Mixed program of the National Ballet of Canada / Sérénade, Soul and Atlas des anges, Four Seasons Center, November 11-27. Tickets available here.
It was a boisterous crowd at the opera house that greeted the return of the National Ballet’s in-person performances after 20 long months. The majestic theater was more like a sports arena with the cheers, whistles and woo hoos from the audience, not to mention the tumultuous applause. “Welcome Back” was written on the curtain, and the packed house was clearly ready for the dance.
The mixed program that the National presented, without an intermission I will add, was very intelligent. Georges balanchine Serenade (1934) showed the company’s classic chops (or should I say neoclassical), while Crystal Pite Atlas of Angels (2020) was a pure contemporary movement. Pite’s piece also has a huge cast, so we got to see a lot of the dancers from The National. A Short Fill was Jera Wolfe’s lyrical dance film Soul. Thus, the program was designed to show a range of dance which demonstrated the versatility of the company.
Serenade is meant to be a ballet without a plot and one of Balanchine’s most famous musical performances. Nevertheless, it is impossible not to read in movement a feeling of loss and nostalgia. The National Ballet Orchestra was also back with us, and the sensitive direction of Music Director David Briskin helped convey the poignant character of Tchaikovsky’s beloved. Serenade for strings, op. 48.
One of the main interests for me was how the company handled 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 almost develop a sixth sense on the others around you. The more the body works together, the more united they become.
While the classic women’s technique was impressive, I wanted every movement to be exact, every line perfect, every angle precise, but it wasn’t quite there. My eye kept getting drawn to the arm that was a kick behind, or the leg, a fraction out of alignment. To be honest, maybe I was too much of a perfectionist.
Serenade was, in truth, a beautiful performance, with the body beautifully conveying the feeling of melancholy that permeates Tchaikovsky’s music, and I’ll take the mood on Soulless Perfection every time. These ladies really felt the music.
As for the principal dancers, it was a first-rate formation. Balanchine choreographed the roles of Sonia Rodriguez and Jurgita Dronina as coming in waves of movement, Rodriguez getting the duet with Guillaume Côté, who did well with what little Balanchine gave him to do. Rodriguez was the romantic, flowing figure, while Dronina was straightforward and crisp, and both were just plain wonderful.
The elegant and lyrical Tanya Howard was the third leading role and joined her two colleagues with Piotr Stanczyk in the magnificent quartet of the final scene, with Stanczyk being one of the National’s most loyal partners. We should also thank 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 beautiful interpretation of a classical ballet.
I declared Pite Atlas of Angels like a masterpiece when it premieres in 2020, and this performance confirmed that assessment.
First, there’s the gorgeous backdrop of manipulated refracted light designed by Jay Gower Taylor and Tom Visser. The rays of light explode and descend like fireworks, more dense and dazzling. The abstract design evokes angels filling the firmament, and at one point, when the backdrop darkens, it’s such a shock that we feel helpless.
In his program notes, Pite describes the lighting as controlled chaos, which leads to the controlled chaos of dance. The ritual movement is filled with angry fist arm gestures, as Pite expresses humanity’s challenge in the face of our impermanence. Against the radiance of the angels, encapsulated in the light, we have the pitiful humans of Pite.
This time around, I found the track much more edgy, but at the same time much more moving, helped by Owen Belton’s score. On the one hand, there’s Belton’s electronica which acts as sound effects, considering the drones, crashes, and clicks. Unlike electronic angst, Belton added the ethereal liturgical music of modern day Tchaikovsky and Morten Lauridsen. So the score overlaps between heaven and hell.
In the midst of the crowd’s lemming movement, which Pite made bent and shattered, jerky and fierce, there are four duets and a soloist. At this point, I again declare that the stage lighting is too dark. The soloists are patches of skin. God only knows how they appear to the people of the fifth ring.
I find it irritating to have to struggle to distinguish the soloists. I understand Pite & Co’s desire to create a black and white palette, and while darkness works for the body, the near blackout stage image obscures the lead roles, despite the black costumes. . Nonetheless, the image I have of these duets is that Pite fashioned partnerships of tortured angst, with bodies turned all over the place. These dancers, after all, have stood out from the crowd and are therefore more passionate and violent in their frustration and desire.
Outliers include Heather Ogden and Harrison James, Jenna Savella and Spencer Hack, and Hannah Galway and Sipheishle November. Each duo is subtly different from the others, and collectively they seem to represent a gradation of age, ranging from oldest to youngest respectively. The first has an elegance, the second a ferocity, the third being more agile and energetic. The final duet for Spencer Hack and Donald Thom is different. It’s like the resurrection, with gracious soloist Genevieve Penn Nabity representing hope.
In short, Atlas of Angels remains as fascinating and compelling as it was when he first took the stage.
The cinematic interlude Soul (2021) is an ode to the intimacy of choreographer Jera Wolfe, performed to music from another world by Max Richter. Director Paul McNulty lovingly filmed two couples performing the same duet, rendered in close-up like fragmented body parts parading before our eyes like a kaleidoscope. Couples are worlds in themselves and are beautifully interpreted by Tanya Howard and Guillaume Côté, as well as Harrison James and Ben Rudisin.
It is interesting to have seen the two duos on stage during the passage from the National to Harbourfront this summer. While this is an engaging piece, the duets didn’t fit to the same degree as seeing them on film, and maybe that’s where they belong.
And a final word. How wonderful to have written that ballet is back and looks great. Now let’s move on to Nutcracker.
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