Artistically, the National Ballet of Canada is suffering from fallen arches. The dancers seem bored and ill at ease with the recycled repertoire; they’re tight in the torso and their feet dig into steps, producing the joy that jackboots do; arms splay out all over the place, having little to do with the design of dancing. Are these dancers being coached or not? To the eye accustomed to the inner mechanisms of ballet, they aren’t. The company—at a crossroads after wearing stints at Covent Garden in London and the New York State Theatre earlier this year—desperately needs a transfusion.
Some of the principal dancers have let their ennui be known; the flighty Ann Ditchburn did indeed take flight and married into California; in New York, Rudolf Nureyev, who has been associated with the company for years, had some unkind things to say about the company’s mood. His plumed and feathered production of The Sleeping Beauty, which opened the company’s fall season in Toronto Nov. 7, gets more vulgar with age. But it’s still a big hit
with audiences, even though the dancers project the feeling they would just as soon cut off their legs as dance it. One principal dancer, known for her reliable delicacy, took her arabesque penchée (foot extended as far behind as it will go) as though she were diving into a hotel swimming pool. At one performance Beauty herself, Karen Kain, seemed to have lead in her tutu. Except for the smashing Peter Schaufuss and the up-and-coming Raymond Smith, who did a strained but spectacular Bluebird, the men don’t seem to have much spunk in them. After more than a decade Beauty is still a hit. But what’s to be done about its profusely groomed gaudiness? Cut off all the feathers? It’s a thought.
The point remains that a classical ballet company needs to do the standard repertoire of Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake, Giselle and Coppélia—but not at the expense of driving the dancers into the Land of Tedium by denying them variety. That’s only half the problem, and hardly as crucial as the poor training the dancers currently dis-
play. Betty Oliphant, principal of the National Ballet School and perhaps the finest authority on dance technique in the country, says, “I feel the dancers are lacking consistency in their training— they’re lacking continuity. Classes are very important, not just warm-ups. That’s how dancers keep their technique.” The schooling that many of them received at the National Ballet School is starting to dissipate: at the moment the National Ballet needs new ballet masters and mistresses (and perhaps the occasional compulsory class) more than it needs new repertoire, which is saying a lot.
Proof positive that the National’s dancers desire a new, outside influence was the guest appearance of the Royal Ballet’s Anthony Dowell as Oberon in Sir Frederick Ashton’s ballet of fairies and fickleness, The Dream. Dowell energized the company into its best performance of the work so far, but he also pointed to the National’s threadbare acquaintance with eloquent and specific mime. On the same program, Hans van Manen’s Four Schumann Pieces and the collaborative Collective Symphony got a diffident, perfunctory performance: the dancers are working right on top of the beat, not dancing with and around it. Their energy seems to start at the calves of their legs and drill its way to the floor; their arms, again, were shooting out all over the joint— Raggedy Ann dolls with bits of ballast in their stockings.
On an individual level there’s still some satisfaction to be gained: dancers such as Kevin Pugh, Gizella Witkowsky and Mary Jago, and the character dancing of David Roxander. Veronica Tennant, unbelievably, is still as reliable, precise and beautifully compact as a Swiss watch set on a thin, white wrist. But Frank Augustyn doesn’t seem to be headed anywhere and his partnership with Karen Kain, once a waltzing and warm kind of thing, has turned into a scowl-fest between the two.
A couple of years ago the National entered a new phase of development, no longer the cold, classically competent machine a lot of people thought it to be. With the training obviously so bad and the company in a rut of miserable morale, the feeling has fled again. Due to lack of interest tomorrow’s performances look as if they might be cancelled.
Ballet is almost unparalleled as a human activity. It’s also a very subtle art form, dealing as it does with heavy breathing that hardly can be heard at all. Because it’s such a subtle thing, it needs a whip behind it. Right now nobody’s cracking it. Lawrence O’Toole
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.