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Review

At the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, a Svengali sans charisma Add to ...

How can a good choreographer go so wrong? That is the question to be directed at Mark Godden and his new full-length Svengali created for the Royal Winnipeg Ballet. Godden has abstracted the original 1894 novel Trilby, by George du Maurier, beyond recognition; in this case, unfortunately, that also means beyond interest. His attempt to work with archetypes and symbolism falls flatter than a pancake.

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And here’s a second curiosity. The program says that Godden’s Svengali is also based on a film treatment by visionary director and Winnipeg local hero Guy Maddin. Yet, in a recent article in the Winnipeg Free Press, Maddin distanced himself from Godden’s ballet. Godden, in the same article, confirmed that his ballet contains nothing of the film treatment.

But let’s go back to du Maurier’s original story, which the British author based on his own experiences as an art student in bohemian Paris in the mid-1800s. The plot focuses on the adventures of three British painters – Taffy, the Laird and Little Billee – and the love of their lives, Trilby O’Farrell, a laundress and artist’s model. Of the three, Trilby gives her heart to Little Billee. A side story to the bohemians involves the sinister Jewish musician Svengali. (Like many of his era, du Maurier’s anti-Semitism was pretty much undisguised.)

Through hypnotism, Trilby, who can’t sing a note, is transformed by the reprobate Svengali into the greatest opera diva of her day. Weakened by Svengali’s hypnotic powers, though, she comes to a bad end.

There’s enough melodrama in Trilby to fill a boatload of ballets. As a novel, Trilby was second in popularity only to Dracula among fin-de-siècle Gothic-horror fans. And given Godden’s wildly successful 1998 Dracula for RWB, prospects should have been bright when he took on Svengali.

In Godden’s take, Svengali (Harrison James) has an overbearing mother (Jo-Ann Sundermeier) who runs a ballet academy. She produces evil ballerinas, the Acolytes. Mother is also in league with the Morality Police, led by Officer (Alexander Gamayunov).

Mother and the Acolytes are particularly cruel to a character called Svengali’s First (Sophia Lee); she is the first ballerina over which Svengali has used his mind control. He attempts to console her, and in her trance, First burns herself on the studio’s pot-bellied stove.

Eventually, Svengali breaks free of his mother’s control, and joins the decadent lifestyle of the Soldiers. It is there that he meets Trilby, a streetwalker, and saves her from them. He also establishes his own ballet company, which includes Trilby and three other mind-controlled ballerinas (Emily Grizzell, Yayoi Ezawa and Sophia Lee). Things evolve from there in surprising ways.

A major weakness in Godden’s production lies in the fact that Svengali’s hypnotic powers and charisma are practically invisible, rendering James about as threatening as a Boy Scout. Trilby, meanwhile, is given no allure; she is a dance machine.

There are also a lot of tedious comings and goings. Acolytes, Morality Police, Soldiers and so on seem to be rotating through revolving doors. For all that, though, the stage feels devoid of conflict. The war between decadence and morality may be the stuff of philosophical inquiry, but, here at least, it doesn’t make for compelling theatre.

At times, Godden’s choreographic talent certainly shines through: in his vigorous Soldiers’ dance, for example; in Mother’s autocratic ballet lesson, run like a military drill team; in the virtuoso solos executed by Svengali’s ballerinas.

The pastiche score, while well-played by the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra under Tadeusz Biernacki, is a weird collection of music running from Rachmaninov to Philip Glass, and from Liszt to klezmer bands. The constant changes between musical periods and styles are jarring.

While Paul Daigle’s costumes are attractive, scenic designer Andrew Beck’s set – composed of aluminum walls with sticks poking through, transparent drop cloths with eyes, and small chandeliers – does not offer a cohesive whole.

The strongest thing here: the RWB dancers, who soldier on, no matter how dismal the material. They always look good.

Svengali

  • Choreographed by Mark Godden
  • The Royal Winnipeg Ballet
  • At Centennial Concert Hall
  • In Winnipeg on Wednesday

Svengali continues in Winnipeg until Sunday.

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