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