Eclectic and electric
Cutting-edge meets classical in RWB’s choreographer showcase
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The Royal Winnipeg Ballet turned its dancers loose this week as it presented its penultimate production of the season, Fast Forward, a hothouse of creativity proving the 83-year-old company’s legendary “Prairie fresh” ethos is still very much alive and kicking.
The two-hour mixed bill (including intermission) featured five world premières by as many choreographers — all in attendance, including three culled from the RWB ranks — ranging from classically based fare to cutting-edge contemporary.
The now annual program originally launched during the 1990s, lying strangely fallow for nearly 30 years, with an in-person production offered last spring following a digital incarnation in 2021. It allows dancers to doff their tutus and tiaras and stretch their choreographic muscles, with eclectic ballets created after the rigours of daily rehearsal.
An early highlight became the world première of American choreographer Meredith Rainey’s Bound commissioned through Pathways to Performance, in turn an initiative by New York City-based Memoirs of Blacks in Ballet designed to showcase the artistry of Black ballet choreographers. As the evening’s most intensely dramatic work set to Arvo Part’s Summa and Fratres, Rainey pushed his eight dancers dressed in long silk skirts and bodysuits well beyond their comfort zones, including vocalizing (which could have been louder), slamming their bodies onto the floor, and tossing off dizzying pirouettes at warp speed. The compelling work wisely poses more questions than provides pat answers, as (most) dancers shed their skirts at the end like carapaces, revealing their all-too-human, aching vulnerability as one lone dancer bravely remains behind.
There were several surprises during Wednesday night’s preview, including the impressive choreographic debut of corps de ballet member Emilie Lewis. Silent Voices featured a sextet of dancers costumed in skin-tight body stockings allowing every sinewy line to be visible during the hard-hitting contemporary work further propelled by Nicholas Thayer’s electronic score but chaos\\. With ballet in her very DNA — and last seen onstage as pristine lead ballerina Clara during the RWB’s Nutcracker — Lewis’s driving work performed en pointe teemed with body isolations, gestural movement vocabulary, intricate combinations and gravity-defying lifts, showing an arresting creative voice in the making.
Following his crowd-pleasing Bolero seen during last year’s program, Soloist Stephan Azulay’s neo-classical Bleeker & 6th, inspired by his formative years in NYC, crackles with energy and infectious joy, becoming a kaleidoscope of moving parts as the full ensemble breaks apart into smaller duos, performed to Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. A few minor wobbles here and there and less than tight unison sections didn’t mar the overall performance. The choreographer also injected his ballet with flashes of humour, including seeing one dancer suddenly crumple to the ground while others look on. A cryptic section channeling one of Azulay’s signature roles, the Champion Roper from Agnes de Mille’s Rodeo, felt oddly out of place.
RWB School alum and soon to be the RWB’s new choreographer-in-residence next season, Cameron Fraser-Monroe, also a member of the Tla’amin First Nation, returned this year with STAVE, a thoughtfully conceived ballet with the entire stage now bursting with 24 dancers wearing slippery socks — as they did last year. The rhythmically charged piece in Fraser-Monroe’s imagined subterranean world, driven by a pastiche score by Juno-nominated, two-spirit composer Cris Derksen, becomes a combustion of classical technique and contemporary idiom, with its all-male ensemble sections particularly strong.
One jaw-dropping (if not terrifying) moment came near the end, as two dancers stand bolt upright on others’ shoulders, falling backward into the crowd as a testament to the power of trust.
Last but not least, the program’s beating heart proved to be Second Soloist Zachary Rogers’ unabashedly romantic Three Romances chronicling three kinds of relationships set to an equally dreamy score including composers Chopin, Sibelius and Jonny Greenwood’s For the Hungry Boy. The neoclassical-inspired work unfolds as a series of lyrical pas de deux, with its second duet most riveting as its dancers drift — emotionally and figuratively — apart. More of this emotional layering with its inherent subtext would have made this otherwise luscious piece pop even more.
The company is to be commended for its gung-ho tackling of these five premières, including their palpable conviction and passion in bringing these fast-forward ballets to life.
The production continues Friday, March 31 and Saturday, April 1 at 7:30 p.m. at the RWB Founders’ Studio, 380 Graham Ave.
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