National Ballet of Canada duo hops from boots to bugs

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At the National Ballet of Canada, dancers know how to leap easily between styles and roles. Take The Man in Black, choreographer James Kudelka’s stark and gritty ode to the music of Johnny Cash, which is coming here as part of the company’s 60th-anniversary program: in it, four dancers have to don cowboy boots. And for the three men and one woman of the cast, it was not an easy task—not at first anyway.

“During rehearsals, we were joking that these are kind of like the pointe shoes for men,” says veteran company dancer Jonathan Renna with a laugh, speaking to the Straight over the phone from Calgary, where the troupe is embarking on its tour of the West. “They were these really, really hard leather boots, and after all the blisters and soreness we finally broke them in, after a couple weeks.”

When artistic director Karen Kain’s company comes here, dancers will wear those boots again, as well as pointe shoes and slippers, over a program that celebrates the troupe’s versatility. Kudelka’s Man in Black joins pieces including William Forsythe’s electronic-scored the second detail and Crystal Pite’s creepy en-pointe Emergence on the program. The good-natured Renna puts it another way: “I’m going from the very, very technically structured, mathematical work of Forsythe to cowboy boots to being a bug,” he says, referring to Vancouverite Pite’s hive- and insect-inspired work.

That’s life at the acclaimed company: it’s always been known for its wide diversity of programming, and never more so than now, entering its seventh decade. It’s what draws some of the country’s greatest dancers to the National, and what makes them stay.

“It’s a very exciting time to be a part of the company, and the directions that Karen wants to take the company are finally coming to fruition after six years—the touring, the bringing in new choreographers, and new collaborations with other companies,” says the Ottawa-born Renna.

The Man in Black is a perfect example of those new explorations. Set to six covers that Cash performed late in life (including “Hurt” and “Further Up on the Road”, it draws on the vernacular of step, swing, line, and square dancing. It’s a huge departure from the story ballets that the National has brought to Vancouver over the years. And it’s also a departure for the company itself.

“It is completely different than anything we’ve ever done,” confirms Stephanie Hutchison, a former Ballet B.C. dancer who stars as the sole woman in the piece, speaking to the Straight from her Jubilee Hall dressing room before ballet class at their Calgary road stop. The challenge with it isn’t so much the footwear, contends Hutchison, who grew up listening to the Man in Black because her father was such a fan. “It has to be very sincere and real. The biggest comment we’ve had was how touching it was and how much that surprised them [the audience members]. That’s part of the beauty and simplicity of it.”

“What James has really worked on with the cast is being able to fill an entire house with just four people on-stage,” Renna explains. “There’s such a deep, emotional raspiness to his [Cash’s] voice, and that adds to the element of the whole piece.”

Ballet companies across North America are using pop music more and more for their productions (the Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s Elton John-scored Love Lies Bleeding is set to come here next month), but is this always a good thing?

“Honestly, there’s potential in everything as long as it’s done well and with integrity,” Renna says, welcoming the new audiences that such programming brings.

“The pluses are that it does open doors to another group of people,” Hutchison agrees. “The downside is it becomes popular dance—and that’s already out there, and that’s not necessarily something we need to ask for. But with Man in Black, it’s 100 percent a work of art.”

For now, she’ll get to enjoy the full range of projects the National continues to offer. In the fall, that means a brand-new rendition of a deeply classical work, Romeo and Juliet, as well as productions of a Christmas Nutcracker and the cutting-edge storytelling of The Seagull.

For Renna, the repertoire at the National has opened up a world of dance for him that he couldn’t have imagined as a boy. “Growing up through school, you have this dream: ‘I’m going to be the prince,’ ” he explains. “I’ve really learned to grow in all kinds of directions and tried not to pigeonhole myself to my dream as a 14-year-old.”

The National Ballet of Canada plays the Queen Elizabeth Theatre from Friday to Sunday (September 23 to 25).

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