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National Ballet of Canada

'Skin Divers' and 'Carmen'

by Kate Snedeker

June 6, 2009 -- Four Seasons Centre, Toronto

The final program of the National Ballet of Canada’s 2008-09 season provided an apt reflection of a season as a whole: what began slightly unfocused and underwhelming finished with passion, fire and energy.  On this evening, the North American premiere of Dominique Dumais’ “Skin Divers” was far less than the sum of its parts, while “Carmen”, deliciously re-imagined by DavideBombana, left the departing audience with a truly satisfying view of the National Ballet at its most powerful.

The company’s brochure trumpets Dominique Dumais as one of “Canadian choreography’s most important voices”, but in “Skin Divers”, she has let her multitude of ideas overwhelm the dance.   Dumais’ choreography, set to an intriguing, if not entirely melodic, selection of music by Gavin Bryars shares the stage with Tatyana van Walsum’s sets and videos projected on a scrim and Anne Michael’s poetry.  The poetry, which provided the inspiration for the ballet and the title, is moving, the projections of close up shots of a female torso are captivating, and Bryars’ music is almost mesmerizing.  However, all together with the choreography, it’s a cacophony, artistic chaos.   If I concentrated on the poetry, my mind wandered from the dancers; if I focused on the dance or the projections, I couldn’t follow the poetry.  Given the very lackluster applause, it would appear that much of the audience was equally as unable to grasp the piece as a whole.  I’ve seen a few similar disasters before, and it’s a shame that someone didn’t step in and guide Dumais away from attempting to be jack-of-all-trades and a master of none.  Simply omitting the spoken word would have made a world difference in making the piece a unified, watchable whole.

Even with the multitude of distractions there seemed to be some gaps in the choreographic foundation of the piece.  Bryars’ modern music though danceable, is challenging fare even for the most brilliant of choreographic minds like Christopher Wheeldon.  In this instance, Dumais, whose choreographic idiom is heavy on the right angle of deep plies in second and tangled pas de deuxs, didn’t effectively join movement and music.  As such, the steps rarely had the feeling of emerging from or working with the music.  It was almost as if the score had been added as an after thought, not used as the foundation upon which the choreography was built.

“Skin Divers” begins with four couples emerging behind the scrim upon which an extreme close-up on a naked female torso is projected.  Whether by intent or by virtue of my angle to the stage, the relative placement of the torso and the dancers’ entrance gave the appearance of a birth. The first part of the piece continues behind the scrim, which later lifts to allow the piece to finish with an image of a single human eye blinking on the backdrop.  The eye is captivating  –  perhaps too much so, as it draws the attention just as Dumais’ choreography is beginning to pick up strength and cohesion.   Thought the piece itself has some crucial flaws, one struggles to find anything but praise in terms of the performance. The men in particular, led by the company’s great young talent, Keiichi Hirano, were powerful, and fully committed to the choreography.  Praise also to the string quartet and the emotive lighting by Mark Stanley.

In comparison, DavideBombana had a clear vision for making “Carmen” his own, which he executed in a piece that blazes along to the gripping finale.  Originally created for the Ballet du Capitole, a French company led by a former NYCB dancer, the ballet strips the story of Carmen down to the bare essentials.   Framed by a semi-circle of metal evoking factory facades, fire escapes and an industrial hell, this “Carmen” is independent of a specific era or location.  It is simply about passion, flirtation, temptation and the fatal consequences of mixing the three together.

The magic in Bombana’s “Carmen” is in his ability to turn the traditional on its head without losing the essence of the story.  Georges Bizets’ classic score forms the underpinnings of the score, but the majority is a cleverly edited combination ranging from RodionShchedrin to Meredith Monk to Jose Serebrier and Tambours du Bronx.  The costumes, mostly in shades of black, grey and red, generally reflect a street-wise urban hip, but Carmen and Michaela’s costumes hint at more balletic traditions, even in the modern cuts.

Though his idiom is neither pure ballet nor pure contemporary, Bombana never looks lost between the two.  He’s not afraid to use balletic steps or jumps, yet at ease with shifting directly from fluidity to sharp angles.  And the dancers leap at every opportunity.  This season has made it clear that the NBoC dancers are fluent in far more than just ballet, and “Carmen” marked the pinnacle of their cross-over achievement.  It’s not hyperbole to say that what took the ballet from brilliant to breathtaking was the incredible casting and the passion of each and every dancer on the stage.

In what may be his breakout role, Noah Long was a passionate, arrogant, steely, volatile Don Jose.  It was hard to believe this was the same young man who did the brilliant, but emotionally one-dimensional “Le Corsaire” just a couple of months ago in the Erik Bruhn Competition.  At this performance, we saw a character imbued with barely contained simmering tension and dancing that explosive yet emotional.  One might say this role made a man out of the boy.  And one can only hope that a promotion is in the very near future – for if the company is looking for talent to follow in the footsteps of dancers like Harrington, Antonijevic, Kish and Cote, they need look no farther.

Opposite Long, Ogden was perfectly cast as the hard-edged Carmen.  Ogden seems to thrive in the bad-girl roles that require emotional power in a steely package. Petite she may be, but dainty she’s most certainly not.  Bombana’s Carmen is as much seductress as flirt, hardened in the ways of the world, to the point where she only emerges briefly from her shell to let Jose’s love into her soul.   Ogden’s fearless, but powerfully controlled dancing is the perfect match for the character – she moves every limb with purpose, giving the motion weight, but stopping in a heartbeat.  Much of the score is heavily percussive, a perfect soundtrack for this strength of movement.  Her face remains hardened most of the time, the brief emotional openings that appear when she’s with Don Jose are visible in her changing body language.

Robert Stephen, as the gypsy leader Garcia, also tackles a role that marks a major step forward in his development as a dancer.  The tattooed, brazen character on stage is light years away from the baby-faced dancer pictured in the program.  Sonia Rodriguez makes a brief appearance as Michaela, but in her purple dress looks as if she took a magic fire escape ride from West Side Story to Carmen.  Kudos also to Lise-Marie Jourdain, who in her brief solo as Carmen’s adversary put the bitch back in blond, proving that the fair-haired can fight with the best them.

In a ballet full of innovation, it was hard to top Bombana’s gender-bending take on the toreador’s dance.   Eschewing the traditional, we are presented with four men outfitted in full flamenco outfit, led by the strutting bull, Escamillo.  One can’t help but smile at the cross-dancing toreadors, but the scene cleverly avoids all-out Trock-esque humour and plays on age-old symbolism.   For, of course, the bull has been a symbol of fertility and masculinity for millennia, and the toreador’s dance has always been about machisimo.   Bombana also brings a modern twist to the dance, by taking here (and earlier with Carmen) the traditional fan and enlarging it to outsized proportions.  The huge, unadorned black fans, wielded by the toreadors and Carmen, create striking images, which project well into a huge theatre, dispensing with the dainty and replacing it with an unsettling symbolism.  It is as if this very symbol of feminine daintiness and seduction is being twisted into something more masculine darker – the dark side of both Carmen’s seduction and Don Jose’s masculinity perhaps.   Jonathan Renna’s Escamillo was boldly danced, horns and all.   A note of praise too for the corps, who though occasionally appearing slightly tired – many of the dancers were probably in the earlier matinee performance –  attacked that choreography with relish and passion.

So while the program was uneven, the power of “Carmen” left the audience buzzing. There’s nothing better than to see dancers step into a new realm, redefining their limits and abilities.  It bodes well for the exciting season to come, and for the chances to see these up and coming young dancers continue their development in new roles (and hopefully with new ranks!).  Happy summer and happy dancing!

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