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INNOVATION

Choreography by Peter Quanz, Crystal Pite and Sabrina Matthews

The National Ballet of Canada

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At the Four Seasons Centre

in Toronto on Wednesday

Karen Kain must be breathing a sigh of relief today. The artistic director of the National Ballet of Canada took a huge risk commissioning three dramatically different new works from Canadian choreographers - and it paid off.

Start with Peter Quanz's IN COLOUR, a classically elegant piece set to a new score by 23-year-old Russian composer Anton Lubchenko. A symphonic son of Shostakovich and Stravinsky, his musical sweep here is as wide as the steppes and as dense as a boreal forest - and to go with this rich sound, Quanz has created a series of solos and ensembles that, presumably, express the emotional states of colour.

In execution, the differentiation between colours isn't quite clear. Still, there's lots of flash and dash, a homage to imperial-style Russian technique (with the exception of the romantic rapture of the Pink and Purple pas de deux, exquisitely performed by Bridgett Zehr and Guillaume Côté).

Jillian Vanstone's Red, James Shee's Yellow, Zdenek Konvalina's Blue and Heather Ogden's Green are all prime examples of the Russian genre, which the dancers toss off with panache.

Together with a gorgeous textured backdrop, pretty costumes and sensitive lighting, all of this has mass appeal. (Perhaps subtlety between the colours will come with repeated viewings.)

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Then there's Crystal Pite's Emergence, a beautifully crafted, mysterious, impressionistic piece that captures the hidden world of insects, and can also stand as a metaphor for human existence.

Set on a low-lit stage and to an atmospheric electronic score by Owen Belton - part drone, part martial music - the choreography here emphasizes the interplay between the individual and the group. Pite uses the suppleness of her 38-member ensemble to perform random but identical movements, in some cases almost pulsations, that evoke the collective consciousness of an insect colony. For example, one's eye darts from dancer to dancer as a group of men flutter their shoulders in staccato bursts.

Even when Pite isolates dancers, they underline the overall ensemble. In his solo, for instance, Robert Stephen penetrates a line of women and then performs a macho victory dance of thrusting limbs. The regal pas de deux performed by Greta Hodgkinson and Aleksandar Antonijevic could be the coronation of a hive queen. And Stephanie Hutchison and her restless swarm of swains could be a mother and her children, a group of lovers, or a phalanx of workers.

For her ecstatic work DEXTRIS, Sabrina Matthews chose Vivaldi's joyous Dixit Dominus, and music director David Briskin neatly marshals his large force of soloists, choristers and orchestra to produce an intelligent and lively reading of the piece.

Yet there is darkness, a hint of despair amid the hope - in fact, Matthews works against the music here in interesting ways. The chorus appears on stage in mid-air metal baskets, dressed in grey cloaks. The soloists, also in grey, are dark figures in the corner. Christopher Dennis's lighting swaths the dancers in shadows.

The choreography, too, built around pas de deux, is one of desperation and competition as the dancers strive for some kind of light. The men swing the women every which way, particularly in overhead shoulder lifts, and collectively the five couples seem to be made of elastic. When they dance on their own, it is with gymnastic, acrobatic hurling.

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Kudos to Heather Ogden and Piotr Stanczyk, Sonia Rodriguez and Jonathan Renna, Stacey Shiori Minagawa and Etienne Lavigne, Tina Pereira and Kevin D. Bowles, and Jillian Vanstone and James Shee for executing this relentless movement. And to Robert Stephen - a lone male - who is given fearsome choreography that seems to move him faster than the blink of an eye.

Just don't blink at the end of the piece. It begins with the dancers facing the audience, but it closes with them in the same formation - only facing to the side. In the same way that each individual section ends in calm, this finale is a whimper not a bang. But it heightens the fact that striving never really stops, it's a forever act that occurs again and again.

As for the striving of the diverse choreographers here, the ballet's big gamble? Innovation is an exciting program with gorgeous production values - a triumph of Canadian choreography.

Innovation continues at the Four Seasons Centre until

Sunday.

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