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)

This entry was posted in Dance, theatre & musicals, Music and musicology, Opera, Personal ruminations & essays, Reviews, Spirituality & Religion and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Leaning into the Unknowable @nationalballet

  1. Wow… this looks a spectacular production my friend… Thank you for sharing

  2. Pingback: Service or Business? the election selection | barczablog

  3. Pingback: A tale of the stub, or Pollyanna Interrupted | barczablog

  4. Pingback: Techno-salvation, or a real Canadian Opera Company / National Ballet of Canada | barczablog

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