Elite Syncopations, Song of a Wayfarer, Chroma
The National Ballet of Canada
At the Four Seasons Centre in Toronto on Wednesday
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I say once again that Karen Kain is one smart cookie. If you have a mega-hit, bring it back as soon as possible, and that is exactly what the artistic director of the National Ballet of Canada has done with Wayne McGregor's Chroma.
The piece debuted last season to endless applause and cheers. The audience's reaction this time was just as delirious. Chroma clearly ranks among the greatest classics of contemporary ballet.
Last season, it was not the final piece of the program. This time it is, and it's smart placement. Keep the crowd salivating for the main event. Also, it's a hard act to follow.
McGregor created the work for London's Royal Ballet in 2006, and the piece catapulted him into the top ranks of choreographers. Chroma means absence of colour and reflects McGregor's interest in the merging of movement and theory - scientific or artistic.
In this case, his muse was architect John Pawson, who designed the striking set of towering side walls with a big empty frame at the back. Pawson's book Minimum was McGregor's particular inspiration.
Pawson's theory is one of subtraction. By eliminating all the visual elements, you make "the invisible visible." As a choreographer, McGregor is fascinated by finding theories that spur him on to use the body in unique ways.
And unique can barely describe what he makes the dancers' bodies do. Mind-boggling might be a better word.
Here's a physical key: distortions (the buttocks thrust out to an unnatural angle); hyper-extensions (a ballerina's leg going up to the 6 o'clock position, then moving past that to 2 o'clock); muscle isolations (using various parts of the body to send out wild impulses). And that's just for starters.
Garbed in Moritz Junge's skin-coloured costumes, bathed in Lucy Carter's carefully toned lighting palette, and performed to a driving score by Joby Talbot and Jack White, Chroma is sleek, sassy and awe-inspiring. The 10 dancers are simply fabulous.
As if one solid-gold hit isn't enough, the program also includes Maurice Béjart's Song of a Wayfarer, set to Gustav Mahler's famous symphonic song cycle and performed with great passion by baritone Peter Barrett. David Briskin's sympathetic conducting helps elevate the pathos.
Mahler wrote the four songs in 1884-5 when the marriage of singer Johanna Richter to someone else sent the composer spiralling into a deep depression. Béjart uses the pain of the songs as a backdrop for a powerful male duet, created for Rudolph Nureyev and Paolo Bortoluzzi in 1971.
The young man in blue (Zdenek Konvalina), with his obvious pain, is manipulated by his destiny, the man in red (Guillaume Côté). Konvalina captures the fragility beautifully, while Côté has never looked more commanding. The chemistry between the men is palpable. Their performances are magnificent.
The opener is the always amusing Elite Syncopations, created by Sir Kenneth MacMillan in 1974. Former National Ballet Orchestra conductor Ormsby Wilkins is back to play the piano and lead the stage band.
The score is made up of rags by Scott Joplin and others. The inspiration is the dance halls and social dances of the early 20th century, and the whimsical, hand-painted costumes by Ian Spurling are always a delight.
This staging gets rid of a lot of distractions by the dancers who sit on the sidelines. As a result, the piece can be seen for its detailed choreography, rather than as a fun-filled big picture. I actually saw dance steps I have never noticed before. Xiao Nan Yu and McGee Maddox lead an enthusiastic cast.
Dylan Tedaldi and Brendan Saye continue to impress.
And one to watch is newcomer Adji Cissoko. She's a knockout – tall of stature and crisp of attack.
The National Ballet's mixed program continues to Sunday (June 17).