George Balanchine was a man of sayings – sometimes poetic, often corny. He's known for waxing lyrical on the eternally feminine nature of ballet (he married four of his ballerinas), on the importance of art for art's sake, on his frustration with audiences' attachment to symbol and sentiment. In the context of the National Ballet's Mixed Spring Program, which features two Balanchine ballets alongside Alexander Ekman's 2010 Cacti, there's a particular quotation that comes to mind:
When you have a garden full of pretty flowers, you don't demand of them, "What do you mean? What is your significance?" Dancers are just flowers, and flowers grow without any literal meaning; they are just beautiful.
Balanchine was referencing his own annoyance at the public's fixation on probing the meaning of his work. But replace "flowers" with "cacti" and we have an idea to round out the whole evening. Ekman's ballet is a satire about how dance is made and how it's reviewed; it centres around a bunch of potted cacti that become endowed with all kinds of signification in a critical attempt to find meaning. Balanchine would surely like the joke.
The program starts on a high note with one of Balanchine's beautiful neo-classical masterpieces. The Four Temperaments, inspired loosely by the medieval theory of bodily humours, was choreographed in 1946, but it's so vital and unaffected that, in moments, it feels as new as any of the contemporary work I see. Set to a score by Paul Hindemith, the piece epitomizes the clean, innovative purity of Balanchine's black-and-white ballets (the women are in black leotards/white tights; the men white shirts/black tights). Gone are the superfluities of pantomime and transitional steps; Balanchine technique is a power-show of the body – all lines, legs and details, arranged in elegant formations that move quickly. The choreography always reveals more, whether it be through the luscious épaulements (exaggerations through the shoulder) performed in the Melancholic solo, or the diamond of female dancers who cross the stage, thrusting their hips and kicking their legs toward their noses.
What makes Balanchine difficult is that it requires more than just speed and musicality; the bare-bones feeling of the choreography calls for a particular kind of confidence and core strength. The company is usually adept with this, but I sensed a range in proficiency on Wednesday night. Standout performances included Evan McKie's rich and embodied interpretation of the Phlegmatic variation. McKie is a dancer who understands that Balanchine's obsession with "the steps" shouldn't invite blankness, but more truthfulness, more commitment. And then second soloist Alexandra MacDonald seemed to have been dropped onstage from New-York-City-Ballet heaven. She's a dancer I'd like to see promoted tomorrow – not only technically impeccable, but also fiercely present and possessing a maturity that exceeds her years.
Rubies, set to a piano capriccio by Stravinsky, is a spritely, sportier Balanchine piece, full of high, flicking attitudes derrière (a bent leg is lifted behind) and lots of sharply executed turns. It's the second part of the triptych Jewels and consists of a pas de deux for two principal dancers (Guillaume Côté and Heather Ogden), supported by a soloist (principal Xiao Nan Yu) and the corps de ballet. The choreographic momentum is delightful and formations manifest and disappear with invigorating speed. But in this production of Rubies, there are moments that haven't aged as well as The Four Temperaments (ironically, it's from 1967). Like his sayings, Balanchine's humour sometimes veered towards the folksy, and Rubies requires poise to keep comedic flourishes from turning camp. Nan Yu manages this with ease; her dancing was vibrant, confident and sharp. But Ogden seemed to take the bait with an unnecessary amount of face-acting, and dancing marred by shoulder tension and a general lack of precision.
In Cacti, Swedish dancer and choreographer Alexander Ekman pokes fun at the language and practice of dance criticism. This piece has been hailed as a crowd-pleaser and you can see why. It's visually striking – with a large ensemble posed on low flat pedestals which they lift and manipulate to make exciting stage images. And the lighting is inventive; a sudden change in source and angle created an X-ray-like effect, so that the dancers became negatives of themselves before our eyes.
Choreographically, you get a sense of Ekman's talent in a duet between Alexandra MacDonald and Dylan Tedaldi. Set to a dialogue between a man and woman, there's a funny and intelligent interaction between voiceover and steps, with the dancers resting on each other's bodies in fluid and interesting ways. I write this all a bit self-consciously because it's exactly what Ekman is having a laugh at: The ballet features a satirical monologue full of long, unwieldy sentences packed with 50-cent critical words.
I really would have been game to laugh along with Ekman if I hadn't felt the parody to be a bit lazy. The dancers play pat-a-cake with the floor, jog frantically on the spot, pose like supermodels, then look around themselves in confusion. There's a joke about postmodernism. (Come on, Ekman. We barely talk about postmodernism any more. We're too busy turning perfectly good adjectives into nouns: the imaginary, the problematic). Cacti is one of Ekman's first ballets (he's all of 32) and despite this flat humour, I sensed a thoughtful investment into what looks compelling and entertaining on stage, alongside some real movement imagination.
Cacti & Rubies & The Four Temperaments runs until March 13 at the Four Seasons Centre in Toronto (national.ballet.ca).