Emerging Arts Critics Programme

Sartre, Meet Shakespeare

The National Ballet of Canada explores love in dynamic mixed program By Erin Baldwin
  • Dancers in Ashton's The Dream / Photo by Aleksandar Antonijevic.
  • Greta Hodgkinson in Côté's Being and Nothingness / Photo by Karolina Kuras.

November 21, 2018, The Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, Toronto


If there’s a thread that ties together the two vastly different works in The National Ballet of Canada’s November mixed program, it might just be the theme of love.

The exploration of relationships at the heart of both works – Guillaume Côté’s contemporary Being and Nothingness and Frederick Ashton’s whimsical Shakespearean classic, The Dream. This is where the similarities end. While Côté focusses his piece on turmoil found amidst the drudgery of everyday life, Ashton sets his work in an enchanted and comical dreamworld.

Being and Nothingness, which opened the evening, was influenced by Jean-Paul Sartre’s philosophical treatise of the same name. Côté portrayed its angst by using angular choreography –  staccato arms meet brusque extensions – to explore questions of existence, consciousness and human interaction.

The curtain inches up to reveal an austere black stage void of backdrops or elaborate sets. Instead, minimal furniture breaks up the space: a rug, a bathroom sink, a bed, a hanging window and a door. The piece is seven vignettes, each danced around a different furnishing and, combined with the choreography, it gives a sense of looking in on multiple units of an apartment building. Nonexistent walls separate tenants living vastly different lives.

The piece begins with Greta Hodgkinson walking laggardly across the stage in silence. The flick of a lightbulb cues Philip Glass’s haunting piano score and Hodgkinson rapidly spins her hands around one another. Her vigorous opening solo is littered with flexed feet and wrists, as hands running over arms and face demonstrate anxiety mixed with inner turmoil. Another solo, performed by the dynamic Siphesihle November, features repeated crashes to the ground – legs giving out beneath him.

Côté adds an all-male chorus dressed in black with bowler caps, giving the piece a voyeuristic frame as they jeer aloud and move in wave-like formation. Their presence hints at Sartre’s understanding of consciousness and self-image. Whether the chorus is real or representing the inner psyche, they showcase the need to continually perform, both for the self and others.

Kathryn Hosier and Felix Paquet’s pas de deux is playful at times, filled with flicking hands and toes. It is a breath of fresh air before the following duets become struggles for dominance. Chelsy Meiss and Jack Bertinshaw distractedly move around the stage, while repeated lifts between Svetlana Lunkina and Brendan Saye have Lunkina violently kicking in the air. The final duet sees Hodgkinson return, seemingly more preoccupied with a phone call than with partner Ben Rudisin. He leaves her, finally, on her knees, staring up at the lightbulb. Although disjointed at times, Côté’s choreography succeeds in bringing Sartre’s concerns to life- the struggle to find meaning, the struggle to conquer loneliness, the struggle to connect.

If Being and Nothingness presents the turmoil of everyday relationships, The Dream comes at love from an entirely different perspective. From the opening notes of Mendelssohn’s rich orchestral score to the luscious green and blue forest backdrop from set designer David Walker, it immediately becomes clear we are in a vastly different world. An all-female corps de ballet begins with long turquoise coloured tutus and flower crowns as they gracefully fill the stage, all sweeping port de bras arms and delicate bourres.

A tightly trimmed Shakespearean adaptation, Ashton centres his work around a lover’s quarrel between faery king Oberon and his queen Titania. Oberon demands the help of Puck to ensure victory, and has Titania drugged into falling in love with Bottom, a fumbling worker. Four lovers have also appeared on the scene. It is a game of cat and mouse: Hermia and Lysander are madly in love and eloping, Helena loves Demetrius and Demetrius has suddenly decided to pursue Hermia. Puck erroneously interferes with the pursuits of the lovers. Chaos ensues.

Jillian Vanstone is charming as a haughty Titania, who is all determination in her resolve not to give in to Harrison James’ majestic Oberon. She’s comedic in one of the dance’s high points: Titania’s besotted dance with Bottom. Performed by Joe Chapman, Bottom’s role is performed on pointe – a rarity for male roles in classical ballet. Vanstone effortlessly flutters around the stage, enthralled by Bottom, while Chapman intentionally labours on pointe, feet turned in and lacking extension, to high comedic effect. Skylar Campbell also deserves recognition for his eye-catching portrayal of Puck. His athleticism makes for exuberant jétes, whirlwind pirouettes and fluid movement acutely capturing Puck’s deviousness.

Even in Ashton’s world of fancy, love comes at a cost. In 2018, it’s wince-inducing that the main plot device sees a man drugging his wife, particularly as Titania apologizes and Oberon wins the battle. Nevertheless, the final pas de deux remains a stunning representation of love in pure, classical form. James lifts and turns Vanstone with ease, creating pleasing shapes as the two, mirroring each other with joined hands, extend into arabesque. It concludes the night on a high note, offering up an optimism denied earlier.

If only such happy endings were possible in the real world. Yet as Being and Nothingness reminds us, it’s more complicated outside of dreams.


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