National Ballet of Canada
National Arts Centre
Ottawa, Canada

February 2, 2024
Emma Bovary, Angels’ Atlas

Sheenagh Pietrobruno

The evening’s performance at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa showcased a spectacular double bill. Both were created specifically for the National Ballet of Canada: Crystal Pite’s Angels’ Atlas in 2020 and Helen Pickett’s Emma Bovary in 2023.

Pickett’s narrative ballet opens with the evocative dancing hands, legs and feet of Emma Bovary, performed by Heather Ogden. They scintillate in Bonnie Beecher’s exquisite lighting. The parts of the body that begin to tell the ballet’s tale will be later joined by backs, shoulders, faces, eyes and mouths. Storytelling through corporeal isolations is Pickett’s signature style.

Heather Ogden in Helen Pickett’s “Emma Bovary”
Photo by Bruce Zinger

Spotlighting Emma from the onset establishes Pickett’s intent. The ballet is to diverge from Gustave Flaubert’s novel entitled “Madame Bovary” to focus upon Emma’s psychological state.

Emma is tortured by her dreary provincial married life as a wife and mother. She seeks solace from her unhappiness by grasping glamour through excessive consumption, symbolized by her endless purchases of fancy chairs. She finds excitement with her lover. In the end, she is imprisoned by debt and by her paramour’s deception, which provoke her suicide.

Heather Ogden with (l-r) Josh Hall, Christopher Gerty,
Ben Rudisin and Scott McKenzie
in Helen Pickett’s “Emma Bovary”
Photo by Bruce Zinger

The tragedy is brought to life in ravishing sets, designed by Michael Gianfrancesco. The erotic and vivid bedroom scene between Emma and her husband, played by Josh Hall, tethers her to the reality of her marriage. Her urge to flee from it takes shape as she ascends from the bed and transforms into a mirage. Emma then vanishes, suggesting that she will lose herself in her escapist adventures.

The duet between Emma and her lover, Rodolphe Boulanger, interpreted by Christopher Gerty, augers his beguilement. Emma dances with playful beauty, whereas Rudophe’s gestures are too expansive and loose. He appears to fall into her and even assault her. His instability and aggression convey his eventual betrayal.

Heather Ogden and Christopher Gerty
in Helen Pickett’s “Emma Bovary”
Photo by Bruce Zinger

The ball splendidly executed by the corps de ballet unravels Emma’s demons. Donning elegant, ornate attire in muted yet shimmering hues of deep purple, forest green, brick, taupe and burgundy, the dancers unite with meticulous coordination. But an underlying disarray seeps into their ordered steps and turns, insinuating the chaos that inhabits Emma’s soul. The ballroom is resplendent. Hanging in the middle of the dance floor is a grandiose imperial chandelier encircled by stately golden coils.

Near the end, a colossal number of black chairs stacked precariously high on the stage also impresses. Forging a dark ominous sculpture that reaches to the heavens, the gigantic pile appears on the verge of an imminent crash. The danger of Emma’s excessive need for possessions reverberates. The menacing chairs testify to the machinations of the salesman Monsieur Lheureux, played by Spencer Hack, who wonderfully enacts his manipulations of Emma as he encourages her to overspend.

Spencer Hack in Helen Pickett’s “Emma Bovary”
Photo by Karolina Kuras

The splendour of Picket’s Emma summons the stars of the grand story ballets created in the nineteenth century. Princess Aurora in Sleeping Beauty. Giselle in Giselle. Odette in Swan Lake. But Emma differs from classical ballet’s quintessential heroines, who urge us to feel for their plight.

Emma instead provokes aversion as well as pity. Her selfish shunning of her daughter, Berthe – interpreted as a puppet eerily and masterly brought to life by Sophie Lee, Ross Allen, and Emma Ouellet – makes it difficult to sympathize with Emma. Her unfaithfulness can be more easily judged in the ballet than in the novel. Her husband is a far more likable figure in Pickett’s reworking of the story.

National Ballet of Canada in Helen Pickett’s “Emma Bovary”
Photo by Karolina Kuras

The ballet resists an oversentimentalization of Emma’s tragedy. The Brechtian theatrical tradition emerges in its use of a narrative technique pitched to create emotional critical distance. The audience must examine their concern for her. The complexity of Emma’s character revises the narrative ballet for today’s audiences. Emma’s splendour, joy, self-centredness, cruelty and despair are captured by Peter Salem’s magnificent composition, as interpreted brilliantly by the National Arts Centre Orchestra.

Pickett’s thought-provoking and boisterous reinvention of Emma Bovary thrilled the hall.

Next up was Crystal Pite’s contemporary dance masterpiece Angels’ Atlas. Its visceral and transcendent pulse strikes from the start. We are compelled to experience what lies at the core of our physicality within an unfathomable cosmos. As Crystal Pite notes in an interview, we should “see glimpses of things bigger than us.”

The title crystalizes Pite’s message. Atlas, or the earth and our human condition, unites with the eternal realm, or the angels. The abstract tale of the profound and ungraspable relation between humanity and the universe is told through movement, lighting, set design, and music.

Hannah Galway and Siphesihle November
in Crystal Pite’s “Angels’ Atlas”
Photo by Karolina Kuras

The cast’s thirty-five artists work together with remarkable synchronicity and precision. The massive choreography palpitates as given moves are countered with oppositional ones. This constant resistance conveys Pite’s wish to evoke striving or the sense of pushing oneself to the limit. The desire to challenge our temporality resounds.

The mass is split in moments when solo dancers and duos break free. These flights of individuality and partnering rupture the collective uniformity. Our uniqueness amid the vastness is apparent. At one instance, a duo that pairs a man and a woman tumble to the ground as if to die. Their fall triggers a domino effect, and others collapse. Then they rise up again. This wave becomes the passage of life – love and death and rebirth. The unceasing motion of the surface of the earth upon which we stand is further invoked by the undulations.

National Ballet of Canada in Crystal Pite’s “Angels’ Atlas”
Photo by Karolina Kuras

The stage is illuminated by a breathtaking vertical backdrop created by lighting artist Tom Visser and by set designer Jay Gower. Its oscillations of darkness and luminosity cast shadows and rays upon the dancers below. Mystery and salvation converge in the play of obscurity and radiance.

At one point, a kaleidoscope of light shimmers on the dancers’ costumes, designed by Nancy Bryant. The ethereality of the intricate glow becomes part of the lived world as it replicates itself upon the bodies of the performers. The everlasting within the human is present.

Heather Ogden and Harrison James
in Crystal Pite’s “Angels’ Atlas”
Photo by Karolina Kuras

The costumes appear to erode gender differences, hinting at how our shared humanity within the universe transcends identities. All wear wide-legged black pants split on the sides and decorated in front with a skirt-like structure. The men have their chests bare and the women’s fitted tops simulate nudity, rendering their torsos seemingly naked.

Each of the three scores transports us beyond the terrestrial. Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Cherubic Hymn from his The Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom sets the spiritual temper. Then Owen Belton’s supernatural ambient electronic piece vibrates. The celestial mood returns in the final piece, Morten Lauridsen’s O Magnum Mysterium.

Siphesihle November in Crystal Pite’s “Angels’ Atlas”
Photo by Karolina Kuras

Majestic and mournful music enshroud the choreography to exude the melancholic glory of our world, the pain of loss and our longing for the eternal. So profoundly emotional, these sensations elude words. The story of Angels’ Atlas must be felt.

The National Ballet of Canada dancers stood out in Pite’s work, which was the favourite that evening. When the curtain dropped, the audience roared with applause.