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Mad Hot Ballet

An evening of dance with the National Ballet of Canada

by Denise Sum

June 28, 2007 -- Four Seaons Center for the Performing Arts, Toronto, Canada

The National Ballet of Canada ended its inaugural season in Toronto’s new opera house on a high note. The fundraiser gala, entitled “Mad Hot Ballet”, was a celebration of the company’s depth of talent, versatility, passion, and bright future under the direction of Canadian dance icon Karen Kain. “Mad Hot Ballet” is the 2nd annual gala presented by the company, following the success of last year’s gala—the NBoC’s first appearance in their new performance venue. Hopefully, audiences can look forward to this becoming an annual tradition.

The brief program (just under one and a half hours, no intermission) featured a diverse selection from the NBoC’s repertoire and included two world premieres. In one evening, one could witness the talents of all of the company’s principal dancers, save the recently retired Ryan Boorne, as well as Jennifer Fournier and Sonia Rodriguez, both on maternity leave.

The evening began with excerpts from Kenneth MacMillan’s whimsical and light-hearted “Elite Syncopations”. Former principal dancer Rex Harrington returned to the stage as the Principal Man, much to the audience’s delight. He was so at ease with the choreography and the other dancers, it was as if he had never left. Although he can have a tendency to be a bit of a ham, it is totally appropriate in this ballet, and what’s more, the joy he finds in performing is palpable and infectious. Nevertheless, Xiao Nan Yu, as the Red Hot Woman, did not allow him to steal the show. Her dancing was spot on and had attitude to spare. She is impossible to take your eyes off of. Tanya Howard, newly promoted to first soloist, gave a notable performance in the cheeky Calliope Rag. Julie Hay and Jeremy Nasmith were perfect in the comical Alaskan Rag, with their gaping height difference.

Next, we were treated to a breathtaking solo from principal dancer Zdenek Konvalina, a recent addition to the company from the Houston Ballet. Konvalina stunned with his stamina, power, and grace in excerpts from Maurice Béjart’s “The Seven Greek Dances”. Some might remember Fernando Bujones’ video recording of this ballet. Konvalina’s interpretation was equally memorable, although totally different. His stage persona is a rather quiet one—he comes across as more shy than cold. In “The Seven Greek Dances”, he let the dancing speak for itself and truly shone. No matter how difficult the steps were, he executed them with polish and panache. His movements have a fluid, almost feline smoothness. Although Konvalina has flawless textbook technique, it is a pleasure to watch him in more modern works that push him closer to the edge.

Excitement continued to build with the Summer pas de deux from James Kudelka’s “The Four Seasons”. It has become one of Greta Hodgkinson’s signature pieces (the role was created on her), and she was skilfully partnered by Aleksandar Antonijevic. She is a first-rate ballerina who can only be described as fearless, and her daring makes this pas de deux dangerous and stirring.

The next work, “Didj ‘U’ Know?” was a new piece choreographed by second soloist Lisa Robinson. The music –blending electronic beats and hypnotic drones of the didgeridoo—was composed by NBoC’s own multi-talented Guillaume Côté. It is a stark work, with Tanya Howard and Etienne Lavigne wearing simple shorts unitards against dark lighting. The steps are aesthetically pleasing, but not wholly memorable or original. The couple twists on the floor, proceeds through some promenades and poses, and ends in an embrace. There is potential, but overall the piece lacks coherence. What saves it is Howard’s beautiful line, hyperextended legs, pliant back, and Alessandra Ferri-esque arched feet. Her extreme physique, often jarring in classical works, is like a striking modern sculpture in the contemporary repertoire.

The following work, also by a young Canadian, succeeded where Robinson's did not. National Ballet School alumnus and former Alberta Ballet member Sabrina Matthews’ “clearing” has direction and form. The work, set to Mozart’s powerful Great Mass in C Minor, has three couples moving through patterns of movement like the many voices of a fugue. Bridgett Zehr was particularly stunning, her pas de deux with Piotr Stanczyk almost spiritual. Stacey Shiori Minagawa and Chris Body plus Greta Hodgkinson and Nehemiah Kish rounded out this strong cast. Near the end of the ballet, the black backdrop is lifted, ever so slowly. The white background behind it “grows”, the way light fills a room. The dancers turn to face the back, in some sort of reverent or ceremonial action, as the curtain falls.

Finally, the gala concluded with the Finale of Balanchine’s “Symphony in C”, a grand display of classical virtuosity. The whole company rose to the challenge. Heather Ogden and Guillaume Côté were dazzling as the second movement pair. First soloist Jillian Vanstone danced with the assured poise of a much more experienced dancer and was partnered by the always elegant Antonijevic. Chan Hon Goh and Zdenek Konvalina are perfectly matched in build and style. The statuesque Xiao Nan Yu was a regal presence; however Nehemiah Kish had difficulty partnering her during the supported pirouettes. The corps looked to be in fine form though, which is quite an accomplishment in this demanding ballet.

The performance was followed by a cocktail reception and dinner on stage. During her speech, Karen Kain said that the evening was expected to raise over $1 million for the NBoC.

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