What does it mean to find yourself? Is it better to follow a definite narrative, as seen in Guillaume Côté’s Being and Nothingness on the National Ballet’s Ratmansky and Côté program (May 31 performance), or to take a more abstract form, as in the other two pieces on the program, Alexei Ratmansky’s Symphony #9 and Piano Concerto #1? Côté, who is likely more familiar as a principal dancer in the company, stretches his wings artistically by choreographing a work that complements the two by Ratmansky, the world-renowned Russian choreographer who re-imagined Romeo and Juliet for the National Ballet in 2011.
Côté’s Being and Nothingness occupied the first spot on the bill and was already in theory quite an interesting piece, as it is based on Sartre’s text of the same name. The dance explores the idea of free will and what it takes to become your own person in seven vignettes. And, as the process of cementing your individuality has its ups and downs, so, too, did Being and Nothingness.
Philip Glass’s music (played exceptionally by pianist Edward Connell) is haunting in its simplicity. Michael Levine’s minimalist set design, consisting of a bed, bare hanging lightbulb, standalone sink and door – effectively incorporates the individual vignettes into a whole narrative arc. When paired with David Finn’s dramatic lighting, the effect is stark and dramatic.
The handsome and charismatic Côté has imprinted himself on the Toronto dance scene, and at the peak of his performing career, he’s contemplating life after it by way of choreography. He’s shown a remarkable start, with just a few minor blips in Being and Nothingness. Over the course of the seven intimate vignettes, some of his compositional choices were a tad puzzling, particularly the group of men in black at the back of the stage. When they briefly danced in “The Street”, the result was chaotic and unorganized, making it unclear what importance they added to the overall aesthetic.
Apart from that, the lead dancers showed remarkable poise and passion, especially the pairing of Hannah Fischer and Brent Parolin in “The Living Room”. Their tumbles and turns – and even one moment where Parolin spins Fischer around by her ankles – showed the dancers’ extraordinary trust in each other. Their timing was together down to the nanosecond, and with the difficult lifts and transitions they performed, it almost seemed like watching one dancer inhabit two bodies.
Tanya Howard, who started the program in “The Light”, was exceptionally forceful and her dancing set the bar high. She internalized the music and gave a passionate performance. Interestingly, it almost seemed like Côté himself appeared on the stage embodied in the female dancer’s form. Howard’s arm movements especially seemed to show Côté’s movement signature, as seen in his lead performance in John Neumier’s Nijinsky last fall.
Emma Hawes and Harrison James combined to form a sinewy and sultry pas de deux in “The Bedroom”, conveying through oppositional reaching and pulling limbs the desperation that comes in trying to delay inevitable loss. While both danced with an easy grace, the choreography was more finely developed for James than it was for Hawes. Unless Côté specifically designed this pas de deux to have a strong gender imbalance, the material for Hawes needs a little more rounding out. It’s not that James was given the lion’s share of the dancing or was featured more often, but that Hawes’s steps and movements seemed more simplistic in comparison. During their dancing on and around the bed, Hawes appeared as more of an accoutrement to James than his equal.
Dylan Tedaldi delivered a very strong performance in “The Sink”, with his dramatic emotional depth beautifully exemplifying Côté’s contemporary choreography. And in a very unexpected turn of events because of his young age and position as second soloist, Skylar Campbell – dancing in “The Door” with corps de ballet member Megan Pugh – reached a new level of strength, control and elegance, perhaps marking him as one of the lead male dancers of the future.
While Being and Nothingness works through loose narrative form, Ratmansky’s Symphony #9 and Piano Concerto #1 – composed by Shostakovich near the conclusion of World War II – abandon plot in favour of abstraction, reflected in both the set (George Tsypin) and choreography. What is seen, though, is Soviet Russia, with red featuring dominantly in either hanging geometric shapes, screen projections or the back half of the dancers’ costumes (Keso Dekker).
In Symphony #9, the dancers perform with wariness, as though they can’t quite escape being watched. Jordana Daumec and Keiichi Hirano, Campbell, and Xiao Nan Yu and McGee Maddox personify the tension combined with elegance in Ratnamsky’s choreography, bringing to mind the clamped hand of the government as Russia emerged as the Pyrrhic victors in 1945.
Piano Concerto #1 is even more starkly oppositional. The effect is simultaneously intense and dreary, which very much reflects the struggle of Soviet Russia to integrate politics and art in the post-World War II era. Svetlana Lunkina and Harrison James, and Jillian Vanstone and Tedaldi, costumed in half grey and half red unitards, use sharply delineated movements that occasionally break into languidness, suggesting Russia at the time wasn’t yet able to fully ascend to great artistic heights.
While Ratmansky’s two pieces are usually performed as bookends to a third piece, Chamber Symphony, the contrast of Côté’s Being and Nothingness almost seemed like a more logical choice to cement the ideas of duality, individual and group identity exploration. Where Côté’s work includes contemporary choreography and narratives, Ratmansky’s explores abstract concepts through more classical dancing. Considering this juxtaposition in the program as a whole allows one to see how the choices reveal the dances’ messages beautifully.~
Ratmansky and Côté runs from May 30 through June 6 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto.