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The joy of Ratmansky’s choreography is how lightly it wears its intelligence.

KAROLINA KURAS/National Ballet

  • Title: Études with Piano Concerto No.1 and Petite Mort
  • Genre: Ballet
  • Choreographers: Harald Lander, Alexei Ratmansky and Jiri Kylian
  • Company: The National Ballet of Canada
  • Venue: Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts
  • City: Toronto
  • Year: Continues until Dec. 1

Great choreography will express things that feel unknowable beyond their articulation by a moving human body. This is one reason why the work of Alexei Ratmansky and Jiri Kylian look so good side by side – as they appear in the National Ballet’s latest triple bill, which opened in Toronto Wednesday night. It’s satisfying enough to see one choreographer bursting with nuanced physical ideas, in possession of striking musicality and in full control of his craft; two in a row is a rare treat.

Piano Concerto No. 1, the final segment of Ratmansky’s 2013 Shostakovich Trilogy, is part homage to his compatriot composer, part panorama of Soviet history. The ballet received its company premiere in 2015 alongside the first section of the trilogy; while seeing more of the work lends a greater sense of Ratmansky’s sensitivity and vision, audiences will find the final part rewarding on its own. Shostakovich wrote the piano concerto in 1933 and the USSR that Ratmansky depicts echoes this heyday of Stalinist industrialization. Bright red sickles, hammers and stars hang from the rafters; the dancers tackle the material with energy and patriotic fervour. Dressed in two-toned unitards (red and silver), they hover between human and inanimate, at once young idealistic Soviets and cogs in the collectivized machine.

If this sounds a little concept-heavy, the joy of Ratmansky’s choreography is how lightly it wears its intelligence. Shostakovich’s music is wistful, elegiac, playful; Ratmansky vivifies the mood with delicateness, musical detail and a wonderfully refined treatment of ensemble configurations. He inspires absolute confidence; every moment and transition is carefully thought out and meticulously executed. His vocabulary could be called classical-rendered-aslant, with little impertinences like a sinking back complicating the line of an attitude and other minor flourishes enriching otherwise conventional lines. Two lead women, principal dancer Svetlana Lunkina and first soloist Koto Ishihara, perform a memorable syncopated duet that suggests an underlay of fear. Newcomer Ishihara is both elegant and ebullient with the demanding allegro; Lunkina is simply exquisite in this work, finding rich texture and pathos in every sequence. Perhaps the Soviet-born, former Bolshoi ballerina has a special understanding of the content.

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My only quibble was that the company looked a little less rehearsed than they did four years ago, appearing out of sync in key ensemble moments that demand flawless unison and precision. Surely the nomenklatura would not approve.

Czech choreographer Kylian’s 1991 Petite Mort also makes use of beautiful piano concertos: Mozart’s A Major (KV 88) and C Major (KV 476). As with Ratmansky’s work, this is a fully realized and cohesive artistic creation, in which concept and choreography are born of the same impulse and feel – consequently, indivisible from one another. The title alludes to the French connection between orgasm and death, clearly Kylian’s subject of interest, too.

The dramatic opening has six male dancers walking backward with fencing swords raised above their heads; they proceed to manipulate the swords around their bodies in impressively synchronized acts of balance. A resetting of time and place is evoked by a billowing expanse of fabric – the men are replaced by six women dressed in modified corsets. The men and women couple off, and the ensuing duets are comprised of riveting tensions that suggest love, conflict and sex.

Kylian uses stillness and slowness poetically, often working against the rhythm and speed of Mozart’s music. At times, there’s a breathless intimacy to the little dramas unfolding between each couple, engendered expressly by the physicality of the steps. This makes for a great study in “story” that is made directly from the choreography, versus choreography that attempts to fulfill a preset idea. Kylian’s duets are tender, compressed and intense – they have the clarity and transparency of Mozart’s music, while charged with the same essential and romantic force.

Harald Lander’s 1948 Études is the final ballet of the evening – a work of trifling choreographic interest, but a crowd-pleaser for general audiences and ballet nerds alike. The former can enjoy the behind-the-scenes look at the rituals of a ballet class, beginning at the barre and ending with the pyrotechnics of grande allegro. The latter will enjoy assessing the company’s technical chops, seeing how the women’s fouetté turns measure up against each other and how much the opening dancer will wriggle in her grande plié – a very basic step, but tricky to execute unsupported in pointe shoes. On Wednesday night, second soloist Calley Skalnik was smooth as silk.

Études with Piano Concerto No. 1 and Petit Mort continues at the Four Seasons Centre until December 1.

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