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Image from Les Grands Ballets Canadien production of “Kaguyahime: The Moon Princess”Joris-Jan Bos

Czech-born, Netherlands-based Jiri Kylian is an acknowledged icon of choreography. Canadian-born, Vancouver-based Crystal Pite is, in a sense, a child of Kylian. If the master helped define contemporary dance by welding substance to movement, Pite has carried the mantle of deep thought into her own works.

Both Kylian's Kaguyahime: The Moon Princess, and Pite's The Tempest Replica are inspired by literary works. Kaguyahime is the oldest written narrative in Japanese culture, thought to be penned by an unknown author in the late ninth or early 10th century. The Tempest is one of Shakespeare's masterpieces.

Neither choreographer takes the superficial approach and simply retells the story. Rather, they both use the narrative to explore existential themes. With Kylian, it is the negative impact of beauty and purity on the human race, while Pite explores the nature of betrayal and forgiveness.

Kaguyahime: The Moon Princess

Les Grands artistic director Gradimir Pankov has scored another coup. These performances of Kaguyahime are the North American premiere of Kylian's first full-length ballet. The score, by the late, revered Japanese composer Maki Ishii, requires masters of Japanese instruments, and the musical ensemble includes Kodo drummers and an authentic gagaku ensemble, proficient in ancient court music.

The beloved story is about a lowly bamboo cutter who finds a radiant little girl in a bamboo stem, whom he raises as his own daughter. In reality, she is the Moon Princess who has come to earth to bring a message of peace and love. Unfortunately, her beauty attracts suitors who war over her, forcing Kaguyahime to return to the moon.

Kylian strips the story bare. There is Kaguyahime (Eva Kolarova), her suitors in white, the warring noblemen in black led by the stern Mikado (Marcin Kaczorowski), and the happy villagers. Each group has its individualized choreography. The suitors are bold and manly (martial-arts motifs), while the noblemen are arrogant and supercilious (high jumps and fast spins). The noblemen's war with the suitors – a sea of whirling bodies – backed by the thunder of the taiko drums, sets the pulse racing. In every instance, the Les Grands dancers cover themselves in glory.

Kylian's gorgeous choreography for the Moon Princess embraces Japanese kabuki elements such as flexed feet and knees, measured slowness, and detailed hand gestures. She also poses on one leg for endless periods of time. Kaguyahime is truly the island of tranquility. Her quartet with the Mikado, her attendants (Jeremy Raia and Jérémy Galdéano), and a swath of shiny gold cloth in which she is wrapped and unwrapped, is a moment of startling beauty.

The Tempest Replica

Pite has isolated eight characters from the play (performed by seven superb dancers). She begins with the spirit Ariel (Sandra Marin Garcia) being ordered to cause the shipwreck that brings Prospero's enemies to his enchanted island.

What follows is a brilliantly conceived silent movie. Projected text explains the narrative elements.

For half of The Tempest Replica, six of the dancers look like mummies, covered head to toe in grey costumes and facemasks. Prospero (Eric Beauchesne) is in normal clothes, and we see how he physically manipulates the others. They are robots, spurred on by his touch.

The final part has everyone in street clothes. The mummies have become real people, and Prospero has to cope with them in real terms. The heart of the dance is the duets and trios that Prospero executes with the various characters.

Pite is a master of the use of repetition. In this work, her leitmotif is the hammerlock around the neck. With each character, this movement takes on very different meanings.

For example, with his daughter Miranda (Cindy Salgado), Prospero's arm lock is one of love. With the monster Caliban (Brian Arias), it is master over slave. With his brother Antonio (Yannick Matthon), who helped usurp his throne, the arm lock is part of a battle of wills. King Alonso (Jermaine Spivey), who took over Prospero's throne, and Alonso's brother Sebastian (Jiri Pokorny), perform a trio where the neck lock details Prospero's contempt.

Increasingly, Pite has moved more and more into stunning multimedia effects and striking visual optics. She uses strobe lights, shadow puppets, video projections and written text, not to mention Owen Belton's haunting cinematic soundscape. The storm scene is a wondrous sound and light show.