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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Thursday, March 08, 2012

Stage Trickery - The Neverending Story and KÀ - Stage Reviews

The Neverending Story - Young People's Theatre - Toronto, ON - ***1/2 (out of 5 stars)
Based upon the novel by Michael Ende, Adapted and Directed by David S. Craig
Runs until Mar. 17th 2012

Cirque du Soleil's - MGM Grand - Las Vegas, NV - **** (out of 5 stars)
Written and Directed by Robert Lapage

Two fantastical shows with some ingenious set magic that takes us to another world, with (my guess) budgets from the opposite ends of the spectrum. The Young People's Theatre does it again with their ingenious use of deceptively simple looking costumes and the most creative use of a back curtain I have EVER seen, and transports us into the story within the story of The Neverending Story. Meanwhile, I've gone back and forth about which probably has a set that cost 10,000x more than The Neverending Story, and visually blew my mind. But a series of expectations that come with seeing a Cirque show, in Las Vegas, made the beautifully theatrical show somewhat of a disappointment.

I've never actually read the book or seen the movie The Neverending Story, so while I have no real attachment to the story that seems to have quite the following amongst the young and my peers who grew up with the film, the production feels solid with it's terrific cast that includes Natasha Greenblatt (The Railway Children), Derek Scott (Slava's Snow Show), Richard Lee (Other People), Walter Borden (Fernando Krapp Wrote Me This Letter) and Adamo Ruggiero (Dog Sees God, Degrassi: TNG).

While some of the episodic elements feel a bit like a best-of series to the uninitiated like me, the audiences seemed to be enraptured. Much of it helped with the extremely clever production and stage craft that manages to use some simple curtains and theatrical elements (and 6 hidden stage hands) to create the fantastical world within the book The Neverending Story, as the audience follows Bastian (Greenblatt) as she escapes her bullies by diving into the mysterious book. The magic behind David S. Craig's direction, Glenn Davidson's sets and lighting, and Lori Hickling's costumes, are so simple, yet so effective that I found myself in the same wonderment as many of the kids surrounding me. With mature and serious performances from the entire cast, it gives the magic the grounded balance such a weird and wacky story requires.

Those going into Cirque du Soleil's might have to adjust their expectations if they've seen other Cirque shows before. As a Vegas sit down production with a theatre created for the show, there's a special no-stage stage and fully encompassing theatre setting (by Mark Fisher) that is mind-blowingly awesome. But as a Cirque show, one needs to expect less actual circus tricks and more theatricality, brought to you by Montreal director Robert Lapage. This definitely feels like a Robert Lapage show, with some stunning visuals using some of the most jaw-dropping awe inspiring stage technology intermixing with some clever theatrical tricks. There are lots of stunning imagery pulled together with the most narrative Cirque show I've seen yet (and not the usual mysteriously vague story that you never quite understand that strings together most other Cirque shows), but with the height and vast size of the stage area and two floating spinning platforms, you sort of expect far more flying and acrobatics that Cirque has come to be known for. So there is a slight disappointment in the lack of draw dropping circus elements, despite the numerous ones does actually have. Still, that stage is jaw-droppingly stunning.

The story follows brother and sister twins separated by attackers who wage war on an Asian looking kingdom. Each twin tries to survive and escape the attack in various places until they find their soulmates, reunite, than wage a final attack on the nemeses in a final sequence that seems like a superhero movie. The story allows for plenty of circus tricks to be integrated into the story, including the Wheel of Death, but there seemed to be a lot of use of "simpler" circus tricks like stick play and tossing sticks. There seemed to be a lot of sticks thrown around. Great stuff, but when you have such a spectacular stage setting, with giant flipping platforms and a vast vertical space, you'd expect more flying, but the only flying done was during a Tarzan type scene, and a giant bird made up of several people hung on a wired contraption. Amazing to look at, and athletic I'm sure, but we want to see some people flip in the air without wires.

There's also a sequence on a beach with literal costumed turtles and crabs, a fun way to throw in some contortionists, but quite a jolt from the rest of the shows vibe and look.

And then there's a part where a twin and his surviving guide start doing shadow puppets. Beautiful against the giant platform hung in midair, and I understand it's a slower moment to connect with the characters, but really? Shadow puppets? When you're paying over $100 a ticket for a Cirque show in Vegas, shadow puppets is the last thing you expect or want. So again, is it my own expectation for what the Cirque brand, especially the Cirque brand in Vegas, means to me, or am I under-appreciating the theatrical nature of Lapage's work here that integrates the athleticism that Cirque offers with his beautifully imaginative visions?

When the show does get moving, it's because people are moving. While the story allows for a bit too many chase sequences, some of them, particularly on the climbing wall, as people flip and fall while sliding up and down the angled platform, is absolutely breathtaking.

The Wheel of Death is always thrilling, and here used as a torture chamber as part of the story. Earlier in the show, a boat takes our attackers and captives into a wild and stormy sea, but the contraption seems to be ready made for more gymnast styled acrobatics but mostly the characters just seem to wave around a lot before many are tossed overboard.

So while certainly cost in the millions, millions more than Young People's entire budget I'm sure, both stories were fun enough, buoyed by creative use of stage magic. The Neverending Story propels it's story (within the story) with some imaginative theatrical tricks, and anchors it with a terrific cast. certainly dazzles simply with the mechanics and technology of its non-stage stage, but sometimes the simplicity in some of the theatrical moments tends to underwhelm against the overwhelming backdrop, but that overwhelming backdrop certainly makes the show something to behold and see.

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