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Theatre Reviews Review: Justin Peck’s Paz de la Jolla comes to Canada as part of National Ballet triple bill

Harrison James and Hannah Fischer in Paz de la Jolla.

  • The National Ballet of Canada
  • Paz de la Jolla, The Man in Black and Cacti
  • At the Four Seasons Centre in Toronto 
  • Until June 22

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You might want to describe Justin Peck’s musicality as a little supersonic – it feels somehow beyond what the rest of us can hear. The New York City Ballet resident choreographer can squeeze kinetic details out of beats that seem too quick to count. His Balanchine-like phrases are full of sensitivity, surprise and swiftness – but “high-speed” has new meaning for Peck’s generation. It’s clear he wants ballet to keep apace.

Canadians haven’t had a chance to see Peck’s work locally until this week. The National Ballet of Canada is presenting his 2013 ballet Paz de la Jolla as the first piece on its very contemporary summer triple bill, which opened in Toronto on Saturday night. At 30, Peck has become a luminary in the ballet world, generally considered one of the three most important choreographers (alongside Alexei Ratmansky and Christopher Wheeldon). Last week, he earned his first accolade on Broadway, picking up the Tony Award for best choreography for the musical Carousel.

Peck’s career has taken off since Paz de la Jolla, a relatively early work inspired by his childhood in Southern California. He’s since made a name for himself as a forward-looking innovator, collaborating with indie musicians such as Sufjan Stevens and The National and experimenting with timely ideas such as gender-neutral roles. A recent commission at NYCB, The Times Are Racing, explores popular frustration with Trump-era politics and depicts a sensual gay duet. Online footage of Peck improvising new work shows his inventiveness – his style looks increasingly disinhibited and contingent, using balletic steps but hovering over them like a tap dancer, building a wild internal momentum that breaks classical norms.

Paz de la Jolla appears traditional by comparison; it’s invigorating and formally beautiful, but, in the context of what comes next, it feels like a step on Peck’s ascent. Featuring a cast of ­18 dancers dressed in vibrant vintage-looking beachwear, the work derives its name from a 1950 piano-orchestral piece by Czech composer Bohuslav Martinu. The 20-minute ballet is reminiscent of Balanchine in its speed, ensemble formations and expressive musicality. But unlike most of Balanchine’s work, Paz de la Jolla isn’t abstract. The dancers play real young people, enjoying a summer day with friends. Neither is it a story ballet; instead, it refreshingly echoes slice-of-life trends in film, TV and literature. Paz focuses on content without the machinations of big plot; we get relationships and little intrigues without an overly deterministic arc.

Three dancers get lead roles and the women are the focal point. A female soloist in a teal swimsuit has the most ebullient, athletic choreography. This is where Peck pushes himself with syncopations and non-stop movement. Every step seems to come with an almost immediate counterstep. The dancer completes a pirouette only to launch into a phrase of swift petit allegro; an extension becomes a rapid sequence of turns, in which the legs are enveloping inward at a clip. The choreography is springy and joyful and the two dancers I saw in the role tackled its challenges quite differently. Chelsy Meiss attacked the technical demands with killer energy and a do-or-die ferocity, while Jenna Savella had a more fluid approach, allowing herself some space to breathe.

A couple emerges from the ensemble of friends. They perform a lovely pas de deux in which the woman reprises a deep lunge with a sweeping sideways port de bras. A dreamlike sequence has the woman wander off alone into the sea (the ensemble dons transparent ponchos to symbolize the ocean). A gorgeous développé into arabesque is performed a few times in unison, suggesting a darker, more sensual yearning. The couple is reunited for an energetic ending, but the sense of journey and mystery gives the ballet a sense of emotional shape.

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Both casts were technically excellent. Harrison James and Hannah Fischer brought a playful sweetness to their romance. Fischer seemed especially elegant and powerful in Peck’s choreography, mastering the big jumps and complex phrases while hitting every accent and detail with a confident, light touch. Emma Hawes and Brendan Saye have a natural chemistry that helped lend their interpretation more depth. Hawes’s unremitting truthfulness comes out in everything she does. She inhabits the choreography so entirely that – forgive the metaphor – her body seems to sing. (Hawes’s exceptional talent has just earned her an appointment as first soloist at the English National Ballet, which she’ll hold alongside her job at the National starting next season.)

The program was followed by two popular revivals that I’ve reviewed in recent years. James Kudelka’s The Man in Black (choreographed in 2010 and last performed by the National in 2015) is a beautiful curiosity that shouldn’t work but does. Four dancers (three men, a woman) clomp around the stage in cowboy boots to six cover songs by Johnny Cash. Sometimes they seem to dance to the music; other times, they act out the lyrics. In Hurt (Trent Reznor) a man pretends to cut his arm with a knife (or needle?), then holds his arms in a stiff vertical line, as though transforming into the knife. In Further on up the Road (Bruce Springsteen), the quartet rock their hips in a line dance, staring outward, as though conscious that they’re performing. Something about the partnering, mime and shifting formations – all set to the sadness of Cash’s crooning voice – evoke an underlying anguish, the sense of a journey, the importance of a team.

Dancers perform in the National Ballet of Canada’s production of Cacti.

National Ballet of Canada

Swedish choreographer Alexander Ekman’s Cacti (choreographed 2010; performed by the National in 2016) is a visually striking, crowd-pleasing satire that sends up contemporary dance and contemporary dance criticism. The dancers pose on pedestals, play patty cake on the floor and admire potted cactuses endowed with inscrutable meaning. It’s all gimmick, but with a string quartet wandering around the stage playing Schubert, and a genuinely clever duet in the middle section, Cacti is good fun.

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