Since I moved to Montreal from the United States a few years ago, one of my greatest pleasures has been going to Toronto to catch a few performances of the National Ballet of Canada (NBC). The company has held a certain mystique for me. Because of my dance training, the NBC-and in particular, its long-reigning prima ballerina, Karen Kain-was one of the few things I knew about my new country.
For the most part, the far-too-few trips I've made down to Toronto have been well worth the trouble. The company boasts some fine ballet dancers, whose fortunes I keep tabs on between visits. It's a shame that the company rarely comes to Montreal anymore. Fortunately, for those Montrealers who can't make it to Toronto (or to Ottawa, when the company performs there), a few National dancers make it to the annual Gala des Étoiles most years-and the upcoming 2006 edition is no exception. Even better, this year a contingent from the company will be performing at the Festival des Arts de Saint-Sauveur on August 11. The mixed program is of excellent work from start to finish: George Balanchine's Apollo, Eliot Feld's Intermezzo #1, and James Kudelka's There, below.
Although only fifteen dancers from the National Ballet of Canada will be appearing, the group scheduled is impressive. Three dancers in particular are of special interest to Montrealers: Greta Hodgkinson, a Gala des Étoiles alumna, and her fellow principal dancers Heather Ogden and Quebec-born Guillaume Côté, both of whom will be performing a month later at the Gala.
Take the lovely Heather Ogden, who has been quite busy of late. In 2005 she was promoted to the rank of principal dancer and that same year she received what is to many dance insiders a special distinction: For the revival of Balanchine's Don Quixote at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C., Suzanne Farrell-the great choreographer's most beloved muse-chose Ogden to dance the lead with her company, the Suzanne Farrell Ballet. Alternating the role of Dulcinea with her colleague (NBC principal Sonia Rodriguez) Ogden held her own onstage in the face of the mythic proportions the ballet has taken on over the years: Balanchine's Don Quixote is, in ballet lore, a love letter to his extraordinary ballerina Farrell.
Not only did local critics cover the revival but the run also caught the attention of the New York Times, the New Yorker and others. When pressed about stepping into the formidable shoes of Farrell, Ogden's response was merely that she appreciated the fact that the ballet was based more closely on Cervantes' novel than was the famous Petipa version. She also noted how important it was for her to do a good job. Ogden's modest and direct answer would have, I think, pleased Balanchine (who never did like over-intellectualization from either dancers or critics).
For Montrealers who have not had the pleasure of watching this lighter-than-air dancer, they now have their chance at Saint-Sauveur to see her in Feld's Intermezzo #1. A month later, Ogden will return to Quebec with her frequent partner Guillaume Côté for the Gala des Étoiles. The pair will dance for the star-studded show the Black Swan pas de deux. Having only seen Ogden dance in more lyrical roles, I find it hard to imagine such a sweet-faced young woman portraying the evil Odile (though Ogden has performed Swan Lake's Odette/Odile before with distinction). The prospect of seeing her transform herself against type is tantalizing. How will she and Côté fare at the Gala, that fireworks competition of powerful dancers from around the world, or against the popular perception that only Russians can do such works to perfection? Well, you just can't help rooting for the pair when Côté says energetically, "We're young and we're good in it, so we are going to do those kinds of things [like Black Swan] and not some contemporary piece that's easier to put together. No, we are going to take the challenge."
And while it is indeed a challenge, Lac Saint-Jean-born Guillaume Côté is more than up to it. This past June, he got an assignment that only a handful ever get-an invitation to dance as a guest artist in New York with the one of the top companies in the world, the American Ballet Theatre. His assignment was to perform Prince Charming-a role he created at NBC-in James Kudelka's Cinderella. Although the American Ballet Theatre's run of the ballet earned a range of responses from praise to lukewarm, Côté's performance managed to elicit quite a rave from the New York Sun.
At the Saint-Sauveur festival, Côté will be dancing the lead in Apollo, a ballet for which he has also received acclaim. And get this-how many dancers do you know of who have danced the role of the "god of music" and were actually musicians? Côté is not only that but also a composer. He trained at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto and has written music for dance and theatre. He first danced Apollo at the tender age of eighteen, which he sees as an advantage in a most literal way. "I could really find 'the birth' and the first solo," he says. "You're finding your legs and I know what that feels like. I can draw on that from doing it so young while applying the maturity I have now."
Côté is eager to show his stuff at both Saint-Sauveur and the Gala. Beyond a couple of small performances, these are the first significant appearances in Quebec that this twenty-three-year-old has made. In his home province, the magnitude of his successful career is barely known or understood, even by his own family-a fact which he points out with good humour: "I'm a Quebecer and nobody knows I exist, but that's alright. I hope to overcome that."
Dancing Terpsichore to Côté's Apollo is the dark-eyed beauty Greta Hodgkinson. Appropriately, this "muse of dance" possesses a crisp attack and beautiful lines that read strong even in the National's old home, the cavernous Hummingbird Centre. Hailing from Providence, Rhode Island, Hodgkinson, at eleven-years-old, had the talent and drive to get herself, with her family's support, to the National Ballet School of Canada and hasn't looked back since. After she joined the NBC, her rise through the ranks was rapid. In addition to dancing a wide range of works by many choreographers, she created roles in several of Kudelka's ballets, including the female lead in the "Summer" variation of The Four Seasons. Gala des Étoiles' audiences will remember her thrilling performance of that pas de deux with Rex Harrington during the 2003 show.
For Hodgkinson, her long association with the National has been a boon. She has never felt, "'Oh, I'm not stimulated enough. I have to move. I'm not getting what I need, so I have to change companies.'" Instead, as she has discovered through her numerous guest appearances around the world that great dancers of her caliber tend to stick with one company-indeed many have been products of their company's schools like her and her colleague, Côté. (Ogden trained at the Richmond Academy of Dance before joining the NBC). Here's hoping that all three will stay put in Toronto for many seasons to come.
Besides these three fine dancers, two new National members will be making their way to Montreal for the Gala des Étoiles: Zdenek Konvalina and Bridgitt Zehr, formerly of the Houston Ballet. Zehr is now a second soloist of the company and Konvalina, a principal dancer. Montrealers may remember his touching portrayal of Albrecht this last spring at Place des Arts in Houston Ballet's Giselle as well as his two previous appearances at the Gala.
Over at the Saint-Sauveur fest, there are other shows worth attending: a tribute to Jiri Kylian, the excellent Projet Kudelka(which ran earlier this year in Montreal and deserves a repeat viewing) and Jeune Ballet du Québec with new choreography by Victor Quijada, director of the fabulous hip-hop/ballet/contemporary dance-infused Rubberbandance Group.
For more about the National Ballet of Canada under Kain's first year of direction, please click here.
The St. Sauveur Arts Festival runs August 3-12.
The Gala des Étoiles takes place September 7 at Place des Arts.
The National Ballet of Canada begins its regular season in the new Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Asst in Toronto with The Sleeping Beauty, Nov. 9-18.