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Winnipeg's Moulin Rouge too polite for Paris's den of sleaze

Jorden Morris's Moulin Rouge, created for the Royal Winnipeg Ballet in 2009, is full of pretty dancing, pretty costumes and pretty music. It's also pretty average.

On one hand, its choreography is very uninspired. Take for example, the generic love pas de deux that ends the first act. There are no original lifts, or entangling of bodies. The partnering is so polite that it looks like a prom dance between hesitant teenagers. But on the other, it seems, for a considerable number of audience members, to be a pleasant dance diversion.

First, some positives. The company possesses well-schooled dancers who perform with commitment. Astrong component is the taped score that includes musical bonbons by mostly French composers like Offenbach, Massenet, Ravel and Debussy.

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The story rests on a love triangle, which is always of interest. Nathalie (Vanessa Lawson) is a laundress who is plucked off the streets of Paris by Zidler (Eric Nipp), the owner of the Moulin Rouge. Zidler transforms Nathalie into a famous dancer. Zidler is possessive of Nathalie, and becomes jealous of her love interest Matthew (Gael Lambiotte), an artist who is a friend of Toulouse-Lautrec (Yosuke Mino).

Secondary roles include portrayals of two historic Moulin Rouge performers, La Goulue (Jo-Ann Sundermeier) and Mome Fromage (Jacelyn Lobay). Unfortunately, the dancers give them absolutely no sexual allure. They are pretty ballerinas pretending to be bad.

The main problem with Morris's choreography is the lack of sex and passion, and yes, even sleaze. How can he set his ballet in the most famous of Paris's naughty nightclubs and people it with debutantes? Take, for example, the launderettes vying to catch Zidler's attention in the first act. They are bland and sweet. The mean streets of their Montmartre have been sanitized.

In the second act, Zidler's jealousy rages to the point that he forces Nathalie to give up Matthew by threatening to shoot the artist dead. This possessive attitude towards Nathalie comes out of nowhere. Morris had to make Zidler from the start a lascivious, dirty old man. When he is auditioning the launderettes on the street, we have to see his prurient nature when he sets his sights on Nathalie.

Similarly, a scene in the second act is set in a tango café where gypsies perform their steamy apache dances. They look the part, but are bloodless. The cancan girls of the Moulin Rouge execute their famous dance without the sizzle.

There are some choices that Morris has made that are downright silly. Take the green fairies. These ladies, some of whom actually have wings, represent the fog of alcohol. Both Matthew and Toulouse-Lautrec have drunk scenes performed with these imaginary spirits.

Andrew Beck's set is disappointing. A couple of arches, painted in a rather dreadful brown/red-brick colour, do not represent Paris. The front drop with the street of the Moulin Rouge, is amateurish at best. There are also no levels or platforms. The stage seems both naked and flat. What does work, however, are the Eiffel Tower in the background and the turning windmill sails. Both light up when necessary.

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The Royal Winnipeg has a ballet that should do well for it in the mainstream. The name itself is a draw. But one can't help thinking about what could and should have been.

The Royal Winnipeg Ballet is in Toronto through Saturday, then performs in Hamilton Sunday, Mississauga Monday, Kitchener-Waterloo Tuesday and London Wednesday.

Moulin Rouge

  • The Royal Winnipeg Ballet
  • At the Sony Centre
  • In Toronto on Thursday
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