Three cheers for the National Ballet of Canada for bringing Frederick Ashton’s The Dream back into action after 17 years. Sir Frederick Ashton (1905-1988) was an English choreographer whose ballets brought a new quickness, brightness and delight to the form. The National Ballet lists eight of his works in its repertoire, including the audience favourite La Fille Mal Gardée. Even more than most ballet creators, Ashton let the music dictate the shape of his work.
The Dream, set to music by Felix Mendelssohn arranged by John Lanchbery, is a fine example of Ashton’s craft. The violin section that heralds the appearance of dancing fairies leads us into the one-act dance as if we too are enchanted.
Ashton boiled down William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream to its essentials: three sets of lovers out of sync with one another. He re-imagined the play, set in ancient Greece, as a royal court in Victorian times, the place being an English wood where fairies rule.
Jillian Vanstone is a regal Titania, queen of the fairies, well matched with a noble Harrison James as Oberon, her king. Their struggle concerns ownership of an Indian changeling boy, whom Oberon would have as his servant. Aramis Gonzalez in a heavy courtier’s costume melts hearts with his every appearance as the Changeling.
Ashton placed the fairy Puck at the centre of The Dream, as he should be. Puck, sprinkling the flower dust that makes his victims fall in love with the first creature they see upon awakening is the change agent who drives the plot and initiates the fun. Skylar Campbell is dazzling in a role that calls for a deft touch, speed and a bit of craziness. He fairly flies across the stage. Second soloist Joe Chapman has a particular challenge as Bottom, the worker whom Puck transforms into a donkey. He must dance in point shoes; Chapman manages, going from delicacy to slapstick with wit and precision and bringing a bit of dignity to the role.
Tanya Howard stands out as Helena, the most sympathetic of the wronged women. She is ultimately to wed Lysander; played by Ben Rudisin, who enters stage right as a comic fop. Chelsy Meiss is a fetching Hermia. She is finally married to her Demetrius, a nimble Giorgio Galli, from the company’s corps de ballet.
Paired with The Dream on this mixed program is Guillaume Côté’s Being and Nothingness, a stark contrast to Ashton, but not without its own sense of play. Appointed a principal dancer in 2004, Côté is also the company’s choreographic associate and has added significant works to its repertoire. Drawing on Jean-Paul Sartre’s philosophical manifesto of 1943, Côté explores ideas of selfhood, free will, the individual versus the crowd and the meaning of sexual congress in some razor-sharp contemporary ballet combinations.
Pianist Edward Connell gets equal billing with the dancers for playing the brilliant score made up of Philip Glass pieces, including Metamorphosis No. 4. The music comes up from the orchestra pit, so the dancers appear to be performing in silence or acting out what’s running through their consciousness.
Côté also dramatizes an opposition of subject and object. Being and Nothingness is structured in seven parts: The Light, The Bedroom, The Door, The Sink, The Living Room, The Street, The Call. The spaces are designated with a door, a bed, a bathroom sink, and a telephone on the wall, perhaps indicating a higher, determinist power. The Street is represented by 11 dancers in men’s suits and hats, as if they’d been borrowed from Joe, Jean-Pierre Perrault’s monumental 1983 ensemble piece.
Greta Hodgkinson, centred, controlled yet emotive, anchors the piece. Rolling through on the repetitive Glass piano arpeggios, are a series of duets, solos and ensembles, illustrating aspects of Sartrian existentialism. Most notable is Siphesihle November, the South African dancer who joined the National Ballet last year. He is shaving at the sink and whirls into a muscular solo. Côté’s work is very physical, but what strikes one most about Being and Nothingness is the grace and fluidity of the movement and how it all flows into a satisfying experience.
By Sir Frederick Ashton
Being and Nothingness
By Guillaume Côté
A National Ballet of Canada production at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, Toronto, until November 25
Photos of Greta Hodgkinson, Jillian Vanstone and Harrison James by Aleksandar Antonijevic