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Review

Phantom ballet raises the bar Add to ...

The Phantom of the Opera

Atlantic Ballet Theatre of Canada

In Moncton on Friday

Atlantic Ballet Theatre of Canada performs only original story ballets. The latest offering from artistic director Igor Dobrovolskiy is The Phantom of the Opera, and such is the draw of this enduring gothic tale that an extra performance has been added to hometown Moncton, while the upcoming Maritime tour is doing boffo business.

The 11-member company was founded in 2002, and ABTC's success both nationally and internationally has been a phenomenon. Clearly, audiences and presenters love story ballets. ABTC, however, must also be viewed from a strict artistic standard, and what follows is Dobrovolskiy's fifth year report card.

For raising the challenge bar, Dobrovolskiy gets a high grade. He could have presented a predictable treatment of the famous 1911 Gaston Leroux novel, but he has worked with acclaimed playwright Sharon Pollock as dramaturge to fashion an imaginative scenario. Also worthy of mention is the deft way Dobrovolskiy has fashioned a score from Poulenc's sonatas and concertos which dovetail with the action as to the manner born.

Dobrovolskiy and Pollock have taken their inspiration directly from the novel. The Phantom is Erik (Sergiy Diyanov), a brilliant, tortured man whose facial ugliness has made him a recluse. They have also included the character of the Persian (Aleksander Onyshchenko), the man who saved Erik's life, and who functions in their story as his guardian angel.

The ballet is set half in Erik's tortured imagination, half in reality. His surreal world is peopled with grey, faceless mannequins, and his violent inner Thoughts are portrayed by a five-member corps de ballet clothed in face masks and long, swirling, saffron/pink cloaks. Only his beloved obsession, the singer Christine (Anya Nesvitaylo) is real, as is her lover Raoul (Kostyantyn Voynov) and the Persian. Even the managers of his theatre (Louis-Philippe Dionne and Julien Lenaud), their prima donna (Evelina Sushko), and the people of the theatre (Odsuren Dagva, Yuriko Minami, Ayako Nakahira and François Richard) are illusionary.

The production values deserve top marks. From the very beginning ABTC has always paid attention to visual details and Phantom is beautiful to watch.

Paul Daigle has garbed the dancers in gorgeous costumes, while Pierre Lavoie's lighting is absolutely lush. At key moments, Rocklyn Warren's video projections of Christine and the Phantom add a real sense of gothic horror.

Brian Perchaluk's clever set design includes five movable triangular pillars that can be turned to create a grotesque face, mirrors, curtained panels, or any combination thereof. Dobrovolskiy's dancers effectively manoeuvre these pillars to create cunning stage images.

The dancers are certainly stage worthy, some more than others, with the Ukrainians the leaders of the pack. Diyanov chews up the scenery and his brokenhearted death throes are positively harrowing, while Nesvitaylo is an exquisite, delicate ballerina with surprisingly strong jumps. Kostyantyn is heroic, Onyshchenko is majestic, while the supple Shushko is the perfect seductress.

From a choreographic point of view, the grades are mixed. There are many sections of conventional ballet, the Raoul/Christine romantic pas de deux, for example, that are pretty to watch but lack originality. On the other hand, the fight scene as Erik takes on both the Persian and Raoul is exciting and risky.

When it comes to detailing character, Dobrovolskiy still hasn't found the magic formula that manipulates ballet technique to speak directly to story and character. Often, his dancers execute showy patterns and combinations that seem more like exercises in pure ballet. Happily, his use of arm gestures is becoming stronger in conveying motivation and emotion, and one assumes the rest of the body will follow in due course.

Dobrovolskiy is, however, growing in his storytelling craft. Where previous works were seriously marred by many scenic blackouts, always a dead zone on stage, Dobrovolskiy has succeeded in creating a visual throughline.

Sometimes he lets the music carry a darkened scene change, or uses the movement of the pillars as his entr'acte. The spectacular ending, without giving anything away, is the best example of Dobrovolskiy's evolving choreographic acumen.

Key areas need work, however. The relationship between Erik and the Persian is critical, and Dobrovolskiy should add a scene at the beginning to show their connection. What he has now is too quickly over -- the Persian covering the fleeing Erik with a cloak. As well, the grey foam mannequins are overused by both Erik and his Thoughts corps de ballet. At times, their danse macabre with these puppet figures hinges just this side of embarrassed titters.

And the critic's final comments on the report card? Dobrovolskiy and his company put on good entertainment that will continue to grow in artistic maturity. As for the Moncton audience, they gave the world premiere of Phantom of the Opera a standing ovation.

The Maritime tour continues on the following dates: Oct. 10 in St. John's, Nfld.; Oct. 14 in Saint John, N.B.; Oct. 19 in Charlottetown, PEI; Oct. 21 in Fredericton, N.B.; Oct. 26 in Halifax, N.S.; Oct. 28 in Mabou, N.S. and Dec. 3 in Wolfville, N.S.

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