National Ballet of Canada

Will Tuckett / Pinocchio

by Michael Crabb

In March, the National Ballet of Canada added to its store of family-friendly ballets with a two-hour Pinocchio, commissioned from an award-winning doyen of the genre, British choreographer/dancer/director Will Tuckett, still appearing in his late 40s as a guest principal character artist with alma mater the Royal Ballet.

Judging by the reactions of young audience members, Tuckett’s visually spectacular Pinocchio presses all the right pleasure buttons while offering parents the reassurance of an instructive tale about the virtues of diligence, obedience, kindness and truthfulness. Yet, for all its dazzling costumes, special effects and theatrical legerdemain, the production — apparently the first full-length dance adaptation of 19th-century Italian writer Carlo Collodi’s Le avventure di Pinocchio — will leave dance-lovers feeling short-changed. It’s telling that the scenic wonders, including atmospheric lighting, projected backgrounds and animations by the British team of Colin Richmond (sets and costumes), Oliver Fenwick (lighting) and Douglas O’Connell (projections), take the lion’s share of the applause.

In the olden days, ballets such as Coppélia, La Fille mal gardée and the ever-reliable Nutcracker — all dance-driven and propelled by memorably tuneful scores — served ballet companies’ need for family-oriented fare. The first two on the list, however, are nowadays regarded as too old-fashioned to be reliable money-makers; thus the current proliferation of new family ballets with instantly recognizable titles. Good examples are Christopher Wheeldon’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, a 2011 Royal Ballet/National Ballet co-production and the Canadian troupe’s Le Petit Prince, choreographed by company principal Guillaume Côté.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland risked allowing awesome designs and costumes to overwhelm the choreography, and Le Petit Prince had its flaws, yet both were ballets in the traditional sense in that they aimed to use movement as the primary means of storytelling. Not so with Pinocchio.

Collodi addressed his book to “i miei piccolo lettori” and wrote in a straightforward Italian suitable for young readers. Even so, he did not skimp when it came to reinforcing his moral strictures with dire accounts of the macabre perils awaiting unruly children.

Like Lewis Carroll’s Alice books, Pinocchio unfolds episodically. Indeed, it first appeared in serialized instalments in an Italian children’s weekly. Although at one point Collodi decided to have done with Pinocchio, hanging him from an oak branch to be tossed by the wind at the end of episode 15, he relented to popular pressure and revived him in what became a story of redemption with the wooden marionette finally achieving human boyhood.

This is the moral tale Tuckett, assisted by librettist and dramaturge Alasdair Middleton, aims to tell; but, rather than rely on dance to do so, Tuckett too often makes it seem an afterthought. This is a shame because much of his choreography is more than serviceable, particularly the way he conveys Pinocchio’s evolution from jerky instability to more self-aware confidence.

The heavy lifting, so far as storytelling is concerned, is passed to a fairy guardian/mother figure and her escort of Blue Fairy Shadows who use spoken verse — sometimes cringe-worthy rhyming couplets — to signal what is going on, even when the movement is performing the same function more than adequately.

Given the liberties ballet librettists routinely take with literary sources, especially fairy tales, one can hardly fault Middleton for playing fast and loose with Collodi. Even so, some of his choices are questionable. Putting aside the often gratuitous, almost moronic intrusions of Canadiana — lumberjacks in red plaid, tourists sporting maple-leaf T-shirts, a Mountie in red serge and a Sam Steele Stetson, and a selection of Canadian-associated fauna — the decision to have Pinocchio emerge fully formed from the hollow trunk of a felled tree rather than be crafted by the hands of the wood carver Geppetto removes a key emotional element in their albeit peculiar relationship.

Tuckett and Middleton largely eschew the sentimentality of the 1940 Disney animated feature and retain hints of Collodi’s grimness, but they allow such passing episodes as the meal Pinocchio shares with the scheming Fox and Cat at the Red Lobster Inn, and two big schoolroom scenes, to get out of hand. Meanwhile, the very clever episode where Pinocchio sells his schoolbook in return for admission to a marionette theatre — its puppet protagonists channelling Fokine’s Petrushka — could have been happily extended.

Then there’s the issue of adult dancers portraying children. At times, as in the schoolroom scenes, one is tempted to avert one’s eyes. Yet, in the title role, first soloist Skylar Campbell vaulted this potential hazard. It cannot be easy for a skilled ballet artist to play wooden, but in a heart-touching performance that taxes both physical and dramatic skills, Campbell was never less than convincing.

Principal Elena Lobsanova made for a generally sympathetic Blue Fairy, and
Jurgita Dronina and Dylan Tedaldi, playing characters who would not be misplaced in an Act III Petipa divertissement, made for an amusing Cat and Fox respectively.
Paul Englishby’s music, inflated with the epic sweep of a movie soundtrack and referencing any number of styles including Big Band, will not implant any earworms.

DI SUMMER 2017

Skylar Campbell with artists of the National Ballet of Canada in Will Tuckett’s Pinocchio
Photo: Aleksandar Antonijevic