"Genus", "Tarantella", "Self and Soul", "The Concert"
The National Ballet of Canada
Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts
March 29, 2017
by Denise Sum
Copyright © by Denise Sum 2017
The National Ballet of Canada presented a heterogenous mixed program featuring two ensemble pieces and two gala-style pas de deux. The centrepiece of the performance was the North American premiere of "Genus", created by Wayne McGregor for the Paris Opera Ballet a decade ago. A world away was Jerome Robbins' timelessly humorous "The Concert". Finally, George Balanchine's bravura "Tarantella" and Robert Binet's "Self and Soul" provided venues to showcase some of the company's up and coming talents.
Photo: Jurgita Dronina and Robert Stephen in "Genus". Photo by Aleksandar Antonijevic.
McGregor's relationship with the NBoC began in 2010 with "Chroma". The NBoC was the first company outside of the Royal Ballet, on which it was created, to perform that work. Similarly, the company is the first to mount "Genus" after the Paris Opera Ballet. Clearly, McGregor thinks highly of the company, and the dancers dove in fully to do the work justice. From beginning to end, "Genus" is an athletic and hyperkinetic marathon. In its 45 minutes, the dancers twist, kick, undulate, and stretch in extraordinary and unusual positions. McGregor was inspired by Charles Darwin's "On the Origin of Species" and evolution as a natural phenomenon. This source material is referenced literally in the images projected on a screen behind the dancers -- skeletons, specimens in jars, videos of animals, and text from the pages of Darwin's notebook. These images were not particularly necessary, but seem in keeping with the recent trend of video projections replacing traditional backdrops and making themes explicit.
More interesting was the way that McGregor showed a progression of alterations in classical steps and positions, like mutations in a genome. At some points, the movements were awkward, jerky, and spastic. Women teetered precariously in fifth position en pointe in demi-plié like newborn birds. Later, the dancers moved with a serpentine smoothness, all arched backs and rotating hips. The most powerful section was a sharp and pulsating sequence for the corps. The effect of bodies twitching in unison and hitting all the same accents was electric. Of the soloists, Félix Paquet stood out for truly inhabiting the movement, such that it looked completely organic in his body. Two pas de deux for Jurgita Dronina with Robert Stephen and Evan McKie with Tanya Howard were Forsythe-esque in their limit-pushing extensions and shifting axes of balance. The feel of "Genus" is decidedly dark, in contrast to the blinding brightness of "Chroma". The lighting design by Lucy Carter is moody and foreboding. After all, destruction is behind every creation. The score by Joby Talbot, while textured with diverse sounds from rhythmic electronica to classical strings, is meandering at times.
"The Concert", not seen in Toronto for over 20 years, uses familiar music from Chopin and flips it on its head. The comedy of the ballet revolves around the various personalities one might encounter at a concert hall: the oblivious chattering friends, the crinkly candy wrapper opener, the enamored aficionado, the reluctantly dragged husband. It is a ballet that pokes fun at the arts world, with moments that any dancer or dance lover can knowingly chuckle at. There is the "Mistake Waltz" for a six women corps de ballet. Try as they might to move together, there is always one dancer out of step with the others. The dancers get increasingly irritated and more assertive as they try to keep one another in formation. Then there is the "Raindrop Prelude", with the dancers scurrying about with umbrellas and gradually coming together until they are all huddled under one. As "the wife", Greta Hodgkinson was gracious and sweet to everyone except her husband (a mousy Jonathan Renna). Meanwhile, the statuesque Hannah Fischer as "the ballerina" managed to capture his attention. They dance a comical pas de deux that references Act II of "Swan Lake", with hilariously exaggerated flailing arms. Fischer was coquettish and vain, but preserved a sense of youthful wonder that made her character endearing. It is easy to go overboard in a satirical work like this one, but Fischer, Hodgkinson, and Renna all struck an appropriate balance. Pianist Alexei Streliaev played beautifully on stage.
In between, these two ballets were the two very different pas de deux. First, Jillian Vanstone and Skylar Campbell brought down the house with "Tarantella". Both were well cast here, Vanstone is the quintessential soubrette and Campbell has a boyish confidence and carefree attitude that cannot be imitated. Both have the stamina and speed required for the complex footwork, and seemed to feed off each other's energy. Binet's "Self and Soul" was created on Calley Skalnik and Félix Paquet for the Erik Bruhn Prize last year. The dancers are both expressive and blessed with great facility. This overwrought piece seems designed to highlight their technical skill with all the traveling lifts and intricate promenades that one would expect from a competition piece. The program notes state that Binet was inspired by Noa Sadka's book "Talking Parts". However, "Self and Soul" read like a generic and overly sentimental "So You Think You Can Dance" commission -- a bunch of difficult steps crammed together and interspersed with vague longing expressions. The pas de deux could have equally been about heartbreak, cancer, or climate change.
This varied mixed program shows that like nature, ballet too, is evolving. However, whether this transformation follows a teleological trajectory remains controversial. Choreography is not necessarily getting progressively "better", nor can it even be said definitively that today's dancers are stronger than those of previous generations. Nonetheless, the art form continues to adapt and grow in the context of the larger cultural zeitgeist and the interests and abilities of current dance artists. It is a privilege to witness this process, imperfections and all.