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National Ballet: The smoke clears to reveal a triumph

Greta Hodgkinson and Zdenek Konvalina in "Other Dances" Photo by

Bruce Zinger / National Ballet of Canada

When Twyla Tharp's acclaimed In The Upper Room entered the National Ballet's repertoire in 2008, it was virtually invisible.

The piece calls for the dancers to perform amid smoke, but at the hapless premiere, there was so much of the stuff that the dancers were literally lost in the fog (with giggles galore from the audience).

This time the company got it right, and what emerged is one of the most exciting dances in the company's repertoire.

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Tharp is part of a mixed program devoted to American choreographers that also includes Jerome Robbins and George Balanchine. And artistic director Karen Kain sure knows how to put repertoire together.

Robbins' Other Dances and Balanchine's Mozartiana are neo-classical ballets on the sweet side. Just when the program is threatening to spill into sugar overload, Kain tosses Tharp's explosive ballet/contemporary dance fusion at the audience to create a most satisfying trio.

Other Dances (1976) is Kain's gift to Greta Hodgkinson to celebrate the principal dancer's 20 years with the company. Hodgkinson and partner Zdenek Konvalina are performing the pas de deux at every performance. (As custom, the other two work alternate casts.)

Robbins set the charming work to four mazurkas and one waltz by Chopin. Accomplished pianist Andrei Streliaev is on stage with the dancers, and the three form a symbiotic connection that fuses music to movement. Robbins' leitmotif is folk dance elements that are surrounded by virtuoso tricks.

What can be said about the sublime Hodgkinson that hasn't already been said? The ballerina has the innate ability to adapt herself to any style. A chameleon of dance, she masks her formidable technique within choreographic intention.

In this work she is young and fresh, a winsome debutante at a ball. As her swain, the always perfect Konvalina joins her in this lovely dance of youthful romance.

Balanchine's Mozartiana (1981), the last work the master created before his death, is performed to Tchaikovsky's orchestral suite of Mozart piano pieces. The work is another of Balanchine's trademark visualization of music. The choreographer evokes the 18th century with his nod to period social dances.

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Sonia Rodriguez and Aleksandar Antonijevic are the stately court couple, while Keiichi Hirano is the exuberant youth. The trio of soloists are surrounded by four National ballerinas, and four baby ballerinas from the National Ballet School.

The work looks deceptively simple, but like all of Balanchine, packs a wallop in terms of cramming an overload of intricate footwork into each bar of music, making the piece look both old-fashioned and modern at the same time.

As always, Rodriguez is exquisite with her perfect placement. The ageless (perhaps immortal) Antonijevic has the lyrical softness the piece requires, while Hirano is the consummate Young Turk virtuoso.

Which brings us back to Tharp and In The Upper Room (1986), a non-stop orgy of relentless movement for 13 dancers. The score by Philip Glass builds in driving intensity until both the dancers and the audience are breathless.

Tharp is also an intellectual, and the underpinnings of this piece can be read several ways. Is the upper room itself a wish for the peace of heaven (hence the clouds of smoke)? Is it a longing for the fulfilment of youthful ideals? Is it the miasma of frantic urban living?

Tharp's own descriptions of the dancers include terms like Chinese temple guard dog, stomper and bomb squad. She wants the piece to "burn the retina."

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The costumes begin as loose-fitting shirts and pants made out of black striped material resembling both concentration camp and baseball uniforms. As the piece progresses, more revealing red tunics and shells begin to replace the thin black stripes. Are the dancers descending to hell?

The choreography is a tornado of entrances as various combinations of dancers emerge from the smoky haze executing Tharp's signature killer athleticism. This piece is physicality in overdrive.

There are couples dancing together, but there is nothing romantic about the lifts and partnering. If anything, it is a piece of desperation.

The National Ballet of Canada

  • Mixed Program
  • Choreography by George Balanchine, Jerome Robbins and Twyla Tharp
  • At the Four Seasons Centre
  • In Toronto on Wednesday

The National Ballet's summer mixed program continues until Sunday.

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