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Ludwig Van
Toronto Montreal

SCRUTINY | The National Ballet Returns To Harbourfront In Superb Form

By Paula Citron on August 26, 2021

 Brendan Saye, Svetlana Lunkina, Jeannine Haller and Miyoko Koyasu in "Apollo" at Harbourfront Centre with National Ballet of Canada. (Photo: Karolina Kuras)
Brendan Saye, Svetlana Lunkina, Jeannine Haller and Miyoko Koyasu in “Apollo” at Harbourfront Centre with National Ballet of Canada. (Photo: Karolina Kuras)

The National Ballet of Canada/Mixed Program A, Harbourfront Concert Stage, Aug. 25 to 28. (Performance is sold out.)

The first words out of executive director Barry Hughson’s mouth as he introduced the evening were: “I can’t believe we’re here!”

And quite frankly, either could anyone else because it has been 16 long months since the National Ballet mounted a live show before a live audience (who were seated at socially distanced tables).

Seeing the company at Harbourfront Concert Stage brought back memories of the glory days when we had summer concerts by the National, the opera company, and the symphony. Hughson did say that the National would be back at Harbourfront next summer, so that is really good news indeed.

My chief interest in this long-awaited performance was how would the company look after such a long absence. Dancers are like elite athletes who must keep their bodies conditioned. I did an article early on in the pandemic about how they were training, and it wasn’t easy for the dancers taking company class on Zoom while using the kitchen counter or a stairway railing as a barre.

I needn’t have worried. The company looked very strong in the mixed program presented on opening night, which featured two neoclassical Balanchine works, and two contemporary ballets by Canadian choreographers. It was a judicious mix of styles.

The main event was the world premiere of Crepuscular by Vanesa G.R. Montoya. Born in Madrid, Montoya joined Montreal’s Les Grands Ballets Canadiens in 2006 and was promoted to principal dancer in 2018. She is also a rising star choreographer.

Crepuscular is an adjective that refers to twilight, and alludes to the time when day slides into night. The program notes state that Crepuscular represents “a mystical side of life where visions, fears and romance can flourish”. To that, I add that crepuscular light is dim, shadowy and mysterious and this aura pervades the work as well. I also felt the metaphorical tug of war between day and night in some of the pas de deux.

The ballet is set on four couples denoted by the colours of twilight. Purple (Tene Ward and Scott McKenzie), Grey (Brenna Flaherty and Kota Sato) and Dusty Rose (Antonella Martinelli and Larkin Miller) function like a chorus. The major couple is Blue but there is a difference in the partners. Dark Blue (Christopher Gerty) carves his own pathway, while Light Blue (Jason Ferro) seems to languish in limbo.

The romantic score consists of various pieces by Chopin, so one would assume that the choreography is on the dreamy, lyrical side. Nothing, however, could be further from the truth. As a choreographer, Montoya demands a total body workout. Vigorous physicality pervades the piece as the dancers negotiate all manner of floor work, not to mention hurtling themselves through space.

Purple, Grey and Dusty Rose primarily perform pas de deux, and the partnering is fierce with dangerous lifts and off-balance holds. At times these duets turn into war zones. Fears and scary visions are the order of the day, with romance taking a back seat. Only Blue seems to have a touch of romance, with Light Blue longing for the attention of Dark Blue.

As for Dark Blue, Montoya has given the talented Gerty some very powerful solos that swoop and dive, and fall and crash. Yet, built into this intense physicality is vulnerability and malaise. At times the eight dancers come together for strenuous group callisthenics, but Dark Blue always breaks away.

The minute that Crepuscular was over, I wanted to see it again, because I think it is a work that will grow on me. It needs a second viewing to start seeing the subtleties hidden in the pas de deux, and ferreting out the changing dynamics within the group. Somewhere in there is “mystical” that is yet to be discovered. Let’s put it this way. At this point, Crepuscular is definitely a work of interest.

Another premiere of sorts was Jera Wolfe’s Soul. Wolfe, who is one of Canada’s most prominent Indigenous choreographers, first created the ballet for film as part of the National’s pandemic virtual season. The Harbourfront concert was the premiere of the live performance.

Soul features two couples (Guillaume Côté and Tanya Howard/Teagan Richman-Taylor and Ben Rudisin) performing intimate choreography to the music of Max Richter. Wolfe’s premise is that the private world of romantic relationships can never really be revealed to outsiders.

The two couples, one straight, one gay, function simultaneously in slow, tight circles, at times barely moving. While there are some gorgeous physical images that emerge, I’m not sure that Soul works as a live performance. The subtleties that a camera can pick up are lost over distance. Again, this is another work that bears a repeat viewing.

The surprise hit of the evening for me was George Balanchine’s Apollo. Created in 1928, it was the choreographer’s first big international hit, and marked the beginning of his lifetime collaboration with composer Igor Stravinsky.

Pre-COVID, I saw Brandon Saye’s debut as Apollo and, in the interim, he has grown leaps and bounds in the role. In this performance, you could track how his Apollo matures from callow youth to majestic god. Every movement made a statement. He actually told a story with his body. Saye was also blessed in his muses — three brunettes of the same size — which was delicious casting.

Miyoko Koyasu (Calliope) was the best dancer I’ve ever seen perform this role. Her articulation as the muse of poetry, silently emoting the inner depths of her poems, was nothing short of superb.

Svetlana Lunkina (Terpsichore) was smoothness itself as the muse of dance and song. It is her mastery of what Apollo has taught her that captures his attention and nets her a pas de deux with the god, which the two performed in masterful fashion.

Jeannine Haller (Polyhymnia) has the least demonstrative discipline to display. She is the muse of mime, and Balanchine has choreographed her with her finger perched at her mouth to indicate silence. All her dance is footwork, and she proved to be very fleet of foot.

The last piece on the program was Balanchine’s Tarantella (1964) set to Louis Moreau Gottschalk’s well-known music. It is a virtuoso, non-stop romp of pas de deux, with the man (Skylar Campbell) and the woman (Ayano Haneishi) almost trying to outdo each other, while Edward Connell played furiously on the piano.

The two certainly had the classical chops, but it looked more like they were just trying to get through the dance rather than enjoying what they were doing,

COVID prevented the ballet orchestra from being at Harbourfront to support the dancers, but they were there in spirit. Under conductor David Briskin, the orchestra had recorded all the music for the program, so that was the sound we heard.

And finally, seven of the dancers on the program are members of the corps de ballet — Richman-Taylor, Haneishi, Ferro, Ward, McKenzie, Martinelli and Miller — and this program gave them a chance to shine. In other words, the National clearly has strength in the ranks. Karen Kain’s legacy to incoming artistic director Hope Muir is a top roster of dancers.

(Program A continues on Aug. 27. Program B is performed tonight and Aug. 28.)

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Paula Citron
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