Long before kids of all ages were swept away by adventure stories such as J. K. Rowling's wildly popular Harry Potter series or C.S. Lewis' The Chronicles of Narnia, young readers eagerly lapped up Victorian writer George MacDonald's fantasy novels.
Legendary dance giant Twyla Tharp's charming new ballet, Twyla Tharp's The Princess & the Goblin, performed by the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, is based on the Scottish writer's tale of the same name. It is, arguably, an unusual choice for a 21st-century ballet, but then again, Tharp, 71, has spent a lifetime defying expectation and shattering convention as one of the world's greatest living choreographers.
Co-commissioned with Atlanta Ballet, the 82-minute production (no intermission) received its world première in Georgia last February. The New York City-based choreographer extensively revised the full-length story ballet for its Canadian debut.
The coming-of-age story follows courageous young Princess Irene as she discovers the town's children being kidnapped by the menacing goblin. Guided by her magical great-great-grandmother Irene, the young heroine travels to the underworld with friend Curdie, rescuing the children in a heartwarming tale of humility and forgiveness.
The production features real dance royalty: American Ballet Theatre principal dancer Paloma Herrera as Princess Irene and former Twyla Tharp Dance/American Ballet Theatre dancer John Selya as her vainglorious father, King Papa, who comes to learn his own children, including Irene, little Stella (Anna Radawetz), and Blue (Bryn Dubberley) are more important than his indulgent, courtly ways.
The Argentine-born Herrera (alternating with Amanda Green) performs her tour de force role with girlish innocence backed by fierce technique. Beginning in soft ballet slippers, she tosses off Tharp's intricate choreography and switches choreographic styles effortlessly. When she rises on her toes for the first time, after the elder Irene (Yayoi Ezawa) presents her with pointe shoes that becomes key to the children's salvation, her joy is palpable.
The equally charismatic Selya also shines, particularly during his propulsive solo, where he slams his body against the floor and sweeps across the stage, in anguished search of his missing children.
Dmitri Dovgoselets (alternating with Tristan Dobrowney) portrays Curdie with strong attack and sky-high leaps. His climactic pas de trois, performed with Herrera and Selya under a starry night sky, took one's breath away.
Each ensemble is well crafted and unique. Great-great-grandmother's eight female attendants in white, diaphanous dresses perform serenely classical movement evoking ballet blanc. The rag-tag goblins are grounded and funky, ruled by the swaggering Goblin King (Yosuke Mino) and his panther-like Queen (Sophia Lee).
And then there are the adorable kids who are pivotal to this story (notably, this is Tharp's first full-length production to incorporate children). Cast from the RWB School's recreational and professional divisions, they fearlessly hop, skip, perform jumping jacks and tumble as the goblins literally sweep them off their feet.
Richard Burke's pastiche orchestral score, led by Tadeusz Biernacki, is superbly crafted, bleeding seamlessly into intimate piano solos, as well as his own original music. RWB costumer Anne Armit's fantastical outfits bring this fairy tale to life. Scenic designer Caleb Levengood's billowing, white silk sheets conjure stalactites, forest and clouds, effectively lit by Donald Holder.
Most of the ballet has peaks, but there are a few valleys as well. The narrative thread begins to unwind at the end, twisting and turning through a two-scene divertissement that becomes confusing. Tharp's cinematic treatment of the story could be pared down for greater clarity.
MacDonald's tale of the first reputed female hero in Western literature is hailed as a triumph of faith. After 20 years in the making, the same, happily, can be said of the ballet.
Twyla Tharp's The Princess & the Goblin
Royal Winnipeg Ballet
Through Oct. 21
Centennial Concert Hall
Four and a half stars out of five