Bravura dancing spanning the centuries

There’s nothing quite like Apollo to give an audience the experience of the sublime in dance. George Balanchine was only 24 when he choreographed the ballet to Igor Stravinsky’s Apollon Musagète. Apollo was first performed by Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes on June 12, 1928 and the performance gave Balanchine his first international recognition as the artist who would take 19th-century classicism into the 20th-century with a stripped-down modernist approach. The dance was first performed by the National Ballet of Canada in February 1999 and last night was not the first time Guillaume Côté, celebrating his 20th anniversary with the company, has performed the lead role.

Côté very much epitomizes the allegory of the young god of music, achieving ascendancy through art, in his instruction from the three muses, Calliope, with her tablet, the muse of poetry; Polyhymnia, muse of mime, bearing a mask; and Terpsichore, muse of dance and song, carrying a lyre. The stark set, bathed in dark azure, suggests the platform for a ritual in which the dancers, in pure white costumes, are like statues from an ancient classical frieze come to life in the moonlight.

Great strength and restraint are called for in the execution of the mesmerizing choreography. But also playfulness, as Heather Ogden’s Terpsichore, particularly nimble and expressive, Jeannine Haller’s Polyhymnia and Miyoko Koyasu’s Calliope lead the young Apollo to his destiny. There is a tension between symmetry and asymmetry, poise and disjuncture, that builds in unity with the music to the closing moment when all four ascends the steps to Parnassus and we breathe a sigh of fulfilment.

The danger in opening a mixed program with Apollo is that it will overshadow all that follows. But Night, the second piece in the program, succeeds by being something completely different. The choreographer of this 25-minute ensemble piece, Julia Adam, trained with Canada’s National Ballet School and performed in the corps de ballet with NBoC until she left in 1988 for a long career with the San Francisco Ballet, where she was a principal dancer, developing into a choreographer of note. Night, inspired by the dreamier paintings of Marc Chagall, is sustained mainly by Matthew Pierce’s inventive and soaring score, moving bodies in rather busy mythic-animal costumes, through space in acrobatic ways. Holding it all together is the dreamer, in this instance, Skylar Campbell, always thrilling to behold, effortlessly aloft or transiting the stage.

Night is followed by The Sea Above, The Sky Below, choreographed in 2017 by Robert Binet in celebration of Xiao Nan Yu’s 20th anniversary with the ballet, and remounted in this farewell season for Xiao. Performed to the Adagietto movement of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 5, The Sea Above, featured Heather Ogden, dancing with great elegance and grace, both with and for Harrison James and Félix Paquet, in a short piece meant to highlight the integrity, sensitivity and directness Xiao Nan Yu brings to the creation of each role she performs.

As if to bookend the evening with more bravura dancing, going back to the pure classicism of 19th-century Russian ballet, the mixed program ends with Paquita, newly adapted by NBoC associate artistic director Christopher Stowell, after the 1881 version by Marius Petipa. A grand spectacle in stiff orange tutus embellished with a Spanish Moorish aesthetic, Paquita can’t help but present as something of a competition. But that sense in no way spoiled the excitement of watching an electrifying Jillian Vanstone and Francesco Gabriele Frola performing at peak levels.

Apollo, with Night, The Sea Above, The Sky Below and Paquita

Performed by the National Ballet of Canada

At the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, Toronto, March 1 to 21, 2019

Photo of Heather Ogden and Guillaume Côté in Apollo by Cylla von Tiedemann

 

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