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The Man in Black, National Ballet of Canada The Man in Black. The photo credit must read: Piotr Stanczyk, Rebekah Rimsay, Robert Stephen and James Leja in The Man in Black.

photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

Spring mixed program
National Ballet

The National Ballet's spring mixed season is a quintessential example of artistic director Karen Kain's brilliant programming.

Her bookends are tutu pieces of classical ballet vocabulary with modernist twists (Jorma Elo and George Balanchine). In between are works that are radical contemporary ballet (Guillaume Côté and James Kudelka). Together they show the history of ballet.

The evening begins with Elo's Pur ti Miro, created for the National in 2010. Elo outgun's Balanchine at the master's game – that delicious penchant for turning classical ballet on its ear without losing its basic character. The final work, Balanchine's Theme and Variations (1947), shows us the real deal – abstraction writ large.

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The program's world premiere, Côté's No. 24, is edgy contemporary ballet that breaks the classical rules. Kudelka's The Man in Black is off-pointe contemporary dance, taking the art form far beyond its classical roots.

The most eagerly anticipated work was Kudelka's, originally created for BalletMet Columbus in 2010. The piece entered the National's repertoire on a western tour in 2011. It's the first new Kudelka piece for the National repertoire since he stepped down as artistic director in 2005 and it is a very welcome addition.

Everything about the work is a surprise. First, it uses Johnny Cash covers of folk and rock songs recorded late in the singer's career. Second, the dance is performed by just one woman (Rebekah Rimsay) and three men (Piotr Stanczyk, James Leja and Robert Stephen).

The songs are mostly thoughtful or reflective about love and loss – the Beatles' In My Life, Ian Tyson's Four Strong Winds, Gordon Lightfoot's If You Could Read My Mind, Bruce Springsteen's Further On and Trent Reznor's Hurt. The one bit of dark humour is the old English folk Sam Hall, about an unrepentant thief at the time of his hanging.

The performers wear cowboy boots. The men wear, of course, black, while Rimsay sports a fringed red cowgirl skirt and a black vest. As his base vocabulary, Kudelka uses riffs of country and western line dance. Yes, we get thumbs tucked into pockets, and rhythmic tap-dance moves. Many times the dance actually mirrors the words, as in Sam Hall's "Damn your eyes" refrain, when eyes are covered.

But this is Kudelka, who has never crafted a simplistic, superficial dance in his life. He mostly keeps the dancers attached, hands on shoulders or clasped together. This allows him to weave the dancers into a maze as they get caught up in a human cage.

Each physical grouping evokes a multitude of themes. For example, at one point Rimsay is travelling backward, leading the men, the image of a cruel mistress, or perhaps, a love that got away.

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As a result, the group is either working together, or ganging up on one of its members. The dancers never show emotion, and their bland expressions add to the mystery. The overall feeling is one of melancholy.

Kudelka's choreographies reveal their riches slowly, and repeated viewings of The Man in Black will provide more insight into the his subtext.

By now I have a few Côté pieces under my belt, and can begin to see a choreographic signature. Like other works in his emerging canon, the duet No. 24 (the title is taken from the music, Paganini's Caprice No. 24, for solo violin) there is a highly developed gestural language, coupled with a crisp attack, virtuoso solos and eye-catching lifts.

There is a darkness to his pieces that speaks of frenetic modern times. Because he is also a principal dancer, Côté understands a dancer's body and what it can do. Elena Lobsanova and Keiichi Hirano were excellent advocates for Côté's vision of demanding dance on the edge.

Tanya Howard and Jiri Jelinek led four other couples in Elo's gorgeously romantic Pur ti Miro with its dangerous lifts and amusing twists on classical ballet's vocabulary, like elongated bobbing necks, side-to-side chin wags, and off-balance movement that breaks up grace and fluidity. Everyone danced like a dream.

Similarly, Greta Hodgkinson and Côté, and a large corps de ballet, pulled off the Balanchine challenges with aplomb. Balanchine got rid of Petipa imperial-style preparation time by cramming in many beats to the bar. His Theme and Variations is wall-to-wall, flat-out dance, with flexes and angularities thrown in for good measure.

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This wonderful line-up of choreographers is a class act, from start to finish.

The National Ballet's mixed program continues at the Four Season Centre until Sunday.

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