Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Taking Wing: The Seagull at the National Ballet of Canada

Sonia Rodriguez and Guillaume Côté in The Seagull. Photo by Bruce Zinger.

Think of The Seagull and the fowl metaphors immediately take flight. So let’s just give into them in describing a ballet that soars as a result of choreography that wings through time and dancers who so completely inhabit their characters they end up nesting inside the imagination, hatching ideas, feelings, and all sorts of artistic pleasure: A rare and beautiful bird.

Although I have not seen a fraction of the more than 200 ballets that the American-born choreographer John Neumeier has created since becoming director of the Hamburg Ballet in 1973,  I think this full-evening, two-act work has to count as among his best works.

Originally created for his German dance troupe in 2002, and revised for performances this month in Toronto as part of the National Ballet of Canada’s spring residency at The Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, The Seagull represents a breadth of dance knowledge that can only have come from a lifetime of experience and devotion to the art of ballet. In addition to being an internationally acclaimed and award-winning dancesmith, Neumeier is a committed dance connoisseur and conservator with an immense personal collection of ballet-related memorabilia crowding his Hamburg villa. His interest in ballet spans the ages (with a special focus on Vaslav Nijinksy) and it has informed his approach to The Seagull, a work layered with references to some of the great personalities and meaningful episodes in ballet’s past.

Rodriguez and Aleksandar Antonijevic. Photo by Bruce Zinger
The choreography represents a true post-modern pastiche of diverse and eclectic styles, from classical and Romantic, to Soviet-era constructivism and 1920s cabaret. The accompanying music is equally (and skilfully) miscellaneous: Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky combined with Scriabin and the contemporary Scottish-born percussionist Evelyn Glennie. Neumeier did the set design consisting of a makeshift wooden stage on the grounds of a country estate in the first act, and the expressionistic interior of a Moscow night club in the second. He also designed the costumes which run the gamut from tailored suits to bikini shorts and froufrou gowns trimmed with feathers. But as well as being a pastiche of various styles and traditions, the choreography is also idiosyncratically imagistic: the dancers often bend their arms and wrists to resemble the wings of a bird; they perch on the backs of partners to look as if poised for flight. At the beginning of the ballet, one of the main characters folds a piece of white paper, origami-like, into the shape of a bird; throughout the work other characters pick it up (it is always somewhere on the stage) and it serves as a constant and tangible motif symbolizing the artistic impulse, the desire for freedom through art.

It might sound ponderous, all these references to art and history, but in essence The Seagull is a human comedy, frequently laugh-out-loud funny. In The Seagull is a ballet within the ballet, Death of the Seagull, a wickedly funny parody of dying-bird ballets that have come before in the history of dance, from Swan Lake to The Dying Swan. The ballerina here performs it deadpan in a swoon, arms aflutter and brow carefully knit into a melodramatic frown; her partner leaps around her panther-like in a leopard skin: it is great satire and a comedic tour-de-force.

You might need to know the references to be able to laugh at them. Judging from some of the tepid applause (and sparse attendance) that greeted The Seagull’s March 21st opening in Toronto, it might be safe to say that many in the house didn’t readily get all the jokes. Yet, even those with no knowledge of ballet history could appreciate the high degree of inventiveness with which the now 70-year-old Neumeier has applied to this ballet. While a ballet in the narrative tradition of John Cranko and Antony Tudor, it stands out from the rest in using inventive movement sequences, and not mime, to create characters of emotional richness and communicate a story. As such, this 21st century creation realizes at long last a goal expressed by 18th century ballet reformer Jean-Georges Noverre in asking that movement to be its own message, moving an audience emotionally with dancing, not over-dramatized gestures. It is what gives The Seagull its freshness.

While inspired by the Anton Chekhov play of the same name, The Seagull is in no way a slavish adaptation. In fact, audience hoping to see Chekhov translated into dance might come away disappointed. This is its own work. Its originality lies in its being a distillation of the emotional truths Chekhov funnelled into his drama depicting an assortment of characters in 19th century Russia, all of whom, in different ways, are disenchanted with their lives. Neumeier here maintains the malaise but transfers it to the world of the ballet where the characters, while still Russian-flavoured, are mostly dance-inspired: the fading prima ballerina, Arkadina, is modelled after Pavlova; her lover, the choreographer-dancer Trigorin (his womanizing tendencies) and her experimental artist son, Kostya (his stripped-down, machine-like ballets) are inspired by the late Russian choreographer, George Balanchine; Nina, the aspiring dancer, is more a 20th-century everywoman, in pursuit of a career, thwarted by love, and ultimately disillusioned by the belief that she could have it all.

Choreographer John Neumeier
The conflict that arises between dance and desire is what Neumeier in his program notes identifies as his central theme: “the relationship between love and art – art and love.” He elaborates, asking rhetorically, “What does it mean to be in love? What does it mean to be an artist? What does it mean to be an artist who is in love? What does it mean to be someone who loves to be an artist?” These ideas preoccupy Neumeier and he gives them expression through a complex weave of secondary characters and sub-plots that mirror and amplify the main idea. All the characters are intertwined by way of the heart strings, making The Seagull appear on the surface like a French farce, teeming with love complications and potential and actualized ménage-a-trois. This Rubik’s cube of puzzling love situations is presented playfully in the program where photographs of the dancers playing the characters are connected to each other with arrows showing who loves whom.

Often, in a dance-drama, having more than one person love the same person results in tears or daggers (Neumeier’s 1972 dance version of Don Juan being a case in point), but this dance-drama is more comedy than tragedy, despite the bitter-sweet ending in which love dies away or else is splintered and absorbed by that most demanding of mistresses: the art of ballet. The characters fight but just as quickly kiss and make up, as seen in the fantastically intricate duet involving Arkadina and Trigorin after she discovers his flirtatious interest in Nina. Arkadina throws her hardened pointe shoes at him and he threatens to walk; on a dime she shifts emotional direction, flinging herself at him instead and wrapping her body, clingingly around his tree-trunk legs. It evolves into a masterful pas de deux, wordlessly danced, but speaking volumes about the intensities, the frailties, and the ebb and flow of personal relationships. It is one in a series of master strokes that Neumeier uses to colour his ballet, using an emotional palette similar to that of Chekhov in the creation of the original play, a work that, like Neumeier’s ballet, is a piercing and elusive cry – the human condition in all its fragmented glory.

Helping bring out all the humour, pathos and richness of history in The Seagull were the dancers of the National Ballet of Canada who danced with commitment and feeling, making the work appear as if created for them. While the company as a whole danced compellingly, special mention goes to the leads seen on the Wednesday night: Aleksandar Antonijevic as Trigorin; Greta Hodgkinson as Arkadina; Guillaume Coté as Kostya; and, above all, Sonia Rodriguez as Nina, a role the Toronto-born ballerina seemed born to dance – its emotional nuances and hard lines fitting her like a glove. All the way through the ballet, this gifted ballerina flew and glided, pecked away at the complexities of the human heart, offering insights into the collective quest for love and personal achievement. She was by turns frail and ferocious, a true multi-hued character. Like Nina, the ballerina she was playing, Rodriguez made everyone want to fall in love with her. A bird for the keeping.

Deirdre Kelly is a journalist (The Globe and Mail) and internationally recognized dance critic. She is also the author of the national best-selling memoir, Paris Times Eight (Greystone Books/Douglas & McIntyre). Visit her website for more information, Her next book, Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, comes out later this year.

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