by Michael Crabb

Toronto’s popular $15-per-ticket Fall for Dance North festival, an offshoot of the New York City Center original, goes from strength to strength. The latest event, FFDN’s fourth, saw the festival expand from four to six days, including two Saturday shows, and embrace Ryerson Theatre as a second venue. Compared with the 3,200-seat Sony Centre, FFDN’s mainstage home, the 1,240-seat Ryerson Theatre feels intimate, allowing artistic director Ilter Ibrahimof to program work whose impact might be diminished in a more cavernous space. There were three discrete programs, each presented twice.

The only company appearing at both theatres, but in very different guises, was Holland’s Introdans. At the smaller venue, this admirably versatile troupe performed American modern dance doyenne Lucinda Childs’ rigorously abstract and clinically austere Canto Ostinato. The troupe’s lyricism and sublime musical sensitivity blossomed at Sony Centre where it danced Jirí Kylián’s 1982 setting of Mahler’s Songs of a Wayfarer, less well known internationally perhaps than Maurice Béjart’s version, made in 1971 for Rudolf Nureyev and Paolo Bortoluzzi. However, in its choreographic expansiveness — each song, different in tone, has its own male/female couple — is emotionally far more rewarding.

Among other festival standouts were Ballet Kelowna making its Toronto debut with Alysa Pires’ suitably jaunty Mambo, the apparently double-jointed and aptly named Soweto Skeleton Movers and the hyper-kinetic, testosterone-supercharged 13-member all-male cast of North African dancers of Compagnie Hervé Koubi in the namesake French choreographer’s What the Day Owes to the Night.

The National Ballet of Canada, sparsely represented at previous festivals and only days before its debut tour to Russia, appeared in full force and with live orchestra to dance Justin Peck’s Paz de la Jolla.

  On its return from Moscow and St. Petersburg, the company launched its 2018-2019 hometown season in November by adding to its John Neumeier collection with the North American premiere of the American-German choreographer’s Anna Karenina.

Neumeier made the two-act, three-hour-long adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s literary masterpiece for his own Hamburg Ballet in July 2017 (see Silvia Poletti’s review in the winter 2017 issue). The fine print describes it as “a cooperation” with the Bolshoi, which performed it in Moscow in March 2018, and the National Ballet of Canada. The arrangement differs from a conventional co-production. Instead of contributing to the cost of a single physical production that gets shipped around as required, in this instance each company has built its own. The officially cited cost for the National Ballet of Canada was $1.9 million.

Presumably this means that Toronto audiences have not seen the last of Neumeier’s problematic, vaguely post-modernish, aesthetically jarring “inspired by” take on Tolstoy. Audiences were enthusiastic — there’s enough vapid spectacle and hyperventilating melodrama to assure that — but the critical response ranged from lukewarm to excoriating. One can only sympathize with an irate audience member, presumably of Russian origin, who very volubly denounced what she judged to be Neumeier’s desecration of one of her motherland’s most iconic literary works. If only more audience members harbouring such heartfelt objections were willing to express them as loudly as supine audiences appear eager to express their satisfaction.

No such protest occurred during the second part of the National Ballet’s fall season when it tabled a mixed bill comprising two revivals, principal dancer and choreographic associate Guillaume Côté’s Jean-Paul Sartre-inspired Being and Nothingness from 2016 and Frederick Ashton’s The Dream.

Ashton’s 1964 work to the charming Mendelssohn score was made for the Royal Ballet to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth. Ashton assumed it would be a one-off. It has since joined the ranks of his most beloved and often-performed ballets, and for good reason. In its distillation of the play, The Dream is beyond dramaturgical reproach. It is choreographically brilliant, crowned by its ravishingly poetic concluding pas de deux for Oberon and Titania. It combines with wry wit and, above all, is infused with profound humanity.

Ashton was once a mainstay of the National Ballet’s repertoire after several of his ballets were acquired during the 1976 to 1983 artistic directorship of his friend, Alexander Grant. In recent years, they have been little seen. It had been 17 years since the company last danced The Dream, making its 2018 reappearance akin to a second company premiere. Not surprisingly, subtle nuances, so vivid in 1978 when the company first performed it under Ashton’s supervision, were occasionally lacking, but overall the dancers did justice to The Dream’s often quicksilver choreography and intentionally stylized physical characterizations. Puck, of course, is a central role and thus often given to a principal dancer. First-cast Skylar Campbell delivered a laudably detailed and intelligent interpretation. Next up, precociously accomplished South African-born corps member Siphesihle November offered less detail, yet his Puck had a charm, buoyancy and mischievousness that made the role very much November’s own.

In the search for “relevance,” it’s almost de rigueur for today’s opera directors to reconceive historic works through a contemporary prism. The results are occasionally illuminating but more often tediously tendentious. On the whole, when choreographers dip into opera, they play it pretty straight and often avoid direct comparison with the source by retaining the plot while abandoning the actual score or at the very least by having it re-arranged to the extent that audiences are not left wondering if a dancer is about to sing to the strains of a favourite aria.

ProArteDanza is more ambitious in its latest production, Figaro 2.0, an evening-length re-imagining of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro. Re-imagining is perhaps too generous a description. The setting is modern without exactly being contemporary. Projected captions evoke silent movies. Women in headscarves and sunglasses are redolent of Fellini.

The choreography by company artistic director Roberto Campanella and Robert Glumbek lurches stylistically, possibly a reflection of who did what. There’s spoken text and substantial helpings of Mozart’s score, along with ham-fisted efforts to retain some of the work’s opera buffa character with lame humour; yet, Figaro 2.0 tries to run in so many directions its focus remains blurry.

There’s nothing particularly imaginative about the way the two Roberts attempt to underline the gender power imbalances of Mozart’s 1786 original from a #MeToo-era perspective.

Even a very traditional production of the actual opera would prompt similar reflections in the mind of any thoughtful audience member. Nothing prevented Campanella and Glumbek from carving away the sub-plot elements to concentrate their attention on the core themes of class, power and patriarchy. It would have made for a more powerful statement.

Anyone who has had the pleasure of watching veteran dancer/choreographer Louis Laberge-Côté perform knows that his command of a stage is such that he can take risks lesser mortals would wisely avoid. There is no better proof of this than his latest Danceworks-presented meditation on self-identity, truth, illusion, delusion, fame and aging.

Billed as an evening-length solo, Laberge-Côté’s The Art of Degeneration is marginally a duet with his partner, Michael Caldwell, who scurries around like a worrying mother hen in a performance that is pitched almost as a rehearsal or work-in-progress, although it is emphatically not. Combining sometimes self-mocking, often poignant autobiography with pure invention, Laberge-Côté establishes an intimacy with his audience that allows him to assume different characters, stepping from past to present and from fantasy to reality in a manner that is simultaneously de-stabilizing and utterly compelling. It’s a tour de force by any standard.

DI SPRING 2019

Ballet Kelowna in Alysa Pires’ Mambo
Photo: Bruce Zinger