Tuesday, November 21, 2023

Feeling Her Pain: Emma Bovary at the National Ballet of Canada

Hannah Galway and Siphesihle November in Emma Bovary. (Photo: Karolina Kuras/Courtesy of The National Ballet of Canada)

Emma Bovary ran at Toronto’s Four Season’s Centre from November 11-18.

In the promo video the National Ballet of Canada put out in advance of the world premiere of Emma Bovary, choreographer Helen Pickett says that her intention was to get the audience to understand what the titular character – one of the greatest female creations in all of literature – is feeling. That undersells it.

A triumph of dance-theatre where every gesture is loaded with narrative meaning, Emma Bovary has more to do with how we feel while watching it. Much like Gustave Flaubert’s original mid-19th-century realist novel, the experience is vividly complex. We are riveted, repulsed, seduced, astonished, amused, horrified and ultimately sympathetic. Gratification is also part of the emotional mix. Together with her collaborator, the English theatre and opera director James Bonas, the California-born Pickett – a former Ballet Frankfurt dancer who has choreographed more than 60 works – has created an ultra-physical narrative ballet so potent it grabs you at your core.

The new 65-minute production opened at Toronto’s Four Season’s Centre on November 11, kicking off the company’s 2023/24 season. Artistic director Hope Muir commissioned the adaptation, having earlier worked with Pickett while at the helm of the Scottish Ballet. She picked a winner.

Pickett’s choreography is richly articulate, featuring talking hands, shoulders, eyes, mouths, legs and feet that drive the story forward. An exaggerated pantomime, so expressionistic as to seem ghoulish, loads the ballet with a high degree of artifice even as it tells a tale about a true-to-life woman’s folly and fall from grace. The dancing bodies speak in other words. They bring Flaubert’s words alive in ballet’s crucible of the flesh.

Augmenting the ballet’s richly physical aspect are stunning sets and costumes by Michael Gianfrancesco, an emotive lighting design by Bonnie Beecher, poetic animation by Grégoire Pont and additional atmospheric projections by Anouar Brissel. Peter Salem’s original score is almost a character itself, whispering and thundering through a seamless series of mise-en-scènes to establish a strong rapport with the storyline and by extension the audience, listening enthralled in the dark.

A psychological study, Emma Bovary is danced by an ensemble with key roles performed by soloists and principal dancers. Commanding the stage for almost the entirety is the dancer who performed the central role of Emma, the bored-to-tears chatelaine in a middle-class existence who seeks pleasure where she can find it, even at her peril. On opening night, she was fully inhabited by Hannah Galway, a 23-year-old second soloist (just one rank above corps de ballet) from British Columbia whose first breakout role (small but notable) was in Crystal Pite’s Angel’s Atlas back in 2020. Galway has obviously deepened her artistry, despite having had few other opportunities to shine since then. In Emma Bovary she exhibits a fearlessness rare in a ballerina her age, a prized quality that enriches and enlivens her dancing, making it consistently absorbing.

While attuned to the emotional resonance of the choreography and to the shifts and nuances of plot, Galway interprets the role in ways that exceed expectations. With lascivious backbends, coital contortions, and slicing arabesques, she gives off hints of a nascent nymphomania nibbling at the edges of Emma’s chronic dissatisfaction, which makes her performance also so intriguing.

Hannah Galway and Donald Thom. in Emma Bovary. (Photo: Karolina Kuras/Courtesy of The National Ballet of Canada)

Sex serves as a central escape, involving not just her decent but dull husband Charles Bovary (an empathetic Donald Thom) but also her extramarital lover Rodolphe Boulanger (a sensually charismatic Sipheshile November). There are other distractions, namely an over-indulgence (to the point of personal bankruptcy) in costly clothes and home furnishings sold to Emma by the oleaginous fine goods salesman, Monsieur Lheureux (a mesmerizing Spencer Hack).

These extravagances are frowned upon by Emma’s oppressively censorious mother-in-law (Jordana Daumec) and undermined by the frisky goings-on of the house maid Felicité (Tirion Law) and her fellow servant Justin (Alexander Skinner), who copulate in one of those precious cupboards, disrespecting their value.

Emma can’t see it; she is blind to everything but her own image in the mirror. She can’t discern how ugly she is when she displays brutal indifference to her only child (here rendered as a faceless knee-high puppet animated by dancers on hands and knees) – batting it to the floor when its own needs interfere with her own.

Mired in debt and rejected by her erstwhile lover (who refuses to pay her bills), Emma eventually does see herself as demeaned along with her possessions. The image of a sparkling society – what she aspired to through her reading of romances and frequent forays to the opera – also becomes debased to her eyes. Her fellow citizens’ apathy strips them of civility. The men now appear to her increasingly unbalanced mind as beasts, wearing pig masks and manhandling her beyond decency. The women in their jewel-toned gowns swish away in an opposite direction, wanting nothing more to do with her. There can be no salvation in a world as cold as this.

Like the novel, the ballet ends in tragedy and yet a strange sense of apotheosis hangs over the dramatic proceedings. There’s been a transformation, for sure – flesh into spirit and book into ballet, one solid, the other ethereal, but both contributing to – how did Pickett put it? – an understanding of feelings. Yes, a real change has taken place. By pushing through the constraints and sophistication of classical dance, Pickett and Bonas have together pushed the story-ballet – a centuries-old form – into fresh territory. Stylistically bold and compellingly dramatic, Emma Bovary captures the dread of an existential crisis, linking it to emotions that all of us can relate to, deep in the soul.

Emma Bovary shared the program with the Canadian premiere of James Kudelka’s Passion, a 30-minute non-narrative ballet (originally created for Houston Ballet in 2014) that combines classical and contemporary dance elements in a multi-layered and unified whole. Set to the first movement of Beethoven's Concerto for Piano in D, Op. 61a, the choreography is unusual in having two distinct dance styles cross paths on the same stage, each seemingly oblivious to the other. The technical purity of the classical elements (embodied by a corps de ballet and central dance couple in romantic tutu and tights) contrasts with the elasticity and emotional exuberance of the central contemporary section, forming a dialectic where old and new, light and shadow, male and female dance roles and energies. These opposites create visual texture and drama in a ballet that is essentially abstract.

Principal dancer Piotr Stanczyk requested that the NBOC acquire Passion as the ballet with which to end his 25-year career with the National Ballet, saying that, working again with Kudelka, the Canadian choreographer who mentored him when he first joined the company in 1998, it would allow him to come full circle. Wish granted: on the night of November 11, Stanczyk danced the contemporary pas de deux with Svetlana Lunkina, demonstrating the attentive partnering skills and magnetic dramatic presence that have made him a company star for a quarter of a century. Harrison James and Calley Skalnick performed the classical pas de deux which served as a muted and tasteful foil to the slow-burning devotion glimpsed in the other. Intimate and soulful, Passion delivered what Stanczyk wanted – a vehicle with which to exit the stage on a personal high.

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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