National Ballet of Canada
Works by Forsythe, Kylián and Ratmansky: The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude, Approximate Sonata 2016, Petite Mort, Piano Concerto #1
Washington, Kennedy Center Opera House
28 January 2020
The National Ballet of Canada brought two programs – a mixed bill of contemporary ballets, featuring works by William Forsythe, Jiří Kylián, and Alexei Ratmansky; and the company’s famed production of The Sleeping Beauty, which was originally produced, staged and choreographed by Rudolf Nureyev – to present during the troupe’s week-long engagement at the Kennedy Center Opera House.
The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude, the opening dance of the first program, is Forsythe burrowing into the neoclassical canon and a nod to the style and traditions of George Balanchine. In this bright and highly dynamic ballet, all the choreographic accents and inflections are placed on the vigorous and off-balance exploration of the classical idiom. A diagonal line dominates the architectural geometry; the movements percolate with energy and vigor; and the speed, clarity of execution and brilliant footwork are the key elements. This short but utterly demanding piece, created in 1996 for Ballet Frankfurt, is set to the final movement (Allegro Vivace) of Franz Schubert’s Symphony No. 9 in C Major. And this is Forsythe at his most thrilling and exhilarating.
Choreographed for a quintet of dancers (three women and two men), The Vertiginous Thrill commands virtuoso dancers, with top-notch technique and a great stamina. And the National Ballet of Canada’s intrepid cast delivered. Dressed in disk-shaped lime-colored tutus, which looked modern and classical at the same time, Hannah Galway, Chelsy Meiss and Calley Skalnik zoomed through this tour de force of non-stop movement with ease and brio. Principal dancers, Naoya Ebe and Harrison James, looked particularly strong on opening night, setting the invigorating pulse from the start with an impressive display of velocity and exactitude of steps.
The following dance, Approximate Sonata 2016, is also a Forsythe ballet – a 2016 revision of the original piece the choreographer created 20 years earlier and to the minimalist piano score of his frequent collaborator, the Dutch composer Thom Willems. The bleak and pounding music establishes the suspenseful, even alienating, mood in this Sonata; and the loose-limbed, twisted shapes are the predominant leitmotif of the choreographic language. The ballet unfolds as a series of contrasting duets, each tinged with allusions to human relationships. It feels less abstract than the previous dance; but it also feels less visually effective and emotionally absorbing, lacking in dramatic focus and momentum. The monotonous soundtrack, played on tape, didn’t help to enhance the perception of the work. The dancers, however, were excellent. The tall and leggy Hannah Fischer looked striking in the second duet, dancing with appealing plasticity and control. With her supple physique and articulated way of moving, Svetlana Lunkina was another stand out.
The second part of the evening comprised two ballets: Jiří Kylián’s erotic Petite Mort and Alexei Ratmansky’s nostalgic Piano Concerto #1.
The tricky thing about Petite Mort, with its cool fencing swords, antique ball gowns on wheels and an enormous expanse of silk, is that it’s very hard to pull this ballet off the way it was intended. With its multiple props, the ballet presents a nerve-racking test for the dancers, which has nothing to do with their skills and technique. I have seen this ballet many times and I have yet to see a performance in which the props would fully cooperate and everything would work as planned. And if things don’t go as planned – if there is no unison in the sword handling, if there is a tiny delay with covering/uncovering the stage with the silk (or a dancer gets entangled in the fabric in the process) – the spell is broken; the sense of mystery is no longer there; and as a result, the whole piece suffers.
Alas, there were a few prop-related glitches during the performance on opening night. And as I was watching the ballet, I kept thinking that these super-talented dancers deserved better choreographic material. But, fortunately, Mozart saved the day. For me, the music (excerpts from Mozart’s two sublime piano concertos) is always the highlight and the chief pleasure of Petite Mort. The audience was treated to a memorable rendition of both concertos, played with sensitive tone and mellifluous sound by the Opera House orchestra under the baton of David Briskin, with the excellent Andrei Streliaev as piano soloist.
There are many reasons to admire Ratmansky’s poignant and poetic Piano Concerto #1, which was choreographed in 2013 as a final movement of Shostakovich Trilogy – the choreographer’s heartfelt homage to genius and tragic life of the 20th-century Russian composer, Dmitri Shostakovich. As a whole, the triptych is a work of profound emotional intensity, with all three ballets reflecting various aspects of triumphant and tormented life of the composer, who suffered and sacrificed tremendously, artistically and personally, under Stalin’s rule. I truly think that this ballet needs to be seen in its entirety to fully appreciate its artistic message. Sadly, as a stand-alone piece, especially coming on the heels of Petite Mort without an intermission break, Piano Concerto didn’t produce the expected dramatic impact, even if the cast made an admirable effort, dancing with total commitment and purpose.
Clad in crimson leotards, Elena Lobsanova and Koto Ishihara, in the leading roles originated by Diana Vishneva and Natalia Osipova, gave the ballet its beating pulse; and the corps de ballet, in grey and red costumes, moving from one intricate formation to another, created a cascade of fascinating imagery. Yet, despite its predominantly cheerful atmosphere, the triumphant finale it was certainly not. Here the choreography looked deliberately restless and frenzied; and the somber images (in one scene, Lobsanova tenderly wrapped her arm around Ishihara as if shielding her from immediate danger) kept reminding us of the ballet’s powerful message that under the totalitarian rule, art can be a matter of life and death.