December 16, 2018

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RWB puts its own spin on fantasy tale

Twyla Tharp piece a blur of kaleidoscopic movement that shines brightest in tender moments

RWB Company dancers and RWB School students perform a scene from Twyla Tharp’s The Princess and The Goblin. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)</p>

RWB Company dancers and RWB School students perform a scene from Twyla Tharp’s The Princess and The Goblin. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 28/9/2017 (443 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Once upon a time — five years ago, to be exact — the Royal Winnipeg Ballet presented the eagerly anticipated Canadian première of Twyla Tharp’s The Princess and the Goblin, choreographed by the American dance giant, and co-commissioned with Atlanta Ballet.

Fast-forward to 2017, and the now 78-year-old company is re-visiting the 82-minute ballet based on Scottish fantasy writer George MacDonald’s Victorian tale to launch its year-long “season of storytelling," with its latest production, which runs through Sunday, staged by Tharp assistant Sarah Hillmer and RWB artistic staff.

The coming-of-age story follows courageous young Princess Irene as she discovers the town’s children being kidnapped by the menacing goblin. Guided by her magical great-great-grandmother Irene, the young heroine travels to the underworld with friend Curdie, rescuing the children in a heartwarming tale of humility and forgiveness.

What pure joy to see corps de ballet member Saeka Shirai, 22, in her role debut as heroic Princess Irene, who utterly charmed the goblins — as well as the audience during Wednesday’s opening-night performance — with her radiant stage presence and pristine technique.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 28/9/2017 (443 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Once upon a time — five years ago, to be exact — the Royal Winnipeg Ballet presented the eagerly anticipated Canadian première of Twyla Tharp’s The Princess and the Goblin, choreographed by the American dance giant, and co-commissioned with Atlanta Ballet.

Fast-forward to 2017, and the now 78-year-old company is re-visiting the 82-minute ballet based on Scottish fantasy writer George MacDonald’s Victorian tale to launch its year-long "season of storytelling," with its latest production, which runs through Sunday, staged by Tharp assistant Sarah Hillmer and RWB artistic staff.

The coming-of-age story follows courageous young Princess Irene as she discovers the town’s children being kidnapped by the menacing goblin. Guided by her magical great-great-grandmother Irene, the young heroine travels to the underworld with friend Curdie, rescuing the children in a heartwarming tale of humility and forgiveness. 

What pure joy to see corps de ballet member Saeka Shirai, 22, in her role debut as heroic Princess Irene, who utterly charmed the goblins — as well as the audience during Wednesday’s opening-night performance — with her radiant stage presence and pristine technique.

Shirai has firmly stamped this role as her own, morphing before our eyes from girlish ingénue to newly empowered heroine. It’s also a testament to her artistry she is as graceful in mere ballet slippers as well as en pointe — not to mention being flipped and tossed about like a rag doll — fearlessly mirroring her great-great-grandmother Irene’s (soloist Yayoi Ban) movement until receiving her magical pink shoes. 

The coming-of-age story follows courageous young Princess Irene as she discovers the town’s children being kidnapped by the menacing goblin. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)</p>

The coming-of-age story follows courageous young Princess Irene as she discovers the town’s children being kidnapped by the menacing goblin. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)

Ban’s gracious presence once again as the benevolent matriarch creates a touching through-line for the story, including the production’s breathtaking opening image of her spinning through the ages.

Principal dancer Jo-Ann Sundermeier as the Queen of the Goblins and soloist Yosuke Mino’s King of the Goblins are the power couple of the underworld, and project haughty command over their rag-tag goblins.

Mino has long provided jet fuel for the company with his propulsive leaps — evidenced again Wednesday — while Sundermeier compelled with her keen acting skills that transform her into a stealthy black-widow spider who stretches her limbs and claps for attention from guards, Helfer (Stephan Azulay) and Podge (Stephan Possin). 

Youths play a pivotal role in this ballet, with 11 adorable, well-prepared RWB School students as the stolen children eliciting oohs and ahs from the crowd as they skipped, hopped and performed jumping jacks in high-top runners during each of their unison sections.

Kudos to young Morley Anderson and Case Anderson, who performed as Princess Irene’s kid sisters, Stella and Blue.

Principal dancer Dmitri Dovgoselets brought new ebullience to his role reprisal as Curdie, performed with strong attack and gazelle-like leaps. His climactic pas de trois under a starry night sky with Princess Irene and her father King Papa was a highlight, matched equally by a stirring pas de deux with Shirai in which he learns to see her great-great-grandmother magically silhouetted behind a snow-white scrim.

Soloist Josh Reynolds creates a vainglorious King Papa, who comes to realize his own children are more important than his indulgent, courtly ways, with his anguished solo in which he pounds his fists into the ground resonating like a private soliloquy of despair. 

Tharp chose a cinematic structure for her ballet that unfolds as a prologue and 16 scenes.  (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)</p>

Tharp chose a cinematic structure for her ballet that unfolds as a prologue and 16 scenes. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)

Tharp chose a cinematic structure for her ballet that unfolds as a prologue and 16 scenes. At a certain point, her blur of kaleidoscopic movement and kinetic stage patterns begin to obfuscate the narrative, leaving the viewer grasping for a through-line and even longing for some old-fashioned mime.  

Where the ballet speaks most eloquently is during its sweeter, tender scenes — and usually accompanied by Donna Laube’s poetic piano solos — such as when Princess Irene first meets her namesake, or rises en pointe for her first time.

It is during these still, small moments where we hear Western literature’s first reputed female hero’s voice roar the strongest, while also providing relief to Tharp’s often dense, intricate choreography that seamlessly melds classical ballet technique with contemporary influence.

The Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, led by Julian Pellicano, performed the all-Schubert pastiche score arranged by Schubert scholar Richard Burke, who also composed original music for the show.

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

As expected, the opening-night audience rose to its feet with a standing ovation for the dancers, erupting into loud cheers of bravo for the RWB’s newest female hero, Shirai, as she took her own gracious bow.

holly.harris@shaw.ca  

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