Tuesday, June 25, 2013

A Thing of Wonder: National Ballet of Canada Mixed Program

The National Ballet of Canada performing George Balanchine's Theme and Variations.

It’s not every day you get a news hook attached to your dance review. But here you go, and hot off the presses: National Ballet of Canada principal dancer Guillaume Côté has just been appointed to the newly created position of choreographic associate, the company announced Sunday following the final performance of his No. 24, an eight-minute pas de deux performed to a live accompaniment of Niccoló Paganini’s virtuosic violin solo, Caprice 24.

No. 24, which was performed by three separate casts over a five-day run, was one of three works on the Mixed Program which opened last week at Toronto’s Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts. The other works were Jorma Elo’s Pur Ti Miro, a revival of the work which the Finnish choreographer first created on the National Ballet dancers in 2010; James Kudelka’s decidedly unballetic but indisputably powerful The Man in Black, inspired by an unusual series of hurtin’ songs by the late Johnny Cash; and, for the glittering finalé (and that is meant literally given the the abundance of faux diamonds which lent sparkle to the ballerinas’ necks and ear lobes), George Balanchine’s 1947 neo-classical masterpiece, Theme and Variations.

All four works were united by their exploration of the relationship between dance and music, in particular how music inspires the choreographic process. A secondary theme, and equally compelling, was the role of partnering, and how varied it can be within a given context. In Pur Ti Miro, dancers rolled off others’ backs; in The Man in Black, one dancer was dragged on his belly across the floor as he clung slavishly to a pair of hard-strutting cowboy boots. In Theme and Variations, Balanchine’s plotless homage to Imperial Russia, the dancers nobly complemented each other’s’ balletic line. In No. 24, they broke that line, making it swing and pull and collapse in on itself, as the dancers yanked this way and that as part of the ride. So much contrast and possibility made for a thrilling program of dance.

Dancer and choreographer Guillaume Côté
Côté danced Theme and Variations opening and closing night, the latter alongside his ballerina wife, the beautiful British Columbia born principal dancer, Heather Ogden. He was strong and supple, elegant and proud, a commanding dancer in total command of his dancing material. It was absolutely thrilling watching Côté, especially when he had his wife in his arms. He danced magnificently on opening night opposite Greta Hodgkinson, as well. But the chemistry he shares with his intimate fuelled the performance just that much more into the stratosphere of wow. His timing was impeccable, his devouring of space voracious, his line deliciously elongated and his partnering ultra-assured. He appeared to inhabit completely the ebb and flow of the Tchaikovsky score, riding it like a surfer who trusts that his technique will not fail him even as he risks jumping headlong into the cresting energy driving him forward. Ogden was happy to keep up with him, rising effortlessly up on her pointes and holding her balances as if they were carved of marble. She was clearly infected by her husband’s enthusiasm, and danced with as much abandon as a rigorously classical work like Theme and Variations would allow. The dancers were celebrating the dance, but also each other, their own particular skill set, the way they complement each other  he injecting emotion in the movement, she sleek as a mink. But there is no doubt they were also high on Côté having scored a great success throughout the week with No. 24.

Having No. 24 enter the National Ballet’s repertoire represented a major coup for him, given that it was one of the first works he ever choreographed. It was originally conceived three years ago as an experiment of sorts for the company’s annual Choreographic Workshop. In a pre-show interview the musically inclined Côté (six years of classical piano, guitar and a year of composition at the Royal Conservatory of Music and an adolescence at Canada’s National Ballet School playing electric guitar and singing in a rock band, if you want to know) said that he wanted to create a dance that would mirror the skill and dexterity of the Paganini Caprice, pushing the dancers as much as possible to their physical limits. He had created it first on two company dancers, principal dancer Aleksandar Antonijević and first soloist Elena Lobsanova, and in flat shoes and black bikini trunks and simple black leotard, respectively. The movement vocabulary, while rooted in the classical tradition, is also invigoratingly experimental. The dancers doodle with their arms. They crane their necks upwards and pretzel around each other when their slinky, constantly moving bodies draw close. But there is now a distinctive change.

The woman now dances in pointe shoes which emphasize the work’s classical pedigree at the same time as giving it a hardened, stabbing edge. There are also new players. For the week of performances just passed, the aptly named Benjamin Bowman was consistently the violinist. Slicing through the devilishly tricky Paganini score with the rapier sharpness of his bow, he performed live on stage next to the dancers for all six performances, serving as both a visual counterpart and an audible inspiration to the movement taking place in front of Jeff Logue’s starkly dramatic lighting design, consisting of low-lying track of hot white horizontal lighting panels. The dancers were more the changing element. This time around, the razor-sharp Antonijević danced with Hodgkinson, while Lobsanova danced with the marvellous Keichi Hirano. Corps de ballet dancers Brendan Saye and Kathryn Hosier were plucked by Côté from ballet’s version of obscurity to shine in the spotlight at the Saturday matinee, and they more than held their own compared to the other senior dancers. Saye and Hosier, both in their early 20s, lent the work a super-plastic quality, thanks in large part to their long limbs and youthful determination. Antonijevic and Hodgkinson took a more nuanced approach, managing to imbue their abstract gestures with a weighty sense of emotional drama. Lobsanova is a graceful, pretty dancer and her feminine qualities were highlighted through contrast by Hirano’s superb athleticism and attack. Through them, it was possible to see the yin-yang of the dance. No. 24 was a 10, so much so it motivated artistic director Karen Kain to create the position of choreographer associate for Côté. Obviously, more is expected of him and clearly he will deliver.

Brett van Sickle and Sarah Elena Wolff in Pur Ti Miro. (Photo: Bruce Zinger)

Pur Ti Miro, which opened the two-hour plus program, is an engaging and delightful work set to two musical works by Ludwig von Beethovan – Consecration of the House Overture, Op. 124 and Violin Concerto in D, Op. 61 – and, sandwiched in between, the gorgeous Pur Ti Miro (I Gaze at You) duet from the finalé of Claudio Monteverde’s opera, L’Incoronazione di Poppea. The Monteverde piece was performed by The National Ballet of Canada Orchestra, under the baton of music director David Briskin, with guest artists, soprano Sasha Dijihanian and mezzo soprano Danielle MacMillan, singing. The solo violinist for Beethovan’s Op. 124 was Naha Greenholtz, and she was superb. A line-up of such stellar music and musicianship might suggest that the ballet accompanying it was reverent and polite, lofty even. But Elo, one of the hottest names in international choreography right now, does the opposite. His 30-minute ballet is playful, subversive, subtly comical and surreal. Elo encourages his 10 dancers – five women and five men – to take a romp through the music as if it were a field of flowers and they wild horses that whinny and kick.

Masterfully lit by John Cuff and without any sets (the choreography is visual enough), the ballet is very ballet, at least at first glance: starchy gold tutus, men in cling-on tights, everyone decorously smiling and pointing their toes, even curtsying to each other in a show of obeisance. And yet the curtsy comes with a flick of the fingers from below the chin, and the feet flex and the smiles become pantomimed expressions of mock surprise, as in a game of charades. What starts out strictly classical soon becomes a game of anything goes: running on the spot, shadow boxing, rubber necking. Elo here wills the dancers to break out of the straight jacket of the classical tradition but without quite tearing it apart. The classical idioms are all there but teased out and hooked onto contemporary movement traditions, including acrobatics. It's ballet but all mixed up -- extended into new athletic territory. Dancers couronne their arms overhead and pull them sharply backwards to flutter like hummingbird wings at the base of their backs. They execute barrel rolls standing up and extend that aerial quality into light-as-air promenades that float on the sublimity of the Beethoven score.

Five couples, male and female, are showcased, and their partnerships unfold irregularly as duets, trios and dances of four and five at a time. Over-layered are larger ensemble pieces in which the dancers go full throttle across the stage, pedal to the metal. It’s all so lightning fast and technically complex that a couple of times on opening night bodies threatened to spin out of control. But the dancers had quick reflexes – they had to have for this piece – and spills to the floor were quickly averted. A round of applause to Tanya Howard, Jiři Jelinek, Chelsy Meiss, Naoya Ebe, Robert Stephen, Jenna Savella, Alexandra MacDonald, Stephanie Hutchison, Jonathan Renna, McGee Maddox and also to Brett van Sickle and Sarah Elena Wolff performing with grace, elegance and panache on alternate nights. This ballet belongs to you. That much is obvious. By encouraging the dancers to brighten his idiosyncratic work with flashes of uninhibited personality, Elo pays homage to their particular gifts, their uniqueness as hyper flexible, super virtuosic dance artists. Nearly three years after first creating it for the National Ballet, Pur Ti Miro remains a love letter to the very people animating its complexities. With this triumphant work Elo refocuses attention on the dancers, presenting them as extraordinary creatures who work so hard and dance even harder in making the art of ballet a thing of wonder, astonishing to behold.

James Kudelka's The Man in Black
Some of these same dancers performed in Kudelka’s The Man in Black, a truly great piece by a Canadian ballet choreographer who often gives the impression he’d rather be pursuing his dancing ideas elsewhere. This work is no exception. While created from BalletMet Columbus, an regional American ballet company which gave the work its world premiere in April of 2010, there is nothing really ballet about it. The work – for four dancers three men and lone woman – is danced in cowboy boots, jeans, plaid shirts and, for the woman, a fringed red skirt (costume designs by Canadian design duo Hoax Couture). Trad A. Burns created the mottled lighting design. The vocabulary borrows more from modern dance and Western line dancing than it does the classical tradition. The six Johnny Cash songs – all covers from his later career – are elegiac, mournful and nostalgic. They are sung in a rough and gravelly voice, the sound of a man in his twilight years who is reflecting through popular song on what has passed and what will soon be forever gone. The accompanying choreography is deceptively simple but builds to heart-rending climax. The piece starts with a parade of sorts, with the dancers walking quickly, silently, faces frozen in a look of suppressed emotion, in a brisk circle which repeats. But there are hints of a dynamic at work. One man looks shut out by another that would have him kept at a distance. The woman hovers between them, while the third man takes sides. The movement changes with the songs. The dancers dig their heels into the floor, marking out their emotional territory with the click-clack sound of their boots. They raise a fist, they strike each other down. They love each other. They hate each other. They cling and won’t let go. They just as readily shove their hands in their pockets. These are relationships gone awry. Think John Huston’s The Misfits but as a dance and you'll get the idea. 

On the other hand, you don’t need any prompters. The dance speaks eloquently, poignantly for itself, and on its own unique terms. The emotions run the gamut of loneliness, rejection, sorrow, anger, real pain, and suicidal lows. The dancers have a youthful swagger, virility and sexual hum that contrasts sharply with the old man heard singing on tape. It sounds like a downer, and thematically it is. But The Man in Black, a title that refers literally to Johnny Cash (it was his nickname) and also metaphorically to the spirit of chaos and destruction, is so well constructed that it emerges as one of Kudelka’s best works ever. It is his golden nugget and it shines despite its sombre subject matter. Its entry into the National Ballet’s repertoire represents the welcome return of a choreographer whose talents haven’t always gelled as well with the company as a whole. Giving the piece its ultimate boost were the dancers, in particular Piotr Stanczyk, James Leja, Robert Stephen and Rebekah Rimsay who danced the piece on opening night, with McGee Maddox, Jonathan Renna and Stephanie Hutchison alternating. With their open chests, swooping backs, and stomping feet, they carved a visceral connection with the music, and their audience. Black is their new gold.

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 www.deirdrekelly.com for more book updates.

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