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dance review

Sonia Rodriguez and Guillaume Côté in a dress rehearsal photo for "The Seagull"Bruce Zinger

The Seagull

  • National Ballet of Canada
  • Choreography by John Neumeier
  • At the Four Seasons Centre in Toronto on Wednesday

It sounds like a bad soap opera. Kostya loves Nina. Nina and Arkadina love Trigorin. Trigorin is a narcissistic jerk. Masha loves Kostya. Medvedenko loves Masha. Shamrayev loves Polina. Polina loves Dorn.

It may read like a laundry list, but it happens to be great literature. The characters of Anton Chekhov's iconic play The Seagull are also the characters in John Neumeier's brilliant ballet of the same name. Incidentally, Sorin's the only one not enmeshed in love. But then, he's a drunk.

Chekhov set his play in the world of the theatre. Neumeier has translated the characters into dance, so successfully that one could argue that he's the greatest storytelling choreographer today.

Arkadina (Greta Hodgkinson) is now a prima ballerina instead of an actress; her son Kostya (Guillaume Côté) dreams of choreographing. Nina (Sonia Rodriguez) is a fledgling dancer, Trigorin (Aleksandar Antonijevic) is a famous choreographer.

As for the others, their world is the country estate of Sorin (Jonathan Renna). Shamrayev (Aarik Wells) is the estate manager, husband of Polina (Stephanie Hutchison) and father of Masha (Chelsy Meiss).

The ballet, which premiered in 2002 with the Hamburg Ballet, and entered the National's repertoire in 2008, is anchored in a series of intense duets. The power of The Seagull is how these couplings denote relationships, each pas de deux reflecting its own colour and dance vocabulary.

The first duet, for Kostya and Nina, is built on the joy of youth and promise. Their bodies curl around each other in exuberant energy and impossible lifts. It is young love at its most glorious.

Their last pas de deux features two broken people. Nina is an automaton in contrast to Kostya's pleading passion. The chaste kiss she places on his forehead at the end says it all.

The duets are studies in contrast. Masha clings to Kostya, while he is aloof and kind. With Medvedenko, the local doctor (Noah Long), Masha's coldness deflects his yearnings.

The Seagull is also about the art of dance, and brilliantly incorporates a history of choreography. When Arkadina and her entourage visit the estate, Kostya presents his new work, Soul of the Seagull. It is vintage Ballets Russes, breaking every rule of convention. Stiff bodies, flexed feet, art nouveau costumes. Arkadina is bored stiff.

On the other hand, Arkadina and Trigorin represent traditional Imperial Theatre ballet, and Trigorin's utterly shallow Death of the Seagull is almost laughable with its flutters and faux drama. Clever Neumeier steals shamelessly from the works of Bournonville and Petipa.

For good measure, he throws in a rollicking follies cabaret with Nina in the chorus line after she's been abandoned by Trigorin. The ensemble's first number is tawdry bump and grind, the second a glamorous ballroom dance.

And then there's the music, carefully chosen from Shostakovich, Tchaikovsky and Alexander Scriabin – for its sharp edge. An inspired choice for Kostya's ballet is an Evelyn Glennie percussion extravaganza that blows the eardrums of Arkadina and friends.

The company looks superb and the orchestra sounds wonderful. It's a run don't walk.

The Seagull continues until March 25.