CriticalDance Forum

National Ballet of Canada - Autumn 2008
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Author:  LMCtech [ Tue Nov 04, 2008 12:20 pm ]
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That seems like pretty conclusive proof.

Author:  Michael Goldbarth [ Wed Nov 05, 2008 11:44 am ]
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Paula Citron previews the mixed programme.

Principal dancer Heather Ogden, who appears in all three of the program's ballets, sees Tipton's atmospheric lighting as creating a "heavenish" place.

"I'm one of the crossover kids who gets to do both stomp and ballet," she says. "What the Stompers do is really impressive, but it is also about spatial awareness. You have to be very sensitive to the fact that there is a lot going on, and that mood is very important. We've heard that this piece always gets a standing ovation and I'm not surprised."

Author:  Michael Goldbarth [ Wed Nov 05, 2008 6:59 pm ]
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Guillaume Côté is out with an undisclosed injury and will not be performing in the mixed program or the Seagull.

* This must be a recent injury, as Toronto Life’s November edition reported he would perform in the Seagull.

Author:  ksneds [ Wed Nov 05, 2008 11:51 pm ]
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Very brief first impressions...

There were a series of demi soloist and soloist cast changes for 'Symphony in C', so I'm not entirely sure who was who. Overall, it was tidily performed, though at a rather slower pace than I'm used to at NYCB. I was impressed by Konvalina's solid, centered turns, and Tiit Helimet's partnering, but Ethan Stiefel's technique was simply on a different level from the rest of the men. He's no spring chicken any more, but still has the most gorgeous, unforced ability to elevate himself above the stage - a rare lightness that is matched by attention to lines. I think Stiefel's also used to a different temp and due to casting changes, lacking in rehearsal time with Jillian Vanstone, because there were a few times where they seemed to be dancing to ever so slightly different tempos. But he seemed to relish the opportunity to do the ballet on a stage where he could really stretch out his legs.

The female corps got a bit shaky by the end, but it's no mean feat getting all those arms and legs in synch at that pace. But there's no doubt that they have been well coached in the Balanchine technique and there's a unity of style. With one or two exceptions (Nan Wang??) however, the male demi soloists seemed a bit heavy or over-muscular in that there were some loud landings and lack of stretch in their movement. My impression is that they're either a bit slow off the mark at the beginning of the season or overworked.

The latter is a possibility, as there were a couple (several?) principals who danced in all three pieces. And looked a bit winded by the end of the three hour performance. (Three hours seems a long night for a Wednesday)

I saw 'Polyphonia' back in 2002, but have no memory of it, so this was like seeing it anew. It was certainly intruiging to see early Wheeldon having seen many of his later pieces. The dancing was excellent as was the piano solo, though I think the piece suffered for the lack of intimacy in the Four Seasons Centre. Wheeldon's strength is his intense pas de deuxs, duets which seemed a bit adrift in the great expanse of the 4 Season's stage. Near the end there's a section set to the Ligeti music made famous by 'Eyes Wide Shut'. Though perhaps at one time a bit passe because of the fame of the movie, it's a perfect score for ballet, and for Wheeldon. It gives the pdd a sinister sensuality that transforms the twisting choreography into a cold, but intense battle of limbs and bodies.

I loved "Movin' Out', but Tharp's attempts at ballet leaves me cold. And I think NBoC did the dancers a mis-service by ending with 'In the Upper Room'. The Philip Glass score offers lots of choreographic opportunities, but the endless series of vignettes go nowhere in particular. Tharp's choreography is not particularly inventive or striking, and the un-ending crescendo at the end becomes irritating to the point of frustration. Worse, Tharp has the dancers outfitted in prison-striped pajamas that muddy and hide their lines, and envelops them in a fog so dense it's hard to make them out from the audience (At one point someone yelled out for them to stop the smoke - I presume this is not part of the piece?????)

It might have been pleasant enough entertainment for an upbeat close to the evening, but the dancers seemed exhausted and by the end the dancing was downright sloppy. I can't blame the dancers - those principals like Zdenek Knvalina who had to dance in all three pieces, ae only human and dancing the triple bill combination of 'Symphony in C', Polyphonia and In the Upper Room requires one to be superhuman. NBoC certainly couldn't have cast this triple bill without guests, and even so, I hope that they don't dance their existing men into more injuries. Don't get me wrong - I think there's a lot of talent in this company, but the talent can only stretch so far and the talent isn't best displayed when exhausted.

Author:  Michael Goldbarth [ Thu Nov 06, 2008 7:56 am ]
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Welcome to Canada Kate! You didn’t show your passport to the NBoC Border Patrol but that’s okay! Thanks so much for the detailed review.

Susan Walker gives the mixed program 4 stars!

Author:  Michael Goldbarth [ Fri Nov 07, 2008 7:23 am ]
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A fog descended upon the National Ballet of Canada on Opening Night!

Author:  LMCtech [ Fri Nov 07, 2008 12:47 pm ]
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Ahh, the excitement of live theater. Let me tell you, it is no fun to be ON STAGE with that much smoke either. Glad they handled it so quickly.

Author:  ksneds [ Fri Nov 07, 2008 1:02 pm ]
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Quickly is not how I would have described it - the problem was not corrected until at least half way through the ballet. From my reasonably close seat, I was certainly squinting to see what was going on amidst all that smoke. For the record, I think the man yelled 'Shut off the smoke', but at that point I had no idea whether it was part of the ballet or not (you never know these days...).

I have to wonder whether the excessive smoke might have part contributed to the dancers' exhaustion (the piece got VERY sloppy at the end). Of course, it didn't help that a number of principals had to dance all three ballets that night.

Note to companies: 3 hour performances are too long for weekday nights and even on an opening night, I'd prefer to see a younger dancer in a new role rather than a principal pushed to exhaustion.

As a slightly related point, theatres in the UK tend to post notices when smoke, loud/explosive sound effects or strobe lights are going to be used to alert audience members for which these things might present a problem. This certainly was a situation where the smoke could have affected an audience member ..... do North American theatres post such warnings in general?

Author:  Francis Timlin [ Fri Nov 07, 2008 2:35 pm ]
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They have certainly done so in Seattle for many years.

Author:  ksneds [ Fri Nov 07, 2008 9:11 pm ]
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“Symphony in C”, “Polyphonia”, “In the Upper Room”
5 November 2008
National Ballet of Canada
Four Season Centre for the Performing Arts

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. Stiegel also was 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. And '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 3 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.

Author:  Nikiya [ Mon Nov 10, 2008 1:07 am ]
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I was at the saturday night performance and there was a sign at the door warning about the use of smoke in the ballet.

Author:  ksneds [ Mon Nov 10, 2008 7:06 am ]
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Thanks! It's not impossible that I missed it on Wednesday - or that they put up a sign after the debacle on opening night.

BTW, the new soloist is 1st soloist Erkan Kurt. He's listed as being born in Germany and trained at a state conservatory in Turkey.


Author:  mom2 [ Mon Nov 10, 2008 5:21 pm ]
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I attended the Sunday no special guest stars for me. Sigh. A colleague (so not connected to me and ballet at all) attended on Sat. night - sent me an e-mail asking if I knew anything about Ethan Steifel, as she had been impressed. Ah well, at least she could tell that he was something special - even if I wasn't there!

First let me say that I was very impressed with some of the very young dancers who were in featured roles. Noah Long, for example, partnered Sonia Rodriguez admirably, and is only (if I am remembering correctly) in his 4th year with the company. Dancers such as Robert Stephen and Aarik Wells are only slightly older - also impressed. It has been nice to watch them develop over their time in the company. New corps member James Shee also did well in the Tharp piece - quite an accomplishment given that he comes to us from San Fran Ballet School - not the company.

ksneds, I could understand your comments about the stamina required for In the Upper Room. I did feel there were times when things weren't quite perfect, but overall the dancers really did well - I think they must have had an extra lung in reserve or something. I was prepared for the smoke given what I'd read here - so didn't mind it.

I enjoyed polyphonia a great deal, but admit that I miss seeing B. Zehr in this piece - she was wonderful when the company last did this ballet and even the lovely Sonia Rodriguez wasn't quite up to my memory of Zehr.

Symphony in C - my favourite part of this was watching a young apprentice (special friend of the family) in her first professional appearance - worth the price of admission. I have never seen NYCB perform this work - so can't comment or compare like ksneds. I did think one section in particular seemed very fast indeed (can't remember now if this was 3rd or 4th) - I couldn't imagine it being any faster, to be honest!! :shock:

Polyphonia - I was sure that I would enjoy this, and that I did. I won't mention all the casting beyond what I did above - there were many changes announced at the beginning of the program - I think an injury or illness must have felled someone earlier in the run. Perhaps KK should listen to ksneds - it was a VERY ambitious program!!!

In the Upper Room - this I did enjoy, although I didn't anticipate that I would. On reflection the music is reminiscent of "Glass Pieces" - same composer, of course - and I thought the build up in the tempo was really effective. How the dancers managed is almost beyond my comprehension. Robert Stephen in particular has this ability to project sheer joy of movement, even during the most difficult spots. I would be gasping for air - good thing I am not a dancer!!

Author:  LMCtech [ Mon Nov 10, 2008 6:17 pm ]
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Thanks for the report, mom2.

I remember James Shee from when he was a wee lad auditioning. He was very strong back then. Glad to see he is getting opportunities to dance. That doesn't always happen in the first few years with a company.

Author:  ksneds [ Sat Nov 15, 2008 1:15 am ]
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NBoC has struck gold with "The Seagull", and Neumeier's ballet seems tailor made for the current talents in the company. I've not seen the company before, but this strikes me as a defining role for Zdenek Konvalina. The simplicity of the sets and costumes place the focus firmly on the character-creating choreography, and the choreography looked perfect on Konvalina. Wow and va-va-voom:

(FYI, I did spot the 'gunshots and smoke' warning sign today - not placed in the most obvious of places, but it is there. Also, for those who are interested, Neumeier was present and came out for a bow on the stage to thunderous applause from all present. I was also intrigued that as soon as the curtain shut, there was a huge 'foot pounding' applause from the orchestra - which was excellent. )

“The Seagull”
National Ballet of Canada
14 November 2008
Four Seasons Centre, Toronto

It’s not every night at the ballet that you need a flowchart of relationships to keep the story straight. Then again when you combine Chekov and Neumeier, the result is far from ordinary. Chekov’s “The Seagull” is perfect source of inspiration for John Neumeier whose streamlined and emotive production translates the classic play into the ballet world. Drawing from his own experience in crafting characters and an eclectic score ranging from Tchaikovsky to Evelyn Glennnie, Neumeier has created a ballet that brings the emotion of the play to the balletic stage.

On Friday evening, more than half a decade after its creation, the National Ballet of Canada gave the “Seagull” a stunning North American premiere. Barely a week after a slightly underwhelming season opening triple bill, the company came forward with a truly inspired performance. Whereas the dancers were good last week, on this night they looked energized, well rehearsed and engaged – a company with a soul.

Completely inhabiting the role of Kostya was the outstanding Zdenek Konvalina. From the beginning, when he strolls on the exposed stage and slowly folds an origami bird, to his final dream performance, Kostya is the heart of the ballet, and a character who rarely leaves the stage. In the twisted web of relationships, he is the son of Arkadina (a prima ballerina), in love with Nina, loved by Masha (his first cousin once removed) and seeking the approval of his mother. However Nina is infatuated with Trigorin, a popular choreographer and the lover of Arkadina. It’s a recipe for disaster, with Kostya’s failure in love and choreography the centerpiece of the unraveling relationships.

The ballet is split into two acts, with Neumeier’s sets and costumes providing a simple, but effective contrast between the moods. A few chairs, a staircase leading offstage and a plain wooden stage with a painted backdrop provide the frame for the action, the dancers clothed simply but effectively. In the first act, Kostya and Nina appear in pure white, hope still in the air. In the second act, the stage reappears, but the backdrop is torn and askew, a corner of the stage floor burned out. And the two main characters appear in pure black. The only constant is the lapping sea, exquisitely realized by a blue-lit backdrop rolling via the breath of an unseen wind.

Neumeier is known for his ability in crafting characters, and the love stories and tragedies are beautifully realized in his choreography. Each act is constructed around a big set piece – Kostya’s ballet in Act 1 and the Revue & Trigorin’s ballet in Act 2. Set to a percussive score by Scottish musician Evelyn Glennie, “Kostya’s” ballet is Nijinsky-esque – it’s modern and permeated with an erotic exoticism. Forward thinking and individual, it’s scorned by his mother and the rest of the audience, much to his great upset.

It’s failure is highlighted by the great contrast with the success of Trigorin’s pastiche of classical ballet, aptly named “Death of the Seagull”. In this piece, Neumeier combines the worst of “Swan Lake”, “Le Corsaire” and “Diana and Acteon”, but deftly intertwines the near-spoof with some truly stunning steps. Aleksandar Antonijevic, in particular, and Greta Hodgkinson were superb in the pas de deux, Antonijevic looking at ease in solos that covered the full range of male bravura steps. The corps was also up to the challenge, one striking moment a series of poses for the male dancers were Wei Chen (?) froze in a soaringly high second arabesque for an achingly long stretch of music. Wow!

Another highlight was the revue that opens the second act. This act finds the ambitious Nina having been relegated to the back row of a music hall revue. Neumeier deftly moves the lines of high kicking, feather be-decked dancers around the stage, the stage decorated with a sole red and black stage piece. This sparse, but creatively lit setting creates a mood both festive and forboding.

Here the corps of the National Ballet of Canada was at its strongest. Gone were the wobbles and heavy landings of the triple bill, with the men in particular massively improved over the course of a week. In this scene, Neumeier also makes allusion to other choreographers – when Nina first spots Trigorin, he has just come off stage, his costume heavily suggestive of a Bournonville ballet.

However, the emotional core in the ballet is the deeply expressive choreography for the main characters. Konvalina wraps his whole body around Neumeier’s weighty steps, trying to soar like his paper seagull, sinking deeply into the earth as he fails in love and dance. As mentioned previously, Kostya is a character who rarely leaves the stage, so it’s a role than makes or breaks the ballet. And without a doubt, Konvalina makes this ballet, and this performance firmly establishes him as one of the finest Neumeier interpreters today. (I’m guessing that the role was made on Lloyd Riggins and I could see flashes of Riggins in Konvalina). Kostya is a perfect role for Konvalina who draws the eye whether center stage or observing the action from shadowy corner.

Kostya's signature step is an attitude in second with the supporting foot in demi-pointe – something at once classical and modern, simple and complicated, balanced and unbalanced. Konvalina captures these contrasts effortlessly, having the controlled plasticity to move through the often slow choreography without apparent effort or jerkiness.

Opposite him, Sonia Rodriguez showed her talent by easily making Nina’s journey from besotted baby ballerina, to haunted young woman. In her white dress, she is the innocent, youthful dancer with a life in front of her, blithely spurning the man who loves her for an older, fickle lover. Her relationship with Trigorin brings neither dance opportunity nor lasting love, leaving her with a life wasted. Yet in the end, she cannot release herself to Kostya’s love – in a final symbolic act she lies down in front of Trigorin her arms outstretched in the shape of a cross. She has, in more than one sense, sacrificed herself – and Kostya’s love - for her infatuation with Trigorin.

Rodriguez was all supple limbs, at times fragile, at others determined, but always elegant. Her movement is effortless; fluidity mixed with flexibility. Together with Konvalina she was magical, as perfectly illustrated by a pose in a pas deux where he balanced on his head between her legs. Arching backwards towards the audience, he rested his head between her legs, their arms rising up and down, echoing the flapping of a seagull’s wings. At once the movement was symbolic of the title seagull, but expressed the constrained sensuality and the power of that Nina’s love – or lack their of – over Kostya.

It was an evening of passion, heartbreak and, inevitably, a sorrowful ending. Neumeier chooses to make Kostya’s suicide more figurative than literal, but the pain of Nina’s final rejection remains un-diminished. The combination of Neumeier and the NBoC seems to a match made in heaven, and it’s a ballet not to be missed. If the company can continue at this level of artistry and motivation, we are in for an excellent season!

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