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National Ballet of Canada

'Symphony in C,' 'Polyphonia' and 'In the Upper Room'

by Kate Snedeker

November 5, 2008 -- Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, Toronto

From Balanchine to the ‘bomb squad’, the National Ballet of Canada’s 2008-09 season opening performance was a fascinating trip through the breadth of the balletic continuum.  Starting with the classical masterpiece,“Symphony in C”, the triple bill proceeded through Christopher Wheeldon’s “Polyphonia” to end with Twyla Tharp’s “In the Upper Room”.  This trio of dynamic ballets revealed both the talent and energy NBoC has on offer for the new season and the gaps still to be filled. 

“Symphony in C” is Balanchine at his best: rows of ballerinas clad in Karinska’s elegant white tutus dancing through four movements of Bizet’s “Symphony No. 1 in C major” (David Briskin conducted).  Former NYCB dancers Lindsay Fischer, Mandy-Jayne Richardson and Joysanne Sidimus did an excellent job of staging the ballet, the NBoC corps pleasing in their unity of style.  The tempo might be slower than at NYCB, but the NBoC women looked relaxed, enjoying the detail in the dance. There were some wobbly lines in the finale, but it's no mean feat getting all those arms and legs in synch. In contrast, the demi-soloist men, with one or two exceptions, lacked the refinement of their female counterparts as evidenced by a number of heavy landings and a general lack of stretch. 

There was nothing, however, lacking in the quartet of principal men supporting the very assured lead ballerinas (notably Tina Pereira).  Zdenek Konvalina’s beautifully paced and centered pirouettes were impressive, as were Piotr Stanczyk and guest principal Tiit Helimet’s solid partnering.  Yet, from the time he set foot on the stage, it was clear that ABT’s Ethan Stiefel was on a different level from the rest of the men.  Though now in his mid-30s, he still has a gorgeous, unforced ability to propel his lanky body into the air and a rare lightness that is matched by beautiful, stretched lines.  Stiefel was also a regal partner for the debuting Jillian Vanstone, though the last-minute substitution occasionally surfaced in every so slight diversions in tempo.

“Polyphonia” is one of Christopher Wheeldon’s earliest pieces, having been debuted back in 2001 when he was still a soloist at NYCB.  Having seen the piece in 2002, I was fascinated to view ‘Polyphonia’ in the context of the preceding Balanchine ballet and Wheeldon’s newer ballets.  A series of vignettes for four dark-purple leotard clad couples set to a Ligeti score, “Polyphonia” reveals glimpses of the intense, entangled pas de deux that have become his signature. The choreography is unrushed, angular and paced, stretching from curtain to curtain.  Wheeldon’s women – including the rock solid Heather Ogden – are creatures of extreme shapes – often lifted up into the air, pointe shoe clad legs sticking out from male torsos like strange antennae. 

One of the most intense sections of the ballet is set to a Ligeti piece with pounding dissonant chords made famous by “Eyes Wide Shut”.  Played with great emotion by pianist Edward Connell, the music gives the pas de deux a sinister sensuality that transforms the twisting choreography into a cold, but intense battle of limbs and bodies.

Given the exquisite choreography of the first two ballets, it was a shame that the evening had to end with Tharp.  Tharp’s choreography for her Broadway musical ‘Movin' Out' was sensational, but her attempts at ballet have left me cold. In the Upper Room' did nothing to change this opinion. The driving Philip Glass score offers lots of choreographic opportunities, but Tharp’s choreography is neither particularly inventive nor striking. The series of vignettes go nowhere in particular, with a frenetic ending that goes on and on and on. 

Tharp gives her sneaker clad ‘stompers’ and pointe-shoed wearing ‘bomb squad’ plenty of high energy steps, but what might be interesting shapes and lines are blurred by Norma Kamali’s baggy prison-striped pajamas.  The dancing is further blurred by thick smoke – made blindingly thick in this company premiere by an overly enthusiastic smoke machine operator.  The effect worked better when the smoke dissipated a bit allowing Jennifer Tipton’s lighting to create dazzling ‘sun ray’ effects.

“In The Upper Room” might have been an upbeat close to evening, but by the end of the piece, the dancers appeared exhausted and the dancing downright sloppy.  One can’t blame the dancers – several principals including Zdenek Konvalina had to dance in all three pieces – a superhuman feat.  Clearly the company couldn’t have cast the triple bill without the two guest dancers, and even so, I worry that NBoC risks dancing their own men into injuries.  Additionally, at nearly three hours, the evening was a marathon not only for the dancers, but also for the Wednesday night audience.  Longer performances are fine for weekends and matinees, but late nights during the week are off-putting for those who must be at work early the next morning.

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