"Elite Syncopations", "Song of a Wayfarer", "Chroma"
The National Ballet of Canada
Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts
June 13, 2012
By Denise Sum
Copyright © 2012 by Denise Sum
The National Ballet of Canada ended their 60th anniversary season with a mixed program reflecting the company's versatility, history, and future direction. The varied repertoire showcased the depth of talent in the company and instilled hope for its continued artistic development. The evening opened with Sir Kenneth MacMillan's "Elite Syncopations". It is a delightfully lighthearted jaunt through ragtime tunes that transports the viewer to the social dancers of a bygone era. Next, for a complete change of pace, was "Song of a Wayfarer", Maurice Béjart's soulful duet for two male dancers. The program concluded with the newest work, Wayne McGregor's lively and modern "Chroma".
"Elite Syncopations" entered the NBoC's repertoire in 1978. It is a crowd-pleasing ballet that current artistic director Karen Kain has performed in herself. Decades later, its jazzy rhythms and playful choreography are still an irresistable combination. The musicians get to appear on stage, in brightly coloured costumes no less, and the dancers get to let their hair down, so to speak. With zany, printed unitards, flamboyant hats, and fake cigarettes, the dancers were allowed to show their sense of humour and a different side of their personalities. The ensemble pieces were clean and well-rehearsed and there were several standout individual performances. Xiao Nan Yu, returning from maternity leave, was in fine
form, aptly partnered by McGee Maddox in the waltz segment. She was charming and confident in the "Stop-Time Rag". In the "Calliope Rag", Jordana Daumec hammed it up with perfect comic timing and exagerated facial expressions. Keiichi Hirano, a natural allergro dancer, soared through the fast jumps and changes of direction in "Friday Night". The height difference between Adji Cissoko and Christopher Saltzer in "The Alaskan Rag" made for great physical comedy as she swung her leg over his head in every possible way.
Béjart's "Song of a Wayfarer" has been performed by the NBoC since 1980, although prior to this run it had not been performed for over 20 years. It requires incredible technical strength from both male dancers. Originally created on Rudolph Nureyev and Paolo Bortoluzzi, and subsequently performed by the likes of Laurent Hilaire and Manuel Legris, anyone dancing in this ballet has big shoes to fill. Luckily, opening night featured a dream cast of the NBoC's reigning danseur noble, Guillaume Côté, and former NBoC principal Zdenek Konvalina (now with the English National Ballet) returning as a guest artist. The two dancers are well-matched in style and share a genuine rapport on stage. Both gave virtuoso performances that brought the audience quickly to their feet. Konvalina was the blue man (the Nureyev role), a role he has danced before, just once at a gala. While the choreography is not purely classical, it benefits from Konvalina's precise placement, clean line, and soft plié. Konvalina was the smoother of the two, while Côté's movements were more expansive. Both demonstrated impressive stamina and control. At approximately 18 minutes, the duet is a marathon.
"Song of a Wayfarer" set to Gustav Mahler's song cycle, evokes moods and images without a specific narrative. The blue man appears youthful and impressionable, hopeful yet angst-ridden. The other figure or
red man is described in the program as "his double, his conscience or his destiny" and follows closely
behind him. The choreography is filled with abstract gestures and ambiguous meaning. At one point, the blue man collapses and the red man comes to his aid, cradling him in his arms. Later, the blue man expresses his distress by grabbing his throat, almost choking himself. Another powerful image is the two men, hesitantly approaching one another on a diagonale line with slow developés, one man traveling forward while the other moves backwards, as if pulled by a force while trying to resist it. The images are vague enough to be universal, alluding to themes of identity, loss, agency and fate. "Song of a Wayfarer" depends heavily on the abilities of the performers and luckily Konvalina and Côté were able to bring the work to life.
"Chroma" is more sleek and modern than the other two ballets. It is pure dance at its best -- exciting movements and music unfettered by elaborate sets, costumes, gimicks, or pretense. The designs are minimalist: John Pawson's stark geometric set and Moritz Junge's flesh coloured tunics. Although the set is simple, the use of lighting creates different moods. The background is in turn a sterile clinical white, then a warm blue, then a darker grey. Orchestral arrangements of songs by The White Stripes provided heavy hitting beats and momentum. The same dancers that played to the audience in "Elite Syncopations" appear cool and indifferent in "Chroma", calmly twisting and contorting themselves into intricate positions. "Chroma" is intense from start to finish. The choreography has a distinctive look, refreshingly different from the generic style of contemporary ballet that has become globally prevalent. The steps are awkwardly beautiful. There are animalistic, undulating body rolls, interspersed with angular, acrobatic movements. The traditionally gendered aspects of ballet are removed. The women wear soft shoes and the men swing their hips. The costumes are also meant to be androgynous, although spaghetti straps should generally be avoided in men. Greta Hodgkinson and Jonathan Renna stood out in their pas de deux to "The Hardest Button to Button". Beyond their technical brilliance, they made their steps interesting. Tina Pereira's gorgeous line and hyperextended legs were also highlighted to great effect. The entire emsemble (10 dancers) looked great, especially in the final scene that builds in a crecendo of frantic energy with limbs flying everywhere.
After an aloof "Hamlet" earlier this month, this triple bill was a fantastic way for the company to end its 60th anniversary season in style. Kain has a knack for putting interesting and complimentary pieces together for mixed programs, showcasing different strengths of the company. "Chroma" provides a glimpse into the future of ballet and its endless possibilities, while "Elite Snycopations" and "Song of a Wayfarer" draw our attention to riches in the NBoC's existing repertoire.
Sonia Rodriguez and Aleksandar Antonijevic in "Chroma". Photo by Bruce Zinger.
Xiao Nan Yu and McGee Maddox in "Elite Syncopations". Photo by Bruce Zinger.
Zdenek Konvalina and Guillaume Côté in "Songs of a Wayfarer". Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.