Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Setting the Barre High: Ballet Jörgen's Swan Lake

Ballet Jörgen's Swan Lake (Photo: Kevin Vagg)
Bengt Jörgen has done a good thing. His new production of Swan Lake represents a breakthrough for his tiny Ballet Jörgen classical dance company, this year celebrating its 25th anniversary. The story, presenting some novel twists on the original 19th century plot involving a maiden transformed at night into a swan, flows seamlessly from start to finish. The choreography – using a traditional vocabulary stripped of pretence to allow for heightened clarity of movement – simply sparkles. By tackling Swan Lake – the soufflé of the ballet world – the Swedish-born ex National Ballet of Canada dancer shows with justifiable pride just how far his Toronto-based troupe has progressed since its origins in 1987 as an outlet for his dance-making talents.

Jörgen’s economically minded production – 23 dancers as opposed to more than double the bodies that usually make up a ballet company – benefits not just his Toronto-based dance troupe, the small ballet company that could, but also Canada as a whole, at least where classical dance is concerned. 
Featuring a multitasking set design by Cammelia Koo, and no-frill white Swan costumes by Robert Doyle, this Swan Lake is meant to continue that company tradition. It has been designed to travel. In November, the company launches a gruelling cross-Canada tour that will take Swan Lake to both major and minor cities across the country for the rest of this year, and well into next. (Go to for the touring schedule.) Jörgen’s version of the dance classic is the one many Canadians will now be exposed to – another good thing.

Ballet Jörgen has long taken pride in bringing classical dance to communities where larger ballet companies can no longer afford to travel. Over the past 25 years, the Toronto-based troupe has performed in more than 200 communities across the country before as many as 40,000 people. As such, his company is the Great White Hope of Canadian ballet – now literally so with a ballet blanc like Swan Lake – in that it is today one of the few companies committed to bringing ballet to the masses.

Bengt Jörgen 
Significantly, the late September 2012 world premiere was not in a major dance centre like Toronto (that debut performance will follow later in March), but north of the metropolis in the commuter city of Markham where Swan Lake’s debut was greeted as a celebratory affair. The theatre was packed. Prominent members of local government and businesses participated in the opening night performance which coincided with the renaming of the venue to Flato Markham Theatre in recognition of FLATO Developments, which had donated $1-million as part of a recent fund-raising campaign. 

Behind the scenes of the ribbon cutting ceremony and speeches by Markham mayor Frank Scarpitti, the ballet dancers nervously did a last minute run-through of their steps. This was one of those make ‘em or break ‘em moments. They were dancing to canned music (Ballet Jörgen is small and budget sensitive) and so there would be no room for error. Relying on opening night jitters was no excuse for a misstep.

But as soon the curtain rose on the mellifluous strains of Tchaikovsky’s memorable score there was a collective sigh, of not just relief but genuine awe. The ballet began, unusually, with a young woman strolling alone while smelling a bouquet of roses while behind her, lurking in the shadows, was the wizard Von Rothbart, masked to resemble a wolf or some other sinister creature born of the world of fairy tales. Von Rothbart soon after overtook her, casting a spell by which she would be turned into a swan, and forced to do his bidding. In most other versions, the Swan Queen is just there, no explanation. So this opening was novel, and showed Jörgen truly rethinking the ballet in ways that make it accessible to a general audience. The rest of the story of how a Prince comes to fall in love with her while out hunting when he is supposed to be seeking a wife is more familiar to audiences who have grown up on Swan Lake. But again, Jörgen made changes in the narrative to make it more comprehensible if not believable.  Instead of the Prince having a friend, in this version he acts alone, stumbling blindly into his own destiny as it were. Instead of a solemn parading of would-be brides, the atmosphere is jolly and intimate; the women are the Prince’s peers at court and they interact with him, sometimes comically, adding a much-needed note of mirth to a ballet too often treated as a scared text not to be tampered with.

Ballet Jörgen's Swan Lake (Photo: Kevin Vagg)
The dancers pulled it all off with tremendous aplomb and poise even while dancing their hearts out. This was an ensemble of dancers, some doubling in both major and minor parts, further emphasizing the democratic tendencies of the company as a whole. Even Jörgen, the troupe’s artistic director as well as its choreographer was in on the act, posing in a tricorne hat and silk breeches as the Prince’s scolding Tutor. Thanks to principal coach Svea Eklof, formerly principal dancer of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet who has amassed as many Swan Lakes as pointe shoes during her time on the stage, each dancer was well rehearsed to the point that the uniformity of line and musical expression for which Swan Lake is world famous was all there – despite the small cast size.

Augmenting the numbers were two ballet imports brought in to perform Swan Lake for the Markham premiere. They came from no less an international ballet centre than Russia, where Swan Lake originated in 1872 (with a remake following in 1895) as a collaboration between Tchaikovsky and Imperial Theatre choreographers Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov, the latter the creator of the legendary lakeside scenes. The Tashkent-born, Moscow-trained award-winning ballerina Saniya Abilmajineva danced the lead dual role of Odette-Odile, the White Swan/Black Swan combo which gives Swan Lake its good girl/bad girl sexual frisson and dramatic tension. Partnering her in the role of Prince Siegfried was Grigory Popov, a medal-winning dancer with the Mariinsky (formerly Kirov) Ballet in St. Petersburg.

Saniya Abilmajineva & Grigory Popov
Both trained in the Russian school, a style of dancing stressing fluidity through the entire body with an accent on high jumps and precision-cut extensions, Abilmajineva and Popov were beautifully paired, each complimenting the other in terms of buoyancy, clarity of technique and musicality. They were a joy to behold and largely because, while beautiful dancers, there was nothing of the diva about them. They danced from the soul, imparting the choreography with a generosity of spirit that was infectious. The barre, you could say, had been set high. Certainly the Canadian dancers rose to the occasion. What they might have lacked in terms of the crystalline training of the Russians, they more than made up for in terms of enthusiasm and sheer commitment to dancing. Standouts from the ensemble included Daniel Da Silva, Cristina Graziano and Taylor Gill performing the Pas de Trois; Gustavo Hernandez in the role of the Jester; Justine Fraser who danced the Neopolitan and the Mazurka Dancers: Kanae Akatsuka, Eleanor Bull, Levi Blad, Gabriel Ritzmann and Kealan McLaughlin.

Special mention also goes to Hiroto Saito for his miming skills in making the masked and demonic Von Rothbart loom menacingly large. If any names have been left out, know that there will be a next time. Ballet Jörgen is only just starting to spread its wings. Here’s to the next 25 years.

– 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. Deirdre will be reading from her new book, Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, at Books on Beechwood in Ottawa, on Oct. 20, and at the L. E. Shore Library in Thornbury, Ont., on Oct. 28. Check their websites for details.

1 comment:

  1. I attended that evening - my first ballet other than Nutcracker so many years ago. Beautiful. I will go to many more. The review above is quite accurate. Lots of excitement concerning it being a premiere and the added changes from the original, which were helpful to me. The leads were superb and the enthusiasm among the others was obvious. Jack Heath, Deputy Mayor of Markham Ontario