Saturday, April 8, 2017

Dance Evolution: The National Ballet of Canada's Mixed Program

Evan McKie and Tanya Howard in Wayne McGregor's Genus. (Photo: Aleksandar Antonijevic)

Science and art perform an intriguing pas de deux in the work of Wayne McGregor, the British-born choreographer for whom dance provides a malleable framework for ongoing investigations into the mind-body relationship. Known for his angular and precisely articulated movement vocabulary, the 47-year-old trailblazer, who early on trained in modern dance in New York, has collaborated with cognitive scientists, cardiologists, polar explorers and robotics specialists to create visually exhilarating work.

His principal laboratory is his London-based Company Wayne McGregor (formerly Random Dance), which travels the world, disseminating McGregor's inquisitive and experimental approach to ballet and making him one of the world's most in-demand choreographers. His kinetic intelligence has brought him recognition from top academic institutions, including Cambridge, which in 2004 gave him a year-long residency as a research fellow in the Department of Experimental Psychology, and Plymouth University, which in 2013 bestowed upon him an Honorary Doctorate of Science degree. Appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 2011, McGregor is also something of a hero among dancers.

News that he would be returning this season to the National Ballet of Canada to stage Genus, his 2007 meditation on the evolutionary theories of Charles Darwin, had company members sharing their unadulterated glee through Facebook and Instagram during the rehearsal period earlier this winter. Dancers love McGregor because he offers them a brave new world of physical expression, combining extreme athleticism with lyricism, drama and emotional vulnerability. Weaned on 19th-century depictions of grace and elegance, they devour his dangerously off-kilter pieces whole.

The company got its first taste of his sharply splintered and fast-paced style with the arrival of Chroma to the National's repertoire in 2010. Dating to 2006 and originally created for the Royal Ballet, where McGregor is choreographer-in-residence, this ballet examines the technological body -- "a machine much more complex than a computer," elaborates McGregor in interviews. Demonstrating speedy dynamics and muscled grandeur, Chroma is big, bright, bold, a genuine crowd pleaser attaching itself directly to the nervous system. Genus, made the following year for The Paris Opera Ballet, is less so. Inspired by Darwin's seminal 1859 text, On the Origin of Species, Genus is its own beast, an altogether darker, more brooding and intellectually sophisticated work than seen before.

Marking McGregor's first foray into science as a source of artistic inspiration, Genus presents a ceaseless series of hyper-kinetic dancers transitioning in and out of rubbery dance sequences symbolizing the disruptive and connective energies of the creative instinct. The ballet is about evolution  from unicellular organisms to recombinations resulting from random mutations producing diversity and multiplicity of form. The title refers to the subdivision of family within the classification of organisms. Accordingly, the ballet bursts with extraordinary passages of spiraling, folding, elongated dance symbolizing the incessant sweep of life.

Svetlana Lunkina in Genus. (Photo by Aleksandar Antonijevic)

Despite this, and likely as a result its weighty subject matter, in the decade since its Paris debut Genus has had only a handful of performances and none, at least none I know of, outside the French capital. The National Ballet's performance of the 45-minute work, featured as part of a mixed program whose five-day run concluded at Toronto's Four Seasons Centre on April 2 and staged by McGregor associate Antoine Vereecken, was the ballet's North American premiere. It was a highly anticipated event which the company, as a whole, approached with zeal and handled with astounding confidence.

The laser-sharp ensemble of 24 dancers performed with chests pushed forward, hips hooked backward, arms bent behind scything torsos and showing claw-like hands fluttering and flickering in the half-shadows in Simon Bennison's recreation of Lucy Carter's original lighting design. Stand-outs from the opening night cast included an attenuated Tanya Howard performing an intricate, origami-like pas de deux with Evan McKie, a powerhouse Jurgita Dronina, Félix Paquet with Kathryn Hosier, Robert Stephen, Donald Thom and Chelsy Meiss, all mesmerizing. Special mention also goes to principal dancers Svetlana Lunkina and Harrison James, who turned the torsion in McGregor's choreography into strikingly chiseled and potently expressive lines of danced haiku.

But regardless of the intensity of the dancing, Genus astonished more than enchanted. The complexity of the source material, while impressive, stoked curiosity but strained the imagination in its quest to impose meaning on the various parts. Those parts include an original electro-acoustic composition by Joby Talbot (the same composer behind Chroma), made in collaboration with Deru (a.k.a. Los Angeles-based electronic music producer Benjamin Wynn) and combining pre-recorded choral passages, orchestral strings and popping, pinging, purring sound. The score provides an aural landscape through which the ballet journeys, moving from gamete to algorithm, real life to artificial intelligence. Dancers move through it with hyper-extended limbs, including legs reaching past the ear and also sideways from a standing horizontal position. Men and women alike perform the fluid passages of movement shot through with abrupt stops and angularities. They also dress the same  a short black unitard on which is superimposed an X-ray image of the human pelvis with spine. Vicki Mortimer's visually arresting costumes identify the group as vertebrates while underscoring that the ballet, as a whole, is a penetrating gaze, going deep beneath the surface of things to determine the how and why of contemporary existence.

Mortimer also designed the minimalist set consisting of softly mirroring black walls (they look like patent leather), overhung with pillars of bright white light. The fuzzy images of the dancers reflecting off opaque surfaces suggest trilobites locked in stone, fossilized life forms from a distant era. The blanketing darkness also serves to blur their exits and entrances. Energy ebbs and flows in a borderless continuum. Yet Genus has structured parts. The first transpires beneath Ravi Deepres's time-lapse video creation depicting a quasi-prehistoric landscape which gradually darkens with the setting of the sun and the rising of the moon. The dancing here is fast and frenetic, relentlessly pushing the limits of the human body. It is like a race to the finish, a game of survival of the fittest. The high-speed physicality softens and slows in the next section, which has more to do with sexual selection. This quieter, more sensual part of the ballet features a boxed-in and tilted stage-within-a-stage adorned with a sparkling tree of life, a stand-in for the phylogenetic tree Darwin conceived to classify species according to adaptive and randomly splitting lineages. The choreography depicts a couple (Lunkina and James) performing a hauntingly tender, if not melancholic, duet, in which the couple drifts apart and comes together again before finally bifurcating. He moves  literally  onto a new and different plane, while she dies away in a solo whose spasmodic jerks and falls represent the blunt force of natural selection. A new episode in the human story has begun.

Harrison James and Evan McKie in Genus. (Photo: Aleksandar Antonijevic)

At this point in Genus, the dancing pauses to make room for a lowered screen on which is projected a sequence of images, among them specimen jars, Darwin's own eagle and bird drawings plus notes and letters in his own handwriting, butterfly and beetle samples and other objects such as McGregor may have encountered during research visits to London's Natural History Museum. Interspliced into this filmic curiosities cabinet are the early movement studies belonging to 19th-century photographer Eadweard Muybridge, including his pioneering work on motion-picture projection. Genus has entered the technological age.

In the final scene, the stage grows crowded with a proliferation of bodies moving through a finite number of individualized shapes and movement patterns. The dancers move both fluidly and mechanically as a group in which are many variations on a theme. The pulsing mass formation appears light years apart from the amoeba-like shapes seen at the beginning of the ballet's evolutionary process, self-generating through solos, duets, trios and defined partnerships. But it doesn't feel like progress. It feels inconclusive, as if the next step has yet to be made, and discoveries are still to be found.

Shot through with verve and invention while allowing for tender glimpses of the human heart behind the propulsive forward-motion drive, Genus offers up images not of beauty but of life boiled down to its raw essence and observed as if through a microscope. You have to have your thinking cap on to make sense of it all. The ballet asks questions; it does not entertain.

That responsibility fell instead to the three works that followed on the two-hour program. The first was George Balanchine's playfully virtuosic Tarantella pas de deux, performed on alternate dates by different pairs of couples  Jillian Vanstone with Skylar Campbell; Jurgita Dronina with Gabrielle Frola and Rui Huang with Dylan Tedaldi. Pianist Zhenya Yesmanovich, together with the National Ballet Orchestra conducted by David Briskin, performed Louis Moreau Gottschalk's quicksilver Grand Tarantelle score at every performance. Next up was company choreographic associate Robert Binet's emotionally wrought Self and Soul duet about universal love, reprised from its debut at the recent International Erik Bruhn Competition held in Toronto in November and stunningly performed by first soloist Jenna Savella and corps de ballet dancer Spencer Hack at the Saturday matinee. Last on the list was Jerome Robbins's one-act comedy The Concert, a 1956 work set to major pieces by Frédéric Chopin (Andrei Streliaev was the solo pianist) and depicting the amusing antics of a group of strangers interacting in a recital hall. Hannah Fischer, Jonathan Renna and Greta Hodgkinson alternated with Emma Hawes, Piotr Stanczyk and Chelsy Meiss in the lead roles. The Concert's dated vaudevillian humour (a bat to the head and an elaborate take-my-wife-please! joke performed with a prankish knife) nevertheless had many in the theatre laughing out loud and jumping to their feet for a standing ovation. Or were they just happy to have finally understood what had just gone on? Something more to think about.

– 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 for 32 years, 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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