Register Monday | June 18 | 2018

Mark Godden and The Magic Flute

A choreographic journey from Texas to Winnipeg

I am always intrigued by the meandering paths that lead people to become dance choreographers. There is rarely precedent for this choice of career within family or friends, no perceived need for such a role to be played. I have yet to see an employment notice that shouts, "CHOREOGRAPHERS WANTED IMMEDIATELY, GREAT $$$ PLUS BENEFITS!"

The unusual career path of choreographer Mark Godden is not unlike the hero's journey in The Magic Flute, the Mozart opera Godden has set to dance for the Royal Winnipeg Ballet (RWB). A former leading soloist and resident choreographer for the RWB, Godden is as good a match for the fertile and wide-ranging imagination of Mozart's opera as any choreographer today. His Flute is a wonderfully zany take on family, unconventionality and the path to self-realization.

The story of The Magic Flute takes place in those mythical days of yore when child custody battles were a hero's bread and butter, and not yet the business of courts. The Queen of the Night asks a lost young prince named Tamino to rescue her daughter, Pamina, from the supposedly evil guru Sarastro, who in Godden's update is the Queen's estranged husband. Mom and Dad are, quite clearly, not "communicating." Our hero, instantly smitten by a photo of the lovely young Pamina, sets off in search of love and enlightenment, accompanied by Papageno, a good-natured skirt-chaser. Along the way, the travelling companions are tempted by the seductive Glamazons (pastel-wearing Miami Beach babes), guided by the Navigators and captured by Sarastro's traitorous disciple, Monostatos.

It's a complicated, sometimes inexplicable, but entertaining story. Like Mozart's opera, Godden's Flute combines high drama and low comedy. By the end, Tamino gets his girl, Papageno gets his Papagena, and Dad, it turns out, ain't so bad, even if he does head a commune of sorts and worships triangles. The Queen and Monostatos, the two traditional enemies in the opera, are in this balletic version brought back into the fold. Past differences are, however reluctantly, set aside for the sake of the young lovers-think about the last wedding you attended, and you've got the picture. In Godden's final scene, the imperfect extended family gathers around a warm fire in the snow and drinks hot cocoa. Ah, Winnipeg.

Like his 1998 hit Dracula, also commissioned by the RWB, Godden's ballet is creative, witty, extremely well danced and very engaging (I was deeply moved by Pamina's convincing filial rebellion, conflicting loyalties and eventual reconciliation with her parents). The dancers, particularly during fast tempos, devour space with a quick and decisive attack. Principal dancer Tara Birtwhistle, who performed Lucy in Dracula, is Flute's Queen of the Night, covering the range from Garboesque melodrama to cunning bitch to motherly love with aplomb. Jesús Corrales, like a young Baryshnikov, excels in the comic role of Papageno while tossing off virtuosic turns and jumps with effortless ease. Props and special effects have been used to great effect: the monster with which Tamino struggles in the opening scene of the opera has here been transformed into an enormous TV, a witty comment upon our struggle with the overwhelming and addictive nature of mass media; and Pamina's penance-an enormous glass wall-produced gasps of wonder in the audience the night I attended. And of course, Flute also has the advantage of Mozart's sublime music.

So how did Godden, a native Texan, end up choreographing this original full-length ballet (no small feat these days) for a major Canadian ballet company? Theoretically, Godden has no business being here. He grew up in suburban Dallas playing drums, trombone, guitar and peewee football. He admired Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire, but didn't start training until he was twenty years old. A dancer's career is measured in dog years; beginning at twenty is like trying out for the NHL with double blades and ankle supports. Amazingly, though, by his mid-twenties, Godden was dancing as a soloist with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet and had begun a successful choreographic career.

In a January interview, Godden discussed his career trajectory in greater detail. The summer before beginning high school, Godden told me, he was running with a fast crowd. Collared for some minor league mischief, he spent a night alone in jail (his mother was out of town, his father had already left the family). Sharing breakfast with a group of juvenile delinquents, "I realized that these kind of people were my friends." To make matters worse-by Texan standards at least-he missed the football tryouts at his high school.

He joined the drama club instead and decided to take his life and aspirations more seriously. Discovering Godden was a musician, his drama teacher encouraged him to create a sound score for an improvisational play based on Aesop's fables. "If you have a really good teacher, a whole lot of things fall into place."

Godden subsequently studied theatre at Carnegie Mellon, but left school after two and a half years when he ran out of money (theatre majors often work at their craft from morning until late at night, making a job nearly impossible). He kicked around odd jobs and music courses back in north Texas before signing up at a dance school in Denton run by Hugh Nini, who set him on the dance track from which Godden has never looked back. After eight months of training, Nini, whose own dance career with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet was cut short by injury sustained in a car accident, encouraged Godden and a couple of other late-starters to try out for professional ballet schools-if not actually to get admitted, at the very least to get an idea of the competition. Nini's alma mater offered Godden a place in its school. In between his classes, a penniless Godden worked at the Winnipeg YMCA in exchange for room and board, taught the odd ballet class to hockey players and modelled at a local mall.

Soon, he was masterminding the mall's fashion shows: "Right away I had all these ideas . . . " Impressed, his RWB teachers David Moroni and Sandra Neels encouraged him to try his hand at choreography. "That was when the seed was planted in my head, because I had never really considered it." All good things from Texas begin in a mall.

"I've never had that crumbling away of my spirit because of the art form. It happens a lot with younger dancers who identify themselves according to the casting . . . By twenty or twenty-one years old, if you aren't a soloist or a principal, [according to that way of thinking] you're really starting to wane. But I started when I was twenty, so I had an entirely different perspective."

A few years after Godden joined the RWB, he and a fellow dancer received a $5,000 grant to put on a workshop performance, which they presented at the end of RWB's season at a theatre they had rented. "I was thinking, 'The government will give money?' . . . 'There's no oil involved? There's nothing to profit from?' . . . It was really odd."

Not long before, the company had commissioned and performed some works by Czech choreographer Jiri Kylián. "I saw his company [Nederlands Dans Theater] and I just fell in love . . . I had gone to New York City to find out more about ballet, but what I ended falling in love with was more a concept, an idea, an ideology about ballet as an art form or ballet as theatre . . . Over the next couple of years I realized that what he did and what he was generating within his company was really our generation's Balanchine." Inspired, Godden signed up for a short stint with the Nederlands Dans Theater. Kylián has been a strong influence on his choreographic style ever since, but the humorous sensibility of some of Godden's works, especially The Magic Flute, is decidedly his own.

After returning to the RWB, Godden's new choreographic work quickly drew notice. In 1989, his Sequoia won the Banff Centre's Clifford E. Lee Choreography Award. The following year, Myth, a pas de deux, took top honours at the International Ballet Competition in Varna, and La Princesse et le soldat shared second place in Helsinki the next. From 1990 to 1994, he was the first resident choreographer at the RWB, where he reinvented older dance pieces and created original works set to a wide range of music (jazz and East Indian, as well as classical from Vivaldi to Mahler to post-minimalist). His first full-length work, Dracula, was a smash hit with audiences, received favourable notices from the critics and was the inspiration for an acclaimed movie by renowned filmmaker Guy Maddin.

In the ballet world, the contemporary ballet style (often used in short, non-narrative works) is still quite controversial, despite its success: the fear is that dancers will become unable to supply the purely classical technique demanded by full-length nineteenth-century standards. Godden is not worried. "You can't necessarily sell Swan Lake, Giselle, The Sleeping Beauty, all that stuff, over and over and over again." With The Magic Flute, Godden shows that contemporary ballet, narrative and Mozart make for a satisfying evening at the theatre.

Audiences and critics in Winnipeg, Toronto and Montreal agree. The Magic Flute is on its way to the same success that his Dracula enjoyed. Godden did have reservations, though, about doing another full-length ballet. Although working on Dracula was "exhilarating," he found the experience very "draining and hard." Additionally, with a full-length work comes more responsibility than is demanded by the now standard twenty-minute work for mixed repertoire programs. There is, Godden explained, a dance "vocabulary that I feel is inherently me," but then there are also the dancers who must perform his choreography for a long period of time, a year or more with a full-length ballet that goes on tour.

"Right away, that's a substantial amount of a dancer's season to consider and if I make it completely contemporary, that influences the way the company is . . . [There's] the ballet you imagine in your head, but there are the dancers . . . You are always considering the immediate, the people who are standing in front of you, their limitations, their assets and their personalities: who they are as opposed to what it is that I want to make."

With his previous successes at the RWB, Godden knew that he could pull off a dancing Flute, a work that he had been thinking of doing for over a decade. Still, even with talented dancers ready to go, Godden encountered several more obstacles, like the opera's large cast and complicated plot. Initially, Godden planned to cut some characters. "Then I remembered the idea of a mobile, how all the elements create perfect balance: lose one, and the balance is lost. I realized that I have to trust that . . . As I do for most of my pieces, I feel like the music has this great understanding of what's its supposed to be, and I'm the person who needs to find out what that is, find out why I want to spend time with this music. I knew Mozart's music would take care of that."

The ballet, which premiered in Winnipeg with a full orchestra and singers, is now being performed on tour to a recording of the opera conducted by Sir Neville Mariner. For opera fans or German speakers, this might be a little disorienting. The action onstage is sometimes at odds with the words being sung, and Godden has rearranged some of the arias and cut about thirty minutes of the music as well as all of the spoken dialogue. Nonetheless, the choreography and the contemporary update of the story are still true to the spirit of the opera.

These days, with The Magic Flute on the road, Godden is taking a breather before moving on to the next assignment. During his time off from dance he enjoys catching up on his reading-currently books by philosopher John Ralston Saul and the Dalai Lama-as well as spending time with his partner, Nina Menon (also a choreographer), and their three-year-old son. Life as a freelance choreographer, while filled with uncertainty, nonetheless gives him the freedom he needs.

Godden acknowledges the creative advantage choreographers who run their own companies, like Kylián and William Forsythe (Ballett Frankfurt), have over freelancers like himself: "A lot of choreographers like to operate within their own company. They pick their dancers, and if you have an idea of what you want to create, you hire that into the company and nurture it that way." But for Godden as a freelancer, the only real drawback of not having a company is needing to pack his bags and leave his family for extended periods of time. Otherwise, he enjoys the challenge that freelance work presents.

"The standard formula [for choreography] is a minute of dancing per hour in the studio, so there's not a lot of time for experimentation in that environment. You have to show up knowing what it is you want to accomplish. The curious thing that happens is that as soon as I open that door at the very first rehearsal, I feel like I've forgotten everything. Because there are these real live people standing in front of you . . . It's not being afraid to stand up and talk in front of a public, . . . it's the impact of energy from the dancers on all your preconceived ideas . . . What I dream of doing is working with a group of dancers and then going away and thinking about what it is I want to do for them and then go back, but the system isn't set up that way. So, you have to work really fast, . . . pay attention to the impact that you have from these dancers and what their energy is telling you, how their energy is trying to influence the direction of a piece, and [still] stay true to the concepts you've already invested of yourself in the piece."

His approach to his career in dance has always been to take one step at a time. "I kind of float through a situation . . . not really making up my mind. In some ways people would say it's careful consideration, but for me it doesn't seem that way. I'm just making sure that I don't miss anything."