Raising the roof with red-hot ballet

As thunder snow and lightning engulfed Toronto on opening night, the energy of dozens of dancers on the stage of the Four Seasons Centre felt sufficient to lift the roof off – and indeed lifted the National Ballet of Canada’s opening-night audience multiple times out of their seats.

The mixed program, which resumes March 22 and 23, is all about the new and the renewed. In her first season as NBoC artistic director, Hope Muir has shown dedication to new work, new choreographers and development of a dynamic and thrilling cadre of performers.

This mixed program — something old (George Balanchine’s Symphony in C), something new (Rena Butler’s Alleged Dances) and something new to the National Ballet (David Dawson’s Anima Animus) – engages one’s imagination like no other dance show in recent memory.

George Balanchine’s Symphony in C, created for the Paris Opéra Ballet in 1947 and first performed by the NBoC in November 1984, is dazzlingly renewed with this staging, the last for dancer and Balanchine répétiteur Joysanne Sidimus, who is retiring from her work as a Balanchine interpreter for the National Ballet for the last 38 years. In its lightness of mood and step, its speed and its clean lines and stripped-down classicism, Symphony in C embodies the spirit of modernism that Balanchine brought to ballet. The four movements of the ballet, challenging in the precision needed for difficult pas de deux and pas de trois, are here outstandingly executed by pairs Koto Ishihara and Harrison James, Genevieve Penn Nabity and Ben Rudisin, Jenna Savella and Naoya Ebe and Tina Pereira with Keaton Leier.

Rena Butler, a Chicagoan who shares with Muir a history at Hubbard Street Dance Chicago and is the 2019 recipient of the Princess Grace Award for Choreography, more than meets expectations with her first piece for the National Ballet, Alleged Dances. Butler engendered a piece in which the ballet’s dancers share the stage with a live string quartet (Aaron Schwebel, Jamie Kruspe, Joshua Greenlaw and Olga Laktionova) that shifts on its platform across the stage as they play American composer John Adams’ John’s Book of Alleged Dances (1994), creating a spectacle of red-hot, sexy and sassy dance, at once playful and awe-inspiring.  Siphesihle November performs the part of a playground leader, as Teagan Richman-Taylor, Noah Parets, Tina Pereira, Alexander Skinner, Josh Hall, Emma Oullet, Tene Ward and Arielle Miralles, play a game of tag involving pigtail-pulling, or hide-and-seek, or truth or dare. Alleged Dances is a high-octane, ever transforming romp that borrows from social dance and at some points looked like a country hoedown. Hogan McLaughlin’s blazing red, minimal costumes brilliantly highlight the singular movement of each performer.

The ten dancers who made David Dawson’s Anima Animus their own upped the bar even higher, supercharged as they were with the emotion-filled music of the late Italian composer Ezio Bosso. The British choreographer, associate artist at Het Nationale Ballet and associate choreographer for Semperoper Ballett, is a prolific contemporary dancemaker with whom Muir has frequently collaborated. Having been moved by the San Francisco Ballet’s 2018 premiere performance of Anima Animus by the San Francisco Ballet, Muir was eager to bring Dawson’s work to the National Ballet as an opportunity for the dancers to deepen their individual capabilities.

As hinted in its title, Anima Animus mixes up traditional ballet gendering, with the women, particularly Calley Skalnik, doing as much of the heavy lifting as the men in what was a beautifully, organically constructed performance, seemingly evolving before our eyes and ears. All the enduring elements of ballet – especially the pure joy of movement and partnering – were present, the dancers’ movements emphasized in Yumiko Takeshima’s unisex costuming that outlined each undulating spine. For all the abstraction of set and costume, the piece appeared to grow as if in nature, establishing a fragile order and following the geometry of desire toward a culminating exultation.

Anima Animus & Alleged Dances & Symphony in C

Choreography by David Dawson, Rena Butler and George Balanchine

Performed by the National Ballet of Canada at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, Toronto

March 22 and 23, 2023

Photo of Tina Pereira and Siphesihle November in Alleged Dances by Bruce Zinger, courtesy of the National Ballet of Canada

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