The National Ballet of Canada’s intriguing mixed program highlights the company’s technical and artistic strengths — and Karen Kain’s programming genius.
The National Ballet of Canada Mixed Program/Piano Concerto #1 choreographed by Alexei Ratmansky, Petite Mort choreographed by Jiri Kylian, and Etudes choreographed by Harald Lander, Four Seasons Centre, Nov. 27 to Dec. 1. Tickets available at national.ballet.ca/Tickets.
I continue to be in awe of Karen Kain’s programming skills, in particular, the way she finds links to bring diverse pieces together. In this very satisfying mixed evening of dance, the throughline is the piano. Two of the pieces are set to piano concerti, while the third is an orchestral arrangement of piano exercises.
The new kid on the block is Jiri Kylian’s off-pointe Petite Mort (1991) set to the slow movements of Mozart’s piano concerti Nos. 21 and 23. The term, petite mort, refers to orgasm, and one would think that the stage would be crackling with all manner of sexy and/or romantic moves, but that is not the case. The very physical, clinical choreography is in direct contrast to the shimmering, aching, melancholy quality of the music. But then, that’s Kylian, the brilliant Czech-born master who layers his pieces with a combination of wit and mystery.
The work is set on six women, six men, six fencing foils, five stand-alone, black, eighteenth-century dresses on rollers (symbolizing protective armour for the women?), and a large, billowing silk cloth (symbolizing bed sheets?) that is pulled over the dancers a couple of times during the piece. So controlled is the movement that Petite Mort calls for the big guns, and of the twelve dancers, six are principals (Elena Lobsanova, Skylar Campbell, Jillian Vanstone, Brendan Saye, Greta Hodgkinson and Guillaume Côté), four are first soloists (Jenna Savella, Donald Thom, Tina Pereira and Hannah Fischer), with second soloists Spencer Hack and Joe Chapman completing the roster.
As the work begins, we hear a sort of drone, or hum, almost a menacing sound. Then in silence, the men, clothed only in gold-coloured briefs, use the foils as their dance partners, and they really do manoeuvre those foils around in stately, albeit, dangerous formality. The foils could be phallic symbols, or a demonstration of male power, or manly behaviour attracting a mate, or announcing that the sex act is a duel between men and women. After this faux-military drill, the music begins. When the women, sporting skimpy gold leotards, do finally emerge from the back shadows, they join the men and the foils to create a pas de trois. What follows, when the foils are put aside, is a series of ensembles and pas de deux that evoke different aspects of intimate relationships, yet the couples never really look at one another, so the effect is passionless. It is almost as if Kylian took an intellectual approach to sex, rather than an emotional one.
Kylian, however, is one of the greatest choreographers of contemporary ballet who has ever lived, and one must always find a key as an entrée to his work. With Petite Mort, it is all about positioning and placement. Why this ballet is a classic is demonstrated by just how Kylian plays with unusual weight-bearing in the partnering, and the odd angles he creates for the arms, hands, legs and feet, particularly for the women. The delight for the eyes is just how many surprising ways these supple bodies, both the men and women, are propelled through space. This is a ballet of bold physicality.
For example, a repeated movement has a woman lying on her back, with her legs raised and bent at the knees, forming a seat, as it were. The man then drapes his body over her legs and stretches out both his legs and his arms like a predatory bird hovering over her. At another time, the woman straddles her partner’s stretched leg, looking away from him, he being in a forward lunge. She thrusts her legs back behind her, and he grabs her ankles, allowing her to curve her body back in a deep arc. As for those odd limb angles, one woman is hoisted off the floor in an under arm lift, and as she is carried like rag doll, she moves her arms and legs through a series of bizarre positions, looking at times if she were broken, at other times if she were a pendulum of a clock. Mozart’s haunting Andante and Adagio might be oozing emotion in the pit, but the almost mechanical coupling happening on the stage is serious business, and that dichotomy between music and movement is what makes Petite Mort such a fascinating dance work.
Alexei Ratmansky’s Piano Concerto #1 (2013), entered the National’s repertoire in 2015. The piece is the last part of a trilogy that is the Russian choreographer’s homage to composer Dmitri Shostakovich, and perhaps one day, the National will have all three works to fill an evening. The pieces cover Shostakovich’s struggle for artistic freedom during the Stalin era, where he was more out of favour than he was in. The concerto, written in 1933, happened during one of the few times when he was in the Central Committee’s good books, and this work, for piano, trumpet and strings, exudes a quirky bonhomie, with the bright sound of the trumpet, in particular, injecting a note of optimism.
Symbols of the old Soviet Union dangle on ropes at the back of the stage and include red stars, hammers, sickles, nuts and bolts, bricks and the like, but the two lead couples and the twelve-member corps ignore these authoritarian emblems to romp across the stage. The two lead women, Svetlana Lunkina and Koto Ishihara, are wearing red gymnast outfits and look the picture of athletic health. They represent youth and hope, I think. Their swains, Harrison James and Naoya Ebe, respectively, are dressed in black. The ensemble sports body suits that are grey in front, and red in the back, so they are a colour show in their own right with each change of position. Perhaps the grey symbolizes the dark side of the Soviet Union. The music is adventurous and eccentric, and so is the choreography. It’s a fun piece, full of vim and vigour, as the dancers execute a labyrinth of shifting patterns that include many leaps, jumps and turns which the cast tosses off with abandon.
Danish choreographer Harold Landers’ tutu ballet Etudes (1948) is always welcome on any program. (The National has been performing the piece since 1980.) Set to Carl Czerny’s piano exercises orchestrated by Knudage Riisager, the work is a history lesson of ballet. It begins with a ballerina demonstrating the basic five positions, then the female corps executes barre exercises, followed by a parade of increasingly difficult, showy technique, and finally ending with all thirty-nine dancers performing a blow-out, glittering extravaganza of Russian imperial style. Every dancer on stage, man and woman, is called upon to be a technical wizard.
The three soloists, Heather Ogden, Harrison James and Naoya Ebe, drop into the piece to show the top tier of technique. For example, the female corps is negotiating turns, but Ogden does them faster and longer. Similarly, Harrison and Ebe are more showy than their male colleagues. Only a company of first rate classicists can pull off Etudes, and the National dancers are dazzling.
My favourite part is Lander’s homage to the more gentle French style, with Ogden and her sylphs, Tanya Howard, Tiffany Mosher and Chelsy Meiss, in long tutus, performing the delicate choreography of the Romantic Era. But, I also like the thrill and excitement of the diagonals, with the dancers crisscrossing the stage performing a parade of leaps and spins, one after the other, to the ever-increasing speed of the music.
A shout out to pianists Zhenya Vitort and Andrei Streliaev, trumpeter Richard Sandals, and the National Ballet orchestra under David Briskin for fine performances. This concert also introduces the National’s new conductor-in-residence, Estonian-born Maria Seletskaja, who leads the orchestra in Petite Mort. A former dancer, she is now honing a career as a ballet conductor, and she is clearly a talent on the rise.
It may be the story ballets that put bums in seats, but it is the mixed programs that show off the mettle of a ballet company. Given the execution of these works, the National is at the top of its game.