SCRUTINY | The National Ballet & Guest Companies Shine At Harbourfront

By Paula Citron on August 18, 2022

L-R (clockwise): Ben Rudisin and Tina Pereira in Swan Lake Act II Pas de deux (Photo: Karolina Kuras); Holla Jazz in Margarita Exerpt (Photo: Karolina Kuras); Heather Ogden and Harrison James in After the Rain (Photo: Karolina Kuras) All images courtesy of the National Ballet of Canada
L-R (clockwise): Ben Rudisin and Tina Pereira in Swan Lake Act II Pas de deux (Photo: Karolina Kuras); Holla Jazz in Margarita Exerpt (Photo: Karolina Kuras); Heather Ogden and Harrison James in After the Rain (Photo: Karolina Kuras) All images courtesy of the National Ballet of Canada

The National Ballet of Canada/Sharing the Stage with Guest Companies, Program A and B, Concert Stage, Harbourfront Centre, Aug. 16 to 20. Free; info here.

Remember the glory days when the National Ballet, the Canadian Opera Company and the Toronto Symphony all had summer performances at Harbourfront? Well, we’ve made a one-third comeback with the ballet company. The National is currently presenting five shows by the water, and needless to say, mobs descended upon the Concert Stage for the performances.

To be perfectly frank, when Hope Muir was announced as the National’s new artistic director, it really was a situation of “Hope who?” For most of us, she was an unknown quantity, but slowly, we are starting to get a picture of the direction she is taking the National. These two Harbourfront programs, plus the recently announced 2022-2023 season, do shed some light on her choreographic tastes.

For example, Muir is clearly enamoured of the current crop of acclaimed British contemporary ballet choreographers. Both Wayne McGregor (Chroma) and Christopher Wheeldon (After the Rain) are on the summer program, with McGregor’s world premiere (Maddaddam), and David Dawson’s Canadian premiere (Anima Animus) slated for the season. She has also included a Canadian premiere by American contemporary ballet doyen, Alonzo King (The Collective Agreement). You really can’t go wrong programming master dancesmiths like these guys, whose works are trumpeted around the world.

Another side of Muir seems to be programming rising choreographic talents like Vanesa G.R. Montoya and Rena Butler. The former, who was born in Spain, is a principal dancer with Les Grands Ballets Canadiens. She is represented on the season by the return of Crepuscular, while New York-based Butler will be creating a new work for the National. On the male side of things, Toronto-born Ethan Colangelo is featured on Program B of the summer program with as seen from before.

There are the four guest companies who are sharing the stage with the National at Harbourfront. All of them are Toronto-based, and collectively, they represent cultural diversity to the max — Black, South Asian and Indigenous, plus one Settler. This is clearly Muir acknowledging the talent of the home team.

In other words, aficionados of the National can expect the new in a major way, but, by the same token, Muir has not forgotten the old guard such as Kenneth MacMillan, George Balanchine, and (he’s going to kill me for this), James Kudelka. She is also bringing back two acclaimed ballets originally created for the National — Robert Lepage’s and Guillaume Côté’s Frame by Frame, and Alexei Ratmansky’s Romeo and Juliet.

What is missing, admittedly, are the tutu classics, although I suppose we can count The Nutcracker in this category. The season and the summer programs are certainly chocked full of contemporary ballet.

Tanveer Alam in Haazri (Photo: Lookout Productions, courtesy of The National Ballet of Canada)
Tanveer Alam in Haazri (Photo: Karolina Kuras, courtesy of The National Ballet of Canada)

With apologies to the National dancers, I’m going straight for the guest companies. Suffice it to say, that the company danced with assured elegance in McGregor’s Chroma, Swan Lake Act 11 Pas de Deux and Wheeldon’s After the Rain, all works we’ve seen before. The company is looking in top form these days — among the best in the world, in fact.

Program A (Aug. 16, 18, 20) features Natasha Powell’s Holla Jazz, which, as the name implies, is grounded in jazz dance. The excerpt from Margarita features five women moving between tits ‘n’ ass choreography and the 1920s Charleston. The piece is attractive, if routine. The full version of Margarita is being performed at Fall for Dance North, and it will be very interesting to see this simplistic excerpt in the context of the whole.

On the other hand, Powell’s 4 for 5, wonderfully performed by four of the National’s young men — Alexander Skinner, Isaac Wright, Jason Ferro and Scott McKenzie — is absolutely terrific. Apparently, the dancers helped create the choreography, and so we get a delicious combination of showy tricks, like difficult jumps and turns, coupled with some serious jazz dance moves that involve total physicality. Set to legendary jazz guitarist Chet Atkins playing Paul Desmond’s rollicking Take 5, the piece just soars. It’s a keeper and belongs in the repertoire.

The other guest on Program A is Kathak dancer/choreographer Tanveer Alam, who is originally from Montréal. He also did his own music arrangements for this piece called Haazri. Alam is a sensational Kathak dancer, executing the rapid heel turns, precision arms and hands, and abrupt pauses with consummate grace. The crowd went wild for him, and deservedly so. (I should also mention unusual aspects of his trio of musicians — a female tabla player, and a Settler on sitar.)

There is one not-so-little-boo-boo to report, however. My otherwise excellent seat was behind the orchestra’s bass players, so three standing men and their large fiddles obscured my view. It was like seeing the dance through a lattice grill. Although I love conductor David Briskin and the National’s orchestra, I was happier when they vacated the premises.

Program B (Aug. 17, 19) features the excerpts from Chroma and Swan Lake, while showcasing works by guests Ethan Colangelo, Samantha Sutherland and Rock Bottom Movement.

In summary, and judging from overheard conversations, everyone seemed to enjoy the hour-long program, as did I. Muir clearly wants the National to be part of the Toronto dance community, and so far, I’m impressed.

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Paula Citron
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