BWW Reviews: 'Physical Thinking' Soars And Inspires

The National Ballet of Canada opened its summer season Wednesday night with a mixed programme of twentieth century works. Physical Thinking offers a trio of works that celebrate the magic of motion through space while poetically examining interpersonal relationships, notions of masculinity, the search for identity, and the role of the individual.

The first selection in the trio is the 2009 work Spectre de la Rose, a premiere for the National Ballet and choreographed by Marco Goecke, who is the Stuttgart Ballet's Choreographer in Residence and Associate Choreographer at Nederlands Dans Theatre. Despite the modern look of the piece, the music is traditional, by Carl Maria von Weber, taken from his 1819 piano piece Afforderung zum Tanz ("Invitation to the Dance"), with 1841 orchestration by Hector Berlioz. The ballet itself is based on a 1911 short ballet by Russian dancer and choreographer Michel Fokine called Le Spectre de la Rose, a work, in turn, inspired by nineteenth century French writer Theophile Gautier's verse, "I am the spirit of a rose you wore at the ball yesterday," taken from his poem "Le spectre de la rose", originally from La Comedie de la Mort, published 1838. A fascinating rumination on death, melancholy and the afterlife, the work is flecked with romantic, religious, and mystical flavors and at times strongly resembles Dante's famous Divine Comedy, though the ballet (premiered by Les Ballets de Monte Carlo in 2009) infuses a very modern sensibility into the symbolist work.

And so we see in a strong, central female figure (Kathryn Hosier) leading (and many times, guiding) her male cohorts, sometimes leading the "spirits" but often than not fending them off, and creating a powerful, powerfully human identity. With its theatrical, music-free opening and strong color scheme (consisting mainly of rich, blood-like red), the piece is reminiscent, at times, of the choreography of Edouard Lock and his La La La Human Steps, particularly the bits with the red velvet-suited men, with intricate gestures, swerving shoulders, head cocks, and undulating hips. Spectre de la Rose is a powerful portrayal of gender relationships that smartly references old masculine archetypes (Guillaume Cote's petalled costume, with full trousers and wristbands, makes him resemble nothing so much as a satyr) and newer ones (the red velvet-suited "spirits"), but leaves plenty of room for contemplation, particularly during the second piece, set to Weber's "The Master of the Spirits", where Hosier and Cote mirror each others' movements, never touching.

The second work in Physical Thinking is Opus 19 / The Dreamer, with choreography by Jerome Robbins. Originally premiered by the New York City Ballet in 1979 (and by the National Ballet in 2005) for Mikhail Baryshnikov during his brief sojourn with the company, the work is appropriately dreamy, even with Prokofiev's wiry music as score. (His Violin Concerto no 1 in D Major was given a beautiful reading by soloist Alexandre Da Costa on opening night.) The beguiling blue and white color scheme underlines the dreamy nature of the piece, with music and dance firmly intertwined in a lyrical expression of romance and longing. Dancers Naoya Ebe and Sonia Rodriguez form a beguiling onstage pair, their dancing expressing deep yearning and poetry. With Jennifer Tipton's moody lighting (recreated by Les Dickert) and beautiful, blue-grey costuming by Ben Benson, Opus 19 / The Dreamer is a quiet meditation on the twin power of individual identity and shared ideals.

The third piece in Physical Thinking's programme is the second detail, a piece created for the National Ballet by dance iconoclast William Forsythe in 1991. With a jagged, electronic score by Thom Willems that recalls the work of Brian Eno, Laurie Anderson, Kraftwerk, and Kurt Weill, the simple staging (by Jill Johnson) and costumes (almost all by by Forsythe) uncover what could easily be mistaken for a warm-up or a chaotic dance class - or both. With a large sign reading "THE" at the front of the stage, dancers circle, undulate, pair, unpair, and perform any and all variety of dance moves before returning, in no specific order, upstage, where a line of white chairs is lined up. The chaos forms a beautiful, cohesive whole, showing off remarkable ensemble work and challenging the audience with notions of perception, focus, and attention. Once a female dancer enters in a white dress (by Issey Miyake) however, we are pulled along a compelling, exciting thread, one that references Alvin Ailey and Twyla Tharp simultaneously, offering us a way out of the grey-unitard conformity that is just as poetic as it is enlivening.

Physical Thinking is a fascinating program that demonstrates the ways in which order and chaos, individuality and community, reality and dreams, can and do work together; the programme also serves as a gorgeous counterpoint to the National Ballet's more traditional Cinderella, which opens in Toronto next week. Good for both longtime ballet fans and newbies alike, Physical Thinking is challenging and inspiring, bombastic and beautiful - in other words, everything a mixed program should be.

Photo credits: Top photo, Sonia Rodriguez and Naoya Eve in Opus19/The Dreamer; photo by Bruce Zinger. Middle image, Guillaume Cote in Spectre de la Rose; photo by Bruce Zinger. Bottom image, Selena Guerrero-Trujillo with the Artists of the Ballet in the second detail; photo by Bruce Zinger.

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From This Author Catherine Kustanczy

Catherine an arts writer specializing in reviews and longform profile features. She has worked in Dublin, London, Toronto, and New York City, in a variety (read more...)