Bengt Jörgen’s closing pas de deux in his version of “Romeo and Juliet” where the ill-fated lovers take turns dying in each other’s arms – one moment Romeo mourns the lifeless Juliet and the next Juliet embraces an unresponsive Romeo – is, to my mind, one of the most original and moving pieces of ballet choreography I have seen. With this in mind, I looked forward to the Toronto premiere of Jörgen’s latest ballet “Anastasia” at the Toronto Centre for the Arts. I was pleased to find that, barring a few minor concerns – mostly technical in nature – the ballet was a delight.
Jörgen’s “Anastasia” is a fictional dramatization of episodes from the life of Anastasia Romanov, the youngest daughter of Tsar Nicholas II, the last tsar of Russia. There is a great deal of controversy surrounding the death of the real-life Grand Duchess Anastasia at the hands of the Bolsheviks during the Russian Revolution in 1918. Her alleged survival has fuelled a number of legends and more than a few pretenders who claimed – some of them quite convincingly – to be the Romanov princess. Drawing from a number of sources as well as his own imagination, Jörgen created the ballet to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of his Toronto-based company, Ballet Jörgen Canada. For the occasion Jörgen, who has developed a repertoire of popular chamber ballets, choreographed a full-length, two-hour work and commissioned an original score. While the concept and the libretto are ambitious, the result is both effective and entertaining.
After a brief overture, the ballet opens with an older woman (played by Ballet Jörgen veteran Clea Iveson) sharing memories with a young girl. The action shifts to a scene from the woman’s past where a young and vibrant Anastasia (Tara Butler) is playing in the garden of the Alexander Palace with her companion Dmitry (Preston McBain), the son of a palace kitchen maid. Anastasia and Dmitry cavort about the stage, clearly without a care in the world. Their games are cut short when Anastasia’s nursemaid appears, shooing Dmitry out of the garden and scolding her charge for her unladylike behaviour. Anastasia and the Nursemaid are then joined by the Tsarina and her elder daughter Tatiana (the incomparable Angel Wong) and soon, an Imperial Guard arrives to inform the royal family that Russia is at war. The news shocks the Romanovs and the innocent and carefree world of Anastasia’s childhood comes abruptly to an end.
The scene shifts from the Imperial residence to a village square where young soldiers are preparing for war. Their wives and girlfriends bid them tearful farewells, clutching at their uniforms as they join the ranks. The soldiers process across the stage, falling into line, marching with stooped shoulders, knowing the hardship that lies ahead. Their movements convey a sense of resignation but also trepidation. Jorgen repeats the simple marching figures, where soldiers move in canon and then in counterpoint, changing direction and doubling back, while the women lunge, pressing forward then falling back. The soldiers continue, unheedingly, marching bravely on.
The contrast between these two worlds – the world of the Imperial court and the world of the workers and peasants – is suggested through costuming, lighting and, most effectively, through Jörgen’s choreography. He tends toward classical but nonetheless appealing choreography for Anastasia and her entourage – such as the Grand Waltz in Act II where Anastasia makes her debut before the Romanovs are imprisoned by the Revolutionaries. However, scenes of the uniting workers and their subsequent victory have a refreshing, contemporary quality. The soldiers, workers and revolutionaries, labour and toil, heavy with the burden of their lot and relative want. They dance with a greater sense of weight, driving forward, seeking release but seldom leaving the ground. These are not the gun-toting revolutionary ballerinas of the People’s Republic of China’s “Red” ballets of the Cultural Revolution, leaping towards a great and bright future, these are dancers ensnared by gravity, carving through space, bound together, and moving as one. Jörgen has choreographed these corps de ballet sequences in wave-like patterns, the dancers moving in and out of line, rising and falling in sequence. The staging for these scenes is intricate, and the well-rehearsed corps ably bring Jörgen’s concepts to life. I was also pleased to see that Jörgen had incorporated Eastern European folk and character dancing into these worker and revolutionary scenes which, sadly, is becoming something of a dying art in modern ballet. Fuzuki Isaka and Hiroto Saito deserve special mention for their virtuosic performances in the revolutionary scenes.
Soloists Butler and McBain were very convincing as the young companions-turned-lovers reunited under very different circumstances later in the ballet when Dmitry has joined the Bolsheviks and Anastasia is his captive. Butler’s anguish upon learning the fate of her family was palpable, and McBain was suitably tortured by his love for Anastasia and his commitment to the revolutionary cause.
Russian-Canadian composer Ivan Barbotin has collaborated with Ballet Jörgen on two previous ballets, “The Emperor’s New Clothes” and “The Velveteen Rabbit”. The score for “Anastasia” was suitably “Russian” with strains of Prokoviev and Stravinsky, but was generally understated, with few discernable motifs. It is unfortunate that the score could not have been performed by a live orchestra – which it was at the ballet’s premiere in Halifax with the Nova Scotia Symphony in October – as something of the music’s vitality may have been subdued by the recording and the theatre’s sound system.
Bonnie Beecher’s lighting provided depth and drama to the scenes, especially during the revolutionaries’ flag-waving demonstration where certain tableaux were reminiscent of war memorials. Essential for an active touring company like Ballet Jörgen, Sue LePage’s set design was minimal, with the same pieces serving as convent gates, family shrines and cupboards to hide the escaping princess. Three large pillars suggested trees and vaulted stately ballrooms. Here too Beecher’s clever lighting played a part in these various transformations.
Where “Anastasia” left me cold was in certain staging ideas and conventions. Scene transitions occurred exclusively through blackouts and frequently without music to mask the sound of moving set pieces. Scoring the transitions and completing the set changes in full view of the audience, with diversions of lighting and action could ameliorate this disruption of narrative flow. Having witnessed Jörgen’s group sections, I have no doubt that he is up to the task of choreographing effective transitions.
My other issue was with the program. The synopsis – lovingly crafted but unnecessarily detailed – took up three pages leaving no room for the collaborator’s bios – neither of the artistic team nor the dancers. Barbotin’s, especially as a key collaborator, was glaringly absent. It seems somewhat insulting to assemble such a gifted team of artists and then fail to acknowledge their backgrounds and accomplishments in the program – especially for a work of such significance for the company.
These reservations aside, I left the theatre feeling buoyed by what I had seen. A talented cast, a well-crafted story and an intelligent production team created a memorable evening of ballet.