Wayne McGregor’s Genus and Jerome Robbins’ The Concert are both elaborate choreographies that hinge on the smallest of movements – the twitch of a finger, the crook of an elbow or the flick of a wrist. The two works bookend the National Ballet of Canada’s mixed program, which opened on March 29.
The tonal difference between these two pieces, mind you, is stark. In fact everything about Genus is stark. The performance takes place within a minimally lit black box that manages to appear austere even by the punishingly low standards of black boxes. Performed for the first time in North America as part of this mixed program, McGregor’s work takes its inspiration from Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. It is not, however, a literal adaptation. McGregor’s choreography simply shares the text’s curiosity about the emergence and dissolution of groupings. At various times in the opening pas-de-trois, for instance, one or more performers shunt off to the stage’s blackened edges before later rejoining the fray. This geometric quality grows stronger as Genus approaches its climax and the dozen dancers on the stage repeatedly tessellate into new configurations.
McGregor’s choreography challenges the performers to bend their bodies in manners unseen in traditional ballets. Most notably, Svetlana Lunkina seems to curve her spine in ways vertebrae do not normally permit. Such movements often de-emphasize the graceful lines of traditional ballets in favour of more abstracted geometries. This interest in geometry is sometimes at the expense of either elegance or connection between dancers, who often appear to be wholly preoccupied with McGregor’s intricate patterns. This, granted, is more of a feature than a bug. The experience of Genus, with its score by Joby Talbot and Deru, is not unlike Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s interpretation of Steve Reich’s music in Fase: long, ostensibly atonal stretches make the periodic moments where everything comes together all the more revelatory. Lacking an explicit narrative arc, Genus dares the viewer to conflate its impeccable control with the semblance of randomness.
The Concert strikes a similar balance, albeit in the name of folly instead of abstraction. In Robbins’ comedic ballet an audience at a Chopin concert surrounds the pianist with antics and poor behavior. They interpret the music in hilariously literal manners while reproducing a litany of stereotypical dance recital errors as pleasing visual gags. For large stretches, at least one performer on stage purposely faces the wrong direction. Robbins deploys the classic tell, in which dancers furtively tap one another on the back to restore order, to devastatingly transparent effect. As with the phasing of Genus, this disorder is actually quite organized; The Concert may be busy, but its asynchronous moments never descend into visual cacophony.
Compared to the sparseness of Genus, The Concert shamelessly luxuriates in its excesses. Jonathan Renna, the number’s standout performer, commands the stage with a cigar in his mouth like a dancing Groucho Marx. Butterfly wings make their second appearance of the night – previously projected during the film component of Genus – but this time as cheerful costumes during Chopin’s “Butterfly” étude. In any other context, this sort of obviousness – or that of deploying umbrellas during Chopin’s “Raindrop” prelude – would be lazy and gauche. Here, the full commitment to the conceit avoids that pitfall. Indeed, the dancers’ seriousness plays an essential part in the satire.
Although The Concert dates to 1956, The National Ballet has not performed it in the last decade. In recent years, shortened videos of the piece have circulated online as a form of dance humour. Much of The Concert’s appeal, however, stems from prolonging the joke seemingly ad infinitum. Many jokes make for successful memes on YouTube, but the ability to milk a premise for thirty minutes of humour is a wholly different skill. Like Victor Borge’s “Phonetic Punctuation,” the comedic conceit relies on the sequencing of successive flights of fancy that milk the premise for all it’s worth. The Concert’s gist can be understood in minutes, but the actual joke can only be appreciated in this full staging.
The juxtaposition of Genus and The Concert leaves the program’s two shorter entries at a distinct disadvantage. The lack of imagination inherent in Robert Binet’s Self and Soul – previously seen at the competition for the Erik Bruhn Prize – is particularly noticeable after Genus. Like The Concert, it traffics in obvious tropes but lacks the irony or humour to make them interesting. Calley Skalnik and Félix Paquet fare better than they did last November. They enjoy the occasional moment of connection, especially when they collapse on the stage’s lip. Yet the piece still feels inert, like the depiction of a fraught relationship choreographed and danced by artists who can only theorize about the premise. Balanchine’s Tarantella fares better in comparison. Skylar Campbell and, with less cheeky attitude, Jillian Vanstone enthusiastically take turns leaping across the stage. Next to The Concert, however, Tarantella’s gaiety merely serves itself. The choreography serves as an effective palate cleanser after Genus but offers no punch line or larger idea.
On the Origin of Species presents the familiar argument for the strongest performers prevailing over time. McGregor’s homage to Darwinian thought in Genus downplays this point, but it nonetheless becomes the subtext of The National Ballet’s mixed program. Self and Soul and Tarantella have little staying power in this context whereas Genus and The Concert remain captivating. In that respect, the program functions remarkably well as a sequence.
The National Ballet of Canada performs Genus, Tarantella, Self and Soul and The Concert from March 29 through April 2 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto.