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Ludwig Van
Toronto Montreal

SCRUTINY | National Ballet's ‘Orpheus Alive’ Needs A Second Look

By Paula Citron on November 16, 2019

National Ballet of Canada, Jenna Savella, 2019
Jenna Savella with Artists of the National Ballet of Canada in Orpheus Alive. (Photo: Karolina Kuras)

The National Ballet of Canada Mixed Program/Chaconne, choreographed by George Balanchine, and Orpheus Alive, choreographed by Robert Binet, Four Seasons Centre, Nov. 15 to Nov. 21. Tickets available at national.ballet.ca

Even when Robert Binet was a teenage baby choreographer at the National Ballet School, he had grand ideas, so it is not surprising that his new work for the National Ballet company takes on an epic theme. Working with Toronto playwright and dramaturg, Rosamund Small, Binet, a choreographic associate with the National, has come up with his own spin on the Orpheus myth. Orpheus Alive, as the new piece is called, is ambitious and challenging, but it also has problems.

To contemporize the story, Orpheus is now a strong woman artist (Jenna Savella), and Eurydice is the more fragile man (Spencer Hack). We see Eurydice commit suicide by slipping to the tracks at the Osgoode subway station (replete with yellow tiles). Orpheus wears a blindfold when the gods give her permission to go to the Underworld, but she takes off the blindfold, and so loses her chance at bringing her lover back to life. Eurydice’s death, and Orpheus’ inability to complete her mission, raise all kinds of questions about their relationship.

There is also the character of Eurydice’s mother (Sonia Rodriguez), who, in an address to the audience, questions what she’s doing in the piece, and states that her probable role is to represent someone who is even sadder than Orpheus. In various spoken text passages, Orpheus herself opines on grief, loss, death and the power of the gods, in other words, giving voice to the questions that plague us all whenever we lose someone close.

Orpheus Alive, National Ballet of Canada, 2019
Spencer Hack and Jenna Savella with Artists of the Ballet in Orpheus Alive. (Photo: Karolina Kuras)

The cast is huge — forty-five dancers, or half the company — who at various times are Mourners, Furies (who aren’t particularly furious) and Underworld Spirits. Binet, who is usually very good at manipulating large numbers of dancers, has come up with cluttered, confused and ill-defined stage pictures where the bigger ensembles are concerned. The strongest parts of the piece are the smaller sections, such as the duets for Orpheus and Eurydice, and the so-called Apparitions.

In the latter, we see five variations on the Orpheus/Eurydice relationship. A conventional heterosexual couple (Chelsy Meiss and Peng-Fei Jiang). Gender-bending with the man in a dress and the woman in pants (Siphesihle November and Hannah Galway). Two gay couples (Jimmy Coleman and Brent Parolin; Kathryn Hosier and Tanya Howard). A fifth couple, called the Final Apparition (Skylar Campbell and Svetlana Lunkina), are given an extended duet that includes very complex partnering. Apparently, Binet has given the women in Orpheus Alive a more equal share in weight-bearing as opposed to the men functioning in their traditional role of porters and bearers.

The use of text is always tricky in a dance piece, and although both Savella and Rodriguez do their best, they are not trained actors, and we do lose words. The women, however, do address the eternal questions we all have about why someone we love is taken away from us. In both cases, their emotions are very real. An added layer is the existential one — just what are we all doing here anyway? Rodriguez’s solo of grief is almost robotic, with jerky movements that abruptly change direction. Savella’s body, whether in solo or duet, is more fluid and supple, but she never loses her show of strength. In all cases, the partnering is intricate, with bodies wrapping around each other, and Binet has found many different ways of gluing the dancers together.

The music by American composer Missy Mazzoli is positively symphonic. It is a huge sound, both live and on tape, and she certainly loves brass. The score goes through many moods, from plaintive to thundering, employing short blasts of sound as the main musical motif. The staccato nature of the score makes for an edgy, restless quality, which works well with the Binet/Small storyline.

Orpheus Alive, National Ballet of Canada, 2019
Jenna Savella and Sonia Rodriguez in Orpheus Alive. (Photo: Karolina Kuras)

In retrospect, Orpheus Alive has some very strong, even clever moments. I’m not sure that the spoken text works, although I understand the need. Hyemi Shin’s sets have their own surprises, such as the recreation of the Osgoode subway station, while her costumes, an ancient Greek/contemporary hybrid, certainly suit the theme. Why the Furies are dressed in white-beige bodysuits, however, is a strange choice, to say the least. Thomas Visser’s lighting is on the dark side, and I think all the duets could have had stronger spots on them.

All in all, there is a lot going on in Orpheus Alive, both choreographically and intellectually. Binet has created strong, quicksilver movement patterns, particularly in the duets, with choreography that is sophisticated and intricate. Perhaps he and his team have tried to cram too much into the work, but on the other hand, complex and messy is better than simple and facile. Orpheus Alive is one of those new pieces that definitely need a second look. It’s the kind of contemporary ballet that takes a while to unpack.

The Balanchine opener Chaconne (1976) is a clever companion for Orpheus Alive because it features Gluck’s music from his eighteenth-century opera Orfeo ed Euridice. This is pure dance that Balanchine made famous — visualizing music in movement. The company looks spectacular, as the choreography moves from dreamy and ethereal to formal and stately through a series of divertissements. Karinska’s costumes are their usual pretty, with each segment having different eye-catching designs for the women.

The National has always performed Balanchine well, being able to execute the master’s convoluted and quirky choreography with aplomb. The superb Heather Ogden and Harrison James as the lead couple get to do the showy finale pas and variations, but their colleagues are equally adept in their divertissements, including Jordana Daumec and Skylar Campbell (second Pas de Deux), Chelsy Meiss, Jenna Savella and Spencer Hack (Pas de Trois) and Miyoko Koyasu leading Hannah Galway, Brenna Flaherty, Tirion Law and Nina Gentes (Pas de Cinq).

By adding Chaconne to the repertoire, the National now has a lovely and eye-catching piece of neo-classical ballet to grace mixed programs down the line.

#LUDWIGVAN

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Paula Citron
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Paula Citron

Paula Citron is a Toronto-based freelance arts journalist and broadcaster who hosts her own website, paulacitron.ca. For over 25 years, she was senior dance writer for The Globe and Mail, associate editor of Opera Canada magazine, arts reviewer for Classical 96.3 FM, and dance previews contributor to Toronto Life magazine. She has been a guest lecturer for various cultural groups and universities, particularly on the role of the critic/reviewer, and has been a panellist on COC podcasts. Before assuming a full-time journalism career, Ms. Citron was a member of the drama department of the Claude Watson School for the Arts.
Paula Citron
Follow me
Paula Citron
Follow me

Paula Citron

Paula Citron is a Toronto-based freelance arts journalist and broadcaster who hosts her own website, paulacitron.ca. For over 25 years, she was senior dance writer for The Globe and Mail, associate editor of Opera Canada magazine, arts reviewer for Classical 96.3 FM, and dance previews contributor to Toronto Life magazine. She has been a guest lecturer for various cultural groups and universities, particularly on the role of the critic/reviewer, and has been a panellist on COC podcasts. Before assuming a full-time journalism career, Ms. Citron was a member of the drama department of the Claude Watson School for the Arts.
Paula Citron
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