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Mad Hot II

Annual Gala for the National Ballet of Canada

by Denise Sum

June 17, 2008 -- Four Seasons Centre for the Arts, Toronto, Canada 

Mad Hot II is the National Ballet of Canada’s third annual fundraiser event,combining a gala performance and a dinner. In previous years, the company organized events such as “Dine and Dance with the Dancers”. However, it was felt that no fundraiser would be complete without an actual performance, reminding patrons of the outstanding artists and choreography that must be cultivated and supported in our city. In essence, Mad Hot II is a tribute to the legacy of the NBoC and a celebration of its exciting future.

The evening began on a high note with Harold Lander’s “Études”, a distilled portrait of the development of classical ballet that is sure to test the mettle of any company. The soloists, Heather Ogden, Zdenek Konvalina, and Aleksandar Antonijevic, gave thrilling performances, their confidence and experience clearly masking insecurities if there were any. Ogden is fast becoming a first-rate ballerina who has the whole package -- phenomenal technique, dramatic presence, and innate musicality. She provided the star quality and charisma that are necessary to carry “Études” and make it more than simple classroom exercises.

Lander’s choreography is commendable in the way it lets the steps speak for themselves, removing clutter and distractions to let the purity of movement take centre stage. But in the wrong hands, the ballet can also become rigid and dry. Thankfully, this was not the case. Konvalina brought a palpable excitement to the piece. His turns were marvelous, even on his left side, and the tricky fouetté series had good momentum but also control. He was especially stirring in the grand allegro portion, adding his own phrasing and Slavic character accents to the steps. Antonijevic gave a more subdued showing with his signature elegance and refinement. Here is a dancer with a total mastery of the classical ballet vocabulary. Everything from his port de bras to his footwork is perfectly polished.

The corps, however, play a huge role in “Études” and unfortunately, not everyone was up to par with the soloists. The opening segments at the barre must be completely precise and in unison. When done right, these scenes showcase the inner logic and harmony embedded in the ballet class. But one leg out of line or head turned the wrong way can totally destroy the effect, which is what happened. The chorus line of ronds de jambe en l’air looked messy, and at one point, one dancer leaned the opposite way from the others in a cambre. I had seen “Études” a week prior as part of the spring mixed program, and at that performance the corps was in excellent shape, so perhaps it was simply a case of fatigue or some of the dancers having an “off” day.

Next was “veer”, a world premiere by the young Canadian choreographer, Sabrina Matthews. This ballet was originally created on Keiichi Hirano and Tina Pereira for the Erik Bruhn Prize in 2007. However, during the classical round of the competition, Hirano suffered an injury and was unable to continue, so “veer” was not performed. It was a pleasure to see Hirano back in fine dancing shape and Pereira continuing to grow and mature as a versatile dance artist. The music comes from “Mugam Sayagi” by the Azerbaijani composer, Franghiz Ali-Zadeh. The dancers were dressed in costumes designed by Caroline O’Brien: simple, yet modern, black leotards with high necks and sheer panels.

The ballet is striking and visually appealing. Matthews makes good use of Pereira’s plastic physique and flexible spine with plenty of over-split dévelopés and penchées. The end of the pas de deux is packed with fast-paced virtuoso displays for Hirano. But in the end, “veer” looks a lot like every other generic contemporary ballet with its clever title (only lower-case letter of course), moody lighting, Eastern-influenced music, and energetic displays of athleticism in depicting a conflicted relationship. What was once edgy is now the predictable status quo. It is safe and entertaining but not something that likely grows richer with subsequent viewing. Matthews presented a different piece, “clearing”, at last year’s gala which showed great creativity and emotion. Although her works can be a bit uneven, she remains a promising voice in dance.

The program continued with George Balanchine’s “Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux” performed by Heather Ogden and Nehemiah Kish. The pair performed the same piece two years ago at the Four Seasons Centre’s inaugural ballet performance. Ogden thrives on Balanchine’s intricate choreography, luxuriating in its challenges. Her pointe work is neat and precise. She travels with each piqué arabesque and fully articulates each rond de jambe en l’air. Ogden virtually floats through her variation, completely at ease with the rapid tempo. Kish’s stamina has improved substantially over the years, and it shows in this piece. He knows how to pace himself and moves with greater confidence and authority. What he lacks in power, he makes up for with his line and ballon. Nevertheless, it would be nice to see cleaner and more turned out landings on his tours en l’air and a higher working leg on his tours à la seconde. The coda lacked its usual punch because Kish seemed to be rushing through it, racing towards the finish line rather than focusing on the present. In terms of their partnership, Kish and Ogden physically complement one another; however there is very little chemistry between them. There is not a real, solid trust between them on stage. The fish dives were cautious and the supported pirouettes were hesitant -- it seems that Ogden turns better on her own.

The final piece was another Balanchine ballet, “Rubies”, the crowd-pleaser of the evening. This is a ballet that is frequently performed by the NBoC and fits them like a glove. The dancers look completely at home with its syncopated rhythms, playful poses, and loose hips. Stravinsky’s “Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra” was infused with energy by piano soloist Edward Connell. The male lead was danced by Piotr Stancyzk, the NBoC’s newest principal dancer (promoted this year). His jumps had incredible amplitude, but what he seemed to be missing was a sense of play. His earnest facial expression and rigid movements were at odds with the whimsical music. There were moments when he would loosen up and allow a mischievous grin to creep across his face, but they were fleeting. His partner, Greta Hodgkinson, gave a brazen performance and commanded the stage like a proper diva.

The pairing of Hodgkinson and Stanczyk, like Ogden and Kish, was a bit off though. The two don’t feed off each other’s energy. Rather, the pas de deux felt like two simultaneous solos. I have seen Hodgkinson dance this ballet with Aleksandar Antonijevic and Guillaume Côté, and in both cases, the pas de deux was much more exciting and dynamic. This “Rubies” performance really belonged to the leggy Xiao Nan Yu in the Patricia Neary role. She immediately captivated the audience in the opening scene, springing en pointe with a coy grin before slinkily lowering onto a flat foot. Yu has the rare ability to turn a combination of steps into a story. Even in a plotless ballet, Yu embodies a character, and with each performance, it’s something new and different. As the dancing unfolds, it’s like she is letting you in on a secret. It is always a pleasure to see dancers find a dramatic centre in “abstract”, or as Mr. B himself would prefer to say, “non-narrative” works.

It was a shame that there were a few principal dancers absent from Mad Hot II (Guillaume Côté, Chan Hon Goh, Sonia Rodriguez). Hopefully, we will be able to see more of them at next year’s gala.

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