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

 

The Revizor, revised, revamped and reborn as dance theatre

revisor is a parable for our times, adapted in a uniquely expressionistic form of dance and theatre from Nikolai Gogol’s play The Inspector General (Revizor in the original Russian) by writer/performer Jonathon Young and choreographer/director Crystal Pite. This is the same team (including composer/sound designer Owen Belton and scenic designer Jay Gower Taylor) that in 2015 brought us the brilliant Betroffenheit.

With revisor Young, Pite and their collaborating performers Doug Letheren, Rena Narumi, Matthew Peacock, David Raymond, Ella Rothschild, Cindy Salgado, Jermaine Spivey and Tiffany Tregarthen have raised the bar again, with great inventiveness and spectacle, leading us into a nightmare-in-progress, reflective of the very political deceit, fake news, divisiveness and government corruption that dominate our airwaves today.

Gogol’s 1836 play, both a farce and a satire, trades in the same themes. He developed the play from an anecdote related to him by Pushkin, about the case of a lowly clerical figure sent to a regional outpost of the czarist empire on some minor assignment. The clerk is mistaken for an official of influence and authority and soon has the local department head and others toadying before him. For Young and Crystal, the play presents “a matrix for both voice and body . . .malleable and resonant.”

Inspiration for this adaptation of The Inspector General came from accounts of a 1926 non-naturalist production of the play by the Russian theatre director Vsevolod Meyerhold (1874-1940). Meyerhold eschewed method acting for a kind of physical theatre that harked back to commedia dell’arte and expressed the symbolism he found in the text in the physical movements of his actors.

Ingeniously, Young et al created a spoken text that works like a score, the performers mouthing the words as they are heard overheard while performing exaggerated movements as if they were human puppets. These movements tell the tale of deceit, for the emotions they express often belie the words the actors are mouthing.

The performance of the farce in a series of tableaux – with Doug Letheren as Director of the Complex, Jermaine Spivey as the Postmaster, Tiffany Tregarthen (in removable beard) as the Revisor and a blousy, Cindy Salgado as the flirtatious Anna, wife of the Director – opens and closes the piece. What transpires in the middle is a dance deconstruction of The Inspector General, plumbing the emotional depths of the play, while stage directions are voiced overhead. Expressionism reaches its height with the appearance of a figure bearing a huge set of antlers that then get used as crutches.

The movement of the 10 performers is extraordinary, very dreamlike, an effect heightened by Owen Belton’s electronic, industrial soundscape and Jay Gower Taylor’s abstract video projections that trace needle-like paths on the scrim like an electronic circuit gone mad. The words of the text are repeated and broken down into phrases that apply the idea of the revisor to the dance – constantly regrouping, revising the movement, getting down to the elemental level.

All to say, catch revisor if you possibly can, and hope that there’s a chance to see it more than once, for its complexity demands revisiting.

revisor

Created by Crystal Pite + Jonathon Young

A Kidd Pivot Production presented by Canadian Stage

At the Bluma Appel Theatre, Toronto, until March 16

Photo of Ella Rothschild, Cindy Salgado, Jermaine Spivey, Tiffany Tregarthen, Doug Letheren, David Raymond, Rena Narumi, Matthew Peacock by Michael Slobodian.

Night travellers take us to our ancestral home

There must be millions of people in the world today who have never and may never experience a truly dark night sky. Such is the effect of urban and rural light pollution, that many will never witness the constellations or the Milky Way. The idea of losing the night came to Saskatchewan choreographer Shannon Litzenberger in 2014 when she took up an artist’s residency at Grasslands National Park, declared a Dark Sky Preserve in 2009.

That experience was the seed for World After Dark, a multi-media exploration in dance and words, of all that our connection to the night can mean, and how fragile our relationship to it has become. Christopher Dewdney’s book, Acquainted with the Night: Excursions through the World after Dark gave Litzenberger the impetus to assemble a dynamic creative team to collaborate in words, music, video imagery and especially dance in an exploration of the metaphors associated with night.

A poetic voiceover narrative — the work of playwright and dramaturge Guillermo Verdecchia, in part referring to and quoting from Dewdney’s text – is key to the coherence of this show. Rarely is speech employed so effectively in dance as it is in World After Dark, in the voiced-over narrations delivered offstage by Irene Pauzer and Dan Wild, and in short bits of spoken by the performers.

“Take a moment to let your eyes adjust (to the dark),” a narrator advises as the lights gradually come up on Linnea Swan, the personification of night. A goddess of darkness, she appears outfitted in designer Alexandra Lord’s black silky jumpsuit covered in shiny, spangly stars, as if she was wearing the night sky. Curled up on the floor in fetal position is Louis Laberge-Côté, our Everyman urbanite, as Swan takes us on the progress of night across the globe (courtesy of Elysha Poirier’s video projections on the upstage scrim). The night covers the Earth in darkness, as “dripping time passes . . . No trace of her is left on you.”

Aroused, agitated, Laberge-Côté voices a fragmented, disoriented shout of orders and numbers: “Six. . . Five . . .Rules . . . Sorry . . . This is the policy. . . I’m sorry . . . these are the parameters.” This is a desperate man, a bureaucrat trying to impose order, struggling against the darkness encroaching on him. Four figures in drab dungarees pull him down to the ground and remove him.

In the next scene, Ms. Night, relating the discovery of fire and the consequent light brought to early Earthlings, is our hostess at a disco bar or nightclub, where downtown workers seek the night to reinvent themselves, leaving behind their dreary occupations for more exciting identities on the dance floor. Syreeta Hector, Emily Law, Nikolaos Markakis and Kathia Wittenborn more or less depict themselves, as Swan continues her presentation. “Only losers will go to bed alone tonight,” she says.

And so it goes, with a voyage into the night forest in which our Everyman, fearful yet intrigued, recovers a connection to nocturnal creatures, including a mothlike being beautifully articulated in a solo by Wittenborn. There’s a brief sequence set to the text of Margaret Wise Brown’s famous children’s book, Goodnight Moon, and a beautiful monologue from Laberge-Côté about sneaking out of the house on summer nights to envelop himself in the darkness.

The choreography, with assistance from dance dramaturge Gerald Trentham and creative advisor Marie-Josée Chartier, is compellingly original, emerging organically from the story line and synched to John Gzowski’s haunting sound design, presented to advantage through Ken MacKenzie’s light and set design.

A huge creative effort went into the making of World After Dark and one only hopes it has a life beyond this premiere at Harbourfront Centre Theatre, perhaps in some dark sky preserve.

World After Dark

Concept, choreography and direction by Shannon Litzenberger

Harbourfront Centre Theatre, March 6 to 9, 2019, Toronto

Photo of Linnea Swan and Louis Laberge-Côté by Lyon Smith

A Wondrous theatrical adventure

Christopher Wheeldon’s ballet Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland enchants like one’s first encounter with the 1865 Lewis Carroll book of the same name. And what a theatrical adventure it is.

Reworked from the sprawling, less disciplined version that Wheeldon introduced in 2011, the National Ballet of Canada production of Alice, just opened at the Four Seasons Centre in Toronto, is tightly structured in three acts and anchored in romantic story ballet tradition.

As with the best of fairy tale ballets, this enthralling two-hour-and-forty-minute show is about transformation and self-discovery, complete with a guide, Professor Carroll/the White Rabbit, to interpret the phantasmagorical landscape of Alice’s imagination. Underlying the storyline is a girl’s journey through the confusing and mood-shifting passage of adolescence into young womanhood.

The story opens in 1862, in an upper-class garden in Oxford, where Lewis Carroll, a lecturer in mathematics and friend to the Liddell family is entertaining their three daughters, Lorina, Alice and Edith, reading to them and performing magic tricks. In the background, social-climbing Mrs. Liddell is preparing a garden party for the Dean of Christ Church, while her blustering husband tries to tame her temper.

When Alice’s mother, in a rage over an alleged theft by the gardener’s son Jack, banishes the boy from the household, Alice, who has befriended Jack, is deeply dismayed. To console her, Carroll goes to take her photo and emerges from under the camera cloth as the White Rabbit, his hair blanched and tufted up like a pair of ears.

Down the rabbit hole goes Alice, captive to her Wonderland escapades. All the characters in her life now appear as figures inhabiting the psychedelic world she has slipped into, with each drink of magic potion or bite of a mind-altering cake.

All of what ensues – Alice growing large and then small, swimming in a pool of her own tears or receiving hookah smoke messages of who are you? – is accomplished with the ingenious use of scrims and mind-boggling video and still projections of Jon Driscoll and Gemma Carrington, assisted with some brilliant puppetry. (The black-suited Cheshire cat operation is hardly to be believed.) The visuals are tightly synched to Joby Talbot’s score, orchestrated by Christopher Austin and Talbot into a soundscape of eerie swooning to carnivalesque romp to soaring romantic themes.

Jillian Vanstone’s Alice is delightfully light-footed and girlish, transforming before our eyes into young woman of passion and compassion. Francesco Gabriele Frola grows too, from infatuated gardener’s son Jack into Alice’s prince, the Knave of Hearts. Their several pas de deux express true love, with great strength and articulation.

Skylar Campbell, the Lewis Carroll figure who morphs into the White Rabbit, ably carries the through line of the tale, as a protector and a guide and sometimes anxious fusspot, with admirable inventiveness.

Comedy and satire, realized in Bob Crowley’s stunning sets and costumes and Nicholas Wright’s outlandish scenarios, drive the adventure without overwhelming Alice’s inner journey. First appearing as the bossy, vindictive Mama Liddell and then encased in a bright red steel bell of a dress as the even haughtier Queen of Hearts, Greta Hodgkinson seemed to be channelling a lead from Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo. She delivers a wonderful spoof of the Rose Adagio from Sleeping Beauty, her comic talents matched by Rex Harrington’s as a henpecked Papa Liddell, reimagined as the King of Hearts, all in red, tripping around in 18th-century heeled shoes like a drag queen looking for her spotlight.

Top of the list of inspired casting is Piotr Stanczyk, en travesti as the self-important yet grovelling Duchess. He is literally laugh-out-loud funny with his every appearance.

True to story ballet tradition, Wheeldon’s Alice’s Adventures is also a celebration of dance for its own sake. Donald Thom, the Magician who becomes the flame-haired Mad Hatter, is a Nicholas Brother en pointe in the tap-dancing sequence of the tea party, along with the farcical Vicar become March Hare, performed by a giggly, buck-toothed Jack Bertinshaw to Meghan Pugh’s animated Dormouse. A standout solo is performed by Harrison James, as the slinky Rajah/The Caterpillar in a sequence inspired by Arabic belly-dancing. A hilarious vaudeville-esque variation and some beautiful ensemble performances – the flamingo croquet game and the game of cards – complete the picture of what a well-trained, versatile ballet company can do.

A little trimming in the third act wouldn’t hurt, but if you are looking for big bang for your ballet buck, this Alice is the ticket. It’s an all-ages show comparable to the National Ballet’s Nutcracker that will withstand many repeat viewings.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Choreography by Christopher Wheeldon

Performed by the National Ballet of Canada

Until March 17, 2019 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts

Photo of Greta Hodgkinson as the Queen of Hearts and Jillian Vanstone as Alice in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Cylla von Tiedemann

I am woman, flesh and spirit

The keening begins before the house lights are down. Out of the darkness, a shrill cry, rising in pitch, louder until it’s a glass-shattering single high note held unendurably long. In a slow-motion film fade-in, a  figure can be glimpsed in the murky space, naked arms raised high and wide like a Thunderbird totem pole. Then, with a clack of a switch, we are struck with the glare of a stagelights so strong we have to shield our eyes. Before us, stage front and centre, staring steadily into the middle distance stands Paige Culley, naked but for a pair of blue jeans, which she ever so slowly begins to unzip and partially remove, squatting down as if to pull them off then changing her mind. She moves to a cross-legged position upstage on the dance pad, a big rectangle made of pale blue Styrofoam sheets shiny with some kind of body oil. She removes removes the jeans completely now, emerging like a newborn from a shed skin. Lying full out, she begins to slowly roll along the slick surface, literally painting the floor with her body as she outlines the perimeter of the dancepad, upstage right, across the back and downstage left.

Pour, at 60 minutes long, is as much performance art as dance. Culley’s sculptural movements, mostly on the floor, are agonizingly slow, inviting us to contemplate the body as a three-dimensional work of art. Conceived and directed by Montreal-based dancer/choreographer Daina Ashbee, the show prompts thoughts of missing and murdered indigenous women. Ashbee found the perfect interpreter for the piece in Culley, a BC-born, Montreal -based dancer who has worked closely with Dancemakers and Compagnie Marie Chouinard.

Ashbee, whose heritage is Cree and Dutch, was trained in Vancouver and has made her name as an up-and-coming choreographer on the stages of Montreal, Europe and Mexico. She is currently artist-in-residence at Agora de la danse in Montreal and describes her choreography as “an investigation of the body in order to address the subconscious. . . and bring awareness of my own thoughts and processes. Articulating this awareness through choreography helps to uncover my connection to the environment, the earth and to my ancestors.”

This connection is clear, as Culley, now well oiled, lies supine on the floor and begins a rhythmic pounding of her elbows on the floor, replicating the beats of an Indian drumming circle. Culley’s strength and control is empowering. She is fierce in her exertions as she rolls first from one side to another. She pounds with her hips, each of her buttocks, then her torso, then full body, like a mermaid, flapping prostrate on the shore. There are sounds too – an earthy groan of connection to some primal force.

Then standing tall, dripping with sweat and oil, her face enflamed, Culley begins a slow sideways shuffle with her back to us, crossing the stage from left to right and back again, completing enclosure of the performance space that she began with her body rolls. This ritualistic enclosure defines the territory of the self, inviolate, never to be overlooked. As the dancer turns to face us once again before being plunged in darkness, that direct gaze offers us her full spiritual and physical presence, a gift to be sure.

Take a look here: https://vimeo.com/241325669

Pour

Conceived and directed by Daina Ashbee

Performed by Paige Culley

A To Live Presentation in association with Native Earth Performing Arts and the Theatre Centre

At the Theatre Centre, Toronto until February 24, 2019

 

 

Dancing explosively into the light

   From ghoulies and ghosties
And long-leggedy beasties
And things that go bump in the night,
Good Lord, deliver us!

Such sentiments – and a whole lot more – have inspired the spectacular and often profound multimedia production that is who we are in the dark. The Peggy Baker Dance project that premiered last night at Canadian Stage’s Bluma Appel Theatre grew out of a short 2015 work, fractured black, that marked the first collaboration between Baker and dynamic violinist Sarah Neufeld, a member of Arcade Fire and the Montreal ensemble Bell Orchestre.

Baker’s best performances have centred on a live interaction between solo musician and dancer or dancers. For who we are in the dark, Baker pairs Neufeld with Arcade Fire master drummer Jeremy Gara, on a riser upstage. The show builds like the progress of a chemical reaction as eight dancers move through a space of electric possibility. Gala’s drumming is synched to Jeremy Mimnagh’s surging black and white projections on the stage-high back scrim, while Marc Parent’s incisive strobes, like criss-crossed bars of neon light, animate a stage bathed in mood-altering ultraviolet, turquoise and nightshade colours.

Kate Holden, the premiere interpreter of Baker’s choreographic vision, leads us into the fray, as Sarah Fregeau, Mairi Greig, Nicole Rose Bond, Benjamin Kamino, Sahara Morimoto, David Norsworthy and Jarrett Siddall form a well rehearsed and coordinated ensemble.

Who are we in the dark? We’re scared, we’re secretive, combative, sexual, intimate – we’re in touch with our id. All is expressed in Baker’s muscular, enclosing and repelling movements and Fides Krucker’s vocalography: the dancers’ growls of satisfaction or apprehension, howls of pain, murmurs of animal pleasure or mewls of a creature looking for its mother, as they move in ensemble like a mob driven by the collective unconscious.

The huge, furiously painted canvas hangings of the recently deceased Montreal artist John Heward add another layer to who we are in the dark. One hangs on the wall above the musicians and never moves. Others, displaying Gestalt images such a circle or a crude house or mountain, drop down into the performance space, where the dancers tear them and move through them as if they constituted another form of music.

A chilling, electric hum rises and falls through the piece as Gara’s primal, syncopated drum rhythms and Neufeld’s scissoring violin bow, alternately frantic and soothing, drive the dancers. Four same-sex and male-female couples express their love in dance. In one still moment, Neufeld does a vigorous violin solo in a spotlit cone, in conversation with a line of dancers, Holden in the forefront, leaning in to the music with beautiful Baker sweeping arms and elongated torso and legs. As the music, lightshow and projections rise to a crescendo, the scrim turns into a rainbow-coloured swirl of paint, a backdrop for Sarah Fregeau, who enters in a pearl grey costume, as if she’s found enlightenment.

These are dark times and great art can lead us toward the light at the end of the tunnel. who we are in the dark was made possible with cash from the National Arts Centre’s Creation Fund and the dare-to-dream determination of CanStage executive producer Sherrie Johnson. Baker and her collaborators have mounted a show that reveals just how big they can go given the right budget.

who we are in the dark

Concept, choreography and direction by Peggy Baker

Composition and live music by Sarah Neufeld and Jeremy Gara

A Peggy Baker Dance Projects production presented by Canadian Stage with Fall for Dance North

At the Bluma Appel Theatre, Toronto, until Feb 24; Montreal’s Thêâtre Maisonneuve, Feb 27-March 2; Hamilton’s McMaster University, March 6; Banff Centre for the Arts and Creativity, March 9; Whitehorse’s Yukon Arts Centre, March 13; and Kingston’s Grand Theatre, April 9, 2019

Photo by Jeremy Mimnagh

 

 

 

 

Ballet West makes classics

It’s always a treat to see an accomplished classical ballet company you’ve never seen before. Ballet West, based in Salt Lake City, Utah, rises to the occasion in the program presented by Dance Victoria at the Royal Theatre, which concludes tonight.

As an opener, Sweet and Bitter, by Spanish choreographer África Guzmán, makes a good showcase for the technical abilities of eight Ballet West dancers: Emily Adams, Rex Tilton, Katlyn Addison, Jenna Rae Herrera, Chelsea Keefer, Alexander MacFarlan, Joshua Shutkind and Jordan Veit. The Friday performance, to Ezio Bosso’s alternately solemn and allegro string and piano composition, was curiously bloodless, as if the dancers had not yet engaged with their audience.  Perhaps it was the canned music, or maybe they were just warming up. But their fluid lifts, graceful entrances and exits, and classical lines were clearly evident.

Founded in 1963 by artistic director William Christensen and Utah arts patron Glenn Walker Wallace, Ballet West established a classical repertoire under Christensen, also co-founder of the San Francisco Ballet. He created the first full-length American productions of Coppélia, Swan Lake and The Nutcracker, all of which Ballet West still performs.

Current artistic director Adam Sklute, former associate director of The Joffrey Ballet, conceived and produced a new Swan Lake, which opens Ballet West’s home season next week, and is very much a tribute to the Marius Petipa original. Katherine Lawrence and Christopher Rudd, performing in his farewell season, dance the White Swan Pas de Deux on the Victoria program, followed by Beckanne Sisk and Chase O’Connell performing the Black Swan Pas de Deux. Sisk was the standout here, eyes flashing, dancing with wonderful attack, strength and defiance and executing the familiar steps and fouettés as if she really had something to tell us.

Nicolo Fonte, Ballet West’s resident choreographer, created Fox on the Doorstep in memory of his late father Lorenzo Fonte. Apparently Fonte opened the door one morning and found a small white fox on his doorstep. The choreographer later learned that at the moment of the fox’s appearance, his father had died. Fonte set Fox on the Doorstep principally to the wonderfully evocative, mostly piano music by Ólafur Arnalds (who plays Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto next Friday). Arnalds’ music, along with that of Harry Escott and Jóhan Jóhannson, makes a tapestry against which dancers Adams, Keefer, Katherine Lawrence, Gabrielle Salvatto, Sisk, Arolyn Williams, Adrian Fry, Tyler Gum, MacFarlan, O’Connell, Tilton and Veit perform duets, pas de trois, quartets and ensemble arrangements, often against the loud ticking of a clock. Lawrence, is a dynamo here as is O’Connell, rising shirtless near the end of the piece like the spirit of the missing loved one.  Fox on the Doorstep is a powerful contemporary ballet – a frisson of danger is inherent in the mens’ vests resembling shoulder holsters — that one longs to see again.

Ballet West

Presented by Dance Victoria

At the Royal Theatre, Victoria, February 1 and 2, 2019

Photo of Arolyn Williams and Chase O’Connell in Fox on the Doorstep by Beau Pearson