Queensland Ballet’s focus on the end of artistic director Li Cunxin’s tenure late last year overshadowed two notable swan songs.
For while Queensland Ballet’s final 2023 performance of The Nutcracker on December 20 brought down the curtain on Li’s stellar career at the company, it also signalled the departure of two of its shining stars, popular principals and off-stage partners Mia Heathcote and Victor Estevez, who were honoured by dancing together as The Sugarplum Fairy and Prince.
Local ballet fans will be devastated. Both Heathcote and Estevez have joined The Australian Ballet which, as aficionados know, is in Heathcote’s DNA. Her parents Steven – who spent a record 20 years as principal – and Kathy (nee Reid) met there, and all three trained at The Australian Ballet School.
Heathcote’s family is very close (she has an older brother Sam who wasn’t interested in ballet) and they are naturally delighted to be reunited in Melbourne where The Australian Ballet is based. For father and daughter there’s the bonus of sharing their workplace, as Steven has been principal repetiteur since 2014.
Heathcote was only 18 when she first auditioned for QB, and Estevez arrived from Cuba without speaking English. They have only praise and gratitude for the nurturing and support they received from Li Cunxin and ballet mistress Mary Li. And they have a great love for the company they are leaving behind.
“Queensland Ballet is like a second family to me,” Estevez declares. “It’s a special and rare thing to have in a company. And for us to have been involved in the tremendous rise of Queensland Ballet has been life changing.”
Both acknowledge they would not be the artists they are without Li and Mary’s input, and with the end of their era it felt time for the couple to pursue a new opportunity.
“This career is short, and I want to squeeze every drop of experience I can into it,” Heathcote says. “Change brings growth and I feel I need to continue to challenge myself.”
In the final days of his tenure, Li Cunxin passed the baton with confidence to Queensland-born former Royal Ballet principal Leanne Benjamin, who had coached the company in 2019.
In addition to professional respect for the legendary ballerina, who spent a record 21 years at the top rank, The Lis and Benjamin share decades of friendship. Both women attended the same Rockhampton ballet school and have been pals since childhood.
Bated breath always accompanies a new artistic director’s arrival. Benjamin starts on February 12 and has moved home to Queensland from the UK with her husband and son.
Every artistic director has personal preferences, from taste in dancers, aesthetics and works, to their management style. Being the company’s first female in the role in its 60-plus year history adds another variable.
Along with the pair’s exit, Yanela Pinera is on maternity leave. While that leaves just five active principals, the retinue of senior artists and soloists have proven themselves highly capable in lead roles. Furthermore, the year’s first production, Queensland Ballet at Home, which opens in a fortnight in Brisbane before touring regionally, features four works, so is less demanding in terms of casting than a full-length ballet.
That first production will be presented at QB’s Talbot Theatre, February 21-24 and March 11-13, with a regional tour in February and March.
This diverse program includes the famous Le Corsaire pas de deux, two pieces set to the music of Rachmaninov – Ben Stevenson’s lyrical duet Three Preludes and assistant artistic director Greg Horsman’s A Rhapsody in Motion – and a light-hearted compilation of ballet’s best-known music created by ballet master Matthew Lawrence, Tchaikovsky Mash.
We do know that Benjamin’s passion for coaching and mentoring, which she has pursued since her performance retirement in 2013, means she will want to bring out the best in the dancers she has inherited.
Nonetheless, Li has left Benjamin room to move by making just three junior rank appointments for 2024.
Previously with Ural Opera Ballet and Astana Ballet, Ivan Surodeev has joined as first company artist, while former Jette Parker Young Artists, Alisa Pukkinen and Eliza Wenham (actor David’s daughter), have filled company artist positions left vacant during 2023. There is a new Jette Parker cohort of 12.
Li’s decision not to replace Heathcote and Estevez creates even more anticipation over Benjamin’s first moves to put her own stamp on QB’s artistic makeup.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream in mid-April may reveal whether she shares Li’s preferences and projected advancement trajectories by promoting from within, or will instead seek additional senior talent externally – and at what pace. Time will tell.
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