Multiple takes on the Orpheus myth

George Balanchine’s Chaconne, extracted and assembled from his choreography for the Metropolitan Opera’s Orfeo of 1936, sticks to the pure language of dance. The piece was made for Suzanne Farrell, and it premiered at the New York City Ballet in 1976. Performed for the first time by the National Ballet of Canada, Chaconne, staged by Farrell, Lindsay Fischer and Christopher Stowell, is pure bliss.

Dancing with Harrison James in the principal pas de deux, Heather Ogden was poetry in motion on opening night, as were the other leading ladies, Jordana Daumec and Miyoko Koyasu. In all its intricate variations, including the large ensemble section, extreme fleetness of foot is required, but never in this performance was it achieved at the expense of a united expression of love and festivity.

Singleness of purpose was exactly what is missing from Orpheus Alive, the sprawling dance created by National Ballet choreographic associate Robert Binet in collaboration with New York composer Missy Mazzoli and Toronto writer and dramaturge Rosamund Small. Five years in the making, Orpheus Alive is a reworking, perhaps an overworking, of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice in which Orpheus is the female – alive in contrast with so many leading women in story ballets who are either not human, asleep or ghosts.

Jenna Savella, in a bright yellow skirt that makes her Orpheus always the spotlight, takes charge of her own story, breaking the fourth wall to appeal to the audience, microphone in hand, as the gods of the underworld. As in the myth, Orpheus, the musician offspring of Apollo, can only retrieve Eurydice, captive in Hades, through the persuasive power of art.

Stretching the metaphor of creation and the redemptive power of art in a story always commenting on itself makes Orpheus’s journey into the River Styx to reclaim her lost Eurydice a hard one to follow. Orpheus can only regain Eurydice, performed with grace by Spencer Hack, if she does not look back on her return to earth. This she does: with a removal of her black blindfold. And so is condemned to tell her story over and over again.

Hyemi Shin’s set and costume design creates a Hieronymus Bosch-like Hades, with a trio of yappy switchboard operators – an update of the three-headed dog Cerberus – as gatekeepers at the entrance to hell. A huge crowd of dancers serve as furies, apparitions and zombies, harried into action by Mazzoli’s thundering, ominous score. But the appearance of subway workers (the underground is depicted as the Osgoode station) in neon orange lifejackets certainly blurred the line between parody and serious intent. There are many layers to this reinterpretation of the Orpheus story but in the end, only one theme remains clear: It’s hard to lose the one you love.

Chaconne

Choreography by George Balanchine,

Music by Christoph Willibald Gluck

Orpheus Alive

Choreography by Robert Binet

Composer Missy Mazzoli

A National Ballet of Canada program at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, Toronto, until November 21

Spencer Hack and Jenna Savella with Artists of the National Ballet. Photo by Karolina Kura

 

Dancing Beethoven’s 9th symphony

I have no argument with the word “monumental” to describe Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in D minor. Setting a dance to such a masterpiece is hugely ambitious, and ProArteDanza artistic director Roberto Campanella seems well aware of the challenge. He and co-choreographer Robert Glumbek spent nearly a decade putting together The 9th.

And now that it’s on stage, at the Fleck Theatre at Harbourfront Centre through Saturday November 9, we can see whether they matched the monumentality of the music with equally awesome set, lighting, video and performance. For this viewer, the answer is, not really.

The 70-minute piece is divided into five movements, corresponding to passages from the symphony, followed by the choral section based on Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller’s poem “Ode to Joy”. Why the choreographers chose different recordings for each movement and the choral finale is a question that comes to mind, but as each movement presents only a slice of the symphony, perhaps it doesn’t matter.

The symbolism of the chairs, which lie tipped over across the front of the stage before the curtain comes up raises another question. If you read the program beforehand, you’d find that they represent how “separation is built between us. Chairs are the metaphor that impedes the connection between us.” Fine, but aren’t chairs more often seen as a means for people to get together, around a dining table for instance? More likely they are a prop chosen for ease in carrying around the stage, placing in a row to play musical chairs, or for standing on before they overbalance.

To the dancing then. Taylor Bojanowski, Sasha Ludavicius, Ryan Lee, Daniel McArthur, Connor Mitton, Jake Poloz, Kelly Shaw and Kurumi Yoshimoto, despite their varied levels of experience, show equal mastery of the highly physical manoueuvres assigned them. They wear drab street clothes. Loneliness and struggle dominate the opening scenes, cleverly depicted in simultaneous video on a scrim upstage, the work of Digital Graphic Design’s director David Dexter. Things take on a West Side Story vibe as the well coordinated dancers move in synch, in duos, trios and quartets and opposing each other like gangs meeting in the parking lot.

With each movement, togetherness increases, but there is lots of push and pull, coming together and pulling apart in vigorous variations that never seem to carry a consistent theme.

Finally, with the choral section, all stand together (Alle menschen werden Brüder/All people will be brothers), against a video backdrop of dozens of chairs piled up like a barricade, individual chairs slowly slipping away to leave an open space.

The song is called an Ode to Joy, but if you didn’t understand the German, you’d never know what was meant from the sombre faces of the dancers. And for a climax, having all the dancers stand and deliver the lyrics of the song was a letdown, more like a moment from a singalong movie musical than the transcendence achieved in the final bars of Beethoven’s symphony.

The 9th

Choreography by Roberto Campanella and Robert Glumbek

Lighting design by Arun Srinivasan

Costumes by Krista Dowson-Spiker

At the Fleck Dance Theatre, Harbourfront Centre, Toronto, through November 9

Photo by Alexander Antonijevic

Crowd-pleasing, artistically satisfying

It was a beautiful 20-year-old Italian dancer named Carlotta Grisi who inspired the creation of Giselle, the romantic story ballet that premiered in Paris in 1841 and has stood as a highpoint in the careers of leading ballerinas ever since.

Artistic director Karen Kain, this season celebrating 50 years with the National Ballet of Canada, recalls Giselle as the first ballet she saw and the work that inspired her to dance. “Giselle demands everything from a classical ballerina, from stamina to technical precision, drama and musicality.” Kain first performed it in 1973, partnered with Frank Augustyn.

On Wednesday night, Svetlana Lunkina, who came to the National Ballet from the Bolshoi Ballet, raised everyone from their seats with a moving interpretation of the role that was so technically proficient she made it look effortless. Giselle is the German peasant girl who lives with her mother Berthe in a village surrounded by vineyards. She is wooed by a mysterious stranger named Loys, who poses as a farmer, but is actually Count Albrecht, son of the Duke of Silesia and the fiancé of Countess Bathilde.

Giselle’s intended is Hilarion, a forester who takes note of Loys’ bearing and suspects him of treachery. He tries to warn Giselle, as does Berthe, but this innocent beauty is captivated. Her joy, expressed in playful and artful dancing with Loys, is unbounded. Drama mounts when Bathilde (an august Tanya Howard), in the company of the Duke and a royal hunting party, arrives. She takes an interest in Giselle and gives her a necklace.

Piotr Stanczyk gets our sympathy as the perfectly worthy, robust suitor, who reveals Loys’ identity and status. Giselle’s ecstasy spins into madness and, her humiliation and betrayal on display for all to see, takes Albrecht’s sword and plunges it into her heart, dying in her mother’s arms. Harrison James’s performance as the disguised Albrecht hits just the right note, between cad and true love.

Giselle is a ballet that literally hit new heights; it’s all about lightness and elevation. This aspect of the show is evident throughout: the peasant pas de deux in Act I were brilliantly executed by Siphesihle November, Jeannine Haller, Skylar Campbell and Miyoko Koyasu.

As enduring as the ballet and Adolph Adam’s straightforward, evocative score is Desmond Heeley’s set, created in 1970. The sunny, earthly world of peasants, vineyards and royal hunting parties is sharply delineated from the dark forested spirit habitat of Act II, in which the gauzy, sylph-like Wilis appear, as substantial as willow-‘o-the-wisps and just as mysterious.

Here we find Hilarion beside Giselle’s grave, keeping vigil as the poor girl has been buried in unhallowed ground. The Wilis, the ghosts of betrothed women who were betrayed before they could be married, harry a brave-hearted Hilarion to his death, under the direction of a strikingly powerful Heather Ogden as Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis and lead Wilis Tina Pereira and Jordana Daumec. The full assembly of 18 Wilis make a stirring spectacle. Not a sound is heard over the music as they perform their ghostly ensemble sliding on single feet across the stage.

The applause for Lunkina’s lofty, delicate dancing as a Wili began well before the end of the show. The pas de deux with James made plausible the power of love and forgiveness that saves Albrecht from the vengeful ghosts. Five other principal dancers take their turns as Giselle before the end of the run, including Greta Hodgkinson, who dances the role in her final season with the National Ballet on Saturday night.

Giselle

Choreography and production by Sir Peter Wright, after Jean Coralli, Jules Perrot and Marius Petipa

A production of the National Ballet of Canada, at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, Toronto, through November 10

Photo of Svetlana Lunkina and Harrison James with artists of the National Ballet of Canada by Aleksandar Antonijevic.

 

 

 

Dancing on the edge of the abyss

The many parts of In the Abyss, presented in Citadel + Compagnie’s Bright Nights series, don’t quite add up to a satisfying whole, but the four performers never lose our attention. Choreographer and Political Movement artistic director Aria Evans was inspired in the show’s creation by the “scientific fact and beautiful metaphor that we are all made of stardust.” Driven to ask questions about the nature of the universe, the fragility of human connection and hope for healing in a time of threats to our existence, Evans commissioned text from Ximena Huizi and assembled dancers Irvin Chow, Ana Claudette Groppler, Syreeta Hector and David Norsworthy to express in words and movement her chosen themes.

An equal role in the piece is played by Rachel Forbes’s set design, which consists of movable parts, two ramps and a tall box with an opening that looks like the maw of a mineshaft and also serves to frame scenes such as a couple meeting at a bar.

The dancers come out of the box on to a darkened set, as if emerging after a storm, or coming into a new form of life. Dressed in black and white, moving slowly to the low hum of Babak Taghinia’s electronic score, they spread out, as one of the women speaks of “an astronomical event,” a star that “collapses into itself” and “a soft landing.” These and other disconnected statements and phrases, are uttered by each of the performers as they perform trios, duets and solos, and, moving the big ramps to shape their environment, create little vignettes, of lovers embracing or children at play together.

Rather than reinforcing one another, the language of dance seems at odds with the spoken text, not much of it profound, the words used in repeated refrains like musical phrases, as if divorced from their meaning. It’s a lot to ask of a dancer engaged in difficult partnering to keep up a running soliloquy and it’s distracting. We don’t ask our poets to do cartwheels.

Without the spoken word In the Abyss might have made a more coherent piece. The four dancers are expressive and impressive movers and it’s easy to follow the drama, presented in fragments, of attempts at connection, whether working cooperatively, grasping each other in passion, meeting socially or playing together like innocents – as a ramp becomes a playground slide. The repeated formation of dancers grasping each others’ hands or arms to make a circle conveys Evans’s message of strength in unity and love as the tie that binds.

In the Abyss

Choreographed by Aria Evans

A Political Movement production presented by Citadel + Compagnie

At The Citadel / Ross Centre for Dance, 304 Parliament St. Toronto through November 2

 

 

ImagineNATIVE, a feast of indigenous film and media

At the Venice Biennale this summer visitors lingered long at the Canadian pavilion, captivated by One Day in the Life of Noah Piugattuk, as it played on three big screens, subtitled in Italian, French and English. A production of the Baffin Island Isuma collective, One Day is directed by Zacharias Kunuk and compellingly presents a story, in Inuktitut, of a day in 1961 when Noah (Apayata Kotierk) and his clan, out on the ice to hunt and trade, spy an approaching dog team and sled. This turns out to be a white man named Boss (Kim Bodnia), a Canadian government official who has come to tell Noah and his companions that they must prepare to leave their way of life and join a community where their children will go to school. Adding to the poignancy and authenticity of the film is the understood notion that the Inuit culture faces a still greater peril in the form of climate change and the melting of the polar sea ice.

Tonight, the film screens at Toronto’s Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema Hot Docs at the opening of the 20th edition of the imagineNATIVE Film & Media Arts Festival, 18 years after the opening night screening of Kunuk’s ground-breaking Atanarjuat The Fast Runner. imagineNATIVE, the largest indigenous festival of its kind in the world, serves as a platform, for first nations’ film and media and encompasses a professional development component, the imagineNATIVE Institute, as well as an awards program.

From tonight through Sunday, October 27, imagineNATIVE will present 126 film and video works in 30 languages from 18 countries and 101 indigenous nations, including nine features, 13 documentary features, and 12 short film programs. Watch for The Incredible 25th Year of Mitzi Bearclaw, a touching feature directed by Shelly Niro, starring MorningStar Angeline and featuring the amazing Billy Merasty as Mitzi’s father.

The outstanding filmmaker Alanis Obamsawin returns to the festival with an NFB production, Jordan River Anderson, the Messenger. This documentary tells the story of a Cree child born with overwhelming challenges and how a dispute over his care led to major changes in access to healthcare for indigenous peoples in Canada.

Among many short films of note, the 2001 Gwishalaayt – The Spirit Wraps Around You celebrates the life and work of ‘Namgis filmmaker Barb Cranmer, who died earlier this year. She was from the important Kwakwaka’wakw family in Alert Bay, British Columbia that did so much for the continuance and preservation of their art and culture.

Wik vs Queensland is a 2018 feature documentary from Australia directed by Dean Gibson relates how the aboriginal people of Wik take on the Queensland government and land developers to ensure rights to their traditional lands.

Among special events in the festival is a Friday presentation at the Art Gallery of Ontario of Lisa Reihana’s In Pursuit of Venus [infected], a multi-channel projection and immersive experience followed by a conversation with curator Julie Nagam. And on Thursday, the popular imagineNATIVE Art Crawl takes in five galleries with visual art works, curatorial and artist talks and a live performance, starting at Onsite Gallery and ending at the Toronto Media Arts Centre.

imagineNATIVE Film + Media Arts Festival
October 22-27, 2019 at Toronto locations

For more information call 416.585.2333 or visit www.imagineNATIVE.org

Photo: Still from One Day in the Life of Noah Piugattuk

A monologue in dance disturbs

Toronto actor Simon Bracken has the only speaking role in The Particulars. He’s Gordon, a very twitchy, quite off-putting fellow suffering from insomnia complicated by a bad case of obsessive-compulsive disorder. He’s dressed in a loose satin robe sashed over oft-revealed underpants.

In the vein of monologists Spalding Gray and Eric Bogosian, Bracken tells Gordon’s story as he enacts it. Gordon, a single man, has a set routine that involves tending his garden, which has become infested with aphids, watering his orchid, daily buying a bouquet of fresh flowers and performing his clerical duties in an office job where he fears ostracization.

Accompanying Gordon as if they were ghosts are seven dancers, draped head to toe in sheer veils, like dead brides (except one is a man). Matthew MacKenzie, creator of the very successful show Bears, wrote and directed The Particulars as a fusion of dance and theatre. Alida Kendell choreographed the movement. The fusion is less than complete, in that one can focus on Gordon’s increasing agony – and it’s hard not to – or on the active ensemble of dancers, but the two performances never really meld. Mostly the dancers’ movements, especially when they’re balled up on the floor scratching themselves, merely illustrate a story we can easily imagine from Gordon’s words.

Gordon seems made for bullying and a figure to make fun of. For the first 30 minutes or so, we laugh at his desperate manoeuvres, such as studying hockey statistics so he can sound knowledgeable about the game among his male colleagues. The reason for Gordon’s insomnia and neurosis is not immediately made known. Once his tragedy is understood, laughing at him becomes a problem.

Dancers Amber Borotsik, Lara Ebata, Bridget Jessome, Richard Lee Hai, Krista Lin, Rebecca Sadowski, Kate Stashko and Raena Waddell, cast as “mourners”, are competent enough, but because their faces are veiled, it’s hard to engage in their expressive movements.

This show needs more of the inventiveness displayed when the dancers form a human tower, illustrating Gordon’s fear that the scratching that awakes him every night might come from a squirrel trapped in his chimney.

The Particulars

Written and directed by Matthew MacKenzie

Choreography by Alida Kendell

A Punctuate! Theatre production presented by the Theatre Centre

At the Theatre Centre until October 26; in Edmonton Nov. 1-2

Photo of Simon Bracken as Gordon by Dahlia Katz

Visibly talented minorities

A delightfully meandering show, Minorities is a multi-media production celebrating the 55 ethnicities that make up, along with the majority Han peoples, the population of China. Alternately instructive, comic and slightly controversial, Minorities is the third work in choreographer Yang Zhen’s Revolution Game trilogy.

A little background: Yang Zhen creates interactive, entertaining works for Red Virgo, a theatre and dance company based in Beijing and active since 2014. Red Virgo’s works always stem from traditional Chinese dances from different ethnic groups. The Canadian Stage presentation of Minorities marks the performers’ first time in Canada. The two previous shows in the trilogy, Just Go Forward (2014) and In the Field of Hope (2015) have been seen in Europe and Asia.

The red standing microphones and red X’s on the tables in the theatre lobby carry out a visual theme that threads through the show. A backstage video scrim of multicultural faces with a Mao-like figure in the centre gradually lights up in colours as the show begins. As heavy metal-like rock music plays, five female dancers spring up among the audience, shaking their booty and swinging their arms in the aisles and between the seats.

They are Lou Hio Mei, Ma Xiao Ling, Aodonggaowa, Gan Luyangzi and Guzhanuer Yusufu. Acting as emcee, an engaging Lou Hio Mei takes to the red microphone to introduce the show and the performers by background, and in turn asking audience members for their names and origins. The first part of the show concerns the ethnicities represented, their cultural dances and songs and the dancers’ feelings about their own cultures. At times we feel we’re in the classroom as documentary footage of dance demonstrations screens behind the mannequins wearing ethnic dress and the shape-shifting performers.

Lou Hio Mei is from Macao, once a Portuguese colony at the mouth of the Pearl River. She identifies as Han, the majority Chinese ethnicity. She introduces Uyghur dancer Guzhanuer Yusufu, Mongolian Aodonggaowa, Tibetan Gan Luyangzi and Korean Ma Xiao Ling. Even before they don their traditional dress, these performers express their identities through dance and song. It’s not hard to see how distinct their cultural differences are. Yusufu’s Uyghur dance shows elements of Indian classical dance. The Tibetan drum dance Gan Luyangzi performs employs a round skin drum similar to that used in indigenous dance and song in North America.

But Minorities is no earnest exercise in identity politics. It’s high-spirited, a little self-mocking and ultimately a patriotic ode to the joy of “56 brothers and sisters” that make up the Chinese mosaic. Lou Hio Mei’s topless, hula hoop hip rotations soon inspire  her fellow performers to return to leotards, their red running shoes signifying a common purpose. A song performed by Huang Ping in traditional style spans past and present, and suggests the continuity of an inclusive Chinese culture.

Minorities

Concept and choreography by Yang Zhen

Music and photography by Qi Ray

A Red Virgo production presented by Canadian Stage

At Berkeley Street Theatre, Toronto, until October 27

Photo (from left) of Gan Luyangzi, Guzhanuer Yusufu, Lou Hio Mei, Ma Xiao Ling and Aodonggaowa by Dahlia Katz