The opening production of The National Ballet of Canada’s 2023/24 season pairs two short ballets about passion. Ironically, it’s Passion that is the least passionate of the pair, feeling disjointed and overly busy. The world premiere of Emma Bovary, on the other hand, is a cohesive triumph that led me and my guest to turn to each other towards the end and exclaim ‘wow!’
The evening begins with the Canadian premiere of Passion, choreographed by former NBoC Artistic Director James Kudelka and designed to portray different types of romantic love. Passion takes two lead couples, one classical (Harrison James and Calley Skalnik) and one contemporary (Piotr Stanczyk and Svetlana Lunkina), and juxtaposes them in various ways, including their quality of movement (restrained and traditional versus sinuous and expressive) and their costuming (romantic pale tutu and neat bun versus a jewel-toned ensemble and loose hair). Two secondary classical couples and a small, female corps de ballet complete the cast.
Saying Harrison James makes an elegant classical leading man is like saying water is wet; he partners a lovely Skalnik with ease. Monika Haczkiewicz is a stand out among the other classical dancers. Lunkina and Stanczyk have strong chemistry as the contemporary couple, and their connection is engaging when it’s expressed through dance, but too often they’re left to wander across the stage gazing at each other from a distance.
If you’re not a fan of Kudelka’s choreography, Passion isn’t the ballet to change your mind. Despite strong performances from all of the couples, the ballet feels fragmentary. Bogged down by somehow too much and not enough going on all at once, it would be better served by eliminating the aimless corps de ballet and focusing on the love stories Passion is trying to convey.
I feel privileged to have witnessed some of Piotr Stanczyk’s exceptional performances over the years, in roles like the White Rabbit in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Diaghilev in Nijinsky, and Leontes in The Winter’s Tale. His strength, charisma, and skill at inhabiting a role make him one of my favourite National Ballet dancers to watch. It’s bittersweet to attend one of the final performances of his brilliant 25-year career.
While my head understands Stanczyk’s choice to honour his mentor Kudelka with the selection of Passion as his farewell performance, my heart wishes he had selected a piece with more dramatic heft to it.
I found all of the drama, emotion, and cohesion that Passion lacked in Helen Pickett’s stunning new creation, Emma Bovary. Even technical difficulties with a tricky set piece, which caused the show to pause briefly shortly before its finale, couldn’t keep Emma Bovary from soaring.
Pickett chose not to tell a straightforward narrative ballet based on Gustave Flaubert’s 19th-century novel, but delves instead into the psyche of the titular character. Emma is a young woman disillusioned with her dreary existence, whose desire for beauty and vibrancy in life leads to her ruin.
This is a story that feels very contemporary, with Emma rejecting the traditional path of marriage and motherhood and searching for respite from her monotonous life by buying beautiful material goods.
Every creative choice, from choreography and costuming to lighting and music has purpose and feels intentional in the hands of this gifted creative team. The result is a feast for the senses. Michael Gianfrancesco’s costume and set design cleverly depicts the monochrome palette of Emma’s day-to-day life, while gorgeous jewel-toned costumes, a chandelier the Phantom of the Opera would envy, and Emma’s own vibrant teal gown provide glimpses into Emma’s eye for beauty. Animations and lighting design by Grégoire Pont and Bonnie Beecher respectively allow us to experience the heights of Emma’s imagination, while a sweeping original score by Peter Salem (beautifully played by the National Ballet of Canada orchestra) accompanies the piece.
Pickett’s mesmerizing choreography consistently thrills, and is (with only the minor exception of a male corps de ballet dancer noticeably off-time in one scene) well executed by this talented company.
As Emma, second soloist Hannah Galway is a revelation. In a deeply empathetic performance, she deftly conveys both Emma’s despair at her circumstances and her continuing spirit and imagination. This is a star-making turn for the soloist, and I expect to see her ascend the ranks sooner rather than later.
Siphesihle November is reliably good as Emma’s lover Rodolphe, while Donald Thom impresses as Emma’s awkward husband, Charles. It’s a stone-hearted audience member who doesn’t feel a little sorry for Charles. Slickly dressed principal dancer Spencer Hack is perfectly suited for the role of Monsieur Lheureux, imbuing the merchant who leads Emma into financial ruin with a sly, seductive charm.
I hope this is the first of many Helen Pickett creations to grace the Four Seasons Centre stage. Emma Bovary is a masterpiece, and one the National Ballet of Canada should be proud to program for years to come.