Pivots and pirouettes Pandemic planning has made RWB more flexible as it announces new season

The Royal Winnipeg Ballet has certainly been kept on the tippy-toes of its pointe shoes over the past couple of seasons.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 31/03/2022 (187 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The Royal Winnipeg Ballet has certainly been kept on the tippy-toes of its pointe shoes over the past couple of seasons.

Cancellations, interruptions and pivots to digital were the hallmarks of the company’s 2020/21 and 2021/22 seasons, which were altered or abbreviated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Planning for the future is always an act of hope, especially so in times of uncertainty. But, if you ask the RWB’s artistic director and CEO André Lewis, it’s also necessary.

“We have to continue planning,” he says. “We have to continue envisioning what we want to do. We have to remain hopeful, and we are. And I want to feed our dancers artistically.”

Dance, music go hand in hand

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Ballet isn’t just a medium that’s meant to be seen. It’s also meant to be heard.

“Live music is, in many ways, how ballet’s intended to be performed,” says Julian Pellicano, associate conductor for the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra and the principal conductor for the Royal Winnipeg Ballet.

“Obviously, there are certain contemporary ballets that rely on recorded music because maybe the music is electronic, or it’s not orchestral in some way. But classical ballet and many contemporary ballets rely on the orchestra. And live music, no matter what, has a certain visceral quality to it that is desirable. It just sounds amazing, because it’s a live orchestra playing in the same room, where you are. The vibrations that come out of those instruments in your ears are totally different than what comes out of a speaker.”

The orchestra and the company work together more than an audience member may realize.

“One of the conductor’s jobs is to be receptive and sensitive to the needs the dancers on any given night. Often, certain soloists and certain dancers will dance a particular solo or pas de deux or whatever it happens to be slightly differently than another soloist or another pair. A conductor can, with live music, be sensitive to that and change from night to night, do it slightly differently. The dancers can be a little bit spontaneous, and the orchestra will go with them.”

“When you have a full orchestra in the pit, it’s a different ballgame,” says Royal Winnipeg Ballet second soloist Stephan Azulay. “It’s not even close to anything you’re going to have on a recording. And it just gives you this additional surge of motivation, energy, everything.”

Pellicano is eager to return to the orchestra pit for the RWB’s 2022/23 season. Here, he discusses the music behind the forthcoming season’s mainstage productions.

THE HANDMAID’S TALE

THE HANDMAID’S TALE

The Handmaid’s Tale is a really extraordinary ballet. I conducted this ballet once before in 2018. The music for this ballet is all what we consider modern music, it’s pretty much music from the late 20th century and early 21st century.

“Lila York, the choreographer, is a extraordinarily sensitive listener and very knowledgeable about music. She really knows so much and was able to choose some really amazing composers to populate the score of this ballet. She has music in the ballet by Arvo Pärt and Alfred Schnittke — two very important composers. There’s also British composer James MacMillan. We have several movements from one of his piano concertos in this ballet. Also, Melissa Hui, a Canadian composer. Andrzej Panufnik, a very rarely performed in North America Polish composer, but a really wonderful composer, among several others. The music and the choreography just go together so well, and the esthetic quality of the music as well is, I think, essential to telling this very modern story.”

NUTCRACKER & SWAN LAKE

“It’s always a treat to play anything by Tchaikovsky, because it’s just so good. I recently was conducting a concert with the WSO on our Pops series, and we played some music from Swan Lake. And it dawned upon me before that concert — and this is something that I told the audience — that, you know, because the WSO has been the quote-unquote house band for the RWB since 1971, I think, in addition to being a symphony orchestra, they’re also one of the most experienced ballet orchestras, probably in North America. I think that the orchestra has done around 200 different productions with the RWB.

“Swan Lake and the Nutcracker are two classic ballets that come back often. The orchestra knows these pieces. There’s sort of an institutional historical memory of this music that goes back so far, that’s so deep in the repertoire of the Winnipeg Symphony, that when you come hear Swan Lake or come hear the Nutcracker, you’re not just hearing any orchestra play it, but it’s an orchestra that really knows the music well.”

PETER PAN

“I’m really happy to work with Jorden Morris again. We worked together on Moulin Rouge, which was our last production in 2020 before everything shut down. But he’s really an incredible choreographer and we had such a good time working together last time. I haven’t seen Peter Pan yet — I wasn’t around last time — but the music’s really amazing. It might be exclusively English composers, Peter Pan, so music by Benjamin Britten, (Edward) Elgar, Eric Coates, a few others as well, but really extraordinary music. And again, when you have a sensitive choreographer who really knows the music well and listens to music, like Jorden does — I mean, he really listens to music with open ears. The music just tells a story so perfectly on its own, and then when you add choreography to that, you get that magic.”

Jen Zoratti

And so, it’s full steam ahead with a 2022/23 season, which is being presented under the theme “illuminate your world.” The company’s forthcoming 83rd season is something of an RWB greatest-hits package, composed of favourites old and new that will brighten and enlighten.

The mainstage season will open at the Centennial Concert Hall with The Handmaid’s Tale (Oct. 12-16), an original commission by the Royal Winnipeg Ballet based on Margaret Atwood’s enduring dystopian novel, choreographed by Lila York. This bold, dark, theatrical work was last staged by the company in 2018, and made its world première at the Centennial Concert Hall in 2013.

As in the novel and the Emmy-winning TV series, The Handmaid’s Tale is told by Offred, a handmaid in the dystopian society of Gilead, in which women have been stripped of their rights and freedom; their value is determined by their fertility.

When the ballet was last staged, America was smack-dab in the middle of a Donald Trump presidency and in the midst of a #MeToo reckoning; now we’re coming out of a politicized pandemic while many U.S. states are rolling back reproductive rights and Ukraine is being attacked by Russia.

“It’s a powerful work, and I think even more relevant today the way things are going,” Lewis says.

December, of course, will see the return of holiday favourite Nutcracker (Dec. 21-28), choreographed by Galina Yordanova and Nina Menon. And hopefully, unlike in 2021, visions of sugar plums dancing to the sparkling strains of Tchaikovsky won’t be interrupted by a COVID-19 variant.

Following that, the company will perform Swan Lake (March 8-12, 2023), the quintessential classical work — the ballet you think of when you think of ballet — choreographed by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanovset, and set to Tchaikovsky’s singular score. Princess Odette is trapped in the body of a swan by the wicked Baron von Rothbart, a curse that can only be broken by true love. When Odette meets Prince Siegfried in her human form, von Rothbart transforms his daughter Odile into a semblance of Odette to lure him away.

Swan Lake was meant to be performed last season but, owing to the pandemic, had to be adapted into a digital version called Visions of Swan Lake.

“When we did Swan Lake the last time we were also in cohorts, which was really weird because cohorts have eight people,” Lewis says. He’s excited to present it in full, with a full cast.

The classic Nutcracker. (Ruth Bonneville / Free Press files)

The mainstage season proper concludes with Jorden Morris’s high-flying Peter Pan (May 3-7, 2023), based on the classic tale by J.M. Barrie. The RWB hasn’t taken audiences to Neverland with Peter, Wendy and Tinker Bell since 2016.

“It’s an audience favourite,” Lewis says. “It’s a great family vehicle, and it’s Jorden, who has done some really great work. Peter Pan was his first big commission for us; of course, his other major work with us is Moulin Rouge, that continues to do extremely well. It’s a very accessible work, Peter Pan.”

The spring will see a pair of showcases: Spotlight (May 25-27, 2023), which features dances from the RWB School’s Professional Division; and On the Edge (June 7-9, 2023), which highlights the Aspirant Program.

David Cooper photo Michel Lavoie in Nutcracker, which will return to the concert hall Dec. 21-28.

“I’m very optimistic that it’s going to be a normal season,” says associate artistic director Tara Birtwhistle. “The calendar looks like a normal calendar full of performances, and even some touring so we hope that that remains the same and doesn’t become a season that never was. We’re very excited.”

The return of touring is of particular excitement for the company dancers. The Handmaid’s Tale will go to Edmonton, Calgary and Ottawa, while Nutcracker will tour the West Coast as well as Fayetteville, N.C.

While the pandemic meant frustration and disappointment, it also helped to create a more agile and adaptable organization, Birtwhistle says.

David Cooper photo Alanna McAdie in Swan Lake; the RWB will present the beloved classical ballet March 8-12, 2023.

“I got all the dancers T-shirts that say Pivot on them, because that was the word in 2020,” she says. “But I think the whole organization can pivot a little quicker now. Will it be frustrating? Yeah. But I think that we’re capable of doing that now, because we done it, and we know we can do it.

“We adapted quite well, to not having an audience. We got to do different experiences. For example, filming: we filmed Sleeping Beauty, and it’s beautiful, and it’s going to live forever. It’s like a time capsule. And very, very, very rarely does a dancer ever have a beautiful film of themselves.”

“I feel like the pandemic’s made us really flexible,” says principal dancer Alanna McAdie during a break in rehearsals. She’s joined by soloist Elizabeth Lamont and second soloist Stephan Azulay in an empty studio at RWB, the pale spring light streaming in. “I feel like two years ago, I would have really been affected by changes to our programming. But now, I feel like we’re all very comfortable with accepting changes.”

David Cooper photo RWB School Aspirant in On the Edge

Lamont is excited to work as a full company again because it means more opportunities for more dancers. During the height of the pandemic, only couples could partner, and there were fewer opportunities for dancers to debut in meatier roles. Azulay, meanwhile, is excited to get back out on the road and tour.

But all three are excited about the little moments and rituals that only a live ballet experience can provide.

“The nervousness before a live show — I think that’s something I really missed,” McAdie says. “I felt like, what if I don’t get to feel that feeling again? I really appreciated it when we sort of had it in the first half of this season — right before the show, when the orchestra warming up.” Her company mates murmur in agreement.

“That feeling is irreplaceable.”

For more information on tickets and subscriptions, visit rwb.org.

jen.zoratti@winnipegfreepress.com

Twitter: @JenZoratti

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David Cooper photo Katie Simpson
RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS RWB dancers Alanna McAdie (front), Elizabeth Lamont and Stephan Azulay stretch at the barre.
RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Reporter Jen Zoratti (left) talks to RWB dancers (from left) Alanna McAdie, Elizabeth Lamont and Stephan Azulay about their hopes for the upcoming season.
RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS From left: the RWB’s Stephan Azulay, Elizabeth Lamont and Alanna McAdie warm up at the barre.
Jen Zoratti

Jen Zoratti
Columnist

Jen Zoratti is a Winnipeg Free Press columnist and co-host of the paper's local culture podcast, Bury the Lede.

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