Sunday, 15 March 2015

A Modern Classical Classic

Once again, the National Ballet has revived its striking story ballet, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.  This remarkable performance bridges the divides among classical dance, modern dance, theatre, and cinema.  In the process, it takes the best of each of these disciplines and melds the disparate elements together into a show which is part scenic spectacle, part dance drama, part theatre piece, and all captivating.  Not for nothing has the National scheduled this run to coincide with the March school break, for Alice is also the most family-and-child friendly show in the repertoire, next to the perennial Christmas favourite, The Nutcracker.

Absolutely critical to the success of the show are the brilliant animated scenic effects which so believably recreate the absurdist elements of Lewis Carroll's classic fantasy.  Equally important are the wildly over-the-top costumes and sets designed by Bob Crowley, who has actually succeeded in outdoing the classic John Tenniel illustrations in conveying the air of subversive madness running throughout the story.  The best example is the Duchess' kitchen set, a monstrous array of outsize implements, steaming pots, and a sausage machine -- although the Queen of Hearts runs a close second with her "skirt", which you have to see to believe.

Choreographer Christopher Wheeldon has successfully brought in a diverse array of dance styles to suit all the characters in the story.  Thus you get a decidedly classical Knave of Hearts, alongside a parody of classical with the Queen of Hearts (her first main dance, in both music and choreography, is a hilarious satirical take on the famous Rose Adagio from Sleeping Beauty).  The Cards do gymnastics, the Mad Hatter tap dances, and so it goes.  Joby Talbot's original score is right on target throughout the piece, with plenty of tinkling percussion adding a magical air throughout.  As with the film version of The Wizard of Oz, the main characters in Wonderland have already appeared in other guise during the introductory scene in Victorian England.

One of the sharpest moves Karen Kain has made as the National's Artistic Director was to form the artistic partnership with the Royal Ballet in London which made the National co-sponsor of the production and gave the company a 5-year exclusive on North American performances of the finished work, as the Royal has a 5-year exclusive for Europe and Britain.

Now, to yesterday's performances.
This ballet is on such a grand scale that the company actually has to augment its ranks with a half-dozen of additional dancers.  These integrated seamlessly into the already-sizable corps de ballet.  The hard working corps have to appear as flowers, playing cards, and various other small parts throughout the show.  Plenty of costume changes for them, and tremendous variety of dance styles too. 
In comparing the principal casts of the two performances, there was only one major difference that I noticed.  In all other cases, it was a matter of small aspects of a performance that went slightly better with one dancer than with the other.  This speaks to the great depth of this company, and the strength and artistry  that stretches right across the board.

(Robert Stephen is my nephew)

I'll start with the Duchess, which is a role taking off directly from the British traditional pantomime "dames".  That means that this female character is played by a male character dancer.  It's a role with very large demands on acting skills, but relatively lesser demands on actual dance -- although even here Wheeldon has crammed in a fair amount of comical dance work.  Etienne Lavigne (afternoon) and Piotr Stanczyk (evening) are both very fine dancers in other repertoire, and both delighted with their comical clumsiness.  Stanczyk perhaps pushed the prima donna wannabe aspect of the character a little more, but both did great work.

Many of the scenes have the Duchess playing off her Cook, whose hatchet-wielding antics are just as hilarious as her employer's social climbing.  Both Stephanie Hutchison (afternoon) and Rebekah Rimsay (evening) came across strongly, with Rimsay just that little bit more seductive in the scene where she displays her obvious attraction to the Queen's executioner and his giant axe!

The sensuous faux-Arabic role of the Caterpillar was taken by Felix Paquet (afternoon, making his debut in this role) and Harrison James (evening).  Of the two, James was perhaps the more assured but Paquet was the more smooth and sinuous in movement (a necessary quality).

The Mad Hatter's seven-minute Tea Party scene, crammed with rapid-fire tap dancing, is a total show stopper and no wonder!  As far as I know, nothing like this exists anywhere else in ballet -- certainly not in the National Ballet's repertoire -- and it always brings a huge response from the audience.  Jack Bertinshaw (afternoon) and Robert Stephen (evening) both more than met the demands of the role, both in dancing and in acting.

The legendary Rex Harrington was hilarious at both shows in the character role of the King of Hearts.
Both Xiao Nan Yu (afternoon) and Greta Hodgkinson (evening) generated laughs galore as the Queen.  The satirical choreography requires a very broad style of acting, as well as the difficult challenge for any performer of deliberately doing badly what you normally strive to do well.  I think Hodgkinson was marginally stronger in the acting side of things, her expressive face working overtime to register reactions to everything that happened.  With both, the wacky slow dance was sheer delight.

The White Rabbit  begins the show as Lewis Carroll entertaining Alice and her sisters and actually begins to transform into the Rabbit on stage -- a very neat staging trick.  Robert Stephen in the afternoon was strong in the various difficult leaps built into this sizable role.  Dylan Tedaldi in the evening did just as well, and managed to up the ante slightly in terms of "rabbit business" -- scratching ears, stroking whiskers, etc.  Although his final ear scratch, the last laugh of the show, wasn't as clear as Stephen's, people certainly got the joke in both performances!

In the dual role of Jack (garden boy) and the Knave of Hearts we got Keiichi Hirano in the afternoon.  His performance was great, a fine balance of the large technical demands with the emotional arc of the character, all clearly expressed through face and gesture.  And this is where I had my one disappointment of the day.  In the evening, Naoya Ebe was incredibly precise and fiery in the technical dance aspect of the role, but did not do nearly so well at conveying the feelings of the character to the audience.

That emotional arc, of course, has to do with the Knave's growing love for Alice throughout the story.  In the intriguing final scene, we have to believe that "they lived happily ever after" and then some, and with Hirano and his Alice (Sonia Rodriguez) that came across loud and clear.

The role of Alice is by far the largest and most demanding of the show.  It includes solos and duets, plenty of scope for acting, and the need to become truly a part of every scene.  Rodriguez and the evening Alice, Jillian Vanstone, were both magnificent.  There were slight differences in tone and feeling from moment to moment, but it's not really necessary to analyse these.  Both dancers created a most believable character and took us with them on the strange journey that Wonderland lays out for her. 

The good news in all of this is that Alice's Adventures in Wonderland continues right up to March 29 at the Four Seasons Centre in Toronto.  Run, don't walk, to get tickets for this scintillating, unique theatre and dance experience!

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

An Intriguing Dance Mix

The National Ballet's spring mixed program presented an unusual mix of four short ballets, coming from four very different points of the compass in the dance universe.  Two were company premieres.  Two involved the most un-balletic costume items I could imagine, blue jeans -- in one case paired with cowboy boots!  And one came as close to being colourless as colour can get!

The programme opened with the two company premieres.  First came George Balanchine's Allegro Brilliante, set to the rarely-heard Piano Concerto # 3 by Tchaikovsky.  This concerto is a single-movement piece, published after the composer's death.  As beautifully as it was played by the orchestra and soloist Andrei Streliaev, I was still left feeling (as I have long felt) that this is at best a small chip from the master's workbench, definitely not out of Tchaikovsky's top (or even the second) drawer.  Alas, I was left with the same feeling about the dance itself.  Balanchine is famous for choreographing with absolute respect for the music (which is a quality I value), but in too many passages the choreography took the step too far of becoming utterly predictable for anyone who knows where the music is going next.  Some moments showed a flash of inspiration, but on the whole I felt that this was by no means the best work Balanchine ever did.  The performances were neat, clean, and well-executed but seemed to lack the flash of inspiration just as the music does.

Second work up was Carousel: A Dance by Christopher Wheeldon.  As the name suggests, this piece is inspired by the 1945 stage musical Carousel, often acclaimed as one of the finest works from the famous duo of Rodgers and Hammerstein (it's being performed this coming summer at the Stratford Festival, by the way).  The score for the dance draws on two songs from the musical show, effectively arranged and orchestrated by William David Brohn.  Wheeldon has a gift for imaginative and visually stimulating choreography, and this was demonstrated here most of all by the simulation of the carousel using a circling chain of dancers.  The piece opens and closes vigorously with the company on stage, but at its centre lies a beautiful and haunting pas de deux, here danced with grace and eloquence by two members of the corps, Hannah Fischer and Ethan Watts.  Without being in any sense a barn-storming work, Carousel: A Dance was definitely both enjoyable and thoughtful.

Now to the two pieces which have both been performed before, by the National Ballet, to considerable audience acclaim.  The Man in Black is one of the most unique ballets I've ever seen, even among the diverse creations which choreographer James Kudelka has developed over the years.  The music consists of six recorded performances by Johnny Cash, made late in his career.  These are not his famous greatest hits.  These six are all covers of songs previously performed by other artists.  Kudelka matches this unusual music with an equally unusual conception.  There are four dancers, three men and a woman, and this is where the cowboy boots come into play (of course).  For most of the work, the four dancers have to work together as an ensemble, even as a single unit.  This unit travels around the stage in an intriguing variety of ways, and the choreography makes fascinating use of traditional country line-dance steps in new and inventive ways -- all set against music which is for the most part not made up of traditional country and western types of songs.  This is one of those pieces where so much happens in a short span that you will keep finding new and different aspects of the dance at each performance.  The quartet I saw did a very good job of evoking the diverse and powerful emotions contained within Kudelka's vision.  A strong performance indeed.

After the intermission, the 25-minute second "half" was devoted to the company's third staging of Wayne McGregor's Chroma.  This piece is one of the most powerful, most energetic dance works I've ever seen.  Even in its slower sections, there's an almost dangerous level of drive required by the dancers, and the more hyper-active portions create a breathtaking sense of unreality, as the dancers are forced over and over into extensions and positions which appear to be impossible.  These moments of sheer virtuosity fly by so quickly that I find myself wondering, "Did I really see what I thought I just saw?"  By that time, of course, something even more fiendish and apparently even more impossible has taken place.  Chroma is danced on a plain, brightly lit white set, with the dancers all wearing identical sexless costumes in slightly varying flesh tones.  It's ironic, because the name comes from the Greek word for "colour", but this is a very un-colourful set-and-costume combination.  The vivid and dizzying whirl of energetic movement supplies all the colour you can possibly want or handle!

Saturday night's performance of this phenomenal piece was everything one could hope for.  I can think of no other work in the company's repertoire that so fiercely stretches the limits of every single dancer on the stage.  One performance of Chroma completely puts to rest any doubts anyone might harbour about the quality of the National Ballet's dancers.  It's exhausting, but totally exhilarating at the same time. 

Sunday, 1 March 2015

The More the Merrier!

Even for me, this is pushing the envelope -- I've just attended my third opera performance in a week!  One was live, and the other two were movie theatre telecasts of live performances from the Metropolitan Opera in New York. 

Today, things got a bit lighter.  Instead of the dramma giocoso of Don Giovanni or the huge-scale human comedy of Die Meistersinger, yesterday's production rebroadcast from the Met was one of the most delightful light operas/operettas in all of the repertoire: Franz Lehar's The Merry Widow. 

One of the vexed questions surrounding such stage pieces is the issue of when exactly an opera should instead be called an operetta.  There is no definitive answer.  The closest I've ever seen was when one writer said that the dominant characteristic of operetta is its refusal ever to take itself seriously.  That one works for me.  Suffice it to say that The Merry Widow is one of the most delightful, entertaining, fizzy confections ever served up for the joy of an opera house audience.  And it is very much to the Met's credit that neither the performers nor the backstage and offstage departments in any way stint themselves on a show like this by comparison with the house's more serious productions.

The story of The Merry Widow resides in the same neighbourhood, maybe even on the same street, as George Bernard Shaw's comedy Arms and the Man.  Both poke gently barbed fun at the then-newly-emerged nations of the Balkan region, contrasting them with the more "developed" societies of Western Europe.  The plot is not much more substantial than whipped cream and meringue, but that's what makes it so entertaining.  Indeed, if there was ever a "party piece", this operetta is it -- since each of the three acts takes place at a party!

The Met has chosen to stage The Merry Widow in a new English-language version by Jeremy Sams.  Note that I have not said "translation", and that is deliberate.  Some of the solos and choruses have texts which sound remotely like the German originals, but many have no connection at all (or only the most tenuous thematic link).  The same is true of the spoken dialogue which carries the story forward.  It's only sensible, since idiomatic jokes in one language rarely (never?) translate literally into another.  I really liked the version which Sams created.  The dialogue jokes were appropriately witty and suggestive, but not crude.  The texts of the sung portions had very clever rhymes.  All in all, his work added enormously to the entertainment value of the performance.

The Met has also, equally sensibly, adopted a "crossover" approach to staging this work.  For the stage director, they have turned to noted Broadway director Susan Stroman -- who also choreographed the terrific dance sequences.  Three of the four main singing roles are taken by performers with strong Broadway credentials.  And the show includes professional Broadway dancers as well as the dancing members of the Metropolitan Opera Chorus.  These dancers already made a big impression in the "kolo" of Act 2, but their dazzling acrobatics in the Act 3 can-can went right off the chart, and earned a huge round of applause.

Taking the principals from the second couple first, Alek Schrader made a great impression as the romantic Camille de Rossillon with his clear, ringing tenor and ardent acting.  Kelli O'Hara made her Met debut as the object of his affections, the young married lady Valencienne, Baroness Zeta.  The greatest peak of her performance was her appearance as a can-can dancer ("grisette") at Maxim's in Act 3.  She managed the considerable feat of continuing to appear drunk and incapable while still executing some pretty tricky choreography.  Her voice, also light and clear, paired well with Schrader in their several duets.

And then there was her elderly husband, Baron Mirko Zeta, the Pontevedran ambassador to Paris.  This is mainly an acting role, although there are some key moments of solo singing and several ensembles for him.  The Met's inspired choice was the veteran British star Sir Thomas Allen.  He's been performing for well over 40 years, and his lyric baritone commands the stage as strongly as ever.  But his acting was even more impressive, voice and face allied to project the worried diplomat who eventually discovers that he is also (likely) a cuckold.  It was a treasurable character portrait.

Next we come to the junior diplomat, Count Danilo Danilowitsch, portrayed with panache by baritone Nathan Gunn.  With wide experience in both the opera house and the musical theatre, Gunn proved ideal for a role which creates both acting and vocal demands aplenty.  His drunken scenes were every bit as convincing -- and hilarious -- as Kelli O'Hara's.

The widow:  Hanna Glawari.  This has long been a signature role for lyric sopranos, not least because of the heart-tugging Vilja Song in Act 2.  But that's only one of a number of vocal highlights in the role.  The singer who would take the role of Hanna had better be possessed of that unmistakable and indefinable "star" quality that stops people in their tracks.  Renee Fleming certainly has it!  Vocally, her performance was full of nuance and character, while still soaring effortlessly to the numerous high notes.  As an opera singer, Fleming lacks the stage acting experience of several of her colleagues, but she did very well in her dialogue scenes.  Stroman's choreography considerately spared her the excesses required of others, and she plainly had worked hard to be able to waltz convincingly and effortlessly.

The whole performance was brought together by the "baton" of Sir Andrew Davis (he actually conducted without a baton!).  A veteran of many opera houses including the Met, Davis led a finely paced reading of the score that included many authentically Viennese phrasing and pacing touches.  There was one point early on when the singers and orchestra got away from each other for a moment, but other than that the entire performance was both convincing and beguiling.

Two thumbs up to the Metropolitan Opera for such an entertaining and beautiful presentation of this well-loved operetta classic.