Made in Canada a mixed blessing

You have to wonder whether the choice of “made in Canada” as the selection criterion for the National Ballet of Canada’s mixed program was somehow forced upon the company. For this homegrown program is decidedly mixed and not entirely in a good way.

Toronto-born Robert Binet, choreographic associate at NBoC since 2013, has in a short time created an impressive number of works for the company and for several European companies including the Royal Ballet. The Dreamers Ever Leave You, a co-production of the ballet and the Art Gallery of Ontario, was created in 2016 as a response to the exhibition The Idea of North: Paintings by Lawren S. Harris as a piece of “immersive dance.” In other words, while the dancers performed, presumably in close proximity to the paintings and the piano on which composer Lubomyr Melnyk played his trademark Continuous Music, the audience members were free to move around observing the dancers up-close and personal. But transferred to the huge Four Seasons stage and seen from a great distance, the pianist in the pit, Dreamers leaves its audience behind. In place of the changing perspective afforded by the viewers walking about the dancers, we get slowly moving, sometimes obscuring abstract panels, stand-ins for Harris’s arctic mountain peaks, and some chilly shifting lighting. Melnyk’s rapid and difficult sequences (in the 70s in Paris he composed music for modern dance) bears no apparent relationship to the choreography and comes off as monotonous, lulling us into indifference. Were it not for the staging, we might well have appreciated much more the outstanding performers in this piece, among them Hannah Fischer, Heather Ogden and Harrison James.

Particularly well made in Canada might be the headline for James Kudelka’s The Four Seasons, first performed in 1997 and often restaged but never failing to excite. The 45-minute piece became the signature dance for Rex Harrington on whom Kudelka created the role of A Man, placing him at the centre of the Vivaldi composition (1720-23) inspired by the landscape paintings of Marco Ricci. The sublime four violin concerti, with their accompanying sonnets in tribute to the spirit of the seasons, have attracted quite a few choreographers. But Kudelka’s genius is in matching the intricacy of the music with very complicated steps and partnering while turning up the passion and the drama of a man for all seasons — in the stages of love, in maturity and finally dogged by Death. Guillaume Cote here achieves the balance of emotion and technical mastery required in the role of A Man. Jillian Vanstone is spritely as Spring and Greta Hodgkinson somehow sexy, sultry and majestic all at once as A Man’s Summer partner. Xiao Nan Yu in Winter is similarly a strong presence, in the role of accomplice to the other side, with the promise of rebirth contained in the achingly beautiful music. The inspired costumes designed by TRAC, adding layers to the dancers with the passing of the seasons, are integral to the drama, as is the extraordinary lighting design of David Finn, bathing the dancers in rich projections of ever-changing shades of green, red, yellow and blue.

Emergence, the 30-minute dance that closes the mixed program, is a piece commissioned by NBoC from Vancouver-based choreographer of well-earned renown Crystal Pite in 2009, relatively early in her career. Pite took a scientific approach to the challenge of creating work on the hierarchy of a ballet company. As she said at the time, “I wanted to look for a parallel in nature, at a hierarchical structure that creates amazing complex structures.” Looking at beehives, ostensibly a top-down structure ordered by the Queen, she discovered the swarm – the hivemind — an intelligent being that operates on a complex system of consensus-building. Which is what we see in the powerful ensemble dancing of nearly 40 dancers, the women dressed in black-widow leotards for needle-like point work and the men bare-chested with powerful legs and arms like enlarged, menacing insects with a common purpose. Owen Belton’s soundscape of electronic high-pitched humming, marching sounds and cricket-like communication gives shape to the swarm that emerges – a collective unconscious that operates like a secret language. Seen in the light of Pite’s more recent work for her company Kidd Pivot, Emergence appears underdeveloped; she had only a short time to create the piece. But its revival serves as a taste for better things to come, as Pite will create a full-length piece for the National Ballet’s 2019-2020 season, something to be richly anticipated.

Made in Canada

Mixed program of the National Ballet of Canada

At the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, Toronto, through March 4

Artists of the Ballet in Emergence; photo by Bruce Zinger.