"The Four Temperaments", "Rubies", "Cacti"
The National Ballet of Canada
Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts
March 9, 2016
by Denise Sum
copyright © 2016 by Denise Sum
The National Ballet of Canada's winter mixed program was an eclectic blend of non-narrative works ranging from austere to jazzy to satirical in style. The program opened with George Balanchine's stark and neoclassical "The Four Temperaments" and continued with his bold and dazzling "Rubies". The program closer and intended pièce de résistance was Swedish choreographer Alexander Ekman's irreverent "Cacti", a new acquisition for the company, originally created for Nederlands Dans Theatre 2.
Xiao Nan Yu in "Rubies”. Photo © David Hou.
"The Four Temperaments" is a classic Balanchine leotard ballet that the company has been performing since 1969. The ballet uses the medieval theory of four personality types governed by different humors as a loose inspiration as it moves through distinct variations: melancholic, sanguinic, phlegmatic, and choleric. With Paul Hindemith's lyrical yet unsentimental score and Balanchine's sharp and angular steps, it is a ballet that has a timelessly modern feel. However, this performance, while well-executed, lacked a certain edge. The female corps were a bit too soft in their movements. There were also some partnering issues in the first theme (Chelsy Meiss and Giorgio Galli), where the tricky finger pirouettes in plié looked shaky and took away from the visual effect. Svetlana Lunkina and Naoya Ebe were in sync in the Sanguinic variation, but perhaps too precious. The male variations fared better. Harrison James brought a vivid expressiveness to Melancholic, with plush jumps, pliant cambrés back, and perfect control as he fell prone to the ground. In the calm Phlegmatic variation, Evan McKie was interesting to watch. He has a very elongated line, which allowed him to create extreme or unusual shapes.
The energetic and brazen "Rubies" is the crowd favorite from Balanchine's "Jewels" and it is easy to see why. From the moment the curtain rises on the "Tall Woman" and 12 supporting dancers balanced high on their toes, hands linked and chins up, ready to dive in, this ballet is non-stop fun. The lead couple, Heather Ogden and Guillaume Côté brought boldness and playfulness to the central pas de deux. It helps that they both have the technical chops to breeze through the quick changes of direction and slow promenades, adding their own flourishes along the way. Xiao Nan Yu was glamorous and seductive in the soloist role originally created for Patricia Neary. She possesses the elegant line required for the role, but beyond that, has an intuitive grasp of Stravinsky's syncopated rhythms. She played with the phrasing, prolonging the échappés to really indulge in the movement and accentuate the high arches of her feet. The corps were in fine form here, moving with more vitality and precision than they showed in "The Four Temperaments".
Ekman's "Cacti", for 16 dancers, was distinct from the other two works in every possible way. It is a satirical and self-referential dance about dance. The stage lights are exposed, the musicians (a string quartet) are on stage, the dancers vocalize and laugh. There is no "fourth wall". There is something refreshing about contemporary dance that does not take itself too seriously and that can poke fun at the murky waters of meaning and representation in dance. "Cacti" definitely has a sharp sense of humor and some laugh out loud moments. While the musicians play works from the likes of Beethoven and Schubert, a recording is played of a self-important critic or scholar's running commentary on the ballet that is unfolding on stage. This "expert" finds meaning where none exists, commenting on what can only be seen by "the trained eye" and, whispering, makes reference to "subtext almost too subtle to detect". This narrator's script is spot on, using all the most overused and opaque jargon to speak in circles and in the end, say nothing.
The choreography is similarly tongue-in-cheek. Dancers huddle, hurriedly rearrange themselves, and stop abruptly in static poses with artificial smiles plastered on their faces. Later, oversized white scrabble tiles form part of the set. The androgynously dressed dancers sit on the them, tip them on their sides, disappear behind them, and clap their hands against them, creating percussive rhythms as if they are in "Stomp". The grand, classical music is met with ridiculous, silly gestures, reaching a climax when finally the small, potted cacti arrive on stage. The dancers proudly display and admire their own cacti, while the narrator waxes poetic about their symbolic meaning.
One of the most humorous parts of "Cacti" is a pas de deux, danced by Alexandra MacDonald and Dylan Tedaldi. Here, the audience can hear a recording of what the artists are supposedly thinking or saying to each other as they rehearse - "try this", "put your foot here". Then, in conversation, one of the dancers asks "what about the cat?" and a plush cat falls from above. It is a completely random and absurd comical moment. Later, "it's the group section now. Everyone is coming out." Finally, the piece looks like it is winding down and a voice says "I think this is the end? No... this is the end. Is it the end?" The line elicits giggles from anyone who has ever asked himself that question during a performance, only to be wrong. As Doris Humphrey said, "all dances are too long."
"Cacti" is a distinctive, witty, and engaging piece. Yet watching it brings to mind the difference between something that is clever rather than intelligent, entertaining rather than illuminating. It makes its point clearly, but all the jokes and tricks are out on the first go. There is little substance to promote multiple viewings. "Cacti" was the newest work on this triple bill, but seems to be the one with the shortest shelf life.
Artists of the ballet in "Cacti". Photo © Aleksandar Antonijevic.