Emerging Arts Critics Programme

Promise for the Future

The Twelfth Erik Bruhn Prize By David Rudin
  • Natasha Sheehan and Angelo Greco of San Francisco Ballet in Act II Pas de Deux from Giselle / Photo by Aleksandar Antonijevic

Promise for the future, it turns out, can be entertaining in the present.

The competition for the Erik Bruhn Prize – named after the legendary Danish dancer and former artistic director of The National Ballet of Canada – is not a grand ballet in the traditional sense but a showcase of short variations. On a bare stage, five pairs of dancers from noted companies take turns dancing classical pas de deux and original pieces of contemporary choreography. Beyond the division between the evening’s classical and contemporary halves, a randomized program order renders incidental any through-line.

And yet the Twelfth International Competition for The Erik Bruhn Prize, hosted by National Ballet Principal Dancer Jillian Vanstone on November 15 at the Four Seasons Centre, nevertheless managed to offer a unified reflection on the ballet and its potential future forms.

Madoka Sugai and Christopher Evans of The Hamburg Ballet began the proceedings by dancing a pas de deux from Flower Festival in Genzano. This springy number emphasized youthful energy at the expense of fluidity. To its detriment, Evans could be seen fidgeting in the background while his partner danced downstage. Though awkward, the pair’s performance offered a useful counterpoint to The Royal Ballet’s Chisato Katsura and Harrison Churches, in their rendition of the third act pas de deux from The Sleeping Beauty. Churches moved stoically, his torso, like a marble bust, barely moving as he pirouetted and lifted his partner about the stage.

As luck would have it, those opening performances offer two useful interpretive poles for an evening that oscillated between the playful and poised. On home turf, The National Ballet of Canada’s Calley Skalnik and Félix Paquet opted for the latter approach to Le Corsaire. Paquet danced powerfully, gobbling up large swathes of stage with his every leap. Skalnik’s graceful precision offered an interesting counterpoint, but the pair excelled separately and rarely came together in memorable fashion. They passed like two ships in the night.

The American Ballet Theatre’s Cassandra Trenary and Gabe Stone Shayer, on the other hand, took a jollier approach to the “Bluebird” pas de deux from The Sleeping Beauty. Hard though it was to look past Shayer’s comical bluebird headgear, theirs was perhaps the most theatrical performance of the classical repertoire: joyous without any of Sugai and Evans’ discomfiture. Natasha Sheehan and Angelo Greco from the San Francisco Ballet, dancing the second act pas de deux from Giselle, offered a more austere form of excellence. Even when in the background, Greco remained unmistakably rapt with his seventeen-year-old partner. Who can blame him? Her every movement was at once razor sharp and fluid.

The contemporary program offered a similar division between the playful and the serious, albeit with different pairs in each category. In Remember, choreographer Marc Jubete successfully channeled the awkwardness of the Hamburg pair’s original performance into something compelling. The palpable unease when Sugai and Evans were at opposite ends of the stage finally made sense in this quiet and unnerving number about growing apart and forgetfulness. The jury awarded Jubete its choreographic prize for his work. Similarly spare, The Royal Ballet’s Good People, integrates audio clips of the dancers. Calvin Richardson’s choreography breaks the fourth wall to examine the dancers’ anxieties. The stiff competence of the pair’s earlier pas de deux gave way to a looser yet committed performance. In an evening that treated seriousness and levity as water and oil, this number productively explored their overlap.

The American pairs, with their more acrobatic interpretation of contemporary ballet, offered a clear stylistic counterpoint to the other contemporary performances. In The Story of…, a brooding, autumnal work by Jeffrey Cirio, the dancers from The American Ballet Theatre covered the stage in directions previously ignored. As ever, Canada split the difference between America and Europe in Robert Binet’s slightly dour Self and Soul. Skalnik and Paquet continued to excel separately while adding up to less than the sum of their considerable talents.

In this respect, the pair of Sheehan and Greco from the San Francisco Ballet represented their polar opposite. Greco remained the evening’s most dynamic performer despite being frequently cast in shadow by Jeff Logue’s lighting design. This may have been because Sheehan, like a moth, finds the light – her every movement at once weightless and crisp. The pair swept the individual awards, not that far ahead of the field – particularly the dancers from The Royal Ballet – but offered the best balance of technique and expressivity on a night that teetered between the two. 

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