Neoclassical ballet

The National Ballet returns to Harbourfront in superb form

Brendan Saye, Svetlana Lunkina, Jeannine Haller and Miyoko Koyasu in ‘Apollo’ at Harbourfront Center with the National Ballet of Canada. (Photo: Karolina Kuras)

The National Ballet of Canada/Mixed Program A, Harbourfront Concert Stage, August 25-28. (The show is sold out.)

The first words that came out of Executive Director Barry Hughson’s mouth as he introduced the evening were: “I can’t believe we’re here! »

And quite frankly, anyone else could, because it’s been 16 long months since the National Ballet put on a live show in front of a live audience (who were seated at socially distanced tables).

Seeing the company at the Harbourfront Concert Stage brought back memories of the glory days when we had summer concerts by the National, the Opera Company and the Symphony Orchestra. Hughson said the National will be back at Harbourfront next summer, so that’s really good news.

What interested me most about this long-awaited performance was how the company would perform after such a long absence. Dancers are like elite athletes who need to keep their bodies conditioned. I did an article early in the pandemic about how they trained, and it wasn’t easy for dancers taking companionship classes on Zoom while using the kitchen counter or a ramp. staircase as a bar.

I didn’t need to worry. The company seemed very strong in the mixed program presented on opening night, which included two neoclassical works by Balanchine and two contemporary ballets by Canadian choreographers. It was a judicious mix of styles.

The main event was the world premiere of Twilight by Vanesa GR Montoya. Born in Madrid, Montoya joined Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal in 2006 and was promoted to principal dancer in 2018. She is also a rising star choreographer.

Twilight is an adjective that refers to twilight and alludes to when day slips into night. The program notes indicate that Twilight represents “a mystical side of life where visions, fears and romance can flourish”. To this, I add that the twilight light is weak, dark and mysterious and this aura also permeates the work. I also felt the metaphorical showdown between day and night in certain pas de deux.

The ballet takes place on four couples designated by the colors of twilight. Purple (Tene Ward and Scott McKenzie), Gray (Brenna Flaherty and Kota Sato) and Dusty Rose (Antonella Martinelli and Larkin Miller) work as a chorus. The major couple is Blue but there is a difference in the partners. Dark Blue (Christopher Gerty) is charting its own course, while Light Blue (Jason Ferro) seems to be languishing in limbo.

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

Purple, Grey, and Dusty Rose mostly perform pas de deux, and the partnership is fierce with dangerous lifts and unbalanced holds. Sometimes these duos turn into war zones. Fears and spooky 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 yearning for Dark Blue’s attention.

As for Dark Blue, Montoya gave the talented Gerty very powerful solos that dive and dive, fall and crash. Yet within this intense physicality there is vulnerability and unease. Sometimes the eight dancers come together for intense group calisthenics, but Dark Blue always stands out.

The minute when Twilight was finished, I wanted to see it again, because I think it’s a work that will grow in me. It takes a second viewing to begin to see the intricacies hidden in the pas de deux and to unearth the changing dynamics within the group. Somewhere in there, there is “mystique” that remains to be discovered. Let’s put it this way. That much, Twilight is certainly a work of interest.

Another first of sorts was that of Jera Wolfe Soul. Wolfe, who is one of Canada’s foremost Indigenous choreographers, first created the ballet for film as part of The National’s virtual pandemic 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 an intimate choreography to music by Max Richter. Wolfe’s premise is that the private world of romantic relationships can never truly be revealed to outsiders.

The two couples, one straight, the other gay, operate simultaneously in slow, tight, sometimes barely mobile circles. While there are some wonderful physical images emerging, I’m not sure Soul works like a live performance. The subtleties that a camera can capture are lost with distance. Again, this is another work worth repeat viewing.

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

Before COVID, I saw Brandon Saye’s debut as Apollo, and in the meantime, he’s made leaps and bounds in the role. In this performance, you can follow how his Apollo matures from inexperienced youth to majestic god. Every movement made a statement. He actually told a story with his body. Saye was also blessed in her muses — three equally sized brunettes — which was a delightful cast.

Miyoko Koyasu (Calliope) was the best dancer I’ve ever seen in this role. Her articulation as the muse of poetry, silently expressing the inner depths of her poems, was simply superb.

Svetlana Lunkina (Terpsichore) was sweetness itself as a muse of dance and song. It’s her mastery of what Apollo taught her that captures her attention and earns her a pas de deux with the god, which the two performed masterfully.

Jeannine Haller (Polyhymnia) has the least demonstrative discipline to display. She is the muse of mime, and Balanchine choreographed her with her finger on her mouth to indicate silence. Her whole dance is footwork and she turned out to be very fast.

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

The two certainly had the classic chops, but it seemed more like they were just trying to get through the dance 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 David Briskin, the orchestra had recorded all the music for the program, so that’s 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 allowed them to shine. In other words, the National clearly has strength in the ranks. Karen Kain’s legacy to new artistic director Hope Muir is a list of top dancers.

(Program A continues August 27. Program B airs tonight and August 28.)


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Paula Lemon
Latest posts by Paula Citron (see everything)
Paula Lemon
Latest posts by Paula Citron (see everything)