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The National Ballet's mixed program is a pure triumph

Finnish-born choreographer Jorma Elo uses the famous duet Pur ti Miro to portray utter bliss.

Pur ti Miro

Opus 19/The Dreamer

West Side Story Suite

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  • At the Four Seasons Centre
  • In Toronto on Friday

An ideal mixed ballet program needs a tutu ballet to show off a company's classical chops. That a tutu/tiara work has come from Jorma Elo, one of contemporary dance's hotshot choreographers, is an exhilarating surprise.

Elo's mature career was with two icons of contemporary dance - Sweden's Cullberg Ballet and Nederlands Dans Theater. His first company, however, was the Finnish National Ballet, so classical technique is bred in the bone.

To say that his world premiere for five couples, Pur ti Miro, is a classical piece is a bit of a misnomer. Though traditional ballet vocabulary is his point of departure, it is how Elo has reconfigured classical technique that demonstrates why he is one of the most exciting choreographers in the world today.

Certainly, the showy tricks of Russian imperial style are in the work, but Elo's coup de dance is all the extra hand, arm, leg, feet and head movements that he packs into the choreography. His speed style is a dizzying whirl of not just bodies, but every part of the body in motion. His unpredictable placements are a visual delight, not to mention some very dangerous and breathtaking partnering.

But there is also a slow Elo, where the dancers exhibit, in gorgeous detail, brilliantly crafted gestural movement and body isolations. Limbs and torsos make their own gentle patterns, all of which seem new and fresh, through flexes, bends, arches, and curves. Elo rivets the eye, and the company looks sensational.

The title Pur ti Miro is the rapturous final duet from Monteverdi's The Coronation of Poppea. The opera revolves around the machinations of the Emperor Nero and his gorgeous paramour Poppea to get rid of his wife so that they can marry and make Poppea empress. This duet is the culmination of their dream. They are in ecstasy.

Elo uses this famous duet to portray utter bliss. The music (movingly performed off-stage by sopranos Kathleen Brett and Teiya Kasahara) is the middle section of Elo's ballet and gives the work its definition. Patrick Lavoie and Sonia Rodriguez are the stately couple who perform an exquisite pas de deux.

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At the beginning of the ballet, they appear like the golden couple, Lavoie resplendent in a gorgeous robe, Rodriguez at his side. She gently caresses his face. And then pandemonium breaks out, as the four, seemingly more youthful couples, hurl themselves onto the stage representing hormones raging.

When we see the couple showcased in the middle section, it is love that has found its heart. The achingly beautiful music ("I gaze upon you", "I adore you, I embrace you") is rendered into a lyrical physicality that soars. The intense connection as their bodies entwine and intermingle portrays two souls that are as one. The final image, as Lavoie gently turns, Rodriguez frozen in his arms like a figure on a music box, is simply magnificent in its poignancy.

The couple appears randomly throughout the ballet, at one point Rodriguez also wearing a golden robe. They are the shining example of what love should or could be, if the whirling, self-absorbed youth took the time to notice.

The music for the first and third sections is by Beethoven. The first is the lightning fast Rondo, Allegro from the composer's violin concerto, wonderfully performed by Benjamin Bowman. The third is the majestic Consecration of the House Overture. Amid the latter's pomp and circumstance, one couple stands in holy union amid the posturing of the lesser vessels.

Also on this mixed bill are two popular works by Jerome Robbins, which the company performs with panache.

The sober and reflective, spare and economical Opus 19/The Dreamer, set to Prokofiev's Violin Concerto No. 1 in D Major, with soloist Bowman once again doing the honours, was splendidly performed by Zdenek Konvalina as the man in search of his dream, and Rodriguez as his ideal.

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The program ends with West Side Story Suite, and for purists who are dismayed by this Broadway showbiz inclusion in the repertoire, it is their loss. They clearly don't see this piece as the high-end dancing that it is. The company absolutely nailed it. In fact, they invested themselves completely, both physically and emotionally. It was downright exciting.

And a word about the National Ballet Orchestra and conductor David Briskin. This program ran the gamut from Monteverdi (1642) to Bernstein (1957), and the orchestra was superb throughout under the always sensitive and sympathetic Briskin. Both the musicians and the dancers contributed mightily to a flawless program.

The National Ballet mixed bill of Elo and Robbins continues at the Four Seasons Centre until June 13.

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