Paz de la Jolla, The Man in Black, Cacti
National Ballet of Canada. Choreography by Justin Peck, James Kudelka and Alexander Ekman. Until June 22 at the Four Seasons Centre, 145 Queen St. W.; national.ballet.ca or 416-345-9595 or 1-866-345-9595.
When you’re pursuing a hot young choreographer whom seemingly every ballet company wants a piece of, you take what you can get. In the case of the National Ballet of Canada and Justin Peck, who at age 30 has already made almost 40 dances and just a week ago garnered a Tony Award for choreographing a Broadway revival of Carousel, it turns out to be his 2013 Paz de la Jolla, a relatively early and in some respects conventional work; but no less welcome for that.
It’s set to Czech composer Bohuslav Martinu’s Sinfonietta La Jolla for piano & small orchestra, H. 328, a 1950 commission from the Musical Arts Society of San Diego’s affluent, northern coastal La Jolla community. Peck’s 20-minute ballet is at one level a nostalgic evocation of young love in a sun-kissed seaside setting; more imagined than experienced since the young love is very much pre-smartphone-hook-up innocent while the not-very-revealing beach outfits evoke the era of the music’s composition.
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A cheerful, fun-seeking bunch of youngsters, led by a remorselessly effervescent woman in a smart sea-green swimsuit, who might just be a few years older, frolic in the sand and surf to Martinu’s perky poco allegro first movement. A particular couple — he wears blue shorts and top, she, somewhat oddly, a long white gown — commune under the stars in the yearning and introspective central largo.
What transpires in that encounter might be a dream. The ensemble, now costumed by Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung in shimmering, diaphanous capes, evoke the motion of waves. The boy lies down to rest. She enters the sea and appears to be engulfed.
He searches for her. They are washed up on the beach.
Yes, surely it is a dream, a metaphorical passage connoting the anguished uncertainties of young love because, awakened by their friends, the couple seem none the worse for wear during Martinu’s concluding allegro.
Paz is charming, faintly mysterious but at its core lacking real emotional impact. What is much more enthralling is the sheer inventiveness of Peck’s choreography.
He was raised in San Diego. Peck then trained at one of the world’s most hallowed academies, the School of American Ballet, founded by the great Russian-American choreographer George Balanchine to feed the company that eventually became New York City Ballet. Peck remains a busy soloist as well as resident choreographer at NYCB.
He’s danced in many Balanchine ballets so it’s hardly surprising that Paz reveals Mr. B’s influence in its meticulous attention to every quirky nuance of the score and refreshingly inventive geometrical evolutions.
What is surprising is that Peck, even if the bubbly woman in sea-green, a marvellous Chelsy Meiss, appears to be channelling any number of famously leggy, athletic Balanchine ballerinas, in general does not ape the master so much as build on his principles in constantly imaginative ways. He deploys the ensemble in an exhilarating kaleidoscope of criss-crossings, diagonals, and other formations too many and fast to count.
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The National Ballet take to Paz like ducks to water. Beyond Meiss’s go-for-broke daring in fiendishly challenging choreography, Saturday night’s cast — the designated official “opening,” although there had been a Saturday matinee — Hannah Fischer and Harrison James were pitch-perfect in their enigmatic romance. So, more Peck please, and pronto.
Paz de la Jolla tops an enticingly varied triple bill that includes two popular revivals, Canadian choreographer James Kudelka’s The Man in Black and Cacti by Sweden’s Alexander Ekman.
Every performance and cast change reveals new facets to Kudelka’s cowboy-booted, country-western dance inflected response to the soulful, late-career voice of Johnny Cash as he covers such classics as Ian Tyson’s Four Strong Winds, Gordon Lightfoot’s If You Could Read My Mind and Bruce Springsteen’s Further On Up The Road. It’s a mostly dark, melancholy, hurtin’ dance, choreographically layered by Kudelka to offer poetic imagery that provides complementary resonance to the music and lyrics.
It was thrilling to see such a classical purist as first soloist Francesco Gabriele Frola dig deep to evoke the wildness and despair of a heroin-shooting man in Trent Reznor’s Hurt; equally to watch a corps member such as Kota Sato, who gave a standout performance as a jester in the National Ballet’s recent Frame by Frame, discover a very different kind of groove in the rasping emotional rawness of late Johnny Cash.
Ekman’s often hilariously satirical send-up of the tiresome pretensions of a certain genre of contemporary dance still evokes laughs in all the predictable places.
He’s chosen a target that certainly deserves to be sent up, yet there are times when Cacti, in so many ways a clever ballet, is almost too clever for its own good. Just how many contemporary dance clichés do we need in order to get Ekman’s point.
That said, for a company often incorrectly identified as a bastion of tradition, it’s worth noting that none of the dances on view is more than eight years old and there’s not a tutu or tiara in sight.
Perhaps this helps explain the presence of so many young people in Saturday night’s audience; a healthy sign for an art form trying to throw off the shackles of the past and find its way to an enduring future.