Deirdre Kelly

Russian program, National Ballet of Canada

There’s a new ballerina on the block: Moscow-born Elena Lobsanova. I saw her dancing last night at Toronto’s Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts in the National Ballet of Canada’s mixed program of three Russian-themed works. She took the sparkling female lead in George Balanchine’s Theme and Variations opposite partner Piotr Stanczyk, himself no slouch in the virtuoso department.

It’s probably a coincidence that a Russian was at the centre of last night’s dizying choreographic universe. Lobsanova wasn’t exactly parachuted in for the evening.

She’s already a second soloist with the Toronto-based company, and was trained at the National Ballet School, so she’s no stranger to our shores. She took the top prize for a female dancer at the 2009 Erik Bruhn Competition. She’s getting more of the spotlight in the company right an, and and mark my words, she’ll be promoted at the end of the season. She’s got winning stage presence, and a solid technique she softens with a light-as-a-feather porte de bras and a  lovely, gentle smile. She’s obviously working so hard up there on stage but she appears not to break a sweat. Poise and elegance are already her trademarks. She needs, to my mind, to rise higher on her pointes, extend herself more through the arch of the foot to give her a bit more oomph, a bit more born-to-it majesty.

So far, she’s riding on pretty, an unoffensive dance quality also evident in her performance of Russian Seasons, an ensemble work by former Bolshoi director Alexei Ratmansky’s that was a company premiere.

Originally created in 2006 for New York City Ballet where Ratmansky’s now based, this rainbow0hued romp of a work combining folk dance, jazz, live voice (soprano Susana Poretsky) and a feverishly played live violin (Steven Sitarski) as part of  the self-named score by Leonid Desyatnikov, Russian Seasons is described in the program notes as a series of vignettes centered loosely around the Russian Orthodox liturgical calendar, but you’d not know just looking at it, the religious aspect isn’t obvious.

Lobsanova played a nameless role (just like the other 11 dancers in the piece), but was dressed in purple, and so stood out, and not just because of the garish (and that’s the word to describe the unfortunate costumes with their airline hostess hats by Galina Solovyeva — what was she thinking???) colour she was forced to wear. In contrast to the others who seemed to be rushing to keep up with the work’s break-neck speed, Lobsanova appeared comfortable and relaxed, as if the work were created on her. It really was remarkable, how she seemed to glide through it, seemingly even enjoying the complex pastiche of acrobatic moves that her colleagues strained to make look natural.

The work wasn’t my favourite of the evening. I felt there was far too much going on, and don’t get me started again on those horrible Smartie Box dresses!  It was as if Ratmansky felt compelled to say all he ever wanted to say, in one ballet, and the result was kinetic overload: ballet on Ritalin.

Calmer by far, and deliberately so, was the opening work on the program, Balanchine’s Apollo. celebrating the god of art, music and song, the work is a paean to cool, classical control, what the Greek god, often presented in opposition to his more lusty, more ribald, more chaotic kinsmen Dionysus, also represents.

Created in 1928 when Balanchine was a member of Diaghilev’s famed Les Ballets Russes, it is a remarkable achievement, packed with potent physical imagery, experimental choreography (straight-back ballet combined with hip-thrusting jazz moves and other popular social dance idioms of the day) and an original score by the incomparable Igor Stravinsky.

Guillaume Cote brought a robust, maverick quality to the role that was most satisfying to watch. His wife, principal dancer  Heather Ogden was strong as one of the Muses, Polyhymnia, imparting to the role sensuality. Bridgett Zehr as Calliope was less convincing; she had the technical acumen for the role but lacked emotional depth. Her dancing left me cold.

The best of Apollo’s female attendants by far was Xiao Nan Yu, as Terpsichore, the muse of dance. The choreography wrapped tightly around her like a second-skin,she danced with Cote as if she were locked in a physical conversation with him. You could sense her intelligence, feel her empathy with the music.

Enough said. Wonder what Lobsanova, the new girl, will do with the role if she ever gets the chance to perform it? Stay tuned.

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