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Sonia Calero-Alonso gives notes to the cast, which includes ABT principals Cory Stearns and Sarah Lane. Photo by Matt Stamey, Courtesy Santa Fe College

A ballet once banned in the USSR is set for an historic revival this November in Gainesville, Florida.

In 1948, Alberto Alonso, along with his brother Fernando and sister-in-law Alicia, co-founded what became the Ballet Nacional de Cuba. During a 1966 company tour to Russia, legendary Bolshoi ballerina Maya Plisetskaya, impressed by Alonso's choreography, asked him to create a Carmen-themed ballet for her. It was the first time the Soviet-era Bolshoi Ballet had engaged a foreign choreographer.

When Carmen Suite premiered, Soviet authorities deemed it a scandalous travesty. Alonso's erotically charged, expressionistic choreography, incorporating elements of Spanish and Cuban dance, pushed the classical vocabulary to physical extremes. And as Alora Haynes, chair of fine arts at Santa Fe College, explains, the ballet's story of personal defiance and individual freedom was inherently unsettling for Kremlin officials.

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Partners onstage and off, Bridgett Zehr and Zdenek Konvalina are the new darlings of National Ballet of Canada.

 

 

Zdenek Konvalina and Bridgett Zehr of National Ballet of Canada. Photo by Matthew Karas.

 

 

A roof-lifting roar reverberated through Toronto’s Four Seasons Centre opera house at the end of a Swan Lake that fans had been anticipating with huge expectations.

 

The March 13 event marked the local Swan Lake debuts of two much-admired National Ballet of Canada principals: American Bridgett Zehr and Czech-born Zdenek Konvalina. This was their first time dancing the leads together in a major full-length classic since joining the company almost four years ago.

 

It was the intimacy of their dramatic portrayals as much as the dazzle of their dancing that won Zehr and Konvalina a well-deserved ovation. Audiences have a keen nose for magical partnerships and this one showed all the promise of such a pairing of exceptional talents. Konva­lina’s affecting attentiveness and the emotional intensity of Zehr’s doe-eyed response revealed a tender connection.

 

That connection had been equally apparent during rehearsals where Konvalina’s sharp eye was continually alert to Zehr’s needs, offering unobtrusive support to help her find her center or a warmly encouraging smile after she’d nailed a difficult combination.

 

That enthusiastic Swan Lake audience in March should probably have also offered a symbolic bouquet to the free lunch program at Phillippi Shores Elementary School in Sarasota, Florida. Without it, Bridgett Zehr would likely never have become a dancer.

 

By the same taken they should also be very grateful that the Brno Conservatory in Soviet-era Czechoslovakia took in the athletic soccer-loving 9-year-old Zdenek Konvalina.

 

Both Zehr and Konvalina are former members of Houston Ballet. During their final year in Texas, company artistic director Stanton Welch paired them as the leads in his 2006 production of Swan Lake. Zehr, five years Konvalina’s junior, was still in the corps and until then, as she confides with a grin, an admirer “from afar” of the handsome, dark-blond principal. Working so closely together on Swan Lake laid the foundation of a friendship from which romance later bloomed.

 

Zehr admits she was hoping they’d dance together again in Toronto, but it’s taken time for that wish to be fulfilled. Although Welch had promoted Zehr to soloist following her success in Swan Lake, National Ballet artistic director Karen Kain could only offer her a second soloist position in Toronto. “I realized I’d have to work my way up here,” says Zehr. Meanwhile Konvalina, who maintained his principal rank in the transfer to Toronto, was partnering such seasoned company principals as Sonia Rodriguez and Chan Hon Goh.

 

Toronto audiences did get a tantalizing sample of the intoxicating spell Zehr and Konvalina conjure when they danced the “Facades” pas de deux in the National Ballet’s premiere of Jerome Robbins’ Glass Pieces in 2007. This might have led sooner to more such opportunities had Zehr not been sidelined for almost a season with a serious foot injury—a nonunion stress fracture—that required surgery in 2008. It was during this difficult period that the two dancers’ personal relationship deepened.

 

Understandably, the ballet grapevine quivered when rumors circulated to the effect that Konvalina would partner Zehr in her May 2009 Toronto debut of Giselle—only to be quieted by news that ranking principal Aleksandar Antonijevic had been assigned that honor while Konvalina would partner Chan Hon Goh in her farewell performances.

 

Both turned out to be admirable matches. Zehr’s Giselle was rapturously hailed by her adoring fans and she was made a principal soon after. Yet those same fans, excited by Zehr and Konvalina’s not-so-secret romance, longed to see them partnered in a major classical ballet, especially after their December appearance in The Nutcracker. Finally, with Swan Lake, everyone’s wish came true.

 

But where, you may ask, does the free lunch program at Phillippi Shores Elementary fit into the story? Well, Bridgett Zehr comes from humble origins. Her parents divorced when she was 6 and her mother, who had spent a decade dancing with a semi-professional troupe, was waiting tables. Because of the modest family income Bridgett and her sister Rachel qualified for the free lunch program.

 

Meanwhile, the fledgling Sarasota Ballet had launched an outreach initiative in 1991 called Dance: The Next Generation, an ambitious program that used dance to support disadvantaged and at-risk children and prevent them from dropping out of school. Students who were enrolled for free lunches were given an opportunity to attend the DNG program. Bridgett’s mother, delighted, sent both her daughters to the weekly ballet class.

 

Sarasota Ballet hadn’t planned DNG as a way to recruit dancers, but after her fourth year in the program they transferred Zehr into the company school.

 

Until this point she had had very little exposure to ballet. “I think I’d seen The Nutcracker on video,” says Zehr. It did not take her long, however, to decide that ballet would be the focus of her life.

 

“I knew really early that I wanted to be a ballerina. I guess in a way it was an escape from the home stuff; not that that was so bad, but it was a way for me to have my own world. It made me feel very safe.”

 

Zehr had been allowed to enter DNG two years earlier than usual. It meant she was 14 when she completed the program. With the support of a Rudolf Nureyev Foundation scholarship, Zehr headed to Boca Raton for intensive studies at the Harid Conser­vatory. “It was very strict,” she recalls, “but a very professional environment.”

 

After her second year at Harid, Zehr decided to take the Houston Ballet Academy’s summer course and although only 16 was hoping she might be invited to stay. “It was such a good time, having a bit more freedom. But they told me to finish my third year at Harid.” This Zehr did before returning to Houston in 2002, Ben Stevenson’s last year there.

 

Incoming artistic director Stanton Welch hired Zehr as an apprentice the following year. She got to work with Maina Gielgud, his artistic associate. “I always learned so much from Maina,” says Zehr. “She likes hard workers.”

 

Gielgud quit two years later, leaving what Zehr calls, “a bit of a hole for the women” in terms of artistic guidance. That alone was not enough to start her looking elsewhere. It was the experience of dancing Welch’s Swan Lake that whetted her appetite for the big classical roles. “I was ready for a change,” says Zehr.

 

She looked first to Britain and was weighing an offer from English National Ballet when Zdenek Konvalina urged her to consider NBC. In the fall of 2005, Konvalina—also in search of a change—had flown to Toronto to meet with National Ballet artistic director Karen Kain. “He said what a great company the National Ballet was and how lovely Karen was as a person,” recalls Zehr. “So, I put National Ballet on my list, auditioned, met Karen, and everything just seemed to click.”

 

Unlike Zehr, it had taken Konvalina several years to decide on ballet as a career. It was his culture-loving mother who believed ballet school would be good for her athletically inclined son. Konvalina, who says he has an “independent streak,” remembers his early years at the highly regimental, Russian-dominated Brno Conservatory as “pure hell.” At one point, he nearly got kicked out. It was only in the later stages of the seven-year program, when Konvalina began appearing with the Brno State Ballet, that he finally committed to a career in dance.

 

Konvalina figured that he’d get more opportunities in a smaller company and after graduating chose to join the National Ballet of Moravia-Silesia in Ostrava. It was there he met Haitian-Canadian choreographer Eddy Toussaint, who’d arrived in 1997 to set his Requiem on the Czech company. Toussaint—coincidentally Sarasota Ballet’s first artistic director—recognized Konvalina’s promise, smoothed his path to North America, and worked with him on several projects over the next decade. Toussaint’s choreography for the contemporary section of the 2001 Helsinki International Ballet Competition helped Konvalina win the top prize.

 

Now a mature artist, Zdenek Konvalina is internationally admired for the refined splendor of his classical technique, the depth of his dramatic intelligence, and his incisive dancing in neo-classical and contemporary work. Says Maina Gielgud: “Zdenek is a true danseur noble in a world where the very concept has almost been forgotten.”

 

Konvalina’s duties in Toronto leave him room for frequent outside engagements. This season he is creating a new ballet for Teatro del Maggio Musicale in Florence with fellow NBC principal Guillaume Côté, and has upcoming guest appearances in London and Taipei. But the 2010 date Konvalina will probably remember most fondly occurred in February when he partnered Zehr in her cygnet-to-swan return to Sarasota Ballet. It was a triumphant homecoming for Dance: The Next Generation’s most famous graduate.

 

Like so many young dancers, Zehr left Sarasota dreaming that one day she would become a ballet princess. Her return proved she had accomplished that ambition—and found herself a prince as well.

 

 

Michael Crabb is dance critic of Canada’s The National Post.

Although her parents were professional dancers, Fischer has come into her own with roles like the Queen of the Wilis in Giselle. Sian Richards, Courtesy NBoC

As the Tall Woman in Balanchine’s “Rubies,” long-limbed Hannah Fischer injects a saucy mischievousness into the choreography’s almost jazzy angularity. As the Principal Fairy in The Sleeping Beauty’s prologue, she exudes a benign authority and expansively serene grace. Whether in abstract or dramatic ballets, the National Ballet of Canada second soloist demonstrates an energized versatility and confident poise that is capturing the attention of audiences and critics alike.

Company: National Ballet of Canada

Age: 22

Hometown: Toronto, Ontario

Training: Rhythmic gymnastics, ages 6 to 11; then full-time at Canada’s National Ballet School

Accolade: 2015 winner of the International Competition for the Erik Bruhn Prize

All in the family: Both of Fischer’s parents had illustrious international performing careers. Now, her mother, Mandy-Jayne Richardson, is NBoC’s senior ballet mistress, and her father, Lindsay Fischer, is the principal ballet master. She admits that working under the daily scrutiny of her parents took some getting used to. “But they’re very good at what they do, and in the studio our relationship is strictly professional.”

Breakthrough moment: Fischer says she was “a hundred percent shocked” when Christopher Wheeldon chose her to dance the dramatically and technically challenging lead role of Hermione in the company’s premiere of The Winter’s Tale last November. Her achingly powerful portrayal of a wronged wife who finds the capacity for forgiveness earned her a standing ovation. Watching her reprise the role at the Kennedy Center in January, Washington Post dance critic Sarah L. Kaufman praised the way Fischer used her “ribbonlike form to suggest fragility and purity.”

Favorite roles: Although Fischer’s repertoire is already stylistically wide-ranging, she’s inspired by the challenge of portraying a character. “What I dream of doing are those meaty dramatic ballets.” She’s hoping Swan Lake’s Odette/Odile will come her way and would “just love” to dance Juliet. “Ballets where people die,” says Fischer, only half-jokingly, “somehow they just make you feel more.”

What Karen Kain is saying: “I’d been watching Hannah for years at the National Ballet School, and it was crystal clear she had great potential,” says the NBoC artistic director. “She’s extremely flexible, extremely musical and extremely intelligent. And she’s beautiful. It’s a wonderful package.”

Insider tip: “This profession really does test you,” says Fischer. “When you’re young, there’s a tendency to make everything into a bigger deal than it is. I had people always telling me it’s going to work out, but I had to find a way to believe that for myself.”

Lecavalier with Robert Abubo in her latest creation, Battleground. PC André Cornellier, Courtesy Fou Glorieux.

At 57, Louise Lecavalier has reinvented herself—without losing the daredevil energy audiences love her for.

Louise Lecavalier does not so much dance as combust. It can be a slow burn of small, scampering steps complemented by fluttering arms or complex hand gestures. Then it suddenly blazes into fast, furious, frenetic explosions of energy. The intensity can be almost unbearable.

At age 57, Lecavalier is once again soaring across the dance world like a comet, almost two decades after quitting the company that made her famous. Mother to 14-year-old twin girls, loaded with awards and honors, she is now an independent dancer/choreographer and director of her own production company, called Fou Glorieux. So Blue, her first major choreographic endeavour, is now in its fourth year of international touring. Meanwhile, her latest creation, Battleground, is already booked well into next year.

Lecavalier began her dance training in high school, then apprenticed with Le Groupe Nouvelle Aire, an experimental Montreal troupe. There she met Édouard Lock. In 1981, he invited her to join the company he’d recently founded, what would become La La La Human Steps. So began a fruitful relationship between Lock as choreographer and Lecavalier as his muse. Her spectacular double horizontal barrel turns became emblematic of a new wave of contemporary dance, testing the extremes of speed, precision and hyper-physicality. With her pyrotechnic virtuosity, she was a proud emblem of female strength and physical daring.

She also became contemporary dance’s closest equivalent to a pop star. Lecavalier danced with David Bowie, collaborated with Frank Zappa and appeared in films, such as Kathryn Bigelow’s 1995 sci-fi thriller, Strange Days. Adoring fans trailed Lecavalier as she walked the streets on foreign tours. But she didn’t let fame faze her. “I was not so aware of being the star,” she says. “I didn’t think about that because it might freak me out. I like to have fun dancing.”

Yet in the early 1990s, Lock began shifting his troupe’s artistic identity to a more controlled, structured, even balletic, aesthetic. In 1998, with Exaucé (billed in English as Salt), Lock put the cast’s women on pointe—all except Lecavalier. Her brief thunderbolt appearances looked more like obligatory star turns than integral parts of Lock’s overall choreographic design.

The next year, Lecavalier, then 40, decided to leave. As she explains, it wasn’t just because of a chronic hip injury. (She had been managing that for several years.) She no longer felt there was a place for her there. “Édouard’s style was changing,” says Lecavalier. “La La La was becoming more of a ballet company.”

She had no specific plans other than to take a much-needed break. But Canadian choreographer Tedd Robinson, a longtime fan, lured her back to the stage. “When I think of Louise’s days with Lock, it’s her eyes I most remember,” says Robinson. “The way she would look out at the audience. There was a ferocity and mischievousness, a spark of defiance, independence and excited energy. She always projected this strong feminine persona.”

As Robinson approached his 50th birthday, he conceived a plan to choreograph a program of three duets, each featuring him and one of his favorite dancers. Lecavalier was on his dream list along with another celebrated Canadian, Margie Gillis, and Japan’s critically acclaimed Mako Kawano. He judiciously adopted a low-pressure approach, and Lecavalier responded by suggesting they hang out in the studio and try a few things before committing to the piece.

“It was a pleasure working in the studio again with no pressure,” Lecavalier recalls. The result was Lula and the Sailor, first performed by Lecavalier and Robinson in 2003, but at a cost: The pain in her damaged right hip became unbearable. “I got through on adrenaline,” she admits.

With her appetite for dance restored, she moved ahead with surgery to resurface the joint. “It gave me a second life,” says Lecavalier.

And what a second life!

Lecavalier launched into a series of collaborations, working with choreographers, like Benoît Lachambre and Crystal Pite, who shared her personal belief in the centrality of the body and the hidden impulses that animate it. She founded her Fou Glorieux in 2006 to provide an institutional framework for her projects, commissioning choreographers and, as required, other dancers. Yet her name, rather than the company’s, remains the marquee audience magnet.

“Many people worldwide still associate Louise with La La La, but she has reinvented herself as a unique artist,” says Cathy Levy, the National Arts Centre’s dance producer. “We can see where she comes from, and how the extremes she found in her movement helped define Édouard’s style, but we can also see where she is going as she reaches new heights with her movement style of today.”

Lecavalier’s vocabulary still includes her famous bursts of frenetic energy, but her various post–La La La collaborations have allowed her to discover the pleasure and power of moving slowly. She jokes that it’s the stuff in between that doesn’t appeal to her.

This more measured approach could be seen as an inevitable capitulation to age, but Lecavalier insists its basis is always artistic, a reflection of her own continuing exploration of movement possibilities. “You can’t think about pacing yourself when you’re creating something,” she says. “Ideas bring ideas and the body is changing all the time. I push myself because it’s the way I live. I’m still passionate, extreme, transported.”

As she reflects on her ever-evolving career, Lecavalier offers a personal credo: “Dance helps me become myself. I want the body to say everything it wants to say without censoring it, hoping that it might point to new paths, new ways of getting to the essential core of things.”

Michael Crabb is a senior advising editor for Dance Magazine.

The rising choreographer premieres his first evening-length work.

Guillaume Côté built his international reputation as an impassioned dancer, noted for intense dramatic portrayals. Now, the National Ballet of Canada principal dancer and choreographic associate is quickly emerging as one of his homeland’s most interesting dancemakers, with classical technique that is often bold, angular and hyper-articulate. His first evening-length work, an adaptation of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Le Petit Prince, opens June 4 at NBoC.

Côté working on Le Petit Prince with his NBoC colleagues. Photo Courtesy NBoC.

Why The Little Prince?

In French-speaking Quebec, where I grew up, Le Petit Prince is a very popular children’s story. I played the prince in a ballet school production when I was maybe 8. Then the book slipped my mind for a while.

 

But obviously it returned.

Yes, when I became interested in French philosophy and realized Le Petit Prince is a wonderful philosophical book disguised as a very accessible children’s tale.

 

And it’s been adapted every which way.

Including some dance versions I’ve seen that didn’t completely work for me. I knew it would be a tough story to tell but I wanted that challenge.

 

How did you approach making a ballet out of it?

I began working on ideas at least four years ago. Karen Kain agreed to free up some time for me to workshop some of them. I knew I wanted experienced collaborators. I’ve been fortunate to have the input of Adam Gopnik, a staff writer at The New Yorker and an expert on The Little Prince. He explained its meaning and what the characters represent. And our designer, Michael Levine, has so much experience not just in designing sets, but in overall staging concepts.

 

What about the music?

I wanted an original orchestral score and approached Kevin Lau, a Canadian composer I admire. I’ve studied music and even composed some, so I had pretty clear ideas and wanted someone who would be flexible. I have wonderful collaborators with whom I can discuss what will work and maybe not work.

 

For example?

Well, there are animal characters in the book, but we decided against putting dancers in animal costumes. These characters represent people Saint-Exupéry encountered in his life, so we’re going in a more realistic direction. Broadly, we’ve taken a literal approach, but with some liberties, too. Overall, we’re trying to offer a psychological representation of what the book means.

 

How are you balancing being a dancer and a choreographer?

Well, it’s tough. I have a lot of dancing left in me. At the same time I believe being a choreographer is very much a full-time job. I’m careful not to take on more projects than I can handle. And being a dancer, I can go into a studio on my own and work on ideas when I have time. As it happened, I’ve had more time to focus on this project than I expected. I had a serious knee injury in December 2014, followed by surgery. It kept me off the stage for almost a year. But I’m back now and still want to keep dancing. 

The Bolshoi's Svetlana Lunkina carves a path for career and family at National Ballet of Canada.

Lunkina rehearsing in the National Ballet of Canada studios with principal Piotr Stanczyk; Photo by Bruce Zinger, Courtesy NBC

 

Even in a crowded company class at the National Ballet of Canada’s harborside studios, Svetlana Lunkina stands out. Her Russian training shows in the way she unfurls an arm or extends a leg, articulating every stage of the motion with meticulous control. Her extraordinary coordination transforms her slender body into an expressive instrument; her breathtaking jump seems, gazelle-like, to spring from nowhere. As National Ballet principal artistic coach Magdalena Popa succinctly puts it: “Svetlana has a really nice everything.”

That Lunkina, a Bolshoi ballerina, finds herself at 34 a resident guest artist at NBC has as much to do with her personal priorities as today’s complex Russian and Bolshoi politics. The persistent popular image of the ballerina is of a woman who from childhood single-mindedly dedicates herself to the unrelenting rigors of an art form that demands total devotion. It’s an image Lunkina has consistently defied. The mother of two children, Maxim, 10, and Eva, 4, Lunkina and her husband, a Russian film producer, have had a suburban home a short drive from Toronto’s downtown for nearly a decade. For the Moscow-born ballerina, her family has as big of a place in her life as her career. Like many women today, Lunkina is determined to maintain a healthy balance. As she bluntly puts it: “Ballet isn’t everything.”

Lunkina’s ability to split her priorities may stem from her having no longstanding childhood dream of being a ballerina. The second of three daughters, her father had a career in the printing business. Her mother had studied professionally in circus school. Their first daughter, eight years older than Svetlana, became a professional athlete—pentathlon, no less. When Lunkina was about 5, her mother sent her to begin dance classes at the local “House of Pioneers,” one of many Soviet-era youth centers offering out-of-school training in arts and sports. Though she was not particularly driven, Lunkina did well enough that at age 10, she was urged to audition for the Bolshoi Ballet Academy and was accepted as a day student.

She loved dancing, but did not relish the rigorous classes where, she felt, teachers tended to treat students with disregard for their feelings or individuality. “There were times I told my mother I wanted to leave,” remembers Lunkina. Her mother, a constant support, urged her to keep going. It was only when Lunkina reached her mid-teens and came under the tutelage of former Bolshoi star and renowned pedagogue Marina Leonova—now dean of the Academy—that she began to embrace the idea of becoming a professional dancer.

Photo by Aleksander Antonijevic, Courtesy NBC.

When she was 18, she joined the Bolshoi Ballet corps. During her initial season in 1997, she was picked by Vladimir Vasiliev (the first of five Bolshoi Ballet artistic directors Lunkina has worked under) to dance the lead role in his production of Giselle. Her coach was renowned former ballerina Ekaterina Maximova, who was to have a continuing influence on Lunkina’s artistic development. With her debut performance, Lunkina became the youngest Bolshoi dancer ever to perform the role.

Two years later, when Vasiliev took his company to Britain, she won the hearts of audiences and critics alike when she made her debut as Kitri in Don Quixote at the London Coliseum. She delighted London audiences again in 2001 when she returned as part of a “Stars of the Bolshoi Ballet” program. Though well on her way to international stardom, she soon chose to take off more than a year to have her first child. Her son, Maxim, was born in Canada in 2004. She told reporters afterwards that having her son had deepened her understanding of roles like Giselle. Five years later, in 2009, Lunkina’s daughter, Eva, was born in Canada as well.

Despite her commitment to her family, Lunkina managed to combine motherhood with a successful career at the Bolshoi that comprised a growing repertoire of leading roles in all the major Russian classics as well as 20th-century works by Massine, Ashton, Grigorovitch, Robbins, Petit and others.

Though Moscow was her base, her husband, Vladislav Moskalyev, 50, is a Canadian citizen, and she has permanent residence status. But it became public knowledge last January when, two weeks after the acid attack on Bolshoi artistic director Sergei Filin, headlines blazoned the fact that Lunkina had “fled” Moscow because of personal threats and the circulation of slanderous letters to international ballet companies—all connected with a business dispute in which her husband was then embroiled.

In fact, Lunkina had been in Canada already when the story hit the news. She now has an official leave-of-absence from the Bolshoi—extended until this summer—but for a while, her dancing career was in limbo. “I want to dance,” said Lunkina at the time, “but not at any cost.” She rejected the possibility of becoming an itinerant guest artist. “I want to be more inside the process,” she said.

She took company class with the National Ballet while Toronto ballet fans kept wondering if Lunkina might find a new professional home at NBC. With a busy 2013–14 season fast approaching, Karen Kain announced that Lunkina would become a resident guest artist. At a third the size of the Bolshoi, the company might seem a step down for Lunkina, but she says she sees it differently. She admires Kain as a director, noting the former star ballerina’s policy of commissioning new work while still nurturing the classics. She also appreciates the way Kain collaborates with her artistic team, listening to what they have to say and trusting in their advice, a contrast, she says, to the way things nowadays operate at the Bolshoi.

“When I joined the Bolshoi in 1997, I caught the end of an era when its constellation of former great ballerinas had become excellent pedagogues. They were the curators of its heritage ballets and the final judges of who was ready for a particular role. Now it’s the theater administration that decides.”

With Dmitry Gudanov; Lunkina debuted at 18 in Giselle, the youngest Bolshoi dancer ever to perform the role. Photo by Damir Yusupov, Courtesy Bolshoi

As a mother, Lunkina appreciates the Toronto company’s efficiency in scheduling rehearsals. It makes the challenge of being a ballerina and juggling her children’s school schedules much more manageable.

Although the terms of her guest contract included dancing the leads in last December’s Nutcracker and in Swan Lake this coming March—both James Kudelka productions—Lunkina feels particularly excited to be part of the development of new work. She embraces the challenge of contemporary, often unfamiliar movement styles. She was cast in two new Canadian works in the National Ballet’s November 2013 Innovation program: Kudelka’s black night’s bright day and Unearth by the company’s 22-year-old choreographic associate, Robert Binet. “It was such a great way to start,” she says.

Binet admits he wondered how a top Bolshoi ballerina would respond to working with a young, emerging choreographer but was delighted by the way Lunkina plunged into the process. “Svetlana is one of the most friendly, open, energetic people I’ve ever met,” says Binet. “She’ll try anything. She really wants to be part of the family we’ve got here in this company.”

Understandably, Toronto audiences are hoping Lunkina will find that NBC, where she’s among several ballerinas with children to raise, offers the the kind of balanced life she’s always wanted. Kain would certainly like to cement the relationship if the company budget allows. “Svetlana is a very positive presence in our midst. She is so committed, and she’s top of her game. There isn’t anything she couldn’t do.”

 Michael Crabb is a Dance Magazine senior advising editor.

A delicate femininity sets this corps dancer apart.

 

 

Sian Richards, Courtesy National Ballet of Canada

When National Ballet of Canada corps member Emma Hawes danced Swan Lake’s Act II pas de deux with fellow corps member Brenden Saye at last year’s Erik Bruhn Prize competition, audience members were spellbound. Every shape her body formed communicated Odette’s inner anguish. Hawes, 19, floated through space with delicate femininity, moving with a purity so natural it almost took viewers’ breath away. Few were surprised when she took home the Audience Choice Award. Says NBC principal artistic coach Magdalena Popa, who prepared Hawes for the competition: “Emma is convincing by not trying to convince. Her body just speaks.”

 

As it happened, Hawes’ ballet career was almost nipped in the bud—by a scary spiderweb. She was born and raised in Delaware, Ohio, a small town north of Columbus that’s home to Ohio Wesleyan University, where her father directs the swimming program. She attended a “Mommy and Me” class at age 3, but when Halloween came and the teacher made her sit on a spiderweb mat, Hawes was scared away from dance for almost four years. When she returned, she started ballet, and moved around local studios until settling at the BalletMet Dance Academy in Columbus. It was a senior teacher there, Canadian-born Susan Dromisky, who spotted Hawes’ potential. She suggested Hawes audition for Dromisky’s own alma mater, Canada’s National Ballet School.

 

In 2005, Hawes tried out for the full-time program; she was accepted and began the next year. National Ballet artistic director Karen Kain started watching Hawes closely after the dancer caught her eye at a 2009 student showcase in the role she would later perform at the Bruhn competition. “I saw this incredible instrument Emma has,” says Kain, “those beautiful long legs and well-arched feet—everything you could want in a dancer.”

 

Where other young dancers fresh out of school expect to spend a year or two as apprentices, when Hawes graduated in 2011 Kain hired her directly into the corps at age 17. “She could have gone anywhere, and I didn’t want to lose her,” Kain says. Hawes says that the transition from school to company was daunting. “The challenge was to develop enough strength to keep going all day,” she recalls. As it was, Hawes ended that season with a torn meniscus, but Kain had already decided the moment was right to offer her the Bruhn competition. “The only way you learn is to get that kind of focus and attention,” says Kain.

 

Hawes more than fulfilled Kain’s expectations. NBC principal Guillaume Côté, who choreographed an angular duet for Hawes and Saye to dance in the competition’s contemporary round, was equally impressed by her dedication. “I was pushing her beyond her comfort level, but there was an incredible improvement from rehearsal to rehearsal. I knew she’d been working at it on her own time.”

 

Hawes seems content to await her next big opportunity. Although she had initially considered other companies, she’s glad she stayed in Toronto. “It’s an amazingly varied repertoire,” she says, explaining that she’s excited by the way it stretches her to be versatile. This season’s choreography includes Christopher Wheeldon and Jorma Elo. Despite Hawes distinguished performance in the Bruhn competition, Karen Kain is in no hurry to push her. Hawes is still only halfway through her second season. “I need to give her time,” says Kain, “but she has all the qualities to have a wonderful career.”

 

 

Michael Crabb is dance critic of  The Toronto Star.

Four Seasons Centre
Toronto, Canada

June 1–10, 2012

Performance reviewed: June 1

The tightly wrought, physically explosive solo that opens Kevin O’Day’s two-act Hamlet, given its North American premiere by the National Ballet of Canada, makes clear the title character is a tormented man. The source of the famous Danish prince’s inner turmoil is, however, less easy to figure out in a ballet that attempts somewhat indigestibly to blend straightforward narrative with often heavy-handed symbolism and a particular take on the story that’s not readily conveyed through dance.


Conventionally, Hamlet is understood to be a play about a man who can never quite bring himself to avenge his kingly father’s murder. In commenting about a work he originally made for Stuttgart Ballet in 2008, O’Day, who carefully bills his ballet as being “after Shakespeare,” says he was fascinated by the way a son, in his view, can never escape the influence of his father. From this perspective, the contemplative Hamlet knows he can never live up to his warrior father’s expectations and is not so much paralyzed with neurotic indecision as torn between doing his filial duty and the desire to assert his autonomy.

 

 

Stephanie Hutchison and Heather Ogden. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann, Courtesy NBC.

 

But, as the motifs of trabecular bone that designer Tatyana van Walsum variously deploys in her grimly austere box set signal, Hamlet cannot escape his genetic burden. In fact, judging by the way characters waft in and out or hover in the margins—murkily in Mark Stanley’s fashionably gloomy lighting—you begin to wonder if we’re supposed to be viewing “real” events or some nightmarish fantasy in Hamlet’s head.


Still, so far as storytelling goes, and allowing for such necessary tweaks as turning the play’s troupe of actors into itinerant dancers, O’Day remains surprisingly faithful to Shakespeare. He is clever in making the Hamlet-Ophelia relationship a reasonable enough pretext for the ballet’s only truly romantic pas de deux. Otherwise, the women get less than tenderly handled in their encounters with the libidinous men folk who whirl and up-end them this way and that in testosterone overdrive.


Yet, like so many flawed ballets, strongly committed performances can compensate for a litany of shortcomings, and the National Ballet’s opening-night cast dug into O’Day’s hyper-physical choreography with a relish, informing its mix of jagged-edged classicism and loose-limbed contemporary dance with compelling energy and intensity.


Guillaume Côté, opening night’s Hamlet, was the personification of a tortured soul, making his solos their own eloquent equivalents of the spoken Hamlet’s soliloquies.

 

 

Guillaume Côté with Artists of the Ballet. Photo by Vincent von Tiedemann, Courtesy NBC.


Heather Ogden, despite an unflattering costume, captured Ophelia’s sincerity and vulnerability; her mad scene, complete with vocals, was heart rending. Jirí Jelinek as Hamlet’s murderous uncle, Claudius, swaggered and smouldered. Stephanie Hutchison as Gertrude, though shamelessly besotted with Claudius—former brother-in-law, now husband—nevertheless managed to convey her maternal concern for the erratically disturbed Hamlet.


Meanwhile, American composer John King’s score, mixing brassy and heavily percussive jazz-inflected music, played live with computer-generated effects, provided a suitably grating soundscape for O’Day’s macabre portrait of a man caught in a genetic web of family dysfunction. 

 

Pictured at top: Heather Ogden and Guillaume Côté. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann, Courtesy NBC.

 

 

 

 

Until a few years ago the roof in the upstairs studio routinely leaked. Buckets were placed to collect the drops during rainstorms. Not that the floor—uneven, pitted, and rotting in places—wasn’t wet anyway. With no air-conditioning and a tropical climate, hazardous sweat pools needed occasional mopping up. Yet when the light streams through the stained-glass windows, this is a magical sanctum of dance.

Welcome to the Havana headquarters of one of the dance world’s most astounding and improbable achievements, the Ballet Nacional de Cuba. Renowned for its passionate commitment to classical dancing—with a stylish Latin inflection—it has produced some of today’s most dazzling artists. Cuban dancers now spice up companies worldwide, including San Francisco Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, the Joffrey, and Sarasota Ballet.

Conditions at the company’s home on a tree-shaded street in Havana’s once fashionable Vedado district are greatly improved after last year’s completion of a lengthy renovation. Still, in terms of facilities and resources, the Ballet Nacional de Cuba defies all odds.

Its operating budget comes from the Caribbean island’s communist government, supplemented by revenue from overseas touring and various gifts from friends abroad. But it’s never enough.

Domestically produced pointe shoes would make most ballerinas blanch and are worn to extinction. Only Cuban ingenuity—the same that keeps fume-belching, 1950s-era American automobiles operative in Havana—explains how Ballet Nacional craftsmen create sets and costumes from often recycled materials. The dancers, even if they do better than some of their fellow citizens, are poorly paid.

There are compensations. Cuba boasts free universal health care and education. And the people adore ballet as much as baseball. Book a cab to take you to the Gran Teatro—the ornate, neo-Baroque opera house in downtown Havana where the Ballet Nacional performs—and chances are the driver will not only know what’s playing but who’s dancing the lead. He may even offer an opinion on whether she’s any good.

Audiences throng to see classical story ballets filled with princes and princesses, rooted in an age of aristocracy. You won’t find Cuban equivalents of Soviet or Chinese Cultural Revolution–era dance dramas extolling the virtues of the working masses. Homegrown ballets such as A Night in the Tropics or Man in the Moon reflect an unabashed Cuban preference for dance as entertainment and romance.

Those who can’t get hold of a ticket for a live performance—priced for locals at a fraction of the cost to foreigners—can often watch their ballet on television, beamed to the island’s 11.3 million inhabitants by the national broadcaster.

Cubans don’t just relish ballet. They’re proud to know their national company has made an indelible impression in major capitals. When superstar alums such as Carlos Acosta or Jose Manuel Carreño return home to perform, they’re greeted like conquering heroes.

Now, after nearly a decade’s absence, American ballet fans have a chance to rediscover what makes the Ballet Nacional so special. From May 31 to June 26 the company is touring four cities. One program, “La Magia de la Danza” (The Magic of Dance), offers classical excerpts: Giselle, The Sleeping Beauty, The Nutcracker, Coppélia, Swan Lake, and Don Quixote, plus the cheery, samba-inclined Gottschalk Symphony. It comes to Costa Mesa, Los Angeles, Washington, and New York. The last three cities also get to see the effervescent, full-length Don Quixote, staged by artistic director Alicia Alonso in the Petipa/ Gorsky tradition.

The repertoire showcases the fabled glories of the Cuban female corps—an instinctive cohesion of spirit that surmounts precision drilling—and the eye-popping virtuosity of today’s generation of leading Ballet Nacional dancers. These include such women as Sadaise Arencibia, Anette Delgado, and she of the impossibly long balances, Viengsay Valdés.

Cubans clearly embrace the nobility of the classical ballet idiom. A soaring jump is not merely athletic display; it is an expression of higher emotional aspiration, a reach for the sky. Those legendary pirouettes—and Havana must surely be pirouette capital of the world—exemplify how dedication, will, and spirit can achieve the seemingly impossible. “Dancers must convey an emotion, a feeling,” says Alonso, “or the classics are empty and meaningless.”

The Cuban training distills all that Alonso absorbed during her years training as a teenager in New York, where, at age 15, she eloped with her first husband, Fernando Alonso. And she never stopped. From Alexandra Fedorova to Vera Volkova, “I was like a sponge, always ready to learn.”

There’s a clear Russian foundation in the openness and expressiveness of the upper body of the Cuban style. But its lyrical potential is governed by a rhythmic impulse embedded in Cuba’s Afro-Iberian-Caribbean culture. It gives the Cubans—the men as well as the women—an unforced yet beguiling sensuality.

But what of the repertoire? A hunk of it is the sight-impaired Alonso’s handiwork and tends toward a time-warped aesthetic that’s quaintly attuned to her experience as an international star of the 1950s and ’60s. Her own ballets channel any number of Ballet Theatre choreographers—Fokine, Massine, de Mille, Tudor—yet are more valuable as vehicles for her dancers than as art in themselves. As foreign critics attending the Ballet Nacional’s biennial international festivals in Havana have often observed, new work is not the company’s strong point. Try naming a contemporary Cuban ballet choreographer of international repute and you’ll quickly come up short.

Much as they adore the classics, this is not a reflection of narrow Cuban taste. Foreign troupes that bring unfamiliar, sometimes startlingly modern ballet to Havana are often surprised by the enthusiastic response. When The Royal Ballet danced in Havana in 2009, the biggest hit, according to principal dancer Tamara Rojo, was Wayne McGregor’s starkly beautiful Chroma. Iconoclast Mats Ek and his wife, Ana Laguna, were loudly cheered for their quirky performances at the 2006 festival.

Cuban audiences are sometimes wrongly accused of responding to ballet as something akin to a circus act, applauding technical feats over artistry. In fact, they seem pretty much up for anything new, so long as it’s choreographically intriguing and well danced. The Ballet Nacional, however, continues to reflect the 90-year-old Alonso’s devotion to classicism—as she teaches it.

Of course, without Alonso there would be no Ballet Nacional de Cuba. She is clearly Cuba’s cultural monarch. Even President Raúl Castro has bowed to kiss her hand in public. She did not create a ballet-loving society and an acclaimed ballet company alone. Nevertheless, it is the combination of will, guile, ruthlessness, and political savvy that has enabled Alonso to turn her own artistry and stellar reputation into an institution of positive impact.

She has bestowed the gift of ballet on Cuba and is justly worshipped for it. However, Alonso seems reluctant to pass the torch and somewhat unsympathetic to those who crave the kind of artistic stimulation that dancers today in other companies take for granted.

Ballet Nacional has been leaking dancers for decades. A handful (including Acosta and Carreño) have been granted permission to come and go. Others have either languished or taken matters into their own hands.

Since 2007 the company has been making annual visits to Canada, a social democracy that has never treated Cuba as a pariah. Almost invariably dancers have fled on each occasion. In February, during a tour to Montreal, five, including principal Elier Bourzac, former partner of Viengsay Valdés, made the achingly difficult decision to stay.

Hayna Gutierrez, who left during a 2007 tour, now dances with Alberta Ballet. “If you’re a dancer, choreography is your food,” she says. “You can’t eat spaghetti all the time. Most of the dancers are looking for new repertoire, new artistic input, and new challenges.”

Anyone who has followed the Ballet Nacional de Cuba will easily understand Gutierrez’s viewpoint. At the same time they can only applaud what Alicia Alonso has accomplished, even as they worry about the future of a company that deeply stirs the heart.

Michael Crabb is dance critic of Canada’s The National Post.

Top: Viengsay Valdés in costume for Luc Bouy’s El Perfume. Photo by Matthew Karas. Bottom: Canto Vital by Azari Plisetski, with Yanier Gómez, Serafín Castro, and José Losada. Photo by Nan Melville.

In June 2006, Houston Ballet apprentice McGee Maddox was facing a dancer’s worst nightmare—a potentially career-ending injury. While understudying Basilio in Don Quixote, he took off in the coda at full throttle and, as he succinctly describes it, “blew my knee out.”

 

Jump ahead four years to a matinee performance at Toronto’s opera house, The Four Seasons Centre. The atmosphere is electric with anticipation because the title role in Cranko’s Onegin is to be danced by a first-year National Ballet of Canada member named—you already guessed—McGee Maddox.

 

It’s a stunningly impressive debut. Maddox perfectly captured the character’s conflicting aloofness and emotional vulnerability. When Maddox and partner Heather Ogden took their curtain call, the house erupted in a standing ovation.

 

Maddox, 24, was initially assigned to understudy the role. “McGee studied and read and applied himself like a real artist,” says Stuttgart Ballet artistic director Reid Anderson, who had come to NBC to set the ballet and then decided to give Maddox a performance.

 

Maddox can’t remember a time when he didn’t dance. Growing up in Spartanburg, South Carolina, he instinctively moved whenever his mother, a classical pianist, sat down to play. But he didn’t begin serious training until he was 9, at Ballet Spartanburg’s Dance Center. Then came summer intensives at Houston Ballet’s Ben Stevenson Academy, and eventually a fulltime scholarship in 2003 before getting hired as a company apprentice.

 

Following an 18-month recovery from knee surgery, he made a strong impression on visiting choreographer James Kudelka, who cast him in his Little Dancer. When Maddox auditioned for NBC, it was Kudelka who helped convince artistic director Karen Kain that he would be a valuable addition. Now a second soloist, Maddox’s rapid progress through the ranks seems assured. “There’s such a power behind McGee’s dancing,” says Kain. “He also has humility and intelligence; in fact, everything required for a big career.”

 

Michael Crabb is dance critic of The Toronto Star.

 

 

Photo by Sian Richards, courtesy NBC

Alberta Ballet
Southern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium
Calgary, Canada
May 6–9, 2010
Reviewed by Michael Crabb

 

Alberta Ballet dancers in "Bennie and the Jets" from Love Lies Bleeding. The Banff Centre, Courtesy AB.


If you’re making a show of glam-rock superstar Elton John songs restraint is probably the last consideration. Canadian choreographer Jean Grand-Maître betrays little of it in Love Lies Bleeding, the million-dollar-plus, Vegas-meets-Broadway-meets-Chippendales dance spectacular brought vividly to life by his 30-member Alberta Ballet.


Set to 14 numbers from the Elton John/Bernie Taupin songbook—familiar favorites and less predictable selections—Love Lies Bleeding is an unabashedly raunchy, risqué ride through the highs and lows of a troubled yet ultimately triumphant career.


Steeped in gender-bending homo-eroticism, it’s framed less as a bio-ballet than a surreal fantasy/allegory about the perils of sexual self-denial and drugged-up showbiz celebrity.


In Grand-Maître’s conception, Japan-born Yukichi Hattori—a diminutive firecracker with dazzling technique and irresistibly engaging stage presence—portrays an obsessive, otherwise anonymous “Elton Fan.” He strides down the aisle, clambers onto the stage, and is quickly pitched into an episodic rollercoaster through key phases in his hero’s career.


“Bennie and the Jets” finds Hattori’s character in a sequined, skin-tight, ersatz Dodger uniform performing an acrobatic mix of ballet and break dancing on a spangled revolve while a circling, similarly costumed corps wield silver baseball bats with alternating elegance and menace.


In the wonderfully rendered “Rocket Man”—a starry night—he’s propelled across the darkened stage on roller-skates, his body defined by onboard red lights and a flare of fireworks.


Occasionally cumbersome onstage costume changes often leave Hattori near naked. He dons everything from angel wings and gold loincloth to peacock-feathered frock coat and plumed top hat as he is stalked by a team of Clockwork Orange–inspired “Demonics” in studded codpieces and bowlers, redolent both of the devils within and homophobia without.


The scourge of AIDS appears, perhaps over-obviously, in “Sixty Years On.” Mark Biocca/Kelley McKinlay’s steamy pas de deux portrays doomed man-to-man love beneath a sinister Damoclean sword. Meanwhile, Hattori’s Elton avatar begins the process of awakening that leads to full acceptance of his homosexuality.


 Grand-Maître’s hybrid choreography blends everything from classical ballet—the women mostly on pointe, even when dressed as men—to slinky jazz and hints of ballroom. It’s hardly sophisticated, but with so much else to draw the eye this is rarely an issue.


Martine Bertrand’s deliberately kitsch costumes are consistently delightful and designer Guillaume Lord’s huge picture-framed, flyable mirror serves admirably as the back-projection screen for Adam Larsen’s memory bank of video imagery.


Spurred by an avalanche of advance media hype, Calgary audiences went predictably rock-concert wild after the rousing “Saturday Night’s Alright” finale. But, then, as jukebox ballets go, there’s more than enough here to satisfy anyone looking for a combination of clap-along entertainment and heartfelt commitment to the music of a great pop artist.

National Ballet of Canada
Four Seasons Centre
Toronto, Canada
March 4–8, 2009
Reviewed by Michael Crabb

 

Photo by Cylia von Tiedemann.

Greta Hodgkinson and

Aleksandar Antonijevic in

Crystal Pite's Emergence. 

Click here to watch them in motion at dancemedia.com.

In assigning commissions for the National Ballet of Canada’s "Innovation," a triple bill of all-Canadian premieres, artistic director Karen Kain chose to highlight a younger generation of choreographers: Crystal Pite, 38; Sabrina Matthews, 32; and Peter Quanz, 29. All have choreographed for major international troupes and are adept at mobilizing women on pointe, yet each has a distinct choreographic signature.

 

In vocabulary and structure, Quanz’s In Colour was the most classical. Bravura steps and athletic lifts were matched by complex diagonal and circling geometrics. Quanz used Anton Lubchenko’s impassioned symphonic score to shape a ballet that, while plotless, was ripe with emotional implication.

 

Riffing off late film director Derek Jarman’s Chroma: A Book of Colour, Quanz deployed nine soloists in different rainbow colors, offset by and interacting with an 18-member corps of men and women in grey. Each color of Michael Gianfrancesco’s costumes posited a different temperament or situation. James Shee in yellow was an exuberant trickster. Bridgett Zehr and Guillaume Côté—pink and purple—projected fraught love in a poignant central pas de deux. The overt mischievousness of a trio in chartreuse—Krista Dowson, Alexandra Golden, and Alejandra Perez-Gomez—carried an undercurrent of menace. The proceedings generally unfolded at a frenetic pace, driven by Lubchenko’s bombastic music. But as all the colors coalesced in a grand finale, and the heartbroken girl in pink returned in white, a cathartic message of purity and serenity emerged from the refracted tumult.

 

In her setting of “Vivaldi’s Dixit Dominus, RV594,” sung by the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir with chorus positioned upstage on two high scaffolds, Matthews responded less to the biblical text than to the music’s mix of disquietude and exultation. Pushing five couples to off-balance extremes, her Dextris ended up delivering less than the sum of its parts.

 

Pite had also been reading—in her case, Steven Johnson’s Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software. Her Emergence, a clear audience favorite, offered the thrilling theatrical impact of a 38-member cast in unison or syncopation to an original, electronically processed score—sometimes mood-inducing, other times propulsive—by Canadian Owen Belton. Jay Gower Taylor’s underground, insect-nest set and Linda Chow’s costumes offered a visual parallel to Pite’s theme of social organization and interaction. Pite’s vocabulary included intricate body isolations, hand gestures, and—despite some soaring lifts—a general ground-rootedness that, within its setting, was at times almost spooky. The cast responded to Pite’s unfamiliar movement with compelling gusto.

 

Click here to watch an excerpt from Pite's Emergence.

On a cool Toronto evening last October, 23-year-old National Ballet of Canada corps member Jenna Savella made a larger-than-life appearance.


As part of Nuit Blanche, an annual city-wide, dusk-to-dawn arts extravaganza, NBC staged an interactive, virtual ballet class at its hometown opera-house venue, the sparkling Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts. The image of a scantily clad Savella sinking securely into a deep plié was projected onto a huge screen in the glass-fronted lobby. Curious passersby paused to watch. Using a ballet barre set up on the sidewalk, some even tried to imitate Savella’s clean, elegant movement. “Cool,” observed one young man as he gamely struggled into a botched fifth position.


“Cool,” however, is not a word that usually describes Savella. “Hot,” in all its meanings, would seem more appropriate. With her exotic looks and flaming stage presence, Savella has become a dancer to watch.


As a late starter—Savella did not begin serious ballet training until age 15—she had some catching up to do, but lately she has stood out in a striking range of pieces. In a Balanchine-Wheeldon-Tharp mixed program that launched NBC’s season in November, Savella danced in all three works, making a notable debut as the lead ballerina in the third movement of Symphony in C.


Her talent attracted attention even before Savella joined NBC. In May 2002, while in Grade 12 at Canada’s National Ballet School, she was given a lead in John Neumeier’s Yondering during the students’ spring showcase. An impressed Paula Citron, Globe and Mail dance critic, identified Savella as “another future star who brought grace and intensity to the stage.”


Two years later, when current National Ballet artistic director Karen Kain staged Act Two of Swan Lake for NBS senior students, she picked Savella to dance Odette. That fall Savella became a company apprentice and in August 2005 joined the corps.


The only daughter of Filipino immigrant parents, Savella grew up in Surrey, British Columbia, a sprawling city of some 400,000 people that forms part of Metro Vancouver. As a girl she was inspired by seeing her cousins perform in ballet school recitals and pranced around the living room enough to convince her mother to enroll her at age 5 in Dance West, a popular local school. Savella says she “did everything” there—tap, jazz, ballet, modern and musical theater. In her teens, she also began classes at Irina Lavrova’s Classical Ballet Academy in neighboring Surrey. It was only then, studying the Cecchetti and Royal Academy of Dance syllabuses, that Savella began to consider ballet as a career.


In 1999 she was selected to attend NBS’s annual summer school, but was not invited to stay on. She tried again the next summer when, although she didn’t know it, Savella had a powerful ally. “My colleagues thought Jenna was too late,” recalls NBS artistic director Mavis Staines, “but she impressed me more than anyone else that summer. You could see Jenna had innate musicality and a special way of phrasing movement.”


Savella moved to Toronto and enthusiastically threw herself into her studies, but with a self-critical eye. “I felt very behind,” she says. Even after joining the National Ballet, she continued to struggle to overcome what she saw as the handicap of a late start. “I was frustrated enough to be motivated to keep working and get better,” she says.


Kain, however, had already noted Savella’s sterling work ethic and was confident her time would come. “Jenna has so many interesting physical qualities, those long feet and an extraordinary jump, like a gazelle; not too many have all that. She’s such a hard worker, a quick learner, versatile and, best of all, she loves being onstage.”


Kain began feeding Savella featured roles: Moss in Cinderella, the Snow Queen in The Nutcracker and in June 2007 an emotionally rich lead in the “Autumn” section of former NBC artistic director James Kudelka’s The Four Seasons. “It was an incredible experience,” says Savella. “I’d always dreamed of dancing Autumn.”


In casting his popular Rolling Stones ballet, Rooster, British choreographer Christopher Bruce auditioned the entire company. The dancers wore numbers. Savella was among those chosen, over several senior dancers. Then last April, Savella was cast in the classically rigorous first section of former NBC member Matjash Mrozewski’s A Delicate Battle, for a performance in San Francisco during “An International Salute to the San Francisco Ballet” at the War Memorial Opera House.


Savella’s once budding talent is, as Kain puts it, now “bursting into bloom.” The stylistic variety of the November mixed bill was a challenge Savella relished. “It helped me discover a lot of things about my dancing, what’s working, what still needs more work.” Savella says she’d love to dance major full-length roles if she had the chance, but she’s not fixated on them. “I want to do my best in whatever challenges I’m given. I aim to show that I love what I do.”


Michael Crabb is dance critic of Canada’s The National Post.

 

Photo: Sian Richards, Courtesy National Ballet of Canada

When Elena Lobsanova steps onstage to perform the First Fairy variation in Sleeping Beauty, the National Ballet of Canada corps de ballet member has a natural aristocracy. A strong jump and confident turn show off her lovely proportions. Her developpé is tastefully majestic, and her long feet make her line seem to stretch forever. There’s an authenticity to her movement that suggests an artistic maturity far beyond her 20 years.

 

Since joining NBC as an apprentice in 2004, Lobsanova has been watched closely by critics and balletomanes as she has garnered demi-soloist roles. “Elena has a spiritual connection in her dancing,” says NBC’s artistic director Karen Kain, “which is a wonderful ability to see in one so young.”

 

That quality was in evidence from the start. Recalls Mavis Staines, artistic director of the National Ball School where Lobsanova trained for nine years, “One always felt Elena had been on this planet before and that she’d been a ballerina.”

 

Lobsanova was born in Moscow. Her microbiologist father moved the family to Toronto in 1991, and her mother still speaks to her in Russian.
Lobsanova had never studied ballet in Russia, but in Canada her instinct for movement was soon apparent as she danced around the living room to her older sister’s piano accompaniment. She began her ballet training in the NBS’s associates outreach program. In Grade 5, having passed the school’s audition, she became a fulltime student – academic and ballet.

 

The following year Lobsanova was chosen to dance with the National Ballet as Marie in Kudelka’s reworking of The Nutcracker. The pre-pubescent Marie and Misha in Kudelka’s version are warring siblings. For Lobsanova it was a dramatic departure from her naturally demur demeanor. In person she is quiet and can seem almost diffident. In reality, says Staines, Lobsanova is an acutely alert and remarkably self-possessed young woman. “She’s very able to stand by her convictions.”

 

It was partly because of Lobsanova’s remarkable talent that Staines decided to stage Act II from Erik Bruhn’s production of Swan Lake for NBS’s 2004 Spring Showcase. Kain, then the National Ballet’s artistic associate, supervised the production. Lobsanova still recalls the thrill of being coached intensively for the role of Odette by the former Canadian prima ballerina.

 

Ballet fans pack NBS’s annual showcase in the hope of spotting tomorrow’s stars. Lobsanova’s serenely poignant performance, partnered by National Ballet principal and Nehemiah Kish, triggered a rush of excitement. Not surprisingly, then National Ballet artistic director James Kudelka and Kain offered her an apprentice contract for 2004-05. Staines, however, was apprehensive. Although the 17-year-old had completed the regular professional training program and collected her high school diploma, Staines believed she was not ready for the unforgiving rigor of company life. “Elena is hyper mobile and she was still growing,” explains Staines. She believed Lobsanova would benefit from another year of intensive training.

 

Lobsanova took the contract. As Staines predicted she not only grew more than an inch but also sustained a stress fracture in her left foot sidelined her for six months. “It was a case of overload,” she says. “I simply wasn’t used to so much pressure and so much standing up.”

 

Nowadays, although Lobsanova is not spared corps duty, the National Ballet is mindful of the need to develop her carefully. “It’s better not to rush anything,” says ballet mistress Mandy Jayne Richardson, one of Lobsanova’s firm admirers. “Her talent is not going to go away.”

 

With regular performances before an audience in NBS’s fully equipped Betty Oliphant Theatre she also got over her fear of the stage. “I used to be very superstitious about performing,” Lobsanova reflects. “I guess it’s in my Russian genes.” As she progressed through the grades Lobsanova also demonstrated her versatility. “I love contemporary works, to explore what they offer. I’m still at the stage where I can experiment”

 

Insiders say NBC staff are wise not to push Lobsanova too quickly, allowing her to acquire the strength and stamina she will need for the full-length roles that may await her in the future. Nor is she restless for the speedy advancement that could come her way in a smaller troupe. “For now,” she says, “this is a great place to be.”



Michael Crabb is dance critic of Canada’s National Post.


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.

For more information: www.national.ballet.ca

Royal Winnipeg Ballet
Manitoba Centennial Concert Hall
Winnipeg, Canada
October 20–24, 2004
Reviewed by Michael Crabb

 

 

In a dance market oversaturated with Prokofiev-driven Cinderellas, it was astute of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet to commission a distinctive version. Choreographer Val Caniparoli works to Richard Rodgers song music, refashioning the fairy tale as an almost contemporary fable that allows him to blend ballet with a variety of popular jazz dances of the era, particularly in the ball scene. Winnipeg jazz legend Ron Paley’s piano-and-big-band arrangement, however, sometimes robs Rodgers’ romanticism of its full emotional impact.

In the opening of Sheryl Flatow’s ingenious libretto, the lonely Nancy sits in front of a huge TV with her faithful poodle (a major dancing role akin to the jester in many traditional productions, vividly rendered by Darren Anderson). Nancy is excited—and the era is set—when she sees a promo for the 1957 broadcast of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella. (In a clever book-ending strategy, the ballet ends with the happy couple settling in cozily to watch it.) Nancy’s widower father, a rich airline captain, returns with a new wife and spoiled stepdaughters. Father is soon killed off in an accident, leaving Nancy at the mercy of her evil stepmother, danced with delicious venom by Tara Birtwhistle. Nancy meets a handsome young playboy, Bob (Giuseppe de Ruggiero, dancing up a virile storm), taking class at an Arthur Murray studio—cue big, Broadway-style ensemble dances. When he drops a shoe, the smitten Nancy promptly snatches it up as an identity check for later use.

Such clever twists make Caniparoli’s ballet smartly amusing and ironical, but they also distance it from the genuine dreams-come-true romance that gives most Cinderella ballets soul. Perhaps Caniparoli intends to underline the distinction by calling his version A Cinderella Story. He also paints the characters two-dimensionally, giving the impression that he wants us to laugh at them rather than with them. Only late in the action, when he moves in for the emotional kill in his best pas de deux mode, with Nancy melting ecstatically into Bob’s arms, does Caniparoli finally warm our hearts.
Sandra Woodall’s stylish costumes evoke 1950s haute couture while her adaptable unit set and various flown elements give this excellently danced production an opulent look.

For more information: www.rwb.org

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