Saturday, November 12, 2016

Stars Through the Rain: Soirée des Étoiles/A Night With the Stars

Naoya Ebe (Photo by Karolina Kuras)

Rain fell heavily on the makeshift stage inside a tent set up outside on the Saint-Sauveur High School parking lot, and for most of the day local volunteers were kept busy sponging up puddles in anticipation of the evening’s highly anticipated international dance gala. It was a scenario that at first seemed to spell disaster for Soirée des Étoiles/A Night With the Stars, a two-hour program featuring leading dancers from The Royal Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, and The National Ballet of Canada and Quebec intended to conclude the week-long Festival Des Arts de Saint-Sauveur (FASS) with two performances on Aug. 12 and 13. Tickets had been sold out weeks in advance and fears ran high that the star-studded talent, some of whose legs are insured for millions of dollars, could take a spill on the sodden stage. But not even the added burden of soaked-through front-row seats could dampen the spirits of the organizers. The show must go on, and without delay. Mais, oui! "Of course we have our fingers crossed," said executive director Etienne Lavigne anxiously before the curtain rose on the first of the gala’s two nights of performances. "Let's hope the weather cooperates."

It did, the rain letting up for the duration of the Friday night performance, which spelled a huge relief to ballet fans who had travelled great distances to attend the 25th-anniversary edition of the popular Francophone summer arts in the picturesque resort town of Saint-Sauveur, about a 45-minute drive north of Montreal. The lure was the opportunity to experience dance talent rarely seen in Quebec, if not the rest of Canada. The brainchild of Guillaume Côté, the National Ballet principal dancer and associate choreographer who assumed the role of FASS artistic director in the fall of 2014, the gala gathered together dancers from as far as London and New York to perform in close proximity to nature. Not a ballet dancer’s usual gig. Saint-Sauveur is not La Scala. But on this wet summer's night you could easily have confused the two based on dancing flair alone.

Misty Copeland (Photo by Karolina Kuras)
The evening’s biggest draw was Misty Copeland, the celebrated ABT ballerina making her French-Canada debut with the balcony scene from Kenneth MacMillan's Romeo and Juliet and Toccare, a jazzy piece of non-narrative ballet which fellow ABT dance star Marcelo Gomes created in 2012. Copeland performed both works with ABT soloist Blaine Hoven, also appearing in Quebec for the first time. While their performance of the Romeo and Juliet excerpt lacked conviction and urgency so that it fell flat, their gutsy and strong Toccare rivalled the elements with lightning-bolt flashes of brilliance. Set to an excerpt from composer Ian Ng's score for string instrument and piano, Grand Jeté for a Violin, the intricately crafted duet was taut and muscular, with compact angular shapes, airborne lifts and kinetic thrusts of movement veined with subtle humour, sex appeal and defiance. The dancers, both technically precise and fluidly elegant, made it an evening highlight.

Royal Ballet first soloist Yuhui Choe, also making her local debut, similarly turned heads when she brought her sparkling dancing style to bear on two works on the program, George Balanchine's neo-classical Tchaikovsky Pas De Deux (1960) and Liam Scarlett's Asphodel Meadows, Second Movement (2010), the latter a Canadian debut. The Korean ballerina performed both pieces with frequent partner Nehemiah Kish, a Royal Ballet principal born in the U.S. and trained at Canada's National Ballet School. Sunny dancers, they radiated joie de vivre when dancing the fiendishly difficult Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux. Choe flew through Balanchine’s quick and intricate pointe work while Kish maintained his natural-born grace while dancing the energetic male variation. But it was Choe who stole the show. Effervescently light and bright, she conjured an image of a firefly penetrating the darkness with a beam of vitality. The dancer brought a similar luminosity to the excerpt from Asphodel Meadows, a minimalist work pulsing with passion and referencing that intermediary section of the Ancient Greek underworld where souls not bad enough to go to Hades and not good enough to enter the Elysian Fields linger after death. Set to a ravishing score by Francis Poulenc, the languid second movement featured an extended adagio which Kish and Choe turned into a meditation on beauty.

Representing the home front, National Ballet dancers Naoya Ebe and Selene Guerrero-Trujillo, he a valued principal, she an up-and-coming member of the corps de ballet, performed the pas de deux from Danish choreographer Auguste Bournonville's 1858 one-act ballet, Flower Festival in Genzano, and the Le Corsaire Grand Pas de Deux attributed to Marius Petipa late in the 19th century. But are gala staples but for different reasons. Where the Bournonville is joyful and lively, showcasing buoyant jumps, quick-paced footwork and multiple entrechats, or beats of the legs, the Petipa is stately and exotic, featuring split leaps, barrel turns and prolonged balances, among other flashy maneuvers. Ebe mastered the technical demands and then some, ripping through Le Corsaire with bare-chested aplomb and mastering the upper body calm accompanying the fast and furious footwork in Flower Festival. Both were virtuosic performances, breathtaking in their power and precision. Lacking Ebe's experience, Guerrero-Trujillo looked timid by comparison. She executed her steps competently, but without the excitement associated with these showstoppers. The Mexican-born ballerina needed to let go a little, invite a bit of risk into her dancing, in order to measure up to her partner's intensity of expression. The potential was there.

Jurgita Dronina (Photo by Karolina Kuras)
Better matched were National Ballet principal Jurgita Dronina with Côté in the bedroom scene from Le Corsaire and, later on in the evening, the demanding The Sleeping Beauty 3rd Act Pas de Deux. The Russian-born ballerina is elegance and grace personified and, partnered by Côté, she approached that elusive balletic ideal of perfection, making everyone watching fall in love with her. Dronina’s mastery of technique is superb but her beguiling smile makes her seem wholly approachable, a classical dancer forging an effortless connection with her audience. Ebullient and handsome, Côté is one of Canada’s leading premier danseurs and he danced well of course, but experienced some difficulty in The Sleeping Beauty variation when he lost his footing at the end of a dervish turn. Blame it on the weather.

Rounding out the evening and standing  literally – on her own was the solo dancer Anne Plamondon performing two works of contemporary dance with little if anything in common with the balletic works surrounding her on the program. The Canadian-born dancer, a former member of Les Grands Ballets Canadiens and Portugal's Gulbenkian Ballet, appeared first in 10 ans en 7 minutes, a retrospective condensing ten years of creative work into seven minutes. That work was created in collaboration with Montreal choreographer Victor Quijada, Plamondon’s partner in RUBBERDanse, the company with which she has had an association since 2002. Seen in distilled form, the choreography mesmerized with its pastiche of ever-changing shapes and danced images.

Plamondon’s second offering, an excerpt from Les Mêmes Yeux Que Toi, explored mental instability and its manifestation in the body. Created in 2012 with assistance from Montreal actress Marie Brassard, lighting designer Yan Lee Chan and composer Garth Stevenson, the piece, while truncated, packed a punch. Employing spidery gestural language and incoherently mumbled word, Plamondon was at once mechanical and fluid, fragile and fierce. Dressed in a sleeveless nude-coloured leotard, dark loose pants and white socks, a costume designed by Montreal fashion designer Yso, and with her unkempt hair haloing her pale face, the dancer inhabited an emotionally fragmented universe light years away from the harmonious spheres of the classical ballet in which she, and her fellow festival performers had been trained. But she fit in perfectly with the evening’s theme of dance daring. The audience heralded Plamondon with thunderous applause, louder than what the elements had bruited in advance of the show. Art had prevailed.

– 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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