Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Harnessing the New: The National Ballet of Canada's Innovation

Innovation is the name of the program of new choreography that the National Ballet of Canada is presenting at Toronto’s Four Seasons Centre and that concludes tomorrow evening. It more than lives up to its name. Each of the four works is daringly exploratory in its use of classical dance idioms and practices, resulting in an evening of dance that is refreshingly and rewardingly new. Three of the pieces are world premières – Watershed by the Montreal-based contemporary dance choreographer José Navas, Unearth by the 22-year old National Ballet School graduate Robert Binet and ... black night’s bright day ... by Canada’s internationally acclaimed James Kudelka. Being and Nothingness (Part 1), a seven-minute solo which principal dancer and company choreographic associate Guillaume Côté created earlier in the year for Greta Hodgkinson to perform in her native Rhode Island, is a Canadian première added to the program only recently. Set to a repetitive minimalistic piano score by Philip Glass – Metamorphosis 1-V (4th Movement) as performed by Edward Connell – and danced with raw, frenetic intensity by the brilliant ballerina at its centre, Being and Nothingness (Part 1) easily fits in with the longer works on the program, all of them ensemble pieces, in that, like the others, it pushes the borders of classical dance while also testing the physical limitations of the dancer. Hodgkinson moves insect-like in the light and shadow of a single, suspended bulb. Dressed in a simple paper-white thigh-length dress by National Ballet corps de ballet dancer and budding costume designer, Krista Dowson, she rapidly rubs and whirls her hands and forearms in a worrying manner, making her existential inquiry, her uncompromising self-examination, look like a descent into madness. Hodgkinson eventually moves quickly out of this straitjacketing movement sequence, flinging limbs outwards and pretzeling her legs upwards towards her open-eyed face. It truly is a tour de force performance, the choreography amply showcasing the ballerina's range as a theatrical artist. Ballet in this work, as in the other three, is not a static thing, hidebound to tradition. It is a living, breathing, highly adaptable art form, expressing an expanded range of motion while heightening emotion in the spectator.

The greatest emotion ends up being directed at the Kudelka ballet which received the lion’s share of standing ovations following Friday's debut performance, and deservedly so. Inspired by Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater, which counter-tenor Daniel Taylor and soprano Dame Emma Kirby perform in tandem with the National Ballet of Canada orchestra, and with David Briskin conducting, ... black night’s bright day ... is a hauntingly beautiful elegiac dance-poem. It explores the theme of loss as articulated by the medieval religious song to Mary, weeping at the crucifixion of her son Jesus, which is at the heart of the score. Kudelka here allows the 12-part Latin hymn to speak for all who experience the death of a loved one, giving the dance a non-specific setting and contemporary-looking costumes, including a ruffle shoulder knee length dress by Hoax Couture, the Canadian fashion label designed by Chris Tyrell and Jim Searle. And yet those costumes are all done in shades of blue, a colour symbolic of the Virgin. As the piece unfolds, emphasis is put on a pair of sorrowful mothers who lose their sons to death (here represented by men in long robes with face-covering hoods), making the piece feel fundamentally connected to its source text. Adding to this religious interpretation is the appearance of a body lying under a blue shroud upon a crypt, which appears to be a direct evocation of the Jesus story, especially given that – like the Messiah – this figure is seen rising from the dead. Kudelka does not name him, however. In the program notes, Maddox McGee, the dancer performing the role, is identified only as being part of a duet involving either Heather Ogden or Stephanie Hutchison, technically strong dancers alternating in the part of the blue-dress observer who similarly is nameless – a kind of everywoman figure struggling to find meaning in desolation.

James Kudelka's ... black night's bright day ... (photo by Bruce Zinger)
The sorrow in ... black night’s bright day ... is profound and experienced not only through the sung out-loud words. It's also felt in the low position of the head, the uplifted turns of the eyes, the stoic stepping onwards on the tips of pointe shoes as seen in the commanding performances given by Ogden and Hutchison on different nights. There are other other solo figures besides, among them Piotr Stanczyk (James Leja alternating), who dance on demi-point, a dance position poised half way between heaven and earth. It is this in-between state which most interests Kudelka, who named the work ... black night’s bright day ... (the ellipsis connoting an incomplete action) to draw attention to death as being part of the life cycle, an end that is often also the beginning of a new phase in the life of the one left behind. It is a universal message of acceptance which many can relate and which many in the audience did, giving the work – a marvel of blue – its prolonged and impassioned applause.

Watershed is another work whose dominant costume colour is blue, but in this case the inspiration is the sea as imagined by composer Benjamin Britten whose Four Sea Interludes, from his opera, Peter Grimes, informs Navas’s evocatively fluid creation. But while the music serves as a strong influence for the Venezuelan-born choreographer – in a pre-performance interview Navas said he has long been fascinated by the life of work of Britten, a 20th century British composer who, like him, was openly gay – it is clear from the work’s dramatic start in silence, the spotlight solely on two dancers standing close to each on the stage, that the bigger revelation for Navas as a creator is the ballet itself. The founder and artistic director of the Montreal-based José Navas/Companie Flak contemporary dance troupe has been an artist-in-residence at Ballet British Columbia since 2010, working frequently often with dancers on pointe. But the dancers at the National Ballet of Canada have fueled his imagination like nothing before. “It has been the first time that I have worked collaboratively with classically trained artists, not trying to transform them into contemporary dancers, but celebrating the best they have to offer,” he writes in his program notes, explaining that Watershed is so titled because for him working with the National represents a true watershed moment. In a brief conversation following the performance, Navas added that he can’t see him going back to how he worked before. “I really want to contribute something to this world,” he said. Watershed is definitely a step in that direction.

José Navas's Watershed (photo by Bruce Zinger)
Created for 32 dancers, the ballet is exquisite to behold. Much of the imagery comes directly from the performers themselves, how they flutter together in a collective rehearsal: bending, pointing and partnering each other through movement sequences rooted in the courtly tradition. The choreography feels acutely observed in this regard, as if Navas stood in the ballet studio choreographically sketching, as it were, what he was observing in the classroom. Parts of the ballet are freeze-framed to accentuate a certain pose or balletic image (even something as basic as a deep-seated plié) which Navas clearly found arresting. In other instances, James F. Ingalls’s stunning lighting design – a mottled storm of reds and blues – silhouettes the dancers in a traditional male-female partnership, the cavalier on bended knee before his ballerina, kissing her extended hand. But known for works which explore gender roles, Navas is not one to accept markers of sexual identity with any degree of complacency. Later in the ballet, he dresses his male dancers in tutus, experimenting with ballet tradition in a novel and delightfully subversive way. The leaping, pirouetting men are bare-chested and bare-legged. Costume designer Sonya Bayer’s disk of a stiffened skirt encircles their magnificent muscular torsos, making them seem like spinning works of Kandinsky-esque abstract art. Gorgeous.

There is a hint of gender-bending in Binet’s Unearth, a work that looks at how inertia inhibits growth among people in a given society. Created to an original score by Canadian-born composer Owen Pallett, an orchestral arranger for Arcade Fire, Duran Duran and Great Lake Swimmers among other pop bands, the 14-dancers (7 men and 7 women) are dressed alike in a combination of costume designer Hyemi Shin’s electric blue tights with and sleeveless tops and white briefs with long sleeved shirts. Two women wear a boxy gold lamé topper with bare legs, making them stand out among the crowd. But like their fellow dancers, they are engaged in similar behaviours which involve coming together only to move apart, fists sometimes clenched in frustration.

Robert Binet's Unearth (photo by  Bruce Zinger)
There are other instances where the dancers push each other away, even after clinging tightly to each other in a duet. Binet, like Côté a choreographic associate with the National Ballet, is interested in how people can maintain a curiosity about each other, despite bad habits, including conditioned hostility, getting in the way. Such shifts in learned behaviours is akin to a thawing, which explains why, for his massive set design, Binet commissioned Shin to create for him what appears to be a giant white iceberg which sits stolidly throughout most of the 28-minute piece, the various groupings of dancers performing in front of it. When a couple within the ensemble ultimately experiences a breakthrough, their successful communication is quite literally symbolized by the iceberg splitting in two, unearthing a flow of energy. The couple (Svetlana Lunkina and Piotr Stancyzk in at least one of the performances) then twirl out of sight, while tightly wound up with each other, spinning gloriously in silence.

Pallet’s original piece of music, his first for ballet, creates a complex atmosphere where deep bass notes commingle with a single female voice and every instrument of the orchestra is used to dramatic effect. Binet is clearly attuned to the score, moving his dancers in synchronized patterns to its driving rhythms. But his approach also tends to be quite layered, with interesting shifts of direction drawing the eye one way and then another even as the music appears to moving only forward. In other words, nothing is obvious. Binet, a rising choreographer and a one-to-watch, has taken a big cast, full of agitation, and pared it down to a pas de deux, a dance form that is intimate, palpably human. In dance terms, Binet is saying connectedness rules. Perhaps not a new idea. But novel, for sure, in the presentation.

– 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 Perfection and Paris Times Eight on Facebook, and check out 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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