Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal

Sir Kenneth MacMillan's "Gloria" & Stijn Celis' "Noces"

Théâtre Maisonneuve, Place des Arts
Montréal, Québec

September 28, 2002
By Lena Marie Stuart

Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal opened their season with two very compelling works: Sir Kenneth MacMillan's Gloria, and Noces, a world premiere by Belgian choreographer Stijn Celis. The two were well-matched in their exploration of the human condition in dreamlike situations, and in their use of powerful scores by Francis Poulenc and Igor Stravinsky respectively. Nothing enhances a dance performance like live music, and the Orchestre Symphonique along with the Choeur du Studio de Musique Ancienne de Montréal successfully reinforced the dramatic emotional landscapes of both works.

MacMillan's Gloria is a ballet that delves into the raw emotions of soldiers on a WWI battlefield. There is no clear narrative; MacMillan is not exposing the story of just one person. Instead, he gives his homage to the many who gave their lives so selflessly. In what must surely be their last moments in the desolate, gray landscape, the soldiers relive happier times with the spirits of women from their pre-war lives. There is an almost buoyant otherworldliness in their interactions, a defiant contrast to their stark surroundings. A sense of firm resolve is displayed in the hearty choreography, the dancers soaring across the stage with one another until they finally bound into the wings.

The omnipresent melancholy entrenched in the utter hopelessness of war comes to light in the partnering work of the pas de trois and the pas de quatre. In a very poignant moment, Anik Bissonette is lifted high between Frédéric Tavernini and Mário Radacovský where she is carefully balanced between the two, held aloft by the bodies of the two men as all three stretch their arms to the heavens. These three dancers gave very sound and effective performances, as did the rest of the company, who gave themselves completely to the choreography. There were a few little bobbles at the beginning of the pas de quatre, but Geneviève Guérard seemed well anchored and solid, and the three men with whom she was partnered were quickly back on track.

Close to the end, the dancers are clustered on stage in pairs, their heads slowly tilt to the heavens while the choir sings a resounding chorus of Amens. This simple movement puts to rest the soldiers' emotional turmoil and the chaos of war, producing a sense of peace. The final moment of the ballet, as the last stoic soldier goes bravely to what will become his grave, is a heart-wrenching and indelible reminder of every individual sacrifice made in the war. In times of peace, it is easy to put aside the human face of war; MacMillan reminds us in a way that is not cloying through this heartfelt commemoration.

Bronislava Nijinksa's Les Noces (1923) instantly comes to mind when confronted by a ballet using music of the same name created by Stravinsky for the aforementioned work. At the outset, Stijn Celis' new creation, Noces, does not seem to stray very far from the original concept. It too is a somewhat austere interpretation of a peasant wedding.

Noces opens with a sombre choir gathered around four grooms, each seated on one of four long wooden benches. As the choir moves into the wings, the lament of their song is echoed by the low moan of benches scraping against the floor as they are dragged to the side of the stage. The grooms, twelve in total, seat themselves while the rest arrive. Then, the barefooted brides enter, doll-like in torn white dresses with brightly rouged cheeks and long yellow braids. In what can only be compared to country line-dancing, the women stomp their feet rhythmically against the floor, stepping from side to side in a large square pattern, hips sashaying wildly back and forth. The hurly-burly peasant wedding scene takes off at a pace that is as fast and furious as most of Stravinsky's tonal score for four pianists, percussion, and a group of singers.

For much of the ballet, the men and women perform all together in their respective groups, effectively working out patterns that reflect the abstract yet complex organization structures of the music. The image of twelve dancers moving together is very powerful, but any irregularity on the part of individuals is evident when juxtaposed against eleven other bodies doing the same. For the most part though, the dancers moved in seamless unison.

Throughout the work, the dancers move the benches into different formations on the stage, delineating the space and the course of the action. This was accomplished flawlessly. I have a personal pet peeve with extraneous props that act as some kind of filler for the dance – you wonder if the work could have done just fine without them. The benches, in this case, are an integral part of the work. In an especially magnetic moment in the choreography, one bench functions as a platform for a lightning fast duet that takes place center stage. The benches also serve the choreography well when the men are seated on them downstage with their backs to the audience, who must look past the men to see the women whirling like dervishes. Finally, the men leap up and snatch a girl each, dragging them back, violently bouncing the girls on their laps like rag dolls, again with their backs to the audience. This reinforces the audience's outside view of the wedding scene, and allows for an examination of this social ritual in a way that is doubly removed.

This is where Celis seems to break away from Ninjinska's Les Noces. Whereas Nijinska is said to have intended to portray the mechanical nature of Stravinsky's score with her heavily stylized choreography, Celis' version questions the validity of the marriage institution itself. In his staging, Celis does not try to deconstruct the "fourth wall," and allow the audience to take pleasure in the wedding party. Instead, he uses half of the performers to separate the audience from the action. I found it interesting that the parents who oversee the action in Nijinska's version are also absent from his rendering. This deliberate departure from the traditional is further exemplified by the choreography itself, which like Ninjinska's, is not only decidedly modern but at times almost chaotic. In the future I would like to see Noces performed by many different companies, both ballet and modern, because it is such a multi-layered and intense work.

One could not have asked for a more interesting and well-executed mixed program as a season opener from Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal. With something for ballet aficionados of all kinds, from the neo-classical to the modern, and the exceptional live accompaniment, it made for a truly memorable evening of dance.


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Edited by Malcolm.

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