Monday, 5 March 2018

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

Mesmerizing Ode to Lawren Harris

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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

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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

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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.

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