"The Four Seasons" and "Emergence"
The National Ballet of Canada
Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts
March 20, 2013
By Denise Sum
copyright by Denise Sum 2013
The National Ballet of Canada closed their winter season with a double bill of two plotless works created for the company by Canadian choreographers. Former artistic director James Kudelka's "Four Seasons" is more classical in style and music choice, while Vancouver-based Crystal Pite's "Emergence" is darker and more edgy.Together, the works highlight Canadian talent and a troup of fine dancers across the ranks.
"The Four Seasons" has been a signature piece of the NBoC since it's premiere in 1997. The ballet follows a proverbial everyman through the four seasons, literally and metaphorically, as he is visited by different women and eventually, a death figure. Antonio Vivaldi familiar music (aptly played by violinist Stephen Sitarski and the NBoC orchestra) is set against a backdrop of shifting coloured screens and silky costumes that move beautifully in muted neutral hues, designed by Carmen Alie and Denis Lavoie. The full cycle of life is represented: the freshness and naïveté of spring, passion and sensuality of summer, humility and groundedness of fall, and reflection and closure of winter.
Kudelka's choreography mirrors these transitions, giving each season a distinct feel with memorable dance idioms. Spring is all hops en pointe and delicate walking in relevé. Summer is full of deep back bends and playfully twisting hips. Autumn features a weightier gait and folk dance influenced steps. In winter, feet shuffle side to side in smaller, quieter movements. There are moments that are perhaps too literal. For instance, the dancers simulate gathering the harvest in autumn, and a woman shivers to signal winter's arrival. Winter features men wearing long coats, in case you did not notice the icy backdrop. These details are unnecessary and take away from the subtlety of the piece.
The best parts are when Kudelka uses the steps and formations of the dancers to evoke the essence of a particular time, like the delicate melting of snow in early spring, or basking in the glow of a sunny summer afternoon. Kudelka also alludes to the violent undercurrents of spring. As the central couple dances a sweet pas de deux down stage, four men up stage stagger and loudly fall prone to the floor, perhaps references the destruction necessary for renewal.On opening night, the man was ably danced by Guillaume Côté. Côté has been busy dancing leading roles in "Nijinsky" and "Romeo and Juliet" this month, but if there was any fatigue, it did not show on stage. He brought nuance to the role, creating a natural arc to the piece's energy. In spring, he brought gentleness and calm to his steps. In winter, he conveyed feelings of loss, anxiety, and despair before finding peace and surrendering to his inevitable death.
He is met with different women in each season. Of the original 1997 cast, only Greta Hodgkinson (as the woman in summer) remains. She gave a standout performance and nearly stole the show in a role that was obviously made for her. Kudelka drew on Hodgkinson's strengths here: atonishingly fast turns, sensitive musicality, and daredevil attack. Côté and Hodgkinson brought the house down with the thrilling, almost dangerous, and sultry summer pas de deux. Stacey Shiori Minagawa (spring), Stephanie Hutchison (autumn), and Xiao Nan Yu (winter) also gave strong performances. James Leja was a menacing death figure in winter. In the final tableau, the women from each of the seasons come to the dying man's side. Wearing chiffon veils, they are the brides of each stage in his life revisited.
"Emergence" shows the company in a different light entireley. The aesthetic is dark and austere, taking place in an underground enclosure. Pite's piece borrows its title from the book "Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities and Software" by Steven Johnson. Pite examines the similarities between the organizational structures of bee colonies and ballet companies, where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
The ballet opens with the development of a single larva (a sinewy Sonia Rodriguez) into an adult bee. The audience is then taken into a bee hive where the corps is divided by gender and moves in perfect unison. Electronic beats and the sound of marching (composed by Canadian Owen Belton) suggests a strictly regimented existence. The women are in black corset-like bodysuits while the men have wings tatooed onto their backs. At times, their faces are covered with hoods, highlighting their anonymity and the precedence of the collective over the individual. The women form precise lines, like the corps in a ballet blanc, and whisper the counts out loud like they are marking steps in a rehearsal. A couple, Aleksandar Antonijevic and Heather Ogden, breaks away but quickly rejoins the swarm. We see how quickly ideas spread -- one member starts twitching in a corner and suddenly everyone is doing it.
"Emergence" draws on interesting concepts that are clearly communicated, however over the course of half an hour the ballet is somewhat lacking in direction. The large group sequences are the strongest and create some striking images, but to what end? It starts to say something but does not quite finish. While interesting to look at, at times "Emergence" feels like "A Bug's Life" meets "The Matrix" (complete with a version of the slow-motion bullet dodge)-- style over substance. Still, it is choreographically rich with a fusion of ballet, modern dance, and even references to popping and locking. Pite remains one to watch with a fresh vision and willingness to experiment and take risks.
Guillaume Côté and Greta Hodgkinson in "The Four Seasons". Photo by Bruce Zinger.
Artists of the Ballet in "Emergence". Photo by Bruce Zinger.