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The National Ballet of Canada

April 15, 2012

Guillaume Côté, Photograph by Bruce Zinger

The Seagull

Reviewed April 14, 2012

NAC Southam Hall, Ottawa

Take an Anton Chekhov play and translate it into dance? Absolutely, says John Neumeier, award-winning choreographer recognized for his modern interpretations of traditional ballets. Does it work? Well, yes and no.

To be sure, The Seagull is a very ambitious work and the angst, despair and passionate undercurrents thread consistently through the performance, but the choreography doesn’t do this tragic story full justice. The first act is somewhat of a confusing paragraph or an unsuccessful chapter of a novel that has much to say about the highs and lows of intimate relationships.

Neumeier created his version of Chekhov’s 19th century play as a two-act ballet for the dancers of the National Ballet after he became smitten with the production he saw 16 years ago in Berlin.

Fascinated with the intertwined relationships among a group of characters living at the end of the 19th century, Neumeier suggests there is something “universally true and timelessly valid” in the story. His goal with the ballet, he says, is to invent similar characters and situations to that in Chekhov’s The Seagull, but the actors and writers in Chekhov’s story have become dancers and choreographers in Neumeier’s piece.

Where does it work? The way Neumeier has set up performances-within-performances, similar to Chekhov’s play-within-a-play. This occurs in both acts, with a low wooden stage in a beach-like setting for the opening and final scenes, and a revue-type stage off-centre for the beginning of Act 2. The dancers cleverly work on and off the stages so that they appear to be performing for the ballet itself, as well as for the audience. Neumeier, who conceived the set, which includes an impressive rippling scrim that looks like the sea, as well as the costumes and lighting design, is to be admired for his innovative creativity, as the theme of the ballet carries perfectly through the pastel blues and sand colours of the first act’s beach scene to the black and red and hot pinks of the Russian dance venue in Act 2, as well as the deep blues in the costumes and lighting to reflect romance and the blacks and greys to reflect angst and despair.

The first act, for me, doesn’t work. It’s a must to read the program notes or to have some idea of Chekhov’s story in order to understand what’s going on. There are a lot of characters, and a lot of relationships to figure out. The dancers effectively evoke the moody, pensive personalities, but it’s a disjointed act.

The second half of the two-and-a-half hour ballet is a 180-degree turn and brings a higher energy and a tighter storyline to the resolution. The informality of the opening beach scene has become a Russian theatre with elegant costumes and dark lighting. In a parody of an Imperial ballet, the dancers bring a comedic break to the angst and despair that run through the work – the men wear aqua and violet togas and the women don long blue tutus and ribboned hair pieces, the prima ballerina is in feathery white with a sparkling silver spiked crown and her partner wears a Tarzan outfit.

In the dreary closing autumnal scene back on the beach, where the dancers are all dressed in black and in long coats, Elena Lobsanova and Patrick Lavoie impart the agony of “Nina” and “Kostya” in a poignant final duet.

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From → Ballet

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