Svengali is known today as a word to describe everyone from Kim Fowley to Malcolm McLaren to Phil Spector. But it actually has its roots in George du Maurier’s 1894 novel Trilby, about a hypnotist who manipulates a young woman and turns her into a great singer. The challenge of Royal Winnipeg Ballet choreographer Mark Godden and dancer Harrison James, however, was to avoid stereotypes and turn that original character into a richly developed, living and breathing person in a new production.
“The story showed the same xenophobia of the England at the turn of the century,” Godden, the mastermind behind the en pointe production Svengali, explains, speaking to the Straight from his home in Montreal. “Svengali was the stereotype of the time of the dirty Jew stealing the women and taking the money.”
Despite his reticence, his opening came, he says, when he read a film treatment of the Svengali story by Winnipeg filmmaker and Keyhole director Guy Maddin, who had made a film version of Godden’s other, wildly popular ballet Dracula. In Maddin’s very different version, Svengali’s desire to control the character of Trilby was a byproduct of his obsession with his own mother. Maddin wasn’t interested in collaborating on a ballet (and nothing became of the film treatment), but Godden’s imagination was off and running.
In his resulting new, darkly atmospheric Svengali, the title character is a man oppressed by his strict, ballet-studio-matron mother. And when he breaks free of her into a decadent outside world, his way of compensating is to manipulate women with his hypnotic powers. In this case, he takes the malleable streetwalker Trilby and turns her into a celebrated dancer.
Just as importantly, Svengali is not an old lech but a young, somewhat naive force in the ballet. “The dancers are quite youthful and the Royal Winnipeg Ballet is a very youthful company as well,” Godden explains. “I ended up calling him a ‘boy’ that’s sort of trapped in his youth and not the traditional Svengali that’s kind of decrepit and sleazy.”
James adds that his Svengali is not the straightforwardly evil guy of the novel, either. “Comparing him to the book, he’s a little more innocent and hasn’t gone out into the world when you first see him. When he finally escapes his mom, he enjoys himself. He falls for Trilby, but in his own, twisted way, how he shows his love is by controlling her.…There’s so much more grey to the ballet, and you get this insight into what makes him the ‘bad guy’.”
Godden handpicked James, a fast-rising star who only joined the company in 2010, for the lead role. Soon after the show’s premiere last fall, the Royal Winnipeg broke with tradition to promote the 20-year-old to first-soloist status. Svengali has been a whirlwind for the New Zealand–born James, who has never had a role created specifically for him before. He moved away from home at 15 to study at the New Zealand School of Dance, before heading to both the San Francisco Ballet School and Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival for training.
In what might be described as his eerily Svengali-like effect, one Winnipeg paper called his performance in his latest show “mesmerizing”.
“Mark being my first choreographer was lucky. He had such intelligent ways that he wanted Svengali to be portrayed. He pointed me in the right direction but let me go my own way,” James says over the phone, after rehearsal in Winnipeg. “I like this ballet because there is so much dancing, and because, even though it’s very much in the classical vein, it’s more modern because you get to express yourself. Classical ballets are more stiff; you have to have this regal bearing.”
To make the ballet’s ideas resonate—the struggle between morality and depravity being a major theme—Godden didn’t want Svengali set in a particular period. But he and costume designer Paul Daigle and scenic designer Andrew Beck drew heavily on Germany’s Weimar era, between the wars, when “a battle between morals was happening,” Godden says. He’s even worked a sinister Morality Police Squad into this version.
The result is a title character, and a theatrical look and feel, that runs in dark contrast to, say, Wonderland—the last, whimsical show the Royal Winnipeg Ballet brought here, and one in which James was the fleet-footed White Rabbit, of all things.
“I like with Svengali that there’s always this huge pause before the curtain goes down and then people start clapping,” James says. “I always wanted to be part of art that inspires thought and that has such a strong physical quality to it. It’s not your classical fairy tale!”
The Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s Svengali is at the Centre in Vancouver for Performing Arts from Friday to Sunday (April 20 to 22).