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Friday, March 16, 2012

Lording over the Dance

From the Vault Dept.: Twenty-five years ago, dance was more of a regular entertainment feature in the Capital Region. Thankfully, we’re still able to support a handful of local companies, but we do spend each year in suspense as to whether the Saratoga Performing Arts Center will axe the NY City Ballet. Back in 1987, the Schenectady Gazette sent its new reviewer to pass judgment on the Royal Winnipeg Ballet. Founded in 1939, it remains Canada’s oldest ballet company – and one of the longest-running in North America, which has welcomed Mikhail Baryshnikov among its notable members. In my lede, I call ballet arrogant. I’m being abominably cutesy, of course. Nothing could hold a candle to the arrogance of the reviewer.


Rudi van Dantzig, right, rehearsing Four Last Songs.
BALLET IS THE MOST arrogant of the arts. It presents itself just as abstractly as the music it uses, but demands that we interpret with our eyes, the sense most accustomed to the concrete. It offers a spectacle of physical perfection, a perfection few of us can attain but must ruefully admire, even as it causes those bodies to combine into an ensemble with its own identity.

But there is an amiable kind of arrogance you find in despots and film stars: like them, ballet is awfully likeable.

The Royal Winnipeg Ballet paid a visit to Proctor’s Theatre Wednesday night with a program of three likeable dances, each a contrast to the others, all of them suggesting that this is a company capable of top-notch work, and of taking a few risks. Much of what we saw, however, was the result of some risks that didn’t have the total commitment to pull them off.

The opening selection, “Ballet Premier,” is an old-fasioned, classical sequence choreographed by Arnold Spohr to a piano concerto by Mendelssohn. Pianist Nadine Lipsett, hidden in the pit with the company’s own travelling orchestra, did a virtuoso job as soloist.

On stage, an ensemble of eleven danced against a simple, stylized drape. Featured were Svea Eklof and Stephen Hyde in a lovely pas de deux to the slow second movement; but the ballet was a ballet of moments, little sparks of liveliness that failed to combine as a whole.

The key to such a combination is theatricality: pacing must be shrewdly watched to be sure that each moment effectively flows to the next, with a crescendo of rising energy leading to the finish. While the concerto itself concluded with suitably triumphant glory, the dancers seemed to tire, to mis-combine. This was a phenomenon that would be more damaging to the final work on the program.

“Four Last Songs,” danced to a recording of the songs by Richard Strauss, was an astonishingly effective, moving study by choreographer Rudi Van Dantzig of “themes of death and separation,” as promised by the program notes. A bleak backdrop of moody pastels loomed over the four couples, in earth-toned tunics, who flirted with a figure of Death, danced by Jorden Morris. The figures paired with him and others in effective, abstract combinations, in a piece that understated itself nicely.

The mood of which was wiped off the map with the sparkle of Offenbach’s “Gaite Parisienne,” a new work for this company recreated from the classic choreography by Leonide Massine. As usual, Massine created a plum role for himself as “The Peruvian,” danced here by Vincent Boyle. He is the clown vying for the attention of the Glove Seller (Svea Ekloff), amongst a host of officers and noblemen in a plush Parisian cafe. And, naturally, he steals every scene he dances – and that means going up against a very busy roomful of boozers, debauchers and billiards-players.

Music and dance combine in this piece with a sharp theatrical sensibility: but there were all the earmarks of a new work in ensemble movement that didn’t quite come off and some awkward blocking on a crowded stage.

And, inexplicably, the highlight of the work – the Can-Can – was so subdued as to die on stage, as if dancers and orchestra just ran out of steam.

It’s important that such a finale top everything that’s come before, and no reason why this company’s production can’t do so. It’s just going to take more work.

– Schenectady Gazette, Oct. 30, 1987

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