Some of Toronto’s most exciting ballet offerings can be found on The National Ballet of Canada’s mixed programs, and the three works that opened Saturday night at the Four Seasons Centre are no exception.
The Canadian premiere of Justin Peck’s Paz de la Jolla along with James Kudelka’s The Man in Black and Alexander Ekman’s Cacti equally stretch the conventions of ballet, albeit in radically different ways.
With Paz de la Jolla, Toronto welcomed dance-world darling Justin Peck, dancer and resident choreographer with New York City Ballet. The documentary Ballet 422 followed Peck as he created the work in 2013, at age 25. Recently, he choreographed the Hollywood film Red Sparrow, and received a Tony award for his work on Carousel. In a community often accused of insularity, Peck stands out for his breadth of influence, inspiring headlines like Vanity Fair’s “Is Justin Peck Making Ballet Cool Again?”
Critics often laud Peck for the relevance of his ballets. Even the retro-styled Paz de la Jolla feels fresh. The National’s handling of the work highlights Peck’s blend of intricacy and irreverence.
Elements of Paz de la Jolla feel borrowed from a Cyd Charisse musical. Wearing vibrantly hued, vintage-inspired swimsuits, the dancers flit through an homage to Peck’s Southern California upbringing. First Soloist Chelsy Meiss moves through simultaneously flowing and dynamic phrases that set the tone of the piece: elegant and dramatic, yet playful. With every piqué into arabesque, her arms swing up from her sides to hit fifth position overhead, punctuating quick jumps and travelling footwork.
The piece weaves around vignettes of a young couple (First Soloist Hannah Fischer and Principal Harrison James) as they chase each other through summertime crowds and glide through gentle pas de deux. Peck’s clear use of cinematic tropes saves the work from excess nostalgia. As James gently lifts Fischer by the arms and spins her in a circle with her feet skimming the stage, the flutter of her white skirt invokes Marilyn Monroe’s iconic gown.
The evening’s sunny, beachside vibes transform into a brooding, heavier tone with Kudelka’s The Man in Black, a well-loved National Ballet staple since its 2011 Canadian premiere in Calgary.
Wearing cowboy boots, four dancers intertwine, creating emotionally packed scenes using steps borrowed from line and square dancing. The pulsing of their boot heels creates a percussive backdrop, bringing the audience further into Johnny Cash’s resonant lyrics.
Kudelka clearly took his cues from the music. Dancer Kota Sato begins the work gliding downstage with bent knees and a downward pressing motion with his hands. An intense weightedness persists throughout the choreography, grounding more emotive moments in the work: a forward contraction conveys spiritual pain; two dancers swing bar brawl–style punches.
By sidelining the flourishes of classical ballet, Kudelka invites the audience to recall Cash’s immense generational influence. The Man in Black most powerfully expresses its musicality as the group travels diagonally across the stage, simply brushing their feet forward to click heels in unison, with the chorus of Four Strong Winds propelling them forward. Such restraint in the movement allows the familiarity of that song to sink in deeply, and evidently, to affect the dancers with the same sense of loss contained in the lyrics. The ensemble’s earnest embrace of such soulful, often painful, music makes this an enduring classic.
Ekman’s Cacti closed out the evening with its farcical, self-referential probing into the logic of post-modern art. First performed by The National in 2016, the work features a recorded narrator parodying art jargon – once referring to the square platforms supporting each dancer as symbolic of “the dualities of freedom and imprisonment.” Periodically, a string ensemble joins the dancers and plays with them through abrupt starts and stops. Later, as the dancers drag their wooden platforms and cacti into an impromptu sculpture, the structure becomes both a new object for the narrator to theoretically “deconstruct,” and an endlessly intriguing backdrop.
As each dancer enters with a potted cactus – an object whose symbolic meaning is “almost too subtle to detect” – the audience erupts into laughter. While the narrator takes himself too seriously, the dancers make light of the production with rapid-fire choreography filled with quirky moves, including side steps with shoulder shimmies, and yoga-inspired poses with limbs humorously splayed. Elegant design and inventive choreography suffused this tongue-in-cheek performance that blurred the lines between indulgence and irreverence.
With Peck’s Californian beach-goers, Kudelka’s working class anti-heroes and Ekman’s cheeky human orchestra, Artistic Director Karen Kain has programmed a remarkably balanced and lively evening, and the company handles each work with both virtuosity and a fitting theatricality.
The National Ballet of Canada performs their Mixed Program from June 16 through June 22 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, Toronto.