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- Title: Passion, Emma Bovary
- Choreographer: James Kudelka, Helen Pickett
- Dancers: Various casting
- Company: National Ballet of Canada
- Venue: Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts
- City: Toronto
What is true romance, and what is merely the pursuit of love? Two ballets ponder that distinction in National Ballet of Canada’s alluring season-opening program that premiered at the Four Seasons Centre in Toronto on Saturday.
Passion, a 2013 abstract ballet by Canadian choreographer James Kudelka, and Emma Bovary, an hour-long adaptation of the 1857 Gustave Flaubert novel, made for a better pairing that one might think, although the second ballet was easier to love.
Kudelka served as artistic director of National Ballet from 1996 to 2005. He made Passion for Houston Ballet in 2013, and National Ballet imported it in honour of Piotr Stanczyk, who is retiring after a 25-year career with the company. The conceit is promising: Eleven dancers perform a faux-classical ballet onstage, while a couple in modern dress weave in and out of the tutus, mostly oblivious to the pageantry before beginning to dance themselves.
In online program notes, National Ballet says the goal is “to present starkly different portraits of romantic attraction.” But really, what Passion does is present different portraits of balletic partnering, and the differences are not that stark, especially when compared with the vivid degrees of romantic attraction in Emma Bovary.
Passion’s leading classical couple (Harrison James and Calley Skalnik on opening night) execute movements associated with 19th-century story ballets: the woman balancing on one toe, the other leg extended in arabesque while her partner turns her, for example. The modern dress couple (Stanczyk and Svetlana Lunkina) approach their relationship with less artifice, and tackle fiendishly difficult partnering. Twice, the woman rises on one toe, holding the other leg crossed, while swapping hand-holds with her partner, right-left, left-right. An oft-repeated lift has both dancers facing forward as she braces her wrists and he lifts her by the hands, awkwardly arching his back.
Relationships can be a struggle: That was a takeaway from Passion on opening night, although not necessarily Kudelka’s intent. Both leading couples faltered at moments. The second cast that performed on Sunday, featuring Heather Ogden and Christopher Gerty as the modern dress couple, and Genevieve Penn Nabity and Larkin Miller as the presumed prince and princess, fared better. Passion is set to the opening movement of a Beethoven piano concerto, transcribed for violin. Stately and somewhat formulaic, the concerto is perfect for depicting courtship as a clinical exercise, less so if the goal is unbridled passion.
The pursuit of love and all things that deliver a rush of dopamine to the head propel Emma Bovary, both in her fictional life and the new ballet by American choreographer Helen Pickett. In her previous job at Scottish Ballet, National Ballet artistic director Hope Muir helped shepherd Pickett’s stellar adaptation of The Crucible to the stage, so it was smart of Muir to task Pickett with Flaubert. Opening night’s Emma was the revelatory and daring Hannah Galway, a second soloist from British Columbia making her debut as a lead in a story ballet. Galway proved the perfect muse, and Pickett assembled a team of artists keen on creating a theatrical experience, including co-director James Bonas, her collaborator on The Crucible.
A crucial question heading into the premiere was whether the team could successfully condense 300 pages into 61 minutes. The answer is “yes” – but what they’ve distilled is so good, a full-length ballet would be even better. This abbreviated Bovary opens with Galway hovering in a single spotlight, stroking a satin aqua chemise as if in a state of private ecstasy. Pickett is a genius when it comes to articulating emotion through gesture. That said, being familiar with the story beforehand will help patrons immensely. National Ballet has done away with multipage programs, so there isn’t even a list of characters available, and there’s little in the way of sets other than austere black curtains.
“Is he an exorcist?” I overheard one woman ask her companion. She was referring to Lheureux, the “fancy goods salesman” to whom Emma and her husband end up in terrible debt. In this Bovary, he appears in black patent leather, looking a little like Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and seductively unrolls a ream of saffron yellow fabric. Spencer Hack, as Lheureux, and Siphesihle November, as Emma’s lover Rodolphe, both deliver excellent character-driven performances, as does Jordana Daumec in the role of Emma’s imperious mother-in-law.
Pickett is also (choreographically) great in bed, taking cues straight from Flaubert’s once banned-in-France text. A searing bedroom scene shows Emma attempt to guide her husband’s love-making, but he wants none of her strokes and straddling, choosing to smother her shoulder with kisses instead.
“She had believed that what she was experiencing was love; but … must have been mistaken,” Flaubert writes of Emma’s marriage, in a translation by Lydia Davis that Pickett favoured. For the rest of her too-few years, “Emma tried to find out just what was meant, in life, by the words bliss, passion and intoxication.”
That pursuit of passion, while lethal for Emma Bovary, remains a noble calling in ballet. Sometimes dancers and choreographers fall short of that goal, as Passion does, and sometimes, as with Emma, they’ll come onstage for the curtain call in something close to triumph.
In the interest of consistency across all critics’ reviews, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a critic’s pick designation across all coverage. (Television reviews, typically based on an incomplete season, are exempt.)