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Royal Winnipeg Ballet : Svengali

January 29, 2012

Reviewed January 28, 2012

NAC Southam Hall, Ottawa

Royal Winnipeg Ballet artistic director André Lewis claims its new full-length ballet Svengali is receiving standing ovations wherever it presents. And certainly, that was the case at its performance at the NAC this month.

However, according to RWB’s executive director Jeff Herd, “unprecedented fiscal pressures” are behind the cancellation of four Svengali dates in Toronto, Hamilton and London earlier this month. Created and choreographed by Mark Godden, Svengali opened the RWB’s 2011-2012 season last October, and toured through Saskatchewan and Manitoba. It has dates scheduled in British Columbia in April.

The two-act Svengali fits into that classic story genre that Godden has a flair for taking liberties with. His first full-length ballet, Dracula, which premiered in 1998, was a box office hit and was nominated for a Dora Mavor Moore Award.

Born in the United States, Godden has been connected with the RWB for about 30 years, since he joined the professional division of the school in 1981. And he went on to become one of the company’s leading soloists. But Godden always had an interest in creating dance and he went on to design original works for many ballet companies, including Les Grands ballets Canadiens, Alberta Ballet and Ballet British Columbia.

He has a penchant for throwing in surprise elements, as he did with The Magic Flute, for example, which had flying babies in it.

The nearly 75-year-old RWB has long walked that fine line between tradition and exploration, and Lewis, who has headed the company since 1996, has kept the company working with a repertory of new full-length ballets and classical story ballets as well as bold, contemporary shorts.

Godden has based Svengali loosely on the 1894 Victorian novel Trilby by George du Maurier.

In Godden’s version, Svengali is a Gothic character who controls vulnerable young girls through hypnosis. His Mother, who runs a ballet studio called The Prettiest One of All Ballet Academy, is akin to the evil stepmother of fairytale fame, moulding her students into her own romanticized image of herself and disapproving of her son’s obsessive and psychologically warped fantasies.

Svengali comes into his own on the decadent war-torn streets of Germany (to the accompaniment of beautifully sung German lyrics). In this new world, undisciplined and masculine versus the rigidity and femininity of the ballet studio, Svengali encounters the seductive Trilby. Trilby herself is torn between the attention of the self-serving soldiers, the acolytes and morality police of Mother’s ballet academy and Svengali, who is smitten with her.

When Trilby’s lover is shot by the morality police, and she loses her child, Svengali steps in to take advantage of her forlorn state to stage a performance for the Elite, with Trilby as star. They become famous for their risqué performances and are hounded by the paparazzi. Trilby, torn between her life with Svengali and the comfort of the ballet academy, yearns to make Svengali see her for who she really is.

The accompanying extraordinary playlist, performed by the National Arts Centre Orchestra under the baton of Tadeusz Biernacki (who has been associated with the RWB for nearly 25 years), includes pieces by Sergei Rachmaninov (The Isle of the Dead), Franz Liszt (Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2), Philip Glass (Symphony No. 8 1st Movement) and Richard Strauss, as well as unusual choices by the Amsterdam Klezmer Band and The Flying Bulgar Klezmer Band.

Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra, the probably recognizable theme for the memorable movie, 2001, A Space Odyssey, introduces the opening scene of Svengali’s First Act, where dancer Harrison James as Svengali, back towards the audience, faces a glowing stove, its wide black pipe stretching skyward, similar to the large black monolith facing the apes in the infamous Space Odyssey film.

The set for Svengali, designed by Andrew Beck, is primarily black and metallic, geometric shapes. Reflecting the Gothic nature of the story, the atmosphere is cave-like, and gloomy. Svengali’s Mother, as a wicked stepmother-type character, wears a dark dress, a contrast to the Acolytes, or the Mother’s ballerinas, who represent innocence and purity in their full white ballet skirts.

Costume designer Paul Daigle has collaborated with Godden before on his other major works. He designed the scenery and costumes for Dracula, and Nutcracker, which has a distinctly Canadian flavor. Daigle once danced for the RWB himself, so he knows what works for dancers on stage.

Overall, the ballet is an enthralling journey through a psychological drama, from strife to resolution, but there is some disturbing weakness and confusion in the presentation of the latter part of the story in the Second Act.

The narrative takes the audience to a dark place of temptation, judgment, power and control, manipulation, despair and shame. It’s a story of innocence, purity and morality versus power, decadence, degradation and corruption. The stark contrast in the music – from eerie dark impatient percussion and woeful strings to lyrical piano and lilting voice — washes the ballet with life and death strokes.

The First Act is the highlight of the ballet, from its powerful opening scene to the dance by the company of the soldiers (the Morality Police) and the ballerinas. Godden has created an exciting interaction here, plump with contrast in movement – the smart soldiers, the pretty dancers. Sophia Lee’s amazing performance as Svengali’s First, carries us through the story. Accompanied by a lilting solo piano, she dances pain and despair. In her duet with Harrison, she displays vulnerability, he a need to be in control – a dance of intimacy between victim and perpetrator. It’s a touching moment in the ballet, made all the more poignant by the impressive harmony between composition and performance.

Amanda Green’s Trilby is confident and accomplished in the second scene, where the decadent, careless soldiers take us to a dark sensual and dangerous place. Green’s magnificent solo is rife with passion and sensuality.

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