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

One thought on “Dancing Beethoven’s 9th symphony

  1. Heard this week’s interview with Tom Powers on CBC and was eager to read your blog. 10 years to create ….sounds like neither Beethoven nor the muse wanted the marriage. As a dancer/choreographer I cannot not feel the music of B’s Symphony #9 reaching out for even further expression in dance with other garnishings. The composition is monolithic as it is. Leave it alone.

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