The National Ballet of Canada’s Winter Mixed Programme premiered on March 9 and will run at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts until March 13.
Is this the start of the Roaring ’20s we’ve been promised after two mostly theatreless years? The National Ballet of Canada’s Winter Mixed Programme is headlined by Elite Syncopations, an audience-favourite ragtime romp, though there’s plenty of other excitement on offer: two world premieres and mainstage debuts from rising stars and a Christopher Wheeldon work acquired for Jillian Vanstone’s farewell performance.
Created by choreographic associate Alysa Pires, when she was returning to the studio after lockdown and approaching the end of her pregnancy, Skyward is informed by themes of optimism and forward motion. The short piece doesn’t occupy a buoyant state throughout; instead, it achieves its effect through choreographic and tonal richness. The slower-paced second section allows you to savour Pires’ intriguing arrangements, which variously evoke yearning and passivity or immobility. The third section is more hopeful and features intimate work from Brendan Saye and Heather Ogden, whose limbs bend and intertwine to convey tender reliance before the last section’s energetic burst.
The first and final sections most directly reference the anticipation of the title and have a pleasingly light, vigorous quality. The 11 dancers maintain upright, classically informed shapes while bringing expressive movement and flexibility to the upper body. They are constantly in motion, spinning, exchanging places, and the momentum is bracing without being forceful. This mild restraint ultimately prevents the finale from fully achieving a weightlessness or abandon that might have been emotionally satisfying, which feels at odds with the climaxing music.
The two world premieres are oriented in different directions: principal dancer Siphesihle November’s On Solid Ground explores the joy of movement through deep physicality. His fluid choreography is expansive and full-bodied, with low squats and flapping, scooping arms. Movements ripple from the arms through the torso, shoulders, neck. At multiple points, dancers are inverted, their heads or shoulders rooted to the floor. There is a thrill in seeing the body in such a range of motion or upturned completely.
That sense of physical capability is best on display in unified group movement, particularly in a section set to Benjamin Gordon’s gentle and meditative Back to You. I had difficulty characterizing a later scene between Ben Rudisin and Svetlana Lunkina, which felt generic, and found my eyes wandering to the cluster of dancers upstage. The piece is affecting with simple, communal actions that demonstrate a looseness and pleasure in pure movement: dancers jumping from foot to foot and shaking limbs, as if after exercising, or jumping lightly in place and every few bounces taking a massive leap, throwing their heads back in the joy of exertion. The effect was uplifting; by the end I was aching to move.
The program notes say Christopher Wheeldon’s After the Rain is often presented without the first half, and I can’t imagine why. At 20 minutes, the full piece isn’t overly long, and the first section for three couples is sublime: striking and innovative choreography over a repeated musical motif that, when it finally breaks, accelerates the tempo to accentuate the precision of movement, sharp as glass (or a torrent of rain on a windowpane). The second section is earthier, a beautifully connective pas de deux between Harrison James and Vanstone, who meld and create new shapes together. The unhurried pacing allows Vanstone to luxuriate in the choreography with effortless control. James is a strong partner, but there is a natural quality to Vanstone’s movement that almost transcends performance. It’s a magnificent showcase for her.
Capping the night is Kenneth MacMillan’s carnivalesque Elite Syncopations. Wearing straw boaters, a band sits on risers onstage, and white folding chairs frame the stage where dancers sit between performing. The spandex outfits are garishly patterned, the dancing jaunty. Standouts are Tanya Howard’s cabaret-like performance, a character who knows she enthralls, revelling in the line between seductive and silly (at one moment, she aggressively pops a hip and a dancer falls off his chair). Noah Parets is just as fun as an eager but bumbling dance partner. James and Vanstone nail the grandness of the star couple at the social dance with acrobatic grace, and Naoya Ebe brings plenty of charisma to big leaps.
It’s breezy, fun and festive, but I can’t help feeling it’s more of an amuse-bouche than the main course of a mixed program – especially with two strong premieres that gesture towards exciting future work. It’s not a stretch to imagine that before long, they’ll be getting top billing.
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