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Review

A New Era, Not Unlike the Old 

By Michael Crabb
  • The Festival Dance ensemble in Robert Glumbek’s "Prefigured Effect" / Photo by Donald Lee 
  • Yoo Sang Hong, Isaac Akiba, and Mark Dennis in Robert Glumbek’s "Prefigured Effect" / Photo by Donald Lee 
  • Elena Lobsanova and Tristan Dobrowney in the Festival Dance performance of George Balanchine’s "Divertimento" / Photo by Donald Lee 
  • The Festival Dance ensemble in Peggy Baker’s "Julio Lumo" / Photo by Donald Lee  

Banff Festival Dance 

Banff Festival Dance 

Banff  August 5-9, 2008 

Music by Jonny Greenwood might seem an unlikely candidate to accompany a dance but as it turns out the Radiohead guitarist/composer’s orchestral score for Paul Thomas Anderson’s much-acclaimed 2007 movie, “There Will Be Blood”, provided just the propulsive energy and suspenseful mood Toronto-based choreographer Robert Glumbek needed for his unsettling new work, “Prefigured Effect”.

Glumbek was this year’s winner of The Banff Centre’s Clifford E. Lee Choreography Award and “Prefigured Effect” was the commissioned work he created during a five-week Rocky Mountain residency for participants in the seventy-five-year-old Alberta educational institution’s freshly revamped professional summer dance program. It was duly performed – six shows in all – as part the annual Banff Festival Dance, August 5th through 9th.

It’s generally wise not to read choreographers’ house-program notes in advance of seeing their work. Too often these musings come across as infuriatingly pretentious, particularly when they wax philosophical, and inevitably prejudice one’s perception.

As I discovered after a first viewing of “Prefigured Effect”, Glumbek, by his own account, appears to have choreographed the ballet in a mood of fatalistic anxiety. The gist of his note – I paraphrase liberally – is that life is a crapshoot and that about the only response is to get on with it and hope for the best.

This is not quite what I read into “Prefigured Effect”, even after a second viewing, but what I did see was a tightly constructed, non-narrative work full of inventive movement, rife with psychological import and united by a well-sustained tone of unpredictability and suspense. 

“Prefigured Effect” closed the four-part Banff program and during the preceding intermission members of the cast appeared on stage to chalk various phrases on the floor of the otherwise bare stage. Since they scrawled at all angles and, I suspect, in more than one language, it took a bit of neck-craning to make them out. However, I did manage, correctly I hope, to decipher these: “Never finding true happiness”, “Failing to meet my own expectations”, “Not taking pleasure in the moment” and a string of grim nouns: “War, torture, greed, revenge.” Then the dance proper begins.

The opening image is a stunner. Delineated by side lights in an otherwise darkened space, four of the work’s ten women – there are also six men in the piece – appear to float, erect above the stage. Each in turn, without warning, drops into the dark void.

From here “Prefigured Effect”, as light returns, unfolds in a sequence of variously configured ensembles that often incorporate physically daring and unconventional partnering. Unison movement and ordered patterns often give way to the geometrics of barely controlled chaos. Sometimes the dancers seem pushed or pulled by invisible forces. Glumbek works from a ballet base – clearly he values line and proportion and the women are on pointe – but the movement is also viscerally energized and bodies are often precariously pushed off-centre.

A trio of brown-suited men with red shirts and black ties insinuate themselves into the dance with explosive energy. They could be symbols of fate, perhaps Furies. At the end of “Prefigured Effect” they man-handle a lone woman in a faintly disturbing pas de quatre. Finally, in a reprise of the ballet’s opening image, she is held aloft, caught in a beam of light, then disappears into the gloom.

Like Greenwood’s score, Christopher Dennis’s lighting consistently supports the mood of the ballet. Jorge Sadoval’s rich-red terracotta see-through slips for the women, worn over black under garments, and similar tops for the men, accompanied by sand-colored pants, are also attractively appropriate. 

~

Last year the Banff Centre celebrated sixty years of summer dance. It began with Royal Winnipeg Ballet founder Gweneth Lloyd, supported as always by her indefatigable colleague Betty Farrally. The Banff dance torch passed to Lloyd’s protégé, Arnold Spohr, in 1967 until choreographer Brian Macdonald took over as program head in 1982. Under Macdonald, the program was formally divided into two divisions, training and professional. Farrally continued as associate head until her death in 1989.

Macdonald, who turned eighty in May, had already stepped back into an advisory role a few years ago, leaving his wife, former ballerina Annette av Paul, as program head. Her logical successor –- and former frequent partner in their Grands Ballets Canadiens days –- appeared to be regular Banff summer session teacher and latterly associate head, David LaHay.

Then came news late last year that the Banff Centre would abandon the junior training division and revamp the professional program. Macdonald, av Paul and LaHay, not without understandable protest, decamped to establish the new Okanagan Summer Dance Intensive in Kelowna, BC. Meanwhile, in a complete break from former historic affiliations, Banff appointed forty-seven-year-old former Dutch National Ballet and New York City Ballet principal dancer Lindsay Fischer to the vacant summer dance headship.

Fischer, American-born but National Ballet School-trained, has worked as a National Ballet guest répétiteur and NBS teacher since retiring from the stage a decade ago. Last year, he moved fulltime to Canada’s National Ballet as artistic director of its new apprentice outreach and training group, YOU Dance.

Instead of auditioning prospective participants in the Banff program, Fischer consulted with leading Canadian ballet company directors who then recommended suitable candidates, some of them already full company members or apprentices.

Having learned of Fischer’s plans, former Alberta Ballet and now Boston Ballet artistic director Mikko Nissinen managed to place four of his own candidates in the new program. 

Apart from a complete change of faculty, on the face of it, Banff’s summer professional dance program under Fischer does not appear so different from its predecessor. Although chosen differently, the 2008 program’s twenty-six men and women, ranging in age from eighteen to twenty-three, worked their way through class and rehearsal towards the festival performances. These, from the perspective of regular Banff audiences, would not have appeared so different from previous years: a troupe of spirited, talented young dancers giving their all to an eclectic repertoire designed to develop their stylistic versatility.

This summer, apart from Robert Glumbek’s challenging new ballet, the bill of choreographic fare included Russian-American master George Balanchine’s fifty-two-year-old, Mozart-fuelled “Divertimento No. 15”; a reworked version “Julio Lumo”, Peggy Baker’s lovely and joyous ensemble dance originally made in 2000 for NBS students to songs composed in traditional Greek and Arabic style; and an excerpt from the tragic last act of Bournonville’s “La Sylphide”.

The Banff company – for that is in effect what they had become after five weeks of intensive work together – generally acquitted themselves at least creditably and sometimes with distinction. National Ballet corps member Elena Lobsanova was as touchingly ethereal as the Slyph as she had earlier been effervescent in the Balanchine. The men, not uncommonly in such circumstances, were less consistently strong than the women in the received repertoire but excelled in Glumbek’s creation. That said, Boston Ballet II member Isaac Akiba’s interpretation of James made him look like a Bournonville dancer to the manner born.

Behind the scenes, meanwhile, Fischer worked in direct and indirect ways to inculcate in his young charges an appreciation of what it means to be a professional dancer by providing a supportive, encouraging environment and imparting his own philosophy of “success” as an ultimately self-determined concept.

With so many dance summer programs to choose from in North America, the scholarship-supported one at Banff appears to be redefining itself in ways that serve the practical needs of gifted young professionals. And, by all accounts, the new Okanagan Summer Dance Intensive will offer an equally attractive program for those younger dancers who used to flock to Banff’s junior training division. 

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