Time to Lift Up Your Heads

Come along with me as I muse about one of my favorite pieces of music, on a day when it seems especially apt.

There are good years when we’re rolling along enjoying springtime pleasures. And there are years when it’s much more difficult, when we wonder if winter will ever end. Never mind the weather, there’s the inner experience of the spirit, our struggles in the world.

I’m looking at one of the choruses in Handel’s Messiah that comes at an interesting point in the Passion narrative, especially resonant in this difficult year. It comes as the story begins to turn from horror & pain towards something gradually more positive & redemptive.

I thought of the piece as I was outside walking my dog. Whether we’re in church or isolating ourselves at home our feelings don’t stop. Our needs are still there.

The name of the chorus is “Lift up your heads”, which is literally a good idea. Okay, so don’t hang your head. That’s a good thought no matter what you face. If you’ve got stage-fright, if you’re meeting customers or your boss, smile and behave as though you have something to offer: even if you are having doubts.

Handel took a small part of Psalm 24 and placed it into his Passion narrative at a moment when we need something positive.

Here’s the Psalm.

The earth is the LORD’s, and the fulness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein.
2 For he hath founded it upon the seas, and established it upon the floods.
3 Who shall ascend into the hill of the LORD? or who shall stand in his holy place?
4 He that hath clean hands, and a pure heart; who hath not lifted up his soul unto vanity, nor sworn deceitfully.
5 He shall receive the blessing from the LORD, and righteousness from the God of his salvation.
6 This is the generation of them that seek him, that seek thy face, O Jacob. Selah.
7 Lift up your heads, O ye gates; and be ye lift up, ye everlasting doors; and the King of glory shall come in.
8 Who is this King of glory? The LORD strong and mighty, the LORD mighty in battle.
9 Lift up your heads, O ye gates; even lift them up, ye everlasting doors; and the King of glory shall come in.
10 Who is this King of glory? The LORD of hosts, he is the King of glory. Selah.

Handel only uses a tiny part of the Psalm, and his text reads entirely different in its new context. Let’s look a bit more closely at what he did.

We begin Part Two of Messiah  with “Behold the Lamb of God” and the Alto solo “He was Despised”. The choruses then pound upon us, one after another.

  • Surely he hath borne our griefs
  • And with his stripes we are healed
  • All we like sheep (a bit of comic relief)
  • He trusted in God (with the relentless admonitions “let him deliver him”)

A pair of airs relieve some of the intensity of the drama, as we pause to look around, to notice and to contemplate what has happened so far. First we have the abject sadness of “Behold and see if there be any sorrow”. Behold. Look. Notice how sad the story is. Then there is the more positive “But thou dids’t not leave his soul in hell, ” the smallest consolation in fact.

And then the next number is something entirely different.

Taken as a separate piece, it’s a beautiful composition. As a number within the dramatic arc of the Messiah it’s especially moving. “Lift up your heads” is my favorite in the whole oratorio, both as an inspired creation from Handel & for how it makes me feel. Alas when Ivars Taurins chose which numbers to include in the Tafelmusik singalong, this one was omitted, likely because it’s not easy to sing. I’m grateful that at least I’ve had a chance to hear it & especially the chance to sing it as part of a choir.

So Handel grabs the last part of the Psalm for his libretto. We’ll consider what music he put to it in a moment…

Lift up your heads, O ye gates; and be ye lift up, ye everlasting doors; and the King of Glory shall come in.
Who is this King of Glory? The Lord strong and mighty, The Lord mighty in battle.
Lift up your heads, O ye gates; and be ye lift up, ye everlasting doors; and the King of Glory shall come in.
Who is this King of Glory? The Lord of Hosts, He is the King of Glory.

In the Psalm what exactly is the psalmist doing, personifying the gates? Do gates have heads, are they alive in any sense? In a conventional / literal reading of the Psalm we might think of the gates only in their function as the entry to the Holy City, where the procession of the tabernacle might be brought and welcomed. But the Holy City is a metaphor for so much more (indeed, in the Psalms as well). The gates are to our own hearts, to our spirit, opening to the King of Glory. We are the gates and so it makes poetic & spiritual sense for us to lift up our heads. Notice too it’s not a single head, not a single gate, but a plural, a collective response.

And notice too that we aren’t told to open the doors. That it’s presented as a fact that The King of Glory shall come in makes it clear that this isn’t so much an act that we make happen. We prepare ourselves, we lift our heads, and the King comes to us.

Handel then creates a dramatic chorus that turns this little text into a dialogue. The psalmist may have been thinking of something more Socratic, more like an internal question & answer between aspects of our selves. But Handel dramatizes it, splitting the chorus. As with the Christmas Eve angels, the high voices are angelic and the lower voices more human, whether as the Christmas Eve shepherds (in Part One) or in this case, the male voices who are asking the questions. It’s a physical drama we can see enacted before us when one section questions the other, and then offers encouragement to them.

It’s one of the cleanest bits of writing for the first few pages, as though Handel were determined that we would hear the text and not have it occluded by dense textures in the orchestra.

Notice too at the most literal level we’re watching something on the page.

  • “Lift up your heads” is a melodic figure that descends, coming from above, and confident in its affirmation
  • The questioning figures of “who is this King of Glory” ascends upwards, unsure.

The back and forth is an occasion to build enthusiasm, certainty, resolve. Eventually with the final statements of “He is the King of Glory” we’re hearing a unified celebratory affirmation, no longer questioning but certain.

It seems especially apt for this Sunday. Today is Palm Sunday, when we think of a procession and the gates of the city being open. It is also Passion Sunday, as Holy Week is here, whether or not one goes to church.

Whatever you believe or doubt, I think we need all the help we can get.

Posted in Music and musicology, Personal ruminations & essays, Spirituality & Religion | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Talking to Stacey about fearing fear: Choose Joy

When you have a toothache you go to the dentist. When you’re feeling troubled in spirit where do you go? At times in my life I’ve gone to a psychotherapist or to a church for solace. Live theatre & concerts are usually a balm: but they’re currently unavailable.

I just had another session with Stacey Agouros, psychic/spiritual guide. We had an intense interview about 20 months ago when I asked her about her past, how she discovered her gift, questions that led me to a better grasp of what she is doing and (by implication) gave me more clarity about my own beliefs. If you didn’t see the 2018 interview (one of the longest ones I’ve ever done, of which I’m very proud), let me quickly review. Stacey hears from energies or angels, that she calls “guides” who are from another realm.

Today’s chat began with a bit about me & my fears but broadened to questions about the world at large and the implications of the current pandemic. This is so much bigger than just any of us.

Stacey tells me that her guides encouraged her to post something, but she hasn’t so far, at least not until this conversation: it’s because she doesn’t want to spread fear, but more an understanding of what’s really going on, and the multiple lessons we’re learning personally, economically, and globally. I’m hoping this interview can help.

The reason the headline speaks of fearing fear (phrasing you likely recognize) is because the guides are saying so. A human immune system is weaker when we’re stressed or afraid or tired. If you’re losing sleep to your worries about the pandemic, you’re becoming less resilient. Fear hurts your immunity.

No this isn’t new.

In the Old Testament we read in Deuteronomy 31:8

“He will never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged.

The 23rd Psalm says

“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.”

More recently Franklin Delano Roosevelt famously said

“So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is…fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”

Official Gubernatorial portrait of New York Governor (and U.S. President) Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

And there is a scientific basis for such beliefs. If you know anyone who has cancer, there’s a therapeutic approach using positive mental imaging, since the first books appeared in the 1980s, such as Simonton’s Getting Well Again. They show that your moods impact your health. Positive images & attitudes are indispensable to healing and your body’s defense mechanisms.

If you believe you can get well, you will surely do better than if you surrender to cancer & act as though you have no chance of recovery.

By the same token, this is no time to be fatalistic or negative.
The guides want us to understand that people can perpetuate negative behaviour, that it’s important not to be afraid, rather to take accountability for ourselves and our loved ones so that, “fear” doesn’t spread like the virus… When we feed into fear, worries, sadness, we become less resistant and it weakens the immune system.

Stacey said that her guides tell her that last year at this time, we as a population were radiating light to each other and ourselves at 80 percent. We were all encouraged because spring was around the corner. Some of us were looking forward to Easter and Summer coming, most of us were working, spending time with our families, traveling. This year? that energy is only being generated at 49% because we’ve become so fearful about what tomorrow will bring. As we hear of people falling ill of this pandemic, being laid off, worry about not being able to meet monthly payments…we may be in states of emergency, which is causing more people than usual to live in fear.

We need light, anything that promotes the positive vibes of others around you. Intention is the most important part, so whether you’ve spent two hours meditating or one minute, the guides consider that the same as far as what it contributes to the light in the world.

The guides have asked her to keep her circle of light open. The reason the guides have asked her at times to keep a circle of light open, is so that beautiful energy can be distributed around our neighborhoods, City, Province, Country and the World. A lot of people who are healers, readers, educators, nurses, doctors: anyone who believes in living their true selves and the best in people contribute to this light automatically. As funny as it sounds this energy of happiness, love, kindness, humour, humility gets contributed to those that live in fear, and worry. And what’s unhelpful right now is something oriented around blame and negativity, as this lowers the vibrations.

Stacey said that the pandemic is a signal, encouraging us to slow down, to accept that we can’t do as much as usual. We shouldn’t fight it, but instead take this as a blessing, an opportunity to be in the moment. This pandemic is ten times deeper than anyone can comprehend.

She goes on to say, “the light is less than the darkness right now.. As a collective we can change that. I want people to understand that we all can make a difference, so that we can get back to living.”

Stay as present as possible.

Continue to do what gives you joy.

Kindness is an option that will always help.

Be conscious of actions that are ego-driven and fear-driven. That’s not the way to go, if it’s at all possible to be mindful, to be aware of your choices.

Gratitude is a useful mode, because we are in the light when we say thanks, and because it models good behaviour, teaching and giving a good example.

Pay attention to what you can and can’t control, and don’t stress about the things beyond your control.

And as much as possible stay home, avoid the possibility of infection.

I’m reminded of Beethoven who (with the help of Schiller) reminds us to pick up our spirits.

O Freunde, nicht diese Töne!   Oh friends, not these sounds!
Sondern laßt uns angenehmere But let it be cheerful songs
anstimmen und freudenvollere! And full of joy

Notice that the way it’s expressed: you have a choice. We may not always notice that we have a choice, but if we slow down, if we breathe and don’t get carried away, one usually can see that there’s a choice. Do not take the scary fearful path of conflict. Choose the joyful one instead.



Anastasia –Stacey—Agouros, who I know simply as “Stacey” is a “Motivational Counselor, Clairvoyant Psychic Reader, Intuitive Life Coach”. You can find her through her website https://www.staceyagouros.com and on Facebook.

Posted in Essays, Food & Nutrition, Interviews, Music and musicology, Personal ruminations & essays, Psychology and perception, Spirituality & Religion | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Lenten Casualties

It’s the most perfect Lenten season I have ever seen.

For those of you who aren’t deeply into the Christian calendar, Lent is a 40 day period before holy week, corresponding to Jesus’s own meditations in preparation for his Crucifixion, a dark & painful time of sacrifice & self-denial. It’s traditional to give something up for the Lenten season.

It could be something serious like alcohol or meat. Or you could quit smoking. Or quit watching hockey.

Here I am, a blogger who gets to see the best stuff onstage. And I’ve been forced by the COVID19 pandemic to give up a big part of my life.

This weekend I was expecting to see Peggy Baker and Nederlands Tans Theater (including another collaboration between Crystal Pite & Jonathan Young, who previously created Betroffenheit & Revisor).

I suppose I can wait until next season when Pite will be back with something new at Crow’s Theatre.

And the Toronto Symphony still show April beginning with piano concerti, first from Jan Lisiecki playing Beethoven then Yuja Wang (!) playing the two Brahms concerti. Will those concerti concerts happen in early April?  Wang’s first one aptly on Maundy Thursday?

I doubt it.

Will the Canadian Opera Company’s spring season of Der Fliegende Hollander and Aida still happen? We already lost another Dutchman, the one at the Metropolitan Opera that was to be the high definition broadcast last week. I have yet to read a positive review of François Girard’s Dutchman, so he may be the one person in NY who isn’t upset that the Met has closed down.

More to the point, though, singers & artists are taking a beating in the cancellations. Do creditors understand if you lose a gig this way?

This is a time to think about the meaning of life.


Nevermind toilet paper. COVID19 has parked its big butt on the railway tracks of our lives, and suddenly we can’t get through. We can’t help looking in a kind of mirror, as we contemplate what we’ve given up, whether it was by choice or forced upon us. What kind of society will we be in the weeks ahead, and I am not thinking of what I can or cannot buy.

In the Great Depression people supposedly looked out for one another. Will we do so now?

I can’t escape the pun on the season. At a time when many people will be borrowing to survive, will it be Lent or that other kind of lent, the one the banks love so much?
My church cancelled the service this weekend. I don’t know how many weeks they’ll be closed, but it troubles me picturing a season of Lent without a Holy Week, without Easter. If Lent is associated with Jesus’s time in the wilderness, of fasting & sacrifice what does it mean if we cannot emerge from that wilderness, from that challenging test? It is apt that we are being asked to socially distance ourselves, when Jesus’ own time in the wilderness was precisely that, an isolation.

And perhaps when we always know that Easter dinners & parades follow Lent & Good Friday, we get too blase about it all, complacent because we’re so sure of the happy ending.  But right now the happy ending is anything but certain.

There seem something wonderfully just about the way we’re being confronted with our own materialism.  Is this all we amount to?

I’ve gained a few pounds. Eating is a solace to me, and I cannot help it given the horrors I see in the news and social media.

When you hear of artists and companies needing help, take the Lenten message to heart. Lend your aid, your dollars, your help. That way there may be a resurrection, art & culture rising again.   We may isolate ourselves to survive but we must look to those around us.

Ideas and more Ideas

Posted in Essays, Personal ruminations & essays, Spirituality & Religion | Leave a comment

Beautiful day in the neighborhood and goodness

There are at least a couple of Mr Rogers films out there.

There’s Won’t You Be My Neighbor, a 2018 documentary. And there’s A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, the 2019 film based on an Esquire magazine interview by Tom Junod from 1998, that I’ve just watched three consecutive nights in a row.

Am I cheating if I get you to read the interview? Maybe yes. I only read the interview after my first time through the film.  As you watch the film it is far from a foregone conclusion that the interview would ever happen.

Don’t read it if the article is a spoiler, although if you know Mr Rogers you likely won’t be surprised.

(here it is)

The movie is largely fictionalized. Real-life writer Tom Junod becomes Lloyd Vogel portrayed by Matthew Rhys in a terrific script by Micah Fitzerman-Blue & Noah Harpster.  Lloyd’s incisive approach tends to upset his subjects, so much so that his editor is having trouble finding subjects willing to be interviewed.

Or so she says.

And then she decides to do something completely different.  In an issue with the theme “heroes”, she wants Vogel to interview Mr Rogers.

Him: “you mean the host of the hokey children’s show?”

Her: ”Yes the beloved host of the children’s show”.

When his wife hears of the assignment –totally unlike his usual—she shudders, saying “Oh god Lloyd: don’t ruin my childhood,” knowing that he always tries to get to the bottom of any subject he undertakes.

This one will be different, it must be different.

But while we’re watching Lloyd’s struggles, an unhappy angry person, we seem to be watching an episode of the show.  At the beginning Tom Hanks as Mr Rogers starts the show with the usual song, the usual change of clothes, the usual welcome gestures.  And we’re told in short order about Lloyd, shown a picture of him with an injury from a fight.  We’ll segue from the show’s set and its charming little models of houses and cars, to an urban setting with jets and trains, also shown using the same models.

I have a weakness for films that do this kind of model-play, as you may have observed when I admitted my love for Terry Gilliam (for instance Adventures of Baron Munchausen), Wes Anderson (any of his films), Tim Burton (for instance Beetlejuice or Nightmare before Christmas) or the computerized magic in Scorsese’s Hugo, especially when they conflate adult stories with the worlds & viewpoints of children.

I must add A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood to that list, for its models, for its mix of the discourses of adults & children, for its depths.

I had to look up the director’s name.  Marielle Heller..(?)

She’s young, I don’t know her work, but I’ll be watching for her next film.


Marielle Heller (photo: Rich Polk, cropped)

Ah yes she enlarges the list of snubbed women at the last Academy Awards, alongside (for example) Greta Gerwig.  This is an easy film to under-estimate, its style deceptively simple, not unlike its subject.

The film is a bit like a parable. As Lloyd tries to interview Fred Rogers, he is perplexed as it is Fred Rogers who asks him the probing questions, but without any axe to grind, just concern & empathy.  We watch Lloyd watching Fred, as he rides the subway & is serenaded by kids singing his show’s song to him, as he patiently & unconditionally deals with a difficult guest on the show, as he struggles with a tent, and then opts to let the show keep his display of ineptitude, a better lesson than something polished & inauthentic.

I find the film very uplifting in a troubling time.  It can show you new ways to approach prayer, or if you prefer, how to meditate, how to handle your own anger.  This is a film about love & forgiveness.

And it’s startlingly genuine.  You will believe in it, I think.  Once I saw it, I had to find Tom Junod’s interview (the one above), which closes a circle.

And I need to add another piece, also by Tom Junod, written in December 2019, after the film appeared.  Like the film, it challenges me, provokes me to think about my relationship to myself, because Junod, Rogers, and Hanks all appear to have a kind of discipline, a way of working at being good.  Goodness is not something you are, but something that takes work, something you make and re-make over and over.

I find that reassuring.


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TOT Pinafore

Last night’s HMS Pinafore from Toronto Operetta Theatre was a reminder of what they do best.


For some works there is a kind of social contract at work, a simple plan that begins with the music and the words. If the music is done well, if the words are clear and if the laughs built into the text are done more or less as written, you can’t miss. It’s the essence of a classic that so long as you the producer give us some variant of the basic formula of the work, we the audience will be there, lapping it up.

Lap lap lap…(!)GandS

And that’s precisely what I saw, a production accepting the Gilbert & Sullivan rulebook.

The music?  Honoring the formula begins with an orchestra’s faithful treatment of the tunes we know and love. One stares with disbelief, that yes it may be a small group but their sound is enough to fill the space with magic. Conductor Derek Bate captained the vessel boldly through Sullivan’s dotted rhythms & accents, reflective or boisterous as the mood required.  We’re home-free when we hear the beloved melodies brought to life.

There’s lots of choral singing in Pinafore, sometimes in groups of soloists but joined by the chorus. I mention them first because I think they, along with the orchestra, are where the strength of this production began, likely in careful rehearsals with Bate & his musical staff. I could understand every word, the music was all wonderfully in tune.

Yes this music might be well-known to some, indeed so well known that the tunes ring inside our heads for days after seeing a show (or a cartoon for that matter).

But in the end it still must be learned. If it is to have impact it must be performed with precision and commitment. I don’t see a credit in the program for choreography so I’ll assume the various dance-moves, from hornpipes to something decidedly anachronistic –and earning big laughs from the audience—must have originated with director Guillermo (Bill) Silva-Marin. Musically, dramatically, visually: they were well-prepared and a pleasure throughout.

But without a few remarkable soloists it would never float, let alone sail.


Tenor Ryan Downey

I recall how impressed I was with Ryan Downey last November, singing folk music & drinking screech: a perfect audition for Ralph. His sympathetic smile & a lilting delivery reminds me of Newfoundland & the sea, and yes he has a beautiful voice.


Soprano Holly Chaplin

A little over two years ago I heard Holly Chaplin sing Cunegonde in Talk is Free Theatre’s Candide, a remarkable combination of beautiful singing & great acting. Her Josephine was another opportunity for us to see what she can do, and she showed us. Whenever she wanted to open up that voice she filled the hall seemingly without effort, while making us like her character every time she appeared.

Rosalind McArthur’s Buttercup was always clearly enunciated, stylishly sung and hilarious. Bradley Christensen’s Captain showed us some amusing dance moves, while Gregory Finney as Sir Joseph Porter was a strong & secure presence, anchoring the show.

Silva is to be congratulated on giving us the Gilbert & Sullivan we know & love. There’s a final performance of HMS Pinafore Sunday afternoon March 8th, but then TOT will be back May 2 & 3 with Michael Rose’s new musical A Northern Lights Dream.


Posted in Dance, theatre & musicals, Opera, Reviews | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

James Rhodes & the Beethoven Revolution

Koerner Hall was jammed full tonight. Apparently everyone wants to hear James Rhodes play Beethoven.

I’m late to the party, having no idea who this guy is, just intrigued by the interest I sense all around me, an electricity.  The hall is full of fans & admirers.


Pianist James Rhodes (Kenneth Chou Photography)

The concert was presented by the Glenn Gould Foundation, who made connections between the three artists (Gould & Rhodes but also Gould & Beethoven).

My first look at Rhodes shows me someone who is a breath of fresh air, not immobilized by formal attire, not restrained by pretentious language (he was unafraid to use the F word, which I think is a good sign all in all), and comfortable in addressing us before each item on the program.  These were not the words of an academic, but what was especially clear was his passionate connection to the music: especially once he began to play.

While we were scheduled to hear three Beethoven sonatas – in a program titled “The Beethoven Revolution” after all—we began with some Bach, and finished with three additional encores.


James Rhodes (Kenneth Chou Photography)

The program consisted of three Beethoven Sonatas, namely the Pastoral Op 28 in D major, the Op 90 in E minor and the Waldstein, Op 53 in C major.

This is some of the most original playing I’ve ever heard. The division people sometimes observe is between popular music & classical, where the latter involves performers who play exactly what’s written without any of the ability or willingness to improvise that’s required in popular music.

Rhodes is doing something decidedly different, and while it’s not what most (all?) classical musicians do, it might be more authentic & truer to Beethoven. I got my first sense of it in moments that a stickler might identify as a “mistake”, placed in quotes to emphasize that I’m not one who sees it that way.

What if instead of playing the work with a fanatical adherence to the notes, one instead loosens the score’s grip and begins to mess around a bit, being a bit playful. Suppose in a passage where there are repeated notes in the left hand and a melodic event in the right hand, one were to treat the LH as “vamp until ready”, and approximate the repeated notes while making sure the melody was really done right. In effect this seems to free up the melody from the strict reading and turns it into a kind of performative event, as though your RH were a soloist and the LH were accompanying. Yes of course, that’s what we perceive from the audience, but instead of a machine like rigor you get something three dimensional, and truly alive, organic, and brand new every time.

Similarly, when we get to the Waldstein sonata –a favorite of his and also of mine—instead of worrying excessively about the exact number of notes, the events come in with great drama, as though they were characters, irrespective of what’s happening in the LH. When the melody finally comes in for the final movement Rhodes doesn’t do the usual pianistic thing of worrying about bringing out the melody the way the piano teacher always tells you, but instead lets it float so gently it’s truly pianissimo,…. aetherial…. magical.


James Rhodes (Kenneth Chou Photography)

He has a special gift for melody, for bringing out a voice in the gentlest way.  When the music requires pianism he has it. In the bravura passages in the coda to the Waldstein we get the octaves, the hyper-fast version of the melody and a super dramatic finish. It’s not like anyone else’s version because it seems to all come from melodic gestures or dramatic events, a wonderfully theatrical approach to playing. The man is a gifted communicator so it’s no wonder that when he sits at the piano, it’s eloquent and direct.

I find myself thinking about these pieces in a whole new way.

His encores included Liszt’s version of the Schumann song “Spring Evening” ; a transcription (his own perhaps?) of one of the instrumental passages in Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice; and a closing Bach piece that I didn’t recognize.

I am going to have to investigate further. I feel so lucky to have heard him tonight..!

Posted in Music and musicology, Personal ruminations & essays, Popular music & culture, Reviews | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Leaning into the Unknowable @nationalballet

As I consider renewing my Canadian Opera Company subscription, it was worth having a look at the other company occupying the Four Seasons Centre. Watching the new program at the National Ballet of Canada was a great way to spend the afternoon.

The leadership is in transition for each company. COC’s General Director Alexander Neef is going soon. Karen Kain is also in her penultimate season.

One can’t help wondering:

  • who will lead each company in the future?
  • whither will they go?

It makes great subtext for today’s program.

  • Chroma choreographed by Wayne McGregor
    (he’ll be collaborating next year with Margaret Atwood on MaddAddam a new co-production with the Royal Ballet)
  • Marguerite and Armand choreographed by Sir Frederick Ashton
    (created in the 1960s for Fonteyn & Nureyev, it’s a vehicle marking the farewell of Greta Hodgkinson)
  • Angels’ Atlas, a world premiere choreographed by Crystal Pite (and the main reason I came this afternoon)

The first and third items were more abstract dance works, while the second tells a story. But they work wonderfully well together, a little over two hours at the theatre including a pair of intermissions.

I saw Chroma as a kind of curtain-raiser, a gentle warm-up for the two heavy-weights to follow. Produced in association with the Royal Opera House, and previously seen here in 2010, Chroma creates a big bright performance space with a set by John Pawson & lighting from Lucy Carter, very much dance as dance without the overlaid meanings we’ll experience in the next two pieces. The dancer’s bodies are celebrated whether they’re asked to move quickly or simply to pose for us to stare in wonderment. Much of the music has a minimalist pop music sound, tunes cleverly boiled down to their essence, a series of danceable bass riffs.

I may be the wrong person to talk to about Marguerite and Armand, as someone who didn’t just read the novel & the play as background to Verdi’s opera on the same story, but has been playing and hearing that other music since I was a kid, given that La traviata is literally the single most popular opera of all time. Ashton set his ballet to Liszt’s B-minor sonata in a version orchestrated by Dudley Simpson, so instead of a full evening of opera, we have a little over half an hour to tell the same story. I wonder if this is where Franco Zeffirelli got the idea in his film of the opera to tell the story as Violetta’s flashback from her deathbed.

It’s a good idea.

And it makes for a potent piece of theatre even if you aren’t also soaking up the other drama, watching Greta Hodgkinson play this wonderful role in her farewell. Larger than life roles can work that way, thinking of Greta Garbo in the film Camille (1936), or Theresa Stratas in the aforementioned Zeffirelli film of La traviata (1983). We know every wrinkle in the familiar story but are watching especially to see how the star handles the challenges. Only later did I notice in the program that we were supposed to have Sonia Rodriguez for the March 1st matinee: but there was an announcement before they started, telling us we’d be seeing Hodgkinson after all, and I’m grateful for that.

I was blindsided by tears more than once.


Greta Hodgkinson as Marguerite (photo: Karolina Kuras)

I didn’t expect Hodgkinson to underplay the first scene, so very still & restrained. Her every glance at the passionate Armand of Francesco Gabriele Frola takes us through the progression from curiosity to interest to a new love, and on to the sacrifice she must make at the request of Armand’s father, the humiliating confrontation, and her eventual end. It may sound like sacrilege to say it, but Ashton’s half-hour might be better than Verdi, especially when handled as wisely as this.

There was another drama playing out before me in the orchestra pit. In Simpson’s orchestration, we get something resembling a piano concerto, with the orchestra adding extra drama for the big climaxes, but disappearing when the piano needs to be softly eloquent. Pianist Zhenya Vitort was playing much of Liszt’s sonata, which is tough enough to do without also having to follow a conductor. Perhaps the steadying hand of conductor David Briskin made the sonata more rational,more suitable for dance, less quirky than if a solo pianist were playing Liszt’s big piece. I don’t think I’ve ever liked this music so much, but then again I was captivated by the story-telling onstage. I was very moved –and again all teary eyed—when I realized that Vitort could only see her score on the piano, or the conductor in front leading her, but never saw the action we saw up on the stage.

And then came the final item on the program and the reason I’d decided to come to the ballet today. If you’re a regular reader of this blog you may have noticed that I’m a big fan of Crystal Pite. I’ve been fortunate to see and review five different pieces by Pite over the past decade, including four from Kidd Pivot, her British Columbia dance company:

How good is this work? Each one was just about the best thing I saw that year, especially the last two on the list.

Pite is a choreographer, but the works I see listed here are inter-disciplinary, a brilliant mix of media, work on the boundaries between different disciplines. The first two play explicitly with the limits of our ability to perceive and understand bodies in motion. The Tempest Replica uses a play as a departure point. Betroffenheit takes trauma and addiction as the starting point for an exploration of the drama & roleplay underpinning our personalities, especially in the face of pain & suffering. When I saw it I was so blown away that I never thought that they (Kidd Pivot, Pite and her collaborator Jonathon Young) could ever surpass this profound piece.


Betroffenheit: Jermaine Spivey, Tiffany Tregarthen, Bryan Arias, Daid Raymond, Cindy Salgado, Jonathon Young (photo: Michael Slobodian)

Yet I was just as impressed by Revisor, that takes the lies in Gogol’s Government Inspector and makes them the basis for a whole community of fakers & liars, starting with the simplest of tools, the use of lip-synching.

And so bringing Pite back to the National Ballet is a departure from her recent work (which is theatre and not just ballet).  And that would include The Statement, a piece for Nederlands Dans Theater, again with Young & again using lip-synch, to be given a performance March 21st at Meridian Hall.

And yet perhaps coming to the National Ballet is a return to first principles. Young isn’t involved as far as I know although other past collaborators such as composer Owen Belton, Lighting Designer Tom Visser and Jay Gower Taylor, her set designer & partner.

Let me quote from the program notes which are the source of the epithet in the headline:

The impetus for this creation came from my partner and set designer Jay Gower Taylor. Through our last few creations, Jay has been developing a system that allows him to manipulate reflected light.

[…lots more about the light…]

When I was a little kid, my uncle and my dad talked to me a lot about the cosmos. Sometimes I would experience a dizzying thrill in brief moments of embodied comprehension: it felt like I was falling within the vastness of it all. They inspired me to wonder about colossal ideas tha were, and always will be, beyond my grasp and to approach great unanswerable questions with imagination and creativity.
Working with light in this way reminds me of that feeling of wonder and my longing to lean into the unknowable. The light looks intelligent, awesome. The chaos and beauty of it make me feel small in a thrilling, destabilized way. Small, in the face of unanswerable questions about things like love, death and the infinite.

There’s a great deal more and it’s all wonderfully eloquent, suggestive, powerful. Pite speaks of things such as the ephemerality of dance, the impermanence of beauty and by implication our mortality.

I read that during the intermission, but was dubious that anything could be so profound. All performance has that quality of impermanence & ephemerality, right?

And we came to the performance itself.

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Artists of the Ballet in Angels’ Atlas. (Photo: Karolina Kuras)

The opening musical segments suggest something spiritual, even religious. I don’t know which one was the Tchaikovsky hymn, or which the Lauridsen “O Magnum Mysterium”. But we were more or less shown a series of fabulous light phenomena projected upon the back wall of the stage, while we listened to pieces that were suggestive of metaphysical questions, profundities. I had not really taken notice of the title of Pite’s new work, only the mysterious & beautiful light images like starry manifestations in the sky.

But afterwards it made great sense when I saw that the title is Angels’ Atlas. I’m still not sure what the title means.

I was gradually aware that I was having the same feelings I had watching the scenes near the end of The Tree of Life, Terrence Malick’s 2011 film, where we see souls wandering as though between lives in some mysterious other place. I don’t know if Pite meant to suggest anything like that, only that what we see onstage are dancers who seem intent on being alive in the most basic sense. At times the score literally pulses, rhythms suggesting our heart-beats, accentuated by hand gestures of the dancers. Twice we see a pair of dancers, where one might be dying or fading, and the other clings to them perhaps to mourn, perhaps seeking to prolong the life.

Forgive me for being ambiguous, but I don’t trouble myself with the precise meaning. I love that I’m being enticed to figure out this wonderfully suggestive imagery.  I think it speaks to everyone, especially considering the rapturous response from the audience afterwards.

And so Angels’ Atlas takes Pite back to basics, dance without need of lip-synch or a complex storyline.

These three works from National Ballet of Canada are repeated until March 7th. And there’s also Nederlands Dans Theater in a program that includes Crystal Pite’s The Statement in a single performance March 21st at Meridian Hall.


Artists of the Ballet in Angels’ Atlas. (Photo: Karolina Kuras)

Posted in Dance, theatre & musicals, Music and musicology, Opera, Personal ruminations & essays, Reviews, Spirituality & Religion | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment