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Karen Kain.

Karolina Kuras

If there’s an operative word in the National Ballet’s 2019/20 season announcement, it’s probably the word “premiere.”

Next year’s season, which marks Karen Kain’s 50th anniversary with the company, is full of new work and company firsts: three world premieres, three company premieres and the appointment of a new choreographic associate. There’s more that feels new. We’re getting less of the traditional format – the full-evening story ballet – and more stories told in succinct, 50-odd minute packaging. I think the shorter length allows for denser choreography – a more consistently dynamic synthesis of narrative and step. It also seems to reflect the temporal preferences (or attention span) of the times. Call it ballet in the age of Netflix.

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The season feels like a mature change of tone. Many of these premieres appear to be artistically ambitious works of dance, i.e. not kid-friendly bread and butter. Beyond tone, there seems to be an important corrective at work – a feminist one. The 2018-19 season initially had no ballets by female choreographers. In what felt like 11-hour tokenism, the company added Night by Julia Adams to an already long winter 2019 mixed-program. Next year’s season looks more balanced from the start, with two significant ballets made by women – one of which also boasts a female design team – and the appointment of Alysa Pires as choreographic associate. Then, one of the company’s major “problem” ballets is getting re-staged.

The forthcoming season will feature a new version of Swan Lake re-staged by Karen Kain herself.

Karolina Kuras

James Kudelka’s 1999 version of Swan Lake focused on the theme of female entrapment and subjugation. To evoke this, he inserted a gang rape scene, unique to his adaptation, ostensibly to suggest the horrors of a male-dominated world. But the scene didn’t come with an embedded critique and, in an art form already beset by casual depictions of violence against women, it was, at best, irresponsible, and at worst ethically insupportable. When I reviewed the production in 2017, I called on the company to re-choreograph the rape scene so that it came with a clearer condemnation, or to simply remove it.

In the end, the National has come up with a better solution: They’ve decided to redo the whole ballet and put three female artists at its helm. The forthcoming season will feature a new version of Swan Lake re-staged by Karen Kain herself. While Kain is renowned for her nearly 30-year career as a dancer, she’s not a choreographer, and has re-staged just one ballet during her 14-year tenure as artistic director – The Sleeping Beauty in 2006. Drawing on Erik Bruhn’s landmark adaptation, she’ll be working with set and costume designer Gabriela Tylesova and Tony-award lighting designer Natasha Katz.

We’re also getting a new work from Crystal Pite. The B.C.-born choreographer has taken the dance world by storm since she made her first work for the company, Emergence in 2009. Since then, in addition to building repertoire for her own company, Kidd Pivot, and at Nederland Dans Theater, she’s created exquisite new works for the two of the finest ballet companies in the world: London’s Royal Ballet and the Paris Opera Ballet. It will be interesting to see whether the new piece veers toward the abstract or narrative. Flight Pattern, which premiered at Covent Garden in 2017, presented unusual content for a ballet company in that it dealt with explicitly political material: the plight of refugees. In my memory, the National has never produced a work that felt topical in a news-related manner, and I hope Pite sets this precedent.

Choreographic associate Robert Binet will choreograph the final world premiere, Orpheus Alive. It will be his first story-ballet, a concise one-act work based on the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. The ballet is cleverly paired with the company premiere of George Balanchine’s Chaconne, set to Willibald Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice.

Editor’s note: (Feb. 13, 2019) An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that lighting designer Natasha Katz has never worked with the organization. This version has been updated.

You can read more about the National Ballet’s 2019/20 season here: national.ballet.ca

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