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National Ballet of Canada

Triple Bill

by Kate Snedeker

March 4, 2009 -- Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, Toronto

As spring made its first tentative appearance in Toronto, National Ballet of Canada returned to the Four Seasons Centre stage with the “Innovation” triple bill of world premieres by young Canadian choreographers.  It was fortuitous timing, for current financial realities likely rule out programming many new ballets for the foreseeable future.   Ranging from classical elegance to modern edginess, the evening's performances revealed that Canada has impressive choreographic talent… even if that talent isn't always put to the best use.

Kicking off the Canadian choreographic fest was Peter Quanz’s aptly named "In Colour".  Drawing his inspiration from a book on colour by British film director Derek Jarman, Quanz looked both to colour – and the absence of it – to shape his ballet.  A corps elegantly outfitted in metallic gray, and a thick lacy backdrop forms a canvas for a series of solos and pas de deux by vividly attired dancers. Since Quanz’s choreographic portfolio includes commissions for companies such as the Mariinsky (Kirov) Ballet, American Ballet Theatre and the Royal Ballet, it is not surprising his choreography is quite classical, with hints of Petipa.  The commissioned score by Russian composer Anton Lubchenko, has echoes of Russian composers from past eras.  Lubchenko, at just 23, is clearly an up and coming talent, and his score is one of the few recent commissions for ballet that is danceable, musical and unique.

The soloists first appeared in silence, simply attired in white (briefs for the men, simple tops and bottoms for the women).  Later, they returned in deeply hued costumes for a series of finely wrought solos and pas de deux.  The dancers were clearly inspired by the chance to take on new choreography, and the dancing was of uniformly high quality.  The solo for Bridgett Zehr and Guillame Côté was one of the highlights – smooth, delicate and intimate.  Zdenek Konvalina in blue also impressed with his controlled flexibility and enviably pliable feet.

Quanz was particularly effective with the corps de ballet – he moved the dancers through distinct patterns with ease, creating eye-pleasing shapes from the mass of bodies.  The corps sections had the appearance of a slightly modern take on the "Swan Lake" corps or the big ballroom dances in "Sleeping Beauty".  And perhaps that's where the problem lay.  "In Colour" was elegant, visually pleasing and tidily packaged.  But the ballet never seemed to break free and define itself as something new and distinct.  It's as if one has seen each of the pieces somewhere else and they had been re-assembled with new transitions.  The slow processing of the gray-clad corps – couple by couple each hand in hand – felt eerily like a rehearsal for "Sleeping Beauty" or "Swan Lake".

“In Colour” will no doubt serve well for triple bills, but it would be fascinating to see what he could create with Lubchenko as far as either a piece for a very few dancers or a new take on a full length ballet.

A bit surprisingly, to this reviewer, the real eye-catching piece of the evening was Crystal Pite's "Emergence".  Pite, though a dancer with the Albert Ballet for a number of years, decided to push the dancers beyond the classical comfort zone.  And the result was thoroughly fascinating, unique and stunningly danced.  Jay Gower Taylor's sets and Owen Belton's electronic score created a world hovering between reality and fiction, populated by a horde of black clad dancers.  The back scrim was dark, with arced lines emerging from all around a hole that serves as a point of emergence.  The lines, though simple, gave the piece a bit of structure – they could have been clouds emerging from an explosion, birds arcing away from a central point, or something all together abstract.

The men were in black trousers, the women in simple black, and for the first half, were outfitted in indistinct masks that were reminiscent of the mice from the comic-storybook "Maus".  There was clear suggestion of themes involving armies and war (Pite cited bees and insects as one of her inspirations) – the sounds of tramping feet and distant artillery – like echoes in the score, the absolutely superb angled lighting by Alan Brodie and Pite's fascinating choreography.

Pite kept the women on pointe, but beyond that she played mostly with a more modern choreographic idiom.  Taking ballet dancers into the modern realm can be a spectacular disaster – it looks like ballet dancers doing modern dance – but here the NBoC dancers looked utterly at home.  Part of Pite's success was using the plasticity of balletic bodies to create modern shapes, and interweaving more classical bits in with the modern.

Much of the choreography explored the slow fluidity of motion – arcing legs, arms and torsos.  Pite was at her best when she worked with large groups of dancers, moving them through and around each other.  When the women moved through the regularly scattered thicket of the male corps, every dancer was constantly moving, the movement regular, yet every dancer slightly different so the two groups coalesced and wove through each other without the slightest break in movement or appearance of set choreography.

At another juncture, the men flopped face first down, the arc-like shape of their outstretched bodies creating a living mosaic.  The pattern was endlessly intriguing, though visible for only a few moments. At other times, Pite had the dancers chanting out the counts – an unearthly rhythm – the rhythm of both ballet and of marching soldiers.

In perhaps the most moving image of the ballet, and one that most directly suggested the idea of creatures in battle, the female corps lined up parallel to the wings.  As the women tonelessly counted out steps, and moved in almost machinelike harmony, six men tried to break their line.  Each time the one of the men got close to the line of women, he suddenly arched back as if repelled as if struck by a hail of bullets or an unseen barrier.  It was eerily reminiscent of the images of WWI soldiers hurling themselves out of a trench to an almost certain death.

In "Emergence" Pite has created a piece that is unique, questioning, fascinating, and perhaps most important, a perfect fit for NBoC.  I hope it finds a home in the permanent repertory.

After the emergence of "Emergence", Sabrina Matthew's "DEXTRIS", set to Vivaldi's "Dixit Dominus" was an unsatisfying ending the evening.  Much has been said about Matthew's talent, but someone should have steered her well away from the 'live choir trap'.  The idea of having a live choir accompanying ballet might seem attractive and innovative, but I know of no successes.  In fact, the ballet world is littered with choral-balletic disasters such ABT's fascinatingly horrific two part "Carmina Burana" and Peter Martins' bland "Chichester Psalms".  Choirs tend to be expensive, difficult to schedule and distracting. Which means that such ballets often can't easily be revived, can't be toured and are often more memorable for the singing than the dancing.

While choral music often works well for ballet, having a large choir onstage is not.   Matthew's piece, unfortunately, demonstrated all of the potential pitfalls.  She placed the choir in two large metal bleachers that dominated the stage, leaving a relatively shallow area for the dancing.  And though the choir was clad in black, the eye was drawn to them, particular during the un-coordinated flashing of white sheets at every page turn.  Christopher Dennis' dim lighting also drew the focus upwards as the shadows playing on the choir were often more eye-catching than the dancing.

Had the dancers been more visible, the piece may have had a more of an effect.  However, since the dancers were outfitted in drab shades of tan, they didn’t stand out from the rest of the action on stage. The dancing, for the most part, alternated between the five couples and a soloist or two.  The couples were intertwined in close partnering of no particular uniqueness – women supported in deep penches, women in splits, etc, etc. 

The end result was that faced with a choir (the excellent Toronto Mendelssohn Choir), soloists frequently at the front of the stage (stage right) and flesh-coloured dancers, it was hard to concentrate on the dance.  I remember more about the choir and the soloists than the dance – not a good thing when I came to see the dance. It's the dance, the dance!

Overall, the triple bill has given NBoC one memorable piece, one solid piece that will be a solid addition to the repertoire and one ballet to file away in the "should have know better" file.  Not a bad evening, but one some wise direction could have lifted to a much higher level.

As a note, I think NBoC could do well to pay attention to the copy editing and writing in their playbill inserts.  The articles on the ballets had several glaring spelling errors, and the intro pieces on the ballets seem to stray dangerously into the realm of reviews.

I like to find out about the pieces I'm going to see and especially about the choreographers, but want to form my own opinions.  So phrases like "the grandeur of Matthew's choreography" and "rich triumvirate works" and "has created a ballet of epic proportions" seem a lot more like PR writing than good journalism.  Shouldn't it be up to the viewer to decide whether the ballet is epic or the choreography is grand?  We shouldn't be told – telling an audience how they should feel is very dangerous ground – it's a good ballet because we told you so. 

And it's even stranger when the articles were almost certainly written before the pieces were complete – the dress rehearsals couldn't have been but more than a few days ago.  It's generally considered to be a major taboo to review a piece before opening night – so why stray over that line in the playbill?   If you need to fill space, consider an interview with a choreographer and/or a dancer's view of the piece or an interview with the lightning designer/costume designer/composer.


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