The National Ballet of Canada/The International Competition for The Erik Bruhn Prize, Four Seasons Centre, Mar. 23, 2019.
The Erik Bruhn competition is always a great evening of dance because you get to see the ballet stars of tomorrow. It’s also fun second-guessing the judges.
Bruhn, the late, great, revered Danish-born dancer and former National artistic director, who passed away in 1986, left the foundation of this prize in his will. He envisioned the competition embracing the four companies with which he was most closely associated — Royal Danish Ballet, Royal Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, and the National — with the stipulation that the competitors be between the ages of eighteen and twenty-three. When one company elects not to come, there is a substitute. This year we were missing the Brits but had Hamburg Ballet instead. The competition is sporadic, usually every two to three years. The last one was in 2016, and there have been twelve since its first incarnation in 1988. I presume it depends on how much money there is in the kitty, or if there is an obliging sponsor, in this case, those peerless philanthropists, John and Claudine Bailey.
Judges can’t vote for their own dancers, and vote preferentially for the others. Representing their companies this year were Kevin McKenzie, Nikolaj Hübbe and Karen Kain, artistic directors of ABT, the Royal Danish and the National respectively, and Kevin Haigen, principal ballet master from Hamburg. Each of the competing couples performed a piece from the classical repertoire, plus a contemporary work, which was a special commission that was eligible for the Choreographic Prize.
When the votes are being tabulated following the contemporary repertoire, the National always performs a short piece, which for this evening, was Julie Adam’s Night. While Maestro David Briskin was on hand to conduct Matthew Pierce’s score for Night, a big surprise was having the National’s former music director, Ormsby Wilkins, now with ABT, doing the honours for the competition’s classical repertoire. The evening was graciously hosted by National principal dancer Harrison James, and the companies performed in an order chosen by lot.
ABT’s Catherine Hurlin, 23, and Aran Bell, 20, she born in New York and he in Maryland, got things started with the showy Don Quixote pas de deux, a quintessential example of classical Russian virtuosity. From the get-go, Hurlin commanded the eye. She was the coy flirt that the pas demanded, and never let the character slip away. Her placement and phrasing were gorgeous, and every movement clean and precise. In short, she projected the image of a true ballerina, and her confidence and finesse radiated off the stage. Of all the male competitors, Bell looked the most like a prince, and although he had one balance glitch, he had the moves, but he never got my blood racing because of his pedestrian delivery. His facial expression was frozen, and he never communicated with his partner. He has undeniable talent, but that’s not enough.
The National’s classical piece was an odd choice, but understandable. South African-born Siphesihle November, 20, is short, so the choice was made to do the pas de deux from La Sylphide. Now the Danes always do a Bournonville piece since he is the national classical choreographer of that country, but in La Sylphide, the male and female don’t really dance together, so there is no problem about lines if the ballerina is taller. I have been watching November since he joined the company in 2017, and how can you miss him? He’s simply wonderful. Bournonville for men is all about jumps and turns in every direction, and November was mesmerizing. He made Bournonville as exciting as the Russian classics with his fierce attack and consummate precision. The height of his jumps and the length of his leg extensions were awe-inspiring. His partner, Saskatoon-born Jeannine Haller, 22, danced prettily enough but was on the bland side. At this point, she has a fine technique that needs punch.
The Danes were next with Bournonville’s Flower Festival in Genzano pas de deux, but as competently as Italian-born Mattia Santini, 20, danced, he had just been eclipsed at his own game by the soaring November. Santini, however, does have a lovely stage presence and fine character detailing. I quite liked Danish-born Emma Riis-Kofoed, 20, who was sweet and expressive, executing Bournonville’s intricate point work and gentle jumps with lyrical grace.
Hamburg chose John Neumeier’s version of The Nutcracker pas de deux, and I don’t think this ballet has ever been a competition choice if a couple is doing a Russian classic. This being Neumeier, Hamburg’s artistic director, it was packed full of intricate steps and almost constant partnering, rather than downright individual virtuosity. There was a nod to Bruhn, however, who had apparently taught Neumeier the man’s variation in 1972. I found that American-born Sara Ezzell, 23, had a cold edge, and she brought no warmth to her dancing. Hardness is not usually associated with the Sugar Plum Fairy although she executed her moves cleanly. Argentinean-born Matias Oberlin, 22, had the lightest ballon of any man in the competition. He literally floated through the air and landed like a feather, but again, he was missing the oomph factor.
Thus, coming out of the classical section, my bet was on the ABT girl and the National boy.
What you hope to see in the contemporary repertoire is a piece that shows off the dancers, but that also says something in its own right. In this regard, it was a mixed bag.
American choreographer Jessica Lang gave ABT’s couple a real crowd pleaser with Let Me Sing Forevermore, set to three songs performed by the legendary Tony Bennett. It was pure Broadway show biz jazz ballet, which was its downfall, choreographically speaking. We still saw Hurlin and Bell execute ballet steps rather than movement that taxed their bodies in a more contemporary way. Despite the predictable choreography, Hurlin in her jazz shoes nailed it. She was saucy and romantic by turn, and her movement flowed with effortless ease. Bell redeemed himself by getting right into the rhythmic swing of the piece. Whether fast or slow, ABT looked good.
Canadian Alysa Pires is a choreographic associate with the National who has done better work than her piece The Other Side would indicate. The music was by the irritating Aphex Twin, which featured a male voice shouting against a crashing symphonic score that we all deserved to be heroes. Pires interpreted this music as requiring very little movement. Haller and November performed cautious phrases and occasional partnering, but the piece went nowhere. It is a mark of November’s awesome talent that even performing in this less than stellar choreography, his body was fully engaged. Again, it was his attack, never holding back, snapping his body into position, elongating every extension, always in control. Haller clearly felt the melancholy of the piece, but once again, she came up short on the expressive side of things.
The Royal Danish piece, Code, by American-born corps member Nathan Compiano, featured a clock that counted down from ten minutes, and I couldn’t wait for the clock to get to zero. In the work, the two dancers spiral through space like automatons, briefly coming together for some touchy-feely in the middle, but then separating into their own spinning worlds, all set to repetitious, minimalist piano music performed by Bruce Brubaker. It was also the only contemporary work with the woman on point. Riis-Kofoed and Santini danced it well, but it was much of a muchness.
Finally, Hamburg ended the evening with An intimate distance, a piece by Finnish-British choreographer Kristian Lever, who did what he was supposed to — show off the dancers and say something in movement. In this work, Ezzell’s cold veneer worked to her advantage because she was the agent of ending a romantic relationship, and as she withdrew into herself, the man became more agitated. Lever’s choreography spoke of angst writ large, with tortured body contortions, and blunt-edged partnering, set to incessant drone music by Kellen and Marshall McDaniel. It was very well danced and we certainly saw a darker side to lighter-than-air Oberlin.
And so, coming out of the contemporary rep, my bets were still on the ABT girl and the National boy. Hurlin proved in both her pieces that she is a complete dancer, always in control, and always in character, not to mention her stunning, effortless technique. As for November, he captivates on stage with his commanding presence. He can act, he can move, and what’s more, his body is always alive, always in the present, with that edge of tension that radiates excitement. As for the choreography, for me, there was no contest. The audience might have loved Lang’s ABT piece, but Lever produced a work of substance that challenged the dancers.
And the winners — Catherine Hurlin from ABT, Siphesihle November from the National, with Kristian Lever winning the choreographic award for Hamburg.
By gosh and golly, I got them all. I guess I really do deserve to be a dance critic (for this Bruhn competition, at least).