The National Ballet of Canada
Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts
March 11, 2017
by Denise Sum
copyright © by Denise Sum 2017
Advertised as "the perfect outing for march break", Will Tuckett's frenetic production of "Pinocchio" premiered on a frigid Saturday to an audience ready for a feel-good escape. This new full-length work follows in a similar vein as the company's "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" and "Le Petit Prince" -- family-friendly ballets with recognizable stories and brilliant special effects, yet little meat in terms of actual dancing. This "Pinocchio" is visually appealing and not without its moments of charm and wit. Tuckett has mentioned in interviews that his goal was to make the art form more accessible and attract new audience members. This ballet just might do so. The inclusion of speaking roles and dazzling feats of stage craft are certainly tailored to draw in the Broadway or West End theater-going crowd, not surprising given Tuckett's multidisciplinary bent. Still, one has to wonder if this is the best approach. Will fans of this genre of souped up dance theater continue to show up and support the ballet in its other guises?
Photo: Robert Stephen, Brent Parolin, Skylar Campbell and Alexandra MacDonald in "Pinocchio". Photo by Aleksandar Antonijevic.
Throughout, Richmond and O'Connell's brilliantly imaginative designs literally steal the show. This is Richmond's first time designing for the ballet, as he has worked primarily in theatre and opera. His skill in creating stylish, textured and layered costumes that are functional and allow the dancers to move freely is truly impressive. The costume for Pinocchio uses a clever tromp l'oeil effect such that his limbs really appear to be made of wooden pieces. A wig mimicking curls of wood shavings and a pointed prosthetic nose (that is able to extend and retract) complete the look. The stylistic influences are varied. Hipster plaid shirts, skinny jeans, vintage dresses, and thick framed glasses abound. Some characters would be able to fit right into Brooklyn's Williamsburg. Elements of steampunk,1950's Coney Island carnivals, and classic Hollywood musical chorus scenes are thrown in to the sets and costumes. In a vignette where Pinocchio attends a puppet show, there is even a nod to the Moor, Ballerina, and Clown of the Ballets Russes' "Petrushka", cleverly entwined by long strings. There are also numerous appearances of Canadiana. It is unclear how these would be received at the Texas Ballet Theatre with whom the company is co-producing the ballet. Nonetheless, the Mountie cameo, raccoons eating out of green bins, beavers, East Coast roadside "Red Lobster Inn" diner and Niagara Falls tourists appearing on stage certainly drew laughs from the audience. O'Connell uses projections to quickly change scenes so that the narrative can continue seamlessly. There are only a couple of misses in the designs. The use of forearm crutches for the children who are turned into donkeys is awkward and potentially offensive. A video projection of artistic director Karen Kain's face as the sun is strange and puzzling.
Englishby's commissioned score is melodic, engaging and lends coherence to the episodic plot. There is enough variety to create changes in tone, such as the syncopated, jazzy rhythms that are associated with the Fox and the Cat characters who frequently lure Pinocchio away from doing the right thing. Aside from the music, there is a lot of speech in this ballet, which can at times feel more lazy than innovative. There are five dancers who appear throughout as the "shadows" of the Blue Fairy, the magical figure who leads Pinocchio and Geppetto to one another and protects them. They act as a chorus, Pinocchio's conscience, and as a mouthpiece for various characters' thoughts or instructions. As a chorus, they speak in rhyming aphorisms and summarize the moral of each scene, in case one missed it.
Finally, there is the choreography and dancing, which feel almost like an afterthought with so much else happening on stage. There are some good uses of group formations and brief pas de deux between Pinocchio and the Blue Fairy. However, there are very limited segments of dancing that are long enough to have any phrasing or structure. The steps gets chopped up amidst the action and at times there are many dancers on stage, just standing.
As Pinocchio, first soloist Skylar Campbell gave a moving performance and carried the ballet. He is a talented actor, showing Pinocchio's highs, lows, and incremental moral development with a steady timing that made the journey believable. His genuine longing for human connection and immediate affinity for Geppetto are touching. Campbell is also a wonderful technical dancer. His movements made him appear both rigid and wobbly in turn and he never broke from those mannerisms until he became a real boy at the end. Piotr Stanczyk, who tends to fare best in character roles, was an effective and devoted Geppetto. One's heart breaks a little when he goes around town desperately putting up "lost" posters with Pinocchio's picture. Jurgita Dronina and Dylan Tedaldi also deserve special mention for their comic and cheeky performances as the mischievous Cat and Fox.
In the end, Tuckett's "Pinocchio" succeeds in telling a story and impressing the senses. However, it is problematic that the medium of conveying the narrative is not primarily dance. If a ballet's effect is wholly dependent on visual effects, dialogue, or even music, it finds itself in a danger zone, as there are other art forms that will be able to present these elements more capably. People come to the ballet to be moved by the expression of movement itself. Let us hope that this is not forgotten.