The National Ballet meets the Rolling Stones

I don’t get out to see a lot of dance, modern or classical. But these days, whenever I do, I seem to find myself trying to find my way to the theatre through a mountain of snow. That was the case in early February when I traversed a blizzard to catch the Harbourfront premiere of Transmission of the Invisible (blogged as Swimming to Cambodia). And that was the case again last weekend when, in the wake of another big storm, I ventured out to attend the premiere of the National Ballet’s Rooster. at Toronto’s Four Seasons Centre. A blizzard makes a performance special. You know that both the audience and the artists have made an extra effort. You wonder if anyone will show up. It’s a miracle to see the house almost full. And in this case, the trip was more than worth it.

As a boomer who has virtually no knowledge of ballet but confesses to a deep-rooted familiarity with and affection for the Rolling Stones, I guess I’m smack-dab in the middle of the demographic that artistic director Karen Kain was targeting with a ballet set to the early music of Mick and the boys.

But what I wasn’t prepared for was the opening piece, 24 Preludes by Chopin. If Kain is trying to sex up the National Ballet, this ravishing work of contemporary dance choreographed by Montreal’s Marie Chouinard certainly a step in the right direction. The dancers were virtually naked in sheer scrim-like costumes, with narrow black strips covering private parts, and Mohawk hair pieces. The suggestion of a landing-strip below the waist of the female dancers only seemed to accentuate the erotic. (What is it about Quebec and that whole cabaret thing?) Prurience aside, however, veiled nudity lent every movement a much greater wealth of abstract detail. It made sense in this organic, Zen-like piece, which unfolded as a constant play between the collective and the individual, he dancers’ bodies separating and merging as calligraphic brushstokes in fluid abstract compositions.

I was a bit bored by the second piece—the all-male Soldiers’ Mass—which elicited a more rapturous response from the audience than Chouinard’s work. What do I know? What was clear is that it’s a more traditional work—choreographed in 1980 by Jirí Kylián to music by Czech composer Bohuslav Martinü, And, as a fairly literal representation of soldiers fighting and dying, it struck me as rather prosaic. But its poignant gestures of mortality—the men removing their shirts and letting them drop to the floor like dead flags—left a haunting impression.

Rooster, choreographed by Christopher Bruce, is a light, bright, Carnaby-coloured burlesque that’s more a parody of Jagger’s sexual posturing than a genuine evocation. With 10 dancers (5 men and 5 women) splitting the difference between ballet and jazz, it plays as a comic war between the sexes, largely at the expense of the male ego. Principal dancer Aleksandar Atonijevic brings a snake-oil carnality to the spare, muddy-bottomed blues of Little Red Rooster. And the early Stones ballads with their madrigal-like, pointillist inflections—As Tears Go By, Lady Jane, Ruby Tuesday—seemed well suited to the precision and detail of classically trained dancers. But the danger of trying to parody Jagger is that, on that front, he’s already way ahead of you. You have to be as good, or better. And the choreography fell short of the music with the later tunes, Paint it Black and Sympathy for the Devil. The dark urgency of these songs aren’t well served by a light touch; the choreography lacked the necessary force and menace.

Still, the whole thing was fabulously interesting. And watching it makes you dream of the wild possibilities and positions that could be forged from inter-species romance between classical dance and classic rock.

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