National Ballet of Canada
by Kate Snedeker
November 14, 2008 -- Four Seasons Centre, Toronto
It’s not every night at the ballet that you need a flowchart of relationships to keep the story straight. Then again when you combine Chekov and Neumeier, the result is far from ordinary. Chekov’s “The Seagull” is perfect source of inspiration for John Neumeier whose streamlined and emotive production translates the classic play into the ballet world. Drawing from his own experience in crafting characters and from an eclectic score ranging from Tchaikovsky to Evelyn Glennnie, Neumeier has created a ballet that brings the emotion of the play to the balletic stage.
On Friday evening, more than half a decade after its creation, the National Ballet of Canada gave “The Seagull” a stunning North American premiere. Barely a week after a slightly underwhelming season opening triple bill, the company came forward with a truly inspired performance. Whereas the dancers were good last week, on this night they looked energized, well rehearsed and engaged – a company with a soul.
Completely inhabiting the role of Kostya was the outstanding Zdenek Konvalina. From the beginning, when he strolls on the exposed stage and slowly folds an origami bird, to his final dream performance, Kostya is the heart of the ballet, and a character who rarely leaves the stage. In the twisted web of relationships, he is the son of Arkadina (a prima ballerina), in love with Nina, loved by Masha (his first cousin once removed) and seeking the approval of his mother. However Nina is infatuated with Trigorin, a popular choreographer and the lover of Arkadina. It’s a recipe for disaster, with Kostya’s failure in love and choreography the centerpiece of the unraveling relationships.
The ballet is split into two acts, with Neumeier’s sets and costumes providing a simple but effective contrast between the moods. A few chairs, a staircase leading offstage and a plain wooden stage with a painted backdrop provide the frame for the action, the dancers clothed simply but effectively. In the first act, Kostya and Nina appear in pure white, hope still in the air. In the second act, the stage reappears, but the backdrop is torn and askew, a corner of the stage floor burned out. And the two main characters appear in pure black. The only constant is the lapping sea, exquisitely realized by a blue-lit backdrop rolling via the breath of an unseen wind.
Neumeier is known for his ability in crafting characters, and the love stories and tragedies are beautifully realized in his choreography. Each act is constructed around a big set piece – Kostya’s ballet in Act 1 and the Revue & Trigorin’s ballet in Act 2. Set to a percussive score by Scottish musician Evelyn Glennie, “Kostya’s” ballet is Nijinsky-esque – it’s modern and permeated with an erotic exoticism. Forward thinking and individual, it’s scorned by his mother and the rest of the audience, much to his great upset.
Its failure is highlighted by the great contrast with the success of Trigorin’s pastiche of classical ballet, aptly named “Death of the Seagull”. In this piece, Neumeier combines the worst of “Swan Lake”, “Le Corsaire” and “Diana and Acteon”, but deftly intertwines the near-spoof with some truly stunning steps. Aleksandar Antonijevic, in particular, and Greta Hodgkinson were superb in the pas de deux, Antonijevic looking at ease in solos that covered the full range of male bravura steps. The corps was also up to the challenge, one striking moment a series of poses for the male dancers where Wei Chen (?) [fact check] froze in a soaringly high second arabesque for an achingly long stretch of music. Wow!
Another highlight was the revue that opens the second act. This act finds the ambitious Nina having been relegated to the back row of a music hall revue. Neumeier deftly moves the lines of high kicking, feather bedecked dancers around a stage decorated with a sole red and black stage piece. This sparse, but creatively lit setting creates a mood both festive and foreboding.
Here the corps of the National Ballet of Canada was at its strongest. Gone were the wobbles and heavy landings of the triple bill, with the men in particular massively improved over the course of a week. In this scene, Neumeier also makes allusion to other choreographers – when Nina first spots Trigorin, he has just come off stage, his costume heavily suggestive of a Bournonville ballet.
However, the emotional core in the ballet is the deeply expressive choreography for the main characters. Konvalina wraps his whole body around Neumeier’s weighty steps, trying to soar like his paper seagull, sinking deeply into the earth as he fails in love and dance. As mentioned previously, Kostya is a character who rarely leaves the stage, so it’s a role than makes or breaks the ballet. And without a doubt, Konvalina makes this ballet, and this performance firmly establishes him as one of the finest Neumeier interpreters today. (I’m guessing that the role was made on Lloyd Riggins and I could see flashes of Riggins in Konvalina). Kostya is a perfect role for Konvalina who draws the eye whether center stage or observing the action from shadowy corner.
Kostya's signature step is an attitude in second with the supporting foot in demi-pointe – something at once classical and modern, simple and complicated, balanced and unbalanced. Konvalina captures these contrasts effortlessly, having the controlled plasticity to move through the often slow choreography without apparent effort or jerkiness.
Opposite him, Sonia Rodriguez showed her talent by easily making Nina’s journey from besotted baby ballerina to haunted young woman. In her white dress, she is the innocent, youthful dancer with a life in front of her, blithely spurning the man who loves her for an older, fickle lover. Her relationship with Trigorin brings neither dance opportunity nor lasting love, leaving her with a life wasted. Yet in the end, she cannot release herself to Kostya’s love – in a final symbolic act she lies down in front of Trigorin, her arms outstretched in the shape of a cross. She has, in more than one sense, sacrificed herself – and Kostya’s love – for her infatuation with Trigorin.
Rodriguez was all supple limbs, at times fragile, at others determined, but always elegant. Her movement is effortless; fluidity mixed with flexibility. Together with Konvalina she was magical, as perfectly illustrated by a pose in a pas deux where he balanced on his head between her legs. Arching backwards towards the audience, he rested his head between her legs, their arms rising up and down, echoing the flapping of a seagull’s wings. At once the movement was symbolic of the title seagull, but expressed the constrained sensuality and the power of Nina’s love – or lack thereof – over Kostya.
It was an evening of passion, heartbreak and, inevitably, a sorrowful ending. Neumeier chooses to make Kostya’s suicide more figurative than literal, but the pain of Nina’s final rejection remains un-diminished. The combination of Neumeier and the NBoC seems to be a match made in heaven, and it’s a ballet not to be missed. If the company can continue at this level of artistry and motivation, we are in for an excellent season!