Friday, February 28, 2014

Spies, Lies And Pointe Shoes: The National Ballet Of Canada's Mixed Program

Aszure Barton's Watch her
Dancers can act. This is one conclusion to be drawn from the mixed program of dramatic work the National Ballet Canada is presenting this week at Toronto’s Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts. There are only two ballets on offer now through Sunday: a reprise of the Edmonton-born Aszure Barton’s shadowy and complex Watch her (originally created for the National in 2011) and Sir Frederick Ashton’s decidedly more sunny and farcical A Month in the Country (originally created for the Royal Ballet in 1976). Barton's ballet is idiosyncratically contemporary while Ashton’s is rooted more firmly in the language of classical ballet. But while diametrically opposed, stylistically speaking, both works foreground the art of acting in ballet in delineating character and driving plot. Emotions are inevitably drawn to the surface, and people tested along the way.

The Ashton ballet is more obviously a narrative being an adaptation of the Ivan Turgenev play of the same name. Barton’s piece, on the other hand, is more evocative and less declarative about its intentions. Yet, there is no mistaking the taut dramatic line upon which her choreography hangs and sways. Like the Ashton ballet, hers is a work which eviscerates human psychology, laying the guts on the floor. Both one-act ballets, the works have other elements in common. Each is concerned with themes of keeping secrets, spying and feeling betrayed. Each also offers up a chocolate box of impossible relationships doomed to have unsatisfying endings for all involved. In both works, the dancers use dancing to bring to life characters attempting to navigate a vivid situation. And really they have rarely looked better: solid ensemble performances and acting worthy of an Academy Award. This is the real show to watch this weekend. The range alone is marvellous.

Dramatic ability in ballet is an old value, first noted in the 18th century when dancers like Françoise Prévost and her partner Jean Ballon were widely celebrated for their ability to imbue physical gestures with an expressiveness which moved spectators to tears. What makes it noteworthy today is that acting to a large degree has gone out of ballet in recent years, bumped to the sidelines by an increased emphasis on pyrotechnics and other acrobatic feats of physical prowess. This program reverses that trend, and powerfully, through work presenting dance as speech if not poetry.Why is this important? First, the dancers are exposed to new choreography and by extension new ways of dancing and this enriches them as dancers while also stretching them as artists. Second, the audience in seeing new work broadens its understanding of what ballet is capable: not just refined steps and bravura moments but a form of expression that can speak volumes about the human condition. Lastly, the art form itself grows when new choreographers like Barton are given a platform such as this; it means that the regal art of ballet has a future.

Barton deserves the recognition. No less a dance artist than Mikhail Baryshnikov has declared the National Ballet School-trained dancer and choreographer one of the most interesting figures working in dance today. It’s no exaggeration. Today New York-based and heading her own Aszure Barton & Artists company, Barton mixes together classical and contemporary dance steps, phrases, idioms and gestures, layering her edgy choreographic palette with diagonal turns and leaps, simple pliés and off-centre dips of the shoulder, nothing, in other words, that's predictable or much tried before. In Watch her she gets dancers pointing fingers as well as feet. Hands waver and shake, falling limp at the wrist. Elsewhere they go all Munsch-like in grabbing the side of a face (a suppressed scream), wobbling it as if the face itself were a mask which, given the context, is not far from the truth. In Watch her, all the characters appear to be hiding something, loath to reveal too much of themselves. Their faces are poker straight, hiding true feeling behind a studied veneer of cool detachment.

choreographer Aszure Barton
But what is really going on? It is not at all easy to say. While the work received enthusiastic applause at Wednesday's opening night performance, the chatter at intermission was almost universally, loved but don't ask me to tell you what it means. Barton's work had the audience guessing as much as it held them on the edge of their seats. Interpretations have posited the work to be about voyeuristic desire. But, truly, there is little that is sexy about it. It feels more threatening than that, a work that seduces but like a dangerous drug. It features 38 dancers in total, a veritable crowd consisting of men dressed almost identically in dark grey suits with waist jackets and red ties and women equally indistinguishable from each other in their own matching uniform of greyish long dresses paired with fitted blue jackets, some with red scarves at the neck. Yannik Larivée’s costume design situates the ballet in modern times, the 1930s or the 1940s perhaps, when there was palpable fear in the air, and war on the horizon if not already waging. Christopher Dennis’s shadowy lighting design and Larivée’s set of muddy looking walls punctuated by windows through which characters peer and disappear accentuate an oppressive, claustrophobic atmosphere recalling the brutal alienation of the concentration camp, the Gulag, the ghetto. The chill in the air is augmented by the score, a string orchestration of Pergolesi's Stabat Mater by Lera Auerbach, renamed Dialogues on Stabat Mater, whose plucked and hit notes (the solo musicians are Aaron Schwebel, violin, Angela Ruden, viola, and Tim Francom, marimba) send shock waves of panic through the lushness of the orchestration. There is a lone tree in the corner of the dark and confined space, but it is dead, denuded of leaves, a symbol not of life but of decay. One of the dancer-characters uses it for climbing in order to get a better vantage point for spying on others. It’s a Kafkaesque world where the eyes are watching and the scrutiny is a crucifixion.

People are constantly watching other people and, while mutually aware of the stares, everyone acts as if nothing were wrong. Survival depends on keeping a low profile and keeping quiet. Lest anyone forget this unspoken code, fingers are frequently raised to the lips in the universal sign of shhh and whole hands are used to cover other people’s mouths, smothering even further their silence. In light of such activity, the work’s title seems to be an admonition: Watch her, as in look out. The her in question is a leading female character, an ice-maiden in a red dress, danced with astonishing control and sang-froid by principal dancer Sonia Rodriguez. It is a superb performance and shows Rodriguez at the top of her game as a dancer of incredible expressiveness. She makes even the lift of an eyebrow read like a scene from Beckett. In this ballet, Rodriguez uses her body, her face, her fantastic technique to describe without words a woman who could be a femme fatale, or simply a femme confronting g her own fatal situation. She has an admirer, a man in a cap. Or is he another spy? She is not giving anything away, least of all her feelings. The danger of revealing too much is represented by another man who stumbles into the action, wearing a torn and dirtied white shirt (his jacket, waist coat and tie presumably lost in some off-stage scuffle) and looking battered with the hint of a black eye. There are two other women – Xiao Nan Yu and Jenna Savella – and they look stricken, horrified. The victim – Dylan Tedaldi – stands as if condemned in an imprisoning rectangle of white light. The other men (still with their suit jackets on) turn their backs to him. There literally is no way out.

Greta Hodgkinson & Guillaume Côté in A Month in the Country 

Depressed yet? Then know that A Month in the Country, which immediately follows, provides a respite. The choreography is buoyant, bright, and bouncy in telling the story of a Russian family languishing on vacation at their country estate, playing at love when boredom sets in. A 40-minute synthesis of the characters and themes present in Turgenev's late 19th century Russian play, Ashton's acclaimed ballet, set to a series of Chopin pieces played by solo pianist Andrei Streliaev supported by the National Ballet of Canada Orchestra, David Briskin conducting, proceeds economically through a series of beautiful pas de deux. While firmly rooted in classical dance, the choreography is layered over with a naturalistic acting style that renders believable the high-strung sensibilities of the characters captured inside designer Julia Trevelyan Orman's over-decorated drawing room.

The characters and their love games intertwine, giving the ballet, like the original play, a feeling of a dance in the round. Leading the masquerade is Natalia, played with the right combination of coquettishness and raw spite by principal dancer, Greta Hodgkinson. A Month in the Country tests her abilities as both dancer and actress, and she, along with her fellow cast members, succeeds beautifully. In the ballet, Natalia has an admirer, Rakitin (Pierre Lavoie). But she also has a husband, Yslaev (Hazaros Surmeyan demonstrating why he's one of the best character dancers in Canada today) and also a love interest, her son's tutor, Beliaev (Guillaume Côté). Complicating matters further, her ward, Vera (Jillian Vanstone) is also in love with Beliaev and so is, in his own way, Kolia (Skylar Campbell), Natalia's son who is visibly bereft when the love quadrangle explodes in everyone's face. The proceedings are funny but also pitiable in a way, being a portrait of stifled ambition, stunted passion, and frivolous liaisons that rise out of the shallowness of the characters. Highlighting the tomfoolery of the gentry are the maid, Katia (Tanya Howard) and the footman, Matvei (Giorgio Galli) who both mirror and mock the main plot proceedings.

But even when the characters are intentionally shallow, the National Ballet dancers manage to lend them substance. They bring them vividly to life. Vanstone is pretty much perfect as Vera, radiating an innocence that readily flows from her lyrical line and uncluttered acting style. Campbell's Kolia is so fresh and effervescent that he drew spontaneous applause when performing an agile solo with a bouncing ball. A dancer to watch. Côté's Beliaev is a joy to behold. His characterization is thrillingly energetic but also nuanced, a portrait of a young man as a type of Byronic hero. His turns are quick, his steps light, his rapid leg extensions springy, his brow creased in thought. He is also an attentive partner to Hodgkinson making her debut in a role that has been coveted by among the world's greatest ballerinas. It was a 25th anniversary gift for Karen Kain that the Ballet first entered the National's repertoire in 1995. Kain might have personally coached Hodgkinson in learning the role of Natalia because there is some similarity in how they both approach the role: with a tremendous sense of abandon that is terribly exciting to watch. In her white lace and blue ribboned hat, Natalia is both lovely and lonely, a woman defeated by by her own own fantasies. But John B. Read's sunny lighting design assures that this is no tragedy. Anthony Dowell, the British dancer who originated the role of Beliaev, dancing opposite Lynn Seymour's flighty Natalia, staged this version of A Month In the Country for the National Ballet himself. In a previously published interview, Dowell described the ballet as being challenging but also quite special, when in the right hands. And by that he meant seasoned dancers who could play up the expressiveness. "The ballet really is a gift for any ballerina," Dowell said, "especially a ballerina at the height of her powers." Hodgkinson is that ballerina.

– 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.

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