Choreographer Jose Navas is the clear winner of Innovation-Off 2013, the National Ballet of Canada’s 4-piece showcase of new work (actual title: just Innovation). Navas’s Benjamin Britten-scored ensemble piece Watershed is up first in the lineup and packs the biggest artistic punch. The 20-minute collaboration between creator and dancers is full of invention and beautiful shapes while being both an embrace of and challenge to balletic convention. It was the sole piece of the evening that truly took my breath away. From the moment the ensemble began to assemble, silhouetted against the blue light of the backdrop, performing a beautifully timed partnering sequence as though in a round, creating a gorgeous mosaic of shadows, I was completely hooked after a summer away from the ballet (I tragically missed Swan Lake; I don’t want to talk about it).
Guillaume Cote’s Greta Hodgkinson showpiece Being and Nothingness (Part 1) is next, set to the thrilling piano masterpiece Metamorphosis by Philip Glass. The selection of Hodgkinson for the solo is key here as her sharply angular movement and crazy seemingly joint-less body are the perfect canvas for Cote’s out-of-the-box choreographic style. Off-pointe and lit with a single bare bulb (or at least lit to seem as though lit by a single bare bulb), Cote’s piece is a lonely, jarring delve into a tumultuous mind with an effective, almost comic button at the end.
A twenty-minute intermission* carries the evening into Unearth by Robert Binet set to original music by Owen Pallett with a simple but startling set design from Hyemi Shin. At the astounding age of only 22, Binet has created a piece that easily rivals or even tops those of the far-more-famous-and-established choreographers with whom he’s sharing the bill in Innovation-Off 2013. Unearth is quite beautiful despite the occasional moment of messiness in the partner work, but its central duet was my favourite part of the whole evening (aside, perhaps, from Ravas’ stunning first few moments). Binet’s cast for tonight’s performance was filled with some of the National Ballet’s biggest stars (Aleksander Antonijevic, Sonia Rodriguez, Heather Ogden, McGee Maddox, etc) but Unearth was thoroughly stolen by the intoxicating pas de deux between Elena Lobsanova and Skylar Campbell.
The erstwhile Juliet continues to shine as a graceful First Soloist but it was Campbell I was most excited to see. His promotion (along with Brendan Saye’s) from the Corps to Second Soloist after playing principal roles last year is the best development to come out of the 2013 off-season**. With a shining performance quality, strong technique, and emotional versatility, Campbell looks poised to become a pillar of the National Ballet’s next generation of leading men. He’s rising through the ranks quickly at a time when some of the mainstay principals are beginning to age out of certain leading roles. Get used to that mop of curls, you’ll soon be seeing a lot more of it.
After a whopping 30 minute intermission*, the evening finishes off with James Kudelka’s 38-minute death rant set to Stabat Mater (voiced impressively by Dame Emma Kirkby and countertenor David Trudgen). I’ve never really understood the National Ballet’s obsession with Kudelka but if there is a chance to fit a Kudelka piece into a lineup, by god they’re going to put it in there. And here he is again, being more famous and less affecting than everyone else. I suppose …black night’s bright day… is technically a fine piece though there is little memorable about it apart from the genuinely atrocious costumes (yes, I acknowledge that Kudelka likely did not design his own costumes). The women are all in unflattering blue dresses that do nothing to show off their lines while the men mostly wear terrifying sheer button downs with suffocating collars that make their necks look short and their shoulders appear near their ears (since this company is entirely too competent to dance with their shoulders up, this made me very mad). But the worst costume belongs to poor McGee Maddox who plays a sort of spandexified zombie accoutred as a strange cross between a zebra and a tree trunk if such a creature raided the closet of a plus-size grandmother looking for the worst shawl she owns. The whole thing is just visually upsetting. The lovely Heather Ogden is given some nice feature moments, though. And a pas de deux with resident prince Cote shows off new Guest Artist Svetlana Lunkina perfectly; she’s an absolutely beautiful technician whom I look forward to seeing do something else in the coming months.
The longest piece in the evening, with the closing spot no less, Kudelka’s piece is clearly supposed to be the star of Innovation-Off 2013. Unfortunately for him, there are bigger stars and their names are Navas, Campbell, Binet, Cote, Lobsanova, Hodgkinson, Ogden… pretty much everyone but Kudelka, really.
*Almost an entire hour is added to this 2 hour and 25 minute evening because of crazy-long intermissions between very short pieces. I recognize that there is a fair amount of set/setup changing involved that pushes the length (the transition from the Binet piece to the Kudelka, specifically, was quite the process to watch from my spot overlooking the pit) but surely there should be at least a 2:1 ratio on actual performance time to intermission time.
**The worst development of the 2013 off-season? Jiri Jelinek back only as a Guest Artist for his signature role of Onegin having moved to the West Australian Ballet as a Leading Artist; he was one of my favourites and will be missed