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Alberta Ballet

'Fumbling Towards Ecstasy'

by Kate Snedeker

May 12, 2011 -- Jubilee Theatre - North, Edmonton, Alberta

Pairing ballet with popular music has become all the rage in the ballet world, for better or worse. When it comes to Alberta Ballet’s exploration of Sarah McLachlan’s music in “Fumbling Toward Ecstasy”, fortunately, it’s all for the better. The production, which blends McLachlan’s memorable music, Jean Grand-Maître’s choreography, Pierre Lavoie’s lighting, and Adam Larsen’s stunning projections, is a feast for the senses.

“Fumbling Towards Ecstasy” flows though the story of woman’s life, from youthful innocence, through sexual awakening and betrayal, maturity, adult love and tragedy and finally to love once more. McLachlan’s music carries a distinctive emotional power, and marrying it with dance and visual imagery results in a fantastical experience. The imagery, courtesy of Adam Larsen’s magical projections of McLachlan’s drawings, reflects Canada through art (Haida-esque and Indian designs), nature (grass, sky, forest, snow) and humanity (giant projections of the dancers). The projections have a life all their own, rippling and moving just as the dancers do onstage. If there was any complaint, it was that sometimes the projections of the dancers were a bit distracting – it was hard to focus on the music, the dancing and the giant person moving on the backdrop.

The piece opens with a young girl in white dress (Clara Stripe, presumably the daughter of balletmaster Edmund Stripe), entering the stage to the strains of “Hold On”. She is lifted on to an onstage swing with sweet tenderness by a male dancer, and is gently pushed by a graceful male dancer as projections of a grassy meadow sway behind her and the dancers swirl across the stage. She is the epitome of innocence, the choreography onstage embodying gentle grace, with even the dancer pushing her stretching into an elegant lunge with each push.

Grand-Maître’s choreography is intriguing, and most successful when it involves couples or the full companies. The most striking sections of the ballet are when the whole company is onstage; Grand-Maître has a knack for creating motion that ripples through a line and creating a fascinating whole out of a large group of dancers each with slightly different choreography. His company is one of many shapes and sizes, but onstage together they are one powerful entity.

Much of the rest of the choreography is relatively simple, with groups of dancers moving across the stage in synchronized groups. Almost all of the group movement is lateral or on a shallow diagonal, often giving the choreography a shallow feel. There is more depth when he works with couples; Grand-Maître plays with endless variations of unique low lifts, the women often wrapped around their partners. Many of the lifts are reminiscent of those in ice dancing, with the women’s body positions highlighting the rotation across the stage. What make it work so brilliant with McLachlan’s music is the constant flow of the motion – there is rarely a moment at rest, the eye moving from one choreographic moment to another in rapid succession. Grand-Maître also has a unerring musicality; the leaps, lifts and turns wonderfully linked to the beat of the music.

Back to the ballet, we see the young girl develop into an adolescent, with ‘Ben’s Song’ and ‘Dream to the Rhythm’, and start to explore her sexuality in “Fumbling Towards Ecstasy”. The next sections, which were the most emotional and choreographically powerful of the ballet, follow her sexual awakening and betrayal. The young woman, and her lover were danced by Mariko Kondo and Mark Biocca, easily the most stunning of the dancers onstage. Biocca, an Italian who trained at the Royal Ballet School and danced in the UK before coming to Canada, has stunning elevation in his jetes, and was a wonderfully supportive partner. In ‘Bring on the Wonder’ and ‘Vox’ the pair danced a tender pas de deux, culminating in the moment of previously mentioned ecstasy. Though magnificently danced, the pas de deux itself had a slightly disjointed in that Grand-Maître seemed to be more interested in creating fascinating sculptural poses, and less in joining these poses together in a cohesive dance.

As “Vox” ends, the young man collapses in ecstasy on the supine young woman, her bent limbs frozen in a position of twisted ecstasy. This and the moments of betrayal that follow could seem overly sexual, yet the assurance with which they were danced gave them a stirring poignancy and power. When Biocca, as the young man, leaves his love frozen in her moment of ecstasy to betray her with the trio of scantily clad women, their spider like couplings are at once erotic and choreographically fascinating, but never uncomfortable. Emily Collier, Victoria Lane Green and Tara Williamson, as the terrible trio, give some of the strongest performances of the event. His betrayal is heart-rending, yet feels entirely honest in the raw hunger of young sexuality and in the emotion of McLachlan’s music (“Ice”).

After this powerful section, the second half of the ballet, which continues with “Into the Fire”, never quite achieves the same emotional high. Galien Johnston takes over the role of the woman, with Kelley McKinlay as her mature lover. Neither have the same emotional draw and connection as Kondo and Biocca, and the choreography becomes a bit repetitive. After “Illusions of Bliss”, “Hold On #2”, “Good Enough”, “Building a Mystery”, and “Mary”, the ballet hits another high with “Ice Cream”, complete with the saucy Melissa Boniface in fluffy outfit.

After the rousing full company section in “Ice Cream”, the last section to the iconic “Angel” seems like an unnecessary afterthought. I, for one, would have preferred the evening to end on the high of “Ice Cream”, given that I will forever associate “Angel” with the horrors of 9-11 (the song was played incessantly on the radio in the days after). The poignancy of the song was also dampened by overly fussy costumes and some of the less striking choreography in the ballet.

The costumes were, unfortunately, one of the few missteps in the production. The dancers seemed to go through endless changes of Paul Hardy’s creations, which were for the most part, overly busy and not always flattering. In a nearly unforgiveable act of costume crime, Hardy outfitted the male lead (McKinlay, I think) in MC-Hammer-esque low crotch pants. Given a dancer with gorgeous lines, and both music and choreography that highlighted them, why on earth do you literally hamstring him with his pants?!!! Other costumes came in to many strange variations, with straps and bits of chiffon at odd angles, more distracting than interesting. The strongest costumes were the simplest, particularly those at the beginning where the women were in trunks and bandeau tops and the men in short trunks. These costumes let us focus on the fabulous bodies in motion.

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