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National Ballet of Canada - Choreographic Workshop

Choreography of Their Own

by Denise Sum

April 3, 2004 matinee -- Premiere Dance Theatre, Harbourfront Centre, Toronto, Canada

The choreographic workshop, for any school or company, is an integral part of its artistic development. Since its inception in 1969, the National Ballet of Canada’s annual workshop has fostered such talents as James Kudelka, Dominique Dumais, John Alleyne, Bengt Jörgen, and Matjash Mrozewski, who are all now household names in Canadian dance. This year, 3 soloists and 8 corps de ballet contributed to the programme. The quality and imagination in the pieces were impressive, especially, as for many of the dancers this marked their first choreographic attempt. Lindsay Fischer, who has taught at the National Ballet School and will be coaching “Theme and Variations” this May as a guest ballet master, also choreographed a piece for the showcase.

Aside from cultivating choreographic creativity, the workshop is also a venue that showcases the talents of some lesser-known dancers. Young dancers from the corps such as Lauren Majewski, James Leja, Jean-Sébastien Colau, and Lise Marie Jourdain appeared in many numbers. It was also refreshing to see many dancers appearing in each other’s choreography.

The varied programme ranged from the absurd and comical to the grim and visceral, and from heavy modern influences to very classical structures. The first piece, “Concrete Jungle,” was choreographed by Joseph Welbes to the beat driven music of Miles Davis and Themselves. The set, a large, upright square, looked similar to the one in Nacho Duato’s “Remanso.” Further into the work, however, a light illuminates the square, and the silhouettes of the dancers behind it create exquisite forms. The dancers were Tiffany Mosher, Léonie Gagné, and Alejandra Perez-Gomez, wearing black and white unitards and plastic, thick-framed glasses.

They begin in a row, lying on the floor. When they begin to dance, they are joined by a man in business attire danced by James Leja. Moving behind the lighted square screen, the dancers seem to allude to the cold, impersonal feel of urban life. At the finish, the ballerinas are lying at the opposite side of the stage from where they began, and the man lies down beside them, offsetting the symmetry of the ballet. Welbes’ piece is stylistically sound and compact in its message and design.

Lindsay Fischer’s “Etude for Dancers, Flute, and Piano” is very much like a classroom exercise and is the most classical piece of the programme. The pretty pas de quatre of 3 females and 1 male dancer is set to Prokofiev’s Sonata for Flute and Piano. Adam Toth’s “Bach Air”, a classical pas de deux set to Bach’s “Air on the G string” featured Kevin Bowles and Lauren Majewski ( a second cast was Philip Lau and Tina Pereira). The choreography is characterized by clean lines and pure, open movement. The influence of Kudelka’s style might be seen in the use of acrobatic lifts, highlighting Majewski’s flexibility, especially in her back.

Magdalena Vasko’s “Krysia” is a completely different take on the pas de deux structure. Majewski and Krista Dowson appear as younger and older incarnations of the same. Dowson dances barefeet to the haunting music of Heitor Villa-Lobos (excerpts from “Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5” for voice and cello) in lyrical and expressive phrases, while Majewski sits on the floor drawing pictures on a large pad of paper. From time to time the two dancers fall into sync, unaware of their side by side unison. The piece seems to examine the indelible connection between a person and his or her past and what role this link may play in his or her future.

In Dowson’s own work, “Suzette is Four”, the transition from childhood to adulthood is also a theme. She uses the indie folk music of Nick Drake in her depiction of Suzette, a toddler (danced by Jacqueline Straughan), who longs to be part of the adult world but comes to the realization that she is tied to her juvenile needs and tendencies. There are elements of comedy, however it is not intended to be a complete farce. “Suzette is Four” begins abruptly with the toss of a high heeled shoe onto the stage. Suzette hobbles on stage, her crawl humourously lopsided as she is only wearing one shoe. She wears an ill fitting dress and a long string of pearls, and reaching into her handbag, finds a tube of red lipstick which she proceeds to apply liberally. Her foray into womanhood is interrupted when she has to go to the washroom. Embarrassed and pigeon-toed, Suzette limps off stage. Straughan’s acting is well done, but choreographically, she does not have a lot of dance steps to work with.

Alejandra Perez-Gomez’s “On the Ball” is whimsical and fun. Her choreography is perfectly matched to the quirky (yet slightly repetitive) tunes of American composer and street performer Louis T. Hardin, better known as Moondog. Kanako Sakamoto is delightfully childlike as she discovers a large ball (actually an exercise ball) on the stage. Fascinated, James Leja, Jillian Vanstone, and Lisa Robinson appear on the scene, which has a feel of a school playground. The choreography is filled with petit allegro steps mimicking the bouncing ball. Initially keeping the ball to herself, Sakamoto finally tosses it to the trio.

Two more serious pieces are Avinoam Silverman’s “Where the Wild Things Are” and Laura Bolton’s “The Holland days”. Silverman’s work was definitely the longest one presented and had the largest cast, at 11 dancers. It deals with issues of violence and hatred in contemporary society. The story begins with a taped conversation of a young boy expressing his fears to his mother (Victoria Bertram), who tells him that frightening things are necessary because they lead one to a better place. She cites the example of the snakes in “Le Petit Prince”.

When the boy grows up, he is exposed to a dark world of brutality and pain. The ideas are interesting and complex, and may only require some further refinement in terms of how they are conveyed. Silverman's literal scenes of violence and cross cutting of Limp Bizkit’s hard rock (with lyrics like “I know why you want to hate me, cause hate is all the world has ever seen lately”) with Shoshtakovich and Tchaikovsky were somewhat sophomoric. Silverman, however, has shown a developed musicality and interesting style, also influenced by Kudelka, most notably in his pas de deux. He has some of the dancers covering their mouth or eyes in horror, a scene reminiscent of Kudelka’s “Gazebo Dances”.

Bolton’s piece is set in a home, centred around a television set in the corner of the stage, facing the dancers (the audience cannot see what is shown on the TV). Throughout the ballet a body (Julie Hay) lies at the side of the stage, motionless. A couple, Stacey Shiori Minagawa and Patrick Lavoie, are shown in incidents of domestic violence. The frailty conveyed in Minagawa’s body is all too real, rendering the scenes extremely disturbing.

The strongest works were those of Rebekah Rimsay and Stephanie Hutchison. Rimsay’s captivating “Tangle” concluded the workshop with a bang. “Tangle” is a tight and solid piece influenced by the passion and tension of Argentinean tango dancing. Whereas many amateur ballets tend to be meandering, Rimsay’s work is confident and driven by the music of Piazzolla and Klezmania. The two couples Martine Lamy and Etienne Lavigne with Jean-Sébastien Colau and Lise Marie Jourdain breathe vitality and charisma into the piece. Hutchison’s “Sketches for Her” is a sunny and warm ballet, featuring 3 pas de deux and a finale including all of the dancers. The strength is “Sketches for Her” is in the emotional resonance and authentic portrayal of relationships.

Rounding out the programme were Je-An Salas’ “Tulay” based on a Filipino folktale and set to the piano music of company principal dancer Guillaume Côté, and Kevin Bowles “An inspired sense of loss”, a romantic ballet for four couples set to Elgar’s Enigma Variations.

The National Ballet of Canada choreographic workshop is a glimpse into the creative future of the company, and judging by the promise of the works set forward, it is in very capable hands.

Edited by Jeff.

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