Northern Jubilee Auditorium, Edmonton, AB; October 4, 2013
The Alberta Ballet is on roll! Returning to Edmonton for the first time since the debut of the smash-hit ‘Balletlujah’, the company has found success again, this time with the company premiere of Stanton Welch’s “Madame Butterfly”. Inspired by the stories of Pierre Loti (“Chrysantheme”) and John Luther Long (“Madame Butterfly”), Welch’s production was conceived for the Australian Ballet in 1995, and came into the repertoire of the Houston Ballet when Welch became artistic director. Both companies contributed the Alberta Ballet production, the Australian ballet in the loan of Peter Farmer’s sets and costumes, and the Houston Ballet in the form of guest dancer Oliver Halkowich, Welch’s staging, and Lisa Pinkham’s lighting designs.
The ballet tells the story of Butterfly, a geisha who marries an American naval officer, Benjamin Pinkerton at the turn of the 20th century. For Butterfly the marriage is the high point of her life, but to Pinkerton it is intended as a diversion to fill time while he away from his American wife. After a few months, Pinkerton leaves for America, not knowing that he has conceived a son. When he returns to Japan several years later, his presence sets in motion a series of events that ends in tragedy. With a simple plot and a complexity of emotion, it is a story perfectly suited to the ballet stage.
Speaking of marriages, Welch’s production is match made in heaven for the Alberta Ballet. Not only is “Madame Butterfly” ideally crafted – both in sets and dance – for a smaller company, but the ballet features roles which require men with strong dramatic partnering skills, and delicate, but powerful women. And there’s no shortage of dancers with these attributes in the current company; on opening night, Kelley McKinlay and Mariko Kondo were superb in the roles of Pinkerton and Butterfly. (Jaciel Gomez and Hayna Gutierrez, seen in dress rehearsal, also are excellent).
The backbone of the ballet is Farmer’s ingeniously simple sets; the action revolves around the courtyard of a traditional Japanese house. Two rooms sit on either side of a platform that stretches the length of the stage, a hazy scene of harbor visible between the pair. Later on, the rooms slide outwards to reveal the ship and then inwards, forming a different view of the house. The platform also serves to raise some of the action, making it more visible, and to shrink the size of the stage, allowing the impression of a filled stage with fewer dancers.
Just as the western world of Pinkerton and Sharpless (the US consul) mix, if somewhat imperfectly, with the eastern world of Butterfly, Welch’s choreography pulls from both classical ballet, and more angular, Japanese influenced modern or neo-classical movements. The geishas dance delicately on pointe, but walk with flexed feet, sliding down easily to floor-caressing bows. The marriage secretaries and samurai are given steps that emphasis right angles in arms and knees; stiff jointed rather than classically flowing.
The ballet begins with the introduction of Butterfly to Pinkerton. The doomed marriage has been arranged by the matchmaker Goro, danced by company veteran Yukichi Hattori. The role seemed to have been crafted around Hattori, showing off his spectacular, but crisp turning ability and mastery of character. In the hands of a lesser dancer-actor, the role could have veered uncomfortably towards caricature, but Hattori deftly kept the humor on course. Less successful, perhaps, was Ian Buchanan, whose Marriage Official was solidly danced, but seemed too much of a caricature.
As Suzuki, Butterfly’s maid, Akiko Ishii had to tackle a role that not only included a significant amount of dancing, but also a significant amount of time working with the very young dancer (an adorable, and admirably focused Kash Hill) who played the role of Butterfly’s son. In both, Ishii succeeded with a tender elegance that was matched by solid dancing. Houston Ballet soloist Oliver Halkowich, as Consul Sharpless, was a welcome addition to the cast. A shorter dancer, Halkowich brought crisp power to the many jumps that Welch’s choreography threw at him. More important though, he brought a sense of humanity to Sharpless; this was a man who recognized and was not un-moved by the conflicts between the east and west.
However, the evening really belonged to Kelley McKinlay as Pinkerton, and then to Mariko Kondo as Butterfly. McKinlay – who is now officially listed as an assistant ballet master – has proved repeatedly that he is the heart and soul of the company. Though not so flexible through the back or as lithe in the jumps as dancers like Jaciel Gomez, McKinlay is unrivaled in the company in his emotional power and ability as a partner. It was easy to see why Kondo’s Butterfly was so quickly infatuated with McKinlay’s Pinkerton; talk about being the ideal officer and gentleman. Welch’s grand wedding-night pas deux for the ill-fated couple is a marathon of soaring, twining lifts and gasp-inducing leaps. McKinlay and Kondo appeared on the edge of control, but never out of it; her grand jetes into his arms caused audience members to gasp; he never wavered in any of the high lifts or complicated, rolling exits.
Kondo also was superb, fearless in the tricky partnering, but tender in the love scenes. A long legged dancer, she was able to hold high extensions, and create elegant positions in the lifts. There was also a sweet, if not highly passionate chemistry with McKinlay that carried the love story. If there was one aspect that Kondo has not quite mastered, it was in timing her held extensions with the music so that her body and the score could breathe as one.
Along with Ishii, Kondo was particularly effective in the ballet’s most memorable scene. After hearing of Pinkerton’s return, Butterfly and Suzuki return to their rooms to prepare for the meeting they are sure is to come. The dancers retreat behind two translucent “rice paper” windows. Lit from behind, their silhouettes appear crisply against the windows, highlighting a slow, intricate fan dance, the silhouette of Butterfly’s son just visible as he watches from the side. The rest of the stage is in darkness, save four hanging lanterns and a delicate shower of paper flakes or leaves. Lit up from above, these flakes flicker like an endless shower of embers or a vast swarm of fireflies. The combined effect of the flickering flakes and the shadow dance is stunning; it stands out as one of the most visually moving scenes in ballet.
Finally, credit must be given to the outstanding corp de ballet. Since the spring, the company has welcomed 8 new dancers, with a few departures (including Mark Wax), and two dancers moving to guest status (Andreamaria Battaglia and Elier Bourzac). Yet, there was a consistency and cohesion in the corps that hasn’t always been present. It was particular noticeable in the beautiful synchronization in the scene where the corps, men and women, sink down to the floor as one, in a moving group bow. Additional kudos go out to the performances of the well-rehearsed students from the School of Alberta Ballet, and to company teachers Alexandrous Ballard and Aram Manukyan (as The Bonze, and Prince Yamadori).
The Puccini score was played by the Edmonton Symphony; Peter Dala wielded an experienced baton.