Toronto Leading the Resurgence of Narrative Ballet
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Toronto Leading the Resurgence of Narrative Ballet

The National Ballet of Canada is paving the way for a new era of narrative ballet—and taking their performances to new frontiers.

Guillaume Côté in Nijinsky. Photo by Bruce Zinger.

Nijinsky is not your typical ballet. It’s a dark and haunting portrayal of one of history’s most lauded ballet dancers and his descent into madness. This weekend marked the opening of the second run of the National Ballet of Canada’s acclaimed production, following the success of its 2013 premiere.

Once again, it opened to high praise: the Globe and Mail called it “a triumph on all fronts,” while the Toronto Star spoke of principal dancer Guillaume Côté’s performance as one that walked “the dangerous line between hysteria and histrionics with such focused intensity that you worry he might spontaneously combust.”

Choreographed by John Neumeier, it was originally intended for the Hamburg Ballet when conceived more than a decade ago, but it was the National Ballet of Canada that first danced the production last March. It’s part of the company’s deliberate shift toward producing “story” or “narrative ballet”—a move that is capturing attention around the globe and vaulting the National Ballet into a new era.

“The National Ballet and [artistic director] Karen Kain’s vision is very much based on bringing back the narrative ballet,” Côté says. “She’s been pushing creation and developing content that no one else has, and I think that’s our big ticket to touring.”

Narrative ballets, including traditional productions The Nutcracker and Swan Lake, typically feature more well-developed characters and elaborate costumes. They’ve become a crucial part of the National Ballet of Canada’s repertoire, and have provided it with new performance opportunities. In 2012, the National Ballet performed Alexei Ratmansky’s take on Romeo and Juliet in London, U.K., marking the company’s first appearance in that city in 27 years.

Then, in September, the National Ballet brought Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland—in co-production with the Britain’s Royal Ballet—to New York City, where the company performed at the prestigious Lincoln Centre for the first time in 26 years.

After several decades of relative obscurity, Canada is once again becoming a player in international ballet. The National Ballet’s approach to traditional stories is turning heads elsewhere, while original and unconventional ballets like Nijinsky and Manon, the latter of which opened the season, are wowing audiences here in Toronto.

If you ask Côté, he’ll tell you that, while much of this can be attributed to the National Ballet’s investment in narrative productions, there’s also something to be said for the beauty and growing attraction of dance as a medium.

“In ballet, things don’t have to be as linear and things don’t have to be explained, but things have to be more emotional, they have to be more real in a weird way,” Côté says.

“What’s dance really about? It’s about human relationships,” he continues. “Dance is about the subtleties and the beauty in the unseen between people. It’s something that shouldn’t be really spoken about or told, it should just be there. The hardest thing is to capture something pure and beautiful. I think that’s where dance is such a powerful storyteller, because it gets to the core and the purity of human relationships.”

Often called a “multitasking dancer,” Côté is honing his skills as a choreographer and is currently working on an original production for the National Ballet called The Little Prince, based on the novella Le Petit Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.

“Karen [Kain] has been so wonderfully supportive of my choreographic career and so I’ve managed to do some smaller works, but we’ve been talking about this bigger work for a long time,” Côté said. “I’m very excited to say that I’ve got an incredible creative team and I’ve assembled some of the people I’ve actually admired for years.”

One of those people is designer Michael Levine, who has designed sets at opera houses in Canada, Paris, Vienna, and beyond. While the production is not expected to be complete until June 2016, the National Ballet’s support for it is part of the company’s commitment to telling experimental stories and putting its faith in developing talent.

The National Ballet’s partnership with the Royal Ballet is a promising new venture for the Canadian company. In April, the two co-produced The Winter’s Tale, based on William Shakespeare’s play of the same name. It premiered in London in April, and will come to Toronto for the 2015–16 season.

“Like the play,” wrote the New York Times in a review of the London performance of The Winter’s Tale, “the ballet has taken us through a large arc of human experience”—which is exactly what Côté said dance is supposed to do.

CORRECTION: November 26, 2014, 1:53 PM This post originally stated that the National Ballet performed Romeo and Juliet in London last year, when in fact the year was 2012. In addition, the post stated the National Ballet performed at the David H. Koch Theatre for the first time in 35 years, when in fact it was at the Lincoln Centre after 26 years. We regret the errors.