When is a play a ballet?

Recently, I went with my daughter and her family to the Queensland Ballet Company’s performance of Romeo and Juliet. Last year, we went ‘en famille’ to The Nutcracker Suite, and enjoyed it so much, I decided to make it a yearly event to go to the ballet together. We are so lucky to have a world class ballet company in Brisbane, led by the artistic director, Li Cunxin, whose life has become a legend through his autobiography, Mao’s Last Dancer, and the splendid film made from his story. Li, born in bitter poverty in rural China, was selected to study ballet at Madame Mao’s Beijing Dance Academy. He was 11 when he left home, and entered a harsh 7 year training regime. He graduated ‘cum laude’ and was allowed to go to America to study ballet. Subsequently, he defected, which created a standoff between the American and Chinese governments, and he was allowed to stay in the US. He danced with the Houston ballet for 16 years, becoming a world star. He fell in love in London with an Australian born ballerina, and moved in 1995 to Melbourne with her and their two children. Here, he became a principal dancer with the Australian ballet.

As we all know, because of the extreme physical demands of ballet, most ballerinas retire in their 30s. Forget footballers and athletes, there is no more physically demanding occupation than ballet dancing (speaking as a total desk potato, but also as an admirer of the extreme and beautiful art of ballet).

Li became a a highly successful stockbroker, and recently returned to his first passion, and took up directorship of the Queensland Ballet.

From which time, the company has gone from strength to strength.

Romeo and Juliet may seem an unlikely choice to take a 9-year-old and a 5-year-old too. We would have liked to take them to Cinderella, but it was booked out. Surprisingly, they sat through a near 3 hour long performance (with two intervals) without complaints, just a bit of wriggling and chewing. The 9 year old was very focused on the story, and his little sister was in love with the ballerinas and the costumes, (she learns ballet) and followed the story with help from her parents.


Romeo and Juliet is such a powerful, romantic and tragic story, it has caught the world’s imagination and been recreated in many versions, on stage and in film, too numerous to mention. My son-in-law spoke with great admiration of Franco Zeffirelli’s film of it (1968), which he saw in Japanese. I haven’t seen it, I confess, but will make sure I do. I’ve seen a couple of stage versions. But I came to this ballet fairly uncluttered by memories of the text or of performances of it. So it was fascinating to see how a complex plot, a romance complicated by a feud between two families, was translated into ballet.

A brief resume of the plot: The Capulets and the Montagues, two wealthy Veronese families, are sworn enemies. Romeo, a Montague, and his friends arrive at a Capulet ball, disguised in masks. Romeo is entranced by Juliet, a Capulet, who is (by her parents’ will) betrothed to Paris. After the ball, Juliet comes out on her balcony and Romeo appears in the garden. They confess their love to each other.

Juliet’s parents insist that she marry Paris. But Juliet and Romeo follow their hearts and are married secretly by Friar Laurence.

I won’t reveal the rest of the plot, in case you are not familiar with the story. Suffice it to say, it ends in tragedy, caused by the deadly rivalries of the two families, and the failed plan of the Friar and the young lovers to escape the net of forced marriage and family feud.

The ballet was very moving and beautiful, superbly danced, with delightful, colourful crowd scenes, and touching love scenes. The orchestra was superb in their rendition of Prokofiev’s stirring music. In the tragic ending,  the passion and the despair of the young lovers moved me to tears.

What didn’t fully work, for me, was the translation of a complicated romance/tragedy into ballet without text. The intricacies of the plot depend on the exchange of words, both orally and in writing, and it’s not possible to convey this in dance. If you did not know the story, or had not read the program’s summary of it beforehand, you would not fully understand the essence of the tragedy, which consists in misunderstanding and the consequent loss of two young lives and their love.

But I am awed by the artistry and commitment of this troupe of dancers comprising  both local and international guest artists, and of the artistic director and supporting crew, and the Queensland Symphony orchestra. This is world class ballet. I was also amazed by the crowd. The Lyric Theatre at the Performing Arts Centre is huge; we were sitting up in the gods, and the house was packed. There must have been about 700 people there, of all ages.

Ballet lives!

PS: if you can’t get to see the ballet, you might enjoy Australian Story, ABC 1 documentary on Li Cunxin and his daring venture:






Filed under ballet

6 responses to “When is a play a ballet?

  1. Li Cunxin is the subject of Australian Story on Monday night (20/7) on ABC1. Something to do with his next ballet venture. Should be interesting; he is very eloquent and charismatic.

  2. Another interesting blog post, Christina. You obviously enjoyed your Brisbane experience with your family. I love the ballet and enjoy the way even a very complex story can be depicted in music and dance so that I’m left thinking about it for days afterwards.

    • Indeed, complex stories can be translated/adapted. I wonder what you would think of this adaptation. To me its only flaw is that it relies on the audience knowing the intricacies of the story. But certainly the music and the dancers conveyed the passion, excitement and despair beautifully.

  3. Thanks for this. I found myself unable to enjoy this performance, and I think for the same reason you criticise it: I prefer stories told with words. I admire the amazing skill of the dancers, but this on its own does not seem to connect with me.

  4. If you like ballet, and you have seen or plan to see R & J, or if you can’t get to it, have a look at ABC1’s Australian Story on Li Cunxin and his daring venture: http://iview.abc.net.au/programs/australian-story/NC1456Q025S00

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