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Angels' Atlas explores the human condition to rapturous choral music and ingenious lighting design.Karolina Kuras/Handout

  • Angels’ Atlas / Chroma / Marguerite and Armand
  • National Ballet of Canada

Angels’ Atlas, which had its world premiere at the National Ballet of Canada on Saturday, marks another triumph for Canadian choreographer Crystal Pite. Building on her enigmatic movement style, Angels’ explores the human condition to rapturous choral music and ingenious lighting design. Presented alongside Wayne McGregor’s smash hit Chroma and Frederick Ashton’s Marguerite and Armand, which honours Greta Hodgkinson’s near 30-year career, it’s a program not to be missed.

The hyperkinetic Chroma, by British choreographer Wayne McGregor, opened the program. In company repertoire since 2010, Chroma pairs physical extremism with emotional neutrality, a mesmerizing discord of hyperextension and blank expressions. The set is an all-white box (think Apple store) with a rectangle cut in the back for the dancers to slip through. Set to Joby Talbot’s brassy arrangement of songs by the White Stripes, it has the dancers wield McGregorisms – undulating torsos, cranking legs – like weapons before stalking nonchalantly off.

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Greta Hodgkinson, seen here in Marguerite and Armand, retires as principal dancer following her performances this week.Karolina Kuras/Handout

The cast on opening night was stellar, with Svetlana Lunkina setting a near brutal tone from the outset, with her gymnastic fluency and cold execution. Tanya Howard and Tina Pereira were also standouts, dreamier and no less physically prodigious, along with elegant newcomer Alexander Skinner and Siphesihle November – crowds will come to see him dance, and so they should.

Hodgkinson retires as principal dancer following her performances this week in Ashton’s Marguerite and Armand. It is a fine choice for a farewell: Marguerite commands the stage, draped in gowns by Cecil Beaton. With themes of love and sacrifice, this ballet is bittersweet, eternal. It has a choreographic texture that doesn’t call for show-off technique but is nonetheless rich.

Created in 1963 for Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn, the ballet was made almost untouchable by their legend, until French ballerina Sylvie Guillem broke the spell, resurrecting the ballet with Nicolas Le Riche in 2000. Since then, it has flourished on dozens of stages and, for the first time this week, at the National Ballet.

Hodgkinson was a refined, resplendent Marguerite and Guillaume Côté a sincere, devoted cavalier as Armand. Liszt’s Piano Sonata in B Minor was played exquisitely by Zhenya Vitort. It was a stunning performance to cap an astonishing career with no room for regrets.

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Pite’s Angels’ Atlas doesn’t break new ground so much as go deeper into it.Karolina Kuras/Handout

Pite’s Angels’ Atlas doesn’t break new ground so much as go deeper into it. Light reflected onto a pitch-dark background stains like ink in water, or smoke, ceaselessly morphing. The dancers, making up a 36-strong cast, take even spaces across the stage, no leaders in this egalitarian troupe.

Choral voices of Tchaikovsky’s liturgical Cherubic Hymn rise, taking us immediately to an otherworldly place, more Delphic than angelic. In the half-light, people here toil, struggle, sweat. They move as a pack, tearing apart, knitting back together driven by an unseen force. Crouching low, they pulse to a beat (original music by Owen Belton), like a pounding heart.

There is no story per se, but the leading duet, danced by November and Hannah Galway, centres on loss. November ribbons across the floor in a velvet flow, Galway matches the gravitas in soft and sharp movements – fighting, falling, failing. In a beautiful sequence, the corps echo the feeling, pulling each other one by one to the ground in a way that reminds me of pulling a paper lantern into shape. Each body criss-crosses the other, falling with infinite lightness to the earth.

This is familiar territory for Pite, whose work often resounds with themes of mortality, love, loss. With Angels’, Pite said she wanted to create conditions to allow one to glimpse the infinite. There is a spirituality here that suggests we are in darkness, stained by light, and there is so much more to see.

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Karolina Kuras/Handout

Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts to March 7

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