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

A popstar’s failure opens the door to success

Vivek Shraya makes a convincing case for How to Fail as a Popstar. But she’s a success in the “I Did It My Way” mold. On the evidence of this show, Shraya is a terrific writer and performer, with a great voice and a gift for mimicry.

Popstar, a world premiere at Berkeley Street Theatre, was written by the self-described queer, trans, brown performer. And Shraya made it as an author, with the bestselling I’m Afraid of Men.

A straightforward tale of failed dreams, this one-woman show is spiked with satire, jokes and laugh-out-loud impersonations of the people in the Canadian music industry who helped Shraya along on her way to failure. And songs, which she performs in period moves choreographed by William Yong.

Covering all the gender bases, she enters in a full-length spangly gold cape over a black shorts jumpsuit, in glittering black high-tops and sparkling eye shadow to set off her abundant long blond hair; we don’t miss the chest hair peeking through her V-neck top. “I did not become God. I never got to perform with Madonna,” she says in reference to her youthful ambitions.

It’s a long story. Vivek, the son of Indian immigrants, grew up and went to school in Edmonton. He was teased, called faggot. He was geeky. But he had his own style, which girls at his junior high school approved of — and a voice. “You were chosen,” Vivek remembers thinking at services in the Sai Baba Temple. “I could feel my own divinity.” To demonstrate, she sits cross-legged on the stage and sings a bhajan, one of the hundreds he/she learned at the temple.

In the section entitled “The Judge”, Shraya gets a lot of laughs with her portrayal of Edmonton as a city of malls. The Youth Talent Quest, which she finally won at 19, wound up in the West Edmonton mall in the biggest food court. Vivek’s win, after many tries, was for a song of her own, “Madrid.” The judges, most of them older women in “floral blouses with shoulder pads,” had a suggestion. “Have you ever considered wearing leather pants like Ricky Martin?”

Eventually, Shraya gets the break she needs to “get the fuck out of Edmonton” and with a $20,000 loan, guaranteed by her parents, starts recording her songs with a Toronto manager. Her temporary housing was in the apartment of an assistant to the manager who calls herself Mama Carla. “I should have done my research,” Shraya tells us. Mama Carla’s luxury apartment turns out to be in Mississauga and every time the budding popstar starts asking questions about his progress, Mama Carla demands a backrub.

There is much more delight, honesty and poignancy. Defeated by the Toronto music scene, Vivek decided she was going back to Edmonton. Vivek’s mother was so accepting she asked her son if he was sure he has finished what he must do in Toronto.

The end of the show is a recitation of forty reasons why Vivek failed as a pop star. “Number one: I was born in Edmonton . . .”

Failure is relative. Shraya actually reached a stepping-stone to musical success with a Polaris prize nomination for an album made with Queer Songbook Orchestra: Part-Time Woman. And she needn’t worry about failure from here on in.

How to Fail as a Popstar

Written and performed by Vivek Shraya

Directed by Brendan Healy

Choreography by William Yong; sound design by James Bunton

Set and costumes by Joanna Yu; lighting design by C.J. Astronomo

Photo of Vivek Shraya by Dahlia Katz

Sunlight brought to a Vancouver women’s world

Marjorie Chan has done wonderful work bringing forward the six characters from Sunrise, a 1936 Chinese play by Cao Yu, in a multi-layered contemporary drama set in a money-and-real-estate-obsessed Vancouver.

Lady Sunrise takes its name from a beauty pageant in which Penny (Lindsay Wu) was once a runner-up. A native of Richmond BC, she now prefers to be known as Lulu and her work as a model has led to gigs as a paid companion to politicians and celebs at public events. She’s learned the lingo of female success (“Believe in yourself. . . fight the patriarchy”), but failure lies just around the corner.

Her boyfriend is Frankie Pan (the “men of the male species” in this play are present only by word-of-mouth), a denizen of clubs and casinos.

Tawny Ku (Ma-Anne Dionisio) is Penny’s auntie, not her real mother, but someone who takes a controlling interest in her. Tawny, known to her banker as Crazy Ku, is big in real estate – thanks to money obtained through husbands past – and she is on the verge of closing a deal on construction of a Vancouver condo tower.

Banker Wong (Rosie Simon) is a marathon runner, as aggressive in her power suit as she is in running shoes. Dealer Li (Zoé Doyle) is a croupier at a Vancouver-area casino and she has a less glamourous tale to tell. “I was a cleaner here first,” she says. Then her husband lost his job and she had to go to work as a blackjack dealer, a job that entails long hours and long waits for public transportation at night.

Charmaine (Louisa Zhu) enters in more traditional Chinese silk pants and short tunic. She finds Banker Wong on the road crippled with a Charley horse and fixes her up with a calf massage. Apparently Charmaine runs a massage parlor. Sherry (Belinda Corpuz) is the victim of an accident or injury: she appears in a hospital gown.

So tightly written is Lady Sunrise, that sorting out the relationships in the play can be a challenge. Despite the strong element of satire, it’s clear some tragedy is about to unfold, but you have to backtrack in your mind to see how the various characters are connected to it.

Director Nina Lee Aquino has staged the play on a series of ramps, angled up to one corner stage back and offering the perfect metaphor for parallel lives. At intervals during a character’s monologue, the other four or five women enter in formation in belted trench coats and neon-coloured wigs. They don’t speak but make an effective Greek chorus in their fancy footwork.

All of the actors turn in absorbing performances. What strikes the viewer is not some insight into the lives of Asian-Canadian women, but the fact that their stories could involve women of any background. In a week when Harvey Weinstein was sent to jail for sexual assault, Lady Sunrise seemed especially well timed.

Lady Sunrise

Written by Marjorie Chan

Directed by Nina Lee Aquino

Set design by Camellia Koo; costume design by Jackie Chau

Lighting design by Michelle Ramsay; sound and composition by Debashis Sinha

Movement directed by Natasha Mumba

At Factory Theatre, Toronto until March 8

Photo of (back) Zoé Doyle, Rosie Simon, Ma-Anne Dionisio, Louisa Zhu, Belinda Corpuz and (front) Lindsay Wu by Joseph Michael

 

 

 

Red Sky on fire

If you want to see some terrific contemporary dancing, set to an amazing score by Eliot Britton and Rick Sacks and performed live on stage, get down to the Berkeley Street Theatre to see the latest Red Sky production, AF.

Billed as “seven movements of contemporary dance and compelling physical storytelling,” AF is a show that grew out of Red Sky’s residency in the Berkeley Street Company. The initials are taken from Animal Farm, George Orwell’s allegorical novella of 1945 that depicted a rebellion among farm animals seeking freedom from their farmer overlord. It does not end well.

According to Red Sky artistic director Sandra Laronde, rather than recapitulating the dark path of Animal Farm, this show, choreographed by Thomas Fonua, took its lead from the more triumphant Anishinaabe mythology, specifically the eight fire prophecies.

The Anishinaabe fires correspond with epochs in the history of Turtle Island (i.e., the world), each fire a prophecy. The fourth fire, for instance, foretold the coming of a light-skinned people. The seventh fire, as explained on the website crystalwind.ca, was delivered by a young, clear-eyed prophet. The seventh fire was to lead to the rebirth of the Anishinaabe nation. The eighth and final fire will be an eternal flame signifying, “peace, love, brotherhood and sisterhood.”

None of this information is available to the audience, so the dancers have a daunting task – to explain in mime and movement what’s going on. What’s more, the wonderful voiceover from Anishinaabe speaker Albert Owl, is nowhere translated. It would have been a simple matter, given Chris Malkowski’s clever lighting design, to project surtitles on the brick wall that forms the back of the stage.

Story-wise, AF takes a while to find its feet. In a cone of light, a tall figure of powerful mien, with long hair and a cloth draped over his jeans, opens the show. In front of him in darkness is a long table and all we can make out are four heads. When the lights come on over the table, we see it a supine male, leaned over by two women dressed in flowing blue dresses, their hands clawing at the supine figure’s legs, their heads shaking rapidly back and forth, somehow in synch with the rhythm of the music and drumming to the right of them on stage.

Even those ignorant of the mythology will catch the meaning of the fourth or fifth movement, when a mottled circle of light slowly encloses the dancers in a tight formation. The paleskins take over the land and put the Anishinaabe on reserves.

The tall, warrior-like character might be interpreted as delivering the eighth prophecy, as flames (a trick of lighting) lick around the dancers: Eddie Elliot, Michael Rourke, Miyeko Ferguson, Marrin Jessome and Connor Mitten.

Fonua’s contemporary moves are pretty standard, but as barrel rolls flow into floor crawls or leaps and push-pull partnering, it’s hard to see any aspect of Animal Farm – or any necessity for it.

Yes, the dancers do a lot of sideways, forward and backward moves on all fours and sometimes there are farm animal sounds, but what you notice are the birds’ cries, blending with a soundtrack of recordings from Gabe Gaudet, Marie Gaudet, Nelson Tagoona, Tanya Tagaq and a Tribe Called Red. Jenifer Brousseau’s live singing and keening, invoking the spirits, takes precedence. The problematic dance language is in repeated poses with heads down and faces unseen, always suggesting submission. Problematic, because this is a hopeful, upbeat show and we need to know that before the final upright, towering formation.

AF

Direction and concept by Sandra Laronde

Choreography by Thomas Fonua

Music by Eliot Britton and Rick Sacks

Lighting design by Chris Malkowski

A Red Sky Performance production presented by Canadian Stage at Berkeley Street Theatre, Toronto, until March 1

Photo from AF by Dahlia Katz

‘Let’s queer up the world together’

“Toxic masculinity” is such an oft-used term, one almost forgets there is any other kind. So Sébastien Provencher’s Children of Chemistry, set on five gay male dancers, comes as a welcome corrective. The show, first worked on in 2015 as a site-specific piece in Montreal, contains in its theatrical version all the drama –and comedy — of a well made one-act play.

Dancers Miguel Anguiano, Jean-Benoît Labrecque, Louis-Elyan Martin, Alexandre Morin and Simon Renaud first appear on the black box stage of the Citadel as a quiet ensemble, dressed variously in white shirts or t-shirts over jeans, a skirt or underwear. Slowly, in precise in unison, they move their arms and hands, raising elbows, pointing, stretching, opening palms like a flower and repeating a hand gesture to the forehead that suggests a rooster’s comb. This first movement is like a work of synchronized sign language, floating over Hani Debbache’s electronic score, a gentle hum that builds to something like techno-funk.

Before you know it, one dancer has broken out – there’s one in every crowd, you think. And soon they’re all going freestyle, colliding with one another. One, Jean-Benoît Labrecque, has a little breakdown on stage.

Either they are highly skilled quick-change artists or there are some very good dressers back stage, because in the blink of an eye, the five have returned in colourful blazers, mincingly doing a fashion runway walk sporting camouflage army dress, swimwear (featuring a one-piece with a thong back to reveal rounded cheeks) and sports gear, culminating with a guy in a colourful windjacket doing a wobbly turn on roller-blades. Soon they are down to skin, a rubbery horse’s head and white socks being the only attire of one model.

Vamping becomes voguing in the hilarious football sequence that has them all in red leotards with matching red helmets. Soon they are in full-blown North American red-blooded form, a coach shouting orders, all marching, military style – sometimes on tiptoe.

Before you know it, one dancer has broken out – there’s one in every crowd, you think. And soon they’re all going freestyle, colliding with one another. One, Jean-Benoît Labrecque, has a little breakdown on stage.

Either they are highly skilled quick-change artists or there are some very good dressers back stage, because in the blink of an eye, the five have returned in colourful blazers, mincingly doing a fashion runway walk sporting camouflage army dress, swimwear (featuring a one-piece with a thong back to reveal rounded cheeks) and sports gear, culminating with a guy in a colourful windjacket doing a wobbly turn on roller-blades. Soon they are down to skin, a rubbery horse’s head and white socks being the only attire of one model.

Children of Chemistry comes back to quiet as the lights go down, one bare shoulder illuminated in the fading light as all five lie face-down, bums up like five children sleeping in the same bed.

In his notes, choreographer and costume designer invites us to watch this show and “queer up the world together.” He’s got a point: it’s for our own good, whoever we are.

Children of Chemistry

Choreography by Sébastien Provencher

Music by Hani Debbache

Lighting design by Nancy Bussières

Presented by Citadel Compagnie at The Citadel, Toronto, until February 22

Photo of  Jean-Benoît Labrecque, Miguel Anguiano, Alexandre Morin, Louis-Elyan Martin and Jossua Collin by Justine Latour

 

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

 

Dancing Beethoven’s 9th symphony

I have no argument with the word “monumental” to describe Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in D minor. Setting a dance to such a masterpiece is hugely ambitious, and ProArteDanza artistic director Roberto Campanella seems well aware of the challenge. He and co-choreographer Robert Glumbek spent nearly a decade putting together The 9th.

And now that it’s on stage, at the Fleck Theatre at Harbourfront Centre through Saturday November 9, we can see whether they matched the monumentality of the music with equally awesome set, lighting, video and performance. For this viewer, the answer is, not really.

The 70-minute piece is divided into five movements, corresponding to passages from the symphony, followed by the choral section based on Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller’s poem “Ode to Joy”. Why the choreographers chose different recordings for each movement and the choral finale is a question that comes to mind, but as each movement presents only a slice of the symphony, perhaps it doesn’t matter.

The symbolism of the chairs, which lie tipped over across the front of the stage before the curtain comes up raises another question. If you read the program beforehand, you’d find that they represent how “separation is built between us. Chairs are the metaphor that impedes the connection between us.” Fine, but aren’t chairs more often seen as a means for people to get together, around a dining table for instance? More likely they are a prop chosen for ease in carrying around the stage, placing in a row to play musical chairs, or for standing on before they overbalance.

To the dancing then. Taylor Bojanowski, Sasha Ludavicius, Ryan Lee, Daniel McArthur, Connor Mitton, Jake Poloz, Kelly Shaw and Kurumi Yoshimoto, despite their varied levels of experience, show equal mastery of the highly physical manoueuvres assigned them. They wear drab street clothes. Loneliness and struggle dominate the opening scenes, cleverly depicted in simultaneous video on a scrim upstage, the work of Digital Graphic Design’s director David Dexter. Things take on a West Side Story vibe as the well coordinated dancers move in synch, in duos, trios and quartets and opposing each other like gangs meeting in the parking lot.

With each movement, togetherness increases, but there is lots of push and pull, coming together and pulling apart in vigorous variations that never seem to carry a consistent theme.

Finally, with the choral section, all stand together (Alle menschen werden Brüder/All people will be brothers), against a video backdrop of dozens of chairs piled up like a barricade, individual chairs slowly slipping away to leave an open space.

The song is called an Ode to Joy, but if you didn’t understand the German, you’d never know what was meant from the sombre faces of the dancers. And for a climax, having all the dancers stand and deliver the lyrics of the song was a letdown, more like a moment from a singalong movie musical than the transcendence achieved in the final bars of Beethoven’s symphony.

The 9th

Choreography by Roberto Campanella and Robert Glumbek

Lighting design by Arun Srinivasan

Costumes by Krista Dowson-Spiker

At the Fleck Dance Theatre, Harbourfront Centre, Toronto, through November 9

Photo by Alexander Antonijevic

Crowd-pleasing, artistically satisfying

It was a beautiful 20-year-old Italian dancer named Carlotta Grisi who inspired the creation of Giselle, the romantic story ballet that premiered in Paris in 1841 and has stood as a highpoint in the careers of leading ballerinas ever since.

Artistic director Karen Kain, this season celebrating 50 years with the National Ballet of Canada, recalls Giselle as the first ballet she saw and the work that inspired her to dance. “Giselle demands everything from a classical ballerina, from stamina to technical precision, drama and musicality.” Kain first performed it in 1973, partnered with Frank Augustyn.

On Wednesday night, Svetlana Lunkina, who came to the National Ballet from the Bolshoi Ballet, raised everyone from their seats with a moving interpretation of the role that was so technically proficient she made it look effortless. Giselle is the German peasant girl who lives with her mother Berthe in a village surrounded by vineyards. She is wooed by a mysterious stranger named Loys, who poses as a farmer, but is actually Count Albrecht, son of the Duke of Silesia and the fiancé of Countess Bathilde.

Giselle’s intended is Hilarion, a forester who takes note of Loys’ bearing and suspects him of treachery. He tries to warn Giselle, as does Berthe, but this innocent beauty is captivated. Her joy, expressed in playful and artful dancing with Loys, is unbounded. Drama mounts when Bathilde (an august Tanya Howard), in the company of the Duke and a royal hunting party, arrives. She takes an interest in Giselle and gives her a necklace.

Piotr Stanczyk gets our sympathy as the perfectly worthy, robust suitor, who reveals Loys’ identity and status. Giselle’s ecstasy spins into madness and, her humiliation and betrayal on display for all to see, takes Albrecht’s sword and plunges it into her heart, dying in her mother’s arms. Harrison James’s performance as the disguised Albrecht hits just the right note, between cad and true love.

Giselle is a ballet that literally hit new heights; it’s all about lightness and elevation. This aspect of the show is evident throughout: the peasant pas de deux in Act I were brilliantly executed by Siphesihle November, Jeannine Haller, Skylar Campbell and Miyoko Koyasu.

As enduring as the ballet and Adolph Adam’s straightforward, evocative score is Desmond Heeley’s set, created in 1970. The sunny, earthly world of peasants, vineyards and royal hunting parties is sharply delineated from the dark forested spirit habitat of Act II, in which the gauzy, sylph-like Wilis appear, as substantial as willow-‘o-the-wisps and just as mysterious.

Here we find Hilarion beside Giselle’s grave, keeping vigil as the poor girl has been buried in unhallowed ground. The Wilis, the ghosts of betrothed women who were betrayed before they could be married, harry a brave-hearted Hilarion to his death, under the direction of a strikingly powerful Heather Ogden as Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis and lead Wilis Tina Pereira and Jordana Daumec. The full assembly of 18 Wilis make a stirring spectacle. Not a sound is heard over the music as they perform their ghostly ensemble sliding on single feet across the stage.

The applause for Lunkina’s lofty, delicate dancing as a Wili began well before the end of the show. The pas de deux with James made plausible the power of love and forgiveness that saves Albrecht from the vengeful ghosts. Five other principal dancers take their turns as Giselle before the end of the run, including Greta Hodgkinson, who dances the role in her final season with the National Ballet on Saturday night.

Giselle

Choreography and production by Sir Peter Wright, after Jean Coralli, Jules Perrot and Marius Petipa

A production of the National Ballet of Canada, at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, Toronto, through November 10

Photo of Svetlana Lunkina and Harrison James with artists of the National Ballet of Canada by Aleksandar Antonijevic.