Wednesday, 22 November 2017

National Ballet of Canada 2017-2018 # 1: The Power of Winter

This week marks the second time the National Ballet of Canada has staged its masterpiece, The Winter's Tale, for the audience in Toronto.  In between, I also saw the company dance the work at Lincoln Center in New York.  The power of this extraordinary dance drama continues to grow on me with each viewing.  Indeed, I've since acquired the DVD of the world premiere production at the Royal Ballet in London, and watched it (or parts of it) many times over -- and it's nowhere even close to getting stale for me.  

What is there about this work by Christopher Wheeldon that places it in a league all its own among the numerous modern story ballets performed by the company?  I think that it's a matter of the depth and honesty of the story-telling.  Like the original Shakespeare play, this dance version makes no effort to gloss over or prettify the raw, powerful emotional currents in the story.  All of us, at one time or another, have succumbed to deep waves of emotion that sweep us out of control of ourselves, so the horrible jealousy of Leontes is something we can all relate to at some level.  

And this definitely is story ballet: it's not trying to psychoanalyze the subconscious of any character.  The Winter's Tale is just that, a tale to be told, and this work does a superlative job of telling it in dance.  And while Wheeldon's choreographic language is rooted in classicism, this work in particular stretches the dancers by shattering the classical rules at moments of heightened emotion while also doing away with all of the "conventional" story-telling gestures and actions beloved of the nineteenth century choreographers, replacing them with a richly diverse assortment of arm movements and facial expressions.

As well as the dance, there's the evocative and powerful musical score by Joby Talbot.  The more I watch this ballet, the more I admire the sheer virtuosity of his writing and scoring.  This is particularly true of the onstage "banda" of traditional instruments from assorted countries which plays simultaneously with the orchestra in the pit.  Talbot had to learn how to write for several of these onstage instruments, and the resulting music makes extraordinarily effective use of them.  To take just one example, there's the opening of Act 2: a long, sinuous solo played onstage on bansuri, the haunting, evocative bamboo flute of northern India and Nepal.

One thing that came into focus this week, as I saw two performances with two different casts, is the extent to which the drama of this ballet rises or falls by the performance of the dancer taking the central role of Leontes.  Friday night's Leontes was Evan McKie.  He gave a strong performance, poised and regal, a Leontes who never forgot in the midst of his emotional turmoil that he was a king and had to present a kingly front.  On Saturday afternoon, Piotr Stanczyk zeroed in on Leontes the man, and pushed the energy and violence of the choreography right to the wall and beyond.

The result of this contrast was revealed in the spill-over effect on the other performers.  Leontes falsely accuses his queen, Hermione, of adultery and treason.  Friday's Hermione, Jurgita Dronina, gave a poised, precise performance in the same mould as McKie's take on her husband.  So did Svetlana Lunkina as Paulina, the head of Hermione's household who becomes the conscience of Leontes after his wife and son die.

In Saturday's performance, Hannah Fischer presented a daringly intense Hermione, her anguish and desperation etched deeply into her every facial expression and movement.  Xiao Nan Yu, as Paulina, flung caution to the winds, her face frozen into a scream of pain as she pounded her fists against Leontes' back over and over, finally overmastering him and driving down him into a heap on the floor.  She then brought a dignified yet very real human sorrow into her mourning solo (and pas de deux with Leontes) at the beginning of the final act.

The final pas de deux between Fischer and Stanczyk brought the same kind of total commitment and immersion to their reconciliation, and the entire scene built up to a powerfully emotional climax when the family were reunited.  And then, in the final seconds, Stanczyk showed such a desperate, terribly real need as he turned back to the statue of his son that I was brought to tears.

The whole contrast between these two casts was a textbook demonstration of the world of difference between a clean, competent performance and a deeply intense re-creation, with the stakes raised right through the roof.  It's not hard to see how that huge central role of Leontes inevitably sets the tone for the other characters in the Sicilia acts.  The team of Hannah Fischer, Piotr Stanczyk, Xiao Nan Yu, and those around them had no need to fear comparison with any other cast I've seen in the show, the original cast from London (on whom  the roles were created) not excepted.

The first and third acts belong to those characters.  In between comes the Bohemian act, with all its light and sunshine, its glorious, brilliant green tree of life, and its fantastically energetic dances for the corps de ballet and for the young lovers, Perdita and Florizel.

Here, of course, there's less difference between one cast and the other since this act really does belong to the corps de ballet.  Right from their first entrance, the energy was up and bubbling over, and just got more so as the act progressed.  It's always a joy to watch this scene, with all of its careful gradations of tempo, dynamics, and dances arranged for anywhere from 1 to 20 dancers at a time.  One new detail that I noted was choreographer Wheeldon's fondness for having his dancers turn 180 degrees while still moving in the same direction -- which of course, means that they are momentarily travelling backwards.  Another of his choreographic fingerprints is a large number of movements in which arms move to the left while feet move to the right, or arms left and head right, combined with rapid changes from side to side.  Add in the backwards moves, and it can be tricky at times to see exactly which way a dancer is going to go next.  That slight sense of unpredictability adds greatly to the fun and energy of this scene.

There also was not a lot to choose between the two young love couples.  On Friday we had Rui Huang as Perdita and Francesco Gabriele Frola as Florizel, while Saturday's couple were Jillian Vanstone and Naoya Ebe.  The youth and high spirits, and genuine affection between the two, came across very clearly from both couples, and both Huang and Vanstone were lovely in the slow, lyrical solo which opens the second act in harness with that lyrical, haunting bansuri solo.

It was a real privilege to watch this intense and moving work twice, but it is definitely the Saturday afternoon performance that will stay lodged in my memory for a long time.