The National Ballet still looks fresh and edgy at 60

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At the Queen Elizabeth Theatre on Friday, September 23. Continues to September 25

The National Ballet of Canada arrived on the West Coast to celebrate its 60th birthday, but the country’s grande dame of dance is definitely not showing her age.

Edgy, angular works by William Forsythe and Crystal Pite—and even a piece set to Johnny Cash—showed the company is poised squarely in the here in now. Yes, as dance fans here know thanks to Ballet B.C., Canadian ballet in the 21st century is about much more than princesses and swans.

The highlight of the anniversary tour’s program is its two en pointe bookend pieces: Forsythe’s sleekly grey and mathematical the second detail and Pite’s skittish, eerily insectlike Emergence. The work by Euro ballet innovator Forsythe debuted at the National in 1991, but it still feels fresh and revolutionary today. The stage opens wide and cavernous to grey screens and a line of matching chairs set against the far back wall. Set to the propulsive, dementedly carnivalesque electronic score of Thom Willems, detail plays with the rhythms of different groups of dancers, their perfection offset by the odd knock-kneed pose. Groups enter and exit in a dizzying array of Balanchine-on-speed patterning: the corps is a shiny, well-honed machine here. Dancer Tanya Howard eventually scurries in as the foil to all this ordered chaos, a wild woman wearing bare feet and a sculptural Issey Miyake white dress, flailing herself around like her joints have turned to Plasticine.

As for Pite’s Emergence, it’s a twisted treat: the Vancouver choreographer and Kidd Pivot artistic director is a sensation around Canada and the world, but we rarely get to see her large-scale work at home. Her 2009 Emergence is pure quirky Pite, a flurry of buglike movement that finds dancers lurching on their toes like praying mantises, bending their elbows up like pincer jaws, and skittering around on pointe shoes. At one point, the men sit with their bare backs to the audience, crooking their arms and manipulating their muscles to look like an army of alien stag beetles. The creepy yet virtuosic work takes place in and around Jay Gower Taylor’s abstracted, hivelike setting; the dancers emerge from and disappear into a tunnel at its dark centre. The spookiness is heightened by Owen Belton’s clicking, cacaphonic score. Emergence reaches its frantic zenith when the dozens of dancers gather on stage at once, whispering counts, and marching like ants. Fiercely original and definitely not your mom’s ballet.

Completely different but no less enjoyable is The Man in Black, choreographer and former National artistic director James Kudelka’s 2010 ode to Johnny Cash and the working class. Four performers in cowboy boots—the charismatic but never cartoonlike Stephanie Hutchison, Kevin Bowles, Patrick Lavoie, and Jonathan Renna—move around in a clever reimagining of step, square, and line dancing. The vernacular is masculine and casual, with thumbs hooked into belt loops and arms often stiff and straight as fenceposts, but the movement is also beautifully sculptural and emotionally frank. A trio might lift one man up so he can wipe his brow, or hold another while he runs angst-ridden on the spot.

Who would have thought ballet could somehow be set to the Man in Black’s songs (including “Hurt”), or that a form as artless and parodied as line dance could be raised to art?

The final piece on the program gave audience members their more classic ballet fix, with star ballerina Greta Hodgkinson and the vivacious Zdenek Konvalina dancing Jerome Robbins’s tribute to Frédéric Chopin, Other Dances. Performed with pianist Andrei Streliaev at a Steinway on stage, it was elegant, polished, and feather-light—Hodgkinson weightless and fluid.

We might be able to dance like bugs and cowboys, it seemed to say, but after 60 years, we can still nail our arabesques and lifts.

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