Dance lovers all over the world have thrilled to the pristine artistry of legendary prima ballerina Evelyn Hart, whose stratospheric rise to the top of the ballet world first took wing during her 30-year tenure at the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, where she served as principal dancer from 1979 to 2005.
Four Old Legs
RWB Founders’ Studio, 380 Graham Ave.
● To Sunday, Nov. 24
● Tickets $105 and $110 at 204-956-2792, rwb.org
The beloved artist, 63, returns this week to the RWB stage to perform in revered Canadian choreographer James Kudelka’s Four Old Legs, created especially for her and Moldavian-born Zhenya Cerneacov, a ballroom dancer turned contemporary performer.
The show — which features lighting design by Simon Rossiter, projections by Jeremy Mimnagh, with Jim Searle and Chris Tyrell for HOAX Couture’s costumes — chronicles the heartfelt journey of a long-term relationship, billed as "a poignant performance piece celebrating time, memory and experience."
But it’s so much more than that for the willowy, mesmerizing artist inside the piece, who’s able to cast a spell by her mere presence alone during an interview at the RWB downtown studios last week.
"It’s what love looks like," the Toronto-based Hart says simply of the 60-minute (no intermission) duet showing the ravages of time on couples. "And that’s the whole point. Love is a like a chameleon, and is completely different for every couple, and different every day. But in the end, it’s all that really matters."
Critically acclaimed for her classical lead roles in Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty and Romeo and Juliet, among others, as well as more contemporary fare including Jirí Kylián’s Nuages, Hart was the first Canadian to win a gold medal at the Varna International Ballet Competition in 1980 — the "Olympics of ballet" — for her duet of Norbert Vesak’s Belong with late principal dancer David Peregrine.
She was made an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1983 and was promoted to Companion in 1994. In 2000, Hart was inducted into Canada’s Walk of Fame, and received a Governor General’s Performing Arts Award for Lifetime Artistic Achievement in 2001.
She last performed here during the RWB’s world première of Kudelka’s full-length Vespers, set to Monteverdi’s choral masterpiece in May 2017, featured as an "Everywoman" in its fantastical world infused with mythologically inspired animals.
Hart, who is often referred to as Kudelka’s muse, also performed in his group work #lovesexbrahms during its 2015 première staged by C + C, as well as in its expanded version in 2017. She sings the praises of the former National Ballet of Canada artistic director (1996-2005) who now helms Toronto’s Citadel + Compagnie.
"I call it living in the ‘Kudelka World,’" the dancer says, calling their latest collaboration "a dream come true."
"That’s just what I do when I perform his work, which allows me to be really completely who I am," she says of his loosely narrative-based ballets, steeped in imagistic storytelling that fit her like a hand in glove.
"I think deep down inside, both of us are looking for ‘truth,’" she reflects. "James is such an intellectual, but also has a soul that sees humanity in such a very genuine way, and that’s where we intersect on this very deep level.
"It’s hard for me not to feel connected to that heart that beats, that mind that thinks, and that soul that breathes. I want to be in that place all the time — plus I’m having a blast!" she adds with a laugh.
There are no pointe shoes and nary a pirouette in Four Old Legs, which premiered in Toronto last April, and subsequently staged last month in Windsor, Ont. But Hart, who hung up her stiff pink shoes in 2006 owing to a nagging arthritic foot, says that’s a moot point for the show, named not for aged limbs, but for a storage crate discovered by Kudelka at the National Ballet School labelled "Old Legs" ("legs" are suspended curtains hung on the side of a stage to mask the wings).
Its highly theatrical series of 16 vignettes — set to Kudelka’s own cherry-picked personal playlist of 16 songs by artists including Judy Garland, the Talking Heads, Chopin, Peggy Lee and more — is performed around a wooden kitchen table and chairs. Its unfolding solos and duets chronicle the roller-coaster realities of the lovers’ relationship over 20 years, sometime playful, sometimes pedestrian, and often going for the emotional jugular in the way that only dance can.
One particularly harrowing, darker vignette, performed to Keith Carradine’s 1975 tune I’m Easy, becomes an aching, all-too-real commentary on the power of communication (or lack thereof) in human relationships. The "less-is-more" section also showcases Hart’s renowned ability to craft an ocean of subtext, while demanding a leap of faith by some viewers expecting to see tricky pirouettes and fouettés.
It’s also eye-opening that the hunky, 32-year old Cerneacov — three decades Hart’s junior — portrays her lover. He was asked to step into Kudelka’s shoes, literally, early during the rehearsal process, after the choreographer realized the role he originally intended for himself could grow in physicality with a younger dancer, including several soaring lifts that add more choreographic colour. Kudelka says the notable age difference simply melts away as the show progresses.
"Evelyn has this kind of eternal youth about her, and Zhenya is not your typical silhouette of a ballet dancer, so they meet somewhere in the middle," Kudelka comments during a rehearsal break at the hall.
"Evelyn is a phenomenon, and in that extraordinary realm of dancers that go on forever and constantly surprise you with their inner life," he says. "She set the standard for roles such as Princess Aurora, Giselle and Odette/Odile, but it wasn’t new repertoire. Now that she’s put those ballets behind her, she is creating a new body of work where younger ballerinas will say, ‘Oh my God, I could do something like that when I’m in my 50s and 60s.’
"She still has a lot to give, and I’m very happy to be one of those people who is able to work with her."
When many ballerinas retire for good in their mid-30s, or push into their early 40s if they’re lucky, Hart is resolutely continuing her lifelong drive for standards of excellence as long as she can, mining her own rich lived experience while her expressive artistry grows more luminous with each passing year.
"Of course I struggle with the limitations of the body, and sometimes I think how much I’d love to put my pointe shoes back on, and be able to lift my leg," the dancer says candidly. "But I’ve also realized that what I’m able to do with a piece like Four Old Legs is what people couldn’t do until they’re at my stage in life," she says.
"James has created this beautiful work and was courageous enough to say, ‘I want to explore this with this particular dancer.’ He put himself on the line for me and I couldn’t be more grateful," she says. "When I perform Four Old Legs, it’s really all I want to do in life, which is to keep telling stories that touch the heart, and move the soul."