Dance

Dancing out of time

Lawrence O’Toole March 3 1980
Dance

Dancing out of time

Lawrence O’Toole March 3 1980

Dancing out of time

Dance

After a withering fall season wherein the dancers looked dreamily disinterested in just about everything they did, the National Ballet of Canada seems temporarily revived from its sickbed of floral arrangements. The spring season, the company's showcase, is still in the process of warding off February funk at Toronto's O'Keefe Centre. New works, new enthusiasm, even a gala: all in deep atonement for last fall's fall from grace (literally).

There is, however, a syndrome endemic to the world of ballet in Toronto (i.e., National Ballet performances in Toronto) superbly manifested by the carapace of culture enshrouding the doings of the company. As an introduction, consider the opening gala. Everyone and his granny loves a gala. There’s always the imported talent, this

time Natalia Makarova, the foremost Giselle of our time, with the New York City Ballet’s sleek Peter Martins partnering her. The corps, as always when flanking a star, outdid itself; the homecrowd stars did their brief showstoppers. The audience has the option of arriving in its finest, as well as the luxury of dishing out up to a hundred bucks for a seat. Little cups of strawberries

and cream were served during intermission. Very ballet. Also very nice.

What wasn’t so nice was the partitioning off of the drinking area for selected invited guests. God knows it’s hard enough to get a drink in Ontario as it is. This attitude of “Let them eat strawberries” is a kind of reactionary holdover from the old world of ballet— the very old world of ballet peopled by busy members of the ladies’ auxiliary and those whose features seem to beam out There is only the dance and who, by the way, are you? The subtle thread here is a new work (it was created in 1911) that, if there ever was one, is a ladies’ auxiliary ballet. Le Spectre de la Rose is 13 minutes long and cost the National $29,000 to mount, and it’s beyond both esthetic and economic comprehension.

Spectre is, funnily enough, a phantom ballet, its fame having rested upon Nijinsky’s association with it. Unless there’s a Nijinsky around to execute that first breathtaking leap through the window—and there isn’t except for Baryshnikov—it remains not only a curiosity but a campy curiosity as well. A young woman returns from a ball, falls

asleep on a chair and is visited by an erotic spectre she has created inside her repressed little head. She obviously hasn’t had it, is obviously dying for it and fantasizes about doing it via the waltz and a few lifts. Really! It’s 1980. And to think that for similar cash the National could have utilized its dancers to better advantage with a revival of, say, Antony Tudor’s Lilac Garden,

which doesn’t at all have the rusty redolence of Spectre.

George Balanchine’s Serenade, his first American ballet, unfortunately doesn’t suit the company either, but then again it doesn’t suit any company other than Balanchine’s own, the New York City Ballet. A romantic abstraction set to Tchaikovsky, Serenade is a continuum of velvet angularities creating its own rhythms and logic—a demonstration of the physical mathematics that can be engendered by music (which is as good a definition of ballet in general as any). Balanchine ballets represent nothing, yet seem to have everything in them, and the National’s 20 ballerinas make a valiant stab at this one. The problem though is that the style of movement has been perfected by Balanchine himself on the longstemmed American beauties he conceived it for. National ballerinas are closer in temperament and physique to the British; they don’t have the curve and attenuation of Balanchine dancers. Veronica Tennant, who is tiny and fabulous, still manages the style but some of the other, too compact dancers look faintly ridiculous. Gizella Witkowsky, who is not tiny (legs for days) and who can outdance anyone else on the O’Keefe stage doing Balanchine, has the great, hearty, bounding grace that will someday (soon) make her a star.

The National, like any big ballet company, is as much in need of stars as it is of the right repertoire. The terrific Peter Schaufuss isn’t even dancing this season; Karen Kain has been on automatic pilot for some time; Tennant is, gratefully, indefatigable. But if there’s anyone who has shown a dramatic growth this season it’s Frank Augustyn in the third new piece, Maurice Bej art’s Sony of a Wayfarer, something to do with Mahler and the cosmos. It’s the first time Augustyn has ever eroticized anything; he allows the music to creep up on him and responds with langorous

contractions, cool sweeping motions exquisitely stitched together and a sense of some fire within. He never seemed to be the poetic sort; it’s a new phase for him—and a little overdue. Song is a silly, this-is-art piece of nouveau (1971, actually) trash, yet hardly regrettable as it has taken Augustyn out of his anomie.

The three new works—-Spectre, Serenade, Song of a Wayfarer— don’t represent a great stride for the National. A fourth, Harald Lander’s Etudes, will probably fit them more neatly when it gets its premiere this week. Yes, the

company’s dancing much better, but it’s also dancing in a bit of a vacuum. There’s a sense of not being connected to the modern world {Spectre), not being connected to its own identity {Serenade) and of being the last to show off an impoverished trend {Song of a Wayfarer, one of a spate of Mahler ballets attempting to turn angst into chic). Perhaps if the company was able to get behind a new, important ballet we would begin to see it do something worthwhile. The ladies’ auxiliary crowd could do with a rude awakening.

Lawrence O’Toole