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The National Ballet of Canada announced that Alexei Ratmansky’s Romeo and Juliet will be remounted as part of next season's slate of works.Karolina Kuras/National Ballet of Canada

The National Ballet of Canada will return to the Four Seasons Centre with a full slate of performances next season – but not necessarily return to recognizable form.

Artistic director Hope Muir, who assumed full leadership of the company in January, presided over her first season announcement on Tuesday, unveiling a varied slate of 11 works chosen by both her and her predecessor, Karen Kain. With a shortage of principal dancers, no firm touring plans and four choreographers making mainstage National Ballet debuts, the company’s brand appears in flux.

COVID-19 cancellations, Muir said, have “created a traffic jam of ballets.” There’s a little bit everything waiting to get onstage: fairy tales, short new works and a futuristic, attention-grabbing world premiere.

Kain retired in December after leading the company for 16 years, and before that enjoyed a long career as a principal dancer. Works she selected for the coming season reflect her status as a ballet power broker, most notably MADDADDAM, a co-commission with the Royal Ballet that pairs novelist Margaret Atwood with the London company’s resident choreographer, plus a remounting of Alexei Ratmansky’s Romeo and Juliet, which she presciently commissioned in 2008, before Ratmansky became artist-in-residence at the American Ballet Theatre.

The upcoming production of MADDADDAM is a co-commission with the Royal Ballet that pairs novelist Margaret Atwood with the London company’s resident choreographer.George Whiteside/National Ballet of Canada

Muir steps in with comparatively little experience, having led North Carolina’s Charlotte Ballet for less than four years, and holding a couple of positions at Scottish National, including associate artistic director for two years. As a dancer, she performed with ballet companies and modern troupes.

MADDADDAM is Kain’s “brainchild,” Muir said. It is the third in a series of co-commissions with the Royal that also included Alice in Wonderland and The Winter’s Tale, both by Christopher Wheeldon. MADDADDAM will instead be created in Toronto by choreographer Wayne McGregor, a dancemaker The New York Times once dubbed “the cuckoo in the Royal Ballet’s nest.” His standout work Chroma entered the National Ballet’s repertoire in 2010, but his movement can be frantic, his projections are sometimes gimmicky and his attempts at full-length dances are often duds. The lone exception is Woolf Works, a three-act ballet based on three novels by Virginia Woolf. Guardian critic Luke Jennings praised McGregor for working with dramaturge Uzma Hameed on the project, deeming it, “more than equal to its ambitions.

MADDAMDAM shares many of the same ingredients, including dramaturgy from Hameed, which is promising. Same as Woolf Works, it will feature a score by Max Richter. And the source material is again three novels, this time by Atwood: Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood and MaddAdam.

“I am super excited,” Muir said, noting that her friendship with McGregor stretches back nearly 20 years.

Two mixed-repertory programs Muir planned will group newer works and premieres with 20th-century stalwarts by Kenneth MacMillan and George Balanchine. It’s a risky move: when the new ballets complementing classic works are strong – as happened last fall when the National Ballet paired Balanchine’s Serenade with Crystal Pite’s Angel’s Atlas – the strategy works. If they are not, audiences may feel they were lured in with the familiar and force-fed mediocrity.

Who are the choreographers slated to make National Ballet debuts? Alonzo King has long run a contemporary ballet company in San Francisco, where he’s known for hiring tall dancers and partnering with fashion designers. David Dawson, another Brit, has won praise for his work with European companies. Les Grands Ballets Canadiens veteran Vanesa G. R. Montoya will adapt a digital piece she made last year into a performance for the Four Seasons stage. The only true commission goes to Rena Butler, a 33-year-old American with a background in modern dance and hip-hop who will be creating her first work for a major ballet company.

“This is an opportunity to establish a relationship with Rena while she’s on an upward trajectory,” Muir said, adding that she took the unusual step of assigning Butler a score by American minimalist composer John Adams, who turns 75 next year.

Featuring three Black choreographers will be a first for the National Ballet. Yet the remaining dancemakers are all white men, and it’s worth noting that Muir has not programmed any works by the likes of Pite, Aszure Barton, Joshua Beamish, Tiffany Tregarthen, David Raymond, Helen Simoneau or Jera Wolfe, all Canadians who boast international profiles. Instead, the country will be represented by three remounts: The Nutcracker and Cinderella by former artistic director James Kudelka, and Frame by Frame, principal dancer Guillaume Côté's collaboration with film and stage director Robert Lepage.

Frame by Frame is principal dancer Guillaume Côté's collaboration with film and stage director Robert Lepage.Karolina Kuras/National Ballet of Canada

Muir defended her lineup, saying that she is talking to Wolfe about a future project and that there may be Canadians who receive “micro-commissions” for August performances at Harbourfront Centre.

That’s great – but it’s disconcerting that Muir may have passed over Canada’s best talents in favour of buzzy Americans and Brits. She’ll also have to prove her mettle by making key hires in the coming months. Veterans Sonia Rodriguez and Jillian Vanstone retired in March, and other top dancers – Skylar Campbell, Hannah Fischer, Emma Hawes, Brendan Saye and Dylan Tedaldi – have departed for other companies rather than stick with National Ballet through the transition.

Muir said a staffing announcement is forthcoming. For now, here’s what we know about the 2022-2023 National Ballet schedule.

Sharing the Stage, Aug. 16-20 at Harbourfront Centre, Toronto

The National Ballet performs outdoor and for free with guest artists from other companies. Repertoire includes After the Rain, excerpts from Chroma and Swan Lake and possible “micro-commissions” from Canadian choreographers.

Fall Season, Nov. 9 through 30 at Four Seasons Centre, Toronto

The mixed-repertory program includes Alonzo King’s The Collective Agreement, Vanesa G.R. Montoya’s Crepuscular and Kenneth MacMillan’s Concerto. MADDADAM, a co-commission with the Royal Ballet, premieres Nov. 23.

Holiday Season at Four Seasons Centre

James Kudelka’s The Nutcracker returns Dec. 10 through 31.

Winter Season, March 3 through 19 at Four Seasons Centre

The mixed-repertory program feature’s David Dawson Anima Animus, an untitled world premiere by Rena Butler set to music by John Adams, and George Balanchine’s Symphony in C. Kudelka’s modern retelling of Cinderella runs March 10 through 19.

Summer Season, June 2 through 25 at Four Seasons Centre

Principal dancer Guillaume Côté and stage director Robert Lepage reprise Frame by Frame, their homage to animator Norman McLaren. The season concludes with Romeo and Juliet, set to Prokofiev’s classic score and choreographed by Alexei Ratmansky. The Ukrainian-raised Ratmansky has taken a strong stand against Russian President Vladimir Putin in recent months, adding political activist to his laurels as ballet’s top global choreographer.

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