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Le Sacre du printemps – one of three pieces on the Soiree Stravinsky program.

Jean-laurent Ratel / Les Grands/Jean-laurent Ratel

How the dancers of Les Grands Ballets Canadiens are still standing and breathing after performing Soirée Stravinski is a testament to their endurance.

The intensely physical program features three works by choreographer Stijn Celis. Of Belgian heritage, and based in Montreux, Switzerland, Celis is a master of contemporary ballet.

The rich bill of fare includes two of Igor Stravinsky's greatest scores composed for the fabled Ballets Russes. Le sacre du printemps ( The Rite of Spring) was choreographed by legendary dancer Vaslav Nijinsky in 1913. Les noces ( The Wedding Festivities) was choreographed by his talented sister, Bronislava Nijinska, in 1923.

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Celis shortens the names of his ballets to Sacre and Noces. Both works were created for Les Grands, and feature a 24-member ensemble. Soirée Stravinski is a bit of a misnomer. The world-premiere Anima, the third work on the program, is set to music by Chopin and Scarlatti.

Collectively, the off-point works show a choreographer at the height of his powers. Celis's trademark movement vocabulary includes lightning-fast, intricate footwork, rapid spins that lead to forceful jumps, and port de bras – carriage of the arms and upper torso – that creates huge arm swoops in the air. When the dance slows down, the intense muscle control becomes visible, as does the physicality of an entire body in motion. Celis's ballets intrigue because they can be interpreted in many ways.

Sacre (2009)

I was underwhelmed by Sacre after the 2009 premiere. I wanted that punch in the gut. On this revisit, however, I am better able to appreciate Celis's vision of desperation. His Sacre is skillfully tied to the drama in Stravinsky's score. Rather than be obvious and superficial, he approaches the work from the psychological perspective of the outsider. Excitement builds, but slowly.

Celis still keeps the sacrificial victim (Vanesa G.R. Montoya), set against the force of the ensemble. Designer Catherine Voeffray has costumed the women in white dresses covered in splashes of red, conjuring the image of menstrual blood. The men are in dark shirts and pants.

The women and men dance separately and together, in varying numbers, driven by Stravinsky's persistent rhythms. Stamping their feet and whirling through the air with wild abandon, they increasingly become a herd. Mob mentality takes over.

Montoya seems safe in the arms of Hervé Courtain until he takes off her dress. Virtually naked, she performs a dance of anguish. It is Courtain who joins the group and indifferently pushes her away.

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A quiet ending, but disturbing nonetheless.

Noces (2002)

Noces was composed as a ballet cantata with a score that includes four soloists and a choir. Stravinsky's libretto contains the lyrics of traditional Russian peasant wedding songs. Like Sacre, the rhythm is driving and relentless.

The women, garbed by Voeffray in faux wedding tulle and little bonnets, are set against the men in formalwear. Throughout the piece, four long benches are manoeuvred through the space to create boundaries between the genders.

The women are almost impassive as they conform to male fantasies. Their movement teases and cajoles, yet their faces are expressionless. It's the men who encompass passion, breaking out into wild bursts of movement across the stage.

Noces is ultimately a dance about testosterone and raging hormones. It is masculinity caught in the thrall of feminine power.

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The curtain-raiser Anima is radically different from the other two works, but still retains Celis's signature dance language, albeit at a slower pace. This intimate piece is a reflective trio performed by Bryna Catherine Pascoe, Jérémy Galdeano and Karell Williams. The movement is elegant and measured.

For Celis, anima is both the soul and the female archetype. Pascoe is the driver, and even though the men manipulate her body, she is in command. The piece is an homage to womanhood.

Pascoe's choreography is sensuous, with waves of motion undulating through her body. Celis has taken the tawdry clichés of overt feminine sexuality, such as hip swivels, pelvic thrusts and sashay walks, and elevated them to stately grace. The men, in contrast, are given lyrical, noble movement redolent of traditional ballet.

Anima is dance as art.

Soirée Stravinski

  • Choreographed by Stijn Celis
  • Les Grands Ballets Canadiens
  • At Place des Arts
  • In Montreal on Thursday

Soirée Stravinski continues in Montreal until March 31.

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