Register Thursday | March 22 | 2018

Sarah Chase and the Alberta Ballet

Our weekly rundown of the dance scene

A great dance show is the kind that inspires an audience to feel that every element—from the costumes to the set and the choreography—is necessary and inevitable. While few shows hit this mark, there are those productions that, despite their failings, one is glad to have seen anyway. Two touring shows performed this spring in Montreal, one by Torontonian Sarah Chase and another by the Prairie-based Alberta Ballet, respectively gave us too little and too much dance, though both productions did whet the appetite to see more of the artists’ work.

Sarah Chase’s Bird—The Passenger
You have to hand it to Sarah Chase. This solo dancer/choreographer is one gifted storyteller, putting many seasoned, bona fide writers to shame. Though I’ve endured more literary readings than I care to remember, Chase’s narrative in her latest, Bird—The Passenger, kept my attention until the end.

Bird weaves several stories into an intricate fabric of seemingly unrelated tangents. At the center of this mosaic is a story about the extinction of the passenger pigeon, a metaphor for our own ultimate demise. Throughout, Chase intertwines tales of Toronto, past and present, and of her life there, living in an apartment next to a halfway house. She evokes the lives of immigrants, miners and junkies, whose stories are brought together in a climactic moment, set against the music of Neil Young’s “Helpless.”

As far as dance is concerned, Chase conveys her compelling narrative through minimal movement that, for the most part, is as gentle and calm as the tone of her voice. While the disparity between voice and subject matter often makes Bird poignant, in certain sections one cannot help but wish she had abandoned the understatement and taken flight. And frankly, unlike her masterful use of metaphorical language, very few visual images from the choreography stayed with me after the show.

It’s worth noting that Chase recounted Bird solely in English—in predominantly francophone Montreal. Hardly an issue in a mostly bilingual town, but I couldn’t help but wonder what would have been left without her skillful and powerful storytelling.

Alberta Ballet’s Dangerous Liaisons
How ironic then that the following week Montreal would get another dance work with spoken English; Alberta Ballet’s Dangerous Liaisons based on the eighteenth century French epistolary novel Les liaisons dangereuses. Spoken narrative in this dance work also played an essential role in the exposition of a complex narrative—this time about love, sex and betrayal.

In my mind, a successful adaptation isn’t necessarily one that faithfully replicates the original (an impossibility), but is one that sheds new light on the story, or brings a new element to the fore. In this production, that new element was the heightened psychological portrayal of the characters, expressed through dance. Curiously, however, for a dance show, there was almost too much of it, and for all the intensity of the movement, this version of Dangerous Liaisons didn’t tell me (or make me feel) anything that I hadn’t already understood about the story and its characters.

By the second half, what anyone would consider a lovely high developé worthy of some contemplation nearly became ho-hum because—lickety-split—off zoomed the dancers into another move, as equally impressive.

Certainly, the staging by Alberta’s artistic director, Jean Grand-Maître, was inventive. At the back of the stage, dressed in period costume, the novel’s characters performed a dumb show of the events recounted in their letters. In front, occupying most of the stage, were dancing doubles of the principal characters: Valmont, Merteuil, Cécile and company. At first the doubling was a bit confusing, but I soon adjusted. Grand-Maître helpfully staged moments when both versions of the characters briefly struck the same pose, which tied the two together and produced an uncanny and effective emotional frisson.

As for the major sections of choreography, much of the dancing (and emotion) was expressed through duets. Besides the obvious couplings of lovers, Grand-Maître also pairs off, for example, Cécile and her mother. These duets make good sense; the novel itself is presented in the form of letters written from one character to another.

However, aside from the use of the corps here and there, the piece felt too much like a never-ending pas de deux—it seemed to be one duo after another, ever-changing couples embarking upon yet another pas. After a while, the pas de deux began to feel very much alike, regardless of which pair was dancing. Loads of spectacular lifts and turns were performed, often at a swift pace, but while the effect was at first dazzling, it soon became dizzying. By the second half, what anyone would consider a lovely high developé worthy of some contemplation nearly became ho-hum because—lickety-split—off zoomed the dancers into another move, as equally impressive.

This is a shame because what a fine troupe of gorgeous dancers the Alberta Ballet evidently is! From the soloists down to the corps, I detected no weakness in technique in how they handled Grand-Maître’s demanding choreography. Special mention must be made for Alexis Maragozis, who danced all three roles of Merteuil, Mme Volanges and Mère supérieure, as well as Maki Matsuoka and Kelley McKinlay, who, as Cécile and Danceny, were utterly convincing as the young lovers.

Kena Herod is the dance critic for Maisonneuve Magazine. The Dance Scene appears every other Tuesday.