Register Tuesday | June 18 | 2019

In Gould's Footsteps

Three Canadian choreographers light up the National Ballet of Canada

The National Ballet of Canada is certainly doing something right. Proof positive is a series of performances it put on in Toronto in mid-November showcasing the works of three homegrown talents: Dominique Dumais, James Kudelka and Matjash Mrozewski. The three choreographers are all graduates of the National Ballet School and former company dancers. Kudelka, the Ballet's artistic director, is the most internationally renowned, but all of them have tested the dance waters beyond Lake Ontario. We're fortunate that they keep coming back to their hometown: having talented dancers is one thing, but having native choreographic talent is what makes a company national in the truest sense.

Dominique Dumais' One Hundred Words for Snow is a tribute to the life and genius of Canadian pianist Glenn Gould. There is a Gould character of sorts (danced alternately by Rex Harrington, Christopher Body and Guillaume Côté), but this is not a piece of bio-dance: rather, dancers, music and stage effects together create a mood that epitomizes the legendary pianist. More importantly, Dumais draws a connection between the life of a musician and that of a dancer: both are devoted mainly to practice and performance.

In the beginning of the piece, "Mind," we hear musical scales and the tick-tock of a metronome--the basics of a musician's practice sessions--and then applause and the sound of footsteps treading the stage boards--the elements of a performance. Dumais lines her dancers up across the stage and they perform a typical ballet class's combination of basic steps (e.g., feet-on-the-floor tendus and pliés). As a recording of Gould playing and humming a J. S. Bach piece drifts into earshot, the dancers break out to form multiple, ever-changing lines that weave in and out of one another. The effect is a seamless progression, the polyphonic lines of Bach made flesh and blood. Part of Gould's genius lay in his ability, especially when playing Bach, to produce polyphonic effects: upward of four lines of music at the same time. With multiple dancers at her disposal, Dumais takes a part of the classical balletic tradition and exploits it in a pleasingly conscious way.

In the second section, "Body," Dumais considers the pianist's vexed relationships with others, sexual and otherwise (his love life is still something of a mystery). Gould's most troubled relationship, though, was surely with his own body; an infamous hypochondriac, he was essentially at war with himself. Throughout this section, the Gould figure stands apart from the rest of the dancers, an impassive but interested observer of the couples swirling around him. Women are lifted and spun about. One of the men rubs his face down his partner's arm; she responds by shaking her hand in disgust. The hands of a pianist are being evoked here: Gould was notorious for his dramatically physical style of playing. Great pianists, Dumais seems to be saying, move their hands expertly on a keyboard in unison with the feet below--dancers in their own way.

In the last section, "Spirit," Dumais re-forms the single line of dancers from the first section. Each dancer moves offstage performing her or his particular sequence of steps (that polyphony theme again). As the music tapers off, the Gould character is left in a solitary spotlight, one arm stretched out. The music--aural collages by Eric Cadesky and a movingly dissonant, Bach-like composition by Alexina Louie--is conceptually and emotionally on the mark.

One Hundred Words for Snow premiered in 1999 as a part of an "Inspired by Gould" program at the National Ballet. I don't know if the current performance was the result of canny planning or happy coincidence, but a wonderfully intelligent and readable biography of Gould, Kevin Bazzana's Wondrous Strange: The Life and Art of Glenn Gould, has recently hit bookstores. Reading Bazzana's book, I was reminded that Gould retired from live performance at thirty-one and thenceforth avoided it even as an audience member. That's unfortunate, as ballet has throughout its history had a contrapuntal impulse in its choreography, particularly for ensemble work. I think Gould would have enjoyed Dumais' piece.


The second part of the evening was devoted to James Kudelka's "there, below" and excerpts from two long Kudelka pieces, Gazebo Dances and The End. "There, below" opens with one couple sitting on the floor and another grasping each other's arms, slowly revolving in a circle while looking down. Other couples come and go, performing intricate partnering work. Women are balled up into men's arms and jackknifed out into penchés--or turned upside down, their bodies like suspended pendulums. The effect of the choreography, combined with Ralph Vaughan Williams' score (the popular Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis), is breathtaking in its contrast of bodies moving high and low. The piece's five couples often take flight, but they never forget the floor beneath their feet. In the last moments of the ballet, all the couples fill the stage and perform the same choreography in succession, leaving one couple behind to resume the revolving pose from the opening.

The second piece featured the male solo from The End, an intriguing choreographic interpretation of a big orchestral movement from a correspondingly big symphony (Johannes Brahms' Fourth). The obvious response to the music's allegro would have been a sweeping display of male virtuosity: big jumps, grand gestures. Instead, Kudelka imprisons his would-be virtuoso (danced alternately by Guillaume Côté and Richard Landry) in a small, cramped rectangle of light. The music weighs the dancer down rather than pushing him off to conquer space, as we would normally expect. Côté stalks within his confinement, gathering strength; he pointlessly flings his back leg into high attitude; he jumps in place into the air, arms flung overhead to no avail; grounded, he moves side to side like a caged and restless spirit. A few multiple pirouettes are about the only technical dazzle he can muster given the space. Finally, he ends on the ground, torso twisted, head down, clenching a fist. The overall effect is of a hero at the point of exhaustion. Ironically, it takes a dancer not so easily taxed to pull this one off.

The last Kudelka work, a duet to the wistful adagio from American composer John Corigliano's Gazebo Dances, has a quiet intensity. Like "there, below," it features the wonderful partnering work for which Kudelka is renowned. A man and a woman stroll into view, arms linked, a proper Victorian decorum to their bearing. With his free hand, the man covers his mouth; with hers, the woman covers an eye. Even as the piece heats up and the partnering becomes highly intricate, these single covering hands rarely move away. It's the kind of small gesture that speaks ambiguous uncomfortable volumes about the way we censor ourselves in relationships--about the fire that smolders under the ice of convention--and what people do to remain linked. Kudelka is a master at revealing the intimate depths in people and our relationships with others; see anything by him that you can.


Freelance choreographer Matjash Mrozewski's Monument--set to Jean Sibelius' Fifth Symphony and seen here in its world premiere--is a meditation on the evolution of Western dance through time, a trip from nineteenth-century ballet through to the early days of modern dance and up to today's postmodern hodgepodge. The set, by designer Yannik Larivée, is both a large monument and an empty, derelict theatre stripped of everything but some crates, stage lights and a large stage curtain (a few spirits of dancers past also linger). The large crates, the symbolic building blocks of art, are pushed around, rearranged and danced upon, and some of the dancers scale the walls of this versatile set.

The first movement is devoted to full-blown classical style, performed by dancers in head-to-toe nineteenth-century ballet garb (the women are Marie Taglioni look-alikes and the men are gallant cavaliers). The second movement features Martha Graham-Doris Humphrey-Charles Weidman clones, all barefoot and earnest; for the third movement, a postmodern group vamps out in garish, reworked classical attire with some gender-bending demi-corsets and skirts for the men. The linchpin of Monument appears to be one of the modern-era girls, who opens the piece by turning a stage light on the classical dancers. At the end, all three groups intermingle, and their distinctive styles are lost in the busy shuffle.

Conceptually, Monument is a nice idea, but it feels too much like an academic pastiche: Dance History 101. The evolution of Western theatrical dance throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was never this simple (as Mrozewski surely knows). The crate metaphor--we build upon what came before us--loses its compelling edge long before the end of the work. Overall, the piece feels like a missed opportunity. Something new and insightful might have been created here, but the interplay between music and choreography was obscured by too much busyness.

Still, Mrozewski has an historical sense and can choreograph competently in three very different styles. The first movement's classical choreography was especially winsome. At twenty-seven, he has many years to hone his ideas and choreographic craft, and with Dumais and Kudelka in the house, he couldn't have better colleagues to work alongside within the classical idiom. Hope springeth eternal at the National Ballet--as long as there's money for pointe shoes and the tony new digs down the street.