Canada's National Ballet School

"Spring Showcase"

Betty Oliphant Theatre, Toronto, ON

May 21, 2002
By Malcolm Tay

Canada’s National Ballet School (NBS), founded more than forty years ago by Celia Franca and Betty Oliphant, is recognised as one of the country’s foremost institutions for dance education. Its graduates constitute a large part of the National Ballet of Canada, having produced Frank Augustyn, Veronica Tennant, Rex Harrington, and of course, Karen Kain. What a school.

In the NBS's events calendar, what stands out is its annual Spring Showcase, a sell-out season that The Globe and Mail newspaper had once declared as “something not to be missed.” And it is difficult to disagree with that. Last year’s triple-bill presentation, which began with Mikhail Fokine’s luminous Chopiniana, followed by Toer van Schayk’s anti-war Pyrrhic Dances II, and finished with the stirring Kylián Study, went out with a bang. This year’s programme wasn’t built on the same formula, but was no less excellent, maybe even more indicative of the students’ versatility – four works this time, with two by Canadian dance artists.

Paquita was this year’s compulsory tutu classic. No story, no message to bring; it’s all about classical dance at its most exacting, genteel, its pseudo-Spanish score by Ludwig Minkus/Riccardo Drigo played live by principal pianist Marina Surgan. In their silver-white tutus, a corps of twelve, all light-footed in their brisés, gathers in pairs, fours, framing the principal couple (Katherine Hartsell and John Lam) in arcs and straight lines. Then, there are six variations, which are mostly happy, perky, well-performed numbers, before the whole cast reassembled. Lam, who danced the poet-youth in last year’s Chopiniana, pulled off his set of tricks – turning assemblés, double tours en l’air, steady pirouettes in à la seconde – even if his turning leaps did look a little laboured. Poised and self-assured, Hartsell made her double pirouettes so slick and leisurely, easily whipping out ten fouettés and a circle of piqué turns.

In the extract from Peggy Baker’s UNFOLD, Julia Schramek was a strong, solitary force, only accompanied by Surgan onstage. The programme notes spoke of memories “curled up like Japanese flowers”, dipping them into “the waters of consciousness” to “open and fill the heart.” To a selection of Alexander Scriabin’s moody Preludes, this dance recounts, relives, simmering in its own abstractions. The torso swoops harshly or a leg shoots out from nowhere. She teeters tipsily on the spot, or leans sideways till gravity takes over. But it is the arms and hands that gain much expressiveness: with the palms flat, they constantly gather and part, framing her impassive face; outstretched, they fan out wildly, like a deranged bird or a desperate call for space. Grounded and unusually mature for her age, it’s likely that Schramek could have ably handled the complete work.

Matjash Mrozewski, who did A Delicate Battle for the National Ballet of Canada last year, premiered his made-for-NBS Charged Airs, set to excerpts from Robert Schumann’s Études Symphoniques. It is a fine lyric work, one that introduces familiar characters, relationships, with no discernible plot. Four men (in white shirts and maroon pants, except one) and six women (in green silk dresses, except one) break into various solos, duets, a quartet, and a brief quintet. They never appear all at once. The first couple darts by swiftly, tightly, no time for anything else in their lives together, while the second couple needs a little distance as one dances while the other watches. In the two female solos, Mrozewski breathes life into the upper body: the arms curve behind the back, push outwards imploringly; or the arms twine in and out, pulling the torso along with them. An impetuous woman, who can’t keep still and make up her mind, leads three men into a breezy pas de quatre. And, differentiated by their all-white costumes, there are two wayward individuals – a man, against a stream of pensive passers-by, who crouches solemnly into his lonesome dance; and a barefooted woman, who draws a curious, hesitant man into her quiet, ethereal presence.

Yondering, which John Neumeier first choreographed on NBS students in 1996, takes its title from an American frontier term, which referred to travels beyond what was established and known. But it’s not a piece of Americana. On one level, the ballet pays tribute to the late Jeffrey Kirk, an NBS graduate and Hamburg Ballet dancer who died of AIDS ten years ago; in a larger sense, it celebrates the spring and vitality of youth and mourns its loss through death or otherwise. Only adolescent dancers can therefore truly render the work convincingly, something that Neumeier personally specified. Involving more than twenty dancers, Yondering rolls along the simple melodies and plain, poignant lyrics of Stephen C. Foster’s songs (as sung and recorded by Thomas Hampson), making it perhaps the most accessible, most moving dance of the evening.

With the men in shirtsleeves, suspenders, and khaki pants, the women in modest white dresses, there is a feeling of community. Blocky, folksy, whole-body movement is accented with little actions. In the smooth, measured opening “Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair” section, the boys rattle their heads suddenly at various points; Catherine Maitland, as the hard-to-get girl who captures Charles Berry’s thumping heart, wiggles her flexed foot cheekily from side to side in “Molly! Do You Love Me?” and they all happily jiggle their heads during their big, lively hoedown in “Dancing on the River.” In the hushed, elegiac “Ah! May the Red Rose Live Alway!” boys and girls pair off and separate, close embraces are reluctantly broken, uniting the group in soft, silent grief (“Why should the beautiful ever weep? / Why should the beautiful die?”). Yondering is the kind of dance that grows on you with every viewing.


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Edited by Marie.

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