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La Veronal

Siena

Reviewed February 2, 2018

NAC Theatre, Ottawa

(Repeat performance February 3, 7:30 p.m.)

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Photo by Jésus Robisco

Siena is a bizarre piece of theatre, conceived by Barcelona-based company La Veronal’s artistic director and choreographer Marcos Morau.

Dominated by an image of 16th-century Italian artist Tiziano Vecelli’s erotic oil painting Venus of Urbino (commonly known as Reclining Venus), the work places the 10 dancers/actors in a museum setting.

They observe (sometimes simply sitting on a bench in front of the painting or standing in a doorway) or they participate in odd activities, such as zipping a dancer into a body bag. Mostly wearing fencing gear, they interact in mysterious and unpredictable ways.

Throughout this sometimes-disturbing theatrical performance, a broken narrative is read, and accompanied by projected text in English, French and Spanish. Classical strains are layered over electronic tones.

The voice tells us, “The fact that the naked body continues to be a thing of mystery after centuries.” This might give us a clue to the choreographer’s intention, as perhaps do the program notes, which tell us Siena ”represents the passing of centuries, and how art has portrayed the human body in so many ways.”

The 65-minute work seems to find its inspiration from the Italian Renaissance era, which brought Europe out of the medieval age with a cultural rebirth. Morau’s constant search for new means of expression and cultural references and his collaborations with other artists of dance, film, photography and literature inform his creations. While still in his thirties, he has won national and international awards for his choreography.

Undoubtedly, the young Spaniard, with his experience of dance, photography and theatre, has a unique view of the cultural world, but in Siena, his presentation is awkward and somewhat ominous, taking us through jagged references to mystery, fear, war and death, leaving the observer tired and confused.

la veronal siena JesúsRobisco

Photo by Jésus Robisco

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The National Ballet of Canada

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Guillaume Côté and Heather Ogden as Nijinsky and his wife Romola, photo by Bruce Zinger

Nijinsky

Reviewed January 25, 2018

NAC Southam Hall, Ottawa

(Repeat performances January 26 & 27, 8 p.m.)

There is nothing quite like this phenomenal ballet tale of Vaslav Nijinsky, the world’s first famous male ballet star. Known for his very brief but brilliant career with Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, Nijinsky’s life nevertheless reads like a fantastic novel.

Choreographer John Neumeier, director of Germany’s Hamburg Ballet, has created this full-length work of the dancer’s life, from the point of view of what was going on in Nijinsky’s disturbed mind.

Premiered in Germany in 2000, Nijinsky was first performed by The National Ballet of Canada in 2013.

On opening night, Guillaume Côté, as Nijinsky, is the genius portraying the genius. Outstandingly confident and perfectly poised, Côté presents a superhuman strength in this brutal and exacting role. Skylar Campbell and Francesco Gabriele Frola take on the role on Friday and Saturday nights respectively.

The two-hour ballet starts and ends at the conclusion of Nijinsky’s career, when he performed his final solo at an opulent white hotel room in Switzerland. Signs of his madness were apparent by this time. The story then dissipates into fragments of memories, recalled experiences of his life, and roles he performed throughout his career, which are portrayed by a full complement of dancers.

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Photo by Erik Tomasson

By the end of the final act, we are back in the white ballroom. Everything is neat and orderly on opening, with a pianist on the stage and a small audience seated in high-backed chairs along a wall. But by final curtain we are witnessing a chaotic and unbalanced scene, the walls are askew, people are falling over the railings and Côté is spinning in a mad dance of insanity while whipping long lengths of red and black cloth around himself.

 

The first act, about an hour, introduces us to Diaghilev, his mentor, his inspiration and his lover, as well as some of his most famous roles – Harlequin, the Golden Slave and the Faun. Family members and his wife, in a long red gown, weave on and off the stage.

The set and the costumes, also designed by Neumeier, are classy and elegant. The Swiss ballroom is splendid and sleek. Gentlemen in top hats and women in glamorous gowns turn the clocks back a hundred years.

The choreography is complex, and it works. We get a sense of who Nijinsky was as a dancer and as a man. In a duet with Ben Rudisin as Diaghilev, the pas de deux is intimate and poignant, serenaded by solemn strings. In a later partnering with his wife, danced by Heather Ogden (Côté’s wife in real life), the tone is more playful and light.

Act Two becomes a stark and sombre setting, with more minimal props. Nijinsky’s tangled memories and hallucinations blur. The dancers are folded into each other in enormous oddly shaped clumps. They become a shadowy collective. There’s a war theme to reflect the backdrop of the First World War against which Nijinsky’s career comes to an end. Most of the dancers wear military jackets or uniforms, they become an unruly flailing mob, and the orchestra plays strong dissonant tones, with plenty of percussion and rolling drums.

 

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Guillaume Côté, photo by Aleksandar Antonijevic.

A rough-and-tumble tortured solo, where Côté literally throws himself around the stage, follows a tormented duet with his wife.

It’s a serious ballet story of a serious and tragic life. Born into a family of dancers (both parents, his older brother and younger sister all danced), the Polish-born Nijinsky trained and starred in what was then the pre-eminent Imperial Ballet School in Russia.

His performing style was unique and intense. He was eccentric and bold and virtually superhuman on the stage. He even danced en pointe (irregular for a male dancer). Although his later choreographic career was generally unsuccessful, his L’après-midi d’un faune, based on composer Claude Debussy’s symphonic poem for orchestra, and the avant-garde Le Sacre du Printemps to an accompaniment by Igor Stravinsky in the early 1900s pushed artistic boundaries and were very controversial at the time.

His personal life was fraught with drama. A wild and undisciplined child, a lover of Diaghilev and married to a Hungarian aristocrat, who stalked him obsessively, Nijinsky gradually descended into madness (diagnosed with schizophrenia before he was 30), and spent the last half of his life in and out of institutions.

His life and his work have been written about extensively, in plays, in films, in poetry and in novels. Composers and artists have been inspired by him. A Russian figure skater immortalized him in a skating routine.

But it is only fitting that he would be honoured in the ballet world.

Royal Winnipeg Ballet

nutcracker rwbThe Nutcracker

NAC Southam Hall, Ottawa

(Performances December 6 through 10, 7 p.m., plus Saturday and Sunday matinees at 1:30 p.m.)

With Christmas only two or three weeks away, what better way to get into the spirit of the season than taking in The Nutcracker ballet!

The nostalgic version the Royal Winnipeg Ballet brings to the National Arts Centre this year is a truly Canadian one with prancing polar bear cubs, Royal Canadian Mounted Police dolls, Bay blankets, a street hockey game, a snow-filled sky brushed with the Northern Lights, and a backdrop of Parliament Hill.

Nevertheless, the story still reflects all the magic of the original E.T.A. Hoffmann, even though it is set in 1913 Canada six months before the First World War. What this means for the story is we have a boyfriend arriving for the Christmas party from Montreal, dressed in military uniform, and the Christmas tree is lit with electric lights for the first time.

Tickets are already nearly sold out. Try not to miss this whimsical ballet, replete with its magical Christmas Eve, its sword-wielding mice, its toy soldiers battling by moonlight and its wintry pine forest. And, of course, the Kingdom of the Sugar Plum Fairy.

L-E-V Dance Company

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Photograph by Regina Brooke

OCD Love

Reviewed November 23, 2017                         

NAC Babs Asper Theatre, Ottawa

(Repeat performance November 24, 7:30 p.m.)

OCD Love, a new dance work created by L-E-V co-artistic directors Sharon Eyal and Gai Behar, has all the hallmarks of these remarkable and innovative artists. It’s dark and moody. The movement is staccato and repetitive. Sound artist Ori Lichtik’s original accompaniment – from arrhythmic percussive ticking that varies in tone, to reverberating soulful strings — is loud and threatening, and yet hauntingly beautiful.

There are some similarities with the 2011 work House, which was also a collaboration between Eyal, Behar and Israeli techno musician Lichtik, produced for Israel’s Batsheva Dance Company. Eyal, a native of Jerusalem who danced with and created works for Batsheva Dance before establishing her own company L-E-V in 2013, said she was inspired to create OCD Love by slam poet Neil Hilborn’s text about obsessive compulsive disorder.

“I feel it reflects me so much,” says Eyal. “I couldn’t stop reading it. For me it was already choreography. . . . I know the way it feels and smells. Like the end of the world, without mercy. A smell of flowers, but very dark.”

 

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Photograph by Regina Brooke

On a shadowy stage, six dancers clad in simple flat black dance costume perform a kind of meditation, each vibrating to his or her own inner voice.

Their precise, solid, athleticism is what makes the work outstanding, astonishing even for their nearly superhuman performance. Lichtik’s music entirely informs the movement, driving the dance into a darker dimension.

There are some odd gestures and awkward poses during the approximately one-hour work, such as when two men hold a female dancer in a stiff sideways pose and use her as a battering ram against one of the other dancers. While a lone female opens the work, for the most part all six dancers are on stage and when they synchronize their rigid, tight movements, the whole draws a fascinating portrait.

The piece doesn’t appear to have anything to do with love, but the relationship among the six is enthralling and the work is eerily compelling.

Semperoper Ballett Dresden

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Photography Ian Whalen

Swan Lake

NAC Southam Hall, Ottawa

(Performances November 9 through 11, 8 p.m.; NOTE: Saturday’s show sold out)

Probably the greatest romantic classic ballet of all time, Swan Lake is loved for its music (by Tchaikovsky) and its dramatic tragedy. Famous for its dances of the swans, the ballet’s heroine is its most captivating element. The Swan Queen, who becomes a beautiful woman between midnight and dawn, and who falls in love with the young Prince Siegfried, is doomed from the start.

The origin of the story of Swan Lake and its ballet version have been lost in ambiguity. The 18th century German author Johann Karl August Musäus wrote a tale called Der geraubte Schleier (The Stolen Veil), which has a similar plot to Swan Lake. And the Russian folktale The White Duck has a resemblance. Tchaikovsky, who composed the ballet in the 1870s, was fascinated by the life of Bavarian King Ludwig II, whose tragic life was chosen as the prototype of Prince Siegfried and who was symbolized by a swan.

Either way, the plot of the ballet, the image of the swan and the idea of faithful love are essentially Russian.

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Photography Ian Whalen

It is believed Tchaikovsky created an earlier, smaller version of Swan Lake called The Lake of the Swans. Since the première of the full-length ballet in Moscow 140 years ago – which was not well-received – this dramatic story has been reimagined by such choreographers as Lev Ivanov, Marius Petipa and the American dancer William Christensen, and many versions with alternative endings have been presented by companies all over the world.

Semperoper Ballett’s artistic director, our own Canadian export Aaron S. Watkin, created a fresher, embellished and shorter version of this timeless ballet for his company in Dresden, Germany in 2009, dusting off much of the four-act ballet and condensing it into two acts. True to Tchaikovsky’s original tempo, the lyrical score is a bit more upbeat than more recent versions

The Ottawa presentations are part of a North American tour of the company, but Swan Lake is being performed only in Ottawa.

“This tour has a personal resonance for me,” says Watkin, “as it is the first time I will return home to Canada to present our company.”

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Photography Ian Whalen

Watkin, who was born in British Columbia, graduated from the National Ballet School of Canada in 1988 and went on to dance with the National Ballet of Canada, the English National Ballet and the Dutch National Ballet. In 1997, he was invited by world-renowned choreographer William Forsythe to become a principal dancer with Ballet Frankfurt and later joined the National Dance Company of Spain and was associate artistic director at Victor Ullate Ballet in Madrid. He was a personal choreographic assistant to Forsythe, setting his ballets throughout the world and was a regular guest teacher to many of Europe’s leading dance companies. He was appointed artistic director of the Semperoper Ballett in 2006.

Face 2 Face

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Laurie Young, photograph by Guntar Kravis

Every minute, lightning strikes Earth 360 times, 243,000 photos are uploaded to Facebook and two million red blood cells regenerate in your body. So says Laurie Young, who presents a fascinating and reflexive 60-minute dance work, How is Now, as part of the contemporary Face 2 Face dance event in downtown Ottawa this week.

Accompanied by composer and drummer Johannes Malfatti, who towers over the tiny dancer, Young contemplates the variables and mysteries of time in a work that focuses on creative repetition, intermittent blackouts, and moving backwards in space and time. Malfatti’s accompaniment taps out the rhythm of the movement, ending in a curious rumble and creak under a half light that gives us the sense we’re in another dimension of time and space.

The 2017 Face 2 Face series, which is the fifth edition of an event that shines the spotlight on rising contemporary dance stars, highlights Canadian talent.

Now based in Berlin, Young worked with Ottawa’s Le Groupe Dance Lab before she co-founded Sasha Waltz and Guests. With a keen interest in history – she created an installation performance that traces 25 years of dance history in Berlin and is involved in creating choreographic audio guides for natural history museums around the world – perhaps it is no surprise that Young should present a study based on time.

Young’s How is Now, which plays again Thursday and Saturday at the Arts Court’s ODD BOX, is one of seven works being presented nightly until Saturday.

Thursday through Saturday, a triple bill of Canadian choreographers perform five varied works at La Nouvelle Scène Gilles Desjardins, in Studio A. Joshua Beamish, a New York-based Canadian choreographer known for his distinctive approach to dance, presents radios, a work by NAC associate dance artist Ame Henderson, and a piece of his own, Concerto, to the music of J.S. Bach.

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Areli Moran and Paige Culley in Daina Ashbee’s “Unrelated”

Also on the bill is another New York-based Canadian Belinda McGuire, who presents two works, Til 120, Again and The Eight Propositions, and dance theatre artist Cie Mossoux-Bonté of Belgium with her work Vice Versa, a duo for two female dancers, accompanied by Quebecois storyteller and singer Michel Faubert’s interpretation of the folk song, Les anneaux de Marianson.

On Friday and Saturday, at La Nouvelle Scène Gilles Desjardins’ Studio B, the edgy Montreal artist Daina Ashbee presents a dark and vulnerable work, Unrelated, a work set for two dancers that interprets the experience of Indigenous women in Canada.

For more information on the performances and on the event, visit the National Arts Centre website: www.nac-cna.ca.

 

Tero Saarinen Company

Morphed

Reviewed October 5, 2017                               

NAC Babs Asper Theatre, Ottawa

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Tero Saarinen’s Morphed could be so much more than it is. Billed as a work that explores the theme of male identity, the 60-minute piece moves from a drawn-out tight ritualistic marching about the stage in random square patterns to an eerie and chaotic arm-twisting finale.

Given the current twisted political climate, changing gender issues and challenges over racial identity, a dance work that puts seven phenomenal male dancers on the stage could have presented something way more meaningful.

Instead, the work doesn’t extend much beyond the stage, which is “trapped” on three sides by hundreds of lengths of floor-sweeping ropes, leaving many in the audience unmoved.

A solo horn, a Concert Étude by Esa-Pekka Salonen and Esa Tapani, heralds the tedious opening, which has the seven dancers marching solidly in bare feet on a white floor dressed entirely in black, including hoods. There is little clue to their identity. The solitary horn and the seemingly meaningless walking gives the work a hollow and aimless refrain.

Saarinen, who premiered the work in Helsinki, Finland three years ago, eventually breaks the band of men into more individual expression, but predominantly it is a moving group of seven. When they interact with each other, there is always a sense of embattled wills or competition. Often, one of the men will be hooded, keeping any intimacy at bay.

As the men interact with the set of hanging ropes – so much symbolism here – setting them wildly asway, their movements become increasingly out of control.

Always, the choreography follows the depressingly moody music of Finnish composer Salonen. A final violin concerto, by Salonen and American-Canadian violinist Leila Josefowicz, changes the mood for the frantic finale. Here, lighting and set designer Mikki Kunttu plays with the light, first bathing it in a harsh, cold blue as a vulnerability among the men emerges, then warming the stage into a golden hue, which bounces the light off the glistening skin of the men, at least half of whom are now bare-chested.

The curtain falls mid-scene.

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