Tuesday, November 16, 2021

Raising the Curtain: The National Ballet of Canada Returns from Lockdown

Artists of the Ballet in Angels ’ Atlas. (Photo: Johan Persson, Courtesy of The National Ballet of Canada)

Excitement surrounding the return of the National Ballet of Canada to the Toronto stage, following 18 months of pandemic-imposed lockdowns, swelled as soon as the doors reopened at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts on Thursday night. “Welcome Back,” words writ large on the stage curtain, greeted the fully masked members of the audience as soon as they stepped into the theatre. The mood became immediately celebratory, jubilant, even festive, as if at any moment confetti would fall from the ceiling along with balloons.

Comprising revivals of George Balanchine’s Serenade, Crystal Pite’s AngelsAtlas and, as an interlude in lieu of an intermission, Métis choreographer Jera Wolfe’s Soul, an intimate dance film created in the pandemic and previously screened as part of the company’s virtual Spotlight Series presented online earlier this year, the fall 2021 program had been created with a sense of fanfare in mind.

On a practical level, the staged works had been chosen for their lack of sets, a precautionary move due to the threat of lockdowns and supply chain disruption. But if that sounds like an artistic compromise, know that the company’s selections all had merit. One is a 20th-century classic, the other an award-winning contemporary creation, and the film a representation of dance’s embrace of technology to advance the art form in challenging and unpredictable times. Directed by Paul McNulty, Soul shows company dancers Harrison James and Ben Rudisin as well as Tanya Howard and Guillaume Côté in a tenderly edited sequence of interlocking pas de deux. So what might have been born out of necessity ultimately succeeded as a prodigious evening of inspiring dance.

Ballet is back. The people have been starved for it. When that big greeting card of a curtain finally did rise to reveal 17 members of the corps de ballet posed in diagonal lines against a cerulean blue backdrop, arms uniformly held high with wrists bent, as if to shield their gentle faces from the light of an imaginary moon, the audience exploded with applause before anyone on stage had moved. This moment had been a long time coming and everyone was glad for it. Even the dancers appeared visibly moved, some trying desperately not to cry from a surge of palpable emotion.

It was a momentous occasion, one for the books. Rarely in the history of ballet, not even in wartime, have dancers been compelled to stay away from each other for fear of spreading an airborne illness. For close to two years, they’ve had to do what they can on their own without recourse to a studio, stage or instructor helping them to maintain their form. Many dancers were able to continue their barre work exercises in their own homes, using, as could be seen in the videos they shared on Instagram and Facebook during the lockdowns, their kitchen counters for support. But jumping they could not sustain. Their own residences typically lacks the ceiling height of the professional dance studio to accommodate lift-off. Their homes also lack the spongy studio flooring necessary to absorb the impact of a jump’s potentially knee-shattering landing. The National Ballet’s dancers have only been back in full training mode since August so there’s still some catching up to do. And this isn’t to fault them. Their return to the stage this week found them more than willing to make up for lost time.

Sonia Rodriguez and Artists of the Ballet in Serenade. (Photo: Karolina Kuras, Courtesy of The National Ballet of Canada)

In Serenade, they hurled themselves passionately into the dancing, appearing thrillingly impetuous even as they executed the technical demands of Balanchine’s classical choreography with its quadruple pirouettes and precision porte de bras. Sonia Rodriguez, Tanya Howard and Jurgita Dronina, the company’s three lead women, kicked their legs with such force that their diaphanous angle-length skirts billowed up and around them, visualizing the work’s undercurrents of lightness and air. The dancers didn’t just pull it off. They embodied the melodious momentum, the wispy emotion and stripped-down solemnity of a ballet that can be interpreted as a meditation on life’s fragility and flight. You could see how much they were into it, heightening moments of unspoken drama with verve alone. They brought the ballet alive. Even Guillaume Côté and Piotr Stanczyk, who partnered the three ballerinas in the rapturous waltz section and the Angel of Death scene which immediately followed, made their mark on a ballet in which men barely matter. Serenade, originally made on a classroom of young female students, hardly a man among them save for the choreographer himself, is all about the women at its romanticized core.

This exquisite 1934 creation is a poetic reverie intimately linked to Tchaikovsky’s mellifluous Serenade for Strings, Op. 48, which the National Ballet Orchestra, under the baton of music director David Briskin, played with lustrous feeling. At a glance it’s a work that might seem to have nothing in common with Angels’ Atlas, the hyperkinetic ballet which followed next, after the screening of Soul in the pause. Pite’s ballet, with its spiky, spasmodic, and emotionally searing movement imagery, is a work of and for today. A commissioned work, its world premiere took place just before the March 2020 lockdowns. This is only the second time the National Ballet has been able to perform it.

A technological wonder, Jay Gower Taylor’s reflective light backdrop design, co-created with Tom Visser, moved in unison with the dancers, among them Harrison James, Heather Ogden, Hannah Galway, Siphesihle November and Genevieve Penn Nabity, all of whom gave outstanding, gut-wrenching performances on Thursday evening. Light fell, travelled and burst in sync with the physical propulsions, the gestural gyrations, the dissolving formations, the transported presences.

Set to an original score by Owen Belton, Pite’s ballet came dressed in Nancy Bryant’s unisex body con costumes, the opposite of Karinska’s feminizing skirts of pale blue in Serenade. But thematically — and even somewhat stylistically – these ballets are linked. Both works use movement as a metaphor for the intensity and ephemerality of life. Death looms forebodingly over each. But death, when it strikes, is not a finality in either Pite’s or Balanchine’s ballets. It’s the gateway to an altered state of being where resurrection is an imaginative construct, a creative act manifesting itself as an enduring work of art. There’s a sense of religiosity emanating from both Balanchine and Pite’s creations and it bypasses sentimentality to appeal to the intelligence.

Death is an everyday occurrence, even more so in the era of COVID-19. It’s an imposed and inescapable reality. But here at the ballet it becomes an opportunity for deep reflection on what it means to be alive and connected on the level of art. It’s the creative and social bond we’ve all been missing, what this long-awaited opportunity to return to the theatre has given us back.

Serenade and Angels’ Atlas with Soul runs until Nov. 27.

Photo by Deirdre Kelly.

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 and AWOL: Tales for Travel-Inspired Minds. The best-selling author of Paris Times Eight and Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, she is a two-time recipient (2020 and 2014) of Canada’s Nathan Cohen Prize for outstanding critical writing. In 2017, she joined York University as Editor of the award-winning The York University Magazine where she is also the publication’s principal writer.

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