Tuesday, March 22, 2016

The Comeback Kid: Brendan Saye in Romeo and Juliet

National Ballet of Canada dancer Brendan Saye. (Photo: Sian Richards)

Tears flowed recently at Romeo and Juliet and not only during the spine-tingling death scene. This past Saturday's matinee performance in Toronto marked the return of National Ballet of Canada dancer Brendan Saye to the stage after a nearly three year absence battling Lyme disease. Tears of joy and relief streaked the dancer's face as he bowed to members of the audience crying with him during a standing ovation. The 25-year-old had overcome all kinds of odds to perform Romeo so elegantly and with a surfeit of genuine feeling, causing emotions to run high.

For a long time undiagnosed, his illness had ravaged his long-limbed and harmoniously proportioned body, leaving him partially paralyzed when it first hit him in 2013. Saye had good reason to think he'd never dance again. Specialized treatment has since made him well, but that's only the half of it. Ballet is a highly demanding job physically, emotionally and mentally taxing. Any dancer suffering from a disability, no matter how transitory, needs great stores of self-discipline and blind faith to make a full recovery. There are no half measures in ballet and so the comeback has to be complete, to a level as high as before the injury. Saye has accomplished that and more.

Dancing opposite the ebullient Chelsy Meiss as his Juliet, the Vancouver-born second soloist showed himself to be as in command of his technique as before he fell ill with the added difference of being that much more emotionally committed. Watching him dance the other day, the impression was of someone grateful for having been given a second chance. Saye danced fully in the moment, losing himself in Prokofiev's magisterial score while keeping pace with Alexei Ratmansky's fleet and fussy choreography. So many steps, so little time, but Saye made the most of a complex situation, dancing as if his life depended on it.

Dancer Brendan Saye. (Photo: Sian Richards)
Speaking of second comings, Romeo and Juliet is the work which first marked Saye as one to watch. In 2011, Ratmansky cast him as one of several dancers to dance the male lead in his new ballet, basically plucking him out of obscurity. Soon after that, in 2012, the National Ballet chose Saye as one of two dancers to represent the company at the Eleventh International Competition for the Erik Bruhn Prize, a prestigious event showcasing the best in young ballet talent. The pressure was reportedly enormous, resulting in much strain, and yet in 2013 Saye rebounded to dance in Neumeier's acclaimed Nijinsky ballet while also reprising his role in Romeo and Juliet. Illness soon followed triumph, sidelining Saye until his return to the National Ballet earlier this season. With his recovery, he has come full circle, back to where he last left off dancing Romeo and Juliet.

This time around, Saye has tended to portray Romeo as a romantic absorbed in the book of poems held in hand at the start of act one and a dreamer given to staring off into space, doubtless wondering at Cupid's winged flight. His Romeo is not a street fighter like his friends, Benvolio (Dylan Tedaldi) or Mercutio (Jack Bertinshaw); he lacks their brio and randy sexuality. More of an innocent, he reluctantly picks up a sword to fight back at Tybalt (McGee Maddox) in the second act and is slayed with remorse after issuing the fatal blow. Whether by design or an inhibiting case of nerves (entirely understandable given the circumstances), Saye's low key Romeo was nevertheless not without his charms. He had youth on his side, along with a chargeable nature that made him compelling to watch. As in the Shakespeare original, Romeo is a young man given to bouts of melancholy. Juliet is the light (the sun that rises in the east) dispelling his darkness. Saye intuitively captures his character's life-affirming transformation, guided by his effortlessly radiant partner. When Saye's Romeo and Meiss' Juliet first clap eyes on each other in the first act ballroom scene they instantly recognize in one another their missing half. The encounter is played out through a locking of eyes, hands, limbs and lips. Their touching is electric, tingling members of the audience and fuelling the bedroom pas de deux that follows with jolts of passion.

Saye began the sequence with an airy solo marked by lightening fast footwork, arching lines and rounded port de bras. As he danced the tender contents of his heart, Juliet picked up his rhythm. Swooping down from her softly glowing balcony, her body swirling and unfurling like a gymnast's ribbon, she travelled the emotional distance to leap into his arms. Saye's partnering here grew increasingly confident, emboldening Meiss to soar high overhead and slide with abandon across the floor, heedless of decorum. It was these untidy bits, the smudges blurring the edges of Ratmansky's hyper-kinetic choreography, that brought into focus the chemistry between the partners. When Meiss' unrestrained spontaneity met Saye's meticulous attention to detail (even his fingers danced), a tragedy became cause for celebration. Star-cross'd Romeo and Juliet may be, but Saye turned it into a tale of resilience. Welcome back.

 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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