When the curtain lifts on The National Ballet of Canada’s Ratmansky & Côté, the theatre lights remain on. The audience sees the Four Seasons stage stripped of surrounding curtains, revealing a batten of lights above the performers – and even stranger, we see our fellow spectators. The moment’s constructedness is clear: we become aware of ourselves waiting for a performance to begin. This consciousness sets the tone for a successful mixed program that dives into heady waters, exploring the human struggle to make sense of existence, exercise free will and find one’s place in the world.
The three-piece program’s title, Ratmansky & Côté, focusses attention on the two choreographers and their creative choices, instead of a thematic thread (like Innovation in 2013) or a titular work (The Man in Black in 2014). With this choice, The National Ballet has cast its bet that homegrown artist and principal dancer Guillaume Côté’s work will match the superstar brilliance of sought-after Russian choreographer Alexei Ratmansky (who created Romeo & Juliet for the company in 2011). That bet has paid off.
Côté’s Being and Nothingness, inspired by Sartre’s philosophical treatise of the same title, is a stunning achievement in seven brooding, intricate vignettes. It begins with “The Light”, a solo created for principal dancer Greta Hodgkinson, who is mesmerizing to watch as a woman contorting with anxiety, struggling against stasis. Under a single lightbulb, she seems to wash her hands repeatedly, a modern-day Lady Macbeth. Her hands appear to have lives of their own, scratching the floor, swinging like pendulums, whirling like propellers. The hypnotic music of Philip Glass, played deftly by solo pianist Edward Connell, captures the repetitiveness of her struggle perfectly.
Other vignettes dramatize similar states of anguish. Some are subtle: a man keeps staring out the window despite (or because of?) his lover’s adulation. Some are vicious: in a piece sizzling with risk and danced with abandon by Svetlana Lunkina and Brent Parolin, a distressed woman drags a carpet behind her, then is yanked up by her feet and whipped around like a human helicopter. In “The Sink”, a man is torn between oblivion and hope, between a sharp razor and a world beyond his window. Côté casts Dylan Tedaldi in this breathtaking solo for all seven performances. It’s hard to think of another dancer who can pull off the athletic contortions (crab crawls, hand stands) and ferocious angst (head plunge into a sink full of water before obsessively folding a towel) required.
Côté and his collaborators have made splendid choices. Former dancer Krista Dowson’s unfussy costumes and Michael Levine’s spare set design highlight the pensive mood. In one scene, an extra-long phone cord acts as both tightrope and umbilical cord, which Hodgkinson’s character can’t sever. David Finn’s intelligent lighting distills the drama to its essence, as when a pool of light streaming from a window contracts into a pinhole above the man with a razor against his wrist.
Only a couple of underdeveloped vignettes marginally weaken Being and Nothingness. “The Door” duet lacks the emotional tension and clarity of the other scenes — when the man ends up alone with the woman’s handkerchief, his heartbreak feels unconvincing. In “The Street”, the men in dark suits, who are mostly shadowy upstage observers in other vignettes, barrel-turn downstage and start shouting about the weather. The movements in this group scene aren’t as nuanced and tightly crafted as those in the solos or pas de deux. These issues, however, do not detract from the overall power and beauty of Being and Nothingness. Judging from the speed with which audiences leapt up to applaud, Côté’s world premiere is a resounding success — and creates more excitement about his full-length adaptation of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Le Petit Prince, premiering in the 2015/2016 season.
Ratmansky’s Symphony #9 and Piano Concerto #1 build on the existential dread of Côté’s work, but with a decidedly more maximalist feel, placing individuals in conflict with society. Created as the first and last parts of the choreographer’s Shostakovich Trilogy, both are plotless and exhilarating responses to the drama of Shostakovich’s music, performed with gusto by The National Ballet’s orchestra.
If it’s hard to believe that Shostakovich’s Symphony #9 — commissioned to celebrate Russia’s victory after World War II — was banned by the Soviet authorities, Ratmansky’s choreography sheds light as to why. Propelled by the symphony’s brash and melodic moods, the dancers’ overly cheery gestures give way to mocking, military strides. A sense of both false celebration (clearly seen in George Tsypin’s backdrop with red flags and planes) and real apprehension prevail, as when lead couple Xiao Nan Yu and McGee Maddox anxiously scan the horizon. The beautiful scene where Yu crumples down, puppet-like, on her hip, then elbow and head, creates a well-calculated gesture of powerlessness.
Unfortunately, a few moments marred the piece during the May 30, 2pm show. A female dancer in a pas de quatre injured her foot and walked offstage. A soloist whirled in consecutive pirouettes — except he was outside the circular spotlight, robbing the last moment of its impact. Nonetheless, the corps displayed thrilling technical energy, especially in the folk dance parodies where they feign solidarity. Special mention goes to corps dancer Giorgio Galli, who improvised effectively without his injured partner. Instead of pretending to lift an absent dancer during a sequence of supported jumps, he performed grand jetés with framed arms. Here’s an artist who can literally think on his feet, making creative choices within a group without effacing his individuality — something both Shostakovich and Ratmansky would probably approve.
The last work, Piano Concerto #1, opened to audiences gasping at the striking set design — sculpted Russian red stars and broken bolts hanging against a stormy landscape. The dancers’ two-toned burgundy and grey unitards are both distracting and appropriate, emphasizing the clash between modernity and tradition, between public and private freedoms. Ratmansky’s flair for choreographing swarm sequences stands out here, with his trademark fast footwork and flocking-across-the-stage patterns. The four soloists dazzle the most: Lunkina’s slinkiness is well matched by Harrison James’ smoulder, and Jillian Vanstone’s attitude turns are gorgeous counterpoints to Tedaldi’s powerful tours en l’air.
Concerto feels more abstract than Symphony, but also more urgent, with a frenetic quality that’s almost rebellious. Even in a world fraught with peril, individuals can still choose to carve out moments of real human connection, as when Lunkina holds Vanstone in a protective embrace. The work provides a fitting ending to a spectacular summer program of resonant, thought-provoking pieces.