Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Sensual and Strong: The Return of the Canada All Star Ballet Gala

Maria Kochetkova and Carlo Di Lanno, both of San Francisco Ballet, dancing the pas de deux from Christoper Wheeldon’s Within the Golden Hour, one of a dozen premieres presented at the Canada All Star Ballet Gala in Toronto. (Photo: Karolina Kuras)

Second time strong. The follow-up edition to last season’s inaugural Canada All Star Ballet Gala gained in power with a sophisticated showcase of classical, neoclassical and contemporary ballet as performed by 17 new-generation ballet luminaries from nine of the world’s leading classical dance companies. Artistic director Svetlana Lunkina, the Bolshoi Ballet star who today is a principal dancer with the National Ballet of Canada, curated the three-hour program whose one-time only performance played to a capacity audience at Toronto’s Sony Centre on Saturday night. She produced the show and also danced in it, raising her own barre high while making way for emerging talents like Anastasia Lukina from the Mariinsky Ballet in St. Petersburg, and Dmitry Vyskubenko from the Bavarian State Ballet in Munich, both 19 years old. The evening delivered on a promise of new discoveries.

Thrillingly, 12 of the 15 works had never been danced in Canada before, easily fulfilling Lunkina’s stated mandate of educating local audiences about the variety and enduring richness of classical dance. The format was pas de deux, most excerpted from full-length ballets like Roland Petit’s Carmen, Rudolf Nureyev’s 1977 version of Romeo & Juliet, and The Sleeping Beauty dating to 1895. Other duets were their own works of art. They included Ted Brandsen’s Replay, set to Philip Glass and superbly danced by Anna Ol and Remi W├Ârtmeyer of the Dutch National Ballet, and Penumbra, an intimate dance dialogue set to Sergei Rachmaninoff which W├Ârtmeyer both created and danced in, Ol again appearing as his supremely poised partner.

These set pieces for two people drew the audience in not with pyrotechnics, the stock and trade of most international ballet galas, but with that other thing maverick dancers can also deliver in spades – sex appeal. Full-mouth kissing – lots of it – and a kinetic series of ambidextrous couplings that could out-blush the Kama Sutra raised more than just temperatures. They heightened expectations of what ballet could be, an art form as sensual and exploratory as it is precise and rules-bound, as fine arts specialist Tatiana Senkevitch keenly observes in the insightful essay-like notes she provided for the glossy keepsake program – itself an educational project – given out free of charge at the Saturday show.

Perhaps not surprisingly, given the focus on intimate pas de deux, the evening touched on themes of love, loss and sexual excitement. Lauren Cuthbertson and Federico Bonelli, both members of London’s Royal Ballet, exuberantly dramatized the latter with their lusty performance of the bedroom scene from Kenneth MacMillan’s Manon. Jurgita Dronina, the wonderfully versatile Russian-trained ballerina who dances for both Canada’s National Ballet and English National Ballet, also got hearts racing with her ravishing performance of the Romeo & Juliet balcony scene. Her partner, fellow ENB principal dancer Aaron Robison, was equally enthralling as he threw himself with seeming abandon into Nureyev’s passionately virtuosic choreography. The same couple opened the program with a dazzling performance of Victor Gsovsky’s devilishly difficult Grand Pas Classique, set to a sweeping score by Auber. As someone enthusiastically declared out loud from the audience: Wow! Can they dance! Other interpretations defied the obvious.

Canada All Star Ballet Gala artistic director Svetlana Lunkina with fellow National Ballet of Canada dancer Evan McKie in Douglas Lee’s Mask, a commissioned duet. (Photo: Karolina Kuras)

In “Shiraz Sketch,” a pas de deux excerpted from his latest work, Children of Chaos, up-and-coming Canadian choreographer Robert Binet presented longing as an attenuated period in time, hanging precariously between past, present and future. National Ballet dancers Emma Hawes and Christopher Gerty teetered between equilibrium and disequilibrium as they pushed against the force of gravity pulling down at their efforts to stay afloat in a series of lifts, the quest for transcendence personified.

Mauro Bigonzetti’s Caravaggio, inspired by the Baroque figurative painter of the same name, similarly explored extreme states of being, in this case the light and dark shadows in both the titular artist’s life and work. The slow and winding pas de deux, poignantly performed by Nicoletta Manni and Timofej Andrijashenko of Milan’s Teatro alla Scala, a real-life couple, edged more into tender territory, emerging as an evocative portrait of the artistic impulse made flesh.

In the two works on the program by Yuri Possokhov, a former Bolshoi and Royal Danish Ballet dancer who today is choreographer in residence at the San Francisco Ballet, another company where he used to dance, bodies appeared more as finely tuned instruments soundlessly yet vividly amplifying the music behind the movement. Harmony was not necessarily the ultimate goal, however, as Bells, a compellingly complex work set to the tolling rhythms of a Rachmaninoff piano piece, provocatively demonstrated.

Choreographed as an argument, the duet highlighted a power struggle between members of the opposite sex. Costumed in heartbreak red, the couple intertwined and broke apart, lifted themselves up and threw themselves down, swinging their legs, ding-dong, in the air to a sexually charged beat. Maria Kochetkova, a fantastically mesmerizing ballerina who dances with American Ballet Theatre and San Francisco Ballet, heightened the erotic tension in the pas de deux which she performed with fellow SFB artist Carlo Di Lanno, also her partner for the dream-like duet from Christopher Wheeldon’s Within the Golden Hour danced earlier in the evening.

Timofej Andrijashenko and Nicoletta Manni, both of Teatro alla Scala, dancing the pas de deux from Mauro Bigonzetti’s full-length Caravaggio ballet. (Photo: Karolina Kuras)

Possokhov’s other offering, Sagalobeli, set to traditional Georgian folk music, was another subtly delineated mating dance that, judging from the groundswell of applause that greeted its performance, won the audience over at first sight. Melody here served as a guiding principle, coaxing the human form into lyrical lines of exuberantly expressive movement shot through with a modern sensibility. Wearing a mid-length dress whose demure cut could not hide the quiet urgency behind the exquisitely crafted technique, Lunkina performed the duet opposite Piotr Stanczyk, the potently virile National Ballet principal dancer whose superb partnering skills and soaring lifts made the dance a small treasure.

Lunkina danced twice more on the program, each time with Evan McKie, another National Ballet principal dancer with built-in star quality. Both occasions showed off her remarkable pliability along with McKie’s gift for turning even an abstract phrase of movement into a dramatic statement. These classically trained dancers like to bend the rules and so have sought out choreographers who expand them artistically by contorting their bodies in new ways.

A prime example of this was Mask, a darkly expressionistic pas de deux about self-concealment and revelation which the dancers had commissioned from former Stuttgart Ballet Douglas Lee for their joint participation in the World Star Ballet Gala in Teipei in May. The work spotlighted their risk-taking partnership with extreme distortions and hyperflexions of both the lower and upper body. British choreographer David Dawson’s radical remake of Swan Lake, whose lakeside pas de deux Lunkina and McKie chose to dance as the evening’s finale, felt no less revolutionary.

Originally created for the Scottish Ballet in 2016, Dawson’s reworked classic stripped away the feathers along with most of the fantasy to focus on the intensity of passion behind the illusory love story. The costume for the Swan was white but minimal, a leotard with a single ruby stone at the chest. The Prince wore a finely meshed top with body con trousers permitting glimpses of rippling muscle. The dancing, set to Tchaikovsky’s iconic score, was nearly as naked. Exposing physiques along with emotions, Lunkina and McKie dipped and slid around each other, twisting their torsos and curving their arms in simulation of flight. The eye fluttered to keep up with the liquid speed of the movement. This was ballet briskly breaking new ground.

Deirdre Kelly is a Toronto-based journalist, author and internationally recognized dance critic and style writer. She writes for Dance Magazine in New York, the Dance Gazette in London, and NUVO in Vancouver, and is a contributor to the International Dictionary of Ballet (St. James Press) and AWOL: Tales for Travel-Inspired Minds (Vintage Books). A staff writer at The Globe and Mail for the last 32 years, she was her newspaper's award-winning dance critic, from 1985 until 2001, before transitioning to the Style section as its senior fashion reporter in Milan, Paris, New York and cities across Canada. Her other accomplishments at Canada's paper of record include stints as an investigative reporter in the visual arts with a focus on art crime, a weekly lifestyle columnist covering the Toronto International Film Festival and celebrities, rock critic, business writer and cultural bureau chief in Montreal covering the arts in Quebec and Eastern Canada. The best-selling author of Paris Times Eight and Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, she has also written for a wide range of international titles, including Marie Claire in London, Elle in New York and Vogue Australia. Recipient of the 2014 Nathan Cohen Award for Excellence in Theatre Criticism (Long Form Category), Canada's most important arts writing prize, she is presently at work on her next book, an examination of The Beatles and their style.

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