Finding their feet

RWB dancers' return to the stage, and a semblance of normalcy, an emotional affair


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There were tears, laughter, joy, and most of all, some terrific dancing Thursday night when the Royal Winnipeg Ballet launched its 2021-22 season with Perpetual Motion, its first fully staged production with a live audience in 19 months.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 15/10/2021 (475 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

There were tears, laughter, joy, and most of all, some terrific dancing Thursday night when the Royal Winnipeg Ballet launched its 2021-22 season with Perpetual Motion, its first fully staged production with a live audience in 19 months.

It also provided the mostly older crowd of masked, physically distanced viewers the opportunity to witness the steely resilience of a troupe that was forced by the pandemic to present its entire season online last year.

An emotional André Lewis, the company’s longstanding artistic director, who has steered the company these past 19 months with associate artistic director Tara Birtwhistle, took the stage before curtain to welcome us back to the Centennial Concert Hall, his voice cracking while acknowledging the loud cheers.

Daniel Crump / Royal Winnipeg Ballet The Royal Winnipeg Ballet performs Seventh Symphony at the Centennial Concert Hall.

This mixed bill, composed of two RWB signature works, is also the show (well, most of it) we never got to see on May 6, 2020, the date originally planned to cap the RWB’s milestone 80th season before the first wave forced its cancellation. It was intended to pay homage to three artistic directors: Henny Jurriens, Arnold Spohr and John Meehan (the latter’s tribute, Mark Godden’s Angels in the Architecture, is not part of this revised program). It now resonates more deeply as testament to the company’s fortitude and historical flashpoints throughout its now 82-year history.

It also delivered the shock of greater “normalcy,” with dancers freely taking the stage together, performing lifts with abandon while their unmasked faces could show their humanity through expression.

During the season of virtual performances, dancers were relegated to small, physically distanced “cohorts” (who could get over seeing those weirdly detached cygnets in last March’s Visions of Swan Lake?), performing in nifty, costume-co-ordinated masks with only a handful of real-life romantic partners allowed to perform in close contact.

Thursday evening opened with Seventh Symphony, choreographed by Toer Van Schayk and chosen to honour Jurriens, who took over the reins at the RWB in 1988. The stirring piece also helped the company heal after Jurriens’ tragic death in a car accident in 1989. Its uplifting message of “moving through a dark tunnel, hopeful and convinced of a radiant new future” could not be more potent than now.

As an ensemble of 20 dancers performed the highly intricate, often textural and angular choreography, smaller configurations played off each other in visual counterpoint, including the company’s newly promoted principal dancers: Chenxin Liu and Alanna McAdie, and Yue Shi, who filled the stage with every respective appearance.

The 40-minute piece performed en pointe — featuring the choreographer’s own costume/set design, with lighting by Jan Hofstra — admittedly took a while to gel and find its footing, only catching fire during the final, explosive movement. This sense of caution might be due to the novelty of being back onstage with a live audience; any jittery nerves undoubtedly will have settled before the end of the four-show run that closes Sunday.

The RWB’s principal conductor, Julian Pellicano, led the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra throughout his own arrangement of Beethoven’s mighty Seventh Symphony with gusto, although the compact, COVID-friendly orchestra arguably lacked the requisite gravitas.

The 105-minute evening (including intermission) also featured Rodeo, that great, boot-stomping story ballet set to Aaron Copland’s all-guns-blazing music and choreographed in 1942 by the legendary Agnes de Mille. It has not seen since 2005 and was chosen to honour the equally iconic Spohr, who helmed the RWB from 1958 to 1988.

Spohr — who forged a relationship with the American choreographer and who became renowned for his diverse bills, which typically included a viewer-friendly ballet to “wake up the husbands” — would have loved this performance.

Set in the American Southwest, the 30-minute work chronicles the generically monikered Cowgirl, a tomboy desperately in love with the Head Wrangler who ultimately meets her match with the Champion Roper.

Daniel Crump / Royal Winnipeg Ballet The Royal Winnipeg Ballet performs Rodeo at the Centennial Concert Hall in Winnipeg. October 14, 2021.

It also feels dated in our increasingly non-binary world, with Oliver Smith’s set design of simple, painted backdrops feeling humble in comparison with such hi-tech ballets as the RWB’s high-flying The Wizard of Oz, presented what feels like a lifetime ago in May 2019. However, that also makes it refreshing and raw, focusing almost entirely on the dancing itself — as well it should be — with de Mille’s contemporary choreography offering a clever combination of both Broadway and balletic forces.

A special yeehaw goes to second soloist Katie Bonnell (all leads alternating) as the protagonist, following in the footsteps of the immortal Bonnie Wykoff, who defined this role during its company première. (Birtwhistle danced the role in its last company performance in 2008.) Her stylized, athletic solos, performed in cowboy boots with a devil in her eye, evoked the energy of a bucking bronco. But her finely crafted characterization also broke our hearts, as she collapsed in despair after being rebuffed by the Head Wrangler, performed by the chiselled second soloist Liam Caines.

Second soloist Stephan Azulay provided plenty of spunk as the Champeen Roper, including his dazzling tap-dance solo, designed to woo the Cowgirl with fancy footwork.

Soloist Elizabeth Lamont proved another standout as the Ranch Owner’s Daughter, joined by her primped-up Eastern Friends from Kansas City, while a raucous square dance featuring the Women Folk and Cowhands saw corps de ballet member Joshua Hidson bellowing out dance steps.

As expected, the company received a standing ovation with more hoots ‘n’ hollers from the audience as the dancers beamed pure delight from their unmasked faces, clearly moved by the response and thrilled to be back in the saddle.

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