Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Magnificently magnetic

RWB casts a vivid spell with dramatic, disquieting update of Svengali story

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In the final moments of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet's Svengali, a chandelier of golden light is set swinging above the stage.

It becomes a giant pendulum -- a striking image that echoes the story's duality and perhaps warns us of the danger of mass hypnosis.

The mesmerizing light completes the experience of being pulled in and held spellbound by this enthralling new work by Mark Godden, which opened a five-performance run at the Centennial Concert Hall on Wednesday.

The company, launching its 72nd season, is in need of a solid artistic success after last season's multimedia Wonderland, which alienated many with its lack of engaging dance, and the previous season's flawed Moulin Rouge.

Svengali delivers. Godden, creator of several of the company's most successful ballets, including Dracula, The Magic Flute and Angels in the Architecture, has pulled off an unlikely stunner that may well join Dracula as a signature work for the troupe.

Kudos to RWB for presenting a ballet with a deserved "adult-themes" warning and not watering it down for six-year-olds. With one intermission, the show runs about two hours and 15 minutes.

With the same $500,000 budget as Moulin Rouge and the same set designer, Andrew Beck, Svengali manages to look more expensive. Paul Daigle's costumes are particularly impressive when he clothes the elite and the risqué dancers who entertain them, and when he creates elaborate sculptural gowns that fly off in a brilliant effect.

Highly theatrical and set to a compelling pastiche score, mostly performed by the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, the 23-dancer Svengali is packed with dynamic storytelling dance. With the women in pointe shoes throughout, it's unmistakably Godden, its style strongly reminiscent of Dracula.

But it feels utterly contemporary in its layered exploration of rigid gender roles, celebrity, conformity, twisted psychology and interpersonal power. In one poignant moment, Trilby (Amanda Green), the female star, has just become the toast of the town, showered with glitter and flowers. As soon as she's out of the spotlight, she slumps and the bouquet slips to the floor -- a snapshot of emptiness that speaks of manipulated stars like Michael Jackson.

Then there's the chilling shadow of political oppression. While Godden doesn't make it explicit that we're in Germany during the 1930s, it's clearly implied, especially near the end.

We see the commander of the Morality Police (Alexander Gamayunov) don a Gestapo-like coat, the choreography take on clenched fists and hint at a goosestep, and a scenic backdrop pay homage to painter Paul Klee, who was denounced in the '30s as a degenerate artist by the Nazis.

Godden sets a bold tone by opening with the audacious use of Richard Strauss's famous fanfare from Also Sprach Zarathustra, music inspired by Nietzsche's writings that were used in Nazi "will to power" propaganda. It's a perfect choice to express the Svengali character's grandiosity.

Jewish music -- including a superb funky-klezmer street dance with a hint of Bollywood flavour -- recognizes the source novel's anti-Semitism and hints at a racial undercurrent.

George du Maurier's 1894 novel Trilby provides the story germ: a beautiful girl is plucked from obscurity and transformed into a dazzling vocal star by a possessive artistic master.

Transposing the story to the dance world, Godden critiques classical ballet as a dehumanizing, bullying, conformist factory for doll-like females (one great motif is the dancers' vaguely sexual use of spit to wipe away filth). One girl (Sophia Lee, a new member of the corps who's a star in the making) is so damaged by the pressure that she commits a shockingly visceral act of self-harm.

As the ballet realm's masculine mirror image, Godden sets up an equally regimented, intolerant Morality Police squad. In one of many clever passages that mix both ensembles, the women's ballet barre breaks into pieces that they wield like clubs, paralleling the men's rifles.

Extreme oppression and moral tyranny, Godden suggests, breed depravity, decadence and voyeurism, personified by the title character.

Svengali, a very young man (broad-shouldered Harrison James, who shows off elegant technique and skilled acting), is the sexually repressed, fetish-prone son of a scary-puritanical mother who runs a cult-like ballet academy.

Mother (the commanding Jo-Ann Sundermeier, who should perhaps wear some age makeup) initiates her acolytes with a bite from an apple and has a great scene with oval mirrors, echoing the evil Queen in Snow White.

Mother's dancers wear the calf-length tutus associated with the capital-R Romantic ballets Giselle and Swan Lake, both alluded to in the choreography. Godden also uses Romantic composers, notably Rachmaninoff, to tumultuous, highly dramatic effect.

Trilby gets caught between the pendulum-like poles of Mother, who wants to remake her as a ballerina, and Svengali, who wants to exploit her as a nightclub-style dance temptress.

The production has a few elements that need refining, such as the lock of hair that distractingly hung in Trilby's face in Act I and a strange collection of filmy painted banners that looked like a mess when they unfurled.

Svengali sounds unlikely on paper and yet it creates a world that's both historical and modern; melodramatic and never hokey.

Here's hoping that film director Guy Maddin, who brought the "Trilby as Weimar-era dancer" concept to RWB but had nothing to do with the ballet's creation, will see the Maddinesque potential and cast a cinematic eye on Godden's potent dance narrative.

alison.mayes@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 21, 2011 D1

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