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James Kudelka’s The Man in Black is deceptively simple but frames fascinating questions on performance and the relationship between music and choreography.

Aleksandar Antonijevic

Title
The Man in Black with Chroma & Allegro Brillante & Carousel (A Dance)
Genre
Dance
Company
The National Ballet of Canada
Venue
Four Seasons Centre
City
Toronto
Year
2015
Runs Until
Sunday, March 08, 2015

The National Ballet of Canada opened its winter season Wednesday night in Toronto with a striking mixed program of contemporary ballet, spanning George Balanchine's mid-century neoclassicism to James Kudelka's recent experimentations in postmodern choreography. This unbridled diversity – which showcases the company's technical range – still feels connected by the suggestion of a common theme. Each of the four ballets deals in some way with the idea of musical interpretation and/or adaptation – a throughline that gives the visually impressive program a clever, cohesive thread.

Balanchine had a special relationship with Tchaikovsky's music throughout his career – his first and last American ballets, created nearly 50 years apart, are both choreographed to the composer's works. In Allegro Brillante, the 1956 ballet that opens the program, we get an immediate sense of Balanchine's discerning sensitivity to Tchaikovsky's work. Set to Piano Concerto No. 3 and performed against a rich sapphire backdrop, the ballet is elegant and fast-paced, with trademark Balanchine accents such as soaring arabesques and high, elongated arms. The aesthetic looks great on the dancers, who master the intricate push-pull of Balanchine's style; the technical demands of the quick allegro, high extensions and fluid partner-work are playfully threatened by an underlying compulsion to shift off-balance and take risks.

Next on the program is Carousel (A Dance), a 13-minute distillation of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical by choreographer Christopher Wheeldon. The opening of the work is beautiful, with the corps de ballet moving in a huge circle on a red-lit stage, rendered murky by a scrim. The scrim lifts and the carnival comes to life – Wheeldon uses a recurring waltz motif to depict the blithe vigour of the fairgrounds. There's a delightful messiness in the number of bodies onstage, created through an expert handling of staggered group configurations.

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These sweeping corps de ballet representations of the carnival are built around a central pas de deux between the romantic couple (played on opening night by Jillian Vanstone and Harrison James). The choreography in the duet is weaker than the group work, playing too readily into the Broadway (or Hollywood) tropes of young love. Something feels a bit false and precious in the sequence of surging lifts and turns – the lovers' first kiss comes off as unearned, even stilted. Vanstone's unremitting innocence as Julie only adds to the treacly feeling; I longed to see emotion in her that felt grounded and convincingly desirous. While she and James are technically fluid, the relationship lacks the dangerous, tempestuous undertones that simmer in the film adaptation and give the story weight.

Kudelka's The Man in Black is the most cerebral and, in a sense, surprising work of the program – it's deceptively simple but frames fascinating questions on performance and the relationship between music and choreography. Set to six cover songs performed by late country-music star Johnny Cash (Trent Reznor's Hurt and Gordon Lightfoot's If You Could Read My Mind are highlights), the pared-down movement has a self-consciousness to it that seems to echo the definition of a cover song itself. It feels as though the four dancers (James Leja, Rebekah Rimsay, Piotr Stanczyk and Robert Stephen) are broadcasting their performance – "covering" movement as opposed to vivifying or inhabiting it. They traipse across the stage like four comedic stooges, the click of their cowboy boots becoming acoustic accents to Johnny's crooning. Often moving in a cluster and sometimes interpreting the lyrics with mimetic gestures, the dancers trip over self-engendered obstacles. When a physical fight breaks out, it has zero repercussions. Instead, the dancers look as though they're rehearsing a sequence of stage combat. In true postmodern spirit, they seem to be commenting on the music as opposed to dancing to it. I haven't seen this kind of structural subversion applied so well to choreography before – it made for a smart and compelling reconfiguration of our role as spectators.

Wayne McGregor's Chroma is a shock-to-your-senses, high-energy ballet that's set to music by the band the White Stripes (and features original work by British composer Joby Talbot). Chroma's weird, slinking energy seems to epitomize a notion of "futurity"; if you were to pull someone out of the past to give them a taste of 21st-century ballet, this is the piece you'd take them to see.

The stage is a box of unforgiving light (I found myself thinking of a squash court) where 10 dancers in tiny, pastel pinafores move with a feral intensity. The ballet begins with a pas de deux between Svetlana Lunkina and Evan McKie, who tussle in and around the space created by one another's body. Legs are hyper-extended (Lunkina's penchée is beyond 180 degrees) and backs are arched; there is an undulating quality that becomes the mainstay of the choreography, a rolling impulse that begins at the crown of the head and then ripples through the entire musculature.

When done well, with real physical abandon, the effect is riveting. The dancers look like creatures with soft spines, as though the choreography has infected them with a non-human malleability. Some dancers do this better than others. The impression is transformative on Lunkina, McKie, Tanya Howard, Xiao Nan Yu; the impulse is also skilfully channelled during a thrilling trio of male dancers – Dylan Tedaldi, Robert Stephen and Giorgio Galli. Others still look a bit too classical; they can't find the same animalistic looseness in their torsos and hips.

But, as a whole, the company's mastery of such diverse styles and moods makes for a gripping and impressive evening.

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