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Evan McKie and Tanya Howard in Genus. (Aleksandar Antonijevic)
Evan McKie and Tanya Howard in Genus. (Aleksandar Antonijevic)

Review

Mentor and protegé show diverging interests in National Ballet’s mixed program Add to ...

  • Title Genus, with Tarantella & Self and Soul & The Concert
  • Venue Four Seasons Centre
  • City Toronto
  • Runs Until Sunday, April 2, 2017

One of the most satisfying elements of Wayne McGregor’s choreography is his construction of what I’ll term “physical logic.” In Genus, his 2007 work that opens the National Ballet of Canada’s current mixed program, the body seems to be caught in its own form of thought – not cerebral or introspective, but linear, animal, instinctive.

McGregor was inspired by his interest in Darwin’s theory of evolution – certainly no short order for ballet material, but he makes subject and form look like a natural pairing. Long phrases of movement seem to distend joints and isolate appendages in a way that feels organic and absolutely necessary. The pleasure then comes from watching McGregor systematically put the body back together again, creating undulating, creaturely motion that flows even when it’s pointed and jerky. There’s real movement inventiveness in the detailing of heads and the hinging of hips. Bodies snap into hyper-extended à la secondes then fold instantly in on themselves. Inventive, but seemingly compelled by order and need, not unlike Darwinism.

It’s the men who get to stand out in Genus because they’re allowed extensions and pliability that are normally reserved for the ballerinas. An opening trio (Evan McKie, Harrison James and Robert Stephen) impress with playfully popped rib cages, elastic penchée arabesques and exaggeratedly arched backs. The ballet makes use of different set devices, including video projections, wraparound lighting and an off-kilter square that forms a stage within a stage. The score is an invigorating mix of electronica and deconstructed classical music by British composer Joby Talbot and the American composer Deru. The work ends with a complicated ensemble sequence that deploys bodies in an exciting disarray, using the space unpredictably.

The problem with Genus is that it’s all physical logic, with no counterpoint of feeling. The piece can get a little cold. The closest that McGregor gets to emotional weight is a pas de deux between McKie and first soloist Tanya Howard. For the first time, we get a sense of intimacy and interaction between the dancers, and there’s exquisite detailing in the way they respond to the tiny flutters of each other’s movements. (McKie and Howard are beautiful long-limb specimens side by side.) Otherwise, McGregor only provides a glimpse of the “person” within the evolutionary process via a long-ish video that shows biological images (monkeys, butterflies, formaldehyde canisters) spliced with a woman dancing in a billowing dress. This sense of structure, revealing the personal within the scientific, would have given Genus more depth if it had been applied to the ballet in a more fundamental way.

It’s interesting to see Robert Binet’s Self and Soul, which premiered at the Erik Bruhn Competition in November, on the same program as McGregor’s work. Binet was mentored by McGregor at the Royal Ballet in 2012-13 and you can detect a mutual interest in long phrases where movement seems to ecstatically generate itself. But what I find so exciting about Binet as a choreographer is his insistence on dealing with his dancers as real people (McGregor’s starting point is often the opposite: abstraction).

You need only glance at the program notes to get a sense of Binet’s weight and intelligence as an artist; his inspiration comes from the diaries of an obscure Israeli artist (Noa Sadka) and he writes of wanting to capture personal moments that hover between mundanity and vastness, cracking open set ideas of love to go beyond the “romantic, familial, platonic or passionate.” It’s too much to accomplish in a nine-minute pas de deux and Self and Soul is weighed down by a busyness that means no individual part gets enough payoff. But the parts are still curious and involving; they reveal a choreographer asking good questions about what can be literal versus symbolic in a danced expression of a relationship.

Binet is fluent in lifts and long lines that subtly pull off a classical axis, but what’s more intriguing about his development as a choreographer is his non-classical – even pedestrian – use of hands and feet. At one point Calley Skalnik and Félix Paquet appear to quit their ascendant partnering to play a childlike game of stomping their heels and toes. Later, Paquet places his hands higher and higher on Skalnik’s arm until he reaches her fingertips. It’s a quirky and intimate moment; you get the sense of two young people testing what their relationship means and where they want it to go. But confusion ensues when the dancers shift from acting out high emotional stakes to assuming a studied blankness that’s often conventional of contemporary ballet. Motivations get hazy, and I’m not sure that Binet’s choice of glassy, non-melodic music (by A Winged Victory for the Sullen) helps him much in the sense that it makes dramatic structuring difficult, only adding to the haze. The work needs a clearer emotional arc, and maybe more confidence doing less.

The program is rounded out with two entertaining New York City Ballet works from the ‘50s and ‘60s. You get a taste of George Balanchine’s Old World playfulness in his Tarantella from 1964, complete with tambourines and swift, intricate footwork. Jillian Vanstone and Skylar Campbell tackle the pas de deux with energy and charisma in excess. Parts of Jerome Robbins’s satirical The Concert (or The Perils of Everybody) have aged better than others but, on balance, the humour still delivers. Second soloist Hannah Fischer, clearly a talented comedic actress, is pitch-perfect and enchanting as the earnest, drama-loving ingenue, and The Mistake Waltz, a quintet of ballerinas who keep screwing up, is a great parody of ballet’s worship of unison and conformity. The work ends with a lovely, understated sequence that depicts a crowd waiting for the rain, opening and closing their umbrellas to a melancholy Chopin nocturne, collectively bemused.

Genus, Tarantella, Self and Soul and The Concert continue until April 2 (ballet.ca).

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