National Ballet of Canada

May 1, 2005

National Ballet of Canada
Hummingbird Centre, Toronto, Ontario, Canada

May 1, 11–15, 2005

Reviewed by Michael Crabb


The hilarious events in An Italian Straw Hat, James Kudelka’s latest full-length ballet, are triggered by the simple act of a horse eating the hat of an adulterous, dallying wife. In trying to adapt Eugène Labiche and Marc Michel’s wildly successful 1851 French farce, Un Chapeau de paille d’Italie, the Canadian choreographer may have bitten off more than he can chew.

French farce is a dangerously brittle genre. It’s one thing to capture the physical antics and comic hysteria of the play. Getting the plot across is tougher. Kudelka and dramaturg Timothy Luginbuhl have devised a scenario aimed at focusing the story on three main couples. Since Kudelka wanted to offer more than a silly cartoon, each is used to delineate the hypocrisy of high-society Belle Époque Paris, brilliantly evoked in Santo Loquasto’s ravishing sets and costumes.

Man-about-town Ferdinand, his bachelor days behind him, seeks married respectability with Hélène. Their pas de deux are somewhat courtly in restraint. The bored wife Anaïs is almost pulled apart as she contemplates the social risk of quieting her sexual frustration between the thighs of handsome Emil. It is Anaïs who loses her hat to Ferdinand’s horse, prompting her to insist he find a replacement, despite the fact that it’s his wedding day. Thus Ferdinand is hounded through a madcap search of Paris, pursued by a swelling band of puzzled wedding guests. Meanwhile, two servants, Félix and Virginia—as Kudelka approvingly demonstrates—find themselves low enough on the social ladder to make boisterous love in every conceivable position, when and wherever they choose.

Apart from the pas de deux for the lead couples, each carefully modulated to convey the sexual temperature of the relationship, the choreography fills the stage with swirling, high-density action. Michael Torke’s commissioned score, laden with references to Rossini and an assortment of 19th- and 20th-century composers, underpins—and occasionally undermines—the action, particularly during a protracted traffic jam of false endings.

The dancers, however, commit themselves so forcefully to every exorbitant demand of the choreography that miraculously the ballet holds together. Even so, Kudelka is left with plenty of room for fine-tuning.

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