By Michael Crabb

Toronto’s 2019-2020 dance season was heralded in October by the fifth annual edition of Fall For Dance North, a sampler of Canadian and foreign companies representing everything from meticulously stylized Indian classical dance to no-holds-barred urban moves, frequently with live musical accompaniment.

Apart from FFDN’s high profile mainstage shows, made as affordable as possible at $15 a ticket, this multi-faceted festival also embraces a variety of free events such as artist talks and commuter-targeted performances in the west wing of Union Station. Additionally, there are master classes and workshops, and opportunities for local troupes to perform and connect with international presenters.

While the complement of mainstage companies has remained constant, the number of programs has grown and, since 2018, encompasses two venues, the 3,200-seat Meridian Hall (formerly Sony Centre) and the 1,200-seat Ryerson Theatre. This expansion has allowed founding artistic director Ilter Ibrahimof more programming flexibility, mixing short and longer works — the latter not always to their own advantage — and the opportunity to offer a thematically focussed show at Ryerson Theatre. This year it was contemporary international indigenous dance expressions. Standouts among these were Australia’s Jasmin Sheppard’s Choice Cut and Taiwanese choreographer Bulareyaung Pagarlava’s LUNA.

Bulareyaung Dance Company in Bulareyaung Pagarlava’s LUNA | Photo: Bruce Zinger

Sheppard’s dance/performance art almost-solo (there’s a lurking figure in black) is an intense study of personal disassociation with unsettling references to the impact of colonization. In contrast, LUNA highlights the resilience of indigenous culture as Pagarlava adapts the carefully researched dance and polyphonic singing traditions of Taiwan’s native tribes to fashion a theatrically mesmerizing, quasi-ritualistic display of manhood. Relentless toil gives way to confident assertion as the cast of eight loincloth-clad young men break free of burdened, crouching movement to explode into defiant self-expression.

Among the Meridian Hall presentations one remains indelible. Sweden’s Skånes Dansteater’s Dare to Wreck is an extraordinary duet because of the density and range of its emotional content. Choreographed and superbly performed by Madeleine Månsson, who is in a wheelchair, and Peder Nilsson, Dare to Wreck upends all expectations in what unfolds as a strange and wonderful study in inter-dependence, seduction and defiance.

Although FFDN can be relied upon for an international variety of dance aesthetics and cultural expressions, the Toronto fall season was uncommonly rich in this regard, thanks to Canadian Stage Company’s and TO Live’s dance-friendly programming and Harbourfront Centre’s Torque series. There was much to relish, whether it was the biting satire of Chinese choreographer Zhen Yang’s Minorities, the ruminative questioning of cultural identity and appropriation in Norwegian director/choreographer Alan Lucien Øyen’s Simulacrum, the compositional rigour and abstracted drama of Australian choreographer Lucy Guerin’s Split or the same-sex tenderness embedded in the acrobatic locker-room antics of Argentinian choreographer-dancers Luciano Rosso and Nicolás Poggi in Un Poyo Rojo.

Against this invigorating international backdrop, Toronto Dance Theatre fielded Ring, the circularity of whose title is reflected in Ame Henderson’s less than usually alienating vocal and choreographic experimentations. Soon-to-retire TDT artistic director Christopher House joined eight of his company dancers for the occasion.

ProArteDanza, whose choreographic accomplices Roberto Campanella and Robert Glumbek have never been afraid to bite off more than they can chew, decided to offer a danced response to Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, perhaps because, like Everest, it was there. The 9th!, as they titled their new work, is energetic but ultimately vapid. The opening-night audience was, duty bound, appropriately enthusiastic.

For its 42nd edition, Claudia Moore and her MOonhORsE Dance Theatre’s Older and Reckless series embraced a theme of indigeneity and healing in a program that was cumulatively earnest, bittersweet, whimsical, funny and always engrossing. The unlikely combination of dancer Bill Coleman and poet-novelist Lee Maracle in Out of the Longhouse, a caustic retelling of the Salish Longhouse Flood Story, almost stole the show.

In an uncharacteristic move, the National Ballet of Canada, the biggest game in town, fielded three different programs during its November 6 to December 1 hometown season at Toronto’s Four Seasons Centre. Even more unusually, two of these were notoriously hard-to-sell mixed bills, neither of which featured titles that would resonate beyond the relatively small core of knowledgeable ballet fans.

The National Ballet of Canada’s Spencer Hack and Jenna Savella in Robert Binet’s Orpheus Alive | Photo: Karolina Kuras

Based on marketing experience, the company generally allows a minimum of three-year intervals between revivals of its full-length classics but made an exception by opening the fall season with its antique 1970 production of Giselle, last seen in June 2016. This was likely prompted by the realization that for several of its older ballerinas this would be their last shot at a coveted role. Thus, rather than give what would have been welcome opportunities to rising talents, the seven shows were distributed exclusively among six of the National Ballet’s principal women with two performances deservedly going to the wonderful Svetlana Lunkina. Oddly, the only debut was that of Heather Ogden, now in her 22nd season and a principal since 2005. One is tempted to ask what persuaded artistic director Karen Kain to give Ogden this late-career opportunity.

Then came the much-hyped unveiling of Orpheus Alive, a new work by National Ballet choreographic associate Robert Binet, paired with the company premiere of Balanchine’s 1976 Chaconne.

Binet’s 75-minute ballet, with a commissioned Missy Mazzoli score and designs by Hyemi Shin, is a re-imaging of the Orpheus myth that gets so entangled in its self-referential, meta-theatrical, gender-fluid pretensions that the end result is an aesthetic and narrative mess. It smacks of too much dramaturgy — Rosamund Small is credited in that department — and not enough expressive choreography. The kindest thing one can say is that Orpheus Alive looks like an ambitious work-in-progress.

Chaconne, meanwhile, based on dances Balanchine made for a 1963 Hamburg Opera production of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, is a choreographic cornucopia that uses the metaphorical potency of movement to poetic effect. The opening pas deux, originally set on Suzanne Farrell and Peter Martins, and beautifully danced for the National Ballet on opening night by Ogden and the dependably elegant Harrison James, is one for the ages.

Like Balanchine, fellow Russian Alexei Ratmansky is a traditionalist in that he believes there’s more than enough room within the classical ballet lexicon to assemble choreography that is vital and compelling without gimmicky embellishments. Piano Concerto #1, part of Ratmansky’s Shostakovich Trilogy, originally made for American Ballet Theatre, is packed with steps but all to a purpose, in this instance to evoke without heavy-handed judgment both the patriotic fervour and individual human cost of the Soviet collectivist dream.

This masterwork was the gem in the National Ballet’s closing mixed bill that also comprised Jirí Kylián’s ubiquitous and aesthetically dated  Petite Mort — a late-in-the-day National Ballet premiere — and a revival of Harald Lander’s 1948 Études. It’s a crowd-pleasing plié-to-pirouette trip through classical ballet technique that requires large measures of energy and finesse for its choreographic platitudes to have a chance of rising above the banal. Thrillingly, the National Ballet revival of Études delivered plenty of both.

 

Skånes Dansteater’s Dare to Wreck, choreographed and performed by Madeleine Månsson and Peder Nilsson | Photo: Bruce Zinger