Saturday, September 24, 2011

NBC at 60

No, not the National Broadcasting Corporation. I mean the National Ballet of Canada, which is currently on a 60th Anniversary Tour of Western Canada that sees them in residence at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre from last night through this Sunday.

The NBC is touring without its in-house orchestra, and with a mostly contemporary rather than classical repertoire. The latter might not be to everyone's liking (though last night's house was quite full, I hear many of the tickets were comped), but it certainly was to mine.

First up was William Forsythe's the second detail, to a pulsating electronic score by frequent collaborator Thom Willems. Filled with turned in and bent knees rather than pointed out and extended toes, the piece (first commissioned by the NBC in 1991) is classic (which is to say classically deconstructivist) Forsythe. To this end, the piece abounds with various meta-references to the classed, gendered, and raced history not just of ballet, but of modern dance. Was that not a nod to Josephine Baker with the dancer of colour in the white dress cutting through the corps de ballet at the end?

Next was Jerome Robbins' Other Dances, a suite of mazurkas and one waltz set to the music of Chopin (with live piano accompaniment provided by Andrei Streliaev). Originally created by Robbins for the legendary Natalia Makarova and Mikhail Baryshnikov, as danced by NBC principal dancers Greta Hodgkinson and Zdenek Konvalina, virtuosity never overshadowed the simple romanticism and folk origins of both the music and the steps.

The most recent piece on the program was former NBC Artistic Director James Kudelka's The Man in Black, a quartet for three men and one woman set to six cover songs recorded by Johnny Cash late in his life. With the dancers shod in cowboy boots, and employing trademark country and western movement patterns, including line and square dancing, Kudelka manages both to highlight the pantomimic qualities these forms share with classical ballet and to translate the melancholy at the heart of Cash's growly, faltering tremolo into a succession of arresting poses that reveal the aching vulnerability underneath each of his dancers' swagger. Beautifully brought to life by Kevin Bowles, Stephanie Hutchison, Patrick Lavoie, and Jonathan Renna, and with a terrific lighting design by Trad Burns, this was my favourite work on the program.

A close second, however, was local legend Crystal Pite's Emergence, which closed the evening by showcasing what at times seemed like the entirety of the 70-strong NBC company in her 2009 Dora Award-winning exploration of group formations and individual expression in an insect-like colony. The images Pite builds in this piece (akimbo arms evoking spidery legs; the heaving, tattooed backs of the male dancers conjuring about-to-be-birthed larvae; the female dancers swarming across the stage en pointe) are stunning. As is the stage design by hubby Jay Gower Taylor and the humming, buzzing, droning score by Owen Belton (like Forsythe, for whom she danced, Pite has understood the importance of working with a talented musical composer). However, given the complexity of Pite's work for her own company, I was frankly surprised at how mimetic this piece feels. Not that this stopped me from thrilling to the closing tableau: the company in full vertical extension, about to explode chrysalis-like from the stage, while one among them ducks back into the lit opening of their hive.

An excellent start to what promises to be a major dance season here in Vancouver.


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