Category: ballet

Dancing Norman McLaren, One Frame At A Time

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Artists of the Ballet in rehearsal for Frame By Frame. (Photo: David Leclerc)

If you don’t know the name Norman McLaren, you will, and soon, thanks to a new production happening at the National Ballet of Canada. The UK-born, Canada-based animation innovator, who won an Oscar for his 1952 anti-war film Neighbours, was one of the most important and influential figures in the history of film. It has been rightly been noted that McLaren (who passed away in 1987) “extend(ed) the boundaries of creative animation” through his unique and highly experimental approach. His 82 works (along with 52 test films) were added to the UNESCO heritage collection in 2009, and his name is slowly coming to be recognized more widely outside of experimental cinema circles. It’s been keenly observed that “without him, (Canada) would be lighter an Academy Award or two, and likely much more.”

The title of the National Ballet of Canada’s new work, Frame By Frame, set to premiere at Toronto’s Four Seasons Centre this coming Friday (June 1st), references McLaren’s painstaking method of drawing on film stock, frame by meticulous frame, and of his work with stop-motion animation sequencing. Each animated frame had a slight differentiation (being done by human hands, after all), which resulted in a charmingly wobbly end effect when viewing.

Canadians of a certain generation will remember, with glee, McLaren’s exuberant creations, having been exposed to them regularly in school and on television. They were an inescapable part of growing up in Canada, like so many animated works that came from the beloved National Film Board (NFB). I loved the wiggly lines (the so-called “boiling” effect in action) and the zealous embrace of surreal imagery that characterized so much of McLaren’s work; it forced you to think and feel at once, a new experience for small children more used to fantastical diversion and reaction-inducing entertainment. The jolly headless hen from “Hen Hop” forever makes me smile, even as it makes me think carefully about what’s on my dinner plate (to say nothing of reminders of the horror-meets-macabre-humor of my mother’s childhood farm stories, which I will leave to reader imagination). McLaren’s works were so unlike the Disney ones I’d see in cinemas as a child, more free and fun and loopy. Many also had strong social messages, like 1952’s “Neighbours“, a nine-minute film that uses pixilation to tell the story of two people who fight over a single flower; it garnered much praise and admiration, from artists like Pablo Picasso as well as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences. He also worked with a host of famous music figures, including Glenn Gould, Ravi Shankar, Pete Seeger, and Oscar Peterson (the latter being featured in Frame By Frame), and his “Pas de Deux“, “Adagio“, and “Narcissus” are among the most beautiful dance films ever made. The animator met his life partner, Guy Glover, at a ballet performance in London, and his fascination with both music and art permeates his creations, whether they are music/dance specific or not. McLaren firmly believed that when it came to film, “how it moved was more important than what moved.”

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Norman McLaren working on “Hen Hop” in 1942. (Photo: BFI)

It is understandable, then, that one sees within McLaren the unmistakable qualities which are so suited to a stage transfer of his life and works. Choreographer Guillaume Côté (who is Associate Choreographer at the National Ballet of Canada and a longtime beloved artist there) and celebrated director Robert Lepage drew inspiration from McLaren’s works — their rhythms, their energies, their winking, sometimes-whimsical, sometimes-pensive spirits — in creating Frame By Frame. Along with a host of celebrated theatre productions and work for Cirque du Soleil, Lepage has also leant his talents to classical music arts; his opera productions have been staged at the Canadian Opera Company, Opéra National de Paris, and the Metropolitan Opera in New York.  In creating Frame By Frame, his first work with the National Ballet of Canada, Lepage recently said that “(c)lassical ballet is a wonderful craft, and I respect it a lot. It’s just that it also needs to be reinvented in a certain way if we want the craft to survive.”

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Robert Lepage and Guillaume Cote in rehearsal for Frame By Frame. (Photo: Elias Djemil-Matassov)

The production is a collaboration between the National Ballet of Canada, the National Film Board of Canada, and Ex Machina, Lepage’s production company in Québec City. It is a project several years in the making, and will reportedly make full use of a range of multidisciplinary technologies, including live projections and camera work. The Québecois director has said he wanted to create a “digital homage” to McLaren’s analogue world, and Friday night, audiences will see for themselves the fruits of these labours, with the animator’s work being brought to life in a whole new way.

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Jack Bertinshaw in rehearsal for Frame By Frame. (Photo: Elias Djemil-Matassov)

National Ballet Second Soloist Jack Bertinshaw will be performing the role of Norman McLaren in Frame By Frame. The Australian-born dancer has been in a range of works for the company since joining in 2011, including a sprightly performance as Uncle Nikolai in seasonal presentations of The Nutcracker, Mitch in A Streetcar Named Desire, Benno in Swan Lake, and the title role in Pinocchio. I was curious to ask him what it was like to work around the level of technology LePage is utilizing, his experience as an Australian in discovering the works of a Canadian icon, and the various joys and challenges of capturing life, art, and animation through movement.

What’s it like to embody a real person? It seems like a rather unique opportunity within the ballet world.

I’ve done quite a bit of reading and obviously Robert and his team have done a lot of extensive research. With each scene we talk through each concept and what their aim is and what it should be acted as, and portrayed as. They wanted to make sure I had enough of myself in it too. While I’m being Norman and staying as true to that as the kind of fun-loving guy he was, he was also around this this close-knit group of friends —we touch on that. I wouldn’t say it’s difficult, but you’re right, most of time it’s a character like the Mad Hatter, you don’t get to go through a life from beginning to end very often. We do things like Nijinsky and it’s a portrayal, but it’s rare. Certainly this sort of a part is new for me.

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Artists of the Ballet in rehearsal for Frame By Frame. (Photo: David Leclerc)

Have you ever worked on show with this level of technology?

Not this much. My background is in jazz and tap, I came from one of those schools who’d do their yearly shows that were as high-tech as possible, with cool lighting and such — but not anywhere near this level of high-tech projection. (In Frame by Frame) it comes from everywhere — above, front…  I’m holding a camera at one point that works. It’s really amazing.

Does the technology make it easier or harder to perform in?

It depends — if anything, it’s easier and harder. Something Guillaume and I have had to figure out, mostly, is how we can best enhance this technology; we can’t fight against it. We have to be clear on the certain themes we’re dancing as there’s a camera from above on us, and that’s being projected onto the back screen so the audience in general will be looking at the above aspect — we can’t fight against that. It’s been a learning process over three years now, and it’s been really unique. This is the first time for dancers that we’ve been in the process from the get-go, from the round-table of, ‘let’s create a ballet.’ We normally get to the process where the choreography arrives, and they’ve got things in order, with storyline and sets and costumes/designs somewhat figured out. This is the first time where we’d go to Quebec for a week or two in the summer and we would be with Ex Machina, at their building with all their equipment, and we’d workshop. We played with so many different types of technology there — what works, what doesn’t work.

And LePage was open to all of it?

It was his idea! He has the studio and the technology to do all of this on the regular, for his works with his team.

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Greta Hodgkinson and Jack Bertinshaw in rehearsal for Frame By Frame. (Photo: Elias Djemil-Matassov)

What’s this kind of collaborative creation been like?

Inspiring! Working with Robert LePage and his team has been incredible. It’s like nothing we’ve ever done. It’s going to be so different — that’s one thing we’re interested to see: how Toronto audiences perceive it, how they take these ideas. It’s a lot of fun in a lot of scenes — a lot of Norman’s works were fun and funky, with odd humor and quirkiness, so we’ve made sure that’s a good part of it while also maintaining enough of Norman’s life throughout.

There will be audiences who either know McLaren’s work very well, or don’t know his stuff at all but love the ballet. What do you think they’ll come away with?

The show is so versatile, I think audiences who don’t know anything about him will still certainly come away with quite a lot. We sometimes portray exactly the work and sometimes we recreate it, like with “A Chairy Tale” — we’ve studied that video, and we do every single chair move and have black light going. We’ve tried to do the exact replications and bring (his works) to life so people who know it will appreciate it, and people who don’t, it’ll be like the first time watching his work. 

So capturing the spirit of his work.

Yes, a lot.

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Jack Bertinshaw (Photo: Sian Richards)

Guillaume has said that “everything that’s put on stage nowadays should be multidisciplinary, in a way.” Do you think there should there be a multidisciplinary Sleeping Beauty or Swan Lake? Using contemporary technology in producing traditional works is a big issue in the opera world also.

I certainly believe we should respect and honor the old original works. Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake today, I believe, are the most beautiful how they were originally created, but when you’re creating something new that’s never been done before… it’s why multidisciplinary is a bigger thing. Today we’re so exposed to new technology anyway, but there’s still a crowd that loves that original stuff.

Introducing anything new means risking people getting angry…  

Nijinsky was one of the first originators of conceptual dancing and they threw tomatoes at him!

Once the shock of the new fades, it’s been suggested it then becomes the new norm. Some productions have to fight against history, but with this it seems like you’re less fighting it than celebrating it. What’s it been like to learn about these works? 

Being Australian, I’m wasn’t aware of McLaren or his movies, but my mother is, oddly enough — she’s in film and television PR, so she’s a lot more in that world. She’d heard of him, and my uncle in London, he’s a cameraman for film, he knew his work also. My mum’s company and circle of friends heard about Frame by Frame and were like, “Wow, Norman McLaren!” Meanwhile I’d never heard of him before three years ago. I’ve done a lot of research and found out a lot more. We’re not making our own version of things; we’re honoring his works as truly as we can.

Looking Good

Photo by Alexandar Antonijevic

Seeing The Nutcracker in Toronto is a special treat. Not only is there the wonder of James Kudelka’s sweeping choreography, Santo Loquasto’s beautiful, ornate design, and Tchaikovsky’s gorgeous, evocative score, the National Ballet of Canada’s yearly holiday production is also an opportunity to see people in formal attire.

“It’s really nice to see people dressed up,” noted my companion, “you don’t see it very often these days.”

There’s nothing wrong with being comfortable, of course, but lately it strikes me as if the dressing-down trend that defines so much of our attire indicates a certain… lackadaisical attitude socially, one reflected in a lack of effort extended  into relationships, education, basic curiosity: “Why should I initiate anything? Why do I need to bother with that person/idea/group? Why should I put myself in such a weird place? Why not just stay… comfortable?” The basic instinct toward comfort is understandable, in so far as the responsibilities of kids/jobs/mortgages/relationships/etc. can be difficult to balance at any given time, exhausting to maintain, and devastating upon crash. But the familiarity of comfort breeds the dangerous laziness of inertia, which so often leads to intransigence. A night out at the theatre can (and does) help combat this, in that its entails the effort of moving into a space many aren’t used to — but before you roll eyes, keep in mind it’s an effort that should be enjoyable, an effort reflecting grace, gratitude, gentility, and class, things sorely missing in the world.

This isn’t to say one needs become a full-time dandy like the ones photographer Rose Callahan documents so brilliantly in her work (impressive they may be), but simply to decry the lack of interest in formalism — in dressing up, and all it entails — in wider North American society. Attending the formal opening of The Nutcracker, and seeing mothers, fathers, grandparents, and children in formal attire was (as it is every year) a true treat, because it showed not only actual real effort on the part of patrons, it reflected a nice nod toward ritual, tradition, and yes, class. Dressing up isn’t so much about wiping one’s individuality out as it is underlining it in the most elegant/unique/fun possible way, and maybe even opening up your thinking in the most elegant/unique/fun possible way, too.

Photo by Bruce Zinger

Dressing up is, of course, one’s own form of theatre, aiding and enhancing both the occasion and one’s enjoyment of it. Attired in suit-and-tie/dress/etc, one plays a part, perhaps even a better or truer version of one’s self, as Oscar Wilde might argue. The Irish writer wisely noted the relationship between appearancemasks, and human character, and it’s one I tend to keep in mind, particularly at openings, though the experience begins percolating far before the curtain rises. The very process of getting ready to go out is, for me, a kind of meditation, and its own form of theatre, I suppose. I recall an interview with the performance artist Leigh Bowery some years back, where he confessed that he and his friends would sometimes do themselves up, and not go out; the act in and of itself was satisfying, its own kind of theatre. Likewise, re-defining what formal for yourself, as so many tend to do this time of year with things like festive suits and inspired costumes, is equally exciting (and fun!), demonstrating a wonderful curiosity and joie de vivre. There’s not enough of either, and it’s encouraging to see those instincts being expressed in fashion choices, especially at this time of year.

For many years, my dear mother used to decry the lack of dressy attire at various events we’d attend, namely the opera. This isn’t to say she didn’t enjoy Toronto-based company Against the Grain’s casual productions — she did, immensely (though she did smart casual when attending them, a tradition I tend to continue). AtG have done an amazingly smart job of mixing high art and casual approachability, and made opera a whole lot less scary for those completely new to its unique joys. But going to see opera in a fun pub is different than seeing it in a large house; the latter needn’t be scary, strange, and (horrors) uncomfortable; likewise with ballet. Going to The Nutcracker doesn’t require detailed knowledge of ETA Hoffman’s 1816 original work, or an in-depth interest in Tchaikovsky’s music, or even familiarity with the classic Baryshnikov performance.

Along with being a callback to her younger days, when zipping up a fancy dress and putting hair up and earrings on meant more than simply “getting dressed,” formal attire was for my mother (as it is for me) a way of giving back to the event artists: the musicians, performers, directors, and the designers. One look at the details of Santo Loquasto’s exquisite costumes and sets, for instance, and one is awed by the care, attention, and artistry required for such work. That giant golden egg! Those delicate flower-petalled skirts! The giant, waving arms of the festooned Christmas tree! The buttons! The tassels! Those crazy chickens! Then there’s the performers: Skylar Campbell‘s Peter is vibrantly youthful and spritely; Jillian Vanstone‘s Sugar Plum Fairy blends sharp technique and warm joy; Robert Stephen’s Uncle Nikolai is vibrant, passionate… dare I say sexy? (Surely, it is not a bad thing.) There’s the panoply of fantastical elements, too: the roller-skating bears, the dancing horse, the cancan-ing rats. Dressing up is more than a hat-tip; it’s a graceful bow to the mountain of creativity on the stage of the Four Seasons Centre. See if it you can. Dress up. You’ll love it.

Cracking Open

Heather Ogden in The Nutcracker. Photo by Bruce Zinger

There’s always something special about seeing The Nutcracker every December. The story of two children who, joined by stable boy Peter, enter a magical Christmas land, is a perennial favorite, and a compulsory part of many ballet companies’ holiday programming. The work, first premiered in 1892, features a libretto adapted from German author E.T.A. Hoffmann’s story “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King” and the National Ballet of Canada’s annual production, which features dancing bears, skittering chefs, and a sword-wielding King (of rodents, that is) —  is a feast for the eyes and ears. James Kudelka, choreographer and librettist, has created a visual feast that captures the glittering beauty of a snowy Christmas but still retains all the warmth and merriment of the season, with the perfect mix of grand and intimate movements reflecting Tchaikovsky’s famous score.

This year marks its 20th anniversary, and opening night, the company featured its first Peter, Rex Harrington, along with his partner, Bob Hope, as Cannon Dolls (various “dolls” through the years have included Toronto Mayor John Tory, author Margaret Atwood, skater Kurt Browning, and astronaut Chris Hadfield). The show, which is an opulent riff on Russian design motifs (it even features a giant, decorated egg from which the Sugar Plum Fairy emerges), is a clever blend of old and new, European and North American, art and entertainment, and it’s these integrations that make it so successful. You know you’re seeing something artful and beautiful (Santo Loquasto’s set and costume designs are truly stunning), but at the same time, you can’t help but smile, even chuckle, at the panoply of delights being presented, whether it’s the dancing horse, skating bears (my personal favorite) or the giant Christmas tree, with its gracefully waving branches and bobbing baubles.

Artists of the Ballet in The Nutcracker. Photo by Bruce Zingerr.

It’s equally heartening to see students of all ages from the National Ballet School onstage, proudly strutting their stuff; such a buoyant presence gives one hope for not only the future of the art form, but for cultural presentation and passion. Ninety-eight students in total are featured in the production; they’re from the Ballet School as well as local Toronto schools. That’s an incredible achievement in and of itself —I imagine the backstage area of the Four Seasons Centre this time of year to be something akin to organized chaos— so full kudos are in order to National Ballet School Rehearsal Director Laural Toto and assistant Patrick Kastoff, as well as Stage Managers Jeff Morris and Lillane Stillwell, and Assistant Stage Manager Michael Lewandowski. Thumbs way up.

As with any proper professional production, none of the backstage chaos is, ever sensed onstage. The audience is left to wonder over the myriad of riches being presented, and, because of this richness, there’s always something new for us to consider and marvel over. This year I felt drawn to the team of young male dancers who have an especially impressive ensemble number near the beginning of the show. From my own vantage point, 2015 has been a year littered with numerous (and frequently painful) examples of machismo gone awry, so watching this year’s presentation of The Nutcracker, it was deeply refreshing to note the young male dancers and their smiles, their light-footedness, their utter lack of self-consciousness. This isn’t to say ballet can’t be macho — ballet history is littered with many dancers, male and female in fact, who have channelled a particular brand of raw power that has thrilled audiences over the decades — but there was something, for me, awfully touching about seeing young boys onstage, engaging in an art form frequently thought of as “girlie,” from of a purely joyous, non-gendered place. “I love doing this!” their bodies seemed to hum, “I love it!”

McGee Maddox with Artists of the Ballet in The Nutcracker. Photo by Bruce Zingerr.

Greatly complementing this pure instinct on opening night was dancer McGee Maddox, who, as Peter, radiated a cuddly, floppy-haired boyishness in his impressive turns, pas-de-deux routines, and great leaps of James Kudelka’s choreography. Less swagger and more sweetness, Maddox is a lovely, deeply likable stage presence, the perfect fit for a production that is candy-apple sweet and spicy-cider cozy. Joining him was Heather Ogden’s Sugar Plum Fairy (a gorgeously warm performance) and Robert Stephen’s Uncle Nikolai, whose great leaps and dizzying turns nicely integrated both commanding authority and playful whimsy. There’s something so special about walking out of a production feeling plain old good, and in this, the National Ballet’s production of The Nutcracker absolutely excels. Smiles are in short supply these days, on both epic and intimate levels; it’s nice to have a work that channels pure joy, unapologetically. We need it.

Finding Grace

Dancer Piotr Stanczk in The Winter’s Tale. Photo by Karolina Kuras.

The recent opening of The Winter’s Tale at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto was preceded by an announcement that the performance would be dedicated to the victims of the Paris attacks, which had occurred just one night before. The National Ballet of Canada’s winter season was off to a sombre start, though the beauty of the Christopher Wheeldon-choreographed piece shone through mightily.

Adapted from Shakespeare’s 1611 play The Winter’s Tale (on now through November 22nd) focuses on Leontes (Piotr Stanczyk), King of Sicilia, who accuses his pregnant wife, Hermione (Hannah Fischer) of being unfaithful with his friend Polixenes (Harrison James), King of Bohemia. Hermione gives birth to a girl, but she faints at the shock of seeing her son, Mamilius, fall dead at her trial. Despite the pleas of Hermione’s friend Paulina (Xiao Nan Yu), Leontes orders the baby girl to be abandoned in a remote place; the child is found by a shepherd and his son, and is raised in Bohemia, where, sixteen years later, unaware of her parentage, Perdita (Jillian Vanstone) becomes engaged to Prince Florizel (Naoya Ebe), the son of Polixenes. The King violently objects to the union, thinking Perdita a mere shepherdess, and the pair flee, with Polixenes in hot pursuit. The couple wind up in Sicilia, where they are sheltered by Leontes, who only learns of Perdita’s identity through an emerald necklace he’d once given Hermione, one his daughter now wears as a gift from her fiance. The two Kings are reunited, and the pair are married. As festivities die down, Paulina leads Leontes to a statue of Hermione, one that proves to be considerably warmer than mere stone.

The work, while categorized as a comedy, is, like many Shakespearean comedies, less of a laugh-out-loud experience and more of a thought-provoking dramatic meditation. The adaptation beautifully, imaginatively captures the heaving emotions that run throughout the original, whether expressed in grand design (Bob Crowley’s sail work, together with the silk effects design work of Basil Twist is especially inventive) or intimate lighting (by Natasha Katz). Wheeldon’s choreography pulls no punches when it comes to portraying Leontes’ rage and suspicion; the King’s wild imaginings are presented in a way that clearly, forcefully implies an unhinged fear sitting at the heart of his character, one that is ultimately very destructive in both the real and spiritual senses. I thought about this rage expressed through movement, as Stanczyk stalked around the stage, expertly tossing Fischer this way and that in a perfectly executed pairing that brilliantly married skill and emotion. He, and his fine colleagues, are just as much actors as they are dancers. This makes the piece as much of a theatrical event as a dance one, as many of the best ballet works often are. In this instance, the seamless marriage of the two is poetic and deeply moving.

What’s more, for all its fantastical elements and outlandish The Winter’s Tale has real-world corollaries. Who among us hasn’t felt distrustful? Or suspicious? Who hasn’t done or done things they later deeply regret? The piece asks us to consider these questions, as we observe the expression of so many deeply recognizable emotions manifest entirely through that frail, entirely vulnerable vehicle, the human body. The choreography presents a clear narrative and even clearer emotional weight, allowing the movement to accentuate the inherent tragedy of the piece, and heightening the emotional gravity of its conclusion.

Dancers Hannah Fischer and Piotr Stanczyk. Photo by Karolina Kuras.

The Winter’s Tale left me with many questions, particularly in light of the previous evening’s horror, one that wasn’t, I suspect, very far from the thoughts of cast, crew, and audience members as well. Witnessing the rage of Leontes, and then Polixenes, the unfounded fears of each, the anger so horribly manifest, was enough to give one pause. Where does it comes from, this rage? Why does it stay? How does it grow? What ways does it manifest and then fester through the ages? These questions haunted me as I sat at the Four Seasons Centre, a mere twenty-four hours after the horror of the bombings, as losses were still being counted and fingers of accusation were being pointed. How do we find grace at such moments? The ballet’s closing scenes, of Leontes realizing Hermione has been alive this whole time, and her actually forgiving him his rage, inspired breath-holding, tear-welling, and finally, a long, deep sigh. Joby Talbot’s jagged, propulsive, Glass-inspired score gave way to Bernstein-inflected romanticism and Debussy-esque impressionism, and Wheeldon’s keen footwork, together with the clever staging of Jacquelin Barrett and Anna Délicia Trévien, made this intimate, holy moment between Leontes and his wife a moment to cherish, both within the piece itself and outside, to carry around like Perdita’s emerald necklace. I want to live in the state of grace Leontes has so clearly found in that moment.

Finding that grace isn’t easy, however. Amidst horror, we can’t simply grab a handful of goo labelled “grace” sitting in a tin on a dusty shelf, stuff it in our pockets, walk out the door, and think that by the stains on our trousers and the trail we leave behind we’re doing any good; that isn’t how grace works. Likewise forgiveness, grace’s nearest sibling: it takes a big heart to admit wrongs done against us, acknowledge them, and move past our pain. One may not fully accept the atrocity committed against them, their friends, their city, their country — indeed, one may never accept, much less understand — and in no way does forgiving mean forgetting; rather, it is a tacit agreement to absolve hurt, freeze it cold, break its giant, Kraken-like body apart into a thousand pieces, and finally brush it away like so much unwanted dust. That hurt, while palpable and needy in its infancy, eventually grows into an unwieldy monster that serves no purpose and prevents forward momentum. Only forgiveness unties its chain, turns it to stone, and breaks it apart; grace is what happens when you can look at your dust-covered hands and smile.

Dancers Piotr Stanczyk and Hannah Fischer. Photo by Karolina Kuras.

The Winter’s Tale feels like the perfect piece for our times; wordless but saying so much, fragile but with so much anger, forceful and delicate at once, it is proof positive that culture is one of the things that makes sense amidst an age bereft of logic. There is no rationale for horror, but there is always a place for beauty. These sharp things we feel and experience as humans — rage, hurt, confusion, fear, remorse — are things culture captures and expresses and explores so well. We would do well to heed the idea that art has the capacity to heal, now more than ever.

Beautiful Nothingness

Photo via

Translating complex philosophical ideas onto the stage can be a challenge, particularly when that stage doesn’t involve words, but The National Ballet of Canada’s Being and Nothingness, based on the work by Jean-Paul Sartre, offers a riveting expression of the ideas around the nature of existence, done with a definite visual poetry that makes for compelling watching. The work is being staged at Toronto’s Four Seasons for the Performing Arts as part of the company’s spring program (which also includes work by Alexei Ratmansky) and runs through June 6th.

Principal dancer Guillaume Cote turns choreographer for Being and Nothingness, which took shape after fellow dancer Greta Hodgkinson approached Cote about creating a solo. Cote was reading the work of Sartre at the time. As he prepared the solo, Cote says in the program notes that he was surprised by “how many aspects of Sartre’s theory began to come up. There was this idea of creating an image of ourselves, an ideal of what we should be, and no longer living in the moment but rather somewhere between what we’e done in our past and what we’re striving for in our future.”

This “somewhere between,” where the dancers look caught between past and future, is the space where Being and Nothingness derives much of its power. Soloist Hodgkinson performs with just the light of a sole bulb dangling on a long string, her body twisting and contorting, a Giacometti come to life. It’s as if she is in a frantic fight against inertia and vanishing, fending off the darkness but fearful of what the light might reveal. Her arms and legs turn toward, and then away, from light, toward and back from the corners of Michael Levine’s satisfyingly grim set. Cote’s choreography nicely integrates the fluid, spatial elements of Tharp and Balanchine, while deftly maintaining a poetic urgency that perfectly matches the gorgeous panic of the Philip Glass Metamorphosis and Etude pieces that score the work, ones expertly performed by Edward Connell.

Kathryn Hosier and Félix Paquet (Photo by Karolina Kuras)

If, like me, you can’t quite place Being and Nothingness from your reading past (I did a paper on it in university roughly two decades ago), it’s worth remembering that the French philosopher starts from the point of humans being precisely zero essence; we are not “essentially” good or “essentially” bad, we simply are. In other words, life’s what you make it. Sartre writes that because humans lack any pre-determined essence, they make themselves purely by acting in the world. This “world” is presented onstage through a series of vignettes, many of which feature couples in various circumstances. This reflects the dualism Sartre explores (and ultimately rejects) in his work; to put it simply, what you see is really what you get.

Thus Cote has staged a work with few light spots, though the ones there shine through brilliantly, and are complemented by intense dancing and a forceful theatricality that dips and dives around the abstract and occasionally surreal. Dancers Kathryn Hosier and Felix Paquet share a lovely, playfully romantic pas-de-deux in “The Bedroom,” while Svetlana Lunkina and Brent Parolin bring a strained connection to vivid life, with the help of a carpet (frequently dragged around with someone on it), in “The Living Room.” The bridges between past and present, of sitting in a purgatory of the present, couldn’t have been made more searingly obvious, and the choreography and imagery presented in this vignette was particularly affecting for its visual inventiveness and seamless blend of movement and design. Further along, an ensemble of male dancers, clothed in natty grey suits designed by Krista Dowson, perform upstage (they’re downstage for “The Street”) and remind one of Sartre’s argument that “we, as human beings, can become aware of ourselves only when confronted with the gaze of another. Not until we are aware of being watched do we become aware of our own presence.”

Greta Hodgkinson and Ben Rudisin (Photo by Aleksandar Antonijevic)

This idea of presence makes the solo work all the more trenchant;  Hodgkinson’s intense performance that opens the show,  as well as Dylan Tedaldi’s tormented solo performance in “The Sink,” add challenging if beautiful layers to what is, at its essence (and yes it has one), a brilliantly inventive piece of dance theatre.  Fully immersing his head in a sink full of water and then throwing his head back, lion-like, Tedaldi gives a controlled and sure physical expression of Sartre’s idea that “the gaze of the other robs us of our inherent freedom” — even if that gaze is coming from a mirror, it would seem. Freedom here looks like a joy and a torment, at once, and choreographer Cote seems to understand this perfectly.

The idea of freedom as a leviathan-like force, haunting, harrowing, beautiful and terrifying, is examined with quiet intensity in the final vignette, “The Call”, where Hodgkinson and dancer Ben Rudisin wrestle with a phone call (and an ever-lengthening phone cord); it’s as if they are wrestling with their own need for connection, and a repulsion at being defined solely by it, grappling for freedom and pushing against it simultaneously. Such push-pull tension fuels the piece on to a surprising, if nicely contemplative ending, elucidating the philosophical notion that “freedom is humanity’s curse as well as its blessing, and what we make of that freedom is our own.”

It is an awful, awesome, awe-inspiring note Cote has chosen to end on, and it will, like Being and Nothingness itself, leave you quietly contemplating the lights, the shadows, the movements, and the stillness; you may even want to pull out that old volume of Sartre again.

Tutus and Teardrops… and More

I was expecting saccharine. It wasn’t. I was expecting soppy. It wasn’t. I was expecting cloying. It wasn’t. Billy Elliot is creative, timely, and thought-provoking, as well as being one of the best pieces of musical theater I’ve ever seen. Yes, ever.

Based on the 2000 Oscar-nominated movie, Billy Elliot is the story of a boy in a small town who dreams of being a ballet dancer. Set in northern England against the backdrop of the year-long 1984-1985 strike that saw the decimation of the British mining industry, the film was a cheering portrait of someone beating the (considerable) odds. Musical composer Elton John, book and lyric writer Lee Hall, and director Stephen Daldry saw the rich potential for staging that lay within Hall’s original material, and in the early aughties they set about to transfer the film into the theater. Shortly after its 2005 opening, the production became a major success, spawning productions in Sydney, New York, Melbourne, Chicago, Seoul, as well as a touring show. It won ten Tony Awards in 2009, and has been seen by over six million people around the world. Brought to Toronto by Mirvish Productions, the show is currently on at the Canon Theatre in Toronto through to July 10th.

Billy Elliot opens with black and white footage of British miners from the 40s and 50s, then moves into news clips from the miners’ strike, when the picture becomes decidedly more grim. This prologue sets the stage for the struggle that takes place between miners and police and workers and government, but, in a larger sense, the battle is internal, occurring within the people in a small community whose perceptions of the world around them inevitably, irrevocably alter as a result of new harsh economic realities. It’s not accidental that Billy (Cesar Corrales) starts off in boxing class; he’s going to need to how to throw punches, as well as take them, if he’s going to survive in this harsh world Daldry has painted.

There’s something heartening about the way the English theatre powerhouse portrays this world. He stages even the most basic of scenes – blue collar workers chiding their kids or hoisting signs, or finishing breakfast -with the utmost respect and love. No twee presentation of quaint small town folk, this is a show with balls; people swear (including kids), throw punches, get drunk, and get bloody. In one telling moment, Billy’s Granny (Cynthia Darlow) muses on the abusive marriage she endured. In another, dancing bobbies sing about sending their kids to private schools as they wield batons against striking workers. Maggie Thatcher’s England has never looked less rosy (or more contemporary – I couldn’t help but think of recent scenes in Wisconsin). The story of Billy and his love for dance works as a kind of metaphor for hope and regeneration against decay and inertia. It also offers the solace of arts and culture as a means of not only escape, but more importantly, connection -between people, classes, and communities. Culture isn’t the sole domain of the upper classes, either -in fact, it’s frequently what hold communities that are in flux together. Billy Elliot makes this point again and again. It remains to be seen, however, how many from the opening night audience will be buying tickets to the National Ballet‘s next season. One can only hope.

Complementing the musical’s strong choreography is its gorgeous design, which is highlighted when Billy and friend mischievous Michael (Dillon Stevens) invade the latter’s sisters’ closet, and are soon joined by gigantic dancing dresses (& a cancan-kicking pair of trousers). It’s a fantastic contrast to the bleak town sets and riot scenes and is a wonderful expression of the power of imagination. The surreal staging blended seamlessly with the upbeat pop music and the pre-Gaga theme of being true to yourself, and was a true celebration of what “play” really means, and how important it is to engage in it. The scene ended with some fantastic tap dancing from the two young boys, with Stevens especially stealing the show with his big personality and dynamic stage presence.

Kids feature largely in Billy Elliott, and I was also impressed with the gaggle of little ballerinas who dance both within their own group as well as between riot police, miners, and parents; their delicate, diaphanous, white tutu’d presence is a lovely counterbalance to the heavy textures and drab colours costume designer Nicky Gillibrand layers the adult world in. Choreographer Peter Darling is a complete genius in blending the children’s and adults’ perspectives, seamlessly integrating the two to produce something both deeply unusual and visually sumptuous. Billy Elliott doesn’t shy away from engaging in some surreal eye-play, but it’s part of its magic appeal, and it certainly makes the return to the story -the struggle for Billy to attend the Royal Ballet School – all the more vivid and engaging. As their teacher, Mrs. Wilkinson, Kate Hennig brings a ton of heart, attitude, and no-bs honesty to her role; the exchange she has with Billy’s father (Armand Schultz) on a snowy Christmas Eve doorstep is shattering, and touches at the heart of the class-based issues Billy Elliot revolves around. One isn’t left with any certain answers about who’s right and who’s wrong.

What is certain is that everyone who attended the show’s opening night was leaning over or turning around to get a clear view of Elton John.. His music is stellar, shining as only the score of a true Rocket Man can: ebbing and flowing between aggressive, loud sounds, jaunty pop numbers, and quietly emotional ballads, John shows the full range of his considerable songwriting abilities. Billy Elliot’s score references everything from classical (the choral harmonies at points brought to mind Verdi’s Nabucco and Wagner’s Tannhauser) to rock (especially Queen) to sixties favorites (I swear I could hear The Ronettes hovering around the edges of certain numbers), to other musicals (chiefly Les Miserables), each time breaking and exceeding expectations around what a contemporary musical can and should sound like.

The miners’ song “Once We Were Kings” was an especially powerful moment that showed off both the male ensemble’s strong harmonics as well as John’s profound ability to write operatic, captivating music that works beautifully within set designer Ian MacNeil’s haunting stage setting. Set intentionally after Billy’s big solo number “Electricity” three quarters of the way through the musical, the song is a hymn to the fuel that once fueled a town’s fires, a solemn if proud testament to both the intense toil of a community and the extinguishing of a generation’s “electricity”. The miners’ hats provided a starry (if occasionally blinding) cascade of light into the audience, which is made especially dramatic for the shadowy darkness lighting designer Rick Fisher employs to imitate the effects of journeying deep into the pit. The effect was an eerily powerful symbol of the theme that flashes through Billy Elliott: hope.

It’s that quality, shining as a bright as a lighthouse beam by the musical’s end, that fuels an audience’s fire. Billy’s literal “flying” may be technically impressive but it’s the heart of it that really matters: witnessing his literal soaring, we recognize our own figurative capacity to open to new things, eyes wide open, arms spread wide, ready for take-off. Billy Elliot matters because it shows us the electricity for a new way of being amidst the detritus of the past. This is a Big Musical in every sense, but it never for a moment falls into the hokey theatrics that mar so many efforts of its ilk. Funny, frank, moving, and more than a little profane, Billy Elliot is one theatrical experience that wears its heart on its spit-stained sleeve -even as it tap-dances by you, feathers, blue collar, and all. Hold me closer, tiny dancer… and don’t let go.

Photo credits:
Top photo, Cesar Corrales (Billy) in BILLY ELLIOT, Photo by Joan Marcus
Second photo, Cynthia Darlow (Grandma) and the cast of BILLY ELLIOT, Photo by Joan Marcus
Third photo, Kate Hennig (Mrs Wilkinson) and Alex Ko (Billy) with Ballet Girls in the Broadway Production. Photo Credit: Carol Rosegg
Bottom photo, Broadway Opening Night Curtain Call – Photo by Lyn Hughes

Tiptoe Through The West Side

Joyful, quiet, exuberant, contemplative.

Who knew ballet could be so many things at once?

The National Ballet of Canada‘s summer mixed program, playing as part of this year’s Luminato Festival in Toronto, is a heady mix of contradictions. The first third, “Pur ti Miro”, features the music of Beethoven and Monteverdi; the choreography in the piece, by hot dance figure Jorma Elo, is regal and joyous. The second piece, “Opus 19/The Dreamer” features the choreography of Jerome Robbins and the music of Sergei Prokofiev. The last third is “West Side Story Suite”, based on the legendary musical by Leonard Bernstein, features Robbins’ choreography once more, along with colourful, lively dancing, snaps, and vocals.


With short sections, hummable music, and gorgeous visuals, the mixed program has a little something for everyone. It was with great delight that I noted the incredible number of enthralled children in attendance at Sunday’s matinee performance, as well as numerous twenty-something hipsters. Kids get the liberating quality of dance that is, for the most part, sadly lost in adulthood. It was fascinating to observe their reactions to the music and the moves, and to observe their deep, immediate connection with the dancers.

I was equally struck by the various emotional chords that were hit within the show: funny, sad, whimsical, sad, sassy, melancholy, meditative… innumerable shades of the human experience were expressed with a turn, a hand, an arm wave, and even vocally. It’s become something of a recent phenomenon to have dancers vocalize during a performance; as with Wen Wei Wang’s Cock-Pit (presented in Toronto earlier this year), vocals are a pure enhancement of the inherent drama and silent magic of movement. We take talking -and moving -so much for granted, but to have both, within a kind of vacuum, be used for sheer expression, feels like a revolution. I could only help but wonder what Nureyev would think.

Still within the revolutionary vein, I was bowled over by seeing choreography to one of the most famous pieces of music in the classical canon. I grew up hearing Beethoven’s sole violin concerto in a concert hall; it felt new, strange, and surreal to see dancers leaping around to the concerto’s exuberant third movement. It was interesting to note how the program itself was structured as a kind of journey from traditional to pseudo-modern too; moving from the old-school world of Beethoven and Monteverdi, onto Prokofiev, and Bernstein, was like a nod to a variety of dance styles and expressions.

While I enjoyed the meditative nature of “Opus 19/The Dreamer” (the silent drama between Patrick Lavoie and Sonia Rodriguez was scintillating) and adored the vintage-thug moves and hip-swinging snaps of “West Side Story Suite”, it was “Pur Ti Miro” (roughly translated as “I simply aim for you“) that affected me most deeply. Call it sentiment, call it old-fashioned, but there was something in that old-meets-new ethos in that piece (a world premiere, no less) that felt completely provocative and, weirdly, new. Its juxtaposition with the more modern Robbins works felt like just the kind of balanced contradiction that shapes a festival like Luminato, and, I suspect, will come to define, in many ways, ballet of the twenty-first century.

Top photo: Jenna Savella with Sonia Rodriguez and Elena Lobsanova in Pur ti Miro.
Middle photo: Artists of the Ballet in West Side Story Suite.
Bottom photo: Sonia Rodriguez and Patrick Lavoie in Pur ti Miro.

All photos by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Carmen Lives!

In putting together my recent feature on Goran Bregovic, I’ve really re-discovered and re-embraced my own musical heritage; my father was a professional musician who, though trained at the Conservatory in Pecs, had a real love and hunger for the music of the gypsies -a passion not unlike Bregovic’s, come to think of it. And in the beginning he suffered the same kind of criticism and harshness too, constantly being raked over the coals for choosing “a gypsy job.” But his love for the artform remained undiminished, and it’s what drove he and my mother together.

Their shared passion for music translated into my mother taking me to my first opera, Carmen, at the tender age of four. Talk about a whirlwind for my four-year-old eyes. I don’t think I understood the story very well but I know I loved the colour and vibrancy of the music. Bizet’s work has steadfastly remained a favourite through the years. I’ve seen at least thirty different productions of it all over the world, and most recently saw a ballet version by the National Ballet for Luminato.

So imagine my surprise -and delight -when I discovered Bregovic had composed something called Karmen (with a happy end). You mean my lovely Spanish lady doesn’t get what most men (and women) at the time deemed she deserved? Yay!

While it’s strange to see Carmen stripped of the trappings I’m used to -namely guitars, flamenco, and violins -I have to admit that I’m enjoying the re-envisioning of the piece that was my portal into the world of not only culture -but my own personal heritage. With my father’s passing last year, hearing and seeing this kind of riotous, joyful, deeply dramatic work has taken on a new importance and meaning. And listening to Bregovic’s work -including his Karmen music -is a gorgeous sort of homecoming.

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