If ever there was a ballet destined to thrill, it’s Vendetta, Storie di Mafia. Predictably a big winner for Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal, the dazzlingly danced tale of the rise of a Mafia daughter to the head of her clan is a violent and glamorously staged commission from Colombian-Belgian choreographer Annabelle Lopez Ochoa.

Inspired by the mystique and violence of the legendary mob cult, Vendetta is set in the 1950s on the cusp of changing social values. For almost two hours, the two-act ballet races through well-researched themes of betrayal, vengeance, families, feuds and even feminism, a sort of Romeo and Juliet and The Godfather rolled into one.

Dancing — especially the men’s — is a knockout! More vivid than the most swashbuckling sword-fighters, Vendetta’s mobsters fling themselves into some of the trickiest airborne manoeuvres while acting and fighting with knives, fists and pistols. It’s so compelling, they rival the fiercest fights of moviedom.

The storyline about clashes among three Chicago Mafia families is straightforward and easy to follow, yet never simplistic. On the contrary, Lopez Ochoa’s originality, clarity and immense subtlety is front and centre.

The plot goes like this: on the day Rosalia, the cherished only daughter of the Carbone clan’s Godfather, marries into a rival family, a vicious killing occurs, triggering a long-lasting vendetta among mob families. In the course of their criminal activities — police corruption, racketeering, smuggling, gambling and prostitution — the Godfather is killed in a hail of bullets. Enraged that her brothers did not protect him, the daughter sheds her traditional homemaker’s role as a good Italian woman, adopts the grim, explosive and perpetually violent mob machismo attitudes, and replaces her father as head of the clan.

Vendetta concludes ambiguously. Rosalia’s triumph clearly suggests victory, but hasn’t she simply sold out by perpetuating the cutthroat tactics of her male role models?

Vendetta is an enormously ambitious ballet with 28 scenes (a picnic, an Italian wedding and a prostitute-filled Las Vegas casino among them); legions of costumes, wigs and props; several non-dancers including two padrones and their mobster children (one is the daughter of the lead dancer, the lovely demi-soloist Anya Nesvitaylo); and a large, two-level set. With its $1 million price tag, Vendetta is one of the most expensive ballets Les Grands has ever mounted.

Choreographer Lopez Ochoa’s extensive and bankable track record reduced Les Grands’ gamble on the ballet’s success somewhat. She has choreographed more than 50 works for mostly small and mid-sized companies all over the world, from Scotland and Cuba to Turkey, the United States and Australia. Zip Zap Zoom, created for Montreal’s BJM in 2009, has proved an enormous success.

In Vendetta, her vision is acute, and her research of Mafia life has evidently been extensive, deliberately drawn from documentaries instead of Hollywood. Her preservation of mob mystique is nuanced and exacting; typical Mafia mannerisms (recognized from film) like tosses of head, thrust of chin or shoulder, and the classic swipe of fedoras, are Vendetta trademarks, performed with remarkable naturalness and aplomb. Although the choreographer has said she didn’t pattern her ballet on the quintessential Godfather film starring Marlon Brando, it is difficult to watch the ballet without comparing the two.
Vendetta comes out glowingly ahead.

In addition to the brilliant dancing (especially those sensational fights), Nesvitaylo’s character development from naive, loving daughter to hardened criminal, and the spirited corps in its multiple guises, Vendetta’s large set is vital to the production. An elevated walkway running across the back of the stage emphasizes the urban — literally “underworld” — habitat of the bottom-feeding gangs. It’s a perfect vantage point to expand the split-screen style action, an ideal spot for gangsters to settle scores and gun down opponents.

Vendetta’s world premiere was one of Les Grands’ most technically and artistically smooth in memory, a feat due perhaps to having had two weeks of rehearsals to iron out kinks in the company’s private mini-theatre at its new state-of-the-art headquarters in Montreal’s theatre district. Within days of its debut, Vendetta was booked into a theatre in Israel and negotiations were begun with several U.S. presenters as well.

At press time, proud company executive director Alain Dancyger confirmed that despite its size, Vendetta was made to tour by land or sea. For starters, an estimated five 40-foot containers will bring it to Tel Aviv in February. I hope it comes to a theatre near you in upcoming seasons.

— LINDE HOWE-BECK

DI FALL 2018

Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal in Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s Vendetta, Storie di Mafia
Photo: Sasha Onyschenko