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By juxtaposing an established artist and an emerging artist, Ratmansky & Côté is a showcase of current directions in new choreography.

Aleksandar Antonijevic

Ratmansky & Côté

The National Ballet of Canada

At the Four Seasons Centre in Toronto on Saturday

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The National Ballet's spring program pairs work by Alexei Ratmansky, probably the biggest name in contemporary ballet, with a world premiere by Guillaume Côté, one of the Toronto company's choreographic associates (and a principal dancer). By juxtaposing an established artist and an emerging artist, the program is a showcase of current directions in new choreography.

Given the heavily thematic nature of both works – Ratmansky's Shostakovich Trilogy is implicitly about society under Stalin; Côté's Being and Nothingness is about Sartrean existentialism – the program frames an interesting question: Can dance tell us anything about history and philosophy?

In both cases, the answer is yes – in Ratmansky's, the yes is resounding. There's always the fear that an internationally celebrated artist won't quite live up to his reputation. But Symphony No. 9 and Piano Concerto No. 1 – the first and third parts of Ratmansky's Shostakovich Trilogy (the middle one is not performed) are extraordinary. Without any linear narrative, Ratmansky evokes a special pathos in the story of the Soviet Union's rise and demise. The work lets us feel history in a different way, suggesting a kind of sinister elegance that is uniquely expressed through ballet.

This effect is partially the result of Ratmansky's profound understanding of Shostakovich's music. He's able to stage hope and patriotic splendour, then how both are undermined by the encroachment of coercion and fear. Ratmansky is so fluent in the language of ballet that he makes us understand it better. An extended sequence of small allegro is like a breathlessly articulated sentence; we follow along, relishing the complexity, because all parts are urgent, cumulative and clear.

Symphony No. 9 was composed in 1945 in the wake of Russia's victory over the Nazis. Ratmansky uses his dancers to suggest tension between the collective and the individual. His configurations of lines and clusters change so swiftly that we find ourselves staring at an isolated dancer, wondering how one moment has delivered the next. The corps de ballet move across the stage as though encountering resistance; their arms slice in slow diagonals, like sickles through fields of wheat. All this is performed around the recurrence of a central couple (McGee Maddox and Xiao Nan Yu) who pause after a lyrical sequence and cast a paranoid glance over their shoulders. In a stunning ending, the entire corps collapse to the floor in jointed parts, like a cast of broken marionettes.

Piano Concerto No. 1, composed in 1933, functions like a flashback to the heyday of Stalinist industrialization. Huge red shapes of stars, hammers and sickles descend from above (the dramatic set is designed by George Tsypin). The corps are two-faced in spirit, and this is brilliantly evoked in their two-toned unitards. Sometimes they seem to be human beings with feeling and volition. We see this in Dylan Tedaldi's expressive solo, in which his suspended poses feel inflected with spiritual hope. Other times, the dancers are more like the static symbols that hang overhead – as is the case when five women are lifted to make a row of star-like shapes in the air. Svetlana Lunkina and Jillian Vanstone perform an exciting syncopated duet, where edgy flourishes – elbows pointed outwards in chainé turns, bodies flicking backwards in attitude derrière (one bent leg is lifted behind) – contrast with unexpected vulnerability. Suddenly fearful, the women turn their backs to the audience and hug. Ratmanksy's ability to build drama and tension feels inexhaustible. The Soviet machine is in full swing, but we feel the inevitability of its destruction.

There's lots to admire in Côté's Being and Nothingness, and I think he's also able to convey something irreducible about Jean-Paul Sartre's ideas. The work consists of seven narrative vignettes set to the translucent piano compositions of Philip Glass (played beautifully by Edward Connell). Michael Levine's spare set is gorgeous and draws allusions to Sartre's surrealist contemporaries – I thought of René Magritte's floating castle or the visions described in André Breton's manifesto. Props and furniture appear to hover in dark space. The onstage exit signs are visible; the device of theatricality is bared.

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As a choreographer, Côté is interested (and able) to find inventive looseness and expression in the body. Greta Hodgkinson, who performs the opening solo, moves swiftly from low turns in cou de pied (one foot is held at the ankle) to larger pirouettes and jumps. Her steps are inflected with anxiety; she wrings her hands, flutters her fingers at her temples, manipulates her legs and slaps her own cheek. It's a kind of "headache" motif that is present in all the vignettes. The dancers' suffering unifies aesthetically, but because it never changes, we get no sense of where it came from or where it's going.

Instead, every vignette displays a priori angst that doesn't feel quite earned or justified and prevents the tension from building. But there are still poetic moments in Being and Nothingness – a sink overflows with water, a chorus of men in fedoras stalk the stage. Côté is able to evoke something of the horror and monotony of existence that is at the crux of Sartre's work. I was moved by the evocation of morning light and the subtle anticipation of loss in the bedroom duet, danced beautifully by corps members Kathryn Hosier and Félix Paquet. And Hodgkinson, troubled and restive, is intensely compelling throughout.

The National Ballet's spring mixed program continues on June 3, 4, 5 and 6 (ballet.ca).

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