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National Ballet of Canada - ‘Stravinsky Violin Concerto'

Flowers, Valentines, and Ballerina Beauties

by Michael Goldbarth

November 18 and 21, 2004 -- Hummingbird Centre, Toronto

When you have a garden full of pretty flowers, you don’t demand of them, ‘What do you mean? What is your significance?’ You just enjoy them. So why not just enjoy ballet in the same way?  (George Balanchine)

With all due respect and apologies to the greatest ballet maker Past, Present, and perhaps Future, I’m going to commit a ballet indiscretion by kissing and telling the meaning behind Stravinsky Violin Concerto-for me. Lindsay Fischer, former Principal Dancer with New York City Ballet and now Guest Repetiteur for the National Ballet of Canada and Manager of the National Ballet School’s Advanced Post-Secondary Training, whetted my appetite for the evening performance with a most thought-provoking Ballet Talk (available to ticket holders 45 minutes before every show). According to Mr. Fischer, who is married with 2 children to National Ballet of Canada Ballet Mistress, Mandy-Jayne Richardson, George Balanchine created "Violin Concerto" as a tribute to his long-time friend and music maker’s infidelity -- and not his hi-fidelity!

Igor Stravinsky enjoyed an unusually open affair with his mistress, Vera Sudeikina (also married at the time), while wedded to his cousin, Katerina Nossenko, and their four children. This shuttle diplomacy between two homes lasted for 18 years until his wife’s death from tuberculosis in 1939. This ordinary looking bespectacled man of 5 foot 4, born with what can only be described as a God-given configuration to be an extraordinary ‘nez’ for a first class perfume maker, also found his way into the boudoir of fashion designer Coco Chanel!

Heaven only knows what neo-classical secrets of romance Igor Stravinsky possessed to dance cheek to cheek with all those women! God only knows where he found the mojo to make his unique and most indelible mark on musical history! He took them to his grave on April 6th, 1971, at the age of 88, and hence we have a ballet created to remember him by which premiered during the Stravinsky Festival on June 18th of 1972 (one day after his birthday). George Balanchine dusted off the musical score from Balustrade -- a 1941 ballet even forgotten by its choreographer (Mr. B himself).

I would like to preface my interpretation by clearly stating that Mr. B created ballets just as a great song writer creates lyrics. He would never insult his audience by attributing meaning to his creations. A ballet, like a song, could mean many things depending on the ears, eyes, and minds' eye of its audience. However this ballet, most often characterized as ‘abstract,’ moves you is right for you -- even if it has no meaning for you. All you have to do is sit back and enjoy the National Ballet of Canada dancing the eternal music of Igor Stravinsky to life!

These eyes viewed "Stravinsky Violin Concerto" as a ballet about the composer’s relationship with music - not women. Albeit the simple set and ballerinas dressed down in jet-black leotards with petite skirts were no doubt paying homage to Coco Chanel and her signature ‘little black dress.’ Stravinsky serves up the score into 4 movements: toccata, arias 1 & 2, and the finale capriccio for the entire cast.

Balanchine surprises us by opening the ballet motionless: four male dancers and one female standing together as a symbol for the letter ‘I’ in tribute to Igor Stravinsky. Springy steps dominate the piece as the dancers sprint across the stage often forming the letter ‘V’ with their bodies in tribute to the violin. Mr. B reminisces of Stravinsky’s vibrant Russian Period. At times the dancers look like musical notes floating over the stage.

The middle Arias celebrate Stravinsky’s light-fingered neoclassical period devoted to stealing from the classics and modernizing the works through creative restructuring into his own revolutionary composition. Igor Stravinsky was the greatest musical thief of all time, shoplifting from the likes of Mozart, Bach, and Haydn. Of course, he was very upfront about it! The core of the ballet should be renamed Ballerina Twister. Mr. B must have found inspiration from the child’s game ‘Twister.’ The ballerina performs 5 crab turnovers and an assortment of Cirque du Soleil moves which will send some of the audience to their chiropractor just from watching! During all of the above Mr. B found time to evoke memories of "Les Noces," "Orpheus," and "Agon" – all ballets scored by Stravinsky. Balanchine reveals Stravinsky’s musical voice to be a Pablo Picasso musical painting (good friend of Stravinsky).

In the 1st Aria we see a self-pleasure bent couple dancing cheek to cheek yet rarely locking eyes. Despite the intense intertwining, the contact is merely sensual with no love. After a very difficult turn on pointe, the 1st Aria climaxes in a ballerina handstand with her partner falling to the floor. In the 2nd Aria the dancers begin to make eye contact and we see that true love and intimacy is only possible when you are willing to bow to the needs of your partner. If you watch closely you’ll notice the ballerina tenderly spelling out ‘VIOLIN’ with the support of her partner a couple of times. Souls intertwining, they become valentines beyond their lifetimes and we say good night to the musical genius of Igor Stravinsky. Balanchine brilliantly displays the music maker’s technique re-creating the works of classics into his own modernized masterpiece.

The Toccata movement once again symbolizes Stravinsky’s Russian period: saucy, spirited, stirring with life. The dancers wave good-bye to their composer and prance about all over the stage. Mr. B always thought a funeral should be a celebration of a man’s life. And so the dancers hold hands, intertwining in jubilation as Stravinsky sleeps. Balanchine even tosses in a little square dance. "Stravinsky Violin Concerto" is all about dancing the music of Igor Stravinsky to life-which is exactly what every cast member of the National Ballet of Canada does.

Of the 3 performances I attended (Thursday doubleheader and Sunday matinée), Guillaume Côté stood out most of the male dancers in his pairing with Chan Hon Goh. He danced with supreme confidence and it was obvious any ballerina would trust him with her life. Of the female dancers, Sonia Rodriguez and Greta Hodgkinson gave everything they had giving of themselves to the music. Chan Hon Goh really enjoyed herself on stage. I only wish her counterpart, Jennifer Fournier, would learn to do the same. She is often far too serious.

The highlight was the Ballerina Beauties Heather Ogden and Tanya Howard coloring their dance in a spirit only the sweet dew of youth can inspire. Every little twist and turn was imbued with a refreshing extra oomph. When they came out together to receive their well deserved applause and bravos galore all a glow in a delicious sheen of dew, it was at that pointe I realized the future of the National Ballet of Canada is indeed in very talented pointe shoes! They are much more than pretty flowers; they truly are gorgeous works of living art.

My only criticism of the ballet was the economy of its set design. If only George Balanchine had spiced up the work with more color ... a backdrop of violins, Picasso painting, along with a portrait of its composer would have really brought this ballet home. It needed a little more color to disclose its meaning to a modern audience. Of course Balanchine believed in dance being relevant and would no doubt not have approved of presenting this ballet 32 years after its creation. It did appear quite bizarre seeing such a modern musical painting leading off for a full length romantic classical ballet like "Giselle" (only James Kudelka knows the answer for this unlikely coupling). Regardless, they both hit home runs right out of the Hummingbird Centre!

Edited by Jeff.

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