National Ballet of Canada
The Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts
Toronto, Canada

March 23, 2024
Winter Triple Bill: UtopiVerse, Islands, Suite en Blanc

Sheenagh Pietrobruno

The evening starts with the world premiere of UtopiVerse, William Yong’s futuristic and high-tech re-enactment of John Milton’s seventeenth-century epic poem Paradise Lost. The choreography does not piece together its story of the Garden of Eden. Instead, only certain events materialize, creating dramatic chaos.

The beginning solo performance by Noah Parets, who plays The Daemon, or infamous snake, tips us off about the imminent danger with a blatant sign on his costume, designed by Yong. Wrapped around the dancer’s chest is a black serpentine attachment. This fixture, signalling the Garden’s dreaded reptile who tempts Eve, grapples with the rest of the outfit’s stereotyped garb of the Spanish dancer: black pants, white shirt and black bolero hat. This clash of signals resonates throughout the work.

National Ballet of Canada in William Yong’s “UtopiVerse”
Photo by Karolina Kuras

At one point, a snake-woman, The Undermined, appears on stage in a solo performance, danced with awe and precision by Emma Ouellet. The presence of this second creature is confusing; its link to the biblical tale puzzles.

Interpreted as the character Lotus (Trinion Law), Eve makes a spectacular entrance dressed in a magnificent billowing white skirt contoured by huge pieces of lace that flicker streams of brilliant pink in Noah Feaver’s lighting. Then Law slowly removes the skirt. I am left wondering whether this unravelling suggests the shame that strikes Adam and Eve when they are suddenly made aware of their nakedness in the Garden.

Koto Ishihara in William Yong’s “UtopiVerse”
Photo by Karolina Kuras

The recurrence of sinewy gestures in a duet by Lotus and Leo (Sipeshihle November), the Adam character, is intriguing. Their live performance is captured on the gigantic backdrop screen, designed by Thomas Payette/Mirari. This digitized magnification could convey the impact that this ecclesiastical warning still holds within our current and future technological age. But competing scales collide in ways that are too opaque.

Near the end, a gigantic backdrop conjures an immense black hole rendered cataclysmic through splendid projection and lighting. A space-age take on the fall of humankind consumes the stage.

Compelling moments are scattered throughout the piece. Yet, without a clear purpose to bind them, these fabulous bits could not weave a significant work.

Next up is the North American premier of Islands, by Emma Porter, which is set in motion with two women (Heather Ogden and Ouellet) on the floor, wrapped together in one pair of grey pants, designed by Martin Dauchez. The costume is a clever reversal of the distancing effect of the classical ballerina’s attire. Porter has disclosed in a CBC podcast interview with Tom Power how she chose to attach dancers at the hip to invert how the flat skirt of the tutu keeps them apart. Such brilliant and thought-provoking elements continue throughout.

Emma Ouellet and Heather Ogden in Emma Porter’s “Islands”
Photo by Karolina Kuras

Jarring and jerky movements ensue as the two dancers intertwine on the ground to become an assemblage of arms, legs, torsos and faces They turn into one writhing but spasmodic entity that breaks the boundaries of the human form to reveal the fluid connections between us or the divisions within each of us. A living abstract sculpture takes shape, evoking how Cubism shattered realist portrayals to transform human representation into jumbled body parts. Archipenko Alexander’s 1912 sculpture The Family is summoned.

Then the dancers take off the pants and stand dressed only in grey body suits. They separate. Discord envelops the pair through their sporadic turns and moves, but they are never at odds for long. They interconnect via body parts – heads or hands or both. Later, they join in a gentle pas de deux, in which their movements align.

Emma Ouellet and Heather Ogden in Emma Porter’s “Islands”
Photo by Karolina Kuras

The rotating sense of harmony and disharmony between the dancers suggests the complexity of relations between women or between the parts of a woman’s identity. Porter has said in a New York Times interview that her entangled duo “could be a couple, a mother and daughter, or halves of the same person,” to which I would add, perhaps even sisters and friends.

In one instance, a harsh white light blazes at the back of the stage. The power of feminine bonds seeps into the illumination, designed by Paul Vidar Sævarang. The dancers crouch down and glare at the light with fear. This menacing brilliance seems to threaten them. Later its rays touch the pair, who seek solace with one another. Then its glow appears to be absorbed by their bodies. Their closeness seems to be able to resist the peril symbolized by the gleaming background.

The interspersing of choppiness with fluidity to capture the meanderings of emotional dynamics is executed with vibrancy and exactness by Odgen and Ouellet. Their stellar performance enables the depth of this innovative work to dazzle.

The final piece is the Canadian premier of Suite en Blanc, staged by Charles Jude and Stephanie Roublot Jude, which features the original 1943 choreography by Serge Lifar. The performance opens with the score from Édouard Lalo’s ballet Namouna (1882), rendered beautifully by the National Ballet of Canada Orchestra, directed and conducted by David Briskin. The riveting and joyous music anticipates a glorious ballet that is just moments away. Yet the wondrous sounds irk me. Tucked behind their delight are the historical realities of the premier of Suite en Blanc at the Paris Opera House in 1943 during the Nazi occupation of France. As Mark Franko has noted, this premiere occurred roughly one year after the 1942 roundup of French Jews, known as the Vélodrome d’Hiver, which would have included members of the dance company.

National Ballet of Canada in Serge Lifar’s “Suite en Blanc”
Photo by Karolina Kuras

As the curtain slowly draws, we see an exquisite two-tiered stage tableau vivant of the cast standing still in a myriad of enchanting classical ballet poses. The women are dressed in white tutus and the men in white shirts and white leotards, with some men donning black leggings. The fantasy world of the cinema abounds in a set reminiscent of the lavishness of the grand black and white Hollywood films of the 1930s. The finale of Broadway Medley (1938) comes to mind.

The mise en scène comes alive as the dancers stir and elegantly take their turns to leave the stage. This non-narrative ballet thereupon begins. Rather than telling a story, sequences of solos, duets and groups form a string of studies that showcase classical ballet’s rich and demanding repertoire.

In 1943, Lifar’s style was groundbreaking. He added a six and a seventh position to classical ballet’s core five. In the sixth position, the feet are parallel as opposed to being turned out. In the seventh position, one foot is positioned behind the other in a single file. The two positions create a two-dimensional illusion of the ancient “Egyptian” pose characteristic of Lifar’s neo-classical approach. He jazzed up the traditional ballerina’s line by requesting that dancers on pointe shoes bend a little over the toe to create an off-centred stance.

(l-r) Monika Haczkiewicz, Tene Ward and Chelsy Meiss
in Serge Lifar’s “Suite en Blanc”
Photo by Karolina Kuras

However, the novel and technical intricacies of Lifar’s revisions are not apparent enough in the interpretation of the Suite en Blanc by the National Ballet of Canada. At times, dancers also falter, unable to meet the challenges of the work. Much of the dancing seems heavy and deliberate. Facial expressions are often forced and exaggerated.

A notable exception is Naoya Ebe’s solo, the Mazurka. Ebe soars with dignity, ease and a classical virtuosity that is outstanding. I am grateful to catch a glimpse of the grace and vitality of Lifar’s choreography in this occasion.

This winter triple bill of premiers left me a bit too cold, with only Islands being memorable.