Newton throws a bang-up birthday party

Ask Newton Moraes — celebrating 25 years of the company that bears his name — how he got into dance in Brazil and the first word that comes out of his mouth is “Bob”. By that he means the late Bob Shirley, an anthropologist from the University of Toronto whose studies were concentrated in Brazil.

“I met Bob in 1985. I was studying physical education at Unisinos University in Porto Alegre.” They became friends and later, partners. Moraes, who had done some samba dancing, admired a company called Ballet Phoenix. “He said, ‘Why don’t you start taking class with them? So I did and I took some jazz and some ballet classes.”

He recalls with fondness the 86-year-old dancer, Tony Petzholds, who taught the ballet classes. “She was a fabulous dancer. She was doing a penché and I couldn’t believe this woman had her leg up here (he demonstrates). ‘This is how it is supposed to be done,’ she said. Even the dancers in the company would look at her and say, ‘holy fuck’.”

While still living in Porto Alegre Moraes also took lessons from a jazz dancer, Annette Lubisco. Three years after meeting Newton, Bob had to return to his job at U of T. But the two kept in touch. By 1991, Moraes was dancing in Porto Alegre and even teaching. On a visit, Bob said, “Newton, you are very talented. I should take you to Canada. Believe me, you are going to love it.”

So in 1991, with minimal dance experience, no English and few prospects for work, Newton — thanks to a letter Bob wrote to immigration authorities – was granted a visa and moved in with the anthropology professor in Toronto. Right away he enrolled in English classes during the day and dance classes at Toronto Dance Theatre at night. He auditioned for the School of Toronto Dance Theatre and in 1992 was accepted. Then, like a hot wind in winter, Newton Moraes burst upon the dance scene.

“Six months later, I was on stage.” Toronto Dance Theatre was performing Court of Miracles at the Premiere Dance Theatre (now the Fleck) and they brought in students, including the first-year men, to fill out the cast. “There I was performing with Patricia Beatty, David Earle and Peter Randazzo.”

Students at the TDT School were encouraged to create. “I started to make my little choreographies for the student shows at the Coffee House. And Trish Beatty said, ‘You have something to share: carry on.’ ”

By 1994, with Bob Shirley’s assistance, Newton and the students mounted a show at the George Ignatieff Theatre on the UofT campus. It was all free and the theatre was packed. Soon, he was dancing at the Fringe Festival of Independent Dance Artists and even got a gig at the Music Gallery. The first time I saw Newton dance, it was a solo based on his batuque religion. Scantily clad, moving slowly and deliberately on the FfIDA stage, he was spellbinding, doing something I had never seen before.

More lessons, in jazz, invitations to perform at German festivals, a stint at York University and more networking led to the formation of Newton Moraes Dance Theatre presenting its first show May 22 and 23, 1997. The company continued into the new millennium, funded through a combination of Bob’s generosity, government grants, teaching classes in Afro-Brazilian dance and Newton’s willingness to take on day jobs, usually as a cleaner.

Over the years, Newton Moraes Dance Theatre has employed dozens of dancers and given work to outstanding dance professionals, including Sharon DiGenova, lighting designer for the anniversary show Life Under My Skin. His Brazilian influences and dance foundation have always been detectable in his choreography, especially in works such as Brazil: The Land of Tears and Soul, from 2013. Nevertheless, Moraes credits major mentors such as Denise Fujiwara, Danny Grossman and choreographer/dancer Jean Sasportes, the long-time Pina Bausch associate, for his growth as a choreographer.

Life Under My Skin has been in development for months. Collaborating with composer Edgardo Moreno and the troupe of eight dancers, Newton built a dance that asks the universal questions about why artists are forced to create and how they survive when money is scarce. Questions Newton himself knows the answers to. Funding from the Toronto Arts council, Ontario Arts Council and Canada Council for the Arts has also enabled the creation of a documentary film about the company. It’s going to be a bang-up birthday for Newton Moraes Dance Theatre.

Life Under My Skin

By Newton Moraes Dance Theatre

Fleck Dance Theatre, Harbourfront Centre, Toronto, 8 pm, November 24-26, 2022

Photo of dancers Maggie Armstrong, Daniela Carmona, Emilio Colalillo, Rumi Jeraj, Aryana Malekzadeh, Jianna Neufeld, Andrea Rojas, Brendan De Santis by David Hou.

Kaeja d’Dance going strong and stronger at 31

“Kaeja d’Dance is driven by a commitment to innovation in the performing arts through the expression of dance and gesture. We explore identity, personal stories and the complexity of the human experience . . . [through] mediums of live performance, dance film and community engagement.”

The mission statement is no mere window-dressing. On the 31st anniversary of the company they formed, in the 37th year of their relationship, Allen and Karen Kaeja are innovating as much as ever. For this dance company, curiosity and imagination have allowed the participants – dancers, composers, filmmakers and directors always their co-creators – to evolve according to the opportunities presented to them.

From November 11 to 13 at Harbourfront Centre Theatre, Kaeja d’Dance presents 31, a double bill that in several ways sums up the themes and direction the company has taken since its founding. In both pieces – Allen’s I am the Child of… and Karen’s TouchX – it is possible to see the fruits of a commitment to innovation and community involvement.

On Zoom from their home in Toronto, the married couple, parents to 29-year-old Aniya and 24-year-old Mika, give a clear account of how they got to this production.

Speaking about innovation, Allen, who came to dance through the martial arts, says of 31, “we are the first dance company in Canada to fully integrate immersive AR in a dance stage production. And Karen’s work is totally cutting edge in the integration of community and professional dancers.”

If there’s a rough division of labour here, Allen’s focus has been on making dance film and technological innovation, Karen’s on collaborating with community. Both have been heavily involved in dance training, which is an ongoing practice for the company, offering workshops to schools, professional dancers and individuals with no prior dance training. As co-artistic creators, they’ve racked up more than forty awards, created more than 200 original works and 35 dance films. They’ve also published EXPRESS DANCE: Educators’ Resource to Teaching Dance.

“We have worked with hundreds and hundreds of dancers over the 31 years. People who brought their beautiful talents to our work,” says Karen. The annual summer series Porch View Dances, inaugurated in 2012, is an example of the meaningful community engagement the Kaejas strive for.

After turning the porches and front yards of Toronto’s Seaton Village into outdoor stages, Porch View has also expanded to other cities. The project, says Karen, is about “honouring people who live in the community we’re working with, revealing the stories that live in the houses and bringing those stories alive on the front porches and front yards, working with professional choreographers.“ The format involves a tour guide who leads the audience around the neighbourhood telling stories from the area, “some true, some less true.”

The development, over seven years, of TouchX is allied to Karen’s work with communities. “It is based on an exploration of touch in all its fabulous and not so fabulous aspects. The fragility of touch, the agency of touch, the wanted touch, the unwanted touch and all the different kinds of responses that touch can evoke.” A late arrival to dance, Karen was drawn to its sensorial aspects at age 18. She alludes to childhood trauma when she talks about how enrolment in York University’s dance program led to a fascination with improvisation and contact dance.

For TouchX, Karen invited different generations of community participant dancers to join the professional dancers on stage. Needless to say, the pandemic, with its enforced social distancing shed a new light on the importance of touch in all our lives. “It’s great,” says Karen of COVID strictures, “because it’s pushed the work. It’s been wonderfully challenging.”

I am the Child of … had its genesis in a Facebook post Allen put up in 2015, reacting to the Harper government’s determination to stop middle eastern refugees from coming to Canada. “I am the child of a refugee,” it was titled. Allen told the story of his father, Morton Norris, a holocaust survivor whose entire family was murdered by the Nazis. He sought to enter Canada and a cousin warned him, “They don’t want our kind here.” But when the government of that day fell, Allen’s father was admitted to Canada. His story exemplifies the value that refugees bring to whatever country they land in. “What do refugees do? My father built a world; he built a community; he made a new family. He was made an honorary police officer because of his work in the community.”

Bruce Barton, a performance director, dramaturg and creator based in Calgary, has worked with Allen Kaeja on five productions. With I am the Child of… they have been co-creators from the outset of workshops and residencies that built the show, which engages 13 dancers, eight live and on stage, five who exist in augmented reality. Audience members for Child are encouraged to bring their devices, for an enhanced experience of the show.

The Kaejas had experimented with AR for a site-specific commission from ArtworxTO that had to go virtual after a new wave of COVID imposed lockdowns. But for this show, says Barton, he and Allen were entering uncharted territory: creating the appearance of live and AR dancers interacting on stage.

“We had to be sure that the AR aspects were thoroughly integrated thematically into the piece, and not just a novelty,” says Barton, who with his partner Pil Hansen (one of Karen’s dramaturgs for TouchX) is an artistic director of Vertical City Performance. To achieve this goal, they engaged Toasterlab, a Toronto-based outfit with experience in using “extended reality” in performance. Edgardo Moreno, who has been composing sound and music for Kaeja d’Dance for thirty years, has created a soundscape for Child that employs the performers voices in speech and song, with no instrumentation.

Allen’s genius, Barton says, is in creating a framework for the dancers to explore different themes in the piece, one of which is “how we connect, or fail to connect, with one another through the stories we tell about ourselves.” (See links below to trailers.)

So, much to celebrate. And when asked what they are looking forward to as Kaeja d’Dance heads into the future, both artistic directors are pretty sure they won’t run out of ideas. What’s more, says Karen, it is vital to engage with younger generations, as the company tends to do.

“Thank goodness for them,” she notes, “because we more mature artists have a lot to learn from their new thinking.”

Kaeja d’Dance: 31 (TouchX + I am the Child of …)

November 11 and 12 at 7:30 pm, Nov. 13 at 2 pm

Harbourfront Centre Theatre, Toronto

Links to trailers: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1VFFhvUpHiVqSM4kWVvXS1iSgZiGvCz7S/view

https://www.kaeja.org/k31

Photo of I am the Child of…: Aria Evans, Karen Kaeja, Ethan Kim, Geanderson Mello, Mio Sakamoto

Photographer: Kevin Jones

Fall for Dance North takes over Toronto

Nothing says accessible more enticingly than a $15 ticket to a live performance. That price point is the key to the success of Fall for Dance North, as it launches its eighth festival (September 17 to October 8) across multiple venues indoors and out, live and digital, diverse as dance can be in form and artistic origins.

Fall for Dance North (FFDN) is modelled on New York City Center’s Fall for Dance Festival, which began in 2004, and like that festival is designed to build new audiences for dance. But says FFDN artistic director Ilter Ibrahimof, the Toronto festival has developed its own identity, both commissioning new work and drawing on partnerships — this year with 13 arts organizations — to present three weeks of dance – a huge growth from the initial three-day event held in Toronto’s Meridian Hall.

This year’s festival marks a return to live performances after two years of pandemic restrictions. It’s what motivates Ibrahimof, a theatre person from his earliest awareness, growing up in Istanbul. “Wwe’re bringing people closer to these amazing performers who are magicians and athletes and superheroes. To put that dedication to performance and artistry and beauty in front of people is very exciting.”

Yet the pandemic prompted innovation for FFDN, allowing programming to expand digitally with livestream events, film, podcasts and to introduce outdoor presentations, all featured in this year’s festival.

Heirloom, the outdoor performance series inaugurated last year, launches the fest this year with a high-energy display of dance, juggling and sleight-of-hand magic entitled In Blue Rooms. Choreographers Zack Martel and Santiago Rivera both have training in circus arts and their show, performed by four accomplished Montreal jugglers and dancers, is bound to bombard the senses. Musicians Michael Bridge (accordion), Daniel Hamin Go (cello) and Brad Cherwin (clarinet) accompany the dancers live in what is described as “witty repartee between music and physical storytelling.” Heirloom plays at the First Ontario Performing Arts Centre in St. Catharines on Sept. 17, the Evergreen Brick Works in Toronto on Sept. 20, the Leacock Museum in Orillia on Sept. 22 and the Peterborough Square courtyard on September 25.

On the mainstage at Meridian Hall, from Oct. 6 to 8, the FFDN signature program Arise promises to be an exciting and eclectic feast of movement and music. Softly Losing, Softly Gaining, a commissioned piece from Toronto tap choreographer Dianne Montgomery is up first, followed by Kau Hea A Hiiaka a work based on traditional Hawaiian hula created by Honolulu artist Kaleo Trinidad. The second half of the evening leads off with a screening of Zipangu, a short film by Michael Greyeyes, accompanied by the Soundstreams’ Ensemble. The grand finale is the title work, Arise, a ballet created by Jera Wolfe, performed by 110 students from Canada’s National Ballet School.

Phoenix-based Indigenous Enterprise performs the Canadian premiere of Indigenous Liberation on Oct. 7 and 8 in the Theatre at the Creative School at Toronto Metropolitan University. Combining traditional pow-wow dancing with video, feather- and beadwork for a jubilant performance from seven Indigenous creators Indigenous Liberation aims to inspire and herald a time of reconciliation.

More dance discoveries await night owls who take in three different Night Shift programs from Sept. 29 to Oct.1 at the Citadel: Ross Centre for Dance on Parliament St. in Toronto. Produced by Citadel + Compagnie and co-presented with FFDN, Night Shift showcases nine world premieres from a diverse group of Ontario dancers.

FFDN 2021-2022 artists-in-residence Natasha Powell and Kimberley Cooper are behind three shows of jazz dance and music at the Theatre of the Creative School (Sept. 30 to Oct. 2). Powell and an all-female cast premiere Margarita, an homage to old-time chorus girls and Calgary’s Decidedly Jazz Danceworks perform Cooper’s Family of Jazz. After each show, audience members are invited to join the dancers and musicians on stage for a round of social dancing.

And there’s much more in this full-immersion dance festival. 8-Count, a short dance film series screens Sept. 23 and 24 and on Oct. 3 at Meridian Hall, FFDN presents Crystal Pite: Angels’ Atlas, a documentary film about the making of the extraordinary ballet made for the National Ballet of Canada. Union Station is the setting for The Big Social; admission is free for a lindy-hop and jazz dance workshop followed by social dancing. A lunchtime preview and background discussion of Indigenous Liberation at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts on Oct. 6 is also free.

Program details, festival packages and single tickets are available at ffdnorth.com

Photo by Bruce Zinger: Arise by Jera Wolfe

The Miserere Project

In 1981 David Earle created a dance inspired by Gregorio Allegri’s Miserere mei Deus, composed in 1638 for services in the Sistine Chapel. Miserere was first performed by Toronto Dance Theatre, the company founded by Earle, Peter Randazzo and Patricia Beatty, as part of a program entitled Exit, Nightfall, Miserere.

Danielle Baskerville, inspired by Earle’s choreography, which is set to the profoundly moving choral piece, has produced The Miserere Project for Citadel + Compagnie’s Bright Nights series. She commissioned three choreographers to reinterpret Earle’s piece and Earle recast the work himself. The 90-minute show, available as a livestream recording through May 23, is pretty dazzling.

Earle’s reimagining of his own choreography compresses the original in a dance performed by Sierra Chin Sawdy, Robert Kingsbury, Anh Nguyen, Bee Pallomina and Evadne Kelly. The dancers move in sync, often clasping hands as one beautifully transforming unit of five.

As with the original, Earle choreographs a piece of architecture, the movements slow and deliberate, but mesmerizing. The contrapuntal structure of the music, performed by two choirs of four and five singers respectively, is echoed in the formations that call to mind a cathedral dome, angels and prayer. These dancers — at one point on the floor to create a five-point star — are well rehearsed and interpret the music with all the solemnity and celebration it deserves. The piece is true to Earle’s desire to pass on learning and training: “I was fortunate to see many strong works by such luminaries as Martha Graham and José Limon in my first years as a creator.”

Baskerville called on Penny Couchie, an Anishinaabe dancer and choreographer whose ancestry is the Nipissing First Nation in Ontario, as the second interpreter of Earle’s piece. Couchie made a dance film featuring herself, Sid Bobb, Animikiikwe Couchie-Waukey, Michaela Washburn and Christine Friday.

The film opens and closes on an overhead shot of the four dancers in winter wear sprawled on the surface of a frozen lake. A voiceover narration accompanies the film, the choral music serving as a score to a series of solos. “Love fights” is the title and the refrain in a poetic recitation of historic struggle: “A war was waged against our people . . . I engage in rage,” a female voice intones.  One woman dancer does a solo waist deep in lake water, throwing up a fantail of water with her head. Another solo involves a slow slide into the water’s edge from a bank of crusty, melting snow. Couchie’s theme is consistent with Earle’s intentions: united we stand; divided we fall.

Brodie Stevenson, an accomplished dancer and choreographer from British Columbia, choreographed “Inter Alios,” performed by Drew Berry, Sierra Chin Sawdy, Irvin Chow, Connor Mitton and Tyra Temple Smith. This Miserere is an intelligent response to Earle’s show in the broad context of modern dance. The dancers, in blue, black and white costumes and stocking feet, make an impersonation of the music, in strong, tight formations such as one in which the dancers form crucifix shapes on the floor. As with the original Miserere, we get the feeling of a quintet of dancers embodying one transforming creature.

The collective Same as Sister (S.A.S), based in Toronto and New York City, comprises Toronto-born sisters Briana Brown-Tipley and Hilary Brown-Istrefi. They created “This is NOT a Remount.” It’s difficult to comprehend this interdisciplinary collage meant to be a behind-the-scenes look at Miserere. But perhaps the salient point behind this hodgepodge of video and live performance from talking dancers is that Earle’s original dance was made for 15 dancers, three of whom later died of AIDS-related causes.

In any case, The Miserere Project is a fascinating dance endeavour that one hopes will not die with this month’s performance at the Citadel.

The Miserere Project

Produced by Danielle Baskerville for Citadel + Compagnie

May 18 to 23, 2022

http://www.citadelcie.com

Photo of Brodie Stevenson’s “Inter Alios” courtesy of Citadel + Compagnie

A tantalizing taste of live dance to come

American dancer/choreographer Kyle Marshall gives us a taste of what it will be like to see dance live in a theatre once again in Stellar, a production streaming on the digital platform of the Baryshnikov Arts Center in New York City until June 21.

“A feeling of being in space,” that is, weightless, was a starting point for Marshall who worked through improvisation to create Stellar with his fellow performers.

Watching Stellar makes one a witness to creation in progress. In the best contemporary dance tradition, the dancers provide the movements; the viewer interprets the body language.

As the lights come up, Marshall, Bree Breeden and Ariana Speight emerge out of darkness, costumed in tie-dyed hoodies and loose pants. They might be out in space, so light do they appear. Sound designer Kwami Winfield, on stage playing and working the control board to convey interstellar sounds, makes a fourth performer.

An opening single note, as if played on a saxophone or trumpet, sounds over the dancers as they gradually form an orbit on the black box stage. The trio is walking, then running, skipping, striding with little hops or taking steps common to social dancing.

Marshall calls Stellar a work of speculative fiction, the music inspired by John Coltrane and American jazz performer and composer Sun Ra. The loose baggy costumes designed by Malcolm-x Betts are colourful and evoke the ‘60s era of Sun Ra’s Arkestra. There is lots of play, but strength and confidence in the solo moments especially.  

Winfield plays with a string of shells that make a sea sound as Marshall, Breeden and Speight start to dance together in a loose pas de trois. The thing about the central form this dance takes – the circle – is that there is no leader in a circle formation.

Soon hands and feet make the rhythms a one-two-three-four beat that seems to take over from the music until Winfield comes back with live drumming that is synched to the claps and foot-stomping.

The camera affords advantages in not only directing our gaze, but allowing for multiplication and overlapping of imagery so that at points three dancers become six.

This dance is short and open-ended, perhaps to be continued when we can all sit together in a theatre once more.

Stellar streams for free until June 21 at Kyle Marshall — Baryshnikov Arts Center Digital (bacnyc.org)

A child’s paradise regained

“This is a story about childhood. It’s in at least two languages, some spoken, some not . . . We’ll remember . . . falling off your bicycle, stealing money off your mother’s dressing table . . . .”

A man sits with a book on his lap stage left as two dancers enter the space, then put on harlequin costumes and proceed to (artfully) cavort like children at play. Seen on one’s computer screen, this is Les Paradis Perdus / Remix, a delightfully layered online presentation, featuring commentary from the four participants.

Laurence Lemieux created the duet in 2005 for herself and Bill Coleman, commissioning Christopher Butterfield to compose music based on childhood memories Lemieux submitted to him. Had the COVID-19 pandemic not arrived, Jimmy and Juliette Coleman, the couple’s very able dancers, were to perform Les Paradis Perdus at the Citadel on May 14.

Swallowing her disappointment at the theatrical shutdown, Lemieux, artistic director of Citadel + Compagnie, has mounted a 10-week online performance series that began on April 28. Every Tuesday at 2 pm EDT until June 30, a new work is released on www.citadelcie.com. The series so far has included work by Naishi Wang and Sabina Perry.

Les Paradis Perdus / Remix went up May 12, introduced with a cyber conversation among Lemieux, Butterfield and Luke Garwood and Erin Poole, the dancers who performed Les Paradis in 2015.

When what performers need most – bodies in seats watching them – is not available, what can one do to bring an element of spontaneity to a production? What the CetC team wanted most to avoid was presenting a relic of a show; hence the remix, a newly edited version of the recording.

On a shared screen we see Lemieux’s handwritten notes for Butterfield’s score. The composer tells us he removed certain syllables to create his score. In the recording we can see and hear him, intoning lines like a choir singer or standing with a furled roll of paper to speak as if through a megaphone.

Meanwhile, Garwood and Poole, entering in street clothes, appear to regress as they don their joker/harlequin costumes, reproducing the spirit of childhood and adolescence in Lemieux’s inventive choreography.

On the Zoom screen, Poole reflects on how an audience might adapt to the reality of lockdown entertainment. “I wonder if one might watch (at home) from under the covers,” she says, remembering another childhood transgression: reading stories with a flashlight after lights-out.

Next up on the Citadel + Compagnie online series: unmoored by Peggy Baker and Sarah Chase (May 19) and Malcolm by James Kudelka (May 26)

Watch here: https://www.citadelcie.com/les-paradis-perdus-remix-citadel-online/

Photo of Erin Poole and Luke Garwood by Jeremy Mimnagh

 

 

Sheep in step in quarantine

While the COVID-19 lockdown has allowed some of us to discover our inner artist and thus alleviate the suffering from no human contact (within two metres), creators–performers in particular–are sufferers in quarantine because they can’t engage with a live audience. But CORPUS, the company of dancers and actors best known for shows such as A Flock of Flyers and Les Moutons (The Sheep), has found a way to deliver a live performance online: Sheep in Quarantine.

Sunday’s Zoom performance, shot in bedrooms and living-rooms in Vienna, Ottawa, Montreal, London and Toronto and in a French field in Bournazel, went off without a hitch – a real feat, as any non-professional who’s tried to sing or talk along with others on teleconferencing applications will know.

As it turns out, computer technology gives this company scope for even more fun in the production of its precise, surreal theatrical tableaux. Artistic director David Danzon, who co-founded CORPUS in 1997 with Sylvie Bouchard, is the shepherd in surgical mask who dozes off, half-eaten baguette beside him, on the hill overlooking his grazing sheep. Cud-chewing performers Michael Caldwell, Robert Feetham, Anika Johnson, Indrit Kasapi, Jolyane Langlois, Matthew O’Connor, Emily Poirier, Takako Segawa, Carla Soto and Kaitlin Torrance – all of them accomplished dancer/actors with more than a dash of clown technique – are first seen getting into their bulbous sheep costumes and warming up with pliés and stretches in their urban abodes.

To the strains of Tchaikovsky’s “Waltz of the Flowers,” the shepherd’s dream proceeds. Fat-thighed, floppy-eared sheep twirl in delicate pirouettes and execute graceful, hoof-handed portes-au-bras in their rooms on two continents. The point where they all approach their webcams for simultaneous face and bum close-ups is hilarious. Then comes the wolf, appearing in what was a Zoom frame of grass and is suddenly a room featuring a grey sofa. Our shepherd awakes, of course, for the sheep count (teeth-clicking their names) and all’s well that ends well. CORPUS isn’t the first or the only group to deliver a synchronized live performance on Zoom, but like everything else this troupe does, Sheep in Quarantine is a stellar, one-of-a-kind event. A recording of the show will be posted on http://www.corpus.ca.

Sheep in Quarantine, A Live Zoom Performance for Strange Times

Directed by David Danzon

Produced by the CORPUS production team of Janin Goldman, Carolin Lindner and Paulina Speltz

Costumes by Joanne Leblanc

Photo of Anika Johnson by Brandon Brackenbury

Romeo and Juliet unbound

It’s hard to think of any 20th-century ballet score more exhilarating than Sergei Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, composed in 1935. Ever since the critically acclaimed 1940 Kirov production of the ballet, choreographed by Leonid Lavrovsky, any classical company worth mentioning has mounted this achingly romantic ballet based on William Shakespeare’s 1597 tragedy of star-crossed lovers.

Romeo is a Montague and Juliet is a Capulet. They fall in love amid a running feud between their families. Shakespeare set the scene: “Two households, both alike in dignity, / In fair Verona, where we lay our scene, / From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,”

The Russian choreographer Alexei Ratmansky created a new production of Romeo and Juliet for the National Ballet of Canada in 2011. Distinctly different from John Cranko’s R&J performed by the National Ballet from 1964, this production comes shorn of naturalistic elements, relying instead on Richard Hudson’s minimalist but emblematic, towering sets.

Given the splendid performance of the Prokofiev score by the National Ballet’s orchestra under the direction of David Briskin, Ratmansky’s decluttering lets the dancers and the music tell the story in vivid ways.

The opening scene featuring Guillaume Côté as a happy-go-lucky teenaged Romeo who is a reader – hence a dreamer – does the important work of establishing character. Compared with previous R&J productions,  much more dancing with more challenging and quicker steps is going on here.

Romeo’s pals Mercutio and Benvolio soon join him and we see the bond among the three young companions. Jack Bertinshaw’s Mercutio is fleet-of-foot, playful and springs into the air like a jack-in-the-box. Skylar Campbell’s Benvolio matches him for agility but presents a more down-to-earth character.

It is up to Piotr Stancyzk as Tybalt to establish the enmity between the two families. He is all fire and fury, bounding into the town square as if his sword was already drawn.

The beauty of Hudson’s costuming in this R&J is that garments give immediate readings of who is a noble, who’s a peasant or servant; who’s allied to Montagues (red) and who’s with the Capulets (blue). The heavy renaissance gowns and robes of the lords and ladies make them move in a stately fashion.

In the square, friendly and not-so-friendly swordplay brings Lord and Lady Montague and their Capulet counterparts into the fray. It takes the commanding figure of the Duke of Verona (Jonathan Renna) to come in and demand peace for the sake of the city-state of Verona. As the square clears, two young corpses lay on the ground, much to the grief of their kinsmen and women.

Meanwhile, Elena Lobsanova as young Juliet attended in her bedroom by her beloved nurse (Lorna Geddes), is playful, barely more than a child. Her mother, a very effective Stephanie Hutchison as Lady Capulet, indicates it is time for Juliet to marry and soon a stiff-looking Paris (Ben Rudisin) will be introduced as her husband-to-be.

The Capulet ball, a crucial scene for Romeo and Juliet, is quite stripped down, favouring the encounter between Romeo and Juliet in a series of pas de deux and solos that emphasize their youth, naivete and, eventually, inner turmoil. Côté’s strength and attack is complemented with a tender side. Lobsanova’s willowy, fluid form gives a strong impression of being swept away on the wings of love.

The drama of the two characters is heightened in the scene after Romeo has killed Tybalt and comes to Juliet’s bedside. Romeo’s heart is heavy, not just because they must part, but with the knowledge he has eliminated Juliet’s cousin.

Similarly, as Friar Laurence, Peter Ottmann makes clear with a minimum of gestures the crisis-of-conscience he’s suffering.

Such dramatic moments throughout this Romeo and Juliet means a moving experience for the audience and what must be a very satisfying performance for the dancers.

Romeo and Juliet

Choreography by Alexei Ratmansky

Music by Sergei Prokofiev

Set and costumes by Richard Hudson; Lighting by Jennifer Tipton

Presented by the National Ballet of Canada at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, until March 22

Photo of Guillaume Côté and Elena Lobsanova as Romeo and Juliet by Aleksandar Antonijevic

 

Technically proficient, hilariously funny

In its early years – the mid-70s — Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo was a troupe of comical drag queens with chest hair dressed in tutus and teetering in point shoes. Leap forward to the Trocks’ 2020 North American tour, which took them to Toronto’s Winter Garden on March 7 and 8, and we see an even funnier, much more skilled company of dancers who can do the classical ballet moves, en pointe or off, to a professional standard.

That may be because nearly all the current performers in the company joined between 2014 and 2019. Only Robert Carter (Olga Supphozova and Yuri Smirnov) has been a Trock since the 90s.

Also seen in Toronto as uninvited guest artist Brooke Lynn Hytes is Brock Hayhoe, a graduate of Canada’s National Ballet School. She was a Trock from 2008 to 2012, and this is her first time back on stage with the company since then.

And how funny are these new Trocks? Let us count the ways.

First, they spoof classical story ballet as no other company can. “Dying Swan,” the 1905 solo made for Anna Pavlova, is a Trockadero signature role. In technical terms, Vanya Verikosa, aka Brook Lynn Hytes, performed the feather-spewing role to the usual applause, laughter and endless curtain calls pretty flawlessly. Artistic director Tory Dobrin has tightened up the screws on these dances, adding nuance, subtler gestures and opportunities for split-second timing.

Secondly, the Trocks’ performances make witty satire of the 19th-century story ballet. The opening excerpt from Act II of Swan Lake, another Trock standard, featured a stunning Prince Siegfried performed by Vladimir Legupski (Duane Gosa, a Chicago-born graduate of the Ailey School) clowning with Benno (Mikhail Mypansarov/Yeric Valentino), his hapless but ambitious page, and handling a klutzy Queen of the Swans, performed by Nadia Doumiafeyva (New Yorker Philip Martin-Nielson).

The mimes – pointing at the ring finger, clutching the heart, swooning in fear – are taken to an extreme. To the sound of splashing and quacks, the tutu-ed swans flap their wings desperately trying to get airborne and swim the crawl to escape their predators. Yuri Smirnov (Robert Carter) made an evil but incongruously happy Von Rothbart, prancing around in Tudoresque pantaloons.

A third trope, which gets funnier as the show goes on, is the spectacle of men playing women playing men. Vladimir Legupski (Chicago-born, Ailey-trained Duane Gosa) is a towering Prince Siegfried in false eyelashes and richly rouged lips in Swan Lake. As Helen Hightower, this dancer takes the role of rivalrous prima ballerina Fanny Cerrito, in Le Grand Pas de Quatre.

Fourthly, everyone loves a clown and the Trocks boast some of the best. Guzella Verbitskaya (Bostonian Jack Furlong Jr) appears as a slightly chunky ballerina, always out of step with her ensemble and, a consummate buffoon, doing a sensational pratfall, or waving to someone in the audience when she should be focused on her dance steps.

However you like your laughs, this company, which played to a delighted sold-out Winter Garden Theatre on Saturday, is bound to please.

Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo

Presented by Show One Productions at the Winter Garden Theatre,

Toronto, March 7 and 8, 2020

Photo of Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo’s Swan Lake by Sascha Vaughn.

 

Angels, rockers and a dying courtesan

“I felt like I was falling in the vastness of it all.” This is Crystal Pite recalling a childhood fascination with the cosmos. That, and a lighting technique by Pite’s set designer Jay Gower Taylor were all the impetus she needed to create Angels’ Atlas, a piece that premiered on opening night of the National Ballet of Canada’s mixed program.

As the curtain comes up, Gower’s cosmos hangs over the dancers – 37 of them folded over in baby pose – like an all-white shimmering Aurora Borealis.

Pite is a master of the moving tableau and Angels’ Atlas comprises some of her best. The dancers are costumed in loose split pants, some with fabric panels that make them look like sarongs. They move in unison as huge shimmering mass, like an underwater school of fish as the light reflects off their bodies with each turn.

The motif of ascendance and descendance builds a feeling of transformation and the connection between the heavens and Earth.

Siphesihle November, man of the moment throughout this program, was one of the starring solos in Angels’ Atlas. Muscular, quick-footed partnering between Heather Ogden and Harrison James, Jordana Daumec and Spencer Hack, Hack and Donald Thom made this half-hour co-production with Ballett Zürich unforgettable.

Wayne McGregor’s Chroma, last performed here in 2015, opened the mixed program as if to say, this is what contemporary ballet dancers of the highest caliber can do. Set to a score by Joby Talbot and Jack White of the White Stripes, the piece opens on loud dissonance, progresses through lyrical to romantic and back to big brass in an arrangement of songs including “Aluminum” “Blue Orchid” and “Transit of Venus.”

McGregor’s understanding of what a body can do – see his choreography for Thom Yorke in the Radiohead video of “Lotus Flower” – is paramount in witnessing Chroma, which The Royal Balled premiered in 2006.

Set in a white, L-shaped dance space with a wide picture window behind from which dancers entered, Chroma puts dancers Skylar Campbell, Heather Ogden, a very lithe and happy Tanya Howard, Svetlana Lunkina and others to the test. They come off winningly.

At first it is disconcerting to see the men wearing the same flowy teddies as the women. Then as two men partner each other, it all makes sense: dance transcends gender divides and achieves a harmony akin to a perfectly blended colour palette.

The middle work, Frederick Ashton’s Marguerite and Armand, was first performed in 1963 by Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev. Telling the story of an ill-used courtesan jealously loved by a nobleman named Armand, the ballet hasn’t aged well.

But as a showcase for Greta Hodgkinson in her final performances with the National Ballet, it sets off her acting ability, her beautiful arm movement and her virtuoso dancing. Guillaume Côté plays the lover Armand with ease; Jonathan Renna makes a Duke with attitude, and Piotr Stanczyk, woefully underemployed here, is Armand’s father in this melodramatic, over-orchestrated short piece to a Franz Liszt piano sonata. One might prefer to keep Hodgkinson in mind for her performances in Sleeping Beauty, Giselle, The Four Seasons and ballets by John Cranko, Jiří Kylián and Glen Tetley.

 

Angels’ Atlas, with Chroma and Marguerite and Armand

Presented by the National Ballet of Canada at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, Toronto, until March 7

Photo of artists of the National Ballet in Angels’ Atlas by Karolina Kuras