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theatre review

Death and the Maiden

Death and the Maiden

Choreography and set design by Stephan Thoss

Costuming by Jelena Miletic

Lighting design by Marc Parent

At Theatre Maisonneuve, Place des Arts, in Montreal on Thursday

Les Grands Ballets Canadiens is making a big investment in Stephan Thoss. The German choreographer has set two works on the company since 2011 (one of which, Dream Away, comes back next season), and has just created a new piece in Montreal, called Death and the Maiden.

The opening night performance was a hit with the crowd at Theatre Maisonneuve, and it was easy to see why. Thoss's athletic choreography has an urgency and verve that are immediately appealing. His speedy sequences look weighty, as if driven by some forceful narrative demand, though Death and the Maiden is not a story ballet. Its subject is the cycle of life and death – a broad theme that Thoss approaches through solos, duets and small ensembles related to the four elements: fire, air, water and earth.

Any few scenes of this piece, however, impress more than the whole 80 minutes. Thoss is a minimalist who works from a small set of basic moves. He can be quite inventive about varying their use, but his variations seldom build on each other – they're mostly just more of the similar. I never felt the gradual accretion of meaning I experience in the best works by, say, Philip Glass, whose music figured prominently in the recorded score.

Thoss's basic position, for women and men, is a broad-legged stance, which he often drives further into the floor by flexing the knees. This is a very assertive stance, but also relatively static. Much of the elan of Thoss's movement stems from the urgent recurrent need to propel the dancers out of this position – usually along the horizontal, because his feeling for gravity is that of a modern choreographer. But his basic stance always reasserts itself, sometimes within a few moves. It appears habitually at the end of phrases, as an asymmetrical broad squat.

It's up to the hips and upper body to break from this tense but inert pose. The arms whirl and flash semaphorically; the spine whips forward and back and all around. That's the basic material of the ballet. Those moves recur again and again, linked and combined in slightly different ways, through the many bodies that streamed on stage in small groups.

When everyone moves the same way, the individual loses distinction. If it weren't for Jelena Miletic's colour-coded costuming, I would never have been able to tell who was fire and who was water. Marc Parent lit the dancers from above, casting a silvery sheen over tensed thighs and arms but obscuring faces, further diminishing their individuality.

Near the end, one of the black-clad men turned his back on us and offered a hand to Valentine Legat – the Maiden, apparently. At this point, the hands of the narrative clock began to move, and we saw a well-shaped expressive sequence of dramatic stages. You could see, by turns, her fear, curiosity, submission, rebellion and acquiescence, clearly presented through movement, set to the andante from Schubert's Death and the Maiden string quartet (No. 14 in D minor). Maybe Les Grands should ask Thoss to make a real story ballet – my guess is that he'd be good at it.

As it was, Death and the Maiden left me with a disconnected array of striking images and moments. A brief kinetic detail would register in a way that the repetitive general swirl did not. The most sustained development came not through any body, but in the growing import of the black suitcases the dancers sometimes carried. These became a wall, a coffin, a memory container and even a place of emergence, proving Thoss's dynamic powers in set design. But I never felt the large cyclical drama alluded to in his notes.

The dancers looked strong in all of this, impressing with their physicality and precision. When Thoss slowed things down, mostly in the ballet's middle section, they showed their lyrical abilities, too. After three encounters with him in four years, they have evidently internalized how the Thoss dancing body looks and moves. Whatever its limitations, it's a demanding discipline that can only strengthen them.

Death and the Maiden continues at Place des Arts' Théâtre Maisonneuve in Montreal through May 23.

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