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The Eighth International Competition for the Erik Bruhn Prize

by Denise Sum

March 18, 2009 -- Four Seasons Centre for the Arts, Toronto, Ontario

The Competitors

  • Isabella Boylston and Cory Stearns (American Ballet Theatre)
  • Elena Lobsanova and Noah Long (The National Ballet of Canada)
  • Hilary Guswiler and Alban Lendorf (The Royal Danish Ballet)
  • Dores Andre and Anthony Spaulding (San Francisco Ballet)
  • Rachele Buriassi and William Moore (Stuttgart Ballet)

The Judges

  • Kevin McKenzie (Artistic Director, American Ballet Theatre)
  • Karen Kain, C.C. (Artistic Director, The National Ballet of Canada)
  • Nikolaj Hübbe (Artistic Director, The Royal Danish Ballet)
  • Ricardo Bustamante (Ballet Master, San Francisco Ballet)
  • Tamas Detrich (Artistic Associate, Stuttgart Ballet)

The Hosts

  • Chan Hon Goh (Principal Dancer, The National Ballet of Canada)
  • Aleksandar Antonijevic (Principal Dancer, The National Ballet of Canada)

The Choreographers

  • Marcelo Gomes (American Ballet Theatre)
  • Matjash Mrozewski (The National Ballet of Canada)
  • Iain Rowe (The Royal Danish Ballet)
  • Val Caniparoli (San Francisco Ballet)
  • Bridget Breiner (Stuttgart Ballet)

A palpable sense of excitement filled the Four Seasons Centre at the International Competition for the Erik Bruhn Prize. The competition is a rare treat for Toronto dance lovers. As few international companies include Toronto in touring schedules, this is a special opportunity to see upcoming talents from some of the leading ballet companies. This year, there was the added excitement around the introduction of a choreography competition. Although in the past some companies have commissioned new works for the Erik Bruhn Prize, for the first time each company was required to present an original work.

Classical Repertoire

The Royal Danish Ballet’s Hilary Guswiler and Alban Lendorf were the first youthful pair to grace the stage. They set the bar high with an impressive rendering of the Act II pas de deux from “La Sylphide.” Although this pas de deux can lose some of its effect when presented out of context, both dancers were particularly expressive in their mime, showing that the strong, theatrical tradition is alive and well in Denmark. As the Sylph, Guswiler was as weightless as one could ever wish and appropriately naive. Her bourrées could have been smoother and her front foot was slightly floppy on the sissonnes, but these signs of inexperience were rather insignificant overall. Lendorf, her James, gave a very fine and well-rounded performance. In his variation, he travelled across the stage with each phrase. What was most splendid was his ability to dance “big” but also to hone that explosive energy at precisely the right moment -- a pirouette finishing in a clean 5th, say. There were some forgivable minor adjustments on the notoriously difficult landings from the double tours en l’air, but one could easily be distracted by his beautiful feet and articulation. Both dancers performed with admirable poise and polish. Though more subtle than their flashy competitors, the Danish couple rose to the occasion and left a strong impression.

Next, American Ballet Theatre’s Isabella Boylston and Cory Stearns took to the stage in the “Black Swan” pas de deux. Boylston exudes the confidence and charm of an opera diva, and the determination in her expression said she was in this to win. From the start, there was not one moment of hesitation. Each step was bang on and she also used the adagio to flaunt gorgeous lines. Dramatically, she was completely believable as the seductive Odile. Her pointe shoes were very loud and her style and mannerisms may be a bit overdone for some tastes, but she committed to every choice she made on stage, leaving little room for doubt. She is a remarkable turner and her strong centre also makes for endless balances. Her variation was perfectly elegant. Sissonnes displayed lovely, unforced extension. She took her time with each renversé, holding the attitude position until just the last moment. Stearns was able to match his partner in technique, if not in charisma. He demonstrated strong partnering skills and clear, brilliant footwork. The famous coda provided the fireworks audiences have come to expect from competitions. Stearns soared effortlessly in his jumps and Boylston completed almost all of the grueling fouettés before switching to piqué pirouettes. In the final pose, she threw her head back to mark the end of a triumphant performance.

It was unfortunate that Rachele Buriassi and William Moore of Stuttgart Ballet had to follow ABT’s performance with the same pas de deux, albeit a slightly different version by John Cranko. This also happened in 2002, when the National Ballet of Canada and RDB performed the “Black Swan” pas de deux back to back (the order of performers is drawn from a hat). It is always anti-climactic to watch it the second time. Buriassi and Moore’s interpretation was more subdued, with carefully considered dramatic touches, like Buriassi’s sideways glances to Siegfried, ensuring that she maintains his undivided attention. While both are talented dancers, their pas de deux lacked chemistry. Whether it was a case of nerves, lack of experience dancing together, or simply jet lag, the pair had a rough start in the adagio. Positions were off-balance and the grand promenade near the end was shaky. In his solo, Moore demonstrated good ballon and a likable presence. The only distracting thing is that he seems to sail through his pirouettes with his toe barely skimming his knee in retiré. His alignment is fine but this seems to slow down his turns, so that he lacks the momentum to turn more than 2 or 3 pirouettes. As for Buriassi, she seemed to have regained her confidence by the time it was her turn to dance her variation. She danced to the music usually associated with Siegfried’s variation which was a bit unusual. Nonetheless, she executed the steps with precision and grace.  The coda provided a flashy finish, although both struggled with their fouettés and tours à la seconde respectively.

Next, San Francisco Ballet’s Dores Andre and Anthony Spaulding provided a welcome change of pace with the Act II pas de deux from “Giselle.” She was a pleasure to watch. Her expressive port de bras and serene presence underscored a deep understanding of the Romantic sensibility. Spaulding was a dependable partner, although parts of his variation were somewhat labored, spoiling the otherworldy atmosphere of the piece. Like the Stuttgart couple, there was also little connection between them to make the story believable.

Finally, the National Ballet of Canada closed the classical portion with the “Le Corsaire” pas de deux (the same pas de deux that NBoC dancer and 2007 Erik Bruhn Prize winner, Tina Pereira, danced). For Torontonians, Elena Lobsanova has been one to watch since she joined the corps de ballet in 2005. She recently danced the role of Nina in the company premiere of John Neumier’s “The Seagull” and Maria in “West Side Story.” She is blessed with ideal proportions and facility for classical works, as well as an instinctive musicality. As Medora, she was simply radiant. Her dancing is exception in its purity, allowing the viewer to appreciate the steps rather than become distracted by mannerism or embellishment. Noah Long surprised us, pulling out all the stops as Conrad. Some hyperbole is appropriate here, and Long relished in the rare opportunity with dizzying pirouettes (moving from relevé to plié à la Angel Corella) and daring switch-split leaps. There must have been a fouetté curse that night though, because Lobsanova, like the two others before her, had difficulty with them, traveling sideways.

Contemporary Repertoire

The contemporary section is always a wonderful opportunity to appreciate the tremendous range of each dancer. The RDB couple made an impact with “An Elegy for Us” choreographed by Iain Rowe. It was the most modern and unaffected of the contemporary offerings. The dancers were both in soft shoes and the movements were grounded and earthy. The aesthetic was minimalist with him in a plain black suit and her in a dark knee-length dress, accompanied by sparse piano music by James MacMillan and Michael Byron. There are 2 chairs on stage. She pursues him, he rejects her advances. He moves his chair, she follows. Periods of athletic frustration are interspersed with periods of dynamic stillness. Tension builds until he throws his chair and then touches her gently. She cringes. A “door” off-stage opens and a crack of light grows onto the stage and we can hear the chatter of a cocktail party. It is a serious piece and Guswiler and Lendorf performed it with a maturity that belied their youth (at 18 and 19 years old respectively, they were the youngest competitors by far).

ABT brought “End.” by Marcelo Gomes set to Schubert’s “Piano Trio #2 in E Flat.” The Romantic score and dreamy costumes by Jared Aswegan -- a lush purple tulle dress on Boylston and simple poet shirt on Stearns -- draw immediate comparisons to mood pieces like “In the Night” or “Intermezzo.” While the most conservative and classical of the contemporary pieces, the strength of “End.” rested in the intricate partnering and strong rapport between Boylston and Stearns. From a technical standpoint, both dancers excelled. Dramatically, however, the performance left something to be desired. Part of it is that Gomes did not give them much to work with. The piece is overly sentimental and reads like a soap opera or diamond commercial. Melodramatic cambrés, running after one another, overdone hand gestures (like the “woe is me” wrist to forehead) -- every balletic cliché was used.

Next, the Stuttgart dancers entertained with Bridget Breiner’s “La Grande Parade du Funk.” With offbeat music from Chris Brubeck, Buriassi and Moore hopped, twisted, and stretched playfully in every which way. Breiner drew from ballroom and jazz idioms to create a fun and wacky pas de deux. The dancers looked much more comfortable here compared to the classical segment and their rapport also seemed improved. Through devilish exchanges it was as if they were communicating inside jokes.

San Francisco ballet brought “Ebony Concerto” choreographed by Val Caniparoli set to Stravinsky. Jazzy trumpets and pounding drums complemented undulating, rhythmic movement. Here, Spaulding shone. He has incredible elevation and a smooth quality to his dancing. Andre unfortunately seemed lost in the unorthodox style. The angular steps looked awkwardly jerky on her. The pas de deux involves fluctuating tensions between the couple as they push and shove, alternately fleeing one another and then being drawn back together. But the dancers were so stylistically mismatched that the discrepancy became distracting at times.

Canadian Matjash Mrozewski was one of the more experienced choreographers in the competition. He created “Dénouement” for Lobsanova and Long, using cello music by Paul Tortelier. The pas de deux was well-crafted, uncluttered, and quirky without trying too hard to be edgy. Although the pared down structure, with its long silences and pauses, lent a contemporary feel, Mrozewski drew mainly from the classical vocabulary to form the basis of ‘Dénouement”. With the off-balance holds and unusual lifts, the work was clever, if not altogether moving or insightful. Lobsanova and Long did well here. Both were elegant and showed the audience a real partnership with a high level of trust and synchrony. There were glimpses of tenderness, most memorably the final pose in which they embrace, simply leaning their heads forward to come to rest on each other’s shoulders.

Awards Ceremony

After a few words from the hosts, Chan Hon Goh and Aleksandar Antonijevic, and a performance of excerpts of Sabrina Matthews’ “Dextris,” the award winners were announced:

Choreography Prize - Matjash Mrozewski

Best Female Dancer - Elena Lobsanova

Best Male Dancer - Cory Stearns

Congratulations to all participants!

Photography by Bruce Zinger

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