Sunday, January 29, 2023

Lost in Translation: Wayne Mcgregor’s MADDADDAM

Siphesihle November and Jason Ferro in Wayne McGregor’s MADDADDAM. (Photo:Bruce Zinger; Courtesy of The National Ballet of Canada)

"But the people couldn’t be happy because of the chaos.” It’s a line uttered during the course of MADDADDAM, and it comes close to summing up reaction to a ballet where the dance got in a swirl of virtuosic theatrical effects. Based on a trilogy of dystopian novels by Canada’s Margaret Atwood, British choreographer Wayne McGregor‘s lavish three-act adaptation for the stage, a co-production of the National Ballet of Canada and England’s Royal Ballet, commission of The National Ballet, confuses and disappoints. It doesn’t tell a story that’s easy to follow, and it doesn’t use the art of dancing that measures up to the soaring imaginative peaks of Atwood’s speculative prose. Where her novels feel futuristic, McGregor’s ballet, whose world premiere took place at Toronto’s Four Seasons Centre at the end of November, appears curiously anachronistic, being more concerned with scenography – a hallmark of the early-20th-century Les Ballets Russes – than with pushing classical dance into brave new territory.

In MADDADDAM dance often takes a backseat to the stagecraft, appearing almost incidental to a grand spectacle achieved by other means. Most of Act I (Castaway), for instance, is dominated not by dance — but by filmmaker Ravi Deepres’ projected images (including vistas of the Canadian wilderness and downtown Toronto), Lucy Carter’s mood-setting lighting, fashion designer Gareth Pugh’s eye-grabbing costumes and the orb-like set created by British architecture firm, We Not I. These various elements are faultlessly blended to create a powerful visual experience whose wow factor serves to highlight by contrast the comparative deficit of excitement in the choreography. Max Richter’s original score, blending stabbing electronica with lush, orchestral rhythms in a unified whole, crashes, crackles, and cradles, opening up emotional pathways not readily apparent in the dance. Opening night cast members like Harrison James, Heather Ogden, Koto Ishihara, Jenna Savella, Piotr Stanczyk, Tanya Howard, Siphesphile November and Jason Ferro did what they could, rippling and swaying with the grace of seaweed, and, when the moment demanded, slicing through the air with taut limbs that cut like a blade. But the show’s hyper-flexed production values tended to eclipse their efforts.

Some of the ground lost is regained in Act II (Extinctathon), where the choreography finally takes its rightful place at centre stage. The dancing proceeds in solos, duets, septets and group formations, locking and unlocking with space-devouring fluency. The high-intensity precision and athleticism, presented as a video game, recalls Chroma, McGregor’s astringently kinetic one-act ballet about the technological body (it entered the National’s repertoire in 2010), while the off-kilter balances hark back to Genus, McGregor’s stunning exploration of evolutionary theory, which entered the company’s repertoire in 2017. In these past works, physically potent dance and McGregor’s own cerebral pursuits have performed a breathless duet, making him one of the world’s most-sought after choreographers (hired even by the makers of the Harry Potter series of films). In MADDADDAM, some of that choreographic magic returns to captivate, but only briefly. In Act III (Dawn), the choreography is occluded by a constantly revolving cast of characters and by dramaturg Uzma Hameed’s frustratingly inchoate script.

Always investigating new sources of inspiration, McGregor has created dances from literature before, notably Jonathan Safran Goer’s Tree of Codes and the novels of Virginia Woolf, which formed the basis of Woolf Works, his first full-length created for the Royal Ballet in 2015. The Booker Prize-winning Atwood would seem to be a natural fit for him. They share a fascination with science and with the effects of the environment on the human body. Atwood’s novels are often heralded as sculpture fiction even though they are rooted in real-life problems and present-day events like plagues, institutional slavery, genetic engineering and ecological destruction by rapacious corporate industry, These dark and portentous themes populate the pages of Atwood’s 2014 MaddAddam trilogy, whose other titles include Oryx and Crake (published in 2003), and Year of the Flood (released in 2009). McGregor is clearly a huge fan of these books. His ballet wants to pay tribute but ends up being too ambitious for its own good. That expression, biting off more than you can chew? It applies here. Translating one book into a ballet is one thing (and it’s been successfully done before, several times over). But three books? It really is too much. You can’t see the plot for the atmospheric tumult, and you can barely discern the dance through the crowd of dramatic personae competing for attention on stage.  MADDADAM looks progressive – freakish Atwoodian hybrid pigoons instead of romanticized swans and a survivor camp instead of a princely palace as a principle locale. But the choreography doesn’t parallel the visionary impact of the novels that inspired it. The opportunity to make a ballet of the future gets lost in translation. 

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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