Friday, 21 March 2014

Tchaikovsky's OTHER Onegin

Time for a review of the Onegin which Tchaikovsky didn't actually compose that way.  His opera, based on Pushkin's verse novella, is famous of course.  But then there is the ballet version, created in the 1960s by choreographer John Cranko.  This, too, utilises Tchaikovsky's music, but without (as far as I could tell) dipping into the opera at all!  The arrangement, by Kurt-Heinz Stolze, cunningly weaves together excerpts from many lesser-known works of the Russian master, orchestrating the many piano pieces in a convincingly Tchaikovskian vein.  The story of this ballet follows that of the opera fairly closely, with some simplifying changes.  Stolze has found the most appropriate musical styles to accompany each scene of the unfolding story.


This work has been in the repertoire of the National Ballet of Canada ever since the 1980s, and was remounted 4 years ago with stunning new sets and costumes designed by Santo Loquasto.  This week's performances marked the third go-round of the production's current form.


The stage is concealed at the outset by a scrim curtain with a stylised signature of the name of "Evgeni Onegin" written large across it.  Important transitions will take place between this scrim and another curtain that can be lowered directly behind it.  It's an important device as it allows the music and the action to continue to flow while the major sets are being changed.  When the curtain lifts, we see that the stage right side of the set is defined by a perspective wall with several openings draped by heavy draperies on one side.  At the back appear a scattering of slender birch trees.  These two elements convey at once the two worlds of the story and its characters -- the lush palaces of the royal city of St. Petersburg and the country setting of Madame Larina's home.  Other elements come and go from scene to scene but these two are constant.


As with the opera, the first scene takes a while to establish the situation, but the action begins to move with the first entrance of Onegin, danced by McGee Maddox.  His arrival captures the attention of the dreamy young Tatiana (Xiao Nan Yu) almost at once.  Meanwhile, Tatiana's Olga (Elena Lobsanova) expresses her love for her suitor Lensky (Evan McKie).  It is Lensky who introduces his friend Onegin into Madame Larina's home and thus upsets the orderly life of her family.


Just as the opera contains several memorable arias and dances, this ballet version turns on three main solo/duet passages and two major dances.  In place of the lengthy Letter Scene aria, the first main pas de deux occurs when Tatiana interrupts her letter-writing to look in her full-length mirror.  Onegin appears behind her "reflection" (another dancer performing a very skilled bit of mime) and then enters the room to dance with her.  His passionate embraces have to show the widest contrast from the aloof man we saw in the first scene, and Maddox managed this contrast very well indeed.  More striking still was his reversion to his original character as he tried to force Tatiana to take the letter back (in the next act), and finally tore it up himself.


He became another man altogether again, flirtatious and very much in-your-face as he danced Olga repeatedly away from Lensky in the birthday party dance scene.  The repeated laughter showing in his face was unlike anything else we had seen from him, and very effective.  The dances of the corps de ballet throughout this scene used genuine Slavonic folk-dance steps and movements, many of which appear also in Ronald Hynd's later ballet version of The Merry Widow,


Up to this point, Evan McKie (a Principal Guest Artist visiting from Stuttgart Ballet) seemed rather wasted in the role of Lensky, but then came the second great set piece -- a haunting solo which clearly expresses his introspection and consciousness of mortality.  This occurs before the duel in which Onegin shoots and kills him.  McKie also demonstrated great emotional expression as he continually pushed Olga and Tatiana away from him in the ensuing pas de trois.  This is one of the key differences from the opera version, having the sisters actually present at the duel.  This pas de trois heightens the intensity of the scene perfectly, as does the music.


In the final act, Onegin appears at the ball at the palace of Prince Gremin and is astonished to recognize that the newly-wed Princess Gremin is none other than Tatiana.  Maddox was totally convincing in his repeated moves towards her, and as often repeated turning away.  Plainly here was a man in the grip of some very powerful emotion which he had not previously felt.


The last scene shows a replay-in reverse of the earlier letter tearing.  This time it is Onegin who has written to tell Tatiana he loves her, and it is Tatiana who tears the letter up and orders him -- commands him -- to leave her palace.  I found the earlier, younger Tatiana a tad unconvincing, but Xiao Nan Yu absolutely has the measure of this final act and was every inch the regal lady which the story demands.  This final pas de deux is so powerful that I found I was holding my breath from the sense of total involvement.  In it, John Cranko incorporated many of the rapid lifts and spins, the dragging movements, which are signatures of his style.  The movement plainly tells the story of two people locked in a passionate attraction to each other that cannot, must not be allowed any fulfilment.


After so much of the ballet has been accompanied by less well-known Tchaikovsky, this final scene demands something bigger and Stolze responded with an adaptation of the centre section and conclusion of the tone poem Francesca da Rimini.  This extraordinary musical portrait of the journey through the Inferno from Dante's Divine Comedy proves to be the perfect counterpart to the hellish emotional trap which has now ensnared both Tatiana and Onegin.  Here, too, the National Ballet Orchestra gave the greatest demonstration of their virtuoso abilities during the performance.

Saturday, 15 March 2014

QUONTA Festival 2014 # 4: Eight Angry Men


First of all, for those not in the know, QUONTA is the regional association of community theatres in Northern Ontario.  Every year the regional body co-sponsors a community theatre festival in conjunction with one of its member groups.  I was involved for years as member of two different member groups from Elliot Lake, and as an elected member of the QUONTA Board.  I love attending the annual Festivals to see what my old friends in the north are up to, theatrically speaking.


This is the last of 4 write-ups of the 4 plays produced this year.


Glengarry Glen Ross by David Mamet
Directed by Joshua Bainbridge
Presented by Gateway Theatre Guild, North Bay


Tonight we saw another 3-decade old play, and one of the rarer phenomena in community theatre -- a performance with no female characters (rare because many/most community theatre groups have a preponderance of female members!).  This is a play that stirs up strong and varied emotions in audiences, as I have often read over the years and as I saw for myself during intermission and at the green room party afterwards.


(Side Note: the post-show parties have been one of the highlights all week of this beautifully organized Festival!)


Having heard so much, so often, I was naturally intrigued by the opportunity to encounter the play first-hand.  I must confess, though, that I experienced a violent negative reaction to the script, such a reaction as I can rarely if ever remember having before.  Please mistake me not -- I am no prude, and I do use certain expletives from time to time, as many people do.  In this play, though, there are whole stretches of dialogue several pages long where every second or third word is either "fuck" or "shit".  I know well that there are people who talk like this.  I have met some of them in my time.  And my observation is that a person whose every other word is one of these two expletives is probably too limited in vocabulary to know what else to say.  I would not willingly choose to spend any amount of time with a person like that in real life, and two solid hours of a whole group of them simply transgresses my limits of endurance.


I was most vividly reminded of a Robertson Davies character who said, to a foul-mouthed younger person, `Talk shit and your life will be shit."  That certainly proves true of almost all the people in this circle of angry, hopeless men.


From a writer's point of view, I can only think of 2 explanations for this limitation of vocabulary, and realism is not one of them.  The theatre is not real and no amount or excess of gritty, back-streets language can ever make it so.  No: I would have to classify it as either "poverty of invention" or else as a desire to shock.  I doubt very much that the former could be true of an otherwise skillful writer like Mamet; given the 1983 date, the latter motive seems to me to present distinct possibilities.  All the same, I have a terrible time sorting out my comments of the staging and production from my extreme dislike of the material -- and I'm very glad that I am not the adjudicator of this show!


Well, here goes.  The lights came up on a dimly-lit bar and restaurant.  The program specified a Chinese restaurant.  The set displayed two large opened fans on the wall above the bar.  This was certainly the right motif for a Chinese restaurant, but the dim bronzey light on what looked like bare hardwood wall and d├ęcor were all wrong.  To me it resembled the bar of a 1960s steakhouse.  Not only was it very un-Chinese, it also forced the audience to strain their eyes to see clearly.  Along the bar at the back stood a group of men, backs turned to the audience.  They never moved, or only very slightly, as each awaited his turn to enter the action, but their very stillness -- abetted by the reddish lighting -- meant that they were able to pull focus onto themselves very effectively.   I kept expecting a stripper to pop up onto the bar at any minute.


This play opens in the middle of a long sequence of difficulties for Shelly Levene, played by Verlyn Plowman.  Only gradually do we discover the source of his problems -- namely, his steadily declining results as a real-estate salesman.  His great antagonist is John Williamson, the young manager of the office, played with icy conviction by Morgan Bedard.  The second half of this argument was staged on the otherwise blank front strip of stage which was plainly meant to represent a street.  As the scene unfolds, it becomes obvious that Levene is in grave danger of being fired, demonstrated by his increasing rage and increasingly frantic attempts to coerce/induce/bribe Williamson into giving him better contacts and prospects to work.  Right away here I started to disengage, because his anger seemed two-dimensional -- I wondered why he didn't show more fear of his impending firing.


The third scene got even tougher, as it began with a dialogue right upstage by the bar, a dialogue largely lost on most of the audience because the set was simply placed too far upstage and the actors were trapped behind the proscenium.  In a cavernous auditorium such as this, that's a serious handicap to those following the play.  As soon as the action moved downstage, voices came through much more clearly, but a great deal was lost during those first couple of minutes.


The second act was set in a much better space, a tacky, trashy, elderly office with missing drywall at the corners and old, banged-up wooden desks and tables.  The furniture took up a great deal of space and forced actors to work on an hourglass-shaped piece of floor, roomy at front and rear but narrow in between.  The set was still a long way upstage, but as this scene was more brightly lit the distance mattered less.  Also, I think the performers were now getting the feel of the hall and projecting more consistently and appropriately. 


Most of all, the characters were becoming more believable here.  The timing of the rapid-fire overlapping lines (a Mamet signature) became much crisper and the text clearer as a result.  Most important, Plowman's performance now developed additional dimension and scope, partly with a little assistance from the script.  The climactic scene where he first dominates Williamson into submission and then, in a sudden reversal, gets discovered by Williamson as the perpetrator of the robbery in the office, was stunning.  And after he got knocked onto the floor in struggling with Williamson and began to plead for his job, his future, really for his life, his character suddenly and unexpectedly became sympathetic and I felt truly sorry for him -- for a moment.


I`m sad to say that this was as close as I ever got to enjoying the play.  I can certainly admire the undoubted pluses of this production, but I would willingly go through life without ever having to watch this particular script in performance again.


********************


FINAL NOTE:


As much as possible, I tried to post these blogs before taking in adjudicator John P. Kelly's very fine private adjudications of each show, entertaining and informative in equal measure, and thought-provoking with it.  I know he sneaked into my thinking once or twice nonetheless!









QUONTA Festival 2014 # 3: Perplexity Staged Large


First of all, for those not in the know, QUONTA is the regional association of community theatres in Northern Ontario.  Every year the regional body co-sponsors a community theatre festival in conjunction with one of its member groups.  I was involved for years as member of two different member groups from Elliot Lake, and as an elected member of the QUONTA Board.  I love attending the annual Festivals to see what my old friends in the north are up to, theatrically speaking.


This is the third of 4 write-ups of the 4 plays produced this year.


Agnes of God by John Pielmeier
Directed by Murray Tilson
Presented by Take Two Theatre of Timmins


This play is 3 decades old  but has lots little if any of its power to engross and enthral an audience.  The production by Take Two Theatre certainly kept me fully involved from start to finish.


In keeping with the author's suggestion, the director has wisely kept the setting minimal -- two simple chairs of a familiar stacking type, and old-fashioned ashtray stand, a small table.  A clearly defined acting area on the partial thrust stage was delineated with lights, and a cyclorama wall at rear opened the space somewhat with coloured wash lighting.


On surface, the play consists of a battle between 2 women for the soul of a third -- that is, if you accept the viewpoint expressed by Reverend Mother Miriam Ruth.  At this level the performance succeeded admirably.  The fights between Miriam and Dr. Martha Livingstone (played, respectively, by Michelle Goulet and Jeannette McCreight) were tightly rehearsed, with overlapping lines that still flew clearly out to the audience. 


Both these fine actors are still quite young, and I was troubled by that for the first half of the play.  It's not just a question of chronological age, nor solely of makeup.  Since both are revealed to have been through lives of considerable stress and loss, the body language needs to be fine-tuned to reflect their histories more accurately (but certainly not in any overt, in-your-face kind of way).  Both these women carry considerable emotional baggage which has to be felt by the audience more consistently, especially when they are not describing their pasts.


Much is made in the text of the beauty and angelic sound of the voice of the young nun, Agnes, and Victoria LeFort in that role certainly had that essential vocal quality.  Her voice took on its most arresting and celestial quality when we first heard it, coming from offstage left, and I would have welcomed more chances to hear it at that distance when it seemed to me most effective.  LeFort also presented very clearly her complex character, compounded of extreme naivete with terror-stricken fears in equal measures.


Michelle Goulet presented for me, very clearly, the protective wall that Mother Miriam Ruth builds around her precious surrogate daughter, Agnes (who is in fact her niece).  She would have been helped in this by having a floor-length habit, more old-fashioned and more in keeping with the convent she leads, which she herself describes as a retired order, rather than a teaching order.


Jeannette McCreight as Dr. Livingston carries the entire play as she must, since she is most on stage and has to frequently address the audience directly in soliloquy.  These soliloquies were always delivered downstage centre at the front of the thrust stage.  I would have welcomed variations of location, and even the possibility that she might step outside the clearly delineated area of her office to one side or the other when addressing the audience.  Her performance was strong and centred at all times, and her bewilderment at the change that has come over her was clear as a bell in her final speech.


Stage pictures generally were a bit static, with Mother Miriam Ruth and Dr. Livingstone spending much time sitting in the 2 chairs.  Having one or the other up and shifting position from time to time could be advantageously used at more key moments to underline the emotional or psychological subtext behind the words they speak.


None of this must be allowed to detract from the overall involvement this company created with their audience throughout the performance.


It is no mean achievement when you realise that in this one day they had their one and only tech run, dress rehearsal, and (so far) their one and only performance of the show.  Since I have had that unenviable experience of presenting a show before its first audience at a competition, I am even more filled with admiration for this solid, tight, clean performance which brought out so much of the hidden lives of three very complex characters.



Friday, 14 March 2014

QUONTA Festival 2014 # 2: Drama of Total Involvement

First of all, for those not in the know, QUONTA is the regional association of community theatres in Northern Ontario.  Every year the regional body co-sponsors a community theatre festival in conjunction with one of its member groups.  I was involved for years as member of two different member groups from Elliot Lake, and as an elected member of the QUONTA Board.  I love attending the annual Festivals to see what my old friends in the north are up to, theatrically speaking.


This is the second of 4 write-ups of the 4 plays produced this year.


Crime and Punishment by Marilyn Campbell and Curt Columbus
Based on the novel by Fyodor Dostoevsky
Directed by Andrea Emmerton and Walter Maskel
Presented by Gore Bay Theatre


I recall vividly the experience of reading Dostoevsky's powerful novel when I was in university.  It was like watching a horrific car crash unfold in nightmare slow motion; I was repelled  by what I was reading, but found I was totally incapable of stopping.


This play had exactly the same effect on me.


In this case, the nightmare takes just 90 minutes to unfold (without any intermission) and I was thoroughly engaged and gripped from start to finish.  Anyone who has read the book will quickly realize that the play has discarded about 90-95% of the source material and gone straight to the heart of the matter -- the actions of Raskolnikov and his ensuing guilt feelings.  The authors have extracted text from Dostoevsky's novel and arranged it in a multi-scene format where scenes can flow from one to the other in a theatrical version of the stream of consciousness. 


And right there I come up against one of my few beefs about this gripping performance -- the leisurely pace of the scene changes.  One character would turn and exit the stage, not moving at all quickly.  Another would emerge on the other side, at just as slow a pace and finally begin the next segment of the text.  Every time this happened, the energy would begin to slacken a bit.  It happened frequently enough to become an impediment to the power of the whole.  The idea of keeping all 3 actors on stage throughout might be usefully explored here.


The nearly bare stage was dominated by two huge set pieces, upstage right and left, which towered over the actors.  These towers (useful shorthand name for them) are composed of an assemblage of elements which suggest in turn the human brain, clockwork mechanism, or giant ears.  All of these are very useful metaphors for the story which unfolds. 


Certainly the "action" unfolds in Raskolnikov's mind and memory.  Take it as a brain split in two, and it can represent the divorce between his rational intellect and his emotional feeling, a catastrophic division which ultimately leads Raskolnikov to his downfall.  The clockwork suggests his determination to neatly rationalize his actions, a determination ultimately frustrated because his conscience or emotional side refuses to play ball with his great intellect.  Seen as ears, the towers can represent the omnipresent threat posed by Inspector Porfiry Petrovitch, constantly listening, watching and waiting for Raskolnikov to admit his guilt for two murders.


What was distracting was the bronze-coloured finish -- close enough to a red to perform the same attention-grabbing function that any red prop or costume is apt to perform, stealing the focus from the actors.  Deadening the colour down a little more towards brown might have helped with this.


The play involves seven or eight characters but is specifically directed to be played by 3 actors.  All the personality changes were smoothly handled, with simple costume additions that took no time to add or remove.  This became doubly critical in the murder scene where Raskolnikov instantly has to go from murdering the money lender to murdering her sister, with both of the women played by the same actor.  This is just one of the many technical challenges posed by a play of this type.


Adjudicator John P. Kelly commented that the concept of having Raskolnikov on stage throughout the half-hour preshow was a very old-fashioned, 1970s concept.  I have to admit that I hope something similar can soon be said about the habit of threading a play with soundscape-type music which is not confined to scene changes but crops up at times within scenes.  It seems that far too many of the plays I attend nowadays have to use this kind of musical carpeting, and it rapidly becomes as monotonous and anonymous as the totally interchangeable ballad songs of so many second-rate musical revues.  Aside from my personal aversion to this particular type of music, though, some of the music cues during scenes came through so loudly that they threatened to swamp the actors.  It seems all too likely that this particular auditorium is as acoustically challenging to a sound technician as it is to the onstage performers.


My own order for considering the performers: first is Vincente Belenson, who played the major role of Inspector Porfiry Petrovitch, and also appeared in a few scenes as Sonia's drunken father and as a drunk man in the street calling out "You are a murderer."  He differentiated the three characters very clearly.  His major role, though, absolutely suited his natural slow and gentle vocal delivery and equally amiable style of movement.  Porfiry Petrovitch needs to entrap Raskolnikov with kindness and this is just what Belenson gave us.


Jessica Lajoie faced a similar challenge.  Her major part is the prostitute Sonia, but she also has to appear as Raskolnikov's mother (beautifully presented upstage behind a scrim), as the objectionable moneylender and pawnbroker, Alyona and as Alyona's gentle and simple sister Lizaveta.  As portrayed by Lajoie, Sonia is shown as a woman of great internal strength and courage.  The wheedling, whining voice of Alyona seems hardly to be coming out of the same person.  If I had to wish for anything different, it would be my desire to have Lizaveta (in her short appearances) sound more distinct from Sonia.  Nonetheless, in Sonia's reading of the raising of Lazarus from the dead (a leitmotif threaded throughout the play), Lajoie was so intense and emotionally spot-on that it brought tears to my eyes.


And this brings me to the stunning performance of the central role of Rodion Raskolnikov by Chris Cayen.  The role is large in length and in emotional scope.  Scaling the performance so that the guilt rises naturally along a continuum from beginning to end is a major challenge.  I suppose I could pick at this detail or that detail but plainly a great deal of thought and attention to detail has already been put into this character (as with every aspect of this production).  The result has to be described as a performance of great stature and authority.


Directors Andrea Emmerton and Walter Maskel plainly worked well together as a team, and produced a tight, well-crafted production of this challenging play.  My major quibbles on direction, as already indicated, lay with the choices of set colour and the staging of the scene changes.  But you can be sure that these are just quibbles, certainly not to be taken as major flaws in a powerful and gripping presentation of this script.















Thursday, 13 March 2014

QUONTA Festival 2014 # 1: A Nutty Night of Comic Fun

First of all, for those not in the know, QUONTA is the regional association of community theatres in Northern Ontario.  Every year the regional body co-sponsors a community theatre festival in conjunction with one of its member groups.  I was involved for years as member of two different member groups from Elliot Lake, and as an elected member of the QUONTA Board.  I love attending the annual Festivals to see what my old friends in the north are up to, theatrically speaking.


This is the first of 4 write-ups of the 4 plays produced this year.


Incorruptible  by  Michael Hollinger
Co-directed by Chris and Val Horsepool
Presented by Sault Theatre Workshop


This diverse script starts off as a fairly straightforward comedy in Act I and then takes a wild swerve into farce in Act II.  I always like John Mortimer's definition of farce as "tragedy played at 120 revolutions per minute", and this company did a good job of cranking the revs up to about 90 or so, leaving still some room to increase the sheer zaniness of the second half.


The scenario involves a French monastery in 1250 which is going on the rocks, financially, since all the pilgrims began going to a fake shrine of their own patron saint, Ste-Foy, at a nunnery in a nearby town.  Miracles by the score are reported, and even the Pope himself has gone there.  By degrees, the monks gradually slip into a scheme of their own to sell "holy relics" all over Europe by simply digging up the graves in their own churchyard!  When the Pope gets word of all the miraculous remains coming from Priseaux, he comes to see for himself, enticed by a rumour that the monastery itself possesses an "incorruptible" -- the body of a saint which does not decay.  This sets up the farcical panic and antics that ensue in Act II.


This is genuinely a company or ensemble play.  There are no particular starring roles, but every character plays an important role in the proceedings.  All the characters were presented very clearly, and clearly differentiated from each other.  Right at the outset we were set laughing by the arguments as Brother Martin (Phil Jones) tried to prevent a Peasant Woman (Randi Mraud) from praying to the saint until she had donated her penny.  Mraud did an excellent job of vanishing completely into a character which neither looked, nor sounded, nor indeed behaved like her everyday self. 


In keeping with the great comic tradition, hidden relationships between various characters are uncovered throughout the play and everyone played these moments of revelation with complete naturalness, very effectively.  One of the earliest revelations is the brother-sister relationship between the abbot, Brother Charles, and Mother Agatha, the superior of the competing nunnery.  From time to time we get reminded of the competition between these two leaders, and also of Brother Charles' extreme fear of his sister.


In the play's climactic scene, the terrible Agatha herself turns up -- first, as a fearsome voice off stage and then as an equally imposing and fearsome presence on stage.  Kudos, by the way, to Scarlet Marenger for successfully making her offstage voice heard in a very wide, high auditorium.


At this point, all the characters reach their greatest height of caricature, with Agatha leading the way.  While they had us all in stitches, I had to agree with adjudicator John P. Kelly that even more intensity was possible and indeed desirable.


These adjudications, by the way, are one of the interesting parts of these theatre festivals -- hearing the observations of a trained senior theatre artist about what he (or she) sees and hears. 


Kelly had many suggestions for possible different ways of approaching the text, and possible ways in particular to up the physical ante in Act II.  But make no mistake: this was a successful, funny production of a piece that (like many an author's early plays) contains more than its fair share of authorial difficulties, both technical and verbal.  And for that, thanks to the Sault Theatre Workshop for a delightful evening's entertainment!



Wednesday, 12 March 2014

A Thought-Provoking Dance Experience

Shamefully late in posting these thoughts about the National Ballet's winter mixed programme -- my apologies to everyone who has been waiting with bated breath!


Actually just two works this time, both previously in the National's repertoire, but as I had seen neither of them before I was awaiting this programme with considerable expectation.  The results exceeded even my fondest hopes, and a second trip into Toronto to see the programme again was absolutely needed!


Aszure Barton's Watch her was previously staged in 2009.  It's one of the most fascinating modern works I have ever seen the National perform, not least because Barton's own personal reticence to discuss her work in advance forces you to engage your mind at full stretch as you watch -- and I'm sure that is exactly her intention.  It's noteworthy, too, that the programme explicitly states that the piece was choreographed by Aszure Barton and "created in collaboration with the Artists of the Ballet".  The music was a remarkable composition by Lera Auerbach, Dialogues on Stabat Mater (after Giovanni Battista Pergolesi) which takes the well-known work of the Italian Baroque composer and creates a series of variations based on just a few melodies from his 35-minute cantata. 


Barton's work offers a peculiar line-up of elements -- a stone-walled interior with a window in the rear, a series of doors on the sides that open and close, a single leafless tree in the rear corner and a fourth wall with another window which covers the front of the stage as the ballet begins and lowers into place again at the conclusion.  The company are divided into three loose "groups" -- three women with major solo roles, two men who are outsiders or "watchers", and the remaining 32, a mixed group of women and men.  Costumes are sober in dark blues and charcoal grays and very formal -- the men in three piece suits with ties, the women in dresses.  One of the three solo women stands out from this group by virtue of her red-maroon dress and her distinctive walk as she moves -- prowls -- around the stage.


The two outside men: one wears a more casual outfit with a watch cap, the other is in a dishevelled white shirt covered with stains and moves with difficulty, as if suffering from a leg injury.  These men move through the action, while remaining separate from it (for the most part).  I'm sure every person who engaged with this work drew different meanings from the walls, the tree, the solo women (especially the one in red), and the two watchers.  For me the piece spoke of the way we are locked in by social conventions of all kinds, and the way that we are either fascinated by or we shun those who live outside those conventions.  Given the title, I'm not sure whether that was what Barton would have wanted me to take away, but that was where I ended up.  The ending fascinated me, as the company's heads appeared above the back wall, now the watchers, while the dishevelled man was left alone on the stage front as the fourth wall descended again -- permanently outside of whatever that stone-walled room offered.


The other piece was Sir Frederick Ashton's late masterpiece, A Month in the Country, based on the play by Ivan Turgenev and accompanied by music of Chopin.  Part of the fascination here was the economical presentation of the narrative.  As a reviewer for the Daily Telegraph in London described it:  "A Month in the Country is a masterly haiku which compresses all the emotion of a long, wordy play into 40 minutes of glorious dance."  Couldn't have said it better myself!


It's a complex piece with some pretty fiendish combinations of steps (Ashton was famous for this) and a true dance drama.  Little is conveyed through mime, and much through movement.  From the very opening where Vera is playing the piano in an upstage alcove, I was captivated -- not least because the young lady appeared to be actually playing, a pretence that usually doesn't work on stage.  Plainly, the choreographer demanded absolute realism here! 


The drama revolves around Natalia Petrovna, a middle-aged woman married to a staid gentleman.  Plainly her husband does not care much what she does, as she has an admirer (Rakitin) living right in the house with them.  Their placid bourgeois life is interrupted by the arrival of an attractive young man, Beliaev, as tutor to Natalia's son Kolia.  First Vera, Natalia's ward, declares her love for him, and then he in turn declares his love for Natalia.  Rakitin resolves everything by convincing Beliaev that both of them must leave the family.  Oh, my -- soap opera supreme.


What lifts this tale above soap opera is the incredible diversity of the choreography, and the ability of the National's phenomenal dancers to invest these coolly superficial people with life and warmth.  My special privilege, in seeing the show twice, was to see both casts in this work.


Natalia was danced by Greta Hodgkinson and Xiao Nan Yu.  Hodgkinson is renowned for her portrayal of the Swan Queen in Swan Lake and the same tragic sadness infused her portrayal of Natalia.  Indeed, she actually succeeded in making me feel sorry for a woman who, at bottom, is trapped in a loveless marriage and behaves as if she were no more than a fickle flirt.


With Xiao Nan Yu, it was the playful side of the character that came more to the fore so that her declaration of love looked more like a first-class flirtation than a serious emotion.  In the end, with this dancer, I felt that Natalia got what she deserved. 


Which interpretation is better?  Does that really matter?  Perhaps the true stature of A Month in the Country lies precisely in the fact that such varying interpretations can stand within the framework of the piece very successfully.


As Beliaev, the tutor, we got Guillaume Cote (partnering Hodgkinson) and Aleksandr Antonievic (with Yu).  Both dug deep into a character who is young enough to be pulled this way and that by emotions that he can't fully control.  Difference in approach was not so noticeable here as with their female co-stars, but both men fully encompassed the range in emotion of a young man who enjoys dancing playfully with the youngsters, and then finds (and loses) love, perhaps for the first time.  The final moments, when he sneaked back into the room to kiss Natalia's ribbon train, and toss on the floor the rose she had given him, were heartbreaking.


Incidental point about those ribbons: in Ashton's popular comic ballet, La Fille Mal Gardee, ribbons are used as a symbol of love found and joined together.  Here, towards the end of the choreographer's long life, they become a poignant, haunting symbol of love lost and broken forever.


As Kolia, both Skylar Campbell and Francesco Gabriele Frola completely convinced us that a grown man really was a young, kite-flying boy.


Vera, Natalia's ward, has to go through a transformation from the demure, piano-playing girl of the opening through her passionate declaration of love to the raging fury of the denunciation scene when she catches Natalia and Beliaev embracing.  Her movements in that moment become hard-edged, jerky, actually modern as an expression of her rage.  Jillian Vanstone captured that angry quality with special strength, while I found Elena Lobsanova most convincing as she declared her love to Beliaev.


Only two companies outside of the Royal Ballet in London have ever been allowed to perform this wonderful piece, and we should certainly be thankful that the National Ballet of Canada is one of them!  Coupled with Aszure Barton's powerful Watch her, this became a memorable evening of dance indeed.