshness and commitment (Mia Heathcote was particularly outstanding) and were the backbone of the evening. Queensland Ballet has made huge headway in recent years under Artistic Director Li Cunxin, and I look forward to seeing these artists progress and mature.