Dance

EDGY MAGICIAN

Like his Dracula, Mark Godden’s The Magic Flute reinvents a classic and pushes ballet’s boundaries

JONATHAN DURBIN November 10 2003
Dance

EDGY MAGICIAN

Like his Dracula, Mark Godden’s The Magic Flute reinvents a classic and pushes ballet’s boundaries

JONATHAN DURBIN November 10 2003

EDGY MAGICIAN

Dance

Like his Dracula, Mark Godden’s The Magic Flute reinvents a classic and pushes ballet’s boundaries

JONATHAN DURBIN

THE CURTAIN drawn across the stage of the Manitoba Centennial Concert Hall is a pinot noir-ish red—a heavy, hush-inspiring hue that suggests solemn entertainment and serious performances. On a recent Friday evening, Royal Winnipeg Ballet artistic director André Lewis stepped out from behind it and, while introducing The Magic Flute, the company’s new ballet based on the opera by Mozart, called the venerable composer’s music “unforgivable.” Lewis meant “unforgettable” and quickly corrected his mistake, but the damage was already done. The audience—a mix of blue-hairs, young couples and those whose feet did not quite touch the floor—laughed. As it turns out, the gaffe was entirely appropriate. The RWB’s newest work is a comic, irreverent affair. It’s also the latest Winnipeg success story to wear pointe shoes but push the boundaries of ballet, and comes courtesy of vaunted choreographer Mark Godden.

Godden is the bad boy of Canadian ballet and that, combined with a reputation for accomplishing the spectacular on a shoestring, keeps him in demand. But to hear him talk about it, you’d almost think him a reluctant partner in realizing The Magic Flute. “Most ballet companies are one bad performance away from folding,” the 45-yearold says, discussing his initially hesitant reaction to mounting a full-scale production. “When you do mixed repertoire—a new oneact ballet that is part of an evening that might have a Balanchine or one of the more established works—that’s less intimidating. With a fulllength, the onus of responsibility for carrying the entertainment for the evening is solely in my lap.” By enlisting Godden, the Winnipeg company was hoping lightning would strike twice. The choreographer’s previous full-length ballet, Dracula, an avant-garde stab at sprucing up Bram Stoker’s vampire narrative, became a surprise hit. (It was subsequently adapted into a film by bleeding-edge Winnipeg director Guy Maddin, which earned the auteur the label “Canada’s poet laureate of cinematic weirdness”—or so wrote critic Roger Ebert.)

Godden’s edgier instincts are equally evident in The Magic Flute. In 1791, Mozart could not have thought to use a gas mask as a stage prop, much less to load his work with phallic humour. And throughout the show, Godden’s interpretation of the composer’s notoriously complex opera infuses flashes of modernity into what is, essentially, a fairy tale equipped with all of Aesop’s tropes. In Godden’s version, temptresses are called “glamazons” and dress like showgirls, and television sets play videos of crackling fires; the hero, Tamino, is identified by a Polaroid picture, and sexuality—at times overtruns rampant. It’s not Godden’s intention to shock, but his version of the story is definitely directed toward today, inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s 1975 film version. (The ballet tours southern Ontario this week, then moves on to Montreal and, in the new year, Ottawa and the West.)

“I didn’t want to create a Magic Flute that was a period piece,” Godden says. “At the beginning of the proper opera, Tamino’s being pursued by a serpent, a monster. I kept thinking, ‘Well, what’s the monster of our time? Terrorism—it’s just so prevalent.’ But I couldn’t have Osama bin Laden chasing Tamino around on stage.” Godden laughs. “So I went with the one-eyed monster—the television.”

As the ballet opens, Pamina, daughter of the Queen of the Night, has been kidnapped by her father, the high priest Sarastro. The Queen enlists Tamino, a hapless, directionless prince, to rescue Pamina from her estranged husband. Papageno, Tamino’s happygo-lucky wingman, joins in the quest; they are given gifts to aid them—a magic flute for Tamino and a music box for Papageno. As Godden’s narrative unfolds, however, it becomes clear that the mission is secondary to the story’s real action: the power play between the Queen and Sarastro. “It’s my personal take on mother-daughter relationships,” says Godden. “I thought of Sarastro and the Queen as angry parents. Pamina’s dilemma is in figuring out who she is in relation to her mother’s concept of revenge and her father’s ideals of truth, wisdom and brotherly love.”

The production cost around $250,000 to mount, a skeletal budget according to the choreographer. “It’s a strain, because although the company wants a new full-length, they’re used to established works. If you say Giselle, Cinderella or Nutcracker, the company knows what the parameters are. But if I do a full-length, I want to change the parameters and push boundaries because I’m tired of the old look of the company. That’s how you end up in a huge fight. You have to be tenacious.”

Godden began developing the show last year and spent seven weeks working with dancers at the end of last summer. The production came together quickly—and with the usual backstage drama, bickering and physical injuries. “At the end of my second week here, I tore my calf,” Godden says. “Somebody hit me in rehearsal while I was trying to demonstrate a move. I was on crutches. I thought maybe one of the dancers was trying to take me out.” He laughs. “It was like, ‘Well, you missed. Don’t you know anything? You’re supposed to stab me in the back, not the calf.’ ”

Unlikely though it sounds, Godden stumbled late into his career. Born and raised in Texas, he first leaned toward music, playing drums in rock bands while in high school. After graduation, he attended two years of theatre school in Pittsburgh before dropping out (the fees were too high), moving back to Texas to work as a janitor and waiter at a country club. To keep himself occupied he signed up for ballet lessons; when a friend called and invited him to travel across Europe, Godden almost went overseas and gave up dancing. But his ballet instructor had other plans. “He told me, ‘If you want to see the world, join a ballet!’ That’s something I’d never heard before—or since.” Godden entered the Royal Winnipeg Ballet School in 1981—at age 23—joining the company after graduation in 1984. Although he began as a dancer, he soon developed an interest in directing the action from offstage.

*1 TORE my calf,’says

Godden. ‘Somebody hit me in rehearsal while I was trying to demonstrate a move. I was on crutches.’

Now based in Montreal with his wife, choreographer Nina Menon, and son Zachary, Godden works freelance for several ballet companies. “Music is probably one of the most intangible things we have in our lives,” he says. “And yet it’s able to reach into the depths of our being and express something quite profound. The language of dance is coupled with this music. It’s great melding the two.” And by marrying the two with Las Vegas gloss and glam, he’s winning a new, younger audience for ballet.