Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Toppling Pretensions: The National Ballet of Canada's Mixed Program

Artists of the National Ballet of Canada in Cacti. (Photo: Aleksandar Antonijevic)

At the risk of Swedish choreographer Alexander Ekman rolling his eyes, I will now self-consciously pass comment on Cacti, the prickly but popular work which the National Ballet of Canada performed last week as part of a mixed program at Toronto's Four Seasons Centre. A delicious parody that had the audience laughing start to finish, his 30-minute dance is a critique on art criticism, especially the kind of arid discourse that gives the discipline a bad name. First created in 2010 for Nederland's Dans Theatre 2 and now performed by companies around the world drawn to its irreverent sense of humour, Cacti erupts beneath a pompous voice-over teeming with cringe-worthy pronouncements comparing artistic creation to ant hills and dancers to emotionally stunted delinquents. The verbal drone culminates in the dead-end question, what does it all mean? Answer at your peril. This isn't to suggest that Cacti, a co-production shared by the National Ballet, the Boston Ballet and the Atlanta Ballet, is immune to criticism. It's more that this physically daring piece, set to live musical accompaniment and the dancers' own percussive poundings on large Scrabble-like ivory tiles serving as mini stages, makes meaning take a back seat to sheer enjoyment. Give it up for the needle in your side.

Cacti  so named because dancers actually perform with potted plants in hand  made its Canadian debut last week as the fantastically refreshing finale to a three-part program dominated by two modernist ballets by the late George Balanchine. The Four Temperaments, created in 1946 to Paul Hindemith's commissioned score, and Rubies, a dazzling excerpt from 1967's full length Jewels set to Igor Stravinsky's rollicking Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra, complimented the Ekman work by similarly challenging perceptions and toppling pretensions.

The Balanchine ballets, while created decades apart, are similar in that they both infuse classical dance with jazz idioms and other dance vernaculars borrowed from the popular entertainment worlds of Broadway, Hollywood and 1930s Harlem. As such, the works are very New York, which is to say New World, in both thrust and sensibility. Like Cacti, they defy easy categorization. But to see them merely as abstract is to be blind to their life-affirming dynamism.

Steeped in the hazy atmosphere of the dance hall, both The Four Temperaments and Rubies are iconoclastic ballets in which the ballerinas are like gum-snapping chorines cocking a hip at tradition, molls more than maidens who make you think twice about calling them delicate, graceful, sublime or any other dance cliché. In these works, the ballerinas are glamazons – strong, angular and domineering as they strut across the stage in full command of their turf. This is especially true of principal dancer Xiao Nan Yu, the soloist who danced Rubies on opening night.

Xiao Nan Yu in Rubies. (Photo: David Hou)
Created with a tall dancer in mind, this powerhouse role literally puts the ballerina, dressed in one of Madame Karinska's drop-dead and blood-red costumes, front and centre as an expression of the work's propulsive dynamism and wit. As the scarlet woman on opening night, Yu looked totemic as she danced with a taut rhythmic clarity that marked her as a star. Real-life couple Heather Ogden and Guillaume Côté accompanied her in the spotlight dancing a firebrand pas de deux that sizzled with sexuality and sass. Both dancers have recently made a comeback to the stage  she following a first pregnancy and he a devastating knee injury that saw him sidelined all last season  and to see them both dancing with electrifying confidence and voracity made Rubies all that more exciting to watch.

Emotional highs and lows characterize The Four Temperaments, an iconic work of the modern repertoire that, like its score, examines the four humours which the ancient Greek philosophers and later medieval alchemists believed determined human character. Balanchine structures the categories – melancholic, sanguine, phlegmatic and choleric  as four distinct themes with variations. For each dance portrait of stylized movement, Balanchine borrowed from a variety of dance genres, from neoclassical dance to The Ziegfeld Follies, to create a series of distinct impressions. The parts come together to form a powerful whole. Dressed in minimal costumes of black leotards and white tights for the women and white t-shirts and black tights for the men, the prosaic uniform of the classroom, The Four Temperaments feels like a ritual unfolding to reveal a hidden secret. You watch each step with bated breath.

A smoky undercurrent of primal energy snakes through the piece from beginning to end, making it feel less about human nature and more about the whole of dance imagery as archaic and monumental, as if carved out of the same stone that populates Easter Island. The ballet stretches and constricts like birth pangs. When the ballerina at the end opens her legs wide (shades of Manet's L'Origine du monde) the feeling is that the universe is coming into view. For a ballet subtitled "A Dance Without a Plot," The Four Temperaments actually has a lot to say. On opening night, however, The National Ballet seemed reticent to communicate its mysteries. The dancers looked noticeably under-rehearsed to the point of holding in check the work's atavistic powers. There were exceptions. Evan McKie delivered a momentous performance as Phlegmatic, demonstrating both a searing attention to detail and a willingness to abandon himself to the deep rivers of lethargy pulling him under. Harrison James was spellbinding as Melancholic, a role characterized by slumps to the floor and an inability to escape the dark depths of the soul, mostly because a phalanx of women with stop sign hands and lethally pointed feet cross block him, preventing flight. Svetlana Lunkina and Naoya Ebe danced the waltzing Sanguine section, but needed to be more expansive with their gestures to make the upbeat come alive. Second soloist Alexandra MacDonald made a remarkable debut dancing the explosive Choleric solo.

Also commanding applause was the Hindemith score  a hypnotically melodic and syncopated marvel which solo pianist Andrei Streliaev played to perfection, backed by the National Ballet of Canada Orchestra under the baton of David Briskin. Edward Connell was the solo pianist in Rubies. In Cacti, the music for the first part consisted of a melange of Beethoven, Schubert, Mahler and Andy Stein. A quartet of string musicians (Aaron Schwebel, Dominique Laplante, Angela Rudden and Maurizio Baccante) played feverishly behind the dancers who also drummed out their own beats on their makeshift stages with their hands. The dancers also clucked and shouted in a performance that presented them as a represented as an amalgam of dancer/actor/musician. All were riveting, but in particular Dylan Tedaldi and a busy Alexandra MacDonald who danced a hyper physical duet laced with irony and good humour, a performance which brought the house down.

 Deirdre Kelly is a Toronto-based journalist, author and internationally recognized dance critic. She writes for Dance Magazine in New York and the Dance Gazette in London, and is a contributor to the International Dictionary of Ballet (St. James Press). A staff writer at The Globe and Mail, she was her newspaper's award-winning dance critic from 1985 until 2001 before transitioning to the Style section as the fashion reporter. She has also served as the paper's rock critic and as an investigative reporter in the visual arts with a focus on art crime. The best-selling author of Paris Times Eight and Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, recently re-released in paperback, she writes on dance, theatre, the visual arts and fashion for Critics At Large. 

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