How well do you have to know ballet in order to create it? Take a look at the resident choreographers at major companies and you'd be right to answer a lot. But there's a school of thought that suggests ballet's insularity is restricting innovation – that the freshest ideas in dance are coming from dissident trends and collision with other disciplines.
With this in mind, I was really excited about Five Creations, the new version of the National Ballet's choreographic workshop, which was presented at Toronto's Betty Oliphant on Thursday and Friday night. In the past, the workshop has provided an opportunity for company dancers to make new work on their colleagues. For this cycle, under the leadership of choreographic associate Robert Binet (and facilitated with choreographers Peggy Baker and Laurence Lemieux), the company invited two professional contemporary choreographers to develop pieces alongside the dancers. Hanna Kiel and Alysa Pires join principal dancer Elena Lobsanova and first soloists Robert Stephen and Brendan Saye as creators.
There was much to enjoy about the evening, not least of which was the opportunity to see many of the company's excellent dancers in a smaller venue. I also liked discovering a different creative side to the dancers who made work – I already know their personalities as performers and it was interesting to see how their talents translated as creators. Lobsanova is other-worldly when she dances; she transforms so completely that I often feel as though I'm witnessing something a bit arcane. Her three-segment piece, 3, set to music by Arvo Part and Beethoven, had a gentle, meditative quality that suggested her own authenticity as a performer. A soft duet between corps dancer Chae Eun Young and apprentice Hannah Galway had an unstructured feeling that intrigued me.
Stephen is dynamic and exuberant on stage and his piece, Suite in Old Style, delivered a bold idea via a clear conceptual arc. Starting in a classical vocabulary with folk undertones (amplified by composer Dobrinka Tabakova's traditional-sounding suite), he had his dancers slowly twist out of the set vernacular and heteronormative pairings. They melt into a slinkier style with fewer rules.
I was really impressed by Saye's Grey Verses, a sombre three-part work with strong imagery. The middle segment was particularly powerful, a solo danced by Dylan Tedaldi in a shaft of light, set to the live accompaniment of violinist Andréa Tyniec (playing John Corigliano). Saye has confidence with simplicity and was able to suggest a range of emotions through the pulses and spasms of Tedaldi's bare torso. The final duet danced by Lobsanova and Peng-Fei Jiang (to Rachmaninov's Prelude in G Major) was full of quiet beauty and understated tension.
Kiel, who runs her own company, Human Body Expression, is the only choreographer whose work I've seen before. In the past, I've been impressed with her unmannered layering of ideas and non-conformist approach to composition. I had the sense that, working on pointe for the first time, she was bit restricted by preconceptions of what a more classical piece should look like. When the Wind Comes, a duet with Jenna Savella and Kota Sato, set to a very dramatic score by Ezio Bosso, displayed a natural facility for building momentum. But its speed and urgency never quite landed, and the dancers emoted facially in a way that felt unearned.
The real discovery of the evening was Alysa Pires. It's hard to believe that she made In Between in the scant rehearsal-time allotted; it's a polished, cohesive and energetic ballet in which relationships and tensions are created by the unfolding action. Set to an original score composed by her husband, Adam Sakiyama, Pires displays so much clarity and consistency in her aesthetic that it's also hard to believe that this is her first work on pointe. A stylistic flourish of a sprawled hand is reprised in solos and duets; a trio with Spencer Hack, Emma Hawes and Christopher Gerty is electric with chemistry. Clare Peterson shows off sinewy detail that we don't get to see in her corps work; she's a bit timid in her solo, but I saw flashes of real sensitivity.