In The West Side Robbinisqatsi
Martin Knelman, writing in the Star, once apologized for the lacklustre exterior of the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts by describing it as a building that “has to be experienced from the inside out rather than the other way around.” What better way to reinforce the impression that the performances showcased inside are principally targeted at an elite class than by plopping down a building that offers little to those standing on the outside (taking far more from Queen, York, and Richmond Streets than it gives back) and everything to those on the inside? It’s architecture as ideology, whether conscious or not. Thankfully, the National Ballet of Canada, which leases the Centre for seventeen weeks a year, is doing its part to subvert the preconceived notions about who belongs on which side of the soaring black brick walls.
Their current show, a tribute to American choreographer Jerome Robbins on the tenth anniversary of his death, seems to have been programmed specifically to redefine the concept of ballet in the popular imagination. Robbins, best known for directing the original productions of classic Broadway musicals (West Side Story, The King and I, Gypsy, Fiddler on the Roof), played with the idea of ballet as much as he had played with the idea of the Broadway musical, and the National Ballet has gratefully used this tribute as an opportunity to open itself up to people who might otherwise not see themselves as potential patrons of highbrow dance; that the bill is composed of three short, wildly diverse works set to the music of Philip Glass, Frédéric Chopin, and Leonard Bernstein is certainly meant to pique the curiosities of people who self-identify as fans of any one of them.
Glass Pieces (1983) opens with the stage being swarmed by forty-two dancers clad in pastel-coloured eighties wear a little reminiscent of “Physical,” as the orchestra brings Glass’s “Rubric” (from the 1981 album Glassworks) to spine-tingling life. As the dancers hyperkinetically dart past and around each other, it immediately becomes clear that this is an unacknowledged stage adaptation of Koyaanisqatsi, released the previous year, and the success of the live translation is nothing short of dazzling. Indeed, the graph paper-like backdrop is probably an allusion to “The Grid,” the title of the movie’s urban segment, and turns the large stage into a modernist-tiled subway station, rendering the dancers as harried commuters. Every few moments, the performers stop, turn, or gesture in perfect unison; it’s like the most beautiful rush hour ever, or perhaps one of the more conceptual Improv Everywhere missions. Nothing else in the evening comes close to being as exhilarating as this segment, but then few works of art ever are.
In the Night (1970), though positively conventional by comparison, is equally accessible. Set to four of Chopin’s nocturnes played on a solo piano and danced beneath golden stars dangling overhead, this series of pas de deux tells the story of several episodes taking place over the course of a single romantic relationship. It’s interesting, and pretty enough, and almost touching at times, but it won’t do anything to change one’s opinions of classical ballet. You can admire it without being swept away by it.
As the curtain went up to reveal fire escapes weaving in the air and several toughs in t-shirts and jeans perched on brick steps below a streetlight, the audience cheered, and it was clear what a majority of the young-skewing crowd had come out to see. The West Side Story Suite (1995) was Robbins’s condensation of his most famous work (he conceived, directed, and choreographed the original WSS, and won an Oscar for co-directing the movie) into a seven-song ballet that plays more like an abbreviated version of the musical, complete with singing—and yet its greatest achievement is reminding us how much of the original WSS was told wordlessly through dance; “Prologue,” “Dance at the Gym,” and “Rumble” are virtually unchanged from their earlier incarnations. The cast—who get to laugh, sing, snap, holler, and play with prop weapons—is totally into it, and you get the impression they’re having the time of their lives and that for many of them, West Side Story may have inspired their love of dance in the first place. “Cool,” performed by the Jets, and “America,” performed by the Sharks’ girls (and lead by Guillaume Coté as Riff and Greta Hodgkinson as Anita, respectively) are Broadway-quality show-stoppers; it’s unusual to find robust vocal chops and sharp, character-driven ballet dancing in the same person, and it’s all the more impressive that the Ballet found multiple performers of diverse strengths.
Glass Pieces and In the Night and West Side Story Suite continue through November 18th, and young people aged 16-29 can get $20 tickets through the Ballet’s DanceBreak program. Next up in their season is The Merry Widow, based on the Franz Lehár operetta and running from November 21-25. There are few greater things to which an arts organization can aspire than to make their presentations accessible and appealing to new audiences; while some afficionados may scoff, without programs like the Jerome Robbins tribute, the Four Seasons Centre would find itself thirty years from now with no one left to look outwards.
Images courtesy of the National Ballet.