Dancing through 2017

Highlights from Toronto's stages by Penelope Ford

2 Belinda McGuire performing her own “Slaughterhouse/ Requiem.” Photograph by Jubal Battisti

“It always wants something more of me,” Belinda McGuire said to me with a wry smile a few days before the opening of her solo performance, “Waltz Slaughterhouse Requiem.” Something true of dance, I thought, and perhaps especially true for solo work. McGuire’s performance of her own choreography, a personal reflection, “Slaughterhouse/Requiem” was highly original and impressive, and is one of my highlights of the year in dance.

It is no mean feat to put together a full evening’s programme on one’s own. It is also unlike watching anything else; it is an intimate journey for the artist and the audience. And McGuire kept nothing for herself. The opening piece, “Waltz,” choreographed by Sylvain Émard, was a kind of inversion of a waltz—danced in and out of shadows on a bare stage, it gave us a chance to see McGuire’s arresting physicality and dynamic. But it was “Slaughterhouse/Requiem” that invited us in, with a vivid and creative staging of some of her journey thus far.

Dana Michel performing “Yellow Towel.” Photograph by Ian Douglas

Another arresting solo was Dana Michel performing her acclaimed “Yellow Towel.” Michel, awarded the Silver Lion for innovation in dance at the 2017 Venice Biennale, reprised her break-out work at the Winchester Street Theatre, Toronto, as part of Dancemakers Minifest. As a child, Michel would drape a yellow towel over her head to emulate the blonde girls at school. In “Yellow Towel” the Montrealer turns inside out black cultural tropes, giving an uncanny performance while she’s at it.

Guillaume Côté dancing “Nijinsky.” Photograph by Bruce Zinger

On the ballet stage, it has been a year of watching solo performances in a sense, too. With the National Ballet of Canada favouring theatrical narrative ballets of late, productions depend on strong performances by lead dancers. Although I miss seeing the company fill out the stage as in ‘pure dance’ works, the dancers have more than risen to the challenge, and given earth-shaking performances. First on the list has be to Guillaume Côté dancing the title role in John Neumeier’s “Nijinsky.”

The National Ballet had just returned from a successful tour of “Nijinsky,” performing at Paris’ Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, where word had it, the company brought the house down. The “Nijinsky” they brought back was vastly evolved from the first time it was staged in Toronto. Noticeably smoother, both Nijinskys, Côté and Francesco Gabriele Frola, had finessed their technique and amped up the drama considerably. Côté danced like a feather in a storm; wildly and evocatively, it was clear he had taken Nijinsky to heart.

In the demanding role of Bronislava Nijinska, Jenna Savella was breathtaking. Sublime in the first act, the second act has her dance the Chosen Virgin in Nijinsky’s “Le Sacre du printemps,“ where she lurches from violent torso wrenches, hair flying and pumping her foot to perfect pirouettes with ease. Equally brilliant at close proximity, Savella danced in Robert Binet‘s recent “Fordlândia,” a workshop ballet created for an intimate, alternative space. I saw her dance it in Harley Valentine’s industrial sculpture gallery, and in Toronto’s Union train station, and she was captivating and beautiful in each setting.

Jenna Savella in “Fordlândia” by Robert Binet. Photograph by Harley Valentine

Another frequent dancer in Binet’s works, and a highlight of whatever stage he sets foot on, is National Ballet dancer Dylan Tedaldi. As a first soloist, he is more likely to appear in supporting roles, and quite regularly, he is what you remember from the ballet. Steps dissolve even in the steppiest of ballets such as Christopher Wheeldon’s “The Winter’s Tale.” Tedaldi danced a rousing Brother Clown, brightening the never-ending folk dance of the second act—amusing his fellow dancers it seemed, too. He has the intangible qualities that define a dancer; no matter the vehicle, Tedaldi dances it to smithereens.

Submerged: Dylan Tedaldi in Robert Binet’s “Fordlândia.” Photograph by Harley Valentine

Two of the most nuanced and soulful performances came from National Ballet principals in the “The Winter’s Tale.” Who but Piotr Stanczyk could make Leontes, King of Sicilia, who drives his kingdom to the brink of destruction through violent fits of jealousy, an almost sympathetic character, and render his anguish so richly? To the final steps of the ballet, Stanczyk’s Leontes resonates as a tragically flawed King. In the same cast, the dramatically unsurpassable Xiao Nan Yu, dancing Paulina, head of the household and nurse-figure, quietly cast her spell. For those who recall Xiao Nan Yu’s dramatic force as Tatiana in John Cranko’s “Onegin” she is equally heroic here—she’s a slow-burn, but as with “Onegin” the final scenes are hers alone.

Piotr Stanczyk and Xiao Nan Yu in “The Winter’s Tale.” Photograph by Aleksandar Antonijevic

And then in a flurry, the stars of ballet descended on Toronto for one evening in October, the second instalment of Svetlana Lunkina and Friends’ All Star Ballet Gala, this time with a contemporary theme. In pairs, they wowed and dazzled the capacity audience of the Sony Centre with an intriguing programme of excerpts. Dancers came from all over the world and from within that crop of elites, two of the sweetest were Anna Ol, principal dancer of the Dutch National Ballet, and Anastasia Lukina, demi soloist of the Mariinsky Ballet. The Siberian-born Ol dances with passionate intensity, a warmth exuding from her every movement, whether in contemporary or classical mode. In real life she is petite, but on stage she dances tall. On that evening she performed choreography by Ted Brandson, and her dance partner, Australian-born Remi Wörtmeyer also of the Dutch National Ballet, who premiered his elegantly shaded work “Penumbra” set to music by Rachmaninoff. Lukina has quickly become one to watch; awarded best graduate from the Vaganova Academy in 2015, she strode into demi soloist a year after joining the Mariinsky. As well as her remarkable form, she has a softness and grace to her dancing that lingers in the memory. But she is no ingenue—a fall during the Wedding pas de deux from “The Sleeping Beauty” was overcome with the utmost professionalism. She told me afterwards that she had very much enjoyed her first trip to North America, and hopes to return. Likewise.

Anna Ol and Remi Wörtmeyer in Ted Brandson’s “Replay” at Canada’s All Star Gala, October 2017. Photograph by Karolina Kuras

And perhaps the most applause-worthy performance goes to Svetlana Lunkina herself—this time, not even for her virtuoso dancing, but for her vision as artistic director of the All Star Gala. Inaugurated in February this year, the gala has twice gathered a serious coterie of artists, programmed rare and interesting work, and given a ballet-loving audience what they crave; an audience that is increasingly alienated by its national company who stages one novelty after the next.

Svetlana Lunkina in Yuri Possokhov’s “Sagalobeli.” Photograph by Karolina Kuras

There are a number of dancers not mentioned here for the sake of brevity who have given tremendous performances, and a number of new faces that I look forward to seeing dance in the coming year. There are also several dancers poised to make their choreographic debuts, including Elena Lobsanova, principal dancer of the National Ballet of Canada, as part of “Five Creations.” With a promising year of dance slated for 2018, I bid farewell to you, 2017!

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