Vitality, glamour and striking humour fill The National Ballet of Canada’s stage at the premiere of Alexander Ekman’s Cacti, with George Balanchine’s The Four Temperaments and Rubies. With only one mixed program in the Ballet’s 2015/2016 line-up, the dancers showcase tremendous artistic versatility, packing in pure, smart dancing and proving the company can entertain through movement alone.
The evening opens with The Four Temperaments, an early contemporary work by George Balanchine, and a staple in the ballet repertoire. Featuring eleven dancers, many of whom were making debuts, it is a thirty-minute work of pure movement patterns, unadorned by lavish costume, sets and stage effects. The texture the dancers bring to the contemporary choreography creates a wave of moments that captivate with subtle nuance. Giorgio Galli’s hand seems to move the whole orchestra at the beginning of the piece as he reaches toward his partner Chelsy Meiss, initiating the exquisite lines of the first theme. Following this is Tina Pereira and Spencer Hack’s playfully staccato performance of the second theme and Elena Lobsanova and Jack Bertinshaw’s smooth, geometric performance of the third theme.
Harrison James, in the “Melancholic” solo, captures the heavy spirit of the music with staggering control. He soars in from stage left with a big jété, sticking a perfect arabesque landing. He maintains that same control through the assortment of one-legged landings in the variation. His skill is captivating, but even more he dances with a quiet confidence and genuine humility that make him such an endearing performer. Svetlana Lunkina and Naoya Ebe dance the “Sanguinic” variation with crisp technique and sharp style. Evan McKie is hypnotic in his interpretation of the “Phlegmatic” variation. He combines isolated movements, blending shapes and lines like a human kaleidoscope. Alexandra MacDonald not only captures the precise details characteristic of Balanchine ballet as she whips through travelling turns, flick glissades and complex footwork; she embodies the beguiling essence of a true Balanchine dancer.
Rubies, another work that holds a firm place in the company’s repertoire, comes next on the program. Balanchine created the piece, set to jazzy music by Igor Stravinsky, roughly two decades after The Four Temperaments as a part of the full-length ballet Jewels. Karinska’s swanky, jewel-encrusted red costumes shine and sparkle on the dancers. Their sweeping hips, swinging legs and flicking wrists glow with charisma. Xiao Nan Yu draws in the audience with playful confidence, through snappy high attitudes and sassy battements. Light on their feet, the on- and offstage couple Heather Ogden and Guillaume Côté entertain with their natural chemistry as they effortlessly skip through intricate footwork. With glamour and playful humour, this ballet provides some New York City entertainment, lifting the mood before the more complex humour to follow.
Alexander Ekman’s Cacti, originally created on Nederlands Dans Theatre 2 in 2010, is brilliantly staged by Nina Botkay. The piece challenges the way ballet dancers can interact with an audience, in choreography that allows them to acknowledge the audience’s presence. A work like Cacti could risk becoming somewhat of an inside joke between dancers, but succeeds tremendously at engaging the audience through quick wit, sophisticated collaboration, transformation of space and impeccable comedic timing. The dancers impressively power through complex full-bodied unison, and skillfully divert from each other. On hands and knees, they break into small groups, executing intricate percussive movements and layering texture on the music. They emerge into the light from behind sixteen black and white risers. They pose in intricate formations with cacti (yes, the title plant makes an appearance). Throughout, a string quartet – comprising Aaron Schwebel (violin), Dominique Laplante (violin), Angela Rudden (viola) and Maurizio Baccante (cello) – plays from memory, taking formation with the dancers.
The effect of comedic timing intensifies throughout the piece with satirical voiceovers, two from the perspective of a critic over-analyzing eccentric movement and one from the perspective of dancers colloquially narrating their choreography. Thomas Visser’s lighting design takes on a life of its own, facilitating transitions and enhancing the stage design as the dancers orchestrate seamless set changes by rearranging the risers. The comedy hits its peak in Alexandra MacDonald and Dylan Tedaldi’s ironic contemporary duet. Dubbed with nonchalant, humorous voiceovers commenting on the choreography, the duet proceeds through contemporary partner work, the dancers looking perfectly serious. The entire ensemble performs with athleticism and comedic brilliance that is likely to leave audience members wondering, “Did I just laugh that hard at the ballet?”
While Cacti explicitly reminds us that movement can create impact without specific meaning, The Four Temperaments and Rubies implicitly carry the same message. This mixed program creates its effect through subtle and eccentric movement artistry, enough to satisfy seasoned audiences and engage new ones.
The mixed programme runs from March 9 through 13 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto.