On Wednesday night, the Royal Winnipeg Ballet whisked viewers to a magical fairy wood with a fantastical tale promising sensual beauty and wry wit, and showing the vagaries of love.

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Yoshiko Kamikusa strides onto stage during the set-up for a performance of "The Faerie Queen" by the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, last Thursday.

COLIN CORNEAU / BRANDON SUN FILES

Yoshiko Kamikusa strides onto stage during the set-up for a performance of "The Faerie Queen" by the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, last Thursday.

On Wednesday night, the Royal Winnipeg Ballet whisked viewers to a magical fairy wood with a fantastical tale promising sensual beauty and wry wit, and showing the vagaries of love.

And though The Faerie Queen: A Ballet Based on a Midsummer Night’s Dream didn’t always make good on that vow, the opening-night crowd was treated to nearly two hours of sophisticated choreography, executed with detailed precision by a chamber ensemble of 14 elite dancers.

The 75-year old troupe presented the company première of Barbadian-Canadian choreographer John Alleyne’s work, originally created for Ballet British Columbia in 2000 and now widely regarded as a cornerstone of Canadian ballet.

The imagistic "fantasy in dance," performed en pointe, is based on Shakespeare’s comedy A Midsummer’s Night Dream and Henry Purcell’s baroque opera of the same name. Straddling both classical and contemporary ballet worlds, the full-length narrative work set in mythological Athens tells the story of two lovestruck — albeit mismatched — couples who are transported to a mysterious forest, ruled by Faerie Queen Titania with her husband, Faerie King Oberon.

The mischievous wood sprite Puck machinates the show’s plot — with a little help of a magical flower — as the ballet’s true protagonist, showing the misguided characters new realms of possibility.

Soloist Sophia Lee’s portrayal of Puck is pure poetry in motion, commanding the entire production as much the fairy kingdom. Her first opening solo during the prologue felt like a private soliloquy, displaying her strong lyricism and innate feline sensibility every time she reached with her limbs and arched her fluid back.

She also fulfilled Alleyne’s contemporary choreography, which included body isolations and hip sways right to the tips of her expressive, twisting fingers.

But it was her final, breathtaking solo that stole the show. As she revealed the deeper emotional depths of multi-faced character — an achingly lonely sprite who curls into herself as the lights fade — the unworldly ballet suddenly rang with searing humanity. Only a dancer of sublime artistry could pull off this golden moment, and Lee proved transcendent.

Principal dancer Liang Xing likewise created a majestic Oberon, with his billowing white cape carefully overseen by six youthful attendants extracted from the RWB School’s recreational division. His final pas de deux with Sarah Davey’s Titania showed off his exquisite lines and pliant partnering skills, bringing closure to the story as the Faerie Queen finally agrees to share her two little foundlings, RWB School students Dailia Martin and Zachary Zegalski.

Another standout performance came from soloist Dmitri Dovgoselets — as strong-willed nobleman Egeus, he infused the production with energy every time he appeared. His demands that his rebellious daughter Hermia (Elizabeth Lamont) wed Demetrius (Liam Caines) were given greater force with the athletic leaps Dovgoselets is renowned for.

Lamont’s Hermia was also strong during her push-pull trio sections, in which she is torn, almost literally, with flexed feet and crooked elbows between her true love, Lysander (Ryan Vetter), while resisting the advances of Demetrius.

What worked particularly well was the seamless morphing of ensembles: a duet bleeds into a trio; a sextet devolves into a quartet during the work’s 22 interconnected scenes. The six lyrical wood faeries became part of the kaleidoscopic flow of constantly shifting movement. Alleyne’s minimal use of mime is (thankfully) tasteful, also paying a nod to classical convention.

An amplified, 10-piece chamber orchestra made up of members of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, led by Tadeusz Biernacki, ably performed composers Michael Bushnell and Owen Underhill’s intricate score, adapted from Purcell’s opera. Naturalistic recorded soundscapes evoking hooting birds and buzzing insects added further layering and dimensionality.

A chamber ballet poses unique challenges for audiences accustomed to classical ballet convention of principal dancers, soloists and a corps de ballet performing a series of solos, variations and ensembles punctuated by applause. There are no "big moments" in Alleyne’s work, nor any dramatic tension.

At times, his evolving choreography simply washes over the eye without any clear forward thrust, and the viewer is wise to just enjoy the wonderful dancing by this company’s fine artists — many of whom are stepping out of the ranks for their first time.

A tour-friendly set design by Darren Waterston features gnarly tree trunks and branches, a scrim boulder (that nevertheless could have been used more), and hanging vines of cherry blossoms with pink petals gloriously cascading over Puck during her final solo.

holly.harris@shaw.ca

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