Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Still Going Strong: James Kudelka's Swan Lake, Christopher House's Eleven Accords and Margie Gillis' The Light Between

James Kudelka's Swan Lake (photo by David Cooper)

Dance in Toronto is experiencing a senior moment – but not in the sense of premature forgetfulness. Rather, the reappearance of seasoned dancers and choreographers on the local stage in recent weeks seems more about making sure some of the country’s more senior dance artists are, instead, not forgotten. They include Christopher House, the 58-year old artistic director of Toronto Dance Theatre whose latest work, the Steve Reich-inspired Eleven Accords, commemorates his 20th anniversary at the helm of the city’s leading modern dance company; Margie Gillis, the 60-year old Montreal dancer and choreographer who is celebrating her 40 years on the stage with a national tour that touched down at Toronto’s Fleck Dance Theatre last week, and, across town at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, 58-year old James Kudelka with a remount of his 1999 version of Swan Lake as performed by the National Ballet of Canada.

These seasoned dancesmiths, much like the aging rock stars who are also proliferating around us, are refusing to retire. But in their case (unlike Steven Tyler’s) that’s so far a good thing. Kudelka, for instance, is still going strong. Later this week he will unveil the world premiere of his newest ballet, … black night’s bright day …, set to Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater, as part of the Innovation program of new Canadian dance which the National Ballet is presenting as part of its ongoing fall season in Toronto. Judgment of that work is necessarily deferred until after the Nov. 22 opening. But for now suffice it to say the internationally recognized Canadian choreographer appears to making his comeback boldly after toying with the idea of becoming a baker of bread following his abrupt 2005 departure from the National Ballet where, for nine years, he had been its controversial artistic director.

James Kudelka
Much of that controversy stemmed from Kudelka’s own production of Swan Lake, a darkly original interpretation of Tchaikovsky’s original 1877 score (subsequently revised in 1895), furnishing it with lavish sets and costumes by Santo Loquasto, filmmaker Woody Allen’s frequent collaborator. Loquasto’s sumptuously fabulous costumes, including a massive twin testicles-shaped headpiece for the Queen and a sparkling black Brando-esque muscle suit for Rothbart, helped push the production’s price tag past the $2-million mark. After the ballerina Kimberly Glasco questioned the wisdom of the expenditure, during a time of a severe budget cuts which included dancer lay-offs, the company fired her in late 1998, resulting in a protracted and messy wrongful dismissal suit which ended up costing the National Ballet in the millions. This was the stormy backdrop to the premiere of the ballet in May of 1999, which, admittedly, was often hard to view on its own terms given the explosive events of the day. Now, some 14 years later, the National Ballet has a new artistic director Karen Kain in place and many of the leading roles in Swan Lake are now being performed by a new generation of dancers. The production, originally presented in an old theatre today known as the Sony Centre, is this time around staged in a new theatre with better sight lines. Kudelka’s Swan Lake is much better served by these improved conditions.

It has more breathing room, for one thing, allowing the dazzling abstract patternings of swans which Kudelka has uniquely devised for both the white and black acts to really shine through. It is also infinitely better danced, for another. Stand-out performances from the week-long run, which concluded at the Four Seasons Centre on Sunday, included the frail looking but technically solid principal dancer Sonia Rodriguez in the dual role of Odette/Odile who danced alongside partner Piotr Stanczyk making a stellar debut in the male lead role of Prince Siegfried. Greta Hodgkinson was one of three other ballerinas who alternated in the feathery female lead (the others were Xiao Nan Yu and Heather Ogden partnered, respectively, by McGee Maddox and Guillaume Côté) and while she danced in the original 1999 production this time around her performance was hugely elevated by her partner, the guest artist Matthew Golding. A native of Saskatchewan who is a principal dancer with the Dutch National Ballet, a company he will abandon when he joins London’s Royal Ballet in the new year, Golding is an elegant dancer with a regal bearing and an assured and attentive way of presenting his ballerina. Together with Hodgkinson, he managed to make Swan Lake feel genuinely emotional and dramatically riveting.

James Kudelka's Swan Lake

This was no mean feat. Kudelka’s Swan Lake, for all its showcasing of brilliant dancing (and here let’s also mention James Leja and Jonathan Renna as Rothbart; Jordana Daumec and Stephanie Hutchinson as the Wench, Elena Lobsanova and Chelsey Meiss as the Russian Princess, Tiffany Mosher and Tanya Howard as the Spanish Princess and Shino Mori as the Italian Princess) remains a problematic reinterpretation of the 19th century classic. Overall, it is emotionally hollow, a result of Kudelka having cut away the gravitas traditionally surrounding Siegfried, leaving him to appear directionless and unmotivated, a mere pawn in the existential drama being orchestrated by the evil magician, Rothbart. In Kudelka’s Swan Lake it is not clear at all if Siegfried even falls in love with the Swan Queen as is made more obvious in other productions. Certainly, he is cowed by his mother, the Queen, and hemmed in by Rothbart, an avenging angel type of figure who is hellbent on destroying him, and the medieval kingdom he represents. As to why, no one knows. It is also unclear if the Swan Queen in turn loves the Prince, who in other versions is meant to be her key to freedom. She also has little in the way of personality in this ballet. She is a trapped bird with undulating arms, nothing more or less. Kudelka’s focus, ultimately, appears to be on theme more than character. He is intent in showing a black and white world, literally and figuratively. He succeeds by creating a darkly lit (Robert Thomson is the lighting designer) production where the pristine brilliance of the Swan Queen is like the light in the dark. But is she representing innocence? Certainly she is a victim of Rothbart’s malevolent magic. But so is Siegfried, significantly also clothed in a costume that is mostly white. There are other challenges: Kudelka takes liberties with the Tchaikovsky score, moving whole segments around. He features a gang-bang in the first act, a drowning in the final one. There are no happy endings here, no fairytale dreams come true. This is a harsh but singular vision. If nothing else, Kudelka has taken an old ballet and spun it in a new direction. Liking it or not is, of course, largely a matter of personal taste.

Margie Gillis' The Light Between (photo by Michael Slobodian)
Eleven Accords, on the other hand, is a far less ambiguous affair. Those who like minimalist American composer Steve Reich will no doubt love Eleven Accords as it is almost note-by-note a danced version of Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians. House created the choreography in concert with his company dancers and the result is a multi-patterned and many-layered piece of rolling, running non-stop dance that is whisked forward and back by the repeating patterns in Reich’s musical masterpiece. Cheryl Lalonde’s costumes of sweat pants and tanks shirts ensures that the moving is easy. Adding drama is the suspended set design consisting of varied lengths of white panels layered over each other to create a sense of visual depth. The different parts of the dance, synched to subtle shifts in the music, are marked by the set moving one layer at a time, either up or down. Otherwise, the visual interest lies with the dancers who pile upon each other like blocks of Lego, or else hurtle themselves into the sky like human torpedoes. It is exhilarating to watch, even as the Reich music, with its tumbling patterns, lulls the senses, inducing an almost trance-like quality in the listening.

The Light Between, the 55-minute work Margie Gillis created in association with her fellow Margie Gillis Dance Foundation members Marc Daigle, Paola Styron and Holly Bright, intentionally invited an exploration of trance-like states. The relationship between waking and sleeping, life and death, formed the focus of a piece in which three figures – Daigle, Styron and Gillis  embody the life force and the one that follows in a kind of hereafter that on stage is an environment made from cut-out replicas of human hands and panels covered with French and English script inviting the heart to rest awhile, and greet eternity. The work is a metaphysical journey. But there is plenty of the physical in it to make it a gorgeous experience for fans of Gillis’ visceral and confessional style of dancing. At 60, she is more solid looking than she was when she first started dancing 40 years ago, more of a sculptural, Picasso-esque presence than the emotionally exposed waif of old. This is what has makes her a seasoned dance artist to watch. Gillis knows how to make a simple gesture, such as a turn of the wrist, have the richness and depth of a John Donne poem. She makes dancing into the afterworld an invitation not to refuse.

– Deirdre Kelly is a journalist (The Globe and Mail) and internationally recognized dance critic. Her first book, Paris Times Eight, is a national best-seller. Her new book, Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, is published by Greystone Books (D&M Books). Visit Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfectionand Paris Times Eight on Facebook, and check out www.deirdrekelly.com for more book updates. On Nov 28, Ballerina will be the focus of an author's talk and signing at the Collingwood Public library in Collingwood, ON starting at 7pm.

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