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alberta ballet caelestis

Jean Grand-Maître’s Caelestis, photograph by Michael Slobodian

Reviewed April 20, 2017

NAC Southam Hall, Ottawa

(Repeat performances Friday & Saturday, April 21 & 22, 8:00 p.m.)

It’s so Canadian! Three of Canada’s best ballet companies performing contemporary ballet works by three of Canada’s best dance choreographers, accompanied by the sound of three of Canada’s best young musicians.

The idea of premiering such a show at the National Arts Centre on the eve of Canada 150 sprung from the minds of NAC’s dance executive producer Cathy Levy and music director Alexander Shelley a few years ago.

And so, with Shelley in the pit with his orchestra providing live accompaniment, the Ottawa audience experienced some of Canada’s best creative minds at work on the stage this week.

ENCOUNT3RS, overall, is a somewhat “dark” presentation, from Jean Grand-Maître’s Caelestis, which opens the show, to Guillaume Côté’s Dark Angels, which wraps it up.

alberta ballet caelestis 2

Alberta Ballet dancers perform in Caelestis, photograph by Michael Slobodian

The former, danced by 10 Alberta Ballet artists, focuses on the intrigue of shapes – not only the shapes of the dancers individually as they crawl, claw, hang or reach, but also the shape of the duets and the shape of the group as a whole as the dancers come together as one large beast. 

The shaping is even more pronounced against the stark lighting that is projected onto the back of the stage and the floor. A video design by Wendy Tilby and Amanda Forbis moves continuously, so that it becomes its own entity in the work. The skin of the dancers – the men are bare-chested – reflects a pale golden light in contrast to the mostly black-and-white seemingly random fast-moving images.

Collaborating with Grand-Maître, composer Andrew Staniland created a three-movement score he says is inspired by what is known as “the golden ratio” of Phi, and towards the end incorporates readings of quotes from Euclid’s “The laws of nature are but the mathematical thoughts of God.”

Côté’s Dark Angels carries a loneliness through the work, even within the duets, but often switches suddenly into fleeting moments of love or joy, all patterned beautifully on the stage by the 10 National Ballet of Canada dancers.

guillaume cote's dark angels

National Ballet performs Guillaume Côté’s Dark Angels

Kevin Lau, who collaborated with Côté for the work, fresh from their first collaboration on the ballet Le Petit Prince, feeds the desperate and energetic movements with a brilliant piece of music that threatens with its persistent drums and soulful strings, and just a dash of the exotic.

Lastly, and kind of least, sandwiched between these two numbers, is a somewhat draggy ballet called Keep Driving, I’m Dreaming, choreographed by Emily Molnar for eight Ballet BC dancers. Molnar says she was inspired by the dancers’ responses to her query, “If you were to put your life on hold, where would you go?” And while the dancers have an opportunity to show off their amazing individual skills, the piece lacks creativity.

“Musical scientist” Nicole Lizée, who says she drew her inspiration for the collaboration from the neo-noir cinema of the 1980s and 1990s, and who likes to mix old and new sounds and capture the glitches of outdated technology, has created a dissonant, overly electronic angry accompaniment to the work.



Gauthier Dance // Dance Company Theaterhaus Stuttgart


eric gauthier

Cantata dancers

Ballet 101, Now and Now, Pacopepepluto, Streams, Cantata


Reviewed March 11, 2017

NAC Southam Hall, Ottawa

There’s nothing quite like Cantata, a 40-minute choreography by leading contemporary dance creator Mauro Bigonzetti of Rome. Principal choreographer for the Italian dance company Aterballetto, Bigonzetti has staged works for top dance companies in North and South America and Europe.


His Cantata, staged by Gauthier Dance Saturday night, is superbly vibrant, sensual and alive with colour and purpose. The dancers are earthy and wild. There’s a catchy ferocity about the work that doesn’t allow you to let go.


And incredibly unique to the work is the fact that four gypsy musicians from the south of Italy – all women – grace the stage throughout the dance, mingling with the emotion and the vitality of their fellow performers.


The music of the Gruppo Musicale Assurd, which includes a hand-button accordion, castanets and a frame drum, is infused with the traditions of southern Italian tarantellas and wild pizzica folk dances.


Gauthier, who introduced the program before the performance, referred to the final number, Cantata, as a story of an Italian village and “the dessert” of the evening.


It’s not typical for an artistic director to speak of what’s to come before presenting his dances, but Gauthier explained, “We are not an ordinary dance company.”


In fact, Gauthier first performed on the National Arts Centre stage nearly 30 years ago, when he was 10. It was only after he became “tired of dying” in Swan Lake, Romeo and Juliet and even The Nutcracker, that he made it his mission to give his audiences “the sunny side of dance,” by building a bridge between the stage and the audience with his own company in Germany.


And so, Saturday night was “a dream come true” for the Montreal-born dancer whose company in Stuttgart is now celebrating its 10th anniversary.


Four other works were on the program, before the dessert of Cantata, including Gauthier’s own choreography, Ballet 101 or Ballet 102 as he now prefers to call it since he added an additional surprise move at the end. The eight-minute work humorously employs a ballerina and her partner to give a crash course in the 100 “positions” of classical ballet. I’ve seen this 2006 work of Gauthier’s performed before by a solo male dancer and it’s always engaging with its wit and charm.


The three other works on the program were by completely different European choreographers: Stockholm’s Johan Inger, Madrid’s Alejandro Cerrudo and Crete’s Andonis Foniadakis. Widely varied, each with its own nugget of gold, the standout was Cerrudo’s Pacopepepluto — a hidden gem indeed.


Imagine, if you will, a naked man dancing like no one is watching. Okay, well not quite naked – he’s wearing a flesh-colored dance belt. But we can easily imagine him naked, his rippling muscles glistening with possibility as they catch the light just so, the strains of Dean Martin’s Memories are Made of This informing his own private uninhibited fantasy. It allows the audience to indulge in their own private fantasies, that this perfect specimen of a man is singing and dancing for you and you alone. That’s “Paco.” And then “Pepe” performs his secretive moves to Martin’s In the Chapel in the Moonlight. And lastly, “Pluto” spoils us with his wanton frolic to That’s Amore. Fun and beloved by Saturday’s audience, Pacopepepluto was undoubtedly Gauthier’s version of Fifty Shades of Grey.


The National Ballet of Canada


COMING to NAC Southam Hall, Ottawa

(January 19-21, 8 p.m.)


Photograph by Karolina Kuras

Onegin is a classic romantic ballet – a story of unrequited love based on the great 1833 epic verse “Eugene Onegin” by Russian poet Alexander Pushkin. It first came on the dance scene in 1965, when the Stuttgart Ballet performed the first version, created by one of the 20th century’s legendary narrative choreographers, the former South African John Cranko.

Reid Anderson reproduced and staged the ballet for The National Ballet of Canada in 1984. A half-million-dollar production, the three-act ballet featured handsome sets by German production designer Jürgen Rose, but it was reproduced in 2010 with a more opulent and romantic set by American designer Santo Loquasto, and is now considered the jewel in the National’s crown.

Onegin is one of ballet’s most important full-length dance dramas. Still in the Stuttgart Ballet’s repertoire and performed by companies all over the world, this admirable production takes its audience into 19th-century Russian society, complete with a brooding and haughty Byronic aristocrat, a susceptible and vulnerable country girl, and lots of tear-worthy melodrama and passion, including a duel to the death and tender pas de deux.

Batsheva Dance Company

Last Work

COMING to NAC Theatre, Ottawa

(January 11 & 12, 7:30 p.m.)


Photography by Gadi Dagon

Artistic director of Batsheva Dance Company Ohad Naharin, known for his adventurous and compelling choreography, and his widespread influence on generations of performers, presents a 70-minute dance creation at the National Arts Centre this week.

Last Work, which premiered last summer, is being hailed another Naharin masterpiece. Emotional and puzzling, the dance will be presented by dancers who are trained in Naharin’s unique dance lexicon known as “Gaga.” It explores the body in motion and meditates on futility. Electronic composer Grischa Lichtenberger of Berlin has composed original music for the piece – the first time he has written a score for dance.

One critic describes the work as “overtly political, with sequences that seem to touch on militarization, the selfishness of violence and the weight of history. The dancers are literally taped together at one point, caught in a massive, interconnected and illogical web. It is hard not to contextualize this work in terms of the Middle East conflict and feel deeply saddened.”

Batsheva Dance Company, founded in 1964, is a company in residence in Tel Aviv, Israel. Naharin first joined the company in 1974 and formed his own company in New York in 1980. In 1990, he returned to Israel as artistic director of Batsheva.

Eastman // Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui


Reviewed November 18, 2016

NAC Theatre, Ottawa

(Repeat performance Saturday, Nov 19, 7:30 p.m.)


Photography by Filip Van Roe

It is serendipitously significant that Belgian choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui should present a work in Ottawa this week that is so all-inclusive, featuring nine different nationalities performing a phenomenally tight dialogue of wholeness in a strong message of how beautiful a blending of cultural difference can be.

Significant in that it comes on the cusp of the uncertain future Americans–and in fact the entire world–face with the incoming U.S. presidency, which so far smacks of racism, division and exclusivity.

Fractus V is undoubtedly an enlightening and innovative powerful work of art, which received a standing ovation from a full house Friday.

Five male dancers, including Cherkaoui, and four male musicians transform the stage into a mesmerizing theatre of exotic sound, passionate movement and thought-provoking discourse.

Cherkaoui says this nearly one-and-a-half-hour work stems from a shorter piece he presented for the 40th anniversary of the Pina Bausch’s Wuppertal Tanztheater in 2014 called Fractus. Inspired by Jewish-American philosopher Noam Chomsky, the performance delved into the fracture between the individual and society. This longer work, Fractus V, further explores information manipulation and propaganda.

It features five very different contemporary dancers interacting to produce an intense piece of theatre that is interspersed with spoken word and live music.  

And what is so admirable is how harmonious the worldly troupe is: a Parisian dancer with a circus background, an American Lindy Hop dance producer influenced by African American dance culture, a Spanish flamenco choreographer, and a German hip-hop and breakdance artist with a flair for urban style. Their individual styles are apparent throughout, and yet they often dance as one, sometimes appearing as one many-limbed body.

The sound, produced right on stage, is hypnotic and other worldly, with a distinctly eastern flavor and a deep percussive rhythm that is universally touching. Musicians include a geomungo (traditional Korean stringed instrument) artist and composer, a British Indian virtuoso Sarod (19 stringed fretless instrument) player, a taiko drummer, percussionist and kokyu (Japanese violin) performer, and a Congolese singer and musician.

The dialogue fills in any doubts we may have about Cherkaoui’s message about movement and change and information overload: “Of course the stuff is out there. You’re just going to have to search to find it.” We hear morsels of discourse, sometimes merely a whisper, that hints of fanaticism, thought control, Hitler, Orwell, American and British societies. “It is becoming increasingly difficult to control people by force,” the voice tells us. And we hear a serious discussion on the futility of worry and our addiction to compulsive thinking. “There are times when you simply must stop thinking. Leave your mind alone to quiet itself.”

A surprising feature of the work is a portable wooden floor, constructed of triangles, which are moved and shoved around the stage and lifted into vertical props. The floor is a design to marvel at, changing shape and color (the underside is black), evoking new scenes and new moods for the dancers. At one point, the triangular pieces are placed on end and fall in a sequence like dominoes. The way the pieces of the floor connect, the way the people connect, there is a repetitive emphasis on shape formation. Especially with the dancers’ arms, which twist and bend to create ever-changing patterns and shapes. This coming together of disparate parts into a whole is a constant theme.

A startling and yet cleverly choreographed scene has a performer being “shot” repeatedly with a hand gun. A violent assault of three dancers in a slow-motion fight scene features accompanying sounds of cracking bones and breaking body parts.

Cherkaoui’s company, Eastman, is fairly new on the dance scene, but has proved to be a showcase for the choreographer’s bold and daring work. Unafraid to examine the human condition, Cherkaoui’s creations are his message and the movement his dancers perform reflect his truth.

The way the dancers twist their bodies around each other, their arms enfolded in such a way that it is difficult to discern where one body ends and the other begins, and the oddly elastic contorting body are some of his signatures. Neither is it unusual for Cherkaoui to bring in strains of the classical with traditional music of the Far East and the Middle East, as well as music of the Sephardic Jews.

This is dance rare and unique and guaranteed to delight and enrich.

Shanghai Ballet


Reviewed November 10, 2016

NAC Southam Hall, Ottawa

(Repeat performances Friday & Saturday, Nov 11&12, 8 p.m.)


Giselle is to dance what Hamlet is to theatre. All the great ballerinas – Pavlova, Karsavina, Spessivtzeva, Markova – have performed the lead role. Royal Ballet’s Merle Park, who danced Giselle in 1970, was said to be one of the greatest and most powerful in the role.

And it’s significant to note how challenging a role Giselle is: the dancer must portray a simple, innocent, young peasant girl, a lover who goes mad with grief (and dies) and, finally, a supernatural ghostly being.

On Thursday night, Qi Bingxue presented a featherweight Giselle (and will dance Giselle again on Saturday). I don’t believe I ever heard her toe shoes touch the stage. Such an airy presence was she, delightful as the happy-go-lucky peasant girl in love, somewhat creepy as she came all undone with insanity at the end of the first act, and lovely and ethereal as a “Wili,” a doomed ghostly victim of an unfaithful lover.

As far as the story goes, she is not alone after death. Twenty such Wilis, as well as their queen, Myrtha (another challenging role for this ballet, danced beautifully by the long-limbed Xiang Yang) dominate the second act. Here this dramatic Romantic ballet moves into the supernatural realm, with the woodland scene taking on a blue-grey wash. The stage overflows with the wispy magical creatures, dressed in long white tulle dresses with crowns of white flowers on their dark hair, all moving in precise and perfect harmony, a parade of beautiful, unattainable, and dangerous zombie mourners.

The story in brief: young girl – Giselle — catches the eye of two young men, one a gamekeeper and the other a count. The latter, however, disguises himself as a peasant, but Giselle, nevertheless, is smitten and dances us through her demure response to his overtures to her blissful and intimate romp with her lover. Enter gamekeeper in an effort to reveal the count’s deception. And enter a royal hunting party, which includes the princess to which the count is engaged. The revelation spins our heroine out of control, her dark hair tumbles over her pale aghast countenance and she dies in her mother’s arms.

Okay, overly dramatic for sure, but the stuff of a great story ballet. And then the eerie second act has both lovers at Giselle’s grave (not at the same time), and the ghostly Wilis who force first the gamekeeper to dance to his death and then attempt to do the same to the count. Giselle intervenes, however, and though he must dance to exhaustion, the break of day calls away the spectral maidens, including Giselle, and the count is saved but bereft.

First choreographed by Jules Perrot and Jean Coralli in 1841, Giselle has come down to us through one ballet company after another, reworked, revised, but always popular. Shanghai Ballet, the state ballet company for Shanghai that has been around for 50 years in one form or another, is known for blending traditional and Western dance styles and tours extensively around the world. This is the first time it has come to Ottawa in nearly 30 years. Go see it!

Dorrance Dance

ETM: Double Down

Reviewed October 14, 2016

NAC Theatre, Ottawa

(Repeat performance Saturday, Oct 15, 7:30 p.m.)


Ephrat Asherie in Dorrance Dance’s ETM: Double Down

Where do you go when you’ve perfected tap dancing? You make it cool. You make it sexy. And if you’re Michelle Dorrance, who has pretty much tap danced her entire life, you make it wow audiences in new, inventive and unique ways.

The American dancer and choreographer’s brand new work, ETM: Double Down, is a dynamic, energetic, evening-length dance presentation that shows off what’s she’s best at: demonstrating her superb tap dancing technique as well as her creativeness at collaborating with matchless dancers and musicians.

This particular collaboration, a reworked version of ETM: An Initial Approach, which was dorrance-dance-1presented at Jacob’s Pillow dance festival in 2012, shows the shades and tones of tap dancing that go so far beyond the traditional boundaries. It explores brave new worlds that re-invent music and movement and the collision of the two art forms.

Co-created with fellow American dancer, musician and choreographer Nicholas Van Young, ETM features a series of trigger boards – wooden drum pads – upon which the performers dance, triggering sounds or switching on recorded samples. Van Young explains he had “visions of several dancers across a number of platforms and boards, dancing out elaborate choreographed phrases while simultaneously playing the musical composition.”

The result is outstanding. It’s wildly unique and yet so finely polished, the performers take us into unseen and unimagined worlds where we can only delight in the sonic potential of tapping feet and accompanying instruments – predominantly played live on stage.

The performers – tap dancers, b-girl Ephrat Asherie, drummers and stringed instrument musicians – wow us with the ease in which they communicate unbridled and unstoppable rhythm.

The 100-minute work (with an intermission) also features vocalist/chanter Aaron Marcellus in the second half of the show. His haunting voice echoes through the auditorium like silken threads, carrying the sound of air, wind and ocean across space and time.

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