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

 

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