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SCRUTINY | Toronto Choreographer Alyssa Martin's Desperate Drama Of Red Shines At The Mad Hot Ballet Gala

By Paula Citron on June 13, 2024

The National Ballet’s Mad Hot Ballet Gala (Courtesy of The National Ballet of Canada)
The National Ballet’s Mad Hot Ballet Gala (Courtesy of The National Ballet of Canada)

The National Ballet of Canada/Mad Hot Ballet Gala, choreographies by Alyssa Martin, Carlos Acosta and George Balanchine, Four Seasons Centre, June 11.

The National’s annual Mad Hot Ballet Gala has become a real go-to event in the past few years. The evening is sort of like New York’s Met Gala, in terms of wearing fancy dress, but, of course, on a miniature scale — sort of Met Gala extra extra lite.

Not only does the evening raise buckets of money for the company, it presents a short program of easy-watching works, followed by yummy eats and drinks. (The really big patrons get a special onstage dinner with the company dancers when the rest of the hoi polloi has gone home.)

On paper, this year’s program looked promising. The performance featured three excerpts from George Balanchine’s three-part Jewels (which opens this Saturday), plus the showy warhorse final pas de deux from Carlos Acosta’s Don Quixote, and a new work by Toronto choreographer Alyssa Martin.

The National Ballet’s Mad Hot Ballet Gala (Courtesy of The National Ballet of Canada)
The National Ballet’s Mad Hot Ballet Gala (Courtesy of The National Ballet of Canada)

The gala always has something we haven’t seen before, which is, of course, the item that is of most interest to me.

In her opening remarks, artistic director Hope Muir said that she had asked Martin to come up with something unusual, and the choreographer certainly did. I’m stating here and now that I love Desperate Drama of Red, as her piece is called.

Martin was inspired by a Greek myth, the 10th labour of Herakles (Hercules). Herakles, regarded as the greatest of the Greek heroes, had to undertake twelve labours as a penance for killing his wife and children in a rage. The 10th labour required him to steal the cattle belonging to the three-headed monster Geryon, and this was Martin’s point of departure.

For something different, the piece was performed in an unusual manner.

For starters, the three dancers (and we’ll get to them in a minute) mixed with the crowd in the lobby pre-show, and they were quite a sight in their very eye-catching costumes, courtesy of designer NARCES, Nikki Yassemi. In terms of staging, they appeared between the other numbers, so Martin’s Desperate Drama of Red was a work we saw in fragments.

There is linear interpretation, and then there is Alyssa Martin. The lady is quirkiness on steroids, and yet she manages to layer real substance into her pieces. Her approach to subject matter is highly original, as is her actual choreography, and Desperate Drama of Red is vintage Martin on both counts, including her always clever choice of music.

We first meet Geryon (principal dancer Spencer Hack) as he slides from under the front curtain to perform to a plaintive flute solo by Debussy, mirroring his sadness. Next is Herakles (corps de ballet member Alexander Skinner), who comes grandly out from between the curtains to dance to a sassy trumpet solo by Stravinsky. Cow (second soloist Hannah Galway) gets a laborious solo bassoon, composer unknown, as she comes on the stage from the side. Her attitude is one of heaviness, for lack of a better description.

And so Martin has introduced the three players. In the final two scenes, all three are together, the first performed to the achingly beautiful but melancholy Intermezzo from Mascagni’s opera Cavalleria rusticana, with the finale set to the boisterous overture from Leonard Bernstein’s Candide.

You’d expect from the myth that Herakles would come in, kill Geryon, and go off with Cow, but think again. This is Alyssa Martin.

Rather, in the penultimate scene, Martin has put in a love/hate relationship between Geryon and Herakles, with Cow, always a point of focus, ominously in the background. The finale is sheer chaos, as Geryon shows divided loyalty to both Herakles and Cow, with Cow trying to get between the hero and the monster.

As for the choreography, Martin seems to be able to put her dancers into almost impossible physical positions, using bends and contortions as if the body had no stiffness. She also makes the body move as a totality, essentially requiring the dancers to show a tremendous ability to manoeuvre through physical isolations.

Every part of the body is in motion, which defines quirkiness because of the strange images this highly individualized kinetic movement evokes. Shoulders, chest and stomach muscles all move independently along with wrist, arm, elbow, ankle, knee and leg. This style carries over into the duets and trios as well. Yet, Martin is also able to create definite characters, from the sad-sack Geryon, to the ruthless and over-confident Herakles, to the very worried and needy Cow.

The costumes are delicious. Hack is garbed in a red top with enormous leg-of-mutton sleeves and very brief shorts which make him look out-of-proportion and top heavy. Skinner gets to wear a cute, short and snappy diaphanous Greek tunic, while Galway is swathed in a sexy red top, black and white cow pants, and cow’s ears. All of them sport socks and running shoes.

Taken together, Desperate Drama of Red is both very funny, and very sad, and the dancers are divine. It should be noted that Martin drew her cast from three levels of the company roster. Hack and Galway have proven themselves many times in leading roles, but Skinner is beginning to make his mark, and he is outstanding in this ballet. Skinner is definitely one to watch.

Can this piece be put together as a whole? I think so. In fact, I hope so, because Martin has created a little gem that should be seen again. There is also more to glean out of the dynamics she has constructed between the characters.

The National Ballet’s Mad Hot Ballet Gala (Courtesy of The National Ballet of Canada)
The National Ballet’s Mad Hot Ballet Gala (Courtesy of The National Ballet of Canada)

The Don Q pas de deux, performed by principal dancer Koto Ishihara and second soloist Larkin Miller, is always an audience favourite because of its showy technique, but unfortunately, there were problems.

Right from the beginning, you could tell that Miller was having an off-night. No tightly snapped wrist or arched matador stance, it was a performance that lacked detailing and looked like it was mailed in, so it wasn’t surprising when at one point, he over-rotated and slipped, ending up on his keester.

This was very unfortunate because Miller is a very talented dancer and accomplished technician, and beloved of choreographers and stagers who cast him in their ballets. He is a much better dancer than he showed himself to be at the gala. Interestingly, he was listed in the program as performing with principal dancer Jurgita Dronina, so did the change throw him off? Just asking…

On the other hand, his partner, Koto Ishihara, and a great favourite of mine, was her usual exquisite self. Never flashy or fiery, she executes her steps with lyrical grace, and never a wobble when she is on one toe. She can also toss off a gazillion fouettés with the best of them, but even in extreme technical moments, she remains the quintessential ballerina — agile, polished and always elegant. She also has two of the most gorgeous arms in the company.

As I’ll be reviewing the up-coming Balanchine program in depth, suffice it to say that the three excepts, scattered throughout the evening, were well done.

Principal dancer Heather Ogden performed prettily and daintily in the Emeralds excerpt, which represents the gentle, romantic French style. Second soloists Brenna Flaherty and Noah Parets executed Rubies with dash and vigour, which is a display of Balanchine’s own eccentric New York-inspired neoclassicism, while the entire company, led by principal dancers Genevieve Penn Nabity and Christopher Gerty, performed the showy finale of Diamonds with all the grandeur of the Russian imperial style.

The National Ballet orchestra under Maestro David Briskin was its usual accomplished self, particularly with the music for Martin’s Desperate Drama of Red. The Mascagni could break your heart, while the exuberant Bernstein was a musical force of nature.

As I said at the beginning, the program looked promising on paper, but, truth be told, the evening felt a little flat to me, so thank heavens for Martin’s piece which breathed life into the proceedings.

Everything was performed against a coloured, empty cyclorama, and the Jewels’ excerpts in particular, felt naked, shorn of their scenery. They also seemed a bit dull, taken out of context. The evening was also not helped by Miller’s fall, and the unusually long wait between numbers. Given that there was zero scenery, what was the delay?

Nonetheless, the audience, including my guest, had a great time, so I’ll admit to being the grouch in the corner. I do, however, love Mad Hot Ballet, and l look forward to next season’s iteration, particularly to any new work the event might be offering.

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Paula Citron
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