François Klaus wound back the clock when he presented Queensland Ballet’s Cloudland at the 2004 Brisbane Festival. Audiences delighted in the nostalgic tribute to the post-war era of Brisbane, as Cloudland explored the themes of love and loss that centred around the city’s iconic Cloudland Ballroom.
While the name Cloudland may not ring any bells for the younger generations of Brisbane folk, for many older generations the name brings back memories of dancing the night away beneath Cloudland’s glimmering chandeliers and domed skylights.
Perched above Brisbane in the suburb of Bowen Hills stood Cloudland Ballroom. As day became night, its unique 18-metre-high parabolic arch lit up against the dark sky, beckoning the people of Brisbane to cross its thresholds to dance, to dream and to fall in love.
The dream of Cloudland was conjured up by T.H.Eslick, a renowned developer with entertainment venues such as Melbourne’s Luna Park and Sydney’s White City under his belt. In the late 1930’s Eslick set his sights on creating Brisbane’s very own Luna Park. It was to centre around “the best ballroom in the southern hemisphere.” But war loomed over Australia’s cities, and soon after Cloudland’s completion in 1940, Eslick vanished, leaving the venue deserted. The rhythm of dancing feet was instead replaced with the trampling of soldier’s boots, with the American military claiming occupancy in 1942.
After the war ended, Brisbane’s Luna Park was purchased by sisters Mya Winters and Francis Roach and in 1947, was renamed as the Cloudland Ballroom. Crowds descended on the dance floor, eager to enjoy evenings of romance and dance away the past years of war.
For nearly four decades, the Cloudland Ballroom was Brisbane’s cultural hangout, and within its walls, witnessed generations change, and with it, the music people listened to and the way people danced. Big Bands and live performances from Buddy Holly in 1958 shifted to rock-n-roll and Cold Chisel in 1981. As the years passed, maintenance of Cloudland was neglected, and the glimmering appeal of the southern hemisphere’s greatest ballroom faded. The public called for the site to be preserved, but despite their strenuous protests, on November 7, under the veil of night, the Deen Brothers took to the iconic building with excavators and sledge hammers, knocking down the walls and its once towering parabolic arch. Brisbane awoke to a pile of rubble, where once had been a place to fall in love and dance the night away.
Klaus’s Cloudland pays tribute to the memories and stories created in that ballroom. Set in the 1940s, Cloudland follows the life of a young woman, Christina, as it intertwines her destiny with that of the Brisbane icon. From thrilling swing numbers, to the final passionate Pas de Deux , this nostalgic trip down memory lane has thrilled audiences, both locally and internationally since its debut in 2004. In 2021 Queensland Ballet will breathe new life into the war-time romance when they present the final Pas de Deux from Act II of Cloudland in the 60th Anniversary Gala. During this Pas de Deux , Christina, surrounded by the wreckage of Cloudland, conjures up the spirit of her young lover, taken from her in the war. What follows is an intimate and emotional reunion of two lovers, paying homage to the countless love stories created on that dance floor.
Former QB Principal Artist, Rachael Walsh, played the role of Christina for over 10-years and has been in the studio with the QB Company Artists as they bring this delicate Pas de Deux back to life.
“In the last Pas de Deux , Christina imagines her lover returning to her in the ruins of the Cloudland Ballroom; the place where they first met, danced and fell in love before he was taken from her by the war,” said Walsh.
“Cloudland was a very special ballet, capturing the imagination of all involved, especially for the audiences that shared these memories. After each performance we would be overwhelmed with people waiting at Stage Door wishing to reminisce and share their own beautiful stories.
“Many Brisbane relationships and families were formed after eyes first met across that ballroom and a beautiful dance was shared,” Walsh added.
Walsh reminisces spending hours after each performance listening to people’s memories. Even on international tours to Germany, Switzerland and Austria, the audience connected to the nostalgia of the era and the story of war-time love and loss.
“I will never forget the many European women who shared their personal memories of WW2 with me. For me, Christina’s story is a story of many; her solo reflective journey through the ballet and through the decades, a beautiful vessel of collective memory,” said Walsh.
Accompanied by Jule Massenet’s Meditation from Thais, audiences will be captivated and moved by both the music and movement of Brisbane’s very own love story. See it performed once more by QB in the 60th Anniversary Gala opening March 5 at QPAC.
Guest Artists Hao Bin and Meng Ningning will perform the Cloudland Pas de Deux on March 7 (matinee performance), and March 12 (evening performance).
Image: Rachael Walsh and Zachary Chant photographed by Ken Sparrow