Friday, March 29, 2024

Subtly Scintillating: The National Ballet of Canada’s Winter Season Triple Bill

Koto Ishihara in UtopiVerse. (Photo: Karolina Kuras. Courtesy of The National Ballet of Canada)

The National Ballet of Canada's Winter 2024 program — at Toronto’s Four Seasons Centre, March 20-March 24 — presented a dynamic blend of tradition and innovation, showcasing three distinct works that push the boundaries of contemporary ballet.

Leading the charge is William Yong’s Utopiverse, a world premiere exploration of alternate realities and the human quest for utopia. It is a first classical dance commission for Yong, a Hong Kong-born independent choreographer whose Toronto-based Zata Omm Dance Projects is known for creating interdisciplinary eco-conscious works that merge dance, technology and other art forms for creative explorations.

In this new 37-minute piece, Yong's visionary choreography seamlessly intertwines with multimedia elements, including video projection, ambulant lighting and a giant suspended mobile metallic set design, creating a fascinating fusion of movement and visual spectacle.

Against a backdrop of celestial imagery, dancers Koto Ishihara, Ben Rudisin, Christopher Gerty and Emma Ouellet transform from earthly beings to otherworldly entities, adorned with cage-like headgear by Elijah Secrest and Yong’s own ethereal costumes. Alexei Kennedy, of the National Ballet of Canada Orchestra, delivers a stunning solo violin performance of Benjamin Britten's melodious score, offering a hauntingly beautiful contrast to the futuristic odyssey depicted on stage. 

Emma Ouellet and Heather Ogden in islands. (Photo: Karolina Kuras. Courtesy of The National Ballet of Canada)

By contrast, Emma Portner’s islands offers an intimate portrayal of human connection. Set to a contemporary musical compilation ranging from desolate songs to experimental electronica, Portner’s choreography intertwists and laces together the perfectly synchronized movements of her two joined-at-the-hip dancers, evoking a sense of shared experience that covers the highs and lows of love, loss and eventual liberation. The women share or rather inhabit a single pair of grey wide-leg trousers that allows them appear as two people become as one.

The 20-minute work debuted in 2020 at the Norwegian Opera and Ballet in Oslo where the Ottawa-born Portner, a sought-after choreographer known for her boundary-pushing work across genres and collaborations with artists like Justin Bieber and London’s West End productions, unabashedly presented it as a paean to the complexities of a lesbian relationship.

But islands — here making its North American premiere— is also open to interpretation, inviting viewers to reflect on the mind-body duality (i.e., our inner and outer selves) or that most primal of female bonds — the mother-daughter relationship. Heather Ogden and Emma Ouellet's flawlessly integrated performance on opening night set the stage for alternating casts to expand the possibilities for meaning for the remainder of the six-performance run.

Besides Hannah Galway and Jenna Savella performing as another female couple is a male-female partnership in which ballerina Alexandra MacDonald supports male dancer Alexander Skinner from behind, a reversal of ballet’s traditional gender roles.

Paul Vidar Saevarang’s kinetic lighting design boxes and frames the dancers, occasionally also flattening and silhouetting them, while highlighting the shifting perspectives inherent to Portner's innovative approach to classical dance.

Harrison James and Svetlana Lunkina in Suite en Blanc. (Photo: Karolina Kuras. Courtesy of The National Ballet of Canada)

You can’t know where ballet is going without understanding where it has come from and on that note, the evening ends with a glittering history lesson of sorts — Serge Lifar's Suite en Blanc, a timeless tribute to classical ballet, specifically the white tutu style. Originally created in 1943 for the Paris Opéra Ballet and set to selections from Édouard Lalo’s very French and very grand Namouna ballet score, Lifar's work (in the repertoire of several international ballet companies but here making its Canadian debut) showcases old-school technical prowess and artistry. Dancers glide, spin, leap and swoop their way through a series of demanding vignettes that spotlight breathtaking displays of aerial fireworks, stabbing pointe work and unassisted balances on the tips of toes. The opening and closing tableaux, featuring dancers frozen in iconic balletic positions on a black double ramp, evoke audible gasps as they transform dancers into luminous works of art in their own right.

Lifar, himself a former star dancer from the Diaghilev-led Ballets Russes era, pushes the limits of what dancers can do. His choreography, a riveting blend of academic dance and early 20th-century modernism, fuses virtuosic feats from ballet’s Romantic and Classical periods with such Ballets Russes-inspired experimentations as pushed-into-the-hip poses, parallel feet, thrown-back heads and curlicue finishes on swept-open arms. As a quintessentially French ballet, it’s foreign territory for the majority of National Ballet dancers not schooled in what Lifar has called the neo-academic Paris style, and on opening night some did struggle to keep up.

A notable exception was Svetlana Lunkina, the company’s Russian-trained principal ballerina seasoned by years of performing on the prestigious Paris Opéra stage. She captivated the the Wednesday night audience dancing the “La Flûte” and the “Adage” pas de deux sections. With her confident command of the French style, Lunkina radiated strength and control alongside her partner, Harrison James, whose unwavering attentiveness perfectly complemented her performance.

Lunkina's subtly scintillating performance stole the show, earning her high praise from former Paris Opéra ballet star Charles Jude and his wife Stéphanie Roublot Jude, who flew in from France to stage the ballet. Jude's affectionate gesture of singling her out for an on-stage kiss at the end of the performance underscored Lunkina's brilliance in this ballet.

In other sections, Calley Skalnik delivered a dreamy and dynamic performance in “La Cigarette,” while Spencer Hack thrilled with his high-octane rendition of the “Mazurka.”

Additionally, Tene Ward epitomized elegance in the “La Sieste” pas de trois, alongside Chelsy Meiss and Monika Haczkiewicz, while Brenna Flaherty, joined by Donald Thom and Larkin Miller, showcased boundless energy in “Thème Varié.” Isabella Kinch embodied airy finesse in “Sérénade,” and Koto Ishihara impressed with agile grace in the fast-paced “Presto.” These dancers particularly enhanced the performance with their individual contributions, contributing to the program’s triumph as an exciting showcase of ballet past, present and future. Expectations are now high for what might follow next. 

– 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. In 2023, she published her latest book, Fashioning The Beatles: The Looks That Shook The World.


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