EVERY ballet company dreams of having a smash box-office hit and the Royal Winnipeg Ballet has succeeded in spades with Moulin Rouge -- The Ballet, which has clearly struck a chord with balletomanes since its 2009 world première.
Remarkably, more than 110,000 dance fans have now seen the oft-toured, classically driven ballet performed en pointe in more than 35 North American cities, eagerly flocking to theatres for the show's ooh-la-la and lushly romantic ethos.
Choreographed by former RWB principal dancer Jorden Morris, the full-length story set in fin de siècle Paris tells the tale of lovers Nathalie (Jo-Ann Sundermeier) and Matthew (Dmitri Dovgoselets) who seek their destiny at the iconic, world-famous cabaret. The 132-minute production also includes historical characters: cabaret mastermind Zidler (Eric Nipp), artist Toulouse-Lautrec (Yosuke Mino), La Goulue (Sophia Lee) and Mome Fromage (Yayoi Ezawa), who add their own colourful personalities to the mix.
Morris has developed the ballet since its première, fleshing out characters and ratcheting up the tension. Mostly, these changes work by providing greater continuity and upping the ante, particularly as control freak Zidler becomes increasingly obsessed with his young protegé.
Still, it's a love story and relationships matter. The emotional connection between Nathalie and Matthew, or even Nathalie and Zidler, for that matter, wasn't always clear, despite a pastiche of Romantic French period music performed by the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra (conducted by Tadeusz Biernacki) underscoring the choreography.
However, individual performances stood out with the RWB's ever-strong company, fulfilling Morris's creative vision.
First up is beloved principal dancer Vanessa Lawson, who retires this year after 16 years with the company. Portraying Toulouse-Lautrec's muse, the wispy ballerina delivers an intimate solo created especially for her to mark the occasion. Accompanied by her own choice of Piazzolla's Ave Maria, Lawson's heart-rending performance, dancing barefoot in a flowing red dress as her character also bids adieu to the famous artist, nearly stopped the show. Lawson's exquisite artistry will be sorely missed in coming years, with her last, deeply felt solo becoming a treasured gift to her many fans.
By contrast, Sundermeier creates a spunky, wide-eyed ingénue immediately taking on Zidler while instantly falling in love with her painter. Her crisply executed technique, including dizzying fouettés that earn her a starring role at the cabaret, is always a joy to behold.
The effervescent ballerina is also a crackerjack actress. When she silently weeps to herself in the tower dressing room, trapped like Zidler's caged animal, you can't help but ache with her.
Dovgoselets also brings the requisite virility to his character, vaulting across the stage with sky-high leaps and bonding with Toulouse-Lautrec during an extended painting duel that nevertheless wore as thin as their watercolours. But his ethereal pas de deux with Sundermeier, set to Debussy's luscious Clair de Lune remains a highlight, rendered even more magical by designer Andrew Beck's glittering Eiffel Tower and Pierre Lavoie's moon-soaked lighting.
Nipp's sartorial Zidler, garbed in velvety suits and top hat, could easily have gone further both with his megalomania and flamboyance. There were few hints of his volatility seen during Act I, and when he suddenly draws fire during the ballet's climatic showdown with Matthew, he's only a loose cannon.
Lee's wildly garish, red-wigged La Goulue stalked Nathalie like a panther, staring her prey down with crooked chin as she jockeyed for position and Zidler's favours. Ezawa's Mome Fromage lit up the stage with kilowatt energy every time she appeared, bounding and high-kicking like there was no tomorrow.
Billed as being set in reckless bohemian society, the show still feels politely tame, with the significant challenge of fusing classical-ballet technique with bawdy, whip-kicking cabaret numbers remaining an elusive goal. The corps de ballet's iconic can-can felt flatly anticlimactic despite their fluttering, bon-bon-coloured skirts and a few high-spirited whoops.
One of the strongest vignettes proved to be Zidler's absinthe-induced phantasmagoria, with its three Green Fairies showing us the work's true, imaginative potential.
However, Moulin Rouge -- The Ballet continues to resonate with audiences for its je ne sais quoi, high-kicking its way into becoming one of the most successful productions in the company's 73-year history. Opening night's standing ovation proved it, with the enthusiastic crowd shouting out a few whoops of their own.