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The National Ballet of Canada

'The Four Temperaments,' 'Watch Her' and 'Glass Pieces'

by Kate Snedeker

November 25, 2009 -- Four Seasons Centre, Toronto

The National Ballet of Canada’s first triple bill of the 2009-2010 season could have easily been described as a celebration of the corps de ballet. Incorporating the full range of stage-filling non-story ballet from Balanchine’s 1946 black and white classic “The Four Temperaments”, to the early eighties “Glass Pieces” by Jerome Robbins and the world premiere of Aszure Barton’s “Watch Her”, the program put the company’s corps front and centre. However, with a medium size company such as NBoC, a corps-heavy triple bill can be a risky undertaking, and indeed on this evening the lasting memories were of stand-out solo performances and the striking choreography, not the corps.

Balanchine’s “The Four Temperaments” never ceases to amaze, each viewing revealing new facets of the brilliant, ingenious harmony of choreography and music (Paul Hindemith). On this occasion, it was the dancing by the soloists - particularly that of Zdenek Konvalina in the Melancholic solo - which left an imprint on the memory. Konvalina, who along with Guillaume Côté is carrying the lion’s share of the company’s male principal repertoire, was easily the class of the ballet, with a sinuosity and crisp speed tailor-made for Balanchine. Though elegant in Phlegmatic, Alexsandar Antonijevic revealed the slightest whispers of age – a bit of slowness in movement and loss of flexibility through his back. It was hard to put a finger on, but there was something just missing in his performance.

McGee Maddox was an announced replacement for Piotr Stanczyk in Sanguinic, a significant assignment for a new corps member. There were no missteps in the pas de deux with Heather Ogden, but Maddox’s lack of experience was clear in comparison to the other soloists. He’s is a tall, solidly built dancer who has lots of potential, but while the steps are there, the crispness, flow and speed are still developing. I’d love to see him as Theseus, or Titania’s Cavalier in Balanchine’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” or as the dreamy sailor in “Fancy Free”, but he’s still lacking the fast-twitch reflexes and stamina for black & white Balanchine.

The corps, however, was in clear need of more rehearsal time. At times some dancers were clearly out of synch with everyone else, and in one extended pose, the four female dancers had their weight distributed so differently that one wondered if they all understood the intended position. Hopefully the corps will improve as they get more performance experience, since NBoC doesn't have the breakneck speed and attack that allows a company like New York City Ballet to get away with a certain degree of roughness.

Aszure Barton's "Watch Her" remains a bit of a mystery that needs another viewing to be fully assessed. There were fascinating sections, but on first sight, the piece felt too long and rambling to be entirely cohesive. It's as if Barton didn't have a clear idea where she was going with the piece - no overall concept and too many characters for a viewer to be able to develop some attachment or understanding.

“Watch Her” is set in a space surrounded by marble or concrete walls with five doorways on each side – a sort of generic Grand Central Station or a hidden inner-city courtyard designed by Yannik Larivée. The piece begins and ends on the outside of this space, a lone man sitting on windowsill, surveying the scene before the front wall lifts to reveal the scene or lowers to hide it. The costumes (suits for the men and long skirts with shirtwaist-like coats for the women) hint at an early 20th century setting. However, when the women shed their coats, the dresses underneath are very much era-neutral.

Over the course of the ballet, as observed by the man first seen in the windowsill, we glimpse into the lives of several female characters. Sonia Rodriguez was the sultry woman in red, a seductress who may or may not be a prostitute (the choreography makes some heavy hints towards intimate relations). Bridgett Zehr - the company’s current female star along with Heather Ogden - was a youthful, innocent woman who attracted men, but not without incident. Heather Ogden was the other main woman, but the details of her character did not stick. Even without her vivid red dress, Rodriguez’s performance would have stood out for it’s stark emotion. Barton never fills in the details about these women, but Rodriguez created a woman who was sultry, but sad, fierce, but fragile. The men who interact with these women were by and large a faceless bunch because it was hard to figure out what they meant to the women or why we should care about these relationships.

Beyond the sections for the women in red, the power in “Watch Her” came from the sweeping sections for the large corps. Barton has flair for moving corps around stage, and created some memorable images. However, the movement was sometimes at odds with Lera Auerbach's score, and the ballet seemed to wander rather than move with purpose. Longer does not necessarily mean better, and “Watch Her” would probably benefit from a sharper editing eye.

Despite losing focus during the ballet, Barton comes up with a fascinating ending. In the courtyard or room two women appear to position one man centre stage, another watching from the front of the stage. The light shifts to reveal the heads of the entire cast watching from just above the top of the back wall. A lone tree trunk is in one corner. The effect was eerie and claustrophobic – were we in a jail, or even an execution ground?  Then, the row of heads still watching, the front wall silently lowers from the ceiling to close off the room and our view. But with the watching man isolated on the front of the stage.

Jerome Robbins' 'Glass Pieces' is a challenge for any company, let alone for a corps that has already been through two tough ballets. NBoC made a very gallant effort, but the corps looked under-rehearsed, particularly in Rubric.

Rubric involves a large cast walking quickly in unending, near-collision patterns to racing, relentless, percussive music by Philip Glass. I've also seen Rubric as Robbins' ode to the pedestrians and streets of New York City, and like NYC, ‘Glass Pieces’ is not for the faint of heart. On this evening, the corps was buoyant, but one could sense a slight hesitation as if the dancers needed a bit more time to be comfortable enough with the choreography to 'let it rip'. With a few more performances under their belt, the corps should be on the top of their game.

While the women were very natural in Rubric, a number of the men looked entirely too stiff in the hectic walking patterns. It’s not easy to let go of the stiff formality of normal ballet walking - half jokingly, I'd suggest a field trip to Grand Central Station in New York City because it’s hard to grasp Robbins’ intent until you've experienced the intricate, deft, fast, individual way that people walk in such a busy open space.

The high point was Facades, led by the outstanding Zehr and Konvalina. With the female corps slowly moving along the back of the stage, the two wove a spell in the intricate, fluid pas de deux. From the start, they captured the eye, not releasing it until the music ended.

NBoC, as a note, appears to have subtly altered the costumes to make the ballet more contemporary. The headbands worn by some of the soloists are gone, and many of the Rubric costumes seem to be much more matte, rather than the shiny material of the originals.

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