Interview – Greta Hodgkinson, principal dancer, The National Ballet of Canada/Frame by Frame

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Photo: David Leclerc

Interview with Greta Hodgkinson, principal dancer, The National Ballet of Canada, about the new Robert Lepage/Guillaume Côté work, Frame by Frame.

INTRODUCTION

The most highly anticipated dance event of the year has to be Frame by Frame, an homage to the life and work of film pioneer Norman McLaren, created by theatre icon Robert Lepage and choreographer Guillaume Côté. The production premieres on June 1.

Lepage’s name is spoken with reverence throughout the world. He is a genuine polymath, a director, writer, experimenter and innovator – in short., a creative genius. Fellow Québecois Côté is a principal dancer and associate choreographer with the National Ballet who has been much in demand throughout the world as a dance artist. Latterly, he has turned his hand to choreography, with a penchant for taking on difficult subjects that he vividly transforms into movement. Together, Lepage and Côté could be called theatrical royalty.

As for the idolized McLaren (1914-1987), the Scots-born filmmaker was brought to Montreal in 1941 by John Grierson, the founder of The National Film Board of Canada. McLaren went on to make the NFB famous world-wide for the new techniques he developed for both live action and animation. One of his most famous innovations was drawing directly on raw film stock. A quintessential McLaren work is the anti-war Neighbours (1952), which won a well-deserved Oscar for its brilliant fusion of live actors and animated images. And then there are his captivating dance films – Pas de Deux (1968), Ballet Adagio (1972) and Narcissus (1983) – which transformed movement into magical flights of imagination through McLaren’s breath-taking, pioneering use of the camera.

In the following interview, National principal dancer Greta Hodgkinson talks about being part of this all-important new dance work.

THE INTERVIEW

Photo: Aleksandar Antonijevic

Did you know who Norman McLaren was before this piece?

I’m not sure any of us did. I had seen his film Pas de Deux at the ballet school, but I hadn’t put a name to it.

I was surprised to find out that Frame by Frame actually has named characters on stage. I thought it would be strictly about McLaren’s work.

It’s not a straight bio, but we do get glimpses of the people in his life. The main concentration is an overview of his pioneering film techniques, which we see through twenty or so vignettes. At certain points, the characters come in and collaborate with him. They are like cameo roles. Each vignette is about five or six minutes long and is self-contained in and of itself. When all the vignettes were in place, we then ran the show to see which scenes worked where. It’s actually a small cast in ballet terms with only sixteen dancers, so there were issues with costume changes etc.

You portray Evelyn Lambart who was one of McLaren’s collaborators. What do you know about her?

Evelyn was first a student of his before she became a close collaborator. As McLaren got more into movement fusion, she branched out on her own. She is now considered a great animation pioneer. For the film Begone Dull Care (1949) she and McLaren painted directly on filmstrips. In the dance vignette you see Evelyn and McLaren paint, cut, paste and edit. The vignette captures us in the act of creation. McLaren’s work was all analogue. He didn’t have any of the digital software available today.

Was there any character development on your part?

Not really. Because the scenes are so short, Jack Bertinshaw, who portrays McLaren, and I, have to establish our relationship – the dynamic between us – right from the start. I had to come in knowing who Evelyn was and what she meant to McLaren.

So are you only in the one scene?

No. Characters are brought back to life, so to speak. I also dance in ensemble pieces.

How did Robert and Guillaume divide the work?

You could say that they were co-bosses, but Robert was the concept man. It is really his show, and in developing the vignettes, he was meticulous in portraying the truth about McLaren. In other words, all the scenes are true to life. For example, all the costumes in the film sequences are taken directly from the films. Robert directed exits and entrances, action sequences, and life scenes etc., while Guillaume created all the dance movement.

What’s Guillaume’s choreography like?

He actually used a lot of different styles depending on the vignette. For example, he created jazzy movement to reflect jazz pianist Oscar Peterson’s score for Beyond Dull Care. As a general description, I’d say the choreography is a mix of contemporary ballet and modern dance.

Lepage always takes years to develop his pieces. You must have been working on Frame by Frame for a long time.

In fact it’s been three years. The first workshop was in 2015.

What’s it like to experience the Lepage development technique?

Photo: Elias Djemil-Matassov

Working with him was incredible. Robert surrounded us with a totally creative environment. We literally started off with a blank canvas. We first sat around a table and watched McLaren’s films. Robert’s main interest was translating McLaren to the stage. He encouraged us to come up with ideas on how to put McLaren into movement. If they didn’t work, he’d throw them out and we’d try something else. That is not how a big ballet company works. Usually the choreographer comes in and sets a piece in a matter of weeks. There’s no real input from the dancers. We’re also usually dealing with stories and characters in the large narrative ballets. But from the very beginning of developing Frame by Frame, Robert outlined very clearly that the inspiration for this piece was McLaren’s films, which was something new to us.

The name Lepage is synonymous with technology. How is your scene affected?

The lighting effects are wild, particularly how they are used on our bodies. We’re also playing against footage of Beyond Dull Care. It’s really difficult to describe.

What do you want the audience to take away from this dance piece?

First, I want them to recognize Frame by Frame as an homage to Norman McLaren and his work. I also want them to experience something different at the ballet, because this piece is a complete departure from anything we’ve ever done. They will also see the genius of Robert Lepage because the piece contains technology that the National has never worked with before.

Any final thoughts?

All the dancers are excited. Creating Frame by Frame was like being in a lab. We kept learning one new thing after another.

(The world premiere of Frame by Frame takes place on June 1 and runs at the Four Seasons Centre until June 10, 2018. Take note: there is no intermission. The link for tickets and info, http://paulacitron.ca/interviews/interview-greta-hodgkinson-principal-dancer-national-ballet-canada-frame-frame/.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Theatre Review: The RISER Project 1/Mr. Truth and Tell Me What It’s Called

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Toronto’s acclaimed Why Not Theatre is behind the annual RISER Project staged at the Theatre Centre. Called “A Collaborative Producing Model”, the aim is to provide performance opportunities for emerging artists with Why Not helping out with production infrastructure to allow the newbies maximum creation time. Four groups are chosen and appear two by two. The second set of RISER offerings has just opened and runs until May 12 featuring Speaking of Sneaking and Everything I Couldn’t Tell You. The importance of RISER (this is its fifth incarnation) can’t be underestimated in terms of getting noticed. Take for example, the wildly successful Mouthpiece, which was part of 2015’s project. The show just had a sold out run at Buddies, which followed extensive touring.

On the adage of better late than never, here is my assessment of the first two 2018 RISER performances which took place in April.

Mr. Truth was a two-hander created and performed by Lester Trips (Theatre) a.k.a Lauren Gillis and Alaine Hutton. It was a brave and saucy satire about human sexuality with the aim of outing our “erotic truths” and stripping away the veneer of denial and repression. The eponymous Mr. Truth was a menacing hooded figure straight out of a horror movie that silently and slowly crossed the stage from time to time. Clearly, he was the metaphoric torturer who worked us over, so to speak, and forced us into confronting our sexual nightmares.

The format was sketch comedy with a dizzying series of vignettes. In the program notes, the creators included a tantalizing statement that the show was structured to resemble a woman’s orgasm. As for the vignettes, the creators deliberately included material designed to shock and awe. For example, the opening scene went right for the jugular. It was set at a three-day couples’ “fingering retreat” with a mono-voice instructor teaching the participants the proper way to “stroke” a woman’s vagina.

Along Mr. Truth’s sexuality highway, the audience was treated to a conversation between a woman and her cervix (the latter’s costume was hilarious), the glories of anal sex, the erotic use of a salt lamps (don’t ask), not to mention abduction and rape fantasies. Gillis and Hutton played a myriad of characters with aplomb, my favourite being the women impersonating “woke” guys who were anything but. The production also sported ironic projections on the back wall and a clever sound design courtesy Wesley Mackenzie and Peter Demas.

The most appealing aspect of Mr. Truth was its freshness. If the RISER Project is about risk-taking and innovation, Gillis and Hutton came up trumps.

Alas, Tell Me What It’s Called, was a theatre exercise that should have stayed in the studio. Director Ximena Huizi and eight actors make up the collective known as Tell Me Theatre. The performance was built around an elaborate theatre game, which was the improv method this group uses to devise a play – in other words, an insider’s look at the rehearsal process. The structure comprised of a series of encounters, which were, in a word, incomprehensible.

The program notes detailed the parameters of the game, which were so complicated they made no sense. The description included deathless prose such as “Some scenes are games. All games are scenes.” Each of the actors also had an insect avatar (I kid you not), and seven were linked to a deadly sin, with one being a virtue. Apparently, the actors had to earn their insect skins, which were hanging on the back wall, and text had to be “unlocked”. Further complicating the mix was director Huizi giving notes about posture, energy etc., except she spoke in a soft voice and couldn’t be heard throughout the theatre. Oh, lest we forget, there were ropes that linked people together, but the how and why was unclear.

Now I happen to be a former drama teacher, so I’m an insider so to speak when it comes to theatre exercises. While the actors were clearly engaged and highly motivated, this workshop performance, in terms of being in the audience, was mind-numbing boredom writ large. It was tune-out time. Sadly, a fair number of the eight did show acting chops in the encounters, but their talent was lost in the miasma of confusion.

This collective must have beaten out some stiff competition to be one of RISER’s favoured four. Why Not Theatre must have seen some spark of promise in their choosing. Theoretically, these improvs are going to grow up to be a full-scale theatre production. I wish Tell Me Theatre lots of luck, and I hope for the best.

The RISER Project 1, Mr. Truth and Tell Me What It’s Called, The Theatre Centre, Apr. 15 to 24, 2018.

 

 

 

 

 

Dance Review: DanceWorks/Hanna Kiel’s Chasing the Path

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Photo credit Sam So

The cheers, whistles and standing ovation that greeted choreographer Hanna Kiel’s new work Chasing the Path was heartfelt and profound. Clearly her exploration of the intersection between memory, experience and life had touched people’s very soul. Choosing to choreograph abstract themes can be difficult to convey, but Kiel has been able, in this work, to command the bodies of her excellent dancers to express the inexpressible, as it were.

Photo credit Sam So

Four characters (Luke Garwood, Ryan Lee, David Norsworthy and Kelly Shaw) clearly represent a family unit of some sort. Set designer Joe Pagnan has created a living room whose dated furniture conjures up the past. A doorframe dominates one corner of the set, and it is Lee’s coming through that door that unleashes the memory train. What is fascinating is that the movement dialogue can be interpreted in many ways. For example, my guest and I had very different views of the relationships between the four protagonists. Another intriguing aspect of Chasing the Path is that sometimes the dancers appear to move from being human incarnations to being their own memories, shadowing each other through carefully crafted synchronized movement patterns. The memories seem to bounce back and forth between the past and present as the dancers execute solos, duets, trios and quartets in waves of motion. What is clear is that regardless of their actual relationship or the specific incident that triggered this flood of thought, these are people who are suffering or who have suffered. Lives have been blighted.

Photo credit Sam So

Kiel has a very singular movement signature. Every part of the body is in motion. Her choreographic language is filled with small, intricate, staccato twitches, impulses and out-thrusts that seem to circle around each other. A dancer’s head, arms, legs and torso are forever being tangled together in a St. Vitus dance of electric currents. When two or more dancers perform together the effect is even more charged. Kiel’s dance is alive with nervous energy. The most repeated movement is manoeuvring the head, whether it is a dancer using his or her own arm to twist the head position, or twisting the head of someone else. These headlocks occur in a split second amid a jumble of other movements. but they stand out as a metaphor for the mind and body being held in the grip of a torrent of feelings.

Photo credit Sam So

Kudos to composer Greg Harrison who has crafted an electronic score that is tailored to the many moods of the piece, from sombre reflection to a driving rhythm that is an outpouring of pain. Oz Weaver’s lighting is similarly melded to the ebb and flow of the journey as experience is forged from memory.

Kiel is a dance artist who is not afraid to tackle big subjects. Her movement is meticulous in defining meaning, and taken as a whole, her choreography explores and presents the human condition in compelling ways. Her dance company’s name, Human Body Expression, says it all.

Hanna Kiel’s Chasing the Path, part of DanceWorks’ mainstage series, continues at the Fleck Dance Theatre, Mar. 15 to 17, 2018.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Interview with Elena Lobsanova, Principal Dancer, National Ballet of Canada

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INTRODUCTION

Elena Lobsanova, 31, is considered one of the finest purveyors of classical technique in the National Ballet of Canada. Born in Moscow, she immigrated with her family to Toronto when she was four. After graduating from Canada’s National Ballet School, she joined the company in 2004, and was promoted to principal dancer in 2015. Her prowess as both a classical and contemporary dancer was acclaimed when she won the prestigious Eighth International Competition for The Erik Bruhn Prize in 2009.

On March 13, 2018 she will be making her debut as Princess Aurora in Rudolf Nureyev’s much loved production of The Sleeping Beauty. The role of Aurora is considered by many balletphiles to be the quintessence of Russian imperial style classical technique. What makes this performance particularly special is that Lobsanova’s debut as Aurora was supposed to be in 2015, but she was injured just before the season opened, and never got to perform the role on stage.

THE INTERVIEW

What was it like being cast as Aurora in 2015?

I was very excited and deeply honoured. Nureyev had created the ballet on the company and a long line of dancers had performed in it through the years, and I was joining that line. The rehearsals were a marvellous time for me, because I had a wonderful working relationship with Karen Kain. She is so beautifully generous and spent so much time with me preparing the role. Just before opening, I tore my Achilles tendon, probably due to overuse. I was crying so hard – all that preparation and I never got to do the role on stage. I used to quip that I had done my Sleeping Beauty shows in the studio. Incidentally, I’ve since become much better at preventing injury.

How did you find out that you were performing in the 2018 revival?

I got an email telling me to report for a photo shoot for Beauty. They put me in a costume so I knew I would be performing. It was a beautiful gesture.

Aurora is regarded as one of the “must do” roles for a ballerina. Were you daunted by her many challenges when you were first cast in the part?

I wasn’t drawn to her initially, although I recognized how important she was. What finally drew my interest and made her more compelling was when I discovered that beneath the grandeur of the ballet as a whole, her character actually has growth. Aurora has three different personas – she is sweet and innocent like Juliet in the first act, as ethereal as Giselle in the second act when she appears in a vision to the prince, and finally, as a glittering technician in the third.

That’s a fascinating analysis of her character. Can you elaborate?

In the prologue, the fairies give baby Aurora the gifts of virtue, which she embodies in the first act. For example, the Rose Adigio represents chastity. She is naïve and virginal, yet vivacious as she waits for the ball to begin. In the second act her sylph-like character represents timelessness and purity. She has to be an inspiration to the prince so he will want to find her castle and awaken her. She is a spirit, a nymph – ethereal, enchanting – nothing about her is grounded. In the last act, she is maturing as a woman and a potential queen with responsibilities. The dancing is more refined. The finale is a statement piece – there is no story at the end, just a feast of showy dancing for the eyes. Taken together, the three acts display a clear stylistic growth. She has a range of temperament, and responds to people differently in each act.

Speaking of the famous Rose Adagio – just how difficult is it to balance on one point shoe, the other leg in the air, and switch hands with four different cavaliers, raising both your arms above your head in between the hand changes?

For me, the shoes are all important. If you have the right pair of shoes, balance is not a problem. The Rose Adagio is just one part of the first act. In fact, the challenge of the act as a whole is more a matter of stamina. There is a fast solo at the beginning of the act, then the Rose Adagio itself which includes dancing with the cavaliers, followed by a longer, slower solo to end the act. Incidentally, Sleeping Beauty is filled with crazy balances.

Could you explain what you mean by the right shoes?

I use Freed of London. Because they are handmade, they are not that durable and break down faster, but they look better on stage. They are also more flexible, but this means there is more to control. It’s the way you use the shoes, work them in, break them down, that determines how you execute technique. The shoes I wear are sensitive. They adapt to my dynamic. I treat my shoes like pieces of art.

Do you generally approach story-telling ballets through character?

Yes. I have to find something that is definite, a hook I can grab on to, so I always do a detailed analysis of a role, even though it takes time. I’m lucky to be around people like Karen Kain and Evelyn Hart and the répéteurs – people who think the way I do. I ask a lot of questions and do research online. Ballet is dead without character or story, which is the reason for technique to be there. Technique is a statement of character.

What is your actual working process?

I learn the steps first, then rehearse in costume. I then add on other layers like how I should acknowledge the other characters on stage, or recognize what signals the music is sending.

What’s the greatest challenge for you in performing Princess Aurora?

In the second act vision scene there are three sets of diagonal bourrées followed by two turns in arabesque and a double turn in attitude. That combination drives me crazy because it is so technical and mechanical, and is quite gruelling out of context. On stage, it is much easier because you hear the music and you’re your body is compelled to keep going, to tell a story, so there is meaning in the moves. The vision of Aurora is calling to the prince to rescue her. (Note: bourré is a series of tiny steps on point; arabesque is balancing on one foot, with the raised leg behind in a straight line; attitude is balancing on one foot with the raised leg behind with a bent knee.)

Your partner as Prince Florimond is Naoya Ebe. Have you performed with him before?

We danced together in Giselle and La Sylphide, so we’re used to each another. I like the quiet power in him as a dancer.

How would you characterize Sleeping Beauty as a whole?

 It is a ballet of many details, lavish in nature with a richness of choreography. Nothing is gratuitous in the ballet. I’ve found that there is a lot of subtext going on, that the mechanics of technique all mean something. Overall it is really lovely dancing.

Do you think that the company has changed during your years in the National?

Yes. The dancers are much more solid in terms of technique.

How would you describe your own personal philosophy of dance?

I would say that I’m most interested in my personal development. I have my own work ethic with my own standards of technique and artistic ability. My motto is that I need to become better every day. Initially, when I joined the company, I felt empty. I felt that there had to be more than just artifice. When I decided that my life’s work was self-improvement, it was the spark that gave dance meaning. I realized that it was up to me to find a way of working, to focus, to create art, to tell a story, to speak a language. I’m happiest when I’m working my ass off.

Is there any dancer you particularly admire?

The Romanian ballerina Alina Cojocaru who is a principal with the English National Ballet. I watch her videos and say to myself, “That’s ballet!” She is more than just empty mechanics. She makes ballet a language that speaks.

(Elena Lobsanova performs the role of Princess Aurora on Mar. 13. The National Ballet of Canada’s production of Rudolf Nureyev’s The Sleeping Beauty continues at the Four Seasons Centre until Mar. 17.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mini Dance Review: Peggy Baker Dance Projects/Map by Years

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Peggy Baker “unmoored”

Peggy Baker’s newest dance show Map by Years is divine. The choreographer/dancer has always had the knack of handing off her work to the ideal person, and veterans Jessica Runge, Andrea Nann and Kate Holden do her proud in vintage Baker solos (Her Heart, Krishna’s Mouth and Portal respectively). Natasha Bakht and Mairi Greig alternate with Nann and Holden at different performances. Baker herself performs her haunting new work unmoored (created with Sarah Chase), a “dance story” about her marriage to the late composer/musician Ahmed Hassan and his struggle with MS. The work is one of total perfection as the heartbreaking text and Baker’s eloquent movement swing back and forth between darkness and light. Also on board the playbill are pianist Cheryl Duvall (Her Heart) and cellist Anne Bourne (Krishna’s Mouth). Baker is one of the most revered dance artists in the country and this show is a quintessential example of why she holds that place in the Canadian dance pantheon. Map by Years is brilliant programming.

I personally would like to add that one of the greatest Canadian dance scores ever composed is Hassan’s Sable/Sand for Serge Bennathan’s 1995 eponymous work for Dancemakers. I bought the CD immediately after the performance and after all these years it still gives me great joy to hear Hassan’s mystical, evocative fusion of Arabic and western musical genres.

(Peggy Baker Dance Projects/ Map by Years, The Theatre Centre, Feb. 21-25, 2018.)