Scandal and Success: Dance in 2013


The National Ballet of Canada's Xiao Nan Yu with members of the company


2013 was an exciting year of debuts, revivals, choreographic innovation and dancers regaining the spotlight as the true essence of  artistic expression on the dance stage. Cut and paste the links below to read my Top 10 list based on events seen in Toronto this past year:

1. Mad, Sad and a Pleasure to Know: Nijinsky, the full-length ballet based on the life of legendary dancer Vaslav Nijinsky by John Neumeier, featuring outstanding performances by the National Ballet of Canada.

2. Age Has Not Withered Her: Independent dancer Claudia Moore is still going strong at age 60 as seen in her one-woman show, Escape Artist, the portrait of the artist as still vital force.

3. The National Ballet of Canada’s Innovation program presented three world premieres and one company debut by an assortment of leading Canadian contemporary choreographers, resulting in an evening of dance as daring as it was delicious. Superbly danced, too.

4. Christopher House’s Eleven Accords is Steve Reich filtered through a lickety-split choreographic style inspired in large part by the dancers of Toronto Dance Theatre, the company has been directing for 20 years. A notable anniversary gift.

5. The National Ballet of Canada’s Greta Hodgkinson had a banner year, performing a blistering solo in Guillaume Cote’s Being and Nothingness (Part 1) and also getting a welcome boost earlier in the season when partnered by guest artist Mathew Golding, the Canadian-born principal dancer with the Dutch National Ballet who joins the Royal Ballet in 2014. It was a partnership made in ballet heaven, helping to make Hodgkinson even that more brilliant and Golding a name to remember.

6. Margie Gillis is Canada’s answer to Isadora Duncan, a solo dancer who let’s it all hang out when dancing barefoot, often accompanied by her own sighs and plaintive breathing. 2013 saw the Montreal dance return to the stage, engaging as ever at age 60, in a body of new work created with other senior dancers as part of her Margie Gillis Foundation.

7. ProArteDanza is the little company that could. This year the Toronto-based contemporary dance ensemble took on Beethoven and did so imaginatively, underscoring the growing strength as choreographers of Robert Glumbeck and Roberto Campanella.

8. James Kudelka returned to the public eye in 2013, notably to the National Ballet of Canada with not only a world premiere (see #3 above) but a revival of his The Man in Black, a poignant piece danced in cowboy boots and set to a quartet of tear jerking songs by the late Johnny Cash. The National Ballet’s dancers, in particular Piotr Stanczyk and Stephanie Hutchinson, put grit into the steps, making the dance a true highlight of the year.

9. The Bolshoi ballet was consistently in the news this year, the famed Russian ballet company rocked by scandals that included the blinding of its artistic director, Sergei Filin, during an acid attack, the arrest of one of its leading dancers, Pavel Dimtrichenko, now serving jail time as a result of that assault against his former boss, and the departure of ballerina Svetlana Lunkina for a safe haven in Canada. The Bolshoi ballerina’s decision to leave Moscow for Toronto made international headlines. In late August, it was announced she had joined the National Ballet as a principal guest artist, a move seen by many as being a boon to Canadian ballet.!-2103662087/?ts=131231122558&ord=1

10. A Kiwi filmmaker whose first name translates as warrior, Toa Fraser made a film version of Giselle starring members of the New Zealand Ballet with American Ballet Theatre ballerina Gillian Murphy as the eponymous lead. The film, which had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, celebrates dancers perhaps more than it does its famous piece of choreography, and for that it is a dance film worth celebrating and remembering as one of the best dance experiences of 2013.


Christmas in Paris



Earlier this month, I stood in front of the dressed windows of Galeries Lafayette and Au Printemps, two of the oldest department stores in Paris, my two small children by my side. I was looking for Christmas and thought that the festive window displays, an annual Paris tradition, would satisfy my growing hunger for some holiday cheer.

Not that the rest of Paris wasn’t inspiring a sense of celebration. Nightly, the Eiffel Tower sparkled with brilliant diamante lights, while overhead, on the Place Vendôme, illuminations in the shape of chandeliers brightened the path for bejewelled shoppers scurrying to buy the latest Parisian fashion. But being so far from home, and despite the thrill of being back in Paris, I was nostalgic for a Christmas more familiar to me, one dusted with snow and smelling of nutmeg. The endless December rains and the rancid odours of the Métro seemed all wrong, given the time of year.

No matter how far we travel, it seems we cannot escape the comforts of our own traditions. I hadn’t thought I had any real Christmas ones until this trip. I had many times, since the age of 19, come to this city to escape what was familiar to me – my broken childhood home, the father who abandoned me, the mother who yelled at me for wrapping my Christmas gifts with two left hands. Never more for me the sticky emotional trap of tape and metallic paper. But with age I realized that with each trip away I seemed instead to be journeying within myself, discovering feelings I thought I never had or, at least, had long abandoned.

Which is how I found myself, on this trip, in the middle of the Place de la Concorde, looking at an obelisk, but thinking instead of the Christmas tree at Toronto’s Nathan Phillips Square. My memory was of the Santa Claus Parade, winding its way down University Avenue, before stopping at what used to Eaton’s, the Canadian department store with the most enchanting Christmas windows in the world, or so I thought then. These were windows that showed the world as tiny and perfect, where families ate together and sang together, dream lives preserved behind glass. The best was the window on Queen Street devoted to Santa’s toyshop. There, mechanical bears clapped cymbals, dolls blew kisses and silvery electric trains went round and round on ebony tracks while small, buttery, battery-operated puppies yapped with excitement. I hadn’t thought of those things in years. But Paris was conjuring them up. I guessed it was because I knew I couldn’t find them here, in a city that is more interested in indulging the senses than feeding sentimentality.

Santa doesn’t live in Paris. He lives in North America, where he has been ensconced in malls since early November, quietly luring in parents who will spend $20 to get his picture with their kid (or their pet, or both) on his lap. Paris is a city liberated from prescribed iconography about Christmas. In this capital of art, depictions of Joseph, Mary and baby Jesus are omnipresent 365 days a year. But what about the French? How did they deliver on the annual Christmas fantasy? Very well, I discovered.

Paris is a city of boutiques and a city in love with visual design, so there is no shortage of beautiful windows to look at wherever you go. Walking back to my hotel one night, after a long day of sightseeing, my tired eyes received a surprise bolt of colour in the window of a toy store on the rue du Commerce where large pneumatic bears, in various shades of the rainbow, were frolicking amid a flurry of fake snow. Another day, in the window of haute grocery store Fauchon, near the Madeleine, I saw jewel-coloured Christmas pastries as brilliant as any stained-glass window.

But I was most bedazzled, at the Christmas windows of Les Grands Magasins – the connected but rival Galeries Lafayette and Au Printemps department stores – presenting onto boulevard Haussmann, directly behind the ornately sculpted Palais Garnier on the nearby Place de l’Opéra. The opera house, with its Chagall ceiling and eight-ton crystal chandelier, was where you paid dearly for a ticket to see a choreographed show. But there, outside these belle époque temples of commerce, the spectacle was free, but no less impressive. The windows don’t showcase toyshops. No families eating plum puddings, either. Beyond a scene showcasing a sultry-looking mannequin swathed in fur and a pack of ferocious animals, themselves brushed and styled (but at a taxidermist – not even Christmas can escape the Parisians’ love of irony), the windows depict a winter wonderland made up of globes, glitter, mirrors and simulated white stuff that carry out the Printemps’ Nordic Christmas theme with aplomb. Designed by artists possessed with that distinctly Parisian flair for work that combines, in equal measure, the whimsical, the poetic and the absurd, the windows were light-years from anything that spoke to the ye-olde-yuletide windows of my youth.

In true Paris fashion, they were up-to-the-minute creations, propelled as much by technical know-how as by imagination. Anyone looking for a trip down memory lane would be disappointed – but also delighted by the sudden shift in point of view. As I found myself enthralled by the 190 animated characters, ranging from saxophone-playing panda bears and choirs of snowy owls to a herd of guffawing reindeer and a troupe of tap-dancing powder puffs, I suddenly found myself warming to a whole new picture of Christmas. The catalyst was as much the scene happening in front of the windows as inside them. My children. They were running with delight from window to window, laughing at the polar bears swinging on the zany light fixtures during an animal’s Christmas party, or gazing with wonder at the winged baby dolls softly sailing around a snowy landscapes on bees’ wings. Wooden ramps allowed little ones to press their noses up against the glass, elevating children to a vaulted status above the crowd. I had brought my children to Paris to show them the sights and to share with them the deepest parts of myself, my loves, my fears, my ambitions, all symbolized by this mighty city upon the Seine. But instead they were showing me how to see Paris in a new light.



Nutcracker Memories


The National Ballet of Canada today posted an image from the photo shoot Fred Lum and I  did way back in 1998 for my Globe and Mail review of James Kudelka’s version of  The Nutcracker, showing the various ballerinas poised to dance the Sugar Plum Fairy. Here are the words which accompanied it. Several of the dancers mentioned are no longer with the company, among them the wonderful Jeremy Ransom. Too often dancers are forgotten after they stop performing , so I hope this brings a few of them back, if just for a moment.

The Arts: Ballet
Stunning Nutcracker keeps on getting better
Dance Critic
12 December 1998
The Globe and Mail

The Hummingbird Centre in Toronto on Thursday

The only snow Toronto has seen so far this year fell on the stage of the Hummingbird Centre on Thursday night. Even children in the audience were mystified. “What’s that, mommy?” squeaked a small voice in the darkness. “Is that rain?”

While El Nino and his sister are giving Southern Ontario its balmiest December ever, the National Ballet of Canada might be having a hard time convincing denizens of the city that Christmas is just around the corner. A good number of seats were empty on the opening night of the company’s annual performance of The Nutcracker. And this was a shame, because the ballet has never looked better.

National director James Kudelka first unveiled his new version of the Christmas classic in 1995. With sumptuous costumes, sets by award-winning designer Santo Loquasto, and state-of-the art stagecraft that allows quick scene changes and dazzling pyrotechnics, the $2.3-million production — the most expensive in the company’s repertoire — is pure eye-candy. The Sugar Plum Fairy roosts in a large, golden Faberge Egg; the Snow Queen frolics in a winter wonderland of diamond-and-turquoise icicles; costumes are edged in ermine and jewels. This is a ballet for the people that wears the crown of the czars.

The astonishing visuals at first dwarfed the choreography, making Kudelka’s intricate steps seem not to have the dramatic punch of the overall design. But three years later, the playing field is levelling. In a way, we’ve become used to the grandeur, though that doesn’t mean ingenious touches like a roller-blading bear and a dancing horse have lost their charm. Rather it means that we are no longer hypnotized. Released from the spell of novelty, we can start looking more closely at the dance itself. And what we discover is nothing short of brilliant.

Kudelka’s task was to replace company founder Celia Franca’s tired-looking Nutcracker with an up-to-date version that could rival Disney and its bratty offspring, the megamusical. But only a fool would think that simple cosmetic changes could do it. Kudelka knew that to update The Nutcracker he also had to reinvigorate the art of ballet itself. People would come once to see the exploding canons. But they would return only if there was something else to hold their interest.

Kudelka instantly grabs our attention not with lasers but with dance. Peter the stable boy (danced on Thursday by the refined and elegant Aleksandar Antonijevic) opens the ballet with a sprightly solo that gives a hint of things to come. The light and buoyant steps are fast-paced and complicated. And the upper body is loose and expressive, with the arms creating clear-cut patterns. Kudelka lends the body a rhythmic suppleness that is in tune with Tchaikovsky’s mellifluous score. The relationship between the dancing and the music is so intimate that the ballet comes off as a true harmonic structure. Dancing defines character and advances plot. Mime is mercifully scarce.

Kudelka weaves texture into the ballet through symmetry and dramatic contrast. Solos alternate with group dances. Young people follow old. And working-class people interchange with aristocrats. Dancers pretending to be musicians play harmoniously on their instruments and then a boisterous group of children drown them out with their cacophonous playing of toy bugles. In Act 1 there is a snow fight; in Act 2, a food fight. These repeating sequences lend order and balance to the ballet, from its gentle beginning through to its triumphant conclusion.

In between is splendid dancing. Jeremy Ransom’s Nikolai, the wild-eyed magician who makes the fantasy unfold, was a beguiling mixture of madness and magnanimity. Stacey Shiori Minagawa, who dances the bumblebee, indeed created a buzz with her long and sensual lines.

Jennifer Fournier as the sparkling Snow Queen outdanced Icicle attendants Ryan Boorne and Kevin Law, both of whom looked fearful of losing their footing in this most difficult pas de trois.

Greta Hodgkinson, who partnered Antonijevic in the second act, was a delectable Sugar Plum Fairy. Her role demands extraordinary strength and precision, and Hodgkinson delivered all with a smooth and feathery style that masked the effort.

And finally the children. The National Ballet School swells the production to prodigious proportions. Tiny feet are everywhere, from the crowded barn scene through to the red-and-gold glory of the Sugar Plum Fairy’s palace. And they don’t simply look cute. Kudelka works the young dancers hard, giving them expansive travelling steps and complex dances that bestow on them a healthy respect. So bring on the snow. Nothing in this Nutcracker leaves you cold.