Thursday, December 1, 2022

Give And Take: The National Ballet of Canada’s Mixed Program

Svetlana Lunkina, Peng-Fei Jiang and Artists of the Ballet in Concerto. (Photo:Karolina Kuras, Courtesy of The National Ballet of Canada)

A mixed program is usually a study in contrasts with something new, something old and something breezily entertaining often sharing the same bill. The diversity of styles, frequently representing disparate ballet eras, creates its own sense of drama, making it a winning formula for companies wanting an alternative to the full-length classics that more draw in audiences. Take that variety away and a mixed program can fall flat, despite all good intentions. That’s the conclusion drawn from the National Ballet of Canada’s recent presentation of three works at Toronto’s Four Seasons Centre, representing Hope Muir’s first curated program since becoming artistic director a year ago, while Karen Kain was still in charge. Comprising two contemporary ballet premieres and a modernist revival, the program unveiled on November 9 felt disconcertingly monotonous as a season opener. Thematically as well as stylistically, the ballets were more similar than they were different, particularly the contemporary pieces, whose shared fondness for over-busy choreography made them seem like two sides of the same ballet coin. The exception was the still centre of Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s Concerto, a dazzler of abstract academic dance whose vivacious opening and closing sections bookended a pas de deux so serene it was blissful.

Created in 1966, when the Scottish-born British choreographer was briefly artistic director of the Deutsche Oper Ballet in Berlin, it was inspired by MacMillan’s deeply respectful observation of the great Lynn Seymour stretching at the barre. The ballerina’s attenuated lines, her supreme poise and elegance, stand in marked opposition to the rest of the ballet, a spirited romp through Dimitri Shostakovich’s exuberant Piano Concerto No. 2, dressed in designer Jürgen Rose’s zesty costumes of lemon, cherry and orange. MacMillan simulates the classroom exercises he witnessed, using the male dancer as a support mechanism for the ballerina to hold on to as she executes a series of slanted arabesques with circling arms while balanced on the tips of her pointes. Principal dancer Svetlana Lunkina, partnered by partner and corps de ballet dancer Peng-Fei Jiang, raised these basic ballet steps to the level of the sublime. With a gaze ever fixed on a faraway horizon, and fully embracing the minimalist esthetic of this simple – and simply ravishing – pas de deux, she brought a hauntingly meditative quality to her performance, making it an evening highlight.

Jurgita Dronina and Harrison James in The Collective Agreement. (Photo:Karolina Kuras, Courtesy of The National Ballet of Canada)

The sense of ballet as a close collaboration of various parts also rang through American choreographer Alonzo King’s The Collective Agreement, a poetically political work originally made for the San Francisco Ballet in 2018 and here making its Canadian debut. For King, the son of U.S. civil rights activists whose works (made for his own San Francisco-based LINES Ballet company) often explore social justice and equity themes, dance (like life) is a negotiation, an exchange of energies culminating in harmony. Not unlike the Concerto pas de deux, there is a shared sense of purpose, structured around an idea of bodies leaning in for mutual support. But here the male and female dancers – Jurgita Dronina and Harrison James on opening night with Tina Pereira and Christopher Gerty alternating – are equal partners, both strong and inquiring and engaged in physical transactions of give and take. Limbs extend outwards before coiling around the body like a passionately whispered conversation. Arms appear sometimes knotted, with heads bowed, a moment of hesitancy, fragility, before taut, entangled partnering pushes through the impasse, uplifting the participants in the process. The jazz-inflected score, by long-time King collaborator Jason Moran, amplifies the individuality within the collective, underscoring the essential humanity at the core of progressive negotiated change.

The terms of negotiation are constantly shifting, captured by a slippery yet propulsive and voluminous movement style which King has forged from a blending of classical and modern dance. His work isn’t spare. It’s intricately over-layered, becoming a contemporary pastiche of steps, steps and more steps – so many they threaten to blur meaning. But that might just be the point, as suggested by a dim stage illuminated by James Campbell’s mobile lighting design, consisting of three suspended grids of greenish LED bulbs which cast a mysterious glow.

Brenna Flaherty and Kota Sato in Crepuscular. (Photo:Karolina Kuras, Courtesy of The National Ballet of Canada)

A misty atmosphere also pervades Crepuscular, a commissioned work having to do with the fears and dreams engendered in that in-between time between day and night. Created during the pandemic by Vanesa G. R. Montoya, a Spanish-born principal dancer and emerging choreographer with Les Grands Ballets Canadiens, the work first appeared last summer as part of the National Ballet’s summer residency at Toronto’s Harbourfront. This recent performance marks the work’s mainstage debut but it’s not clear why it deserved this bigger venue. As before, while wonderfully fluid and lyrical, it indulges in portrayals of emotion without offering a sense of resolution. And yet the ballet holds your attention, being meticulously structured with sensual and acrobatic movement phrases for the six couples who animate the twilight, among them Christopher Gerty dancing with Jason Ferro, Isaac Wright with Tene Ward, Larkin Miller with Selene Guerrero-Trujillo and – the audience favourites – Kota Sato with Brenna Flaherty. The night theme is amplified by Jeff Logue’s shadowy lighting design and by a selection of Chopin nocturnes evocatively played by Andrei Straeliev on piano, Aaron Schwebel on violin and Maurizio Baccante on cello, with National Ballet of Canada Orchestra director David Briskin conducting. But despite these pluses, the work’s artful ambiguity feels hollow. Crepuscular fails to illuminate its own corners of darkness, remaining fuzzy through to the end.

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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