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National Ballet of Canada


by Kate Snedeker

June 19, 2010 -- Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts

On a lovely late-spring evening, the National Ballet of Canada opened the final production run of the 2009-2010 season with a glorious performance of John Cranko's “Onegin”.   The evening was full of balletic highlights, the primary being the full-length lead role debut of the company’s newest principal dancer Jiri Jelinek.   Having moved to NBoC from a principal position with the Stuttgart Ballet, the company on which “Onegin” was created, Jelinek brought to this production a great deal of experience in and understanding of the lead role.  In the beginning, he gave “Onegin” a rather youthful tinge, but developed the character with a wonderful subtlety.

Jelinek partnered the sublime Xiao Nan Yu expertly through the intricate pas de deux. Yu was the most emotionally powerful of the lead dancers, and if perhaps no longer completely convincing as the naive teenager, she's breathtaking as the maturing and older Tatiana.  There are few dancers who can meld emotion and movement as well as she did in the final pas de deux.  Their dancing was nothing short of technically flawless, but the newness of the partnership showed in moments of restraint.  For instance, in the final pas de deux while Yu and Jelinek hit the slide to high supported split-lift sequence precisely on the musical surge, the split would have had more emotional impact had it been performed with more abandon and amplitude.

Casting the real life couple of Guillaume Cote and Heather Ogden as the young Lensky and Olga is clever; as a pair they bring out the best in each other, and who better to play a soon to be married couple, than a soon to be married couple. In the bubbly first act pas deux, the couple placed nary a foot wrong, bringing a perfectly giddy ease to the tricky choreography.   Cote did have a few minor wobbles in the first act, but as in “Swan Lake” a couple months back, he came into his own in later solos - the final Act 2 solo was a marvel.  One wonders if as he leaves the technical wunderkind years behind, his body is taking a bit longer to recover from past performances and warm up for each new performance.

To someone who did not see him during his performing years, the massive applause at Rex Harrington's entrance as Prince Gremin was a bit off-putting.  Certainly Harrington brought an appropriate gravitas as Tatiana's eventual husband, elegantly partnering her in Act 3 (minus one subtly off balance moment in the first lift).  Yet, such a fuss over a relatively minor character who is portrayed as being fairly reserved and unassuming seems to draw attention away from the focus of the story, Tatiana and Onegin. 

From these stellar principals, down to the corps portraying the peasants & party-goers, the quality of the dance was at a season's high.  If only so much could be said for the highly touted new sets and costumes. Clearly, the relatively large expanse of the Four Season Centre's stage brings a different set of challenges in terms of presenting the ballet, as compared to the smaller opera house stages in Europe. However, Santo Loquasto's answer to the challenge suggested that leaving behind Jürgen Rose's stunning original designs was a significant mistake.

The major fault with the design, combined with James F. Ingalls non-lighting, was the overly cluttered, repetitive sets and ill-suited colour palette.  These issues made one wonder if Loquasto has fallen into the trap of creating a set and costumes that fulfill his own artistic fantasies, rather than being supporting elements to the dance.

Loquasto set the first scene outside a rather Romanesque facade, which is possibly anachronistic and worse, stretches across much of stage right, taking away space from the dance. The concept might have worked, given the size of the stage, had the audience not been forced to look around and between the layers of birch trunks which stretched up in various places from floor to ceiling. (Many of which seemed to impossibly sprout between the facade stage right and other bits of pillared facade on stage left!).

The trees continued to plague the ballet during Tatiana's party and then re-appeared to obscure much of the pivotal duel.  This kind of repetition was also obvious with the facade, which turned into Tatiana's bedchamber windows and one side of the Act 3 ballroom.  Creative reuse of set components can be a clever way to connect scenes and reduce cost, but here it just seemed cheap and lazy.  The set for Tatiana's bedchamber was a hodgepodge of set bits, which took away from the power of the dream scene transformations.

The backdrops - at least what could be seen through the forest of birches – were painted in somber, darker colours.  Loquasto also chose to shift from Rose's mostly light-coloured costume palette to one with deeper, darker hues.  This presented a significant issue in that the dancer's costumes often blended right into the background.  Onegin's black costume in Act 1 blended right into the background, as did Lensky's Act 1 and Act 2 costumes, and worse, Tatiana's final pas de deux dress.

The closeness in hues might have been somewhat tolerable had Ingalls' lighting been at all passable.  However his non-lighting was abysmal, and utterly ineffective.  The spots were nearly non-existent, leaving one squinting to pick out the leads, and the shift in lighting during the dream scene was very muted.  It is startling that such basic design and lighting issues were not noticed during the creation of the production. 

As it is the end of the school year, perhaps it’s fitting to sum this production up in terms of a report card.  In this final balletic examination of the 2009-2010 year, the dancers passed with flying colours, but the designers failed and must re-write the exam.

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