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Thursday, March 22, 2012

A Breath of Fresh Air - The Seagull - Ballet Review

The Seagull - National Ballet of Canada - Four Seasons Center - Toronto, ON - ****1/2 (out of 5 stars)
Choreographed and Designed by John Neumeier, After the play by Anton Chekhov, Music by Dmitri Shostakovich, Evelyn Glennie, Pyotr Iliych Tchaikovsky and Alexander Scriabin
Runs until Mar. 25th 2012


From it's curtainless opening with a threadbare stage against a blueish-white backdrop alluding to an oceanfront setting, the ballet The Seagull is like a breath of fresh sea salt air that calms and relaxes the nerves. As the cast of dancers enter the scenes, slowly introducing us to the array of characters based on Anton Chekov's play, and move to John Neumeier's exquisite choreography, we glare out in wonderment the same way one stands along a beach and takes in the splendors of our world.

John Neumeier fully transforms Anton Chekhov's play into a movement piece that playfully allows dances between characters in the interlinking relationships and train of love or loved lost. Neumeier's choreography gives each character such distinctive movement traits, and along with his easily identifiable (but not overt) costume designs, it was strangely easier to follow along with Chekhov's maze of soap opera dramatics than his original play (which I never really "got"). In fact, while I've always loved the concept and story ideas Chekhov's presented, I've never actually enjoyed any of his plays, feeling the words dragged on forever. Neumeier counterintuitively excised Chekhov's famous words, and replaced it with dance, and in doing so, opened up Chekhov's story to an operatic quality. With Neumeier's staging on his sparse (but beautifully crisp) set, the imagery and moments he creates manages to communicate the heartaches and heartbreaks of the characters far more than I could ever connect to with during the play.

Neumeier also gets to have a bit of fun with the shows within the show, as the troupe of actors in Chekhov's story have now been transformed into dancers and choreographers. With various types of music, the choreography gets to play out in very different tons and styles, going from a modern Japanese Kabuki inspired number, to a full follies-bergere cabaret style number in Act 2, as well as a thrilling dream ballet, and a spoof on the tutu number that utilizes some humour character acting from the corps de ballet.

It also helps that the opening night cast for The Seagull seemed born to play their roles, using the talented National Ballet company to perfection. Guillaume Côté makes his debut as Kostya, the artistically brooding but handsome centre of this piece, and it uses its matinee idol Principal Dancer with his side artistic interests and quirks to perfection here. Playing against him, Sonia Rodriguez gives a wonderful genteel but inquisitive Nina the heart needed as she goes between interest in Kostya and Trigorin. Aleksandar Antonijevic, stoic and confidently distant leaves the 3rd quadrant of a love square (I think? It all gets quite complicated!). Greta Hodgkinson is perfect with grace and snootiness as the prima ballerina Arkadina. McGee Maddox is hilariously cast as a pompous, cocky Dorn, using his huge football type build and youthful swagger to perfection.

Jonathan Renna slips into the bumbling but affable brother Sorin role so well. I couldn't stop watching his body portray the character with such ease (and made me want to pair him up with Rebekah Rimsay in a future show, as they would make a great comic duo). The tall and handsome Noah Long hides under his hat and glasses as the bookish Medvedenko (although it did seem like if this was a modern romantic comedy, Long would easily be the friend-turned-leading-man-romantic-interest-under-her-nose-all-along). Instead, he gets continually spurned by Masha until she finally gives up and accepts her life bound by a marriage to someone she does not love. Chelsy Meiss, formerly from the corps, now a second soloist, is an absolute revelation in my first experience with her in a prominent role, and I cannot wait to see more of Ms. Meiss. Her Masha is an emotional devastation with a looming sadness and Meiss easily conveys all the levels of her gloom and sparks of passion for Kostya (and really, who can blame her?), giving a passion to her movements and dancing that made me wonder why I have never noticed her before.

Though with such a great opening night cast, it would be great to see Elena Lobsanova or Jillian Vanstone in Nina's role, or Jiří Jelinek or Piotr Stanczyk as Trigorin but alas, too many great dancers, too little time.

It was nice to see Robert Stephen and Christopher Stalzer as part of Kostya's Dream Dancer although with this performance, I can't believe Stalzer hasn't been made second soloist yet.

While there were brief moments in the story that slowed things down, and some of the dancing could have been a bit tighter or more in sync, particularly in the first quarter, the ballet manage to keep me awake through something by Chekhov, which is a feat on its own. Neumeier should be highly praised for his intriguing and clever transformation of a classic drama that allows for some amazing choreography that furthers the intricate soap opera dynamics while keeping each character distinct. With costumes that seemed unified, yet make each dancer decipherable from each other, Neumeier's own design vision (along with his crisp sets), makes The Seagull a beautiful looking ballet that often has subtle dramas happening in different corners of the stage, while never feeling cluttered or overwhelming.

The Seagull ballet is such a fascinating and stunning work that mixes various choreographic styles with a wonderful mix of music types, all to aid in telling the stories and emotional connections between a group of individuals. As love is gained or love is lost, transporting Chekhov's story into solely music and movement manages to actually clarify the intricacies and the layers in his tale of emotional bonds. Truly a mature and captivating theatrical experience presented in the hands of an exceptional company.


Photos of Sonia Rodriguez and Guillaume Côté in The Seagull
Photos by Bruce Zinger

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