At Hummingbird Centre in Toronto, on Wednesday
What began as a potential disaster for The National Ballet of Canada has turned into a triumph. When Edouard Lock's new work for the spring season had to be postponed, artistic director James Kudelka was left with a gaping hole in his mixed program. His bookends were the quintessential tutu classic Les Sylphides, and his own contemporary ballet Désir. To fill the maw, Kudelka cobbled together Dominique Dumais's duet Tides of Mind, and the bedroom pas de deux from Sir Kenneth MacMillan's Manon. The result is as scintillating an evening of dance as you'll find anywhere.
Désir is one of the great classic works of Canadian ballet and a hallmark of Kudelka's dangerous partnering and dense footwork. Originally created for Les Grands Ballets Canadiens in 1991, and set to Sergei Prokofiev's waltzes from his ballet Cinderella and opera War and Peace, the work is a penetrating look at various aspects of romance involving seven couples.
Whether intentional or not, Kudelka seems to focus on what women do to men. In one couple (Chan Hon Goh and Christopher Body), a sophisticated woman laconically grants her favours to a seemingly callow youth. Even when the two finally surrender to the passion of the music, the man seems like a second-class citizen. Even more graphically drawn is the stunning duet performed by Greta Hodgkinson and Aleksandar Antonijevic. She is an aloof, icy goddess and he ends up prone on the floor, kissing her foot. On a more droll note, the middle of the work finds the men roaming distractedly across the stage, hormones raging, while the prim women, their dresses gathered across their hands like chastity muffs, form a teasing parade of virgins. Only the quicksilver couple of Stacey Shiori Minagawa and Jeremy Ransom seems immune to the general game-playing, immersed as they are in their own battling dialogue of flying feet and terrifying lifts.
The scene is romantic moonlight, but the dance is anything but romantic. This, then, is the genius of Kudelka -- to take the conventional and turn it on its ear. Other than second soloists James O'Connor and Jhe Russell, the rest of the interesting cast was drawn from the corps de ballet, and includes Bei-Di Sheng, Kevin Law, Andrea Burridge, Stephanie Hutchison, Patrick Lavoie and Julie Hay, all of whom make strong individual impressions on the stage.
Dominique Dumais's Tides of Mind (1996), set to Henryk Gorecki's sorrowful second movement from his Symphony No. 3, grows more impressive with each viewing. Martine Lamy and Rex Harrington were simply magnificent in Dumais's portrayal of inarticulate despair. Her vocabulary is one of great heaving sobs of physicality and sharply angled fragments of movement. A great calamity has befallen this couple, yet they are unable to console each other, much as they try. As they swirl around each other, the woman, in particular, is constantly distracted from focusing on her companion, drawn as she is to a point on the far horizon. This work proves the talented Dumais is fast becoming a world-class choreographer.
Evelyn Hart was the guest artist on the program, and the eternal ballerina appeared in two works. In Michel Fokine's 1908 classic Les Sylphides to a Chopin score, she is the quintessential muse to Harrington's poet. The dreamy, moonlit forest glade is an allegory. The lone male in the work is the creative artist surrounded by fairies who portray his inspiration. One cannot imagine a more delicate, ephemeral dancer than Hart, her every move shimmering with gossamer lyricism. Hart also performed the Manon pas de deux (1974) with Antonijevic, and while their coupling was passionate and romantic, it is not the playful, sexual abandon called for in the ballet. That heroine is careless, unthinking and coy, none of which are Hartian qualities. Nonetheless, it was delightful to see her bring out the rapture in Antonijevic, albeit their love was gloriously mature.
In alternate performances, Hart performs Jiri Kylian's Nuages (1976) with Harrington, a duet more suited to her intense dramatic nature. Les Sylphides was staged by the National's principal ballet mistress Magdalena Popa and differs slightly from the Celia Franca/Eric Bruhn production the company has been performing for years. This version seems to be cleaner and less cluttered, allowing for greater focus on the soloists, and showing off the excellent women of the corps de ballet to greater advantage.
The other muses in the work were Sonia Rodriguez and Greta Hodgkinson. Rodriguez is one of those all-round dancers who can do anything, and she matched Hart's gorgeous lyricism quite beautifully in her elegant solos.
It was good to see Hodgkinson in her poetic role because she is so closely associated with relentlessly modern works. While not as softly rounded in her movements as her other colleagues in the glade, she did bring an unusual burst of energy to the fairy kingdom. Minagawa and Sheng were quite charming as leading sylphs. The National's mixed program continues at the Hummingbird Centre until Sunday.