Heather Ogden and McGee Maddox in The Four Temperaments (Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann, courtesy of the National Ballet of Canada)
by Jacquelyn Thayer
Modes of modern form the surest throughline in the National Ballet of Canada’s mixed program featuring a pair of Balanchine classics and Alexander Ekman’s daring Cacti.
While two pieces — Four Temperaments and Rubies, from the three-act Jewels — come from the same choreographer in George Balanchine, he’s in different forms here. The first is almost neoclassical in a truest sense, with imagery (and thematic concept) reminiscent of Greek vase painting, stylized arms and swayed backs, dancers closing out with an undulating group pose; the standard black and white costuming further evokes that starkness. The theme and variation approach means an almost hypnotic sense of repetition; contrast and comparison of pas de deux and group dances (Melancholic, Choleric, and so forth) generate the questions of difference; despite Balanchine’s stated concern with movement as its own meaning, it’s difficult not to identify a certain posture as more martial, more merry in one context or another.
But if the Temperaments are modern ballet in its cooler tones, Rubies is all lush, playful jazz, embodying one of Balanchine’s most essential American influences.
Even a moment of tension, when Tall Woman (in this performance, the up and coming Hannah Fischer) is essentially seized by each limb by the four men of her group, dissipates with the sense of pure movement exploration, not danger. The famously wed Heather Ogden and Guillaume Cote bring a strong natural connection, and obvious delight, to their lighthearted pas de deux and solo moments as the piece’s central couple. Even as the Balanchine works share a relatively spare staging, the contrasts in costuming — rubies reflected in rich red attire and sparkling stones — and lighting underscore the moods set by choreography itself and the dark versus light tones of Paul Hindemith’s Temperaments composition and Stravinsky’s Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra.
And if props and settings are superfluous to Balanchine’s abstract works, in Alexander Ekman’s Cacti, they are, in a way, the very point, from strobing signs to gigantic tiles to the titular succulents. Cacti is where dance has brought itself — and turned in on itself. A satire of the most pretentious demonstrations and excesses of modern dance, set in part to Franz Schubert’s minor-chord Death and the Maiden, it’s also by necessity well danced, with precision key to ensuring the joke lies not in dancer but dance program. And it’s not just choreography that’s targeted here; the enjoyably pretentious, ponderously-delivered voiceovers scattered throughout (written by Spenser Eberge) suggest a little of creator, but also of critic — thoroughly fair given the apparent difficulties of at least some to grasp the piece’s intent. Nor are dancers themselves immune, as borne out by the piece’s comedic highlight, a dialogue between “Anna” and “Lenny” as they work through creation and intention — “Catch me now!” she commands as she suddenly collapses backwards; “Look! Magic!” while he waves his arms into a flourish.
In one voiceover, Cacti‘s narrator identifies its artists as “members of the human orchestra.” It’s part of a rather over-the-top rumination on relations between the visual and aural arts, to be sure, but is it unfounded? In this mixed set of works highlighting the romantic to the comedic, abstracted movement both sharp and shapely, the range of these dancers — most rotating roles and pieces across the week’s set of performances — is not at all dissimilar to any instrument: the tone and tenor is in the doing, not the essential form.