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National Ballet of Canada

'Apollo', 'Russian Seasons', 'Theme and Variations'

by Kate Snedeker

March 23, 2011 -- Four Seasons Centre, Toronto, Ontario

Spring may have taken a great leap backwards on this snowy late March evening, but it was a fantastic leap forward for the National Ballet of Canada. The company premiere of Alexei Ratmansky’s ‘Russian Seasons’ was the centerpiece of triple bill that spanned nearly 80 years of ballet history. Opening the evening was ‘Apollo’, one of George Balanchine’s earliest ballets, and the evening ended with the regal ‘Theme and Variations’, a showcase of Balanchine’s choreographic talents. Not only did the program showcase some of the oldest and newest choreography in the National Ballet of Canada’s repertoire, but also the company’s most and least senior dancers.

With Zdenek Konvalina out at short notice due to injury, Aleksandar Antonijevic, the company’s most senior male principal, stepped into the role of Apollo a day earlier than expected. Antonijevic’s years of experience in Apollo showed, with a refined performance and nary a hitch in the partnering with his three muses, Sonia Rodriguez, Elena Lobsanova and Jillian Vanstone. His performance was reminiscent of that of Peter Boal, another Apollo who was of a slighter build. Lobsanova was a quicksilver Polyhymnia, but it was Rodriguez’s regal, rock-solid Terpsichore who stole the show. Rodriguez is dancer of rare refinement, and her body moves through Balanchine’s angular choreography with supreme confidence. As a whole, however, the performance lacked something, a cohesive connection between all dancers perhaps. Yet, given the last minute cast change, finding the missing link is surely just a matter of performance time.

‘Russian Seasons’ is a vivid, dynamic and fascinating ballet that reveals Alexei Ratmansky’s unique, intensely musical choreographic voice. This is the first of his work I had seen since 'Anna Karenina' in 2004, and it is clear that he has seamlessly made the transition from ballet dictated by story to ballet that has everything but a literal story. As with Anna Karenina, Ratmansky selected music by a Russian composer, this time a 12-movement score by Leonid Desyatnikov complete with violin solos (Stephen Sitarski) and vocal music (Susana Poretsky).

Ratmansky takes the 12 musical movements and 12 dancers and creates a series of 12 vignettes that explore the 12 months of the year through emotion and color. Galina Solovyeva’s deeply-hued, simply cut costumes – square-necked dresses on the women and tunic and pants (less flattering) on the men – provide another layer of context to the ballet. In its structure and use of color to define character, the piece is reminiscent of Jerome Robbins’ masterpiece, “Dances at a Gathering”. However Ratmansky’s never copies, instead taking the original concept and working with to create a fresh, fascinating ballet.

The ballet needs repeated viewings to tease out all the wonderful details, but Ratmansky’s brilliance stands out on several accounts. Not only does he have a wonderful ability to blends elements of Russian folkdance with classical ballet, but he uses the colors of the costumes to add a layer of meaning to the ballet. For instance, at one point, the couple in red dance in front of the three couples in blue, purple and green. The latter colors blend together to create a moody background upon which the lead couple stands out. Mark Stanley’s lighting also subtly shifts to allow the plain backdrop to compliment the costume colors onstage. As I saw years ago in ‘Anna Karenina’, Ratmansky also is talented at both layering his dance and creating connections. At various points in “Russian Seasons” there might be couple dancing a pas de deux in front, with a row of women, then a row of men behind. Each grouping has a choreographic motif, and the ‘corps’ rows create what is almost a moving backdrop. The vignettes are also cleverly joined, with the action of each vignette somehow subtly sparking off the next.

The choreography itself is tinged with Russian folkdance motifs, best illustrated in the superb dancing of Guillaume Côté. As the man in orange, a kinetic, yet mature main male figure, Côté soared across the stage, stopping on dime in the folk-dance-esque slides. Equally as impressive were his crisp beats and easy turns. Ratmansky also is not afraid to sprinkle some humor into the proceedings, particularly in the springy, youthful section for the purple-clad Elena Lobsanova. This was a perfect role for Lobsanova, who had ample opportunity to show off her crisp, ebullient dancing. Heather Ogden also stood out as a slightly more mature, slightly sensual and confident female figure, and Brett Van Sickle, stepping in for Konvalina, also was a stand out. I first saw Van Sickle when he started his career with ABT, and over the last couple of years, he seems to have really come into his own.

While the above-mentioned performances were memorable, what really struck me was what a perfect match “Russian Seasons” is for the National Ballet of Canada. It doesn’t require a “cast of thousands”, but still provides roles that can be interpreted with subtly different shades by dancers with a wide variety of talents. It also is a perfect ballet to give young dancers a chance at major roles without the stress of carrying an entire ballet. The current casts are an example of this, with dancers ranging from the veterans like Antonijevic and Greta Hodgkinson, to young dancers like Naoya Ebe and Dylan Tedaldi.

The evening concluded with Balanchine’s regal “Theme and Variations”, a ballet that satisfies every balletic stereotype without making any choreographic sacrifices. There are tutus and tiaras, white tights and handsome cavaliers, and of course, Tchaikovsky and Balanchine. The NBoC costumes, by Santo Loquasto, are some of most elegant (a far cry from ABT’s pinky things and the Royal Ballet’s brown velvet-be-wigged monstrosities), and the dancing lived up to the costumes. Heather Ogden was every little girl’s dream princess, glittering in her tiara, and as regal as they come, processing through the tricky choreography without the slightest ruffle. Piotr Stanczyk, as always, was a solid partner, though his solos suggested just the slightest bit of tiredness from his iron-man schedule of the last two-week which included three Don Q’s and two Onegins.

The excellent NBoC Orchestra was conducted by the two Davids, Briskin for the first two pieces, LaMarche for the last. Robert Thomson provided the lighting for the two Balanchine ballets.

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