Let's face it, the Royal Winnipeg Ballet has been looking for a critical hit. The company's last two full-length story ballets – Mark Godden's Svengali and Jorden Morris's Moulin Rouge: The Ballet – were clunkers.
With Twyla Tharp's The Princess & The Goblin (and yes, her name is part of the title), RWB artistic director André Lewis can breathe a sigh of relief. Here's a ballet he can tour without bowing his head in shame.
Tharp has created a pretty piece anchored in recognizable ballet vocabulary. Nothing offends. Nothing jars. Kiddies and grannies will love it. It's a "What's not to like?" ballet, particularly because children play a major role in the production.
The acclaimed American choreographer was inspired by an 1872 children's fantasy novel by Scottish writer George MacDonald, an ordained minister whose religious philosophy was one of optimism, a concept that informs his works. MacDonald's books for children are filled with hope, featuring young heroines and heroes who have the courage to do the right thing.
In several interviews in advance of the ballet's premiere, Tharp pointed out that a majority of 19th-century fictional heroines were frail or flawed. Women who show any kind of independent spirit were usually punished. In contrast is plucky Princess Irene, MacDonald's eight-year-old heroine. The courageous princess (albeit older) is one of the few elements that Tharp has retained from the book.
At 71, Tharp is an international superstar, and brings a wealth of experience, both in ballet and contemporary dance. Her approach to MacDonald's story is one of simplicity; there is no hint of the humanist symbolism that pervades the novel. The storytelling is direct and immediate.
In Tharp's take, Irene discovers that goblins, who live in mines beneath the Earth, are stealing children. She tries to warn her father, but King Papa is too preoccupied to listen. Irene then embarks on a mission to save the children, aided by her friend Curdie, a peasant boy, and by the spirit of her great-great-grandmother.
It is very clear from the start that King Papa (guest artist John Selya) is ignoring his three daughters – the eldest, Irene (guest artist Paloma Herrera); Stella (Anna Radewetz); and Blue (Bryn Dubberley). Too late, he realizes that the goblins have stolen his two younger daughters, and he spends the rest of the ballet searching for them in parental anguish.
In the meantime, Irene goes to the goblin lair on her rescue mission with Curdie (Dmitri Dovgoselets). Much of the rest of the ballet concerns her efforts to free the children.
Radewetz and Dubberley are two of the adorable children from the RWB school's recreational division. Along with the Eleven Stolen Children, they perform spirited choreography. Tharp has not dumbed down their steps. She has given them serious stuff, which they pull off in delightful fashion.
Having guests the magnitude of Herrera (American Ballet Theatre) and Selya (ABT and Twyla Tharp Dance) sets the bar high; both are icons. The RWB dancers rise to the occasion, particularly the soloists.
The score, meanwhile, is luscious: the music of Franz Schubert, arranged by Richard Burke, who also contributed original music based on Schubert themes. Conductor Tadeusz Biernacki and the Winnipeg Symphony do it all proud.
Caleb Levengood's set comprises a series of attractive draperies that fold and billow – although the production had to be stopped, meaning the curtain actually came down – while a technical glitch (an errant drape) was fixed.
Anne Armit's striking costumes are people-specific: the good guys in white, the bad guys in black. Donald Holder's lighting design, for the most part, evokes the magic.
This ballet isn't perfect – some of the goblin scenes, for example, are chaotic; there's too much going on. But in the end, that doesn't matter: The Royal Winnipeg Ballet has a genuine hit on its hands.