National Ballet of Canada
September 19, 2011
Jubilee Auditorium North, Edmonton, AB
The casting inserts may have gone AWOL between Calgary and Edmonton, but the dancing certainly did not! Returning to Alberta’s capital city after a long absence, the National Ballet of Canada presented an evening that showed off the company’s classical and modern ballet chops. The quartet of ballets ranged Jerome Robbins’ elegant “Other Dances” to the raw energy of Forsythe’s “the second detail”, to Kudelka’s “The Man in Black” and Crystal Pite’s sensational “Emergence”.
For an audience whose last ballet-related trip to the Jubilee Auditorium North most likely involved Alberta Ballet’s Sarah MacLachlan multi-media ballet spectacular, ‘the second detail’, must have been a bit of a shock. “the second detail” is Forsythe through and through – minimalistic in music (by Thom Willems, a frequent collaborator), costumes and sets – but anything but in dance. The ballet is framed by a placard with the word ‘THE’ placed center stage in front of the dancers, and row of chairs behind the dancers with a plain grey backdrop behind. I’m sure “THE” was a bit of a mystery to much of the audience, but the key with Forsythe is to let go of all preconceptions and just go with flow.
Forsythian choreography must be a marathon for dancers, but oh what a marathon to run. It’s exuberant, energetic, sexy, breathtakingly fast and despite the rather non-classical setting, packed with more classical steps than most of the modern ballet canon combined. To watch Forsythe is to see the steps stripped down, with no bulky costumes to hide lines, movement and stillness. Yet, he never forgets that the human body is a sexy, lithe creation, and there’s more than a little bit of hip, gyration and twist in his choreography.
It all works best when the dancers can keep and then some – and in this the NBoC excelled. Things slowed a bit towards the end, but the dancers got every angle, curve, leap and pointed pause. Of particular note were Heather Ogden and Sonia Rodriquez, but it was Robert Stephen that caught the eye in this piece and in the later Kudelka “ballet”. Now a first soloist, Stephen is a dynamo who has developed a powerful stage presence despite his relatively short height. I’m sorry I missed what was apparently his tap dancing tour de force in the recent “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”.
As evidenced by his superbly nuanced performance in “Other Dances”, the National Ballet is losing a real treasure with Zdenek Konvalina’s change to guest status (he and long time off-stage partner Bridgett Zehr are moving their primary affiliation to the English National Ballet). Partnered with the equally refined Greata Hodgkinson, he made magic out of Robbins’ breathtaking pas de deux. The power of the ballet is in it’s pure simplicity - the couple dances to a Chopin played by an onstage pianist (Andrei Streliaev in a superb job). Their dancing seems a natural reaction to the music and to each other, with little artifice. The male role was originated by Mikhail Baryshnikov, and though much taller, Konvalina seemed a perfect fit. Not only does he have a slightly eeiry facial resemblance to Baryshnikov, he also has the ability to move seamlessly from elegant partnering to slightly cheeky, bravura dancing. He pulled off the ménage of twisting, turning tricks with aplomb, his rapport with Hodgkinson refreshingly natural. As suggested by the broad smile that flashed across Konvalina’s face with the opening notes, this was a ballet enjoyed by dancers and audience alike. It was a sigh, and a giggle and series of knowing glances that was translated into a seamless dance. This, folks, is how ballet should be, and after missing Konvalina in “Apollo” at my final Toronto viewing of the company, I thank the company and the ballet gods for giving me this treat.
After the sublime Robbins, Kudelka was rather a let down. My general dislike of Kudelka’s choreography is hardly a secret, and I found it a shame to see the company investing in new Kudelka ballet after announcing a 2011-2012 schedule that showed a positive move towards shedding the burden of the Kudelka repertoire. He’s hardly the bottom of the barrel, but his choreography lacks the depth or imagination of so many others out there. His brand new “The Men in Black” was a clearly a crowd favorite, but the pleasure I took was mostly in the music and the dancing. Kudelka certainly knew his Western Canadian audience when he picked a series of Johnny Cash songs for his score, but he struck out with his choreographic approach.
Given that he was gifted with a quartet of exemplary dancers from once of the world’s top companies, it was more than a little disappointing that rather than explore Cash’s music through ballet, he settled for a shuffle-shuffle variation on slow-mo line dancing. There’s no doubt that some of the images were intriguing – we got a slow mo fist fight between two men, some very sexy pas de deux and pas de trois, and often interesting percussive use of the dancer’s “cowboy boot” clad feet. Yet, it left me cold at times, and wondering how much creative Kudelka could have been if he’d kept his ballerina in pointe shoes, and dared to let Rebekah’s Rimsey’s gorgeous legs rise above knee level at least once. We lost the soaring highs and lows of Cash’s songs to shuffle-shuffle, shuffle-shuffle.
That said, one could find no fault with the powerful performances of Rimsey, James Leja, Robert Stephen (company stand out of the night), and especially Piotr Stancyzk. Sometimes I think the company struggles when it comes to finding good matches for Stancyzk’s unique talents, but this was a perfect fit. Showing off a swoon inducing physique in his black sleeveless shirt and black jeans, Stancyzk looked at ease in role and costume that complimented his stockier build, and did not require a seemingly forced cheeriness. He simply sizzled.
The evening ended with the company’s current mega-hit, Crystal Pite’s ‘Emergence’. On this, my third viewing of the piece, I continued to find new tidbits and images in the choreography. Though the company seemed spot on, I felt a bit too close the action, preferring to be farther away where individual faces are blurred, allowing one to focus on the whole drone-like brigade. After all, this is a ballet about the power of the collective, where the individual is inevitably sucked back into the hive. I still haven’t decided on the species of Pite’s ‘drones’ – at times her mesmerizing choreography (and Linda Chow’s costumes ) suggest rodents right of the epic comic book “Maus”, at other times Owen Belton’s music suggests the drone of thousands of bees, and there’s even some frog like imagery. Among the images that caught my eye on this viewing were the absolutely insectoid poses where the dancers’ elbows were stuck up overhead, their arms bent back down towards their faces. With the full brigade of dancers in this pose, it looked like an arm of folded insect wings, or insect limbs. The action seems to rev up, the armies of tattooed men and black clad women engaging in choreographed combat, until it cumulates in an awe inspiring, perfectly synched finale. No other company in Canada could put so many dancers on stage, let along dancing as one. And that’s the power of the NBoC’s national tours – bringing the best in dance to all of Canada. May the powers at be and the company’s who having money to donate ensure that the company can continue to bring such experiences to far flung Canadian cities in years to come!