Wednesday, December 26, 2012

From Ballet to Bharatanatyam: Dance in Toronto Breaks New Ground in 2012

Piotr Stanczyk in Hamlet at the National Ballet of Canada (Photo: Corbin Smith)

With the Mayan calendar predicting the end of the world, 2012 was a year tinged with doomsday prophecies if not apocalyptic visions. But in dance, the zeitgeist was reversed. Instead of calling it quits, artists whose métier is choreographed movement instead ushered in a new era of renewal, presenting dance pieces that pushed forward into new directions. This feeling of regeneration was wide-spread, affecting a diversity of genre from ballet in the West to bharatanatyam in the East, all traditions re-considered and re-calibrated to make them more relevant and reflective of the times. Accepted notions of beauty were also re-investigated and re-invigorated, with some dance artists exploring the beast within as a way of unbalancing the audience, stripping away complacency, in presenting dance as a conduit for exploring the human condition. This transformational trend in dance was global but proponents of it reached Canada as a result of inspired artistic directors at the helm of the country’s leading and experimental dance troupes. looking to rejuvenate the domestic dance scene with work signalling, if not the end of dance as we have come to know it, then certainly its rebirth. Among them was Karen Kain who, as head of the National Ballet of Canada, this year ushered in the North American premiere of Hamlet by Ballett Mannheim artistic director Kevin O’Day – a dark and difficult and occasionally obtuse work that pushed both the ballet dancers and their audience members to the far-most edges of their comfort zone. For that, Canada’s former prima ballerina needs to be applauded. In adding non-traditional ballets to her company’s roster, Kain is helping to strengthen the dramatic, emotional and technical range of her dancers. Composer John King's electro score is largely improvised, forcing the dancers constantly to be on edge. No two performances are alike as a result of the dancers having to adapt the choreography to suit the music on a given night. There's nothing safe or predictable about it, for neither spectator or performer. And yet the NBOC took to it well, seamlessly holding together the fragments. Dancers include principal dancer Piotr Stanczyk, alternating with Guillaume Côté and Naoya Ebe in the eponymous role of the Shakespearean prince immobilized by analyzing situations he instead needed to act upon, performed acrobatic stunts on one hand but also soft shoe shuffles as part of his character’s schizophrenic relationship with both himself and his dysfunctional society. Stancyzk’s Ophelia was Sonia Rodriguez. 2012 was Rodriguez’s season to shine. Besides garnering standing ovations for her role in Hamlet, the wife of Canadian figure skater Kurt Browning, a working mother of two, went from strength to strength in the company’s revival of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in which she played the female lead. She rounded out the season getting a star on Canada’s Walk of Fame. The ballerina is back, but as new and revitalized artist. (See also my book!)

Fellow dancer Aleksandar Antonijevic, who as Lewis Carroll/the White Rabbit danced opposite Rodriguez in Alice at Toronto's Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, also had a stellar year. 2012 marked his 20th anniversary with the country's largest classical dance troupe and Kain honoured his request to mark the occasion with a rare performance of Maurice Béjart's Songs of a Wayfarer, originally created on Rudolf Nureyev in 1971.

The now 43-year old dancer performed this poignant male duet – a study in emotional opposites – with Piotr Stanczyk, and it was one of the performances of the year. Antonijevic danced the role in blue, a character observed to be more idealistic, carefree, naïve and buoyant (as the sea) than his more worldly-wise, dressed in (earthy) red doppelgänger, and he invested the role with every ounce of his being, making this less-than-20-minute modern ballet personality study read as philosophically  read, existentially  as a Samuel Beckett play. If this was intended as Antonijevic's swan song however it missed the mark. The dancer who is now more than a decade past the average age of retirement for dancers – 29, according to latest research – shows no signs of retiring yet. His performance in Wayfarer in addition to more roles this season (with more still to come) show him rather to be at his peak of his powers. As one of Canada's leading male dancers, Antonijevic has reinvented himself as a mature artist, definitely one still to watch.

Tyler Gledhill and Danielle Baskerville in Paris1994/Gallery (Photo: Jeremy Mimnagh)

If he had a rival in terms of sheer commitment this year, it was fellow ballet dancer Tyler Gledhill, revising his Dora-nominated role as one of the lovers in D. A. Hoskins's riveting multi-media memory play, Paris1994/Gallery. Originally created in 2002 for The Dietrich Group, the 65-minute dance theatre piece was remounted in the spring for Harbourfront's World Stage series. Gledhill, who trained at the National Ballet School, was one of the work's original dancers and he danced again opposite the Botticelli-esque Danielle Baskerville (also seen this season in Toronto Dance Theatre's accomplished revival of Patricia Beatty's Against Sleep, another 2012 highlight), delivering a raw performance  and literally so considering that at one point he tears all his clothes off to dance in the nude. Far from prurient, Gledhill's nudity underscored the physical potency of Paris1994/Gallery, a work recalling a love affair within an art gallery setting. Memory, an internalised act, is here represented as an artistic construct, artificial and highly subjective. But as one of those caught in the process of remembering, Gledhill, a tall, broad shoulder masculine dancer with a graceful touch, was by contrast touchingly real. By being unafraid to expose himself – all of himself  he gave this dance its startling honesty, and depth.

On the opposite end of the dance spectrum was Sampradaya Dance Creation’s eclectic show of new Indian dance, presented in November at the EnWave Theatre as part of Harbourfront Centre’s Next Steps. Called Alchemy, a word denoting the change of one thing into another, the program showed centuries-old classical Indian dance transitioning into a startling and freshly articulated current art form. Of the six works presented, four constituted a striking series of solos created for the British-based South Asian dance phenomenon, dancer Aakash Odedra, by some of the world’s leading contemporary choreographers, among them London’s Akram Khan (who contributed "In the Shadow of Man"), Ottawa-born Russell Maliphant (who created Cut) and the Belgium-based Sidi Lardi Cherkaoui (choreographer of "Constellation"). Odedra, 28, also contributed a dance of his own called "Nittra", an amalgamation of his training in the gestural bharatanatyam and the foot-stomping kathak Indian dance forms, which opened the show. The sense that Indian dance is undergoing a revolution was instantly apparent: performing cat-like leaps and whisper-like dervishes, with his lanky but technically compact body, Odedra looked like a coil of tightly braided rope endlessly weaving and winding through choreography attempting to harness itself to his slow-burning, matter-altering energy.

Aakash Odedra in Alchemy, "Constellation" (Photo: David Hou)
At least two of the choreographers who created works on him explored this protean quality of his dancing. Khan’s "In the Shadow of Man" compels the dancer to assume a position on all fours, on the ground, as if he were an animal trapped in a man’s body. Through a series of contorted and spastic gestures that bend the limbs and the torso in unusual, deliberately unbeautiful shapes, the visual distortion amplified by a cacophony of grunts and howls, Odedra is a dancer re-born – from grace to growl. The transformation is electric and powerful to behold. In "Cut", Maliphant attempts to freeze frame the dancer’s mercurial tendencies, using a brilliant lighting design by Michael Hulls to showcase Odedra’s sinewy body and technique in alternate states of shadow and light. The light bars cut or chisel the movement in startling new ways, showing it simultaneously recessed and foregrounded. These perspective shifts are definitely indicative of South Asian dance tracing new ground these days. But while re-imagined, Indian dance as performed by Odedra maintains something of a narrative quality, even when the piece being performed as an inner monologue as in the case of Cherkaoui’s "Constellation", a dance that has Odedra undulating and turning amid more than a dozen dangling light bulbs, as if he were the moon and they were the stars, an quietly self-reflective orb travelling through space.

Originally, these four pieces debuted in London last year as part of an evening-length show called Rising, a title suggesting both the meteoric direction of the dancer and the overall temperature of the new age Indian-inflected choreography. Pada’s idea was to take that original show and use it as the anchor for her own to which she then added two additional pieces: "Bridges", a world premiere by Canada’s Natasha Bakht (a protégée of the esteemed Toronto-based bhartanatyam dancer Menaka Thakkar) expertly linking ancient dance forms and contemporary female experience, and "Stealth" by Santosh Nair, of India’s Sadya contemporary dance troupe. Nair works in chau-based choreography, a type of ancient Indian martial art, and his work is consequently highly kinetic and physically robust. Performed by five men and women of Sadya – including the seasoned Nair looking every inch the master – "Stealth" is a mixture of opposing forces; male/female; aggression/stillness; aerial/earth. Bakht’s piece also juxtaposes slow and fast, smooth and frenetic movement passages to create both texture and dynamic but does so within a loosely suggested narrative framework. Her work seemed in retrospect opera-esque, with the movement telling a story of personal transition in a world where tradition and new ways of doing things don’t collide as much as cleave together in forming a new, if not strengthened direction into the future.

– 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, has just been published by Greystone Books (D&M Books). Visit Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection and Paris Times Eight on Facebook, and check out for more book updates

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