Thursday, March 19, 2020

Danse Macabre: Three Works by the National Ballet of Canada

Greta Hodgkinson in Marguerite and Armand. (Photo: Karolina Kuras)
 
Given that dance seasons usually are organized at least a year in advance, the National Ballet of Canada couldn’t have anticipated the uncanny timeliness of a mixed program highlighting the body’s fragility, ephemerality and resilience – themes now resonating with a public spooked by the global spread of the new coronavirus, which the World Health Organization has recently declared a pandemic. A sure case of art imitating life.
None of the three works the company presented two weeks ago at Toronto’s Four Seasons Centre for The Performing Arts simulated a contagion – nothing as obvious or as graphic as that. Featuring the world premiere of Angels’ Atlas by Vancouver’s Crystal Pite, a remount of Wayne McGregor’s Chroma and the Canadian debut of Sir Frederick Ashton’s Marguerite and Armand, the two-hours-plus evening more explored momentum and transience – metaphors, if you will, for the human condition in the throes of an existential crisis.

Ashton’s work, concerning a consumptive courtesan, struck maybe too close to home – especially when the heroine coughed. Dumas fils’s La Dame aux Camélias served as source material for the one-act dance drama originally created for Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev at England’s Royal Ballet in 1963. Old-fashioned in a hand-to-the-forehead, pleated-drapery and flouncy-costumes sort of way, Marguerite and Armand is today rarely performed.

Set to the emotional cadences of Franz Liszt’s Piano Sonata in B minor, the cliché-ridden romantic tragedy recently was revived for Canada at the request of principal dancer Greta Hodgkinson, a 30-year veteran with the company who chose it for her final performance with the NBOC last Saturday night. Partnered by Guillaume Côté, she danced the swooning role with delicacy, passion and her trademark incandescent technique – glorious to the end.

Svetlana Lunkina and Brent Parolin in Chroma. (Photo: Karolina Kuras)

Marguerite might have yielded to her illness but the ballsy dancers performing McGregor’s adrenaline-fueled Chroma refused to go down. Propelled by the high-speed and rigorous score Joby Talbot and the White Stripes created for Chroma in 2006, the dancers pushed against stasis, throwing down fears that the body is weak and at the mercy of its own flesh-and-blood limitations.

One of the most ingenious British choreographers working today, McGregor has always exhibited great faith in the body, seeing it as inherently dramatic and beyond capable. Chroma showcases extreme extensions, pliant spines, pelvic thrusts, soaring leaps and dizzying turns that spur dancers onwards into new hyper-physical spheres of balletic expression.

And the NBOC dancers clearly love the challenge, bringing all their strength, flexibility and super-charged technique to bear on a work powered by gutsy performances. Applause all around goes to Jordana Daumec, Naoya Ebe, Spencer Hack, Koto Ishihara, Elena Lobsanova, Chelsy Meiss, Noah Parets, Brent Parolin, Ben Rudisin and Kota Sato, the cast that killed it last Thursday night. They never looked better.

Artists of the National Ballet of Canada in Angels’ Atlas. (Photo: Karolina Kuras)

Like Chroma, Angels’ Atlas, Pite’s new work, commands its dancers to take a defiant stance against the impermanence of their own art form. But it does so as part of meditation on death and transfiguration. Inspiration came from set designer Jay Gower Taylor, Pite’s partner in life and in art who, with lighting designer Tom Visser, developed a system enabling him to manipulate reflected light in multiple ways across a flat surface. The resulting “painterly images,” as Pite calls them in her program notes, coalesce and cascade like liquid starshine, illuminating new vistas and realities beyond the here and now. Heaven shimmers in the details.

The sense of the hereafter is amplified by Canadian composer Owen Belton’s original score, blending recordings of Tchaikovsky’s Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom – the Cherubic Human with Morten Lauridsen’s O Magnum Mysterium. In ritualized worship singing meaning is never static but continually flowing. Accordingly, the multilayered choreography – liquid, emotive, precise – surges forward, questing after hidden truth.

For Pite, that truth is the “fierce pulse of life” at the heart of her ephemeral art form, what she wants to honour in the minutes before the dance disappears. Helping her reach that goal in Angels’ Atlas are the 37 dancers performing as part of a large synchronized ensemble punctuated by duets and solos commanded by Hannah Galway, Siphesihle November, Heather Ogden, Harrison James, Jordana Daumec, Spencer Hack and Donald Thom with Svetlana Lunkina, Ben Rudisin, Chelsy Meiss and Brent Parolin alternating.

Leaping, bending, gesturing, falling, they trail the darkness with passages of movement that are life-affirming even as they fade from view. The effect is exhilarating, the perfect antidote for a world shaken by illness and fears about the future. Symbolizing the indomitable human spirit, dance prevails. We will too.

Deirdre Kelly is a Toronto-based journalist, author and internationally recognized dance critic and style writer on staff at The Globe and Mail newspaper from 1985 to 2017. 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). 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. In 2017, she joined Toronto’s York University as Editor of the award-winning York University Magazine.

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