INTERVIEW | Roberto Campanella Previews The Toronto Premiere Of ProArteDanza’s 'The 9th!' Set To Beethoven’s Symphony

By Anya Wassenberg on October 30, 2019

ProArteDanza Artistic Director Roberto Campanella talks about the 10-year journey to complete the choreography for all four movements of Beethoven’s 9th, culminating in the Toronto premiere of The 9th! in November.

ProArteDanza The 9th
The 9th! Company (Photo courtesy of ProArteDanza)

Beethoven’s 9th, more properly his Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125, is one of the world’s most beloved pieces of music. It comes to life in choreography in ProArteDanza’s The 9th!, coming to the Fleck Dance Theatre in November.

Adding the language of dance to Beethoven’s seminal music may seem like a natural pairing, but the piece in its entirety has taken about a decade to come together. While the separate movements have been performed on various occasions in the past, it will be the first time the company has performed the entire symphony at once.

“In 2009, we were commissioned to do the first movement,” recalls choreographer Roberto Campanella. The occasion was the Festival International de Dansencore in Trois-Rivières, Québec. At the time, the concept involved using a different choreographer for each movement of the famous symphony. A performance back in Toronto quickly followed. “The first time was in 2009, here in Toronto — just the first movement.”

All along, however, Campanella, along with working partner Robert Glumbek, was intrigued with the idea of completing his choreography of the whole symphony. “We’ve been toying around with this thing since then.”

It was during a trip to Berlin in 2010 that Campanella had an experience which helped the work, in all its complexity, solidify in his imagination. “On one of my days off,” he recalls, “I went to the Berlin Wall.” He viewed some historic video footage that was available on the site. One scene stuck in his memory, of a family with members standing on either side of the fence, separated by barbed wire. “The image stuck with me,” he says. It was their body language that spoke to him as a choreographer.

ProArteDanza's Kelly Shaw and Connor Mitton in The 9th!
ProArteDanza’s Kelly Shaw and Connor Mitton in The 9th! (Photo : Alexander Antonijevic)

Beethoven wrote the 9th, his last complete symphony, between 1822 and 1824, and it premiered in Vienna in May 1824. At the time, it was a pioneering work in its use of the chorus and vocal soloists in the last movement. In 1989, as the Berlin Wall fell, the symphony became a symbol of the city’s newfound freedom, and was played in a landmark concert on Christmas Day, 1989, conducted by Leonard Bernstein, and performed by an orchestra and chorus composed of musicians from both East and West Germany. The “Ode to Joy” became an “Ode to Freedom”.

Campanella earned about the famous performance, and his determination to complete the piece became firmly set in his imagination. Every few years, another movement would be premiered. In June 2019, the fourth movement premiered, again at the Festival International de Dansencore.

The full version of The 9th! will receive its world premiere at the Chutzpah Festival in Vancouver in October at the invitation of the Festival director. “It’s a good ramp up,” says Campanella. “It’s a pretty important place to be.”

The date of the final Toronto performance is auspicious. “It falls exactly on November 9 — the date of the fall [of the Berlin Wall],” says Campanella. As it happens, it’s 30 years to the day.

ProArteDanza’s founder and Artistic Director, Roberto Campanella is perhaps best known internationally for his choreographic work on the Oscar-winning movie The Shape of Water. The former National Ballet of Canada dancer has developed an international reputation for choreography that fuses ballet with contemporary dance. Co-choreographed Robert Glumbek is the company’s Artistic Associate. Glumbek is a four-time Dora Mavor Moore nominee, and has won the Jon Jiepura award for best choreographer in Poland.

ProArteDanza's Justin De Luna, Erin Poole and Daniel McArthur in The 9th!
ProArteDanza’s Justin De Luna, Erin Poole and Daniel McArthur in The 9th! (Photo courtesy of ProArteDanza)

The company is celebrating its 15th anniversary season with the Toronto premiere of the 70-minute work, and choreography is challenging both physically and conceptually. “We’re exploring the structured idea, as well as the symbolic.” While the movements have been performed separately on previous occasions, assembling the larger work required some adjustments. “Putting the whole thing together is a completely different beast,” Campanella notes.

Expressing Beethoven’s emotional range in dance is itself a challenge. “We’re the ones in the hot seat,” Campanella says of their responsibility as choreographers.

ProArteDanza’s choreography is thoroughly modern in its approach, even with the symphony that is almost two centuries old. For the Toronto performances, the company is testing the possible use of video projections, created with the Screen Industries Research and Training Centre at Sheridan College.

For the dancers, it’s 70 minutes with no intermission. “It’s a beast for dancers, athletically,” Campanella says. “It’s intense at a physical level.”

When it comes to the music, Campanella and Glumbek have selected three specific recordings to use, including versions performed by the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Claudio Abbado, the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal conducted by Kent Nagano, and Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen conducted by Paavo Järvi. It’s a delicate balance for choreographers to consider when choosing music.

“It would have been great — there is a live version of the Bernstein recording from 1989, but it’s excruciatingly slow,” Campanella says. “It’s about finding the right dynamic.”

ProArteDanza’s premiere of The 9th! — a choreographic imagining of Beethoven’s entire 9th Symphony is on stage November 6-9, 2019 at Harbourfront Centre’s Fleck Dance Theatre, with company dancers Taylor Bojanowski, Ryan Lee, Sasha Ludavicius, Daniel McArthur, Victoria Mehaffey, Connor Mitton, Jake Poloz, and Kelly Shaw. Details here.


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