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theatre review

Emergence by the National Ballet of Canada.Bruce Zinger

The National Ballet of Canada is featuring two Canadian classics in the third of its March programs.

James Kudelka's stunning The Four Seasons remains ever fresh since its world premiere in 1997. Crystal Pite's provocative Emergence, which made its debut in 2009, is still revealing its riches.

Both have become signature works for the company. It is a clever pairing.

That being said, I have an issue to raise with the National.

All three openings this month have featured the excellent Guillaume Côté in leading roles. I have been trumpeting Côté's praises since he was a student at Canada's National Ballet School, so my pique is not with him. But one dancer getting all three opening-night reviews?

In the case of Nijinsky, making its company premiere, choreographer John Neumeier selected Côté to perform the lead on this auspicious occasion. His choice gets no argument from me.

Côté first danced the role of A Man in The Four Seasons in 2010, but not on the opening, so give it to him now. He has never been reviewed in this ballet before.

But when Alexei Ratmansky's Romeo and Juliet premiered in 2011, Côté and Elena Lobsanova were the leads. They got the first review and the triumph. Nonetheless, there were five different casts fielded this time around. Why can't two other dancers be given opening night in the revival?

I realize that choreographers get to choose their dancers, and their opening-night casts. But surely, in the case of revivals, Karen Kain could exercise some gentle persuasion to share the wealth.

Which takes us back to the ballets at hand, and, yes, Côté acquitted himself wonderfully well. A Man is one of the greatest roles in contemporary ballet, and is another feather in the dancer's already loaded cap.

Kudelka envisions Vivaldi's beloved score as a life's journey, with each season personified by a woman. A Man passes through Spring's innocence (Stacey Shiori Minagawa), Summer's passion (Greta Hodgkinson), Autumn's maturity (Stephanie Hutchison) and Winter's death (Xiao Nan Yu).

The choreography is challenging, and it takes a dancer of keen intelligence to convey the ballet's intense emotional arc. It also helps that Côté is a sensational partner who can negotiate through Kudelka's dangerous lifts with ease.

Pite's Emergence is more of an ensemble piece. The ballet swept the 2009 Dora Awards in all four categories – best choreography, best performance, best score and best production – and for good reason. The work rivets the eye.

Pite was inspired by pop science theorist Steven Johnson's book Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities and Software. The dancers are placed within a hive defined by Jay Gower Taylor's towering backdrop. At the centre is the tunnel that leads to the outside world.

The glory of the piece is Pite's myriad insect imagery rendered in startling physicality. But more than that, her ability to conjure up parallels in human behaviour is what gives Emergence its psychological depth.

En route, she touches on the struggle of new life, confrontational gender issues, hierarchical battles, and the impact of swarm mentality, to name but a few of her many themes. Owen Belton's disturbing soundscape, evoking droning bees to marching jackboots, is filled with menace.

The Four Seasons and Emergence continue at the Four Seasons Centre until March 24.