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Theatre & Performance To stay relevant, the National Ballet of Canada must eschew tradition and challenge audiences

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Ballet used to be a vital art form that moved the cultural conversation forward. As the National Ballet of Canada launches its 65th season, Martha Schabas asks how the company can restore the medium's vitality

Guillaume Côté in Onegin, an upcoming production at the National Ballet of Canada.

Guillaume Côté in Onegin, an upcoming production at the National Ballet of Canada

Karolina Kuras

There was a time in the not-too-distant past when ballet was an art that people took seriously.

Sixty years ago, in New York City, it wouldn't have been surprising for a person eager to discuss the merits of Tennessee Williams on Broadway or Leonard Bernstein at Carnegie Hall to have a ready opinion on the New York City Ballet. Why? Because George Balanchine was taking a 19th-century form and making it vital and relevant to postwar America. He cleared the stage of big sets and childish fairy tales, and created thematically rich, exquisitely musical choreography that paired a new athleticism with the electric feeling of the times.

The world was changing, an Iron Curtain divided East from West, and Balanchine's minimalist, expressive, technically complex ballets spoke to all the speed and urgency that surrounded them.

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But these days in Toronto, ballet-goers seem to have little overlap with the audiences of the country's other major arts institutions. You need only look at the National Ballet's latest promotional material for Cinderella, the first production of the fall season, to get a sense of this.

Instead of trying to sell tickets based on the artists' brains, craft, or innovativeness – as we'd expect to see from theatre, opera or visual art – we get a photograph of a ballet shoe and the heading: Did you know there are 192 crystals hand glued onto Cinderella's pointe shoes?

Jillian Vanstone in Cinderella

Jillian Vanstone in Cinderella, a 2016 production at the National Ballet of Canada

Karolina Kuras

An ad like this leaves me with little ammunition to level at those who think ballet is a dated art-form of minimal depth and maximum sparkle. I look at these sequins and find myself hard-pressed not to agree. Of course, you can't judge a ballet by a poor marketing call, but the ad sure sets an ominous tone as prelude to the company's 65th fall season.

Art depends on its ability to hold some kind of meaningful conversation with the world that creates it, which isn't to suggest that this conversation need be topical, social or political in any literal way. Instead, my claim is grounded in the idea of art's vitality – the belief that art is impelled by questions, by uneasiness and discord, by the sense that it is doing essential, irreducible work.

Historically, ballet has been no exception. When The Sleeping Beauty opened in St. Petersburg in 1890, it captured all the anxious decadence of Tsarist Russia on the brink of collapse.

When The Rite of Spring premiered at Theatre Champs Elysée in 1913, Parisians were so riled by Stravinsky's dissonant score and Nijinsky's primitive dancing that they rioted inside the auditorium. Imagine that.

So it is with both bewilderment and sadness that one might look over the National Ballet of Canada's 2016/17 season and think: What can be considered vital among it? What conversations can these ballets possibly provoke?

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Of the eight ballets being presented at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, five are full-evening story-ballets in the style and tradition of the 19th century. All five are based on novellas or fairy tales written at least 133 years ago. Two of the five ( The Nutcracker and Swan Lake) are ballets that were first choreographed in the 19th century. Three of the five (Cinderella, The Nutcracker, Pinocchio) are based on children's stories and are suitable for children.

Nut2DAA2 David Adams with Artists of the Ballet in The Nutcracker, Act II (1956).

The National Ballet of Canada’s 1956 production of The Nutcracker

Ken Bell, courtesy of The National Ballet of Canada Archives

Of course, any serious ballet fan would point out that it's a misrepresentation to place John Cranko's 1965 adaptation of Pushkin's Eugene Onegin, which is presented as the second half of the fall program, in the same group as the major ballets of Imperial Russia. Or not to note that James Kudelka's 1999 adaptation of Swan Lake brings new variations and a darker ending to the 1877 original.

Serious ballet fans can watch these classics on repeat because they have sequences of exquisite beauty, and because we delight in analyzing the intricacies of performance – why, for example, a certain ballerina is a masterful interpreter of Odette/Odile (the demanding Jekyll-and-Hyde role from Swan Lake) while another is merely a fluent technician.

We can argue over alternative endings, Russian versus American fouetté turns, and which living male dancer channels the most brooding Onegin. With a company as excellent as the National Ballet, we get first-rate material for discussions we can – and do – have, every year.

But to the uninitiated, our conversations might sound somewhere between cultish and twee, while our definition of adaptation might feel despairingly modest. If you're imagining Tchaikovsky recast in contemporary North America with unconventional relationships and radically revised dancing, you'd be better off watching Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan. And while Cranko brought a psychological intensity to the story-ballet that the fairy tales don't have, even in the 1960s he was known as a traditionalist.

Then Onegin feels old in another way: it has been in the National's repertoire for 32 years and, aside from some "new" 19th-century-style sets and costumes made in 2010, it hasn't changed.

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National Ballet Canada McGee Maddox and Xiao Nan Yu in Onegin. Photo by Aleksandar Antonijevic.

McGee Maddox and Xiao Nan Yu in Onegin, at the National Ballet Canada

Aleksandar Antonijevic

After the Christmas-season Nutcracker – another Kudelka adaptation set in the distant past – comes Pinocchio, the 2017 premiere that the company is digging deep into its pockets to produce. It's the March Break ballet of the season, which means that, like Christopher Wheeldon's set-heavy, choreography-light Alice's Adventures in Wonderland from 2011, it's meant to attract families and do well at the box-office.

You could call it a smart strategy to have an annual production that can provide easy entertainment for young viewers while promising good revenue. But when you add Cinderella and The Nutcracker to the menu, and realize that a third of a major national institution's programming is probably best enjoyed if you're under the age of 12, you start to wonder a little. Is ballet actually appropriate for thinking, 21st-century adults?

If you saw the National's most recent production, an immersive work at the Art Gallery of Ontario called The Dreamers Ever Leave You, you'd likely respond with an emphatic yes. Here was a ballet that actually had something to do with the world we live in, rather than feeling like the live-performance equivalent of rummaging through a bin of beautiful, but obsolete, antiques. Robert Binet's slippery, close-up choreography, which the audience could record on their phones while moving around the dancers at will, felt vibrant and new. It was the kind of performance you'd want to discuss – or at least consider – afterwards, maybe questioning how the layers of minimalism evoked so much feeling, or rehashing the voyeuristic thrill of standing inches away from largely undressed, intertwining bodies.

Artists with the National Ballet of Canada performs during dress rehearsal of The Dreamers Ever Leave You, at the Art Gallery of Ontario on August 30 2016. The performances run from Aug 31 till Sept 10 2016. The immersive work was inspired by the work of Canadian painter Lawren Harris. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

Artists with the National Ballet of Canada perform The Dreamers Ever Leave You at the Art Gallery of Ontario.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

And these aren't ordinary bodies; they're bodies that have been trained expressly – in a technique that's been refined over nearly half a millennium with an almost scientific rigour – to explain what love, desire, loss and rage do to the way an arm moves through the air, to the curve of a woman's back as she bends towards the floor.

Ballet has endured for four centuries because, like the most dexterous and poetic languages, it is so powerfully disposed to express the highs and lows of human feeling. Its "meaning" is abstract, but unlike cubism or imagist poetry, it's always, necessarily, figurative. Not for a second can it stop being about human content, human form. And so we feel implicated in the rush of live, sensual experience that manifests and disappears before our eyes.

The National Ballet is well-poised to remind us of all this power because the company is so strong. The quality of its dancers – world-class by all accounts – is largely the work of Karen Kain. Since beginning her tenure as artistic director in 2005, Kain has brought the ensemble to an unprecedented level of technical excellence. Because of her long-standing international reputation, she's been able to attract big stars at the principal rank (Jurgita Dronina from the Dutch National Ballet, Evan McKie from the Stuttgart Ballet, Svetlana Lunkina from the Bolshoi), then secure rising talent and the best graduates at more junior levels.

Watching the National perform, you can feel confident that the company – and perhaps the technique of ballet dancing itself – is getting better.

But what can be said about the progress of the art form? Why does the better part of the National's 65th season look like it's stuck in a former century?

NATIONAL BALLET OF CANADA -- Georgina Parkinson and Hylde Zinkin look over National Ballet of Canada lobby poster advertising performances at the Royal Alexandra Theatre in Toronto, January 1958.

Ballerinas Georgina Parkinson and Hylda Zinkin look over a National Ballet of Canada lobby poster advertising performances at the Royal Alexandra Theatre in Toronto, in 1958.

The first reason is financial: story-ballets sell. With 2,071 seats to fill at The Four Seasons Centre, the company is circumspect with their programming. Full-evening story ballets can average 90 per cent houses, whereas contemporary mixed-programs rarely sell better than 75 per cent. And so the company seemingly panders to the prototypical patron it can rely on: female, middle-aged and, perhaps, happy to see the same saccharine stuff every year.

This kind of populism is expected of the for-profit sector, but it's contentious for a company that receives nearly a third of its budget from the government and purports to be the country's official repository of an important art.

The second reason is trickier: ballet wants to innovate but isn't sure how. One of the knee-jerk responses to this impasse (especially on the British-Canadian front) has been the kind of story-based recycling I've referenced, which takes an old formula (a linear narrative, a few visual tricks, big sets) and applies it not to contemporary stories, but to old stories that have yet to be adapted. It's a perfunctory approach that doesn't come cheaply and, at best, produces something accomplished but unprovocative like Christopher Wheeldon's The Winter's Tale. At worst, it gives us a ballet as short on new ideas as last season's Le Petit Prince.

There's cynicism beneath this recycling that puts the form's survival under threat. If ballet still has something important to say about our lives – and I firmly believe that it does – then how can it say it through paint-by-number repetition? When the social media generation hits their 40s and 50s, and has the income to spend on expensive live art, will they have any interest in these quaint throwbacks?

It's as though the ballet world has forgotten it has an empty space it can do anything with, that ballet historically earned its importance by dynamically reflecting the times, and that there are no concrete parameters on innovation.

Our stories have grown up since the 19th century; they've become self-reflexive, recursive, fragmented, intensely psychological. They often cast straightforward narratives aside to enact far more ambitious surgeries on our hearts and minds. Ballet should be telling these stories and then inventing new ones. Why can't we demand that our dance be as intelligent and fearless as the books we read and the theatre we go to?

In the past few years, the National has brought us glimpses of this kind of challenging material. We've seen it in Alexei Ratmansky's Shostakovich Trilogy, in which the Soviet machine became a concept we could feel, and John Neumeier's Nijinsky, a riveting externalization of a schizophrenic mind.

Keiichi Hirano in Nijinsky, National Ballet of Canada.

Keiichi Hirano in Nijinsky, at the National Ballet of Canada

Bruce Zinger

We've seen it with Robert Binet's experimentations with theme and setting and in Alexander Ekman's satirical and visually clever Cacti. The National needs to present and develop more of this kind of work if it wants ballet to retain any kind of relevance, both now and for the next generation.

How can this be achieved in a sustainable way? There's no easy answer, but the available money needs to be redistributed. A smaller second theatre could allow for cheaper tickets and more artistically ambitious work, drawing a younger crowd. But I also believe that Toronto audiences are being underestimated – and that a lack of vision on the supply-side is being blamed on the demand. I'd argue that some powerful new ideas about what ballet can and should be doing in 2016 – and outreach initiatives that can articulate these ideas – would generate all kinds of new excitement.

As for the marketing skeptics who say that only fairy tales attract crowds? I raise them with their own campaign to challenge this. Ironically, you can see how much the National knows it needs to prove its relevance in a fledgling story-ballet circulating Toronto right now – you can catch it on subway platforms, streetcars and social media.

It's a beautiful blur of motion in which the young dancers look like real people and (in the YouTube supplement) technical feats are juxtaposed with disarming behind-the-scenes vignettes. Not only is the National's TTC campaign alluring, but it has also generated all kinds of controversy about how an art form that trades in physical beauty can fit into a world in which we've learned to denigrate the notion of "ideals."

Fascinating, right? Sounds like good material for a provocative and self-reflexive work of art. If only it were part of the season.

We Move You The National Ballet of Canada

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Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly spelled choreographer and director John Neumeier's surname.
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