Friday, March 25, 2022

Aiming High: The National Ballet of Canada’s Mixed Program

Jillian Vanstone and Harrison James in After the Rain. (Photo: Karolina Kuras, courtesy of The National Ballet of Canada)

A departure, a beginning, a wobble, a blast from the past. The ebb and flow of life united four works seen on the mixed program that the National Ballet of Canada presented at Toronto’s Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts last week. Amid two world premieres – one each by company principal dancer Siphe November and guest choreographer Alysa Pires – was the company debut of Christopher Wheeldon’s After the Rain, and a reprise of Kenneth MacMillan’s Elite Syncopations as the evening’s frolicsome conclusion. But one at a time.

The departure: After 22 years with the National Ballet, principal ballerina Jillian Vanstone exited the stage with a performance of After the Rain that cut to the heart. The Vancouver-born dancer chose Wheeldon’s exquisitely crafted two-part work about love and loss as her grand finale. It was quite the send-off. Vanstone’s complete commitment to the dance, her ability to dwell deep inside the heart of a piece with unruffled integrity and a strong sense of inner composure, has long been her hallmark. But here, paired with a ballet of spare beauty, that simplicity of style attained the sublime. With partner Harrison James, Vanstone literally soared to new heights. Dressed in little more than a skimpy pink leotard, her dark hair untied, and her bare limbs exposed, she appeared as if naked, a pure vessel of the dance. Nothing came between her and the rapturous swells of movement raising her up and lowering her down into upside-down bridges anchored to the ground. The risky lifts and gymnastic body forms suggested sexual tension and surrender, mysterious, like lovers in the dark. The pas de deux formed the climax, as it were, of a physically rigorous sextet performed in the blue-costumed first half. Besides Vanstone and James, Calley Skalnik partnered by Naoya Ebe and Genevieve Penn Nabity partnered by Ben Rudisin also performed After the Rain on March 9. All were outstanding. But Vanstone was transcendent.

The beginning: As only the second Black dancer in the 70-year history of the National Ballet to ascend to the company’s highest artistic rank, Siphe November was already one to watch before the company commissioned him to create a new main stage work for the winter season. But with On Solid Ground, his work about the humanity behind the creative process, the 23-year-old South African-born dancer has been catapulted to the next level. His visually sophisticated work for nine dancers is not just a masterful accomplishment. It represents the future of ballet in Canada. With its skillful blending of classical and urban dance forms, On Solid Ground is both academic and instinctive, structured and loose, a dance whose energies intertwine and flow into the art of ballet, invigorating it to the core. A work made for the BIPOC era, it dissolves boundaries and gives rise to new voices clamouring to take ballet beyond the pale representations of long-ago Paris and St. Petersburg and into the here and now. The accompanying music shapes and informs the new direction. The amplified score, comprising a compilation of songs about love and family, features beat compositions by Benjamin Gordon, aka Benki Boko, Msaki and American video game composer Steve Mazzarro. At the core is an African hymn, “Lesa Wandi,” which Choolwe Muntanga, a Zambian-born singer now based in the UK, performed live as part of the work’s debut. The song incorporates the sound of a child talking. In program notes released to the media, November said that on hearing it again he was reminded of his own childhood, in Africa, where the urge to dance is deeply rooted in community and family. It’s not a performance. It’s a way of life. It connects people, making them feel part of a collective experience. The choreography, with its interlocking shapes and interconnecting rhythms, unfurls like ribbon, uniting the ensemble in a kind of ritual of shared movement. The Bolshoi-trained ballerina Svetlana Lunkina, giving one of the most impassioned, barrier-breaking performances of her storied career, leads the pack, inspiring her fellow dancers to melt and fall deep inside the movement’s tactile luxuriousness. Augmenting the work’s sensuality, its “groundedness,” are the sage-coloured costumes with slashed leotard tops and thick, spangled bottoms that fully cover the legs. November designed them himself. The costumes don’t reveal; they conceal. The primary focus here is the group dynamic, and not the pretty bodies underneath. And that, if you know the history of ballet, is itself revolutionary. It signals a big change.

Heather Ogden and Brendan Saye in Skyward. (Photo: Karolina Kuras, courtesy of The National Ballet of Canada)

The wobble: Alysa Pires’ Skyward drew inspiration from starlings and the choreographer’s own pregnancy, which coincided with the work’s creation last year, she explained in the program notes. The avian references were easy to spot – aerial leaps, wing-like arms, sky-scooping lifts, nest-like body clusters. To name a few. The unisex costumes were feathered, the lighting replicated the changing colours of a summer sky, and the original score, created and performed by the Eighth Blackbird contemporary chamber ensemble, swooped and soared. The mood was said to be hopeful, as befitting the arrival of new life. But optimism didn’t exactly leap off the stage. Blocking it from view was a surfeit of danced images (and ideas) that made the piece feel cluttered. Weighed down by choreographed excess, it just didn’t achieve the desired lift-off and so fell flat as a relatable emotional experience. Heather Ogden danced it with Brendan Saye. Spencer Hack performed a solo part. Naoya Ebe, Hannah Galway, Tirion Law, Chelsy Meiss, Noah Parets, Kota Sato, Calley Skalnik and Donald Thom formed the ensemble. All danced powerfully, even exuberantly. There was real spring in the jumps, men’s especially. Too bad they didn’t go anywhere you’d want to visit again.

The blast from the past: Elite Syncopations has fan-kicks, wiggling bottoms, vaudevillian sight gags, and silly flirtations galore, all set to a medley of vintage ragtime tunes by Scott Joplin and other composers. The sassy one-act ballet entered the company’s repertoire in 1978, four years following its Royal Ballet debut, and is frequently performed for the simple reason that it is a genuine crowd-pleaser. But coming as it did at the end of an evening of new and innovative work, Elite Syncopations, this time around, showed its age. The zany hats, bold stripes and cling-on coloured unitards with strategically placed florals and stars just jive with a program whose overall mood was less razzle-dazzle, more deeply internalized. It felt like a buzz kill, which is not what you’d usually say of this light-hearted ballet, and only because it just didn’t fit in. Yet, it was on that the dancers themselves loved it. Elite Syncopations gave the company a rare opportunity to exercise its funny bone and show off what it can do in the musical comedy department. Which is plenty, as it turns out. Highlights included Jaclyn Oakley and Noah Parets in “The Alaskan Rag,” Naoya Ebe in “Friday Night,” Breanna Flaherty and Isaac Wright in “The Golden Hours” and Tanya Howard in “Calliope Rag.” Jillian Vanstone again stole the spotlight dancing the “Stop-Time Rag” and with Harrison James the bittersweet “Bethany: A Concert Waltz.” What more needs to be said? Vanstone ended her career on a high note.

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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