Tuesday, 23 November 2021

National Ballet of Canada Welcomes Live Audiences Back with Chords of Mysticism

 When Dance and God Talk to You Together

from national.ballet.ca

When you witness NBOC's first live ballet performance in 20 months and hear the striking intros to two ethereal Tchaikovsky numbers, you know that spiritual power will be talking to you in this opening program.

And it does. George Balanchine's Serenade, Jera Wolfe's Soul, and Crystal Pite's Angel's Atlas are all transformative ballets that touch on our mortality, impermanence, and microscopic size in relation to the vast universe. There's a subdued mournfulness standing right beside passion and perfection in each of the works. Moreso, there's deep honesty and humility running right through the whole National Ballet of Canada November 2021 program.

Dance has never seemed to perfectly express its era better than right now - or, at least, during the past century. You can see it just by observing how dancers' arm movements have changed over time, regardless of whether it's a classical or contemporary technique that the work is set in. While dancers in Serenade, choreographed in 1935 just after the Depression, confidently spread their wings in arms that perpetually point up to the sky, in Angel's Atlas, choreographed in 2020, they collect and draw the vast energy around them towards themselves using their elbows, in a lostness. And in Soul, choreographed during the pandemic in 2021, the dancers' arms intertwine with each other in the depth of love and all of its complex subjectivity. 

Angel's Atlas

The first time I saw Crystal Pite's Angel's Atlas with a friend, I was a busy, tired commuter and the experience was apocalyptic and jarring. It was February 2020, literally a month before the COVID-19 pandemic hit the world. Now, seeing it again as part of the National Ballet of Canada's Welcome Back season, it seems reverent, humble, and overwhelmingly eye-opening. 

Tchaikovsky's sacred Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, Opus 41, No 6 Cherubic Hymn sets the tone of the ballet before any of the dancers start to move. Together with Tom Visser's lighting design and Jay Gower Taylor's reflective light backdrop concept, Owen Belton's music affects the audience in a very profound way. The hymn's words speak to humanity laying aside all cares of life to receive the King of All, invisibly upborne by the angelic host. While the words are sung in Old Church Slavonic, the feeling of one's own soul opening up is evoked from a combination of things. It's both the music and the mystical wall of light that displays the slow discovery of a vast and unknowable universe. 

The dancers are barefoot and dressed identically in loose black pants. Slowly they start to move in unison from their crouched positions where they were spread like shells across the stage. As they get up, they seem to be discovering their world and who they are in relation to everything else.

There is both joy and anguish in the movement throughout Angel's Atlas. A couple discovers each other and lives a form of life, then they part. Movement is repetitive and elbows seem to lead, where humans eke out a more primitive existence. The music evolves into flowing, abstract harmonies with bells, the black pants become long skirts swishing freely, and graceful, fluid movements start to form a visual culture onstage. At points, there are two groups who each move exclusively in unison, and sometimes the groups are divided by gender. This made me think of Pite's earlier work, Emergence.


Sourced from national.ballet.ca

A circle is closed. The storm has passed. A song resolves in its final chord. Everything is OK. Powers greater than us are in place, and we feel them. Resolution. 

This is what screams out at you when the curtain opens after the first couple of bars of Serenade for Strings. 17 female dancers in blue hold their hands up to the moonlight, both signaling it and shielding themselves from it. You feel the abstract power of human resilience.

When Balanchine choreographed Serenade and it was performed in 1934 by the School of American Ballet students, he had no idea that almost 100 years later it would become a lasting, emblematic piece of inner power featured at post-pandemic theatrical re-openings. Its lasting quality is in its balance of surprise and inevitability. 

Serenade still looks modern and is known for its technical difficulty to execute. Most of the movement and jumps are executed "en arabesque" (with the back leg stretched up high), requiring a lot of back strength. The intricate pointe work includes turns of the whole body executed on the toes with a sudden lift of one foot up to "retire" (pointed down at the other ankle) when the dancer faces front, and then down again to the top of the toes for yet another turn. And it's all done fast, to music that flies along quickly.

Balanchine's difficult technique was danced flawlessly this week by the National Ballet's Sonia Rodriguez, Jurgita Dronina, and Calley Skalnik in the principal roles. The choreography expresses harmony, goodwill, and togetherness. Serenade is Balanchine's elegy to women, but the ballet ends sadly and mystically. One of its themes is mortality yet it also suggests collective strength.

The Welcome Back Performance Touched Audiences Collectively

As we searched for the patterns in dance movements that were executed quickly and collectively on stage, the performance had already tapped into our subconscious. Controlled chaos. Resolution of forces. Connection to a wild beyond. 

These are the common themes of all the pieces billed as NBOC's Angel's Atlas in this season's opening program. I still have Tchaikovsky's Serenade for Strings going through my head every morning when I wake up. It feels like a good thing.

Monday, 12 August 2019

The Meaning of Farm to Table

Declining Number of Fruit Farms in Niagara Region Affect Supply

A lone tree reaches across the expanse of a Niagara-on-the-Lake field

Whenever I eat a fresh peach, cherry, plum, nectarine or pear in Niagara in the summertime, I notice how much better it tastes than the fruit I buy at home in Toronto stores, just an hour and a half's drive north.

If Niagara fruit farms still exist (which I found they do) why can't we purchase their produce in the urban outlets in Toronto? When I tried to find out more, I found a great list of fruit farms in the Niagara area, as well as another helpful resource about where to pick your own fruits and vegetables in the Niagara region, but no real explanation of why this natural wealth isn't part of the major distribution networks supplying our urban supermarkets.

Grapes on the vine in the July Niagara-on-the-Lake countryside

It turns out that many of the various fruit orchards that filled the Niagara countryside have become endless rows of grape vines. If the larger Niagara fruit farms were supplanted by the needs of the grape-growing and winery industries in the Niagara peninsula, I don't remember hearing who made the decision. Why can't we have both the Niagara winery and fresh fruit industries succeeding side by side? Was there ever a public consultation about it?

When I was growing up in Niagara Falls in the 1970s one of my favourite summer jobs was strawberry-picking at Tregunno Farms. I would ride my bike the 20-odd kilometres along the Niagara River Parkway to Niagara-on-the-Lake and hit the fields with my fellow fruit-pickers, eating as many strawberries as I could while I worked. Happily, Tregunno Farms is still in the same location and managed by the fourth generation of the family. But now their main crops are peaches and grapes and they are trying to grow plum-apricot hybrids currently shipped to us from the U.S.

One of the many palatial wineries that dot the Niagara-on-the-Lake countryside

Food Giants McCain, Saputo and Maple Leaf Helped Grow Canadian Food Sector

The more I dug for information on who is really in charge of the quality of fresh food available to put onto my family's table, the less I found out it was a story of small or medium sized business success. A couple of years ago a Globe and Mail article described the Canadian food industry sector as being the largest manufacturing industry in the country in terms of sales, surpassing auto parts or high-tech gadgets and achieving sales that quietly passed that of textiles, paper, machinery, and aerospace combined. It goes on to describe how "giants like McCain, Saputo and Maple Leaf" helped the sector to expand over the past decade and keep growing even in the recession when most other sectors slumped.

I'm still trying to find out what farms exactly, are producing our local food. According to Statistics Canada, 70% of our food comes from our own country and only 30% of the food we eat comes from somewhere else. A full 80% of meat and dairy products and 76% of breads and cereals are produced here, and imports account for 40% of all fruit, vegetables and fish we eat.

When I looked at the Farm and Food Care Foundation, I found Sobey's, Ontario Pork, The Centre for Food Integrity,  and Cargill writing and distributing consumer-friendly brochures from the voice of Canadian farmers. The messaging was that "big corporations have not taken over Canadian farms, and more than 97 per cent of Canadian farms today are still family-owned and operated." But the brochure did not stipulate the most important point: What percentage of our food do these family-owned farms actually produce?

Monday, 5 March 2018

"Made in Canada" Choreography for National Ballet Transcends the Classics

Mesmerizing Ode to Lawren Harris

Image via https://www.instagram.com/nationalballet/

Lawren Harris, Robert Binet, Lubomyr Melnyk, and dancers of the National Ballet of Canada, will the dreamers ever leave you? The Company's final performance of Made in Canada yesterday at The Four Seasons Centre in Toronto was a testament to the power of nature in the Canadian psyche. Canadian choreographers, composers, lighting designers, set designers, costume designers and dancers came together to celebrate a bond that we Canadians innately feel but rarely articulate. A pre-performance announcement by Artistic Director Karen Kain expressed gratitude towards the indigenous people of yesteryear on whose land the ballet company now operates at the Lake Ontario waterfront. When you look south across the lake from where the company's astounding artistry is now created, you can almost see Lewiston, NY beyond what is a relatively new border. After you've seen "Made in Canada" choreography however, you'll probably agree that our bond with the land emerges as a much more primal force than nationalism. What you see is the connectedness of land to water over time, not different countries. The dreamers are alive and well.

Opening to choreography by Binet in Dreamers Ever Leave You, the flowing, continuously meandering music of Melnyk takes centre stage while cool shades of blue envelope pondering dancers. As if on a kinetic moon walk, their outstretched arms yearn toward something beyond themselves. Stark sets of smooth ice chunks slowly move across time and space, and dancers become individualistic silhouettes on symbolic Harris ice mountains. With porte de bras marked by hands inverted outward at the wrist, dancers enact and seek majestic heights in a reverence. Seldom in unison, individual dancers intertwine within space and with each other, pursuing inner heights of the Harris mountains. As the dramatic, soaring cadences of the music reflect both dancer and our collective knowledge of Harris, we follow a river flowing emotionally into turns of minor keys and peaks. 

Kudelka Freshens the Baroque with a Timeless Story

Image via https://www.instagram.com/nationalballet/
Second on the program was James Kudelka's The Four Seasons, set to Vivaldi's well known score of the same name. Kudelka's genius never lets you down, and there are few ballets as consistently satisfying as this resident choreographer's creations always are. With full integration of musicality, sets, costumes, lighting and movement, Kudelka is all about the staging. His dancers fill the stage in wonderfully balanced compositions that incorporate all artistic elements in equal measure.  A duality exists in the soloists' expressionism and corps de ballet's commentary that resembles a Greek chorus, each level telling their story simultaneously. Few other choreographers achieve such theatrical balance, and you can see it in Kudelka's "czarist" style Nutcracker too.

The Four Seasons' story is about aging, and in the Spring concerto the dancers are Venetian courtiers in taupe silk crossed with Alberta youths who could be freely riding around the prairies in a borrowed pickup truck. With hopeful expectation, their arms jut upright like waiters with no trays, and they tumble around on stage energetically in a hopefulness. In the Summer concerto, passionate love is strikingly choreographed in signature movements that fly by quickly; one reemerging motif has a woman commanding her lover in a sweeping downward arm movement that later reappears as she commands herself with that same move. It's like Kudelka captures the subconscious at times. Everything works in concert: the taupe-themed Baroque-inspired costume has now become a romantic sheer, and Monet-like sets have transformed from subtle green lilies to passionate reds and maple leaf oranges of November. The Autumn concerto brings a panicked kind of energy as dancers fly through the air doing grand jetés - and you cannot help but know what's ahead in this trajectory. In the Winter concerto the Venetian courtiers are back, the grand jetés are gone and no one is flying through the air anymore. One female dancer wears a hat like the Queen wears, and you almost expect to see her start waving. A formalized, ancient tiredness pervades everyone's movement and death takes centre stage.

Amphibian Humans

Image via https://www.instagram.com/nationalballet/
Humans are mammals, but in Crystal Pite's Emergence it's never been clearer that we strongly resemble amphibians in social ways. Pite is an Associate Choreographer of Nederlands Dans Theater, and as anyone who has seen that company can attest, her last minute decision in rehearsal to add dancers' whispering to the staging of her choreography here marks her style with a distinctly European trademark. 

Emergence constructs abstract modern choreography within balletic structures. When Pite's female dancers prance like grasshoppers across the stage en masse, they are "en pointe", and when her shirtless male dancers show their backs marked by identical spider tatoos crawling across their shoulders, they literally look like the shells of bugs crouching in collective impulse. In this ballet instinct not only rules, it reveals all - and groups are divided by the sexes like separate lines within wolf packs. In one scene a long line of women strung from upstage to downstage moves across the stage, hypnotically whispering uneven bars of  music to counts of 6 and 11. Individual males regularly "impregnate" females by ejecting a movement and then withdrawing. In what may be a subtle comment on sexual politics at one point, one of the males tries to run through the long line of women in attempted escape, only to be prevented from breaking through the female chain by their unassailable solidarity. This brilliantly visceral performance of Emergence was flawlessly executed by dancers of the National Ballet, while abstract cricket sounds in the score composed by Owen Belton droned in the music. 

As with any artist's oeuvre, Pite's beliefs can be seen in what she has created through subtlety and subtext. Although Emergence is abstract and its music primal and raw, the work nonetheless reassures you with an undercurrent of natural rules that prevent our self-destructiveness. In Pite's vision, everything will be OK. Her women protect the species with a bond stronger than anything else, and her men believe in each other and the life and society they've created. They may be figuring it out as they go, bug-like and collective, but it's correct as long as it remains instinctual.

Millennials we spoke to after the performance were blown away by Emergence. Well, droning music and abstract dance explorations have been part of the baby boomers' genres since before the 80's, so we were not surprised. Yet the superb performance of this amazing choreography by the highest quality classically-trained dancers from around the world, assembled by the National Ballet of Canada, definitely left us speechless. 
Read about Crystal Pite's 2020 work, Angel's Atlas.
Made in Canada is compelling in its display of the National Ballet's virtuosity and diversity. This program should be toured to schools and universities as a fundraising strategy to build a millennial donor base to replace the current senior one.

Saturday, 27 June 2015

Stress Management Over 40

Revisit Your Own Idealism to Handle Work Stress

Revisiting idealism can help you survive the stresses of a neoliberal world
What are the best ways to handle stress as a baby boomer still dealing with demanding clients, high-pressure days and daily operation in the thick of the rat race? When your kids are grown up, when bar-hopping after work with colleagues is too unhealthy an option, and when retirement is not in your plans any time in the foreseeable future, how do you unwind? The answer may be to revisit who you were at 15 or 20. The seeds of old dreams are still there, sitting in time capsules waiting to be opened and reclaimed. The difference now is that you can actually pursue them.

Dialing Down Stress Means Focusing on Positive Mechanisms

The "fight and flight" instinct that helped you respond so well to emergencies and perform so well at work for so long is actually on a timer. The stress response has an effect on our bodies in a way that can compromise health and well-being in a very big way. According to the American Psychological Association, "the long-term activation of your body's stress response impairs your immune system's ability to fight against disease and increases the risk of physical and mental health problems."

This means it's time to get creative about coming up with ways to transform stress into inspiration. This can involve doing many of the things that never quite fit into our super-practical way of life. It also means dedicating some time, effort and funds to exploring them. For some it's a year of travel, for others it's starting a second career that may not make much money but is fulfilling creatively, intellectually or in terms of its societal value. For still others, it's going back to school while still enjoying one's career. One of the best resources to explore the rekindling of your inner creative is Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes' book Women Who Run With the Wolves - Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype (oh so 80s but still so useful).

May We Unite with Great Healthy People

It's important to follow people you admire, who speak to your particular demographic and needs. For baby boomers, some of the most inspiring people are part of an earlier cohort who think, thought, live and lived completely outside the rules. Here are just a few of the great influential, revolutionary thinkers who come to mind:

  1. Martha Graham
  2. Don Tapscott
  3. Jane Jacobs
  4. Vasily Aksenov
  5. Starhawk
  6. Leonard Cohen
  7. Germaine Greer
  8. John Ralston Saul
  9. Joan Didion
  10. Romeo Dallaire

Tactics to Handle Stress Better

Aside of aspiring to do things you've always wanted to do and cultivating your own wild creativity, here are some other constructive ways to handle stress:

  • meditation - incorporating this into your daily routine can go a long way in managing stress
  • exercise - an hour of exercise three or more times a week is recommended, even walking
  • yoga - take a class or do it at home with the help of some online classes or guides
  • dance classes - contrary to popular belief, you don't have to be a dancer to join a class
  • community involvement - engage with anything you are interested in or care about
  • diet - you can't go wrong with more fruits and vegetables
  • go out - take in sports, culture, or anything outside yourself
  • chemicals in food - avoid wherever possible, even though it's pretty difficult
  • pampering - treat yourself to hair appointments, manicures, massages, and spas 
  • socialize - make a practice of drawing people you like closer to you

Sunday, 31 May 2015

Walking in a Wildlife Sanctuary Across the Lake from a City

A Bird Sanctuary as Well as a Healthy Getaway for City Dwellers

Tommy Thompson Park offers a healthy alternative for wildlife and urbanites alike
Have you ever walked just outside a city's perimeter where the air is so fresh that you feel dizzy? At Leslie Spit/ Tommy Thompson Park on the waters of Lake Ontario, it is possible to completely escape the air pollution of 3-million strong Toronto just a short distance away. You are literally on the water looking into the city from across a lake. The fresh breeze that blows across the lake feels fresh and pollution-free.

Tommy Thompson Park is a former dump site that grew into a wildlife bird sanctuary on an isthmus in Toronto. It is entirely human-made.  As described in its history, "the natural processes that evolved during the long construction and planning of the site had shaped [the park] into a truly "accidental wilderness".   A map from toronto-wildlife.com shows where the park is situated in relation to the City of Toronto.

A map from toronto-wildlife.com shows where Leslie Spit/ Tommy Thompson Park is situated

Leave It For The Birds

Eventually it was decided to leave the park for the birds. Visits to the wildlife sanctuary are allowed during restricted hours.

If you walk the 2+ hours to the end of the Spit, you end up in what feels like the middle of Lake Ontario. Now a popular destination for bird watchers, cyclists and conservationists, the only sounds you can hear as you walk are the chirps and songs of numerous species of birds rarely seen elsewhere.

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

How to Handle Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

The Effects of Sun Deprivation

Walking the sunlit trails in Earl Bales Park in Toronto is a good antidote to winter sun deprivation
After getting through the -25 C (-13 F) cold spell last week, conversation among a few of us who live in the world's northern hemisphere turned to SAD, or Seasonal Affective Disorder. The effects of sun deprivation in the long winter months can include:
  • loss of energy
  • decreased desire to socialize
  • short-term memory loss
  • fatigue
  • depression
We don't always need to read an article to know that our energy levels are waning annually around mid February to early March. But Seasonal Affective Disorder is very real for people who experience prolonged depression every winter. Approximately 2-3% of Canadians experience the full effects of SAD, and 15% experience a milder form of it. It is estimated by NHS Choices that SAD affects about 2 million people in the UK, and more than 12 million people across Northern Europe. According to Psych Central, approximately half a million Americans are affected by SAD.

Sun deprivation is also associated with Vitamin D deficiency and declined serotonin levels. Hormonal Fitness explains that the sun is the main stimulus for serotonin production as well as critical for the production of Vitamin D. It describes further that "discoveries have been made recently about the effects of vitamin D and the consequences of deficiency - particularly in connection with immunity, osteoporosis, heart disease, and cancer. An article at lifestylelaboratory.com even suggests that "lack of sunlight probably kills many thousands more people in this country and others at similar latitudes than skin cancer."

How is SAD Treated?

Skiing in the middle of the city at Earl Bales Park ski hill in Toronto

Treatment for SAD usually includes medication or light therapy. But the Tech Times offers great solutions to dealing with Seasonal Affective Disorder and the winter blues that are more natural. Natural remedies that avoid prescriptions or the use of light boxes are:

  • taking advantage of the natural light whenever and wherever possible
  • getting regular exercise
  • opening up the blinds during daylight hours
  • going out for a walk during the day
  • doing yoga
  • embracing the snow and enjoying it

Enjoying Winter

One of the best perspectives on how we really enjoy winter in Canada is a great documentary entitled Life Below Zero.

But stepping out to your local city parks in winter can offer some very interesting surprises. On Family Day 2015 I discovered an uptown urban ski hill that is a mere 20-minute walk from our home. This facility rents ski equipment and has a canteen. It may not be challenging enough for the advanced skier and, while it's true that skiing down it only takes a minute or two, it's a great way to enjoy the city sun in winter months.

Wednesday, 4 February 2015

Anger and Social Change

Angry Film Characters in Winter Sleep and Corbo Profoundly Affect Those Closest to Them

Haluk Bilginer in the Turkish film 'Winter Sleep' and Tony Nardi in the Canadian film 'Corbo'
In two completely different films produced in different cultures about different political eras, a deep-seated anger spills over to affect and take root in central characters who dominate the story. These two films share the same root element of misplaced anger causing social change that goes wrong. The anger, pain and disappointment in the protagonists slowly move central characters into zones of irrationality, while their own repressed anger causes them to carry on unaware of the effect that they have on people around them. The two films were screened at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) in January 2015.

In Winter Sleep, directed by Nuri Bilge Ceylan and set in a small village in Cappadocia, a failed actor controls others through his education and amassed wealth as a landowner, oblivious to the debilitating poverty around him. He has a particularly suffocating effect on his young wife. In Corbo, directed by Mathieu Denis and set in Montreal, a repressive father who was formerly discriminated against in Canada as an Italian immigrant after Mussolini declared war, cannot understand why his 16-year old son is not appreciative of the wealth and stability he provides the family as a lawyer. (The son, the main character in Corbo, becomes involved in the underground pro-French independence movement and later a radical terrorist in the FLQ).

How Anger Can Cause Things To End Badly          

The people who affect those who move the story along in both films are angry. The films are about a lot of things other than anger, yet without the rigidity and lack of communication engendered by anger these stories would have been very different. The complacence of these characters plays a part in the suffering of others around them, and when enlarged to a view of a whole society, is the very same complacence that provokes the desire for social change. But enacting social change doesn't work very well when inherited, repressed anger from unrelated sources is fueling it.

In Winter Sleep, it is difficult not to surmise that the arrogance of the angry character played by Haluk Bilginer is a direct result of his earlier failure as an actor. One wonders when his openness to ideas and people stopped. He acknowledges that his wife no longer loves him but lacks the flexibility to understand why.

Similarly, the repressed father in Corbo, played by Tony Nardi, actually believes that his sons will absorb his learned Anglophone liberal middle class values without absorbing his anxiety about having suffered at its hand as an Italian immigrant during WWII.

The theme of painful suffering developing into powerful control of others runs as a subtext throughout both Corbo and Winter Sleep, two totally different films produced by different generations and countries. Whether reacting to the dominant English culture in Canada or the crushing poverty of rural Turkey, it is the people affected by repressed anti-heroes who express the truth - a young wife crushed by a self-hating husband, or a young son angry without knowing why. We find out there are no easy answers in their personal stories.

Both films are well worth watching. Corbo is about the search for French identity in Canada. Winter Sleep is about the class struggle in the steppes of the Central Anatolia region of Turkey.

National Ballet of Canada Welcomes Live Audiences Back with Chords of Mysticism

 When Dance and God Talk to You Together from national.ballet.ca When you witness NBOC's first live ballet performance in 20 months and ...