December 16, 2018

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Damsel to the rescue

Heroic princess takes centre stage in RWB's season opener

Scenes from the RWB's 2012 production of Twyla Tharp's The Princess and the Goblin.

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Scenes from the RWB's 2012 production of Twyla Tharp's The Princess and the Goblin.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 26/9/2017 (446 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

For countless generations, children of all ages have lapped up heroic tales of adventure from J.M. Barrie’s timeless story of the boy who wouldn’t grow up, whether it’s Peter Pan or Harry Potter.

The Royal Winnipeg Ballet presents a different kind of heroic tale as it launches its 2017-18 season Wednesday night with Twyla Tharp’s The Princess and the Goblin, choreographed by the New York dance giant.

Based on a Victorian fairy tale by Scottish novelist George MacDonald, the 78-year-old company presented the Canadian première of the 82-minute (without intermission) story ballet in October 2012, co-commissioned with the Atlanta Ballet.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 26/9/2017 (446 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

For countless generations, children of all ages have lapped up heroic tales of adventure from J.M. Barrie’s timeless story of the boy who wouldn’t grow up, whether it’s Peter Pan or Harry Potter.

The Royal Winnipeg Ballet presents a different kind of heroic tale as it launches its 2017-18 season Wednesday night with Twyla Tharp’s The Princess and the Goblin, choreographed by the New York dance giant.

DANCE PREVIEW

Click to Expand

Twyla Tharp’s The Princess and the Goblin

Royal Winnipeg Ballet

Sept 27- Sept. 30, 7:30 p.m., Oct. 1, 2 p.m.

Centennial Concert Hall

Tickets: $30-$119 at rwb.org

Based on a Victorian fairy tale by Scottish novelist George MacDonald, the 78-year-old company presented the Canadian première of the 82-minute (without intermission) story ballet in October 2012, co-commissioned with the Atlanta Ballet.

"In terms of its having a simple, concise, clear narrative, it’s the most accessible of all (MacDonald’s) writing, and it’s the most complete of all his writing," Tharp said in a 2012 interview with Dance International when asked why she chose this particular tale.

"It has a real beauty and an enormous logic — so it just presented itself as a solace about the goodness that can still be acquired, even though terrible things happen."

The coming-of-age story follows courageous Princess Irene as she discovers the town’s children being kidnapped by the King of the Goblins. Guided by her magical great-great-grandmother Irene and accompanied by her friend Curdie, the young girl rescues the children from the Goblin Kingdom in a transformative tale of humility and forgiveness.

Stepping into the lead role for her first time is corps de ballet member Saeka Shirai — a coup for the 22-year-old dancer, who notably garnered a prestigious silver medal with company member Yue Shi at the 2016 Varna International Ballet Competition, which is widely regarded the Olympics of ballet.

Saeka Shirai takes a step up from the RWB's corps de ballet to star as Princess Irene.</p></p>

Saeka Shirai takes a step up from the RWB's corps de ballet to star as Princess Irene.

The Osaka, Japan-born ballerina, who graduated from the RWB School Professional Division in 2014, recalls being enthralled seeing American Ballet Theatre’s Paloma Herrera, who portrayed Princess Irene during the RWB première, and for whom the role was originally created.

“I’ve always thought of every piece I’ve ever made as a legacy piece because, guess what, I could be dead tomorrow. You don’t know into the future, and ultimately you’re not in a position to judge. History judges. We don’t judge.” -Twyla Tharp

"I still remember to this day how dynamically she danced the role of Princess Irene," Shirai says, adding she feels inspired by the elder artist’s portrayal. "She has gorgeous feet! I would like to interpret the role as beautifully as she did. I’m a shorter dancer than Paloma, so I also want to make sure I fill the stage in the same way."

Tara Birtwhistle, the RWB ballet master and retired principal dancer, is confident Shirai, who has performed in past RWB productions of Nutcracker, Tinkerbell and Peter Pan, among others, is more than up to the task.

Shirai was cast by Tharp’s assistant, Sarah Hillmer, for the plum role and will essentially carry the entire ballet on her delicate shoulders, including navigating Tharp’s complex choreography infused with her trademark, razor-sharp wit.

"Saeka is incredibly suited to this role, with her natural artistry and beautiful technique," says Birtwhistle, who has been coaching Shirai during rehearsals.

"Saeka approaches dance as a dancer far older than her years and experience. She isn’t afraid of breaking things down, and experimenting with her movement. She has definitely made the role her own," she states.

The role of children plays an integral part of the show, with 22 young dance students aged 8 to 16 cherry-picked from the Royal Winnipeg Ballet School Professional and Recreational Divisions for the two alternating casts.

It’s easy to conclude that The Princess and the Goblin is a legacy project as it’s her first full-length ballet to incorporate young dancers.

"I’ve always thought of every piece I’ve ever made as a legacy piece because, guess what, I could be dead tomorrow," the plain-speaking Tharp, who has created more than 135 works for stage and screen, including Milos Forman’s 1984 blockbuster hit Amadeus stated dryly when asked the question during her prior stay in Winnipeg.

"You don’t know into the future, and ultimately you’re not in a position to judge. History judges. We don’t judge."

The production includes a live orchestral score of Schubert’s heartwarming music arranged by Richard Burke, who also composed original music for the show being performed by the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra.

It rounds out with fantastical costumes designed by Anne Armit, lighting by Tony-award winner Donald Holder, with imaginative, billowing sets by Caleb Levengood.

Many classical ballets, from Swan Lake to Romeo and Juliet to Giselle feature hapless female protagonists who tragically die by poison, witch’s spells or simply perish of a broken heart. Notably, Princess Irene is the first recognized female hero in Western literature, a fact that clearly appealed to the ferociously independent Tharp when creating her ballet.

In one of its earliest scenes, Princess Irene receives magical pointe shoes from her great-great-grandmother and namesake, Irene, which ultimately play a pivotal role in taking down the nefarious goblins. When the young girl rises on her toes for the first time, newly empowered, it also speaks to the power of dance that gives flight to wings.

"I feel like my character becomes fearless in that moment," Shirai says about that lump-in-your-throat transformation. "I want to show the audience the journey Princess Irene takes from the beginning of the ballet to the end in becoming a strong woman," she adds.

"It’s an honour to be cast as the lead of this ballet, and I hope the viewers will feel as inspired as I do performing this amazing role."

holly.harris@shaw.ca

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