If the audience of the opening night performance of Pinocchio was expecting a wholly classic, balletic rendition when the curtain rose, choreographer Will Tuckett defied those expectations. On March 11 at the Four Seasons Centre for Performing Arts, The National Ballet of Canada premiered a captivating new work, hybridizing ballet and theatre.
Act I opens with a group of Lumberjacks bearing axes while turning gracefully in their heavy flannel and denim – the first indication that Pinocchio will not be your typical ballet. Geppetto (Piotr Stanczyk) swiftly enters to help the Lumberjacks split a felled tree. Their struggle to do so elicits the help of the Blue Fairy (Elena Lobsanova), who descends from above, suspended on wires, and grants Gepetto a magic axe. The splitting of the tree reveals First Soloist Skylar Campbell, in the title role of Pinocchio, who embodies the wooden boy’s rigidity with unimaginable fluidity and grace in his opening steps. Geppetto takes Pinocchio into his care, and the adventures begin.
The first act also introduces an aspect uncommon to the conventions of a ballet. The Blue Fairy brings along five speaking Shadows to instruct and guide Pinocchio throughout his journey. Guillaume Côté, Harrison James, Antonella Martinelli, Sonia Rodriguez and Xiao Nan Yu deliver dialogue, written by librettist/dramaturge Alasdair Middleton. As an art form that most often tells a story exclusively through movement and music, the use of dialogue in a ballet risks pulling its audience out of their captivation. Pinocchio, however, strikes a delightful balance between theatrical and balletic elements. Middleton’s dialogue presents humour in the classroom scene Pinocchio shares with the schoolchildren and contributes to the family-friendliness of the performance, creating a very accessible ballet, as the Shadows guide the audience through key plot points. But while the dialogue works in this context, it fails to fully highlight the potential of Principal Dancers Côte, James, Rodriguez and Yu, as Tuckett has cast them primarily as actors. Although this broadens their range as performers, it unfortunately does not showcase their exceptional abilities as dancers.
Adapted from Carlo Collodi’s 1883 children’s story The Adventures of Pinocchio, Tuckett’s ballet avoids the darkness in the original and instead focuses on the more sentimental aspects of the tale. An especially heartfelt moment occurs during the initial pas de deux between Campbell and Stanczyk, as they connect precisely with the rhythm of Paul Englishby’s original composition. Campbell mimics Stanczyk’s fouetté turns with meticulous control, as his character learns to gain agency over his body. Their chemistry as father and son creates emotional moments in their separation and eventual reunion.
A prime example of the exquisite sets and costumes designed by Colin Richmond, the sapphire blue bodice and tutu of the Blue Fairy sparkles with silver stars. With her jewel-embellished pointe shoes, she resembles a figure conjured up in the dreams of a child, reflecting the magical tone of the performance. Significantly, the production features distinctly Canadian aspects, specifically when the devious Cat (Jurgita Dronina) and Fox (Dylan Tedaldi) bring Pinocchio to the Red Lobster Inn. A cast of familiar characters appears in this playful scene, including a heroic Mountie and a group of Racoons rummaging through a green compost bin. The inclusion of these familiar references contributes to both the originality and the accessibility of the production. The adventures in Act II further display the whimsical sets and costumes. The Cat and Fox convince Pinocchio to plant his gold coins in the Field of Miracles, which will grant him a tree of money and infinite wealth. He dreams of luxury and the big city, bringing an abundance of colourful characters onstage, such as the lobby boys that splendidly resemble characters in a Wes Anderson film, united in their rigorous movements as they circle Pinocchio. Through costume, set and props Tuckett and Richmond effectively create a recognizably Canadian environment in a dreamlike universe.
The concluding scene reunites the ensemble, where they dance beautifully as a collective. Pinocchio finally becomes a real boy, and Campbell’s movements aptly reflect his character’s spirit with an impeccable series of turning leaps around the stage. At moments throughout the production, the theatrical elements slightly overshadow the balletic, but this scene showcases all the grandeur that one expects from the ballet. With this finale, Tuckett further defies expectations by reverting to an elegant and traditional balletic ending. Ultimately, Pinocchio delivers a hybrid of ballet and theatre with tremendous charm.
The National Ballet of Canada performs Pinocchio from March 11 through March 24 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto.