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National Ballet’s Pinocchio arrives with on-the-nose timing

Skylar Campbell, Heather Ogden and Piotr Stanczyk in Pinocchio.

Karolina Kuras/National Ballet of Canada

Would Pinocchio's nose grow in a post-truth world where lying has started to feel like political protocol? The National Ballet of Canada's adaptation of Carlo Collodi's children's novella, which opens in Toronto on Saturday night, seems like an aptly timed world premiere.

But British choreographer Will Tuckett's interest in the classic tale dates back well before our latest anxiety over the elusiveness of truth. "It's funny, because we started work on the show three years ago; three years ago we did not think Donald Trump would be in the White House; we did not think we'd be in the situation we're in in Europe," he says.

Tuckett says that he's more interested in the story's general sense of timelessness than in drawing any direct parallels with 2017. He thinks that Pinocchio has remained relevant because of its strong moral code: the fascinating symbiosis it suggests between telling the truth and being truly alive. "How do we have to behave to be members of a society – to be real humans, real people?" he muses.

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This isn't Tuckett's first attempt at tackling the 1883 story, which was originally serialized in an Italian newspaper. He created a theatrical version of Pinocchio for the Royal Opera House studio series (ROH2) in 2005 – more a live-entertainment show than a work of dance. He jumped on artistic director Karen Kain's invitation to return to the work from a more choreographic perspective at the National.

"It's an incredibly rich book," he says. "Because of the episodic nature of the narrative, every week you've got another action-packed adventure for Pinocchio. The result is a whole panoply of characters, but you can also remove some of those sections and not lose the overall moral structure of the tale, which is really what drives it through."

Tuckett trades in dramatic story-ballets, perhaps even more so than his famous predecessors at the Royal Ballet – choreographers Kenneth MacMillan and Frederick Ashton. In fact, critics often dub his work "dance-theatre," suggesting it's too hybrid in its use of text and elaborate stagecraft to fall under the traditional ballet rubric. His most recent work of note, Elizabeth for the Royal Ballet in 2013, depicted the Tudor queen's reign from start to finish by casting actors alongside the dancers, layering the choreography with song and text written by playwright/librettist Alasdair Middleton.

Pinocchio will also have a script (again written by Middleton), but Tuckett insists that the works' narrative motor is fuelled expressly by the dancing. He's been guided by the distinct moods suggested by each character, finding nearly inexhaustible choreographic potential in every one.

Capturing the arc of Pinocchio's metamorphosis was key. Working closely with first soloist Skylar Campbell, Tuckett developed an awkward, disjointed movement vocabulary that could soften into a more boyish sentience with every scene. "Skylar is a fantastic dancer," Tuckett enthuses. For Geppetto, Tuckett was drawn to the character's unspeakable loneliness and yearning for love, emotions he drew from "earthy, old-school, character-dancing." For the cat and the fox, he worked from a palette of sinewy, elastic movements, conveying their cunning and mutability.

Tuckett is a choreographer who thinks a lot about his audience. It means these finer points of choreographic invention serve more comprehensive goals. His principal concern is that the show appeal to a broad and general public. Tuckett wants Pinocchio to work on a myriad of levels: as a family show, but also as entertainment for people who might not have been to the ballet before. "It can be quite a challenge for people coming to see ballet; they feel it's quite codified, not necessarily their thing." So Tuckett has paired sequences of pure dancing with sequences of more conventional theatre. "If it's not your gig, you know, going to the ballet, you can go okay, that's fine, this works for me, I know what's going on here; it's quite jolly, it's funny, it moves the story forward." He pauses, then chuckles. "I'm very much showing my Royal Ballet roots in terms of my structuring."

But are these roots planted in defeatist soil? Imagine trying to write an orchestral symphony with the goal of pleasing people who dislike classical music. You would find yourself reaching further and further beyond the confines of the discipline, rather than digging more deeply and questioningly within it. No doubt a fascinating exercise in obfuscating style and inverting expectations, but at what point have you compromised your own artistic inquiry? At what point have you simply jumped ship?

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Tuckett sees things differently, holding that it behooves the ballet world to examine itself at a remove. "I think we're so embedded in the art form that it's very difficult for us to imagine what it's like to go to the ballet if you've never seen it before – I think it's really important to put that hat on. If I've never seen this before as a form, is it working for me? Do I get it?"

As the final rehearsals wrap up, does he think he's pulled off a show that can appeal across a wide spectrum of age and expertise?

"You never know until you get an audience in there," he says. "You can never second-guess an audience."

Pinocchio runs from March 11-24 at the Four Seasons Centre in Toronto (ballet.ca).

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