Brian Macdonald Hears A Heavenly Voice

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The esteemed Canadian director and choreographer Brian Macdonald died this afternoon in Stratford, Ont., age 86.

I was fortunate enough to have spent time swirling about in his starry orbit, having gotten to know him both on and off the stage.

I am a dance critic and I grew up knowing of his legacy as an original member of Toronto’s National Ballet of Canada who went on to form fruitful associations with Canada’s other major classical dance companies, Les Grands Ballets Canadiens in his native Montreal and the Royal Winnipeg Ballet in Winnipeg. Brian Macdonald’s association with dance extended internationally to The Royal Swedish Ballet, the Harkness Ballet in New York and the Batsheva Dance Company in Israel. He had been artistic director of all three, at various times, during the dance boom years of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

I had admired his ballet Rose Latulippe, and had laughed heartily at his staging of The Pirates of Penzance. I first came to know him as an individual, however, through his wife, the former Les Grands dancer and Swefish native, Annette av Paul. Brian had invited me to dine with them in their Montreal home on the occasion of Annette’s retirement from the stage in 1985. I remember that the food was wonderful, the wine was flowing, and that Brian, in real life, was a warm, engaging, funny and curious man.

When the couple later moved to Stratford, Ont., to be closer to his work at the Stratford Festival directing stellar productions of Gilbert and Sullivan, I again was invited inside their home, where the talk always centred around the arts.

He could be imperious with me at times, and withering in his remarks. But I considered him truly unique, and was always in awe of his talents, and also his diva ways. I wrote on him extensively, and don’t think that this made him spare me barbed criticism of his own.

If he didn’t like what I had written he always let me know it. He could be churlish with me. But I forgave all because he was a great talent, a true believer in Canadian culture.

He once insisted I come to a rehearsal involving him and Mavor Moore. Can you believe it? He wanted to make sure I knew what was what, and who was who. I paid close attention.

Brian Macdonald devoted his entire life to building an audience for the arts in Canada. I for one am truly grateful.

I thought to reproduce one of our conversations, as recorded in 1998 in the Globe and Mail, in tribute. In it he talked of hearing choirs of angels. I hope that is what he is listening to now:

Brian Macdonald is the bionic man — directing operas for the National Arts Centre in Ottawa, choreographing ballets in Sweden, attending workshops of new theatrical productions in Toronto and tending his garden at home in Stratford, Ont. His Stratford Festival production of The Mikado, by Gilbert and Sullivan, was a hit on Broadway and in London. It has been revived for a Canadian tour, opening in Victoria tonight and Mississauga on Sept. 24.

A 70-year-old dynamo, Macdonald does everything well, without a hint of exhaustion.

Except that during the interview, this past spring, he was limping. A casualty of the great 1998 ice storm, he slipped and broke his leg while walking outside the house that he and his wife, the former ballerina Annette av Paul, still own in his native Montreal.

While the bone was healing, he walked with a cane. He spent the winter fearing that he would never walk again. “I was hysterical,” he admitted.

His legs, you see, mean everything to him. Without them he might have become the lawyer his Scots Presbyterian family was grooming him to be. But with them he has waltzed his way to success.

A member of the Order of Canada who has been associated with almost every major arts institution in the country, including the National Ballet of Canada (he was a charter member), Macdonald has long limbs meant for the winnowing grace of dance.

His legs marched him into a dance studio when he was a student at McGill University. And his legs marched him back out again, toward a career as a choreographer.

“I had done a lot of figure skating, and that was unpopular because boys played hockey. So I had turnout and strong legs. I was always crashing and jumping and I loved spinning.”

He remembers precisely the day he decided to become a creator of dance instead of an interpreter. “It was a long time ago, before you were born,” he said with a warm smile. “I was studying dance in Canada. I had seen American Ballet Theatre. But then Les Ballets Russes came to Montreal. They needed a rehearsal studio and my teacher asked if she could use the gymnasium at the university. I got it.

“I went there to see the company in rehearsal. They were just starting Concerto Barocco [the George Balanchine ballet of 1941]. One of the girls was in high heels, I’ll never forget. I watched this exquisite ballet of point and counterpoint and I walked out later into the sunshine and said, ‘That’s it. I have to be a choreographer.’

“I was 17. And when you talk about moments where the sky’s on fire and a heavenly voice speaks to you, it was that kind of moment. I started to take my dance studies very seriously after that.”

Inside the Mad Genius Mind of Vaslav Nijinsky

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Watching John Neumeier’s Nijinsky, a ballet based on the life of the Ballets Russes dancer and choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky, I am reminded of the time I spent in Montreal trailing two of the world’s Nijinsky experts as they taught Afternoon of a Faun to Les Grands Ballets Canadiens from Nijinsky’s own encrypted score. Claudia Jeschke and Ann Hutchison Guest had broken the code of his highly idiosyncratic form of choreology, a breakthrough as significant as the deciphering of the Rosetta Stone. I was the only journalist to witness the momentous event of a contemporary ballet company learning a work as Nijinsky himself conceived it. It is worth reproducing, as a reminder of how extraordinary an artist was the great Nijinsky.

THE FAUNS are having trouble with their flutes.

Reclining on their haunches, stretching to capture the glow of a sun- dappled day, four male dancers from Les Grands Ballets Canadiens are trying hard to look like the frisky woodland deities of Vaslav Nijinsky’s L’apres midi d’un Faune.

The only snags are the flutes.

As Claude Debussy’s score plays on a tape recorder in the background, one dancer holds his flute slightly away from his pursed lips; another has his poised hand’s length from his upturned face. The remaining two look as if they are about to gobble theirs.

Dance reconstructionist Ann Hutchinson Guest is unimpressed.

“It’s a pipe you’re playing, put it to your mouth and make like you are playing it,” she admonishes, reaching for a soft-cover book full of lines, squares, circles and dashes, the symbols of choreographic notation. She flips the pages, looks down through her glasses and finds the proof she is looking for. “He says here, ‘pipes to lips,’ so pipes to lips it is.”

“He” is Nijinsky, the legendary Ballets Russes dancer whose spirit dominates the long and painstaking process of reconstructing his most revolutionary work on the young bodies of these classically trained dancers.

Hutchinson Guest has come from England to teach the dancers of Les Grands Ballets Canadiens Nijinsky’s original 1912 ballet. Assisting her is Claudia Jeschke, a dance historian and theorist from Munich. Together, they are reconstructing Nijinsky’s work from his own dance notation, a novel method of choreographic manuscript that Nijinsky invented and which until now has been indecipherable.

Hutchinson Guest, a 71-year-old former U.S. dancer and dance-notation expert now living in London with her husband, British author Ivor Guest, and Jeschke, a 39-year-old professor of dance studies at Munich University who wrote her doctorate thesis on dance notation systems, worked independently for years on deciphering Nijinsky’s system. Eventually, they heard of each other’s work and decided to join forces. Over the last two years, both have found time to meet in various cities around the world to develop their analysis. Only recently did they break Nijinsky’s code, and their presence in the Montreal studios of Les Grands Ballets marks the first time Nijinsky’s 1912 ballet has been fully reconstructed according to his own manuscript.

The ballet will have its premiere as part of the company’s forthcoming Hommage a Diaghilev program at Place Des Arts, Oct. 27-28 and Nov. 2. As ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev’s star protege, Nijinsky will be rightfully highlighted.

Company general director Colin McIntyre initiated the Nijinsky project. “It’s a great Diaghilev work,” he said while watching Hutchinson Guest and Jeschke in rehearsal. “Also, the opportunity to have the first production from Nijinsky’s own notation made the project desirable. I think it’s important because people argue that Faune is the first modern dance – ballet it clearly is not.”

The women agree. “It’s a breakthrough piece of choreography,” says Hutchinson Guest during a break from rehearsal. “It’s the first ballet that doesn’t use a proscenium stage,” continues Jeschke. “There’s no one perspective. Before this, dancers had to project to the audience, something that developed from the days of the court ballets when dancers only performed to the king. Nijinsky has made the whole perspective flat. Everything is happening at the same time, which was a new concept in 1912.”

The work, which met with a tumultuous reception at its Paris debut, also demands that the dancers think not of presenting movement but of using movement to convey emotions and hidden states of mind. Explains Jeschke: “They have to act, not just demonstrate; they have to feel it.”

L’apres midi d’un Faune is important for dance historians because of the four extant Nijinsky ballets (The Rite of Spring, Till Eulenspiegel and Jeux are the others), it is the only one known to have a written score. He had encountered dance notation as a student at the Imperial Dance Academy in St. Petersburg, and began to work on his own system around 1903. During his travels after 1909, he gave many interviews to the European press in which he told of his system, and he later said that he considered this to be his most valuable contribution to choreography. He was able to put his ideas to paper after his dismissal by Diaghilev and during the 1914-18 war while detained in Budapest, where he notated Faune. His system was left undeciphered for so many years because he left no instructions on how to use it.

Hutchinson Guest and Jeschke spent a lot of time trying to figure out the system by reading Nijinsky’s notebooks, then discovered that they had nothing to do with Faune at all, as Nijinsky had used them to record ideas about a second system. Jeschke was able to translate some passages into fluent movement description, while Hutchinson Guest was able to decipher others.

Hutchinson Guest and Jeschke are in the city for two weeks, teaching the dancers their roles and the ballet masters Nijinsky’s radical style and technique. They have with them bound copies of their own breakthrough work on the Nijinsky system, now translated into Labanotation, a more accessible system developed by Hungarian dancer and choreographer Rudolf van Laban in the 1930s, and refer to them constantly during the teaching process. They want exactness, and are quick to correct the dancers when they stray too far from Nijinsky’s original conception. Yet, they do so with a genuine respect for the dancers as artists.

“Be careful that every single detail is performed out,” warns Jeschke while watching the “fauns” put down their flutes to pick up an imaginary bunch of grapes at their feet. “See the grapes,” Hutchinson Guest shouts out. “He says here that the fauns see the grapes with their eyes and their faces.” The dancers struggle to come to terms with a movement vocabulary foreign to their training. “Breathe into it,” advises Jeschke. “Make your bodies sensitive to the smell of the grapes.”

“Don’t be afraid to exaggerate a bit,” suggests Hutchinson Guest. “That’s how you become an artist.” A dancer asks about the position of his downturned palm. How close should it be to the body and how should the thumb be turned, up or down? This time, they refer to a book of dance photographs by Baron Adolph de Meyer, who recorded Nijinsky and other members of the original cast of L’apres midi d’un Faune following the ballet’s debut in Paris. The photographs have been helpful for illuminating details from the choreographic text.

Colin McIntyre, on the other hand, has used the de Meyer book to familiarize himself with the ballet’s look. De Meyer’s camera often lingers on details in the flowing Grecian costumes designed for the original ballet by Leon Bakst. In addition to the costumes, the Russian painter and theatre designer painted a large canvas depicting a woodland scene that served as the ballet’s decor. McIntyre said set and costume designers at Les Grands have been using de Meyer’s photographs as a guide for their designs.

What Hutchinson Guest and Jeschke have revealed through their research is that Nijinsky was a man of extraordinary talent.

“What great dancer do you have today who has invented a system of notation and who has written down a full ballet in that system? You can’t name one,” observes Hutchinson Guest. “Just that fact alone shows that the man had great depth, the extra dimensions that may be attributed to genius.”

Ballet as Class Struggle: Kenneth MacMillan’s Manon

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By Deirdre Kelly

Manon, the three-act contemporary ballet that the National Ballet of Canada will present in Toronto this week as the kick-off to its fall 2014 season, is an unconventional work full of pimps, hookers and pickpockets. Cinderella it ain’t. But like the storybook ballets that pepper the repertoires of classical troupes, Manon is, nevertheless, a morality tale in which vice is punished by brutal exile and death.

With its artful juxtaposition of tender love duets and carnal trios that serve as steamy dance equivalents of the menage a trois, Manon is a raw ballet set in the demimonde of 18th-century Paris. Originally created in 1974 by the late Sir Kenneth MacMillan, former resident choreographer of England’s Royal Ballet, the work is based on Abbe Prevost’s 18th- century novel, Histoire du Chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut.

Manon, a poor girl in Regency-era France, makes a fatal detour into the darkling life of a courtesan. Her brother, Lescaut, pimps her to a goutish man of wealth, Monsieur Guillot de Morfontaine, who rewards Manon for sexual favours with diamond-encrusted trinkets that she wears around her throat and wrist like chains of bondage.

Apologies in advance for giving away the ending (though the story is retold in two different operatic versions: Jules Massenet’s of 1884 and Giacomo Puccini’s of 1893), but Manon dies, as does her brother, whose undignified demise comes courtesy of a quick bullet.

Such an ending is, perhaps, routine in fairy-tale worlds, but here, it’s not so cut and dried. In this intelligent ballet, morality is scrutinized through a lens of political inquiry focused on the class struggle.

The ballet’s opening sequences establish that the world Manon lives in is fraught with clashes between rich and poor. Visually, the difference is telegraphed by means of the lush, sparkling robes of the wealthy and the threadbare garments of the downtrodden. Peter Farmer’s costume designs also adorn the courtesans who primp in the borrowed trappings of their supposed betters during ritualized dances of seduction.

In the third act, which is set in the ports, jails and bayous of Louisiana, 18th-century France’s version of New World hell, these women are social outcasts with shorn hair and torn sacks for dresses. Manon is among them, sent into exile as a prostitute by her upper-class patron. Discarded, she is near the breaking point. Her once confident dancing steps have declined into stumbles. The only thing faintly supporting her is love, which appears as Des Grieux, her young, naive lover who followed her from Paris.

But MacMillan is no sentimental fool. In a world in which the rich hold the reins of power, Cupid is no match for Mammon. Manon dies, her lover cries, and so the world turns. While the final tableau recalls other full- length ballets in which lovers are eternally separated by death (Giselle, Swan Lake and La Sylphide), here death brings no redemption. Ultimately, Manon is an anti-romantic work, but one that provokes compassion for the human condition.

Renee Zellweger: I Knew You When

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All the blather about Renee Zellweger’s new face made me remember that I knew her when she was merely another face in a crowd: practically unknown. I met her in 1997, just as she was on the cusp of international celebrity. She was shy, tongue-tied, awkward in a geeky yet endearing way. We lounged together on her hotel room bed, me yanking information out of her, she almost always turning away. She went on to become a big star, but with the facial surgery making her almost in recognizable from the person we knew before, is now retreating again into a kind of anonymity. I guess I am saying that is the real Renee. She actually never liked being in the sPotlight. I have that first-hand. Read for yourself:

Toronto — ‘I’M definitely a private person,” says Renee Zellweger, avoiding eye contact. “There are a lot of things that I don’t like to talk about. Nothing is more boring than to hear someone say all the time, ‘I, Me, I.’ ”

Instead, the 27-year-old actress, who stars in Jerry Maguire and The Whole Wide World,wants to know about her interlocutor and asks questions of her own. Her curiosity seems to stem from a childhood ambition to be a writer herself.

How appropriate, then, that The Whole Wide World,her latest film, is about writers and their relationship to one another and their imaginations. It’s a long way from the sex-kitten roles she has been cast in, in such B-movies as a sequel to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Love and a .45.

In the past year, her peers at the Independent Film Projects selected her as best newcomer of the year and she has also won the National Board of Review’s newly created award for best “breakthrough performer” for her two most recent starring roles. In November, she was featured in Vogue and Vanity Fair.

From sexy, B-movie starlet to critic’s darling in just a few years . . . What does she think of all the attention?

“Not a whole lot,” she says tugging at the tassels of a sateen pillow she has just yanked off a bed in a downtown Toronto hotel room, where her agent and publicist have ensconced her for the first of a series of interviews.

Dressed in baggy jeans and a rumpled long-sleeved cotton shirt, Zellweger is visibly uncomfortable talking about herself and betrays nothing of the egotism that often accompanies Hollywood starlets. She holds the pillow protectively and says she realized she would be an actress during an epiphany she had when she was 20 and attending classes in literature at the University of Austin.

“It was a commercial for the American Beef Council. It was a turn-of-the-century barbecue at an all-girls school. We did a tug of war in 105 degree mid-August weather, dressed head to toe in wool. The shoot lasted eight hours. Glamorous it wasn’t. Yet, in all of it, I managed to find something strangely satisfying. I loved the process.”

In Wide World,Zellweger plays Novalyne Price, the Texas schoolteacher who formed an intimate friendship with pulp writer Robert E. Howard (Red Sonja, Conan the Barbarian, Kull the Conqueror, Solomon Kane )because of a deep ambition to be a writer herself.

Price eventually realized her ambition when, in 1985 at the age of 76, she published One Who Walked Alone,which is largely based on her relationship with Howard.

Two former students of Price were inspired to turn the story into a film. Michael Scott Myers, who wrote the screenplay to The Whole Wide World,and Benjamin Mouton, who has a role in it, showed Price’s book as well as her personal collection of photographs and correspondence to first-time director Dan Ireland, co-founder and former director of the Seattle International Film Festival, who shortly after launched a five-year journey to get the film made.

On the eve of The Whole Wide World’sscreening at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, Ireland told The Globe and Mail he had a lot of people to thank: Actress Olivia d’Abo, whose pregnancy forced her to abandon the lead role at the last minute; Joel and Ethan Coen, the writer-director-producer team (Fargo ),helped find another editor when the initial one dropped out; Hans Zimmer, who not only waived his fee for musical direction, but put $10,000 (U.S.) of his own money into the $1.3-million film (U.S.); actress Theresa Russell, who lent a critical ear to the score. He also praised actor Vincent D’Onofrio (Ed Wood, The Player, Full Metal Jacket )who plays Howard and is one of the film’s producers.

Ultimately, though, Ireland heaven for Renee Zellweger.

“She was my gift from God. I didn’t know the film could happen when Olivia d’Abo dropped out. But then someone told me about Renee. I had seen her in Love and a .45 and thought she was a great actress, but not my prim and proper Novalyne Price. But then she auditioned and she opened my heart. I cried on the spot.”

Zellweger smiles shyly when told of Ireland’s near swoon at the mere mention of her name. “Gee, well, that day, I wore a dress,” she says, looking to explain what Ireland might have found appealing about her. “I tried to stand a little taller and be a little more ladylike as far as the performance was concerned, because that woman, Novalyne Price, is quite a lady, and I met her, you know, and I wanted to make sure I was as accurate as I could be.”

Zellweger believes she wouldn’t have made The Whole Wide World — or any of her recent films — if she had not left her native Texas for Los Angeles five years ago. (Zellweger is from a small town outside Houston called Katy. Her father came to the United States from Switzerland, her mother is from Norway.)

At the University of Texas in Austin, Zellweger studied writing, but discovered her true calling when she took a drama course. After graduation, she stayed in Texas for a few years, auditioning for every movie part that came along. She had a few lucky breaks — bit parts in Reality Bites and Dazed and Confused — but nothing on the level of a breakthrough.

Despite “playing the fifth waitress” in some low-budget movie that no one really saw — let alone talked about — she was determined to stick it out. “Not because I wanted attention, not beause I was afraid and needed it as therapy or something, but because I love it. There’s something so satisfying about bringing this one-dimensional person on paper to life. It’s really satisfying to visit those places inside yourself and to learn about yourself more.”

Deirdre Kelly Wins Canada’s Top Critics Prize

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Toronto​, 1 November 2014

2014 NATHAN COHEN AWARDS​FOR CRITICISM TO MARTIN MORROW AND DEIRDRE KELLY

Two veteran free-lance theatre critics were named winners of the 2014 Nathan Cohen Awards for Excellence in Theatre Criticism on Saturday by the Canadian Theatre Critics Association. The awards, the longest continuing recognition in Canada for critical writing, cover a two year period.

The award for Short Category reviews (1,000 words and under) went to Martin Morrow for a 2013 piece on the Shaw Festival’s production of Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia.
Morrow’s review appeared in the Globe and Mail on July 29, 2013 under the title
Arcadia: The mathematics of messy human emotions.

The award in the Long Category (over 1,000 words) went to Deirdre Kelly for a review of a piece involving puppets and dance called Malcolm created by choreographer James Kudelka. Kelly’s review appeared on an on-line website called Critics At Large August 15, 2014. The piece was headlined Dancing With Puppets and Pulling the Strings.

Judges for the 2014 competition were previous Cohen winners, freelance critic and poet Patricia Keeney of Toronto and Globe and Mail theatre critic J. Kelly Nestruck.

Each winner receives a cheque from CTCA along with a framed award certificate. The awards were presented in Toronto at a luncheon ceremony.

The Nathan Cohen Awards were established by the Toronto Drama Bench (the predecessor of the Canadian Theatre Critics Association) in 1981 and were taken over by CTCA in 1990 when the Drama Bench became part of the new national association.
CTCA is today the Canadian centre of the Unesco-based International Association of Theatre Critics with over 4,000 members around the world.

Since their inception, the Cohen Awards have been won by journalists, magazine writers, online writers and academic writers from across the country. National Post critic Robert

Cushman has won the award eight times with former Kingston Whig Standard critic and now Stratford Festival Communications Director David Prosser winning it six times.
Long-time Ottawa and Calgary critic Jamie Portman was a four-time winner with Montreal critic Marianne Ackerman and Toronto critics Kate Taylor and Martin Knelman winning the award three times each.

“The award recognizes excellence in critical writing about the theatre,” said CTCA President Don Rubin, founding editor of the Canadian Theatre Review and a former critic for both the Toronto Star and CBC Radio. “It recognizes excellence in the name of one of Canada’s most important and most influential theatre critics ever, the late Nathan Cohen of the Toronto Star.

“Theatre criticism today is certainly not disappearing but it is clearly changing and is becoming a significant part of the online world,” said Rubin. “This award seeks to ensure that expertise in the field continues to be recognized in what is becoming an expanding sea of personal opinion. As a profession, we are suggesting that expertise has a role to play not only in the new journalism but also in the development of theatre in all its evolving forms.”

This is Martin Morrow’s second Nathan Cohen Award. He previously won while serving as critic for the Calgary Herald in 1995. A free-lance journalist for most of his career, he writes most regularly these days for the Globe and Mail. He is the author of Wild
Theatre, a history of Calgary’s One Yellow Rabbit theatre company.

This is Deirdre Kelly’s first Nathan Cohen Award. A journalist, author and internationally recognised dance critic, she has written regularly on dance for the Globe and Mail, for Dance magazine in New York and the Dance Gazette in London and is a contributor to the International Dictionary of Ballet. She is the author of Paris Times Eight and Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, a book recently re-released in paperback.