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2014/15 season

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I saw four performances of the National Ballet of Canada’s revival of Manon with three casts: Greta Hodgkinson, Marcelo Gomes, Jack Bertinshaw and Svetlana Lunkina; Jillian Vanstone, Harrison James, Francesco Gabriele Frola and Jordana Daumec; and Sonia Rodriguez, Guillaume Côté, Frola and Daumec. Considering that I don’t especially like the ballet, this was probably too much, but of the three lead pairs I saw, Vanstone and James were the most persuasive.

Vanstone danced consistently with beauty and ease, but was particularly admirable in the completeness of her characterization: initially a real innocent, genuinely offended at untoward advances, later convincingly upset that her brother should bring someone to see her while she was undressed and squirming in distress as she was pawed by Monsieur G.M. When she put on the coat he brought for the first time, she conveyed to the audience a palpable sense of how good it felt against her skin, and she was equally expressive much later on when she recoiled at the sight of the bracelet the Jailer dangled before her. In truth, I was not entirely clear on her interpretation in Act 2, scene 1, but then most Manons leave me a little confused in that scene. On the other hand, the second boudoir scene had a playful naturalness that was completely believable. In the final act she had some fight left in her scene with the Jailer, and it was only the flight through the swamp that finally brought her down.

James made a very fine Des Grieux—sincere, ardent and not overly theatrical. Shy and innocent, he was flustered and put off by the teasing of the courtesans, then visibly awakened by his encounter with Manon. Des Grieux’s variations, with their excess of pirouettes and fetish for balletic orientation in space, seemed to stump all of their interpreters, who couldn’t put much character into them. There were only two exceptions: Gomes in the variation just prior to the card game, and James in the second scene of Act 2. (So good for James, because by that point I will have usually lost interest in the ballet.) All the duets between Vanstone and James came across as spontaneous and natural. His Des Grieux realized that Manon had died only at the very end, as the curtain came down. This was a marked contrast with the prolonged and audible sobbing of Gomes and was closer to how Anthony Dowell once did it.

Hodgkinson, with her wraith-like body and large, sad eyes, is by nature more Marguerite Gautier than Manon Lescaut. She was not a particularly convincing ingénue or coquette, and at the end of the ballet she painted herself into an interpretive corner that left her little room to maneuver. When she came ashore from the prison ship looking beyond wretched, it was difficult to believe that she could make it to the end of the scene, let alone to the end of the ballet, so her final act was almost completely devoid of variety. Her various pas de deux with Gomes felt contrived, with too many deliberate flourishes. But in the second act her dancing had exceptional security, and she was best in portraying the moment at which Manon’s sympathy returns to Des Grieux.

I seem to be one of the few people on this board impervious to the appeal of Gomes. This time I tried to go into his performances like a blank slate, neither expecting to be awed nor underwhelmed. His first variation was very remarkable for its control, but I’m not sure this was appropriate to the character or the story. If Des Grieux, hitherto unexperienced with women, is suddenly prepared to overturn his life’s trajectory, I don't think a demonstration of self-possession is what’s needed. I saw a lot of Marcelo Gomes the principal dancer, but almost at no point was I persuaded by his Des Grieux. (See exception above.) But his first performance in particular was greeted very warmly by the audience, and there was a considerable contingent of squealing young women cheering him on at the end.

Like Hodgkinson, Rodriguez has been a member of the company since 1990, but her relative “maturity” in no way keeps her from portraying a young innocent. Hers was a very fine performance from top to bottom, but unfortunately she fared better on her own than she did with her partner. Des Grieux is not much of a jumping role, but each of Côté’s jumps came down with a thud. (On the other hand, Gomes’ landings were completely inaudible.) While I’ve already mentioned my dislike for MacMillan’s finicky preoccupation with direction in Des Grieux’s choreography, Côté’s renderings were so sloppy that I began to wonder whether he was dancing injured. His partnering of Rodriguez also appeared rough, and particularly jarring was the way he set her down onto the penchées on pointe. Perhaps he was aiming for wild abandon, but instead the duets looked bumpy. Some of his dramatic moments also failed to register adequately. Obviously Gomes came into the run with a lot of experience in the role, while young James was undoubtedly the recipient of a great deal of coaching. Perhaps Côté had inadvertently fallen through the cracks. In any event, this was the one performance I considered abandoning, but I remained for Rodriguez’s sake.

Where I found all the Manons a little lacking was in the long brothel scene. In particular, I didn’t think any of them captured the exotic atmosphere created by the chromaticism of the nocturne from La Navarraise. I never had the benefit of seeing Antoinette Sibley in the role, but it seems to me that somewhere along the line the interpretation of Manon has changed, and that initially she wasn’t quite as much of a vamp as she is played these days. Jennifer Penney and also Natalia Makarova brought a very compelling narcissism to Manon’s scene with her throng of admirers, and Penney tormented Des Grieux not by flaunting anything, but rather by ignoring him. Nowadays, Manons all seem to try too hard, projecting outward rather than drawing others in. Advance publicity seems to suggest that the POB’s broadcast of the ballet next spring is to star Aurélie Dupont. I would be very interested in seeing whether she brings the same sphinx-like inscrutability to this scene that she invested in Béjart’s Bolero, because I can imagine how it could be extremely effective.

Owing to injuries, the part of Lescaut went to young corps members Bertinshaw and Frola. Bertinshaw’s dancing was very fine, though his Lescaut was not yet much of a scoundrel, not fully falling-down drunk and insufficiently pathetic in his final scene. I have no doubt, however, that he could enhance these qualities in future performances, provided the National Ballet doesn’t wait another 17 years before performing the ballet again. In his first variation I found Frola unmusical and inelegant, though his very physical style, which is spectacular but so aggressive that it goes past being classical, was better suited to the second act. And if he had trouble keeping time in the first act, I think it was primarily because of the technical challenges of his variation; Bertinshaw did manage to stay on the music.

Lunkina was glamorous, witty and vivid as Lescaut’s Mistress, and while she made her character extremely memorable, I couldn’t help thinking that it was an underutilization of her abilities. Where she nearly managed to steal the show was during the card game. Standing center stage, like a general sending the other courtesans into the fray to gather intelligence and run diversions, her acting had an up-to-the-second engagement that was far more compelling than anything going on at the card tables. Lunkina and Stephanie Hutchison as Madame were the sort of women who could be maîtresses royales, while Daumec and Rebekah Rimsay in the same roles represented something more crass. Daumec is a very powerful technician, though she moves with little ease or grace, which was perfectly fine in the drunken duet, but less appropriate elsewhere.

Rex Harrington’s Monsieur G.M. was so sleazy that even inveterate gold-diggers would have thought twice before accepting his proposals. During the trio, when Manon is held like a swing between him and Lescaut, Harrington visibly rubbed her leg against his thigh, which was excessive. Peter Ottmann is not quite tall enough for the role, and in this production his character does not wear Nicholas Georgiadis’ vertiginously heeled shoes, but he possesses the handsomest of profiles, I’d be hard pressed to think of a dancer who would look better in a powdered wig, and he always projects power and authority.

Tomas Schramek’s kindly Old Gentleman did not re-appear in the brothel, perhaps for practical reasons, since Schramek must be close to 70 years old, and the lifts in Manon’s dance with her admirers may be beyond him now. But with all the brothel clients being equally young and tall, it was no longer clear why the courtesans should find some of them more objectionable than others. Unless it was supposed to some sort of joke about ballet body types, I also couldn’t understand why the client who seemed to request a curvaceous prostitute was each time presented with rail-thin and flat-as-a-board Tanya Howard. Had he requested a gorgeous face, I would have understood the choice perfectly. The male demi-soloists had some synchronization difficulties, and in general the performances lacked the specificity and detail that dancers of the Royal Ballet bring to the ballet, no doubt because the latter have the benefit of performing it regularly.

The company borrowed the Australian Ballet’s production. I have a few reservations about Peter Farmer’s designs, among them that the cotton-candy wigs worn by the harlots in Act 2 look so terrible that the matted wigs worn by the female convicts in the following act don’t look much worse. Also, the dresses worn by Lescaut’s Mistress and her fellow courtesans are similar to the dress worn by Manon in the second act, so the latter doesn’t stand out as much as it normally would. Strangely, the conspicuously outdoor setting of the first scene of Act 3 actually creates a sense of lesser space than Georgiadis’ original, which suggests to the viewer that he is seeing only a small part of a very large dock that extends far into the imaginary space beyond the wings. The original production had the female convicts wearing bedraggled dresses, tights and pointe shoes. Now the Royal Ballet dresses them in browned undergarments and soft shoes. The National Ballet took it a step further by having them go barefoot. I’m not sure this was a good idea, as it tended to underline the stylistic disunity in this scene. There is the essentially non-dancing naturalism of the Jailer, the stereotypical modern dance choreography for the convicts, with their half circles of little temps levés and synchronized side falls, and Des Grieux still carrying on with his pirouettes and directional changes. (It was at this point that I wanted to cry out in exasperation, “Enough with the en dedans, already!”) I also don’t think Martin Yates’ re-orchestration is much of an improvement on what Leighton Lucas had originally devised. The pieces orchestrated by Massenet himself have always been beautiful; the souped-up, overwrought renditions of the Élégie, “Ouvre tes yeux bleus” and “Il pleuvait” are as awful as ever.

None of the performances I saw seemed to be completely sold out, and at the final two the top two rings were closed off, which took about 700 seats out of the equation. There seem to be a lot of walking wounded at the National Ballet of Canada these days, and at various performances I found myself sitting in close proximity to Piotr Stanczyk, Evan McKie and also Côté. Audience response was enthusiastic, and there even seemed to be some self-appointed claquers present, but to be honest I didn’t see any weepy eyes.

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Wow volcanohunter, that was a pretty much spot-on review. I didn't see Gomes because I'm not a fan of his either but saw the other casts, including James Whiteside as Lescaut whom I gather you did not see. I also laughed about Tanya Howard being presented as the curvy prostitute! And was puzzled by the absence of the old gentleman being fobbed off on a most reluctant whore. I was also very impressed by Vanstone and James. I was curious to see how Vanstone would do, as she is usually cast in sweet innocent ingenue type roles which suit her porcelain-doll prettyness, so was agreeably surprised by how well she interpreted this role.

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No, indeed, I saw the last four performances, after Whiteside's were over. Frola did double duty as Lescaut on the 15th, as I gather Whiteside had done two days earlier. Daumec deserves a prize for turning in four performances over three days with two different partners.

Vanstone seems to be a thorough, thinking sort of artist, who also manages to make her performances seem completely natural. That's a terrific combination.

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Vanstone seems to be a thorough, thinking sort of artist, who also manages to make her performances seem completely natural. That's a terrific combination.

I've liked Jillian ever since she was a student at the NBS. I think she's really coming into her own.

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Although I am a little slow in posting this...

Since American Ballet Theatre and the National Ballet of Canada had programmed The Sleeping Beauty to run at roughly the same time, it seemed a great opportunity to compare Alexei Ratmansky’s originalist restoration with Rudolf Nureyev’s unbridled “interpolationism.” Many years ago Nureyev’s version was the first production of The Sleeping Beauty I saw live in the theater, and having no frame of reference, I was not then aware of its myriad peculiarities. I won’t bother enumerating them, since they’re on display in the POB films of the production and the condensed version with the National Ballet filmed back in the 1970s. Fast-forward to the present, and having admired and enjoyed Ratmansky’s new production very much, I suppose I expected Nureyev’s production to appear bloated and perhaps even a little preposterous, but what really struck me was how superior the National Ballet’s dancers were in comparison with their ABT counterparts, both the corps and the soloists, and to a large extent the ballerinas as well.

Nureyev’s production is massive and requires the company to put just about every last body on stage. This proved problematic with a number of lead dancers unavailable and more falling by the wayside as the run approached. In the end the Garland Waltz had to be scaled back a little, as corps members were reassigned to soloist roles, and every performance I saw was preceded by a lengthy announcement about cast changes.

The happiest of these was Svetlana Lunkina’s appearance as Aurora. Certain she would be cast in the role—one she first danced, well, 16 years ago—I was dismayed when she did not appear in the initial cast list, and then overjoyed when it was announced just before the run began that she would be stepping in. (I promptly bought myself a better ticket.) It must have been a last-minute decision, because there hadn’t even been time to include her in the printed program. I do not know how much time she had to rehearse Nureyev’s super-difficult, super-allegro version, but she made a ravishing princess, both in dancing terms and in characterization. Full of expectation, curiosity and felicity in the first act, Lunkina was confident and secure in her Rose Adage balances, the expressiveness of her upper body growing continually as the music swelled to its climax. Playful and flirtatious in her solo variation, punctuated by beautifully controlled pirouettes, she was clearly interacting with her suitors rather than performing abstracted academic steps for the audience. Her Aurora suddenly found herself surrounded by handsome young princes and discovered that she liked men very much. Naturally, it wasn't crude—Lunkina is probably incapable of such a thing—but it definitely gave her princess personality. The coda was featherlight and euphoric. In the second act she was luminously pale and lissome, with long, delicate limbs swaying and floating like a poetic vision. In the final act she was majestic and serene, with gorgeously refined port de bras and crystalline style. I suspect that speedy jumps aren't really her thing, and Nureyev added many, but she didn't cheat or fudge any of them.

Jillian Vanstone is a natural Aurora, with a delicate appearance—pretty, petite, feminine—a joyful, engaging and glowing stage persona, and a light, speedy and steely technique. She was instantaneously enchanting, nimble and buoyant in her solo dancing, absolutely secure and sanguine in the Rose Adage, and dramatically compelling as the curse kicked in. Perhaps her second- and third-act Aurora was not all that different from the youthfully ebullient heroine that first appeared, but her dancing was unfailingly lovely, easy and flawlessly executed. There was nothing in the choreography that fazed her. I could be mistaken, but Vanstone seems to be “relegated” to a large number of matinee performances, so there may be a disproportionately large number of Toronto’s children in her audience. I wouldn’t be surprised if in a few generations we heard National Ballet dancers describing how they had first fallen in love with ballet after seeing Jillian Vanstone’s Princess Aurora (Giselle, Cinderella, Alice…). During the intermissions little girls in pretty dresses streamed out into the lobbies holding their arms over their heads and trying to balance on the tips of their sandaled toes.

The National Ballet marked Sonia Rodriguez’s 25th anniversary with the company during this run. Tiny and slight, she still looks persuasively teenaged at the age of 42, although at times her dancing appeared a little dry and by the conclusion of Nureyev’s extra-long mazurka ending, she seemed to be running out of steam. On balance, however, it was an assured, comely and unpretentiously patrician performance, distinguished by a fine Rose Adage, incisive dramatic moments and in the sweet modesty with which she invested the character.

The National Ballet’s princes, drawn this time from severely depleted ranks, dance the choreography once performed by Nureyev himself, not the even more difficult version currently performed by the Paris Opera Ballet. Among the Florimunds I saw, I found Naoya Ebe, dancing opposite Vanstone, the most persuasive. It was his inaugural run in the role, so perhaps it was not surprising that his interpretation was not particularly distinctive, but he performed all the choreography very elegantly. In fairness, all the princes were operating at a disadvantage after I had seen the POB telecast with Mathieu Ganio’s performance of the very long adagio solo Nureyev choreographed to the entr’acte. Ganio not only got through the exceedingly difficult and finicky choreography, but he made it very beautiful and even, amazingly enough, meaningful. I did not really expect to see it topped, but I couldn’t help using it as a standard of measurement.

Piotr Stanczyk was the only Florimund in this run who had danced the part before, and he clearly had the strongest sense of character, although he did not appear especially comfortable with the role’s aspects of poetic longing. He seems to have a shallow plié, which doesn’t provide much push off and can’t absorb his landings; as a consequence they were noisy. In this he compared unfavorably with the Bluebird of Keiichi Hirano, who soared very high and landed almost soundlessly. However, Stanczyk appeared more at ease in the interpolated solo to the Gold Fairy’s music, which has more turns than grand allegro, and in the heftier wedding variation.

The debut of Francesco Gabriele Frola was pushed up by a week following injuries first to his originally scheduled partner and then to another prince. Again, for me he was operating at a disadvantage because the charms of flashy dancers are largely lost on me, although the majority of the audience was completely enthralled, and even I had to admit that his barrel turns were extraordinarily high. He does, however, have a serious flaw as a classical dancer in the way he uses his feet. I am never one to rhapsodize about the appearance of a dancer’s feet—footwork, certainly, but I am not seduced by pretty feet. Frola’s look nice enough in theory, but whenever he performs a jump that involves lifting one leg fairly high (consider Nureyev’s love of the rond de jambe), the other is left dangling below unstretched . In this instance I was sitting a third of the way up the center of the orchestra, and my sightline was about a foot above the level of the stage, so unfortunately, I had repeated views of this peculiarity. I am surprised that this habit was never corrected in the course of his training and that he is able to jump as high as he does considering that he doesn’t always stretch his feet. For that matter, his demi-pointe never goes higher than that and is often a good deal lower. Since by nature Frola is not obvious prince material in appearance, style or technique, I hope that he can improve this aspect of his dancing to make it more polished.

However, given his relative inexperience and that fact that he and Lunkina appear to have been thrown together at the last minute, it was a heroic effort. I don’t know whether she had ever performed fish dives in a production of The Sleeping Beauty before, and he used two hands to position her on his thigh, but they survived them and every other aspect of the partnering. Ironically it was the most experienced pair, Rodriguez and Stanczyk, who had the closest brush with fish-dive derailment, but he placed the fingertips of his free hand on the floor, she braced herself by holding onto his wrist, and unless someone were looking closely, he probably would not have suspected that anything was amiss. Steady nerves and know-how in action.

Unfortunately, I did not see the Auroras of Greta Hodgkinson and Xiao Nan Yu or the Florimund of Harrison James.

If anything dampened my enthusiasm for Ratmansky’s production for ABT, it was seeing how much better the ballet was danced in Toronto. In some cases, comparative assessments are not possible. Ratmansky has the Canary and Finger variations danced so much faster, that any comparison would be invalid. Nonetheless, the various fairies in Toronto were a consistently superior bunch. It was remarkable how quietly Tanya Howard, Kathryn Hosier and Alexandra MacDonald performed their tombés in the Candide variation, and how cleanly and confidently MacDonald, Hannah Fischer and Hosier performed the pirouettes in the Lopukhov “Lilac” variation. I especially admired the lovely Emma Hawes in the Breadcrumb variation and as Princess Florine, sprightly Meghan Pugh as the Canary and White Cat, and Jack Bertinshaw’s performance of the difficult 5/4 variation in the Jewels divertissement. It was heartwarming to see how enthusiastically and thunderously Hirano’s excellent Bluebird was received in his final run of performances.

The difference between the two companies became even more pronounced at the corps level. It was distressing to see that some ABT corps members seemed to have difficulty performing a polonaise and mazurka. At the National Ballet everyone brushed the correct leg on the correct beat, although I am amazed to be in the position of praising them for it. Unlike their ABT counterparts, the National Ballet’s corps is cohesive, accurate and synchronized—always. I was almost astonished to see seven fairy cavaliers in the prologue performing pirouettes in unison. Not even the POB manages that. Evidently the company’s ballet masters run a scrupulous rehearsal process and insist there is no reason it can’t be done. Of course ABT faced a particular stylistic challenge with Ratmansky’s production, and the quest for unity remains a work in progress, but in truth ABT’s corps had also been sloppy a week earlier in La Bayadère, a production that has been in rotation for 35 years and had last been performed just a season ago. I have to conclude that the National Ballet’s corps is just plain better.

Where I think the National Ballet of Canada has receded is in the mime roles. It is now many generations removed from its English origins, and this is a skill that seems to have been lost along the way. This is a real shame, since I have such vivid memories of the encounter between Victoria Bertram’s Carabosse and Jacques Gorrissen’s Catalabutte. Some things would be relatively easy to fix. I wish the Lilac Fairy would drop the gliding routine and stick to elegant, heeled walking, as the POB does, and as I remember the NBoC doing it once upon a time. At present she is a little too reminiscent of Billie Burke in The Wizard of Oz, and what works fine in Munchkinland comes across as a mite too silly here. The booby prize for sheer awfulness goes to Rex Harrington, who plays King Florestan as a gouty old fop. Boy, was I frustrated when Peter Ottmann did not appear for his performance as originally scheduled. But I did enjoy Etienne Lavigne’s Count, with his seething jealousy bubbling just below the surface; he knows the prince is fooling around with his wife, and there’s nothing he can do about it.

Nicholas Georgiadis’ grandiose costumes are holding up well, even though there were a few occasions where the fairies’ giant feathered headdresses nearly became tangled up. The sets look more cramped in the smaller environs of the Four Seasons Centre and dated, although given that Ratmansky’s panorama scene is so truncated, I was pleased with the moving trees between which the Lilac Fairy’s boat passes in Nureyev’s production. The charm of the effect has not been lost.

For all its eccentricities, the Nureyev/Georgiadis production of The Sleeping Beauty was the most important in the National Ballet’s history, which is why I think the company ought to keep performing it in perpetuity. At present it’s doing that pretty well.

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Thanks for the detailed descriptions -- I'm always interested in Sleeping Beauty, and glad to hear how it's going in other productions.

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