The National Ballet of Canada Mixed Program/Serenade, Soul, and Angels’ Atlas, Four Seasons Centre, Nov. 11 to 27. Tickets available here.
It was a raucous crowd at the opera house that greeted the return of in-person performances by the National Ballet after 20 long months. The stately theatre sounded more like a sports arena with the audience’s cheers, whistles, and woo hoos, not to mention the tumultuous clapping. “Welcome Back” was written on the curtain, and the packed house was clearly ready for the dance.
The mixed program that the National presented, sans intermission I may add, was very clever. George Balanchine’s Serenade (1934) showed off the company’s classical chops (or I should say neoclassical), while Crystal Pite’s Angels’ Atlas (2020) was pure contemporary movement. Pite’s piece also has a huge cast, so we got to see a big chunk of the National’s dancers. A short filler was Jera Wolfe’s lyrical dancefilm Soul. Thus, the program was designed to show a range of dance that demonstrated the company’s versatility.
Serenade is supposedly a plotless ballet, and one of Balanchine’s most famous visualizations of music. Nonetheless, it is impossible not to read into the movement a sense of loss and longing. We also had the National Ballet Orchestra back with us, and the sensitive conducting of music director David Briskin helped convey the poignancy of Tchaikovsky’s beloved Serenade for Strings, Op. 48.
One of the main interests for me was how did the company look after such a long absence from the stage, and Serenade’s female corps de ballet was a good indicator. The thing about dancing together is that you build up almost a sixth sense about the others around you. The more the corps works together, the more united they become.
While the women’s classical technique was impressive, I wanted every movement to be exact, every line to be perfect, every angle to be precise, but it was not quite there. My eye kept being attracted to the arm that was a beat behind, or the leg, a fraction out of alignment. To be truthful, I was being an uber-perfectionist, perhaps, too much so.
Serenade was, in truth, a lovely performance, with the corps beautifully conveying the sense of melancholy that pervades Tchaikovsky’s music, and I’ll take mood over soulless perfection every time. Those ladies were truly feeling the music.
As for the lead dancers, it was a top-drawer lineup. Balanchine has choreographed the roles of Sonia Rodriguez and Jurgita Dronina as coming in waves of movement, with Rodriguez getting the duet with Guillaume Côté, who acquitted himself well with what little Balanchine gave him to do. Rodriguez was the romantic, flowy figure, while Dronina was pert and crisp, and both were simply marvellous.
The elegant, lyrical Tanya Howard was the third lead, and joined her two colleagues along with Piotr Stanczyk in the gorgeous final scene quartet, Stanczyk being one of the National’s most stalwart partners. We should also give a shout-out to the four supporting ballerinas who were technical wizards — Hannah Galway, Calley Skalnik, Selene Guerrero-Trujillo and Jeannine Haller. In other words, the National gave a fine performance of a classic ballet.
I declared Pite’s Angels’ Atlas as a masterpiece at its premiere in 2020, and this performance confirmed that assessment.
First of all, there is the magnificent backdrop made up of manipulated refracted light designed by Jay Gower Taylor and Tom Visser. The shafts of light explode and descend like fireworks, only more dense and dazzling. The abstract design evokes angels filling the firmament, and at one point, when the backdrop goes dark, it is such a shock, that we feel bereft.
In her program notes, Pite describes the lighting as controlled chaos, which leads to the controlled chaos of the dance. Ritualistic movement is filled with angry punching arm gestures, as Pite conveys humankind’s defiance in the face of our impermanence. Against the angels’ radiance, encapsulated in light, we have Pite’s pitiful humans.
This time around, I found the piece far more angry, but at the same time, far more emotional, aided by Owen Belton’s score. On one hand, there is Belton’s electronica which acts as sound effects, given the drones, crashes and clanks. In contrast to the electronic angst, Belton has added in the ethereal liturgical music of Tchaikovsky and modern-day Morten Lauridsen. Thus, the score rides between the heavens and hell.
Amid the lemming movement of the mob, which Pite has rendered bent and broken, staccato and fierce, there are four duets and one soloist. At this point, I once again declare that the stage lighting is too dark. The soloists are smudges of skin. Heaven only knows how they appear to people in the fifth ring.
I find it irritating that I have to struggle to make out the soloists. I understand Pite & Co’s desire to create a black and white palette, and while the darkness does work for the corps, the close to a blackout stage picture obscures the leads, black costumes notwithstanding. Nonetheless, the image I have of these duets, is that Pite has fashioned partnerships of torturous anguish, with bodies turned every which way. These dancers, after all, have broken away from the mob, and are, therefore, more passionate and violent in their frustration and longing.
The outliers include Heather Ogden and Harrison James, Jenna Savella and Spencer Hack, and Hannah Galway and Siphesihle November. Each duet is subtly different from the others, and collectively, they seem to represent a gradation of age, going from older to younger respectively. The first has an elegance, the second a fierceness, with the third being more nimble and energetic. The final duet for Spencer Hack and Donald Thom is different. It is like the resurrection, with graceful soloist Genevieve Penn Nabity representing hope.
In short, Angels’ Atlas remains as mesmerizing and compelling as it did when it first took to the stage.
The film interlude Soul (2021) is choreographer Jera Wolfe’s ode to intimacy, performed to other-worldly music by Max Richter. Director Paul McNulty has lovingly filmed two couples performing the same duet, rendered in closeups as fragmented body parts that flow before our eyes like a kaleidoscope. The couples are worlds unto themselves, and are beautifully performed by Tanya Howard and Guillaume Côté, and Harrison James and Ben Rudisin.
It’s interesting to have seen the two duets on stage at the National’s stint at Harbourfront this summer. While an attractive piece, the duets didn’t register to the same degree as seeing them on film, and that, perhaps, is where they belong.
And a final word. How wonderful it feels to have written that the ballet is back and looking good. Now on to The Nutcracker.
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