For the record, classical ballet dancers do let loose once in a while. They enjoy tossing off those stiff upper body movements and tapping their toe shoes to a syncopated beat rather than following a familiar waltz. Mainly, though, these dancers enjoy shaking up the expectations of serious balletomanes, as was the case when The National Ballet of Canada performed four contemporary works by three innovative choreographers on opening night at the Kennedy Center.
For decades now, Canada’s borders have been open to artists from all over the world. The result is an artistic freedom and style that emphasize versatility and non-predictability. Known for health care, hockey, and good whiskey, Canada ranks in the top tier for dance and Canadian dancers make memories to savor.
These were my thoughts last night as I watched The National Ballet of Canada perform four ballets to live music by the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra, conducted enthusiastically by David Briskin, from Canada, of course. He will be leading the orchestra for all performances, tonight’s repertory program, and “The Sleeping Beauty” which closes the KenCen engagement this Sunday afternoon.
Perhaps because it’s been seven years since the company last appeared in our area or that we just need a jolt to chase away any leftover seasonal blah. Whatever the reason, the too-short repertory program (tonight only) with woks by international dance artist, William Forsythe, Czech native and Dutch dance master, Jiri Kylian, and Russia’s most-sought-after choreographer, Alexei Ratmansky, certainly did the trick.
Let’s begin with Kylian’s playful second-act opener, “Petite Mort,” originally created in 1991 to honor Mozart on the second centenary anniversary of his death. As the curtain opens, we find six men dangling six fencing foils that become their dancing partners…until the six women arrive from under a large tarp. Nederlands Dans Theater costume designer Joke Visser created the nearly-nude briefs for the guys – loved watching calf muscles ripple as they beat their bare legs in the air multiple times – and black evening dresses hugged to the ballerinas’ bodies that took on a life of their own as they rolled across the stage.
Using movements from two of Mozart’s most famous piano concertos, “Petite Mort” captures the longing for love and the loss, the “Little Death,” that often follows. All 12 dancers performed the ballet with unabashed passion and daring, especially in the swordplay.
Set to the final movement of Schubert’s “Ninth Symphony,” Forsythe’s dizzy, candy-colored kaleidoscope, “The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude,” indeed lives up to its name. The choreography is meticulous with dancers Hannah Galway, Chelsy Meiss, Calley Skalnik, Naoya Ebe, and Harrison James posing front and center before they spring across the stage, giving us hints of thrilling technique.
All 12 dancers performed the ballet with unabashed passion and daring…
Unfortunately, my eyes were focused on the curious lime-outside and black-inside tutus worn by the ballerinas and purple outfits for the guys. I missed some of the complicated choreography that deserves a second look. Costume designer Stephen Galloway created the space-age look for both the opening piece and “Approximate Sonata 2016” that followed.
Danced to a minimalist piano score by Thom Willems, though no less vigorous than his previous work, Forsythe has his dancers in minimal costumes, once again mesmerizing for what we cannot see. They run and take positions we can just barely make out, arms reaching out from gorgeous bodies. Behind the dancers, a sign reads, “YES” on a black scrim that rises and lowers throughout the curious piece.
After the lovely musical interlude, Janacek’s “Idyll for Strong Orchestra-Adagio,” Ratmansky’s “Piano Concerto #1” proved to be the perfect antidote to winter doldrums. With his homage to composer Shostakovich and to their Russian heritage, this work has received accolades throughout the world. And it was a fitting finale to a company ready to take on his theatrical-inspired choreography.
The high-flying set design by George Tsypin adds more color to a dance that already sparkles with red and blue costumes by Keso Dekker. And the trumpet solo by Tim White would make any dancer want to soar higher. If time and space permitted, individual performers would be noted, but a tip of the hat must be made to the entire company for such joyous dancing.
Next up is “The Sleeping Beauty,” choreographed by Rudolf Nureyev that put the National Ballet of Canada on the international map when he brought it to the company in 1972 and chose current Artistic Director Karen Kain (then a principal dancer) for the title role. With her staging of the ballet, she has kept Nureyev’s vision intact and considered one of the most entertaining and technically impressive versions.
National Ballet of Canada dances the repertory program tonight, Jan. 29, at 7:30 p.m. and “The Sleeping Beauty” Friday through Sunday, Jan. 30-Feb. 2, 2020, at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, 2700 F Street, NW in Washington, DC. For tickets, visit the box office or purchase them online.
And don’t miss the lighted lanterns that celebrate Chinese New Year, located in The Reach through the weekend.